Kansas City FilmFest has grown into a remarkably eclectic event. Small local films show on the same screens as international hits, short films play alongside full-length features and nearly every genre is represented.
Here are some of this year’s potential standouts:
▪ “Miles Ahead”: KC native Don Cheadle co-writes, directs and stars in this film about jazz legend Miles Davis. Cheadle takes an improvisational (and sometimes fictional) approach to Davis’ story, and the result is generating both strong box office and Oscar buzz. Cheadle will be a special guest at the screening on Friday.
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▪ “Chi-Raq”: Local filmmaker and KU professor Kevin Willmott wrote the script for Spike Lee’s provocative update of “Lysistrata.” Set in modern Chicago, “Chi-Raq” takes the ancient story of women confronting violence in their community and gives it a contemporary jolt. Willmott will receive the 2016 KC FilmFest Independent Spirit Award at Thursday’s screening. Also on the festival schedule is Willmott’s documentary, “Gordon Parks Elementary,” about the Kansas City charter school and its struggle to serve the district’s most vulnerable children.
▪ “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”: A grouchy foster uncle (Sam Neill) goes on the run with his troubled teen charge (Julian Denison) in this comedy from New Zealand’s Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”). It’s already a hit in its home country, and has generated buzz at Sundance, Tribeca and South by Southwest. Denison is being hailed as a breakthrough performer, and Neill gets to play comedy, something he’s always been good at.
▪ “God Knows Where I Am”: Although she could easily have gotten help, Linda Bishop stayed alone in a freezing, abandoned house, slowly dying of exposure and starvation. This documentary by Todd and Jedd Wider examines the mystery of Bishop’s descent into homelessness and apparent insanity, showing the human face of an all-too-common tragedy.
▪ “Sing Street” and “But Not for Me”: Two odes to the power of music are screening Friday. John Carney, the director of “Once” and “Begin Again,” pays tribute to growing up in 1980s Ireland with “Sing Street.” It’s a coming-of-age tale with the ramshackle vibe of “The Commitments” and a soundtrack of New Wave and post-punk classics, mixed with original songs. Ryan Carmichael’s “But Not for Me” takes a more serious approach, as a frustrated writer teams up with a violinist to create something unusual on the streets of New York.
▪ “Frame by Frame”: Under the Taliban, photography was prohibited in Afghanistan. Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli profile the country’s new wave of photojournalists, who risk their own safety to chronicle their society’s slow emergence from war and oppression — and the daunting challenges that lie ahead. It’s also a tribute to the power of images and the value of a free press.
▪ “Maybe Someday”: Plenty of movies are about aimless young men getting hit with reality, but Ryan Moulton’s comedy takes an odd, intriguing twist: This loser gets his wake-up call from the future, in the form of a teenager claiming to be the daughter he’ll have one day.
▪ “Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny”: It’s been 25 years since “Slacker” brought filmmaker Richard Linklater to the world’s attention, and he’s been astonishing audiences ever since. Louis Black and Karen Bernstein’s doc looks not just at Linklater’s filmography, but also at his influence on independent cinema, especially in his home base of Austin, Texas. Bernstein will be in attendance at both screenings, and actor Jason London will be at a special screening of Linklater’s 1993 classic “Dazed and Confused.”
▪ “Operation Popcorn”: If David Grabias’ film were fictional, its premise would seem way over the top. When videos surfaced of the Laotian government’s continued oppression of the Hmong community, a group of immigrant activists in America wanted to help their fellow countrymen. This led to arms dealing, federal investigations and accusations of terrorism.
▪ Short film collections: FilmFest is a great showcase for short films, and there are 11 themed programs, covering such topics as “Love & War” and “Interconnected,” plus a night of films made by area students. Several feature presentations also will be accompanied by short films. This is how most great directors get their start.
▪ Kansas City FilmFest runs through Sunday at the Cinemark Palace on the Plaza. Tickets for individual screenings start at $10. Passes range from $45 to $80. For a full schedule and more, go to kcfilmfest.org.
Read more of freelancer Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.