AFI Dallas 2009James Faust loves movies. That's a good thing, especially since he's the Director of Programming for the AFI Dallas International Film Festival, which wrapped its third edition last week. Some film programmers will brook no negative comments about their selections, but James was quite willing to listen when I questioned his sanity for picking Oskar Roehler's Lulu & Jimi, an out-of-control, absurdist melodrama that veers from one mad scenario to the next.

He readily admitted that he and a friend were the only two people laughing when the film played at Sundance, but he defended some of the same things that I had derided. James is a pleasant, humble man, but he's not about to back down just because you don't agree with him. That same spirit is evident in some of the films in the program. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte's terrific Soul Power, in which music history comes alive, consists of footage shot in 1974 as final preparations were being made for a music festival in Zaire, intended to accompany the "Rumble in the Jungle" boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, and other notable musicians appear; it made me nostalgic for the days when Ali spoke his mind.

Judging from the crowds lining up in advance, AFI Dallas sells far more individual tickets than passes, which means that completely different audiences show up from one film to the next (as opposed to, say, SXSW, where you start to recognize fellow pass holders in line). So a late evening screening of Daniel Burman's Empty Nest drew a Spanish-speaking crowd that reacted more strongly than I did. Still, I liked the picture that Burman created of a long-married couple (Oscar Martínez and Cecilia Roth) dealing with life, and each other, after their children leave home.

Empty Nest moves from wry observations to quiet dramatics very smoothly, but watching it is a diffuse experience: it feels like the episodes have been spattered out upon the screen without much rhyme or reason. Ultimately, the film addresses that very point, though not in an entirely satisfactory manner.

Tze Chun's Children of Invention has the potential to be a very sad story, yet it proves to be credibly optimistic as it weaves a tale of an overwhelmed single mother and her two young children. The family emigrated from Hong Kong to Massachusetts, but the father split, leaving the mother alone as she tries to provide for her family via nefarious network marketeting schemes. Director Tze successfully walks a very fine line between pathos and bathos, resulting in a very good film.

Similarly well-made, Topaz Adizes' Americana documents two young men in Needles, California, who are determined to enter the Armed Forces as soon as they graduate from high school. They both feel good about their decision, even as their friends, family members, schoolmates, neighbors, and strangers, via a radio call-in show, try to gently dissuade them. The film is sympathetic to their individual situations, even as it follows Americans to other countries (Turkey, Serbia, Vietnam, Japan) where the locals have decidedly different views about US involvement in foreign wars.

Soul Power director Levy-Hinte also produced Keven McAlester's The Dungeon Masters, a documentary about three Dungeons and Dragons "game masters." It's very funny, though I felt like I was laughing at the people in the doc more than I was laughing with them, which is an uncomfortable feeling to have. The three main subjects seem perfectly nice, but they're all somewhat similar sad sacks, all living lives in disarray, all in self-denial to a certain degree. The doc meanders and by the end I was having trouble keeping the characters apart. Maybe I'm in self-denial about how much my life resembles theirs.

AFI Dallas became a cultural institution in its first year, an event heavily covered by local online, print, and television outlets. On the operational side, the festival has improved every year. This year, for example, Landmark's The Magnolia theater, a lovely arthouse multiplex for watching movies but a nightmare for long lines, had much improved organization. It was still a madhouse at certain times, but a little madhouse never hurt anyone, as long as it doesn't last too long.

The shuttle service between venues, available to passholders, came in very handy one day, and I even picked up some good tips on non-festival movies to watch from a friendly driver (thanks, Robert!). As a passholder (thanks John and Michael!) I never had difficulty getting into the movies I wanted to see, in part because I avoided the high-profile weekend screenings with stars in attendance.

I worked with AFI Dallas in its first year and continue to have strong feelings, both pro and con, about the fest, so feel free to take the following comments with a grain of salt. One of my complaints / frustrations has been that the program doesn't have a tight enough focus, that it hasn't done enough to distinguish itself from other festivals, especially SXSW, which takes places just before it in March.

While I continue to feel that AFI Dallas could and should showcase a higher percentage of foreign-language films in its overall program -- something that is sorely needed in multiplex movie-loving Dallas -- I've gradually come to better appreciate that Artistic Director Michael Cain, Director of Programming James Faust, and Senior Programmer Sarah Harris have a good grasp of what they want to show, while not ignoring the many disparate components that make up the local citizenry.

Perhaps counterintuitively, there is great craft required to assemble a program without too strong a personal stamp on it, other than a generality such as "the films are good." Ideally, good programming may be ideological, an "intelligent argument for a certain kind of cinema," as critic Robert Koehler proposed in an article written before he was appointed the new AFI Fest Director of Programming. In practical terms, however, programmers who program exclusively for ideological reasons, without any consideration for their general audience, may find themselves preaching to an empty house.

I don't mean to imply that the AFI Dallas programmers are trying to select films only to please their imagined audience. As I noted at the outset, Faust clearly feels strongly that the films he selects are ones he can defend for their quality. The quality of the films can always be debated; at this point for AFI Dallas, what's important is that the programmers are open to any film they think is "good," without undue concern over whether or not it fits into the traditional model of what a "festival film" should be.

Good for them, and good for Dallas.

Jury and audience awards were handed out on Thursday night, with Matt Aselton's Gigantic, Paul Saltzman's Prom Night in Mississippi, David Lowery's St. Nick, Joe Berlinger's Crude, Anthony Fabian's Skin, and John Chester's Rock Prophecies among the winners. The festival site has the complete list.