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Phoenix Film Festival 2016: Your Guide to the Must-See Movies

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Spring is usually a cinematic wasteland. Oscar season is almost a year away, and the glut of bloated summer action flicks hasn't started its assault on our senses (Batman v.  Superman aside). The Phoenix Film Festival fills in the gaps, in the best ways possible, starting on Thursday, April 7, with a week's worth of movies crossing genres from romance and horror to documentaries crafted by investigative filmmakers and a showcase of adolescent artists' nascent works. 

It's a lot. Which is why Phoenix Film Festival executive director Jason Carney recommends starting with a movie that feels familiar to you. The Meddler, starring Susan Sarandon, J.K. Simmons, Rose Byrne, and Cecily Strong, is a good bet, and it plays on Saturday, April 9, at 7 p.m. Sarandon stars as a widow who moves close to her daughter, Byrne, only to discover that enmeshment with her child isn't good for either of them. It's a classic feel-good film.

"Once you see a film you know," Carney says, "go see a smaller film that has no budget but has an incredible story." 

There are 178 screenings to choose from this year, all playing at the Harkins Scottsdale 101, 7000 East Mayo Boulevard, but going to the movies isn't the only activity of the week. Opening night has a 6 p.m. soiree featuring food from area restaurants, auctions on cinematic paraphernalia, and entertainment by local singer-songwriter Micah Beverly. Workshops on screenwriting and film acting round out the week's offerings, as does a kid-friendly day where young movie fans can walk the red carpet and explore the moviemaking process. 

Yet the movies are what's it's really all about, and Carney says the festival team tries to offer a gamut of films for crowds with widely varying tastes. 

"We look at it like trying to build a mix tape," he says. "Even though not every film is for everybody, there's something for everybody. That sounds like a terrible cliché, but it's true."

If you're looking for Carney's picks, then go see Colin Hay: Waiting for My Real Life, which chronicles the exciting and heartbreaking life of the former frontman of the band Men at Work. 

"He's such an engaging storyteller," Carney says of Hay. "I was predisposed to like it, the way they shot it. You get a lot of documentaries where it's just a talking head. This one, the way they shot [it] is really great with unique visuals, so it made the interviews more interesting than the norm."

Below is a small selection of movies to look for during the festival. Tickets run from $13 for a single film screening to various passes that top out at all access for $300. For the complete schedule and cost details, see phoenixfilmfestival.com

Morris from America
The opening-night film won two awards at Sundance this year, including a Special Jury Award for Craig Robinson, who plays a single father to Morris Gentry (played by young newcomer Markees Christmas). The pair have just relocated to Heidelberg, Germany, which is a far cry from Morris' American home and his dreams of becoming the next hip-hop star. The adolescent faces racism in his new school, which only increases his sense of isolation and his commitment to his art. While reviewers have consistently been tickled by Morris' coming-of-age charm, the film also gives Americans, embroiled in their own melee of racial and xenophobic tensions, the chance to see these hot-button subjects through the lens of another nation — and hopefully gain insight into their own predicament. There's only one showing of Morris from America, so don't miss its première at the festival on Thursday, April 7, at 7:30 p.m.

Sci-fi Shorts 
Calling all robot nerds, dystopian conspiracy theorists, and tinfoil hat-wearing paranoiacs! If sci-fi is your go-to for film and philosophy, the shorts programs at the festival are a treasure trove of thought-provoking commentaries on our present lives and what they might become in the future. Machines are a big highlight of the shorts — a man walks a barren moonscape with his robot buddy in Project: Horizon, a hitman asks for his smartphone's input when burying a dead body in Iris, a lawyer hopes to save a human-killing robot in Jakob, and a boy tries to survive in a world decimated by machines in Avant. The lone man against the metaphorical machine of Orwellian proportions is another common idea on display: As They Continue to Fall features an outcast drifter who hunts fallen angels in a broken city, Helio cleverly blends sci-fi and film noir in a city on the brink of revolution, and a clone finds his individuality conflicts with that of his corporate creators in Populace. Catch these and other short flicks during the Sci-fi Shorts A program, running Friday, April 8, 9:35 p.m., Saturday, April 9, 1:10 p.m., and Thursday, April 14, 5:10 p.m., as well as the Sci-fi Shorts B collection, playing Friday, April 8, 1:05 p.m., Saturday, April 9, 10:20 p.m., and Monday, April 11, 2:50 p.m.

Under the Shadow
Really good horror films don't just make you jump in your seat; like their embattled protagonists, they leave you haunted for some time, and Under the Shadow promises to do just that. Set in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a strong, independent woman who's recently been banned from finishing medical school by a government unimpressed with her college activism. Her husband is called to the front, leaving her and her daughter at home as the bombing intensifies in her neighborhood. As if the falling bombs weren't enough, the djinn — terrifying spirits — began to stalk the mother and daughter, an apt reflection of the traumatic anxieties induced by war and a war on women. The Sundance hit will be shown on Friday, April 8, at 7:35 p.m.

The Man Who Knew Infinity
If horror sends you scrambling for your Xanax bottle, go see The Man Who Knew Infinity on Friday night, instead. Starring Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — and its unlikely sequel) and Jeremy Irons, it's based on the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian mathematical genius who ended up an intellectual revolutionary at Trinity College in Cambridge in the early 20th century. Patel and Irons, who plays his protector and academic partner G.H. Hardy, are the center of a film that also tackles themes of colonialism and the arrogance of ivory-tower intellectuals. The Man Who Knew Infinity screens on Friday, April 8, at 7 p.m.

Arizona Student Film Festival
This mini-showcase features films created by Arizona students ages 12 to 18. Awards are given to the top grade-school film and top high-school film, the latter of which receives $1,000. This is the second year the Phoenix Film Festival has held the event, open to students from all over the state. Last year's winner, Holly Milosevich, who is educated through the Arizona Virtual Academy, returns to the festival with three films up for top honors. "It's so creative, and they're thinking outside the box," says Carney of the young filmmakers. The artists hail from Phoenix, Chandler, Goodyear, and Scottsdale, and from private and public schools. See the filmmakers of tomorrow's works and support young Arizonans at 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 9. For students who've caught the filmmaking bug, submissions are already being accepted for the 2017 festival. Visit azstudentfilmfestival.org to find out more. 

Rwanda & Juliet
Documentaries are a dime a dozen at film festivals, but Phoenix showcases a thought-provoking bounty of the genre. Rwanda & Juliet follows the almost stereotypical New England college professor Andrew Garrod (who is old, white, English accent, in love with "the bard") to Rwanda, where he puts on a production of Romeo and Juliet with college students from both Hutu and Tutsi backgrounds. One million Tutsis were killed in a genocide perpetrated by the Hutus in the 1990s, and most of the cast members were orphaned by the tragedy. While the film could veer dangerously into a feel-good victory lap, director Ben Proudfoot addresses the common cultural misfires that occur when white intellectuals project their nearsighted sympathy onto people and countries so vastly different from their own. Garrod finds himself out of his depth at times as the Rwandans challenge him and the white world on their pat demands for reconciliation between the Capulets and the Montagues and the Hutus and the Tutsis. Luckily, Rwanda & Juliet will show multiple times during the festival: 1:25 p.m. on Friday, April 8; 3:15 p.m. on Saturday, April 9; and 9:45 a.m on Sunday, April 10.

Beyond Glory
With veterans of our ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan returning to the States with fresh stories of heroism and hell on earth, Beyond Glory highlights soldiers of previous generations who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Stage and screen actor Stephen Lang (Avatar, Tombstone, Gettysburg) created the play Beyond Glory in 2004, a one-man production wherein Lang played eight different soldiers who'd received the Medal of Honor. He took the show on the road, appearing in theaters around the world, and the movie is an amalgamation of those performances, as well as a chronicle of Lang's relationship to the piece. The film, narrated by Gary Sinise, plays at 5:35 p.m. on Friday, April 8; 3:50 p.m. on Saturday, April 9; and 2:20 p.m. on Sunday, April 10.

Phoenix Film Festival, April 7 to 14, Harkins Scottsdale 101, 7000 East Mayo Boulevard, phoenixfilmfestival.com

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