Festivals

The Phoenix Film Festival Returns In Person With Something for Everyone



Anyone in Phoenix can hop in the car and, in not too much time, find a multiplex playing the latest movie releases.

But that's not what the Phoenix Film Festival is about.

“We want audiences to experience films they might not otherwise see," says Jason Carney, the festival's executive director.

The festival is back starting tomorrow, Thursday, March 31, for an 11-day event that showcases the industry’s most talented moviemakers, both new artists and veterans in the field. This year, the lineup is packed with content ranging from comedy to horror and everything in between.

The festival began in 2000 when few Arizona filmmakers saw the potential of having a major film festival in Phoenix. What they created has become a celebration of cinematic talent both in front of the camera and behind it.

The nonprofit Phoenix Film Foundation produces the festival every year.

Besides exposing attendees to indie cinema, "we want to give filmmakers an eager audience and a great place to show their films. And we want to help grow the next generation of filmmakers. We do that through all of the programs of the Phoenix Film Foundation, including the Phoenix Film Festival," Carney says.

Included in this year’s lineup is a documentary from Steven Hoffen, a 14-year-old whose film, Growing Peace in the Middle East, explores how Arab and Jewish women work together at Sindyanna of Galilee, a farm using hydronic gardens to feed an entire community. The film has gone on to win some major festival awards in over 70 different categories worldwide.

It's a talent like this that Carney hopes audiences will appreciate, perhaps even more than the mainstream stuff. In fact, the idea that films can evoke all sorts of emotions is what got him interested in becoming part of the team. It was then-program director Greg Hall who encouraged him to become involved.

“Greg and I went to high school together and it sounded interesting and I jumped right in,” says Carney. “Over the next five years, I gained more responsibility each year and in October of 2005, I became the executive director. I love the arts, events, planning, and organizing, so it was the perfect place for me in the universe.”
click to enlarge
Local filmmaker Colton Eschief Mastro stars as Charlie in his short film, Delivery.
London Flair PR

Although film is a far-reaching industry, there are great talents that have roots in Phoenix. Colton Eschief Mastro is a native of the city and his short horror film, Delivery, is gaining some word of mouth around the circuit. This chiller follows a madman who works for a food delivery app and uses it as a way to find his victims.

Another rising genre is the LGBTQ+ category; Carney is an ally to the community and is excited to share their stories through film. He plans on increasing their presence through future programming because he feels movies should be inclusive and tell the stories of all communities.

“We have a great team from these communities, who have impeccable taste, helping us build our selection of shorts, features, and documentaries,” he says

Then, there are the big hitters, those films made on a higher budget featuring big Hollywood stars. Although these selections edge toward the mainstream, they still retain an independent charm with their intimate stories and off-beat personalities.

For instance, Sundance favorite Cha Cha Real Smooth is this year’s festival opening night feature. This quirky romantic dramedy stars Dakota Johnson and Evan Assante as two people struggling to find their way through life: one young, one older. It is written and directed by Cooper Raiff, 25, an acclaimed blossoming filmmaker considered by critics to be on the precipice of directorial stardom.

“This is the first full-blown opening night for us since the spring of 2019 so we're all very excited,” says Carney. The Cha Cha Real Smooth event will be followed by a cocktail party.

Then there’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a Nicolas Cage meta action-comedy in which he stars as himself. Sort of. He plays Nic Cage, a starving actor who needs some fast work. When he accepts a paid appearance at a superfan’s house, things take a strange turn and the superstar must rely on his trope-filled action movie past.

Cage, 58, is seeing a glow up in his acting career. His marquee appeal waned after he started cash-grabbing B-movie roles up until 2015. It wasn’t until the horror movie Mandy in 2018, that he began to find his footing in the horror genre where he reclaimed fans and made new ones becoming a steadfast supernova. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a welcome return to his action roots and classic style. But not all movies at the festival are as fun as Cage’s.

click to enlarge
Scarborough premieres at the Phoenix Film Festival on April 8.
Compy Films

The indie drama Scarborough is one of Carney’s favorites on this year’s roster, he says. This emotional look at three young children struggling within a low-income Canadian neighborhood has been nominated for all kinds of awards. Sasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson direct with a screenplay by Catherine Hernandez. It’s based on Hernandez’s book of the same name.

Other noteworthy films are:

LA QueenCianera: A heartbreaking but inspiring look at the life of an undocumented Latina activist.

What We Leave Behind: A father begins to build a house in Mexico after traveling back and forth to the US for many years to see his children. His granddaughter documents his journey.

Take the Night: A kidnapping prank goes wrong, and real killers get involved.

Out and About: A comedy about a walk through an ordinary neighborhood and all the different characters who live there.

Ferryman: A strange romantic tale where love threatens the safety of a troubled couple.

Free, Dead or Alive: An unflinching look at an African American woman who refuses to be a statistic.

Piggy: A gruesome horror tale of revenge and mental health.

There's even something for the kids. On April 9, there's a special screening of 2005's visual and engaging masterpiece March of the Penguins.

With over 300 films at this year’s event, The Phoenix Film Festival is back on track and offers something for everyone. As audiences get more comfortable going back to the movies, so too are the people who get to make them.

“We're really excited to have over 60 filmmakers coming to two to represent their films and talk about them after their screening,” says Carney. “It's such a great experience to hear from the people behind the film after watching it. It's a big part of what makes going to a film festival great.”

Phoenix Film Festival. Thursday, March 31 to Sunday, April 10. 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.