The 36th annual Atlanta Film Festival will kick off Friday, March 23, with a screening of “Life Happens,” a dramedy starring Kate Bosworth about two BFF’s whose friendship undergoes strain when one gets pregnant. It will wind down March 31 with the genre-bending sci-fi whatsit “The Cabin in the Woods,” from director Drew (“Cloverfield”) Goddard and writer Joss (“Buffy”/”Firefly”) Whedon.
In between, expect more films with Georgia ties than you can shake the proverbial stick at.
“There are definitely more than usual,” says Chris Escobar, an Atlanta filmmaker in his first year as the festival’s executive director. “That’s a great thing, and something we didn’t force, either. And these films hold their own against the national and international submissions.”
Consider some of these titles with local links:
- “V/H/S,” a horror anthology by multiple directors, including David Bruckner of the Atlanta-shot zombie thriller “The Signal.”
- “Hurry Up and Wait,” a documentary about Atlanta band Gringo Star.
- “AKA Blondie,” a documentary about the (in)famous Clermont Lounge dancer.
- “That’s What She Said,” a women-in-romantic-trouble comedy directed by Macon native Carrie Preston (flame-haired Arlene on “True Blood”).
- “John Portman: A Life of Building,” a documentary about the man who transformed the look of Atlanta in the 1960s and ’70s.
- “Sweet Old World,” the first narrative feature from former Atlanta documentary filmmaker David Zeiger (“The Band”).
- “Basically Frightened: Colonel Bruce Hampton,” a portrait of the multifaceted Atlanta musician.
- “Diary of a Decade: The Story of a Movement,” an overview of the emergence of Atlanta’s black music scene.
- “All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert,” a documentary about an artist from Cuthbert, Ga.
Curated by festival Director Charles Judson, many of this year’s entries have similar thematic viewpoints. “We’re seeing films where there’s more an appreciation of the simpler things in life,” Escobar says. “People are rethinking what’s important, and there’s a little less cynicism overall. It’s more about looking back and rediscovery.”
Among these films is “Take Me Home,” written and directed by NBC “Parenthood” star Sam Jaeger and co-starring his real-life wife, Amber. “It’s a really personal film about what matters,” Escobar says. “You see it in others this year: what price are you paying in trying to keep your job and working 80 or 100 hours? What are you sacrificing?”
“Take Me Home” will be shown at Marietta’s Strand Theatre as part of the festival’s first-ever “Atlanta Gem” initiative, spreading the wealth of screenings around the metro area in addition to the festival’s base at the Landmark Midtown Art. The idea of showcasing other local venues (including the Plaza, the Goat Farm and the Woodruff Arts Center) came to Escobar last year when he was talking with two visiting German filmmakers, who asked him what they should see while in Atlanta.
“It hit me, they don’t know what the city looks like outside the theater,” he says. “We have a lot of awesome theaters and other venues that people should see.” So certain films will be matched with locations that make a good fit. For the Plaza, it’s gritty works about music and local celebrities. The Woodruff will host the John Portman doc. “Portman was creaing his buildings and doing all his transformative work in Atlanta about the same time the Woodruff Arts Center was developing,” Escobar explains. “They were all created and born out of the same energy — and so was the film festival.”
Reflecting a record number of submissions, the festival will show more films than ever before. And, as usual, it’s offering a bunch of seminars about the practical nuts-and-bolts of moviemaking. For a schedule, ticketing and seminar info, click here.
Here’s a look at some of the festival titles made available for review.
“AKA Blondie.” The topless queen of Poncey-Highland seems both larger and smaller than life in this affectionate, sometimes troubling look at the Clermont Lounge exotic-dancing legend. Driven by interviews with the dancer, poet and performance artist, as well as some friends, colleagues and frenemies, it convincingly suggests that the best and worst thing that ever happened to Anita Strange was the invention of the wig-wearing, sketchy alter ego known as Blondie.
“All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert.” No, I’d never heard of him either. By the end of this documentary, though, he’s hard to forget. Now living in Connecticut, Rembert was raised in tiny Cuthbert, Ga. The creator of scenes based on his experiences there — meticulously sculpted on sheets of leather, then painted — this black artist is now an emerging darling of the Northeastern (mainly white) art scene. The movie is less about that world than it is about the not so distant, still mind-blowing system of Jim Crow, which the artist and his loving wife barely escaped alive.
“Pig.” The title will become clear by the end, and getting there is the puzzling pleasure of a film that owes stylistic debts to “Memento,” “Open Your Eyes” and even “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Rudolf Martin plays a man who wakes up in the desert with amnesia. And keeps waking up there. And keeps trying to figure out who he was/is. An engaging mind-twister, it’s slightly undercut by Martin’s glum, unmodulated performance.
“Shuffle.” A thematic cousin of “Pig,” with closer ties to “It’s a Wonderful Life” than that movie’s sci-fi leanings. A little like Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” T.J. Thyne plays a man unstuck in time. He wakes up one day in his vital 20s, the next as a fellow of 92 or a depressed drone in his 30s. Some days he’s married to his childhood sweetheart; some days (gulp) she’s dead. In his pursuit to find, and possibly prevent, the cause of her death, the fellow gets clues from unexpected, human angels. That device, plus heavy strings on the soundtrack, tips the movie into sticky sentiment — but it’s also pretty effective as a reminder that we should make the most of every moment.
“Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy.” Set in Edinburgh’s E-popping demimonde of weekend warriors and casual drug dealers, this movie tries so hard to be “Trainspotting” (also based on a Welsh book) that it comes off as a tired wannabe. It doesn’t help that in the past 16 years, other filmmakers have copied “Trainspotting” director Danny Boyle’s hyperkinetic filming style so often that it all feels hackneyed.
“OK, Good.” Ever want to be an actor? You won’t after watching director Daniel Martinico’s drily ruthless portrait of an L.A. thespian (co-scripter Hugo Armstrong) who undergoes humiliating auditions, ridiculous acting exercises and the indignities of trying to get decent head shots printed by a copy shop. And loses his mind along the way. It doesn’t add up to much of anything in the end, but it’s very well made and acted.