It takes a lot to put a good film festival together, but if you love movies like Jason Carney the executive director of the Phoenix Film Festival, the production is every bit worth the effort.
The event has become an annual entertainment staple for Phoenix. And much like the mythical beast of which the city’s name derives, this year's festival — from Thursday, March 23 through Sunday, April 2 — will emerge from the ashes to bring its audience a more powerful, emotional, thrilling, and especially toe-tapping in-person experience.
Now in its 23rd year, this 11-day celebration of moviemaking is finding its footing in a changed world, a recreational dystopia brought on in 2020 by COVID-19. The lockdown and subsequent anxiety affected many businesses, but arguably none were more harshly stricken than the entertainment industry, leaving theaters empty, box office attendants jobless and popcorn machines out of service.
But last year the public became more relaxed, and despite the slowly re-emerging crowds, Carney says the festival did pretty well. It still wasn’t where it needed to be, but the turnout was strong. That was encouraging especially since he didn’t rely on remote viewing options.
“We didn't just jump into virtual and shut ourselves out,” Carney tells Phoenix New Times in an interview. “That's a good choice for some events and some organizations; it just wasn't gonna be for us.”
Carney also says all that success was a result of his intuitive team that knows its audience. Attendees don’t want stale rehashed works from the past. Instead, he gives them slight changes that keep things fresh. “We wanna try new stuff and if it works, it works," he offers. "If it doesn't work, well, that's fine. We're doing interesting stuff and great stuff, so it's that balance.”
This year’s extensive program includes the ubiquitous "Centerpiece Films," or daily offerings with broader appeal. It is the section of the festival that Carney curates himself. These films are acclaimed works that haven’t made it to home screens but are buzzworthy enough to generate strong interest. This year's documentaries seem to be on trend.
They range from biographical studies of niche superstars to stories of real entertainment icons who changed the world.
Narrative films are also included in the centerpiece bundle. Along with their documentary counterparts, they share a common but inspirational thread: overcoming adversity.
If there is one topic that dominates this year’s centerpiece collective, it is music. Lots of music. Carney has been an avid music lover since childhood, when he and his mother would sit and watch The Buddy Holly Story together. He has continued to honor that musical passion by way of cinema, his favorite movie being the 2000 film Almost Famous written and directed by Cameron Crowe. This year, when the opportunity arose to select movies with a musical focus, he led the charge.
The first on that list is Little Richard: I Am Everything, which kicks off the centerpiece section on Friday, March 24. Then on Saturday, March 25, one of Carney’s most anticipated films, Spinning Gold, is a feature film about the life of music producer Neil Bogart, who was also the founder of Casablanca Records. Finally on the musical front on Wednesday, March 29, there is Chevalier, about the prolific 18th-century French Creole composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, starring Kelvin Harrison Jr.
The centerpiece rounds out its films throughout the life of the festival with the drama Kindling, the sports documentary It Ain’t Over, about baseball legend Yogi Berra, the thriller Master Gardener with Sigourney Weaver, another sports documentary titled Stephen Curry: Underrated, and the doc Judy Blume Forever. Carney says Curry, the Golden State Warriors point guard and NBA star, will attend in support of his movie.
Moving away from the centerpieces, there are some other standout films to enjoy at this year’s event. They include the premiere of the horror movie From Black, starring Anna Camp (Creepshow and True Blood TV series, Jerry and Marge Go Large), and an Indian action import titled Polite Society, one that Carney is ecstatic for people to see.
“It's about a young Indian girl who's in martial arts training because she wants to be a stuntman. And then she's trying to save her sister from an impending marriage. And it just looks hilarious. Oh man, it looks so much fun. I'm really excited for it.”
Going from South Asia to the American Southwest, local filmmakers have four movies in this year’s competition. “Usually, we've been doing three,” Carney says. “We legit have four really good Arizona-based films and a couple of the directors, Nathan Blackwell and Sean Oliver, are really good young filmmakers.” Regarding their festival presentations, he adds that Forever Home is the first film for Oliver and The Last Movie Ever Made is the second for Blackwell. “They're both very clever. They do a lot of smart stuff and I’m really proud to showcase their features in the same year — and they're buddies, so it's kind of funny that this year they’re competing against each other.”
Other movies of note this year are 500 Days of Silence, and the devilish mystery, Condition of Return. That latter title may describe — without irony — the spirit and the state of this year’s cinematic rebirth.
As stated previously, movies and theaters were the collateral damage of the pandemic. Social distancing rules, fear, and overall safety guidelines prevented the industry from even making movies let alone releasing them. This year feels like a renaissance, coming back to life welcomed by the smell of fresh-buttered popcorn, the click-and-whir of streaming soda taps, and scouting out that perfect spot in a dimly lit theater.
The Phoenix Film Festival embraced its mythical spirit animal last year, when it gained some post-pandemic momentum, rising slightly above par. Carney estimates the audience was at a 70 percent pre-COVID level. That is impressive considering other festivals at the time were at 50 to 60 percent. “This year, we're hopeful to get pretty damn close to 2019 numbers again. But you just never know, and I think with this lineup, man if people aren't here, I don't know,” he laughs. “We're trotting out some really great stuff in random spots.”
Keeping with that spirit, the closing night film on April 2 is the campy Nicolas Cage vampire comedy Renfield.
There is also a special film series Iranian Women Revolt, which features films by and about Iranian women raised in post-1979 revolution.
To get the full program lineup, visit the festival website.
Phoenix Film Festival. Thursday, March 23, through Sunday, April 2. Harkins Scottsdale 101 Theatres, 7000 East Mayo Boulevard. Tickets are $15 per film (not including the opening night gala). Packages and passes range from $45 to $450.