Reel As It Gets

A trip to the movies can be both an escape and an arrival, transporting us to different worlds and aligning us with the kinds of experiences that can enlighten and illuminate our everyday existence. There is one caveat, however; chances are it won't be happening on mainstream Hollywood's dime.

Is a little substance too much to ask? Is an original thought really so out of line? Can a planet on which Adam Sandler rakes in $20 million per film truly belong to this solar system? A resounding no to all three questions would give you a perfect score and put you firmly in the category of moviegoers who long for something more, something the Phoenix Film Festival has in spades.

Now entering its third year, the Phoenix Film Festival has followed in the footsteps of other like-minded and highly celebrated yearly celluloid congregations in providing a world-class forum for some of the world's most gifted independent filmmakers. Features in this year's competition were made for less than $1 million, while short films were budgeted at less than $50,000. With more than 375 entries in this year's field, including 17 features and 40 short films, the lineup is literally brimming with promise.

Record crowds of up to 10,000 moviegoers are expected to attend over the course of the three-day event -- the festival is no longer the secret it once was. On the eve of his biggest event to date, organizer Chris LaMont is proud of a brain child that has taken on a life of its own.

"This is a world-class event, one modeled after Sundance and Telluride," LaMont says. "If you've never been to a film festival, this is your chance to be a part of something special, to see movies and attend events you won't find anywhere else. We feel confident that there is a film for everybody here."

As hip and knowledgeable as indie film lovers can be, even they aren't averse to a little star power. Ever the gracious host, LaMont has always happily obliged. Among the faces scheduled to appear this year: actor Edward Burns and director Steve Foley, who will be on hand Friday night for the screening of their movie Confidence; Hairspray director and cult film legend John Waters, who will perform his one-man show "The World Is Trash" on Sunday; and Brian O'Halloran, best known for his role in the indie classic Clerks, who will host the festival's Copper Wing Awards ceremony on Sunday night.

Not surprisingly, films that aspire to make you think and feel can be quite a shock to the system. Luckily, a host of before, during and after parties promises to take the edge off and ratchet up the heat on three days that celebrate what filmmaking can be when it shuns the lowest common denominator.

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Craig Wallach