Summer cinema 

Film fest season heats up with the weather.

Your reporter grew up at the tail-end of the drive-in era, and was reared in a house without air conditioning, so warmer weather and the experience of going to the movies will forever be linked in my mind. Is there anything better than easing into a seat in a dark, frosty-cool movie theater when the parking lot outside is hot enough to fry an egg? Luckily for Arkansans, the state is chock full of celluloid celebrations in the spring and early summer, each with its own distinctive flair.

Though there are older film festivals in the state, our crown jewel has to be the Little Rock Film Festival, which runs this year May 29-June 3. Now in its sixth year, in its fifth the LRFF drew over 25,000 people to view 100 films drawn from a pool of 1,000-plus submissions from 30 countries — quite a step up from the 3,000 souls who turned out for the first festival. Thanks to awards like the $10,000 Oxford American Award for Best Southern Film and the festival's "Made in Arkansas" awards category, the LRFF is a yearly powerhouse of both Arkansas talent and Southern cinema, screening standout films long before the national buzz about them begins to build. In 2010, for example, both winners of the festival's Golden Rock Awards — "Restrepo" for documentary and "Winter's Bone" for narrative feature — were later nominated for Academy Awards. The 2011 Golden Rock winner for narrative feature, "Natural Selection," also claimed awards at both South by Southwest and the Independent Spirit Awards.

As a bonus, the Little Rock Film Festival has spread the love in recent years by becoming an umbrella organization for a number of smaller festivals and film series, including the just-completed Little Rock Horror Picture Show, the Reel Civil Rights Film Festival, the 48 Hour Film Project, and the monthly Argenta Film Series, held at the Argenta Community Theater in North Little Rock.

Levi Agee, who runs the Argenta Film Series, said that the AFS's one-film-per-month format allows for more time and attention to be given to a film than is allowed during a normal festival screening. Last month's AFS event featured the film "The Wise Kids," a Southern bildungsroman set in Charleston, S.C. The screening featured a Q&A with actress Sadieh Rifai, a former Muslim who plays a Christian in the gay-themed film.

Bringing in filmmakers and actors to discuss their work after the film is interesting for regular movie goers, Agee said, but it's invaluable for young filmmakers. "That is a group I feel needs to be at these screenings," Agee said, "building relationships and asking questions with these people from Hollywood, London, Chicago and all over the world." Coming in April for the AFS is "Freak Dance," a campy, wacky musical comedy by Arkansas native, improv comic and Upright Citizens Brigade founder Matt Besser. Tickets are $10 at the door (the date is still to be determined). While we love the established festivals, we always root for the upstarts as well. A new one we have high hopes for is the "Reel Women: Celebrate Women in Film Festival," scheduled for 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, March 31, at Market Street Cinