Let's start with the easy one: The people. I know the phrase "Southern Hospitality" gets thrown around a lot, but experiencing it first-hand from the Oxford Film Festival team was just lovely. My colleagues and I were treated like VIPs all weekend, which is both weird (I'm low maintenance) and very flattering, from the opening party at the lovely Donna Ruth Robert's house to the final get-together at ... someone's house that had beer, I was greeted with open arms, open bottles, and lots of adorable women who were way too young for me but way too pretty to ignore. Celeb-wise, this might not be Sundance or Toronto, but I wouldn't trade my laid-back conversations with Jason Ritter or Giancarlo Esposito for a dozen Jennifer Connelly interviews. (Well, not really. I'm not insane.)

And a special mention is due to the dozens of organizers, programmers, and volunteers who sure ACTED like their local film festival was Sundance. I don't mean to sound condescending, but I was honestly surprised at how efficiently this little ship was run. I've been to several well-intentioned and entertaining regional festivals before, and this is easily one of the most organized, enthusiastic, and sincere I've ever seen. (The Oxford squad will probably chuckle when they read that, but it's true.) There's that indomitable "we're putting on a show!" spirit that comes with a festival like this one, and it's something I never get tired of seeing. Especially when good movies are afoot.

And another quick round of back-pats is due to my fellow panelists Kim Voynar, James Rocchi, Eric Snider, Lisa "Roxy" Rosman, John Beifuss, and the eloquent Mr. Esposito. Along with the second group of panelists [which included, among other folks, Rotten Tomatoes' Jen Yamato, Bside's Chris Holland, Michael Jackson Cheney of the Savannah College of Art and Design, and Larry Jackson, of iArthouse.com, which you should check out right now] ... let's just say there was no shortage of cool folks to grab coffee with. To Melanie, Michele, Micah, Linda, and all the rest, thanks again.



As for Oxford itself, I must admit that I didn't see much besides my hotel, the movie theater, a nearby coffee house, and -- oh yes -- an absolutely AMAZING restaurant called Ajax Diner. (I think I ate there four times in one four-day weekend.) My eyes may have been focused on the practically all-female staff, but the food was really quite excellent. Especially the meatloaf. Oooh, and the chicken & dumplings. I would have done the "sightseeing" thing a little more, but I was more than happy just to hang at the festival with old and new friends.

But by this point the Oxford filmmakers are ready to strangle me, so let's get to the important stuff: The Movies!



Sunshine Cleaning -- Amy Adams and Emily Blunt star as a pair of low-income sisters who decide to start up a "bio-hazard clean-up" business. Of alllll the critics who were there, I enjoyed the film the least, sorry to say, but I certainly wouldn't call it BAD, per se. Just felt to me like "Sundance-Style Movie #142," despite some really excellent work from the two lead actresses. And yes, it did play Sundance, and I do expect it to earn some fans when it hits theaters later this year.

Gospel Hill -- Longtime character actor Giancarlo Esposito makes his directorial debut with this well-intentioned ensemble drama about the death rattle of a small urban town. Starts out feeling fairly conventional, but does pack some surprises. Unfortunately I had a minor emergency phone call and had to miss the third act, but for the most part I definitely enjoyed what I saw. Great cast!

Interplanetary and Night Crawlers -- Take two of the most overused genre conventions (the space station saga and the vampire tale), but then infuse each one with a generous dose of dry southern wit. The former is an amusing 'all in one night' misadventure about murder, money, and bloodsuckers, while the latter is a very droll sci-fi comedy about the death and bureaucracy that take place on a Martian space station. Crawlers runs about 75 minutes and winds down just when it ought to, while Interplanetary could use just a little trimming and a tighter musical score ... but we were told it was a "work in progress" cut, so it doesn't seem fair to complain. Especially when both flicks are so surprisingly funny. Low-budget and scrappy-looking, sure, but also quite funny. And that's the hard part.

Good Dick -- I actually saw this one at Sundance a while back, but it played at Oxford and is therefore completely deserving of another mention: I dug it. Here's proof. It's an odd little romantic story that's both funny and ... not, plus it stars two young actors who clearly aren't afraid to get vulnerable. Jason Ritter is always an affable performer, but the true discovery of this film is writer / director / lead actress Marianna Palka. This is a strange, challenging, and decidedly non-traditional romance tale that you should keep an eye out for. (Unless you just want the same ol' crackers.)

The Stanton Family Grave Robbery -- Haven't had this good a time with a low-budget indie road comedy since those Duplass boys delivered The Puffy Chair. Even at 75 minutes, the flick might run a bit too long, but since you'll be in the company of three very amusing dudes (Kevin Costello, Cole Selix, and Brand Rackley), the torture isn't too bad. Matter of fact, there's a lot of droll, dry laughs to be found in this tale of three odd brothers who decide to exhume their dad's coffin and transplant if from Texas to Oklahoma. There's not much plot and a little bit of heart near the end, but if well-timed (raunchy) banter is your thing, you'll definitely dig it. And yes, I need to find a new synonym for "droll." My apologies.

Make-Out with Violence -- Winner of the Best Feature Award at the festival AND just getting ready for its big SXSW screening ... and yeah, I'd agree that it's pretty damn good. A little too weird to describe in one handy synopsis (and too interesting to spoil at this early date), the flick is about three brothers, two girls, and a corpse. And it's not a horror movie. Nor is it anything close to a "wacky" comedy. Like most of the flicks I sampled from Oxford's slate, this one is wall-to-wall dryness -- but that's meant as a compliment. It's like Bob Newhart meets Brick with a dash of the really straight-faced absurdity that only gets attempted in weird indie flicks. Plus it has normal chuckles, interesting characters, and a welcome dash of unpredictable-ness. If that's a word.

Miscellaneous -- My apologies to the as-yet-unwatched screener discs of Full Moon Lightnin' and Neshoba, both of which were very well-praised by the Oxford ticket-buyers. (The screening was double-sold-out, and yes, that's actually possible.) There was also much enthusiasm for the recent Sundance selection Prom Night in Mississippi and the Best Documentary winner Crude Independence, which is also playing at SXSW next month. Further apologies to the films I didn't get to cover, but the festival was only three days long and I was supposed to be taking it easy! (Heh.)

Thanks again to the Oxford Film Festival for treating me and my friends so well. If you'd like to keep up with this fine little fest, you can do so here and here.

(Don't forget: Ajax Diner. Chicken & Dumplings. Seriously.)