Atlanta Film Festival: From all over and close to home

Atlanta has grown to host and boast annual film festivals representing many stripes and special interests, from Jewish (Atlanta Jewish Film Festival) to African-American (BronzeLens Film Festival) to fright (Atlanta Horror Film Festival).

But the granddaddy of all Atlanta film fests knows no niche. Launching its 37th edition on March 15 and running through March 24, the Atlanta Film Festival remains an all-encompassing fest and attempts to offer a little to a lot of something for everybody.

Proudly, in fact.

“It’s on purpose,” executive director Christopher Escobar said. “The collective thread of our festival is that it is simultaneously about and for Atlanta, because the city has such diversity — not just racial, ethnic and geographical diversity, but interest diversity.”

The 2013 version will present 201 narrative and documentary features and shorts and music videos drawn from a record 2,800-plus submissions. Of those, nine documentary, eight narrative and six “Pink Peach” (LGBT) features will compete for their category’s Grand Jury Prize, an honor that enhances winners’ chances of national distribution.

The fest’s Georgia on Our Mind “track” continues to grow, befitting a state where tax credits (available to projects with budgets $500,000 and up) have heated up film production in recent years. Though most of the 43 features and shorts included in the loosely defined track (either shot in Georgia and/or featuring Atlantans) did not qualify for the credit, Escobar believes it has encouraged indie production.

He noted that many of the producers have day jobs, perhaps at Turner Broadcasting System or working on major Hollywood films being made here.

“But then they have these passion projects that they work on during the weekends and evenings, every waking hour. And they’re able to produce those projects here in Georgia even if the budget doesn’t directly qualify for the incentive. So there’s all kinds of spillover benefits,” Escobar said.

Georgia-made films in that category this year include “Scarred But Smarter (Life n Times of Drivin n Cryin),” local filmmaker Eric Von Haessler’s loving documentary about the Atlanta band during its 25th anniversary tour (March 22 screening sold out; encore 6:30 p.m. March 24, Plaza Theatre). Another is the post-apocalyptic suspense-thriller “The Mansion,” shot in the metro area over 19 days by director Andrew Robertson and producer Lilly Kanso, former Atlantans who tapped local special effects talent who work for “The Walking Dead” and Tyler Perry (March 22 screening sold out; encore 2:15 p.m. March 24, Plaza).

Other topical tracks include Passport (international cinema), Scoreboard (sports) and Film to Table (food).

Many of the fest’s screenings include appearances by filmmakers and stars.

Festival highlights include:

  • “Mud,” an Arkansas-filmed drama starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, will be the opening night feature (7 p.m. March 15, Plaza). Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, the Mark Twain-inspired drama, about teens who help a fugitive (McConaughey) evade bounty hunters, received positive notices at the Cannes and Sundance film festivals. Co-star Ray McKinnon, a Georgia native, will appear at the screening.
  • “Rectify” (6:45 p.m. March 16, Plaza), a Georgia-shot project created and written by McKinnon, is the first original series produced for the Sundance Channel, and it will be given a preview screening ahead of its April 22 cable premiere. McKinnon will appear along with cast members.
  • “The Great Chicken Wing Hunt,” a lighthearted documentary about a band of misfits who set out to find the world’s best Buffalo wings, will receive its world premiere (2 p.m. March 17, Plaza). Afterward, ticket-holders can bring their hunger pangs to a free Wing Party, featuring spicy samples from Atlanta restaurants, 4-7 p.m. at Highland Ballroom.
  • A screening of the debut episode of BBC America’s “Orphan Black” (7 p.m. March 19, 7 Stages), a sci-fi series mixing conspiracy and clones. Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany stars as Sarah, who assumes the identity of a dead woman whose suicide she witnesses only to learn that the deceased was her clone. Are there others? Can Sarah stay alive?
  • Music and image merge for the second year in “ATLFF Sound and Vision at the Goat Farm” (6 p.m. March 20). The Westside arts center presents an evening featuring a Micah Stansell video installation, music videos, experimental films, five bands, and food trucks. Festival officials expected 400 to 600 to attend the inaugural event last year, and 1,200 poured into the converted 19th-century industrial complex, Escobar said. “This year, we’re expecting to exceed that.”
  • A 55th anniversary screening of the ultimate drive-in cult movie, “Thunder Road,” careens across a Starlight Drive-In screen (6:30 p.m. party, film 8:45 p.m. March 21). Robert Mitchum plays the Korean War veteran who returns home to Tennessee to take over the family moonshining business, contending with revenuers and big-city gangsters determined to take over the business. Mitchum’s son, James Mitchum, who as a teen played the kid brother to his moonshine-running father in the 1958 film, will attend. Original moonshiner cars will be on view.
  • “The Spectacular Now,” directed by Athens native James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”), is the fest’s closing night feature (7 p.m. March 23, Plaza), save for encore showings on March 24. It stars Miles Teller (“Rabbit Hole”) as a charmer with a drinking issue who catches bookish Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) on the rebound. After a Sundance showing, Entertainment Weekly called it a “soulful and authentic” teen movie “about the experience of being caught on the cusp and truly not knowing which way you’ll land.” Ponsoldt, who filmed in Athens, will appear at a Q&A after the screening, and at a festival closing-night party for ticket-holders on the Ponce de Leon Apartments rooftop. The director won the festival’s 2003 “Perfect Pitch” and 2008 screenplay competitions. “We really feel lucky to have been part of his journey, as we do Ray McKinnon, rising to larger and larger success,” Escobar said.

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