My Favorite Phoenix Film Festival Discoveries by Michael Clawson

  by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume


The best part about film, filmmaking or this grander idea that is the capital-C Cinema, is discovery. Finding something — be it a hidden joke buried in dialogue, your new favorite actor, or a whole bloody film buried in a hidden corner of the world — has always been part of the fun. Because when you discover something, you get to own it for a brief window of time before the rest of the world piles on.


I’ve had a number of moments of discovery at the Phoenix Film Festival over the years. Here are a couple that stood out for me:


Layout 1A Town Called Panic — I saw A Town Called Panic at what must have been a 10 or 11 p.m. showing at the 2010 festival. The theater was maybe half full, and I don’t think anyone was quite ready for this quirky stop-motion film about characters named Cowboy, Indian and Horse. The premise is zany: it’s Horse’s birthday, so his roommates go online to order 50 bricks, but due to a keyboard snafu they accidentally order 50 million bricks. The bricks start coming in a huge caravan of delivery trucks, which is only the beginning of this ridiculously fun French film. It’s after movies like this you realize how important film festival are, because without one how else would anyone have seen A Town Called Panic?


Dom Hemingway — Richard Shepard’s impishly vile Dom Hemingway exploded off the screen at last year’s festival. Nothing can really prepare you for it; it just smacks you in the face from the first scene onward. And Jude Law, as the bad-boy ex-con who attempts his imperial swagger outside of prison, is perfect. I named it one of my favorite films of last year, and yet when I mentioned it to people they shrugged their shoulders, “What’s that?” It opened wide later, but largely disappeared, which meant that everyone who saw it at the festival was in on a big, wonderful secret.

3514-The House That Jack Built-1

The House That Jack Built — Here’s another one from the 2014 festival that blew me away. Henry Barrial’s crime drama was pitch perfect with an exquisite cast, fantastic dialogue and a fully realized script. About a man who’s trying to control a criminal empire at the same time as his family, The House That Jack Built was an awesome find during a really strong year at the festival.


Terri and Cyrus — John C. Reilly is one of the greats, both in drama and comedy. In both of these films, both of which premiered at the Phoenix Film Festival, he toes a dangerous line between comedy and tragedy, playful humor and dark. In Terri, he befriends an outcast at a high school. And in Cyrus, he falls in love with a woman with a grown child who clings a little too close to home. Both pictures are magnificent, and awkward and weirdly serious.


The Movie HeroThe Movie Hero — In 2003, during one of my first festivals, I happened to catch The Movie Hero, Brad T. Gottfred’s meta-comedy about a man who is convinced he’s starring in his own movie. The man, and Movie Hero, is played by Clueless co-star Jeremy Sisto, who spends much of the movie dialoging with the audience. It’s all bonkers, with lots of citing of movie cliches and tropes, but it works and works well. It was a fun find.


The Joe Show — Every Arizonan has an opinion of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, which is what made Randy Murray’s eviscerating documentary so much fun. Audience members seemed to be nodding or shaking their heads as the film played out with Joe riling his pink-underwear-wearing prisoners, baiting the local and national media and singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” It’s always fun to watch the Arizona-themed shows in Arizona because the audience always has a stake in what’s happening.

Son of Rambow

Son of Rambow — I still smile when talking about Son of Rambow, about a precocious kid who treks off into the woods to remake his own version of Rambo: First Blood. Movies about movie are always great, but so are movies about movies with kids.


Best Worst Movie — The documentary features are always worth checking out, because the subject matter goes to and fro, and you never know what you’ll end up with. In Best Worst Movie, director Michael Stephensen examines the awfulness and ultimate legacy of Troll 2, a film many people call the worst film ever made. I think there’s an art to bad movies, so the movie works on two levels: it’s a great movie about a bad one.