The fourth annual DALLAS International Film Festival concluded last weekend after an 11 day-long program packed with indie films, local Texas films, documentaries and shorts, many of them cherry-picked to bring the best of the year's film festival circuit straight to Dallas area cineastes. It was a festival punctuated by a steady flow of visiting celebrities and a number of intimate industry panels (one of which yours truly was invited to participate in on behalf of Movies.com, along with Cinematical's Todd Gilchrist and former Cinematicalite-turned-Movie City News maven Kim Voynar) where filmmakers mingled nightly with locals and volunteers in the swanky penthouse lounge of the Hotel Palomar. But more importantly, as much as the festival brought movie makers in conversational proximity to its patrons, it brought notable films to its screens and filled seats even through the last days of the fest.

In some ways, the DALLAS International Film Festival, run by the DALLAS Film Society and formerly prefixed with the "AFI" brand, felt very much like a Dallas affair. Granted, this was my first ever visit and most of what I knew of the place had a lot to do with a gentleman named J.R. Ewing and fashion that's equal parts big hair and shoulder pads (which have since been replaced by a gentleman named Michael Cain, the film producer-turned-fest chairman, and loads of haute couture), but suffice to say the Dallas fest is a well-appointed deal seemingly run by sheer inborn hospitality, enthusiasm for film, and blessedly deep pockets.

Continued...

On its website, it is noted that the Dallas festival is "one of the fastest growing film festivals in the world," and I can see why; between the films, the convenient and pleasing setup utilizing the Hotel Palomar and the nearby Angelika Film Center as a base, and the handsome prizes awarded to winning films ($200,000 awarded during its first three years), it's a festival that moviegoers and filmmakers alike should try to patronize.

While the glitzy side of the proceedings brought in noted filmmakers John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), Pete Docter (Up), Guillermo Arriaga (Babel), Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) and Wally Pfister (DP -- Memento, The Dark Knight) to receive Star Awards, the DALLAS Film Society handed out a pair of very generous prizes to two jury prize-winning films in competition. Ryan Piers Williams' post-Iraq drama The Dry Land (pictured above), whose stars America Ferrera, Ryan O'Nan, and Wilmer Valderrama had been in attendance earlier in the week, won the Narrative Feature award; Lucy Walker's documentary Waste Land, a previous Sundance and Berlin Film Festival award winner, won for best Documentary Feature. Both films were awarded $25,000 prizes.



The awards gala also honored a host of notable indie films that had debuted at previous festivals like Sundance and SXSW: The genocide doc The Last Survivor, the indie comedy Harmony and Me, the biographical documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story, and the enviro-doc Climate Refugees. The Audience awards went to Will Canon's ensemble drama Brotherhood, which built a ton of word-of-mouth buzz around town, and the Houston music documentary Thundersoul.

Interestingly, the panel discussion I spoke on with Todd Gilchrist, Kim Voynar, and our moderator Peter Simek of D Magazine briefly touched on the subject of journalists covering regional festivals like DIFF. (The intended topic, "Criticism and Coverage from the Festival Front Lines - What Matters and What Doesn't," expanded in a number of different directions.) Festival coverage in general tends to focus on the biggies -- Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, Berlin -- but regional festivals like this one in Dallas (or the Savannah Film Festival in Georgia, or the Oxford Film Festival in Mississippi) feel important in a different way. They breed grassroots-level enthusiasm for movies -- mainstream, independent, foreign, or short-form -- and foster community around discussions of said films. And that kind of passion is what keeps film lovers watching and filmmakers making films, whether it's happening in the south of France or a ski resort town or deep in the heart of Texas.

Click to read the full list of Dallas International Film Festival winners.