It's springtime in Nashville. Dogwoods are unfolding. Forsythia is blooming. Cheekwood is a carpet of 55,000 tulips. The grill and front porch beckon. And starting Thursday at Regal's Green Hills theater complex, and continuing for the next seven days, tens of thousands of Music City movie lovers are going to forget all that exists.
Why forsake nature's glories for several hours holed up in a dark room with a bunch of strangers? The simplest answer is: It's fun. Now in its 44th year, making it one of the oldest film festivals in North America, the Nashville Film Festival has become as much a social occasion as a celebration of cinema. Anybody who believes the movies are dead hasn't tried to navigate the mobbed downstairs lobby, overflowing with laughter, long lines and excited conversations.
This year, the NaFF's giving people plenty to talk about. For the first time, the festival is incorporating a sidebar devoted to Kurdish cinema, culminating in Sunday's gala celebration at War Memorial. Augmenting those is a lineup of titles from the spring festival circuit, along with regional selections that may contain some of the fest's biggest surprises. Already numerous shows have sold out.
Which leads us to some tips for getting the most from the festival. Parking at the Green Hills garage is recommended; so is arriving 45 minutes early, especially if you're picking up tickets in the downstairs lobby that serves as festival HQ. Watch the boards posted downstairs for up-to-date info on last-minute screening additions, changes or cancellations.
Rush tickets are available for some sold-out features just before showtime. But if you get shut out of a popular movie, check to see if screenings will be added closing day April 25 (though director Jeff Nichols' opening-night selection, Mud with Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, will probably get just one, alas).
To help you navigate the many selections, we've provided more than 30 brief reviews of festival films below, along with recommendations each day for "Sure Shots" we haven't seen but are worth checking out. In addition, we recommend you peruse the schedule online at nashvillefilmfestival.org, get advance tickets whenever possible — and take a chance on something you've never heard of. We even offer a speed-selection chart to give you a head start.
So put away the sunglasses. It's time to start working on your projector-beam tan.
*= Highly recommended
* SUNSHINE BOYS
(6:15 p.m.; also 2 p.m. Monday, April 22) In Kim Tae-gon's accomplished feature, three friends meet up in Busan a year after graduating high school together, and the trio parties deep into the night, plied with a staggering amount of alcohol under sketchy circumstances. As an undelivered letter hangs like a cloud over the reunion, much goes unsaid and unexplained, and yet the tension, sadness and joy are palpable — intensified rather than diminished by inference and indirection. By the end, each friend carries his own private shame, but we've walked through his reasons for concealing it. The results are quietly devastating. STEVE HARUCH
* NASHVILLE 2012
(6:30 p.m; also 9:45 p.m. Friday, April 19) When people talk about Nashville being an "It" city, they're certainly talking about glitzier subjects than those portrayed in Nashville 2012, a 75-minute series of black-and-white shorts that chronicles the year. There's no food porn, indie rock stars or high-gloss prime-time soap opera at work here. Yet filmmakers Jace Freeman and Sean Clark's fly-on-the-wall focus on subjects from Occupy Nashville to speedway racers to local theater produces a portrait of the city infinitely more interesting by comparison. STEVE CAVENDISH
GOOD OL' FREDA
(9 p.m.; also 3:15 p.m. Friday, April 19)
Like a very condensed, somewhat cursory Beatles Anthology, Ryan White's Good Ol' Freda follows the Fab Four's story from start to finish — only through the eyes of the band's longtime secretary, Freda Kelly. While Beatles wonks might consider the rather charming Freda a must, it offers few truly exclusive Beatles trivia morsels. Instead, there's an affectionate portrait of a sweet young lady who was pals with the Liverpool lads and never too keen on bragging about it. Until now, anyway. D. PATRICK RODGERS
• INDELIBLE: THE CASE AGAINST JEFFREY WOMACK (6 p.m.) An expanded version of Demetria Kalodimos' WSMV documentary about the 1975 murder of Marcia Trimble and the longtime suspect who was eventually cleared.
• WORM (10 p.m.) Local filmmaker Doug Mallette expands his prize-winning 48 Hour Film Festival sci-fi short, in which a parasite that restores the ability to dream comes with troubling side effects.
