Houston Cinema Arts Festival brings the most exciting lineup in years, including ‘MARRIAGE STORY’ and ‘WAVES’

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James Clay // Film Critic

Texas has surprisingly become a hub for burgeoning artists and filmmakers. While there are many film festivals like South by Southwest and the Dallas International Film Festival, there’s one festival that bridges the gap between cinema and other visual arts. 

The Houston Cinema Arts Festival, celebrating its 11th year, is embarking on a new journey that features its centerpiece films and Oscar hopefuls, but largely provides a crossover platform for artists experimenting with the medium and showcasing the diversity the city has to offer. 

Centerpiece films are what get general audience members to the door, providing a local first look glance at the upcoming potential awards contenders and festival favorites that have toured the world before landing in the Lonestar state. 

This year features a list of films from Texas filmmakers who have made a cultural impact, to another Netflix original masterpiece (ROMA screened last year), and even a genre-bending Western called BACURAU from Brazil. 
Taking place Nov. 14 (and through Nov. 18), the festival kicks off with a Houston-raised filmmaker Trey Edward Shults’ film WAVES hot off the fall festival circuit, where it has received loads of critical praise. It stars up-and-coming actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. (LUCE) and THIS IS US all-star Sterling K. Brown in a drama chronicling a family dealing with love, tragedy and the poetic ebbs and flows of life. 

The evening will conclude with a question-and-answer session from Shults, and rapper/Houston ambassador Bun B will moderate. All roads point to home as the filmmaker has been on tour with the film since it premiered in September. You can undoubtedly say Shults has found success since his debut feature KRISHA was part of the 2015 programming slate. 

‘MARRIAGE STORY’ screens

MARRIAGE STORY, another centerpiece picture, perfectly shows the perils of a family on the brink of dissolving. Starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, Noah Baumbach’s film borders on comedy, but it also has the dramatic beats and incredible performances that will break your heart. This will be a rare chance for Houstonians to catch this film on the big screen before it hits the streaming platform in December. 

Other centerpieces include the meditative wartime epic (A HIDDEN LIFE, from Texas-based filmmaker) and a Cannes Film Festival award-winner (PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE, about a forbidden relationship riddled with artistic sensibilities).

However, the Houston Cinema Arts Festival is all about pushing boundaries while keeping an eye for the audience’s tastes. 
The newly minted creative director, Jessica Green, found a theme for this year’s programming that not only celebrates the direction the city is moving but also celebrates Texas tradition. The Yeehaw Agenda brings together a diverse representation of rodeo riders, cowboys, and grit. 

‘BLACK RODEO’ screens Nov. 17 at the Cinema Arts Festival. Film followed by panel with director Jeff Kanew, internet archivist Bri Malando, and Black Rodeo Riders. Courtesy photo.

The 1972 documentary BLACK RODEO makes a rare appearance after being largely unseen for almost forty years. It appears now is as good as time any any to highlight a subset of cultures who have not been in the limelight. Set in Harlem, the film features an all-black collective of cowboys who performed to huge crowds (including Muhammad Ali). Films such as these shine a light on cultures and groups who otherwise aren’t associated with cowboy aesthetics. Directed by Jeff Kanew, who is best known for directing REVENGE OF THE NERDS, will be in attendance with the cast.

YELLOW ROSE provides a unique take on the “A Star is Born” journey with a young undocumented Filipino girl who dreams of making it in country music, while BROKEBACK: A SHORTS FILM PROGRAM examines and challenges the idea of what makes a cowboy.

Given the festival is spread out across the city, it provides attendees the opportunity to see some of the most inspiring landscapes. Venues included are Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Rice Media Center, Aurora Picture House, and the historic Deluxe theater, which will be the home to two free screenings of Houston native artist’s visual album WHEN I GET HOME.  

Once again, CineSpace, the yearly short film competition that works in conjunction with NASA, takes imagery from the NASA archives and turns each piece into a singular vision from filmmakers from around the globe.
Over 30 films will be featured in the programming slate this year. They are set to provide a unique experience for every attendee. Badge holders and festival-goers are encouraged to explore and decide what will best suit their cinematic tastes, but there is always room to grow. Houston’s ever-expanding art scene is breaking down barriers and operating on the edges of what is possible within the confines of cinema by furthering the conversation to easily accessible and affordable events. 

Badges are now on sale for $129. Some of the events are free, and others require a ticket. To find more information about the features, activities, and schedule, visit cinemahtx.org.