dallas international film festival 2018 recap

Although I've attended as both a ticket- and pass-holder in the past, this was my first year covering the Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF) with a press pass! To be perfectly honest, it's not all that different from having a regular pass. There is something cool about presenting it to the volunteers managing each theater, though, and having them mark you down as 'press'. It just sounds so official, doesn't it?

This year the festival was shorter than usual, taking up only one weekend rather than two, and relocated to a single theater. Usually they host screenings at several theaters around the city, which I preferred. I've watched movies at this year's host theater for at least 15 years now; I love it! But unfortunately the space is simply too small to accommodate large crowds of people who are expected to show up early and wait in lines for a screening. I can understand the marketing reasons for committing to one venue in the middle of a popular shopping district, but logistically it was a pain at times.

The shorter schedule meant fewer films and I'll admit that on opening night, I wasn't expecting to love many of them. Thankfully I had judged too soon and ended the festival blown away by a few of the movies I saw! I already plan to see a couple of them during their theatrical runs later this year. Speaking of which, all of the films featured below already have U.S. distributors! Which means they'll at least see a limited theatrical run with streaming, DVD, and/or on-demand options most likely in the works as well.

The Guilty (2018)
Dir. Gustav Möller
Starring: Jakob Cedergren, Jessica Dinnage, Johan Olsen

Cedergren stars as Asger Holm, a Copenhagen police officer who has been assigned to dispatch duty for what we’re lead to believe are disciplinary reasons. He adopts a stern attitude toward most callers, particularly those in the middle of drunken bar fights or victims of muggings in the red light district they were patronizing. This blasé outlook evaporates when he takes a breathy, hushed call from a kidnapped woman (Jessica Dinnage) trapped in a van with her abductor, who thinks she’s on the phone with her daughter. Asger pries a few scant details from her using yes-or-no questions before the call disconnects; the nearest cell tower gives him enough information to share with patrol units in the area, setting off a broad search effort.

The formless threat of a kidnapping soon condenses into a disturbing domestic case. Tracking down and calling Iben’s home phone number, Asger learns that her two young children have been left alone after witnessing an altercation between her and her husband Michael (Johan Olsen), who dragged his wife away at knifepoint. Only the first of several revelations that realign the power balance and shift focus onto one suspect, then another, Asger sniffs out this and other clues from behind his desk as if he still walked the streets. Cedergren turns in a superb performance, cajoling, comforting, and furious in turns as he struggles against the narrow restrictions of a desk job. And Möller never cheats: not once do we leave the call center. That Cedergren can keep pulses racing through ninety minutes of well-paced action is testament alone to his prowess.

Excellent sound design does offer a tantalizing taste of the world beyond Asger’s station—a busy highway, the echoing interior of a van, a windy overpass—without shattering its stifling seclusion. The soundtrack creeps in sparingly; the bulk of the film’s tension comes exclusively from the efforts of Cedergren and the cast of voice actors on the other side of his headset. If the final revelation feels simply clever rather than earth-shattering, it doesn’t harm the overall effect. The Guilty is a lean thriller that contracts as it expands, trapping the viewer with a man of action stripped down to his voice and his humanity in the most nightmarish of situations. Worth seeing for Cedergren’s performance alone, it provides perfectly packaged thrills just in time for summer.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Dir. Morgan Neville

Those in need of an emotional boost will find a rousing one in this documentary about the life and professional legacy of Fred Rogers, best known as the host of the long-running PBS show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. While Rogers passed away in 2003, his wife and children, alongside scores of colleagues and friends, appear to guide viewers through a behind-the-scenes look at the development of a childhood favorite. There are no skeletons falling out of closets here, although it should come as no surprise to learn that a man who spent his life reassuring children of their inherent worth wrestled with doubts and insecurities of his own.

Former co-workers enliven the history with anecdotes that showcase Rogers’ sense of humor. (In one, a crew member who would take pictures of his bottom on random cameras as a prank was presented with a full-size poster of one such candid shot taken with Rogers’ equipment that Christmas.) Neighbor never delves too deeply, once or twice to its detriment; for example, the thought that his mindset transitioned from that of Daniel the Tiger to King Friday XIII in his later years is voiced, but never explored. As a tribute to a remarkable man and the heartwarming legacy he left behind, though, director Morgan Neville has provided a soothing tonic for troubled times.

First Reformed (2018)
Dir. Paul Schrader
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles

A quintessential A24 film, First Reformed follows several weeks in the life of the struggling Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke). Divorced and coping with the death of his son, he’s solicited by the pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to help counsel her husband. Michael (Philip Ettinger) is a radical environmentalist who despairs at the thought of bringing a child into a world on the brink of disaster. His depression slowly infects the lonely and ailing priest, who turns to alcohol and the increasingly manic ramblings of his personal journal for solace.

Brimming with evocative imagery and questions with no simple answers, First Reformed continues A24’s excellent track record. It’s shot in a beautifully plain style well-suited to the brief, brutal violence that serves as punctuation to a couple of key moments. Hawke and Seyfried both take superb turns in a film that navigates comfortably between existential despair, dark humor, and raw human intimacy. Things do start to go slightly off the rails in the third act but it’s a welcome kind of insanity, if such a thing exists. Writer/director Paul Schrader has put forth a challenging and original film that’s well worth a walk on the gloomy side.

Blindspotting (2018)
Dir. Carlos López Estrada
Starring: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar

As the writers and stars of Blindspotting, childhood friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal have produced something truly special. Both were born and raised in Oakland, California, a city named after the massive trees chopped down to make way for a growing population. Now a different kind of change is taking place: gentrification. Whole Foods is taking the place of neighborhood corner stores and the unique culture of long-time residents is being repackaged, watered down to appeal to the millennial tech start-up employees flooding the area. It’s in this environment of rapid change that best friends Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) must learn to adapt and stay out of trouble.

A black man and a convicted felon in the last days of his parole, Collin witnesses the shooting of a black man by a white police officer on his way home one night. In the ensuing chaos, other officers usher him away from the scene, but the act of violence profoundly affects him. While he and Miles are connected by a mutual community and culture, the contrast between how each of them are perceived and treated (Miles is white) comes into sharp relief several times throughout the film. Both men participate in the fight that landed Collin in jail, but his friend avoided any consequences. Late in the film, after another fight at a house party escalates far beyond the original slight, Collin even confronts Miles over how he benefits from the image and trappings of a predominantly black community without ever truly experiencing the fear that they do.

Diggs and Casal both give impassioned performances, but the conversation they’re meant to spark isn’t an exclusive one. Blindspotting is a story that lives in the grey areas of our lives; it calls attention to the blind spots inherent to every one of us and asks us to acknowledge them, even if we can’t completely overcome them. Oftentimes it approaches the issues of race and gentrification with humor. When it takes on a deadly serious tone, however, events can shift from funny to riveting in an instant. In a scene towards the end of the film, Collin purges his feelings of fear, inadequacy, and otherness in spitfire verse delivered straight into the camera. It’s impossible to look away…and you shouldn’t want to. Plenty of good films reach theaters every year; an important film like this is much rarer. Blindspotting is fresh and smart and raw, a love letter and warning cry, that deserves every ounce of empathy it wrings from you.

Do any of these sound interesting to you? What movies have you seen lately that you'd recommend?

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