* POST TENEBRAS LUX
(1 p.m.; also 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 24)
You'd think it'd be hard for certified Mexican oddball Carlos Reygadas to go much further off the deep end after films like Battle in Heaven or even the relatively placid but otherworldly Silent Light. But here he is again, dancing on the edge of coherence like a Surrealist hermano to Terrence Malick. This is a film (sort of) about domestic anxiety, and it begins with the filmmaker's children at sunrise, in a kind of nod to the birth of the universe. Almost immediately after, a CGI red devil invades the home of an upper-middle-class family as they sleep. It's a highly original, allegorical, sensual and heretical film; you might not like Lux, but I guarantee you won't soon forget it. In subtitled Spanish. MICHAEL SICINSKI
(3 p.m.; 4:15 p.m. Sunday, April 21)
Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) cut together rehearsals for an unfinished project to make a strange and beguiling enigma. Phon and Tong are young, and they're falling in love at a hotel that overlooks the Mekong River. Phon's mother is a Pob — a ghost — and then Phon is a ghost, too, after her mother devours her entrails. A man plays guitar peacefully, hypnotically. And then Tong is not really Tong, but a projected double made possible by some kind of soul-body splitting device. The river glides by serenely. It's not easy to describe this dream state of a filmic experiment, but it's hard not to get absorbed by it. STEVE HARUCH
(5:45 p.m.; also 5 p.m. Monday, April 22)
Rola Nashef's strong feature-length debut follows the exploits of Sami (EJ Assi), a young Lebanese-American man with big dreams who gets stuck tending the family gas station after his father is murdered. But when the lovely Naj (Nada Shouhayib) drops by to deliver long-distance phone cards from her brother's cellphone store, Sami's dreary existence suddenly brightens up, and a romance blooms. Both leads exude a low-key charm, and as Sami's high-strung cousin Mike, comedian-actor Mike Batayeh is terrific, kind of an Arab-American Joe Pesci. The film's funniest moments center around Sami and Mike's interactions with the predominantly African-American customers of their station, and display a blend of humor and insight that recalls Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. JACK SILVERMAN
* A LETTER TO MOMO
(4 p.m.; also 1 p.m. Saturday, April 20) Creepy yet comical, heartwarming and bittersweet, Hiroyoki Okiura's feature is a tender morsel of a film. Brooding over an unfinished letter from her recently deceased father, young Momo leaves Tokyo with her mother for the remote, summer-soaked island of Shio. There she becomes the hapless companion of guardian spirits Iwa, Kawa and Mame, mischievous and kleptomaniacal bumblers with penchants for binge eating, sacred booty-dancing and aggressive flatulence. Burgeoning with tangible textures and psychedelic visuals, this gorgeously animated tale of love, loss and new beginnings begs to be sampled by film lovers of all ages. Itadakemasu! SARAH BROWN
IF YOU DIE, I WILL KILL YOU
(6:30 p.m.; also 12:15 p.m. Tuesday, April 23)
Two Parisians — sad-sack ex-con Philippe (Jonathan Zaccaï) and his roommate Avdal (Billey Demirtas), a Kurd pursuing an Iraqi war criminal — have lives stuck in neutral. Their accidental friendship energizes them, until Avdal is betrayed by a bad ticker. The tragedy brings in members of Paris' Kurdish community, along with Avdal's fiancée (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani) and his glowering fundamentalist father. The film's tone veers from Jarmuschian humor to Gallic ooh-la-la (look for cameos by three lovely actresses of a certain age) and female empowerment story. Odd, yes, but expatriate Kurdish director Hiner Saleem knows these worlds and assembles a diverting ride. DANA KOPP FRANKLIN
(7:30 p.m.; also noon Sunday, April 21)
Something of a Trekkies for the moon-obsessive set, Simon Ennis' clever doc follows a handful of lunartics: among them astronaut-turned-lunar-landscape-painter Alan Bean, lunar real estate salesman Dennis Hope, and endearingly awkward but wildly passionate Luna Project founder Christopher Carson. Lunarcy!'s tone is playful and knowing rather than mocking, following this gaggle of guys who are more idealist wonks than outright crackpots. After all, each moon fanatic profiled comes off as exceptionally intelligent, if a bit gawky, and they have a very good point: Why in the hell aren't we colonizing the moon by now? D. PATRICK RODGERS
(7:45 p.m.; also 5 p.m. Saturday, April 20)
Joel Potrykus' bizarre offering may look like (and contain some acting reminiscent of) a high school project and play out like a low-rent Black Swan, but it's definitely worth a look. Friendless, jobless, talentless and clueless, comedian Trevor Newandayke seems to be the butt of some unfathomable universal joke. In a hundred menial ways, he allows the whole world to use him as its doormat, until the seething resentment boils over in bursts of misguided vigilante heroics, vandalism, brutal violence and compulsive arson. Oh yeah, and he's being followed by a man in a gorilla suit. When he sells one of his stinkers to the devil for an apple, that's when things get really weird. SARAH BROWN
* PIT STOP
(8 p.m.; also 11 a.m. Monday, April 22)
One of the NaFF's best finds of recent years was the gay romance Weekend; similar territory yields strong results in this convincing, warmly observed slice-of-life drama from director Yen Tan and co-screenwriter David Lowery (an indie utility man who edited Shane Carruth's Upstream Color and directed the much-anticipated feature Ain't Them Bodies Saints). Broken family man Gabe (Bill Heck) and recovering romantic Ernesto (Marcus DeAnda) inhabit different worlds within the same small Texas town. Under Tan's close, unemphatic direction, how they come together seems less like plot schematics than the natural course of guarded lives. If you wished Brokeback Mountain had ended happier, here's your movie. JIM RIDLEY
WE ALWAYS LIE TO STRANGERS
(8:30 p.m.; also 10:30 a.m. April 20)
Over the course of five years, documentarians AJ Schnack (Kurt Cobain: About a Son) and David Wilson chronicled life in Branson, Mo. — the shining rhinestone of family-friendly kitsch nestled in the crook of the Ozarks. As easy as it may have been to focus in on the weird patriotic hyperreality that is Branson's bread and butter, We Always Lie to Strangers manages to paint Branson as a complex tourist town struggling against a flailing economy. Or, if nothing else, a little bit more than just "Las Vegas if run by Ned Flanders." LANCE CONZETT
* THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK
(9:15 p.m.; also 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, 1:30 p.m.)
When a comet threatens to destroy planet Hondo, Hondonian Gen. Trius (Nils d'Aulaire) is sent to Earth to destroy the human race and prepare the planet for resettlement. But after landing in Brooklyn, he falls in love with music, changes his name to Bill and starts a family. When fellow Hondonian Kevin (Jay Klaitz) is sent to investigate, he too abandons his mission, and the two space aliens form an acoustic duo: Future Folk, natch. John Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker's endearing low-budget sci-fi comedy leans more toward sweet than ironic, and Future Folk's music shtick — kind of a cross between Flight of the Conchords and Tenacious D — is pretty hilarious. Bonus points for a Dee Snider cameo. Definitely worth a look. JACK SILVERMAN
• LAURENCE ANYWAYS (3 p.m.; also 5:15 p.m. Sunday, April 21) The NaFF introduces local cinephiles to the work of acclaimed Quebecois phenom Xavier Dolan, starting with his epic account of the 10-year relationship of a male-to-female transsexual (Melvil Poupaud).
• FOLK (6 p.m.; also 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 23) Sara Terry's documentary follows three modern-day troubadours — Raina Rose, the Flyin' A's' Hilary Claire Adamson and Dirk Hamilton — at various stages of their careers as they navigate the contemporary folk scene from living-room concerts to festivals.
• THE SPECTACULAR NOW (7 p.m.; also 12:30 p.m. Saturday, April 20) Sundance audiences fell in love with James Ponsoldt's bittersweet teen romance about a high-schooler with a drinking problem (Rabbit Hole's Miles Teller) and his unexpected new hope (The Descendants' Shailene Woodley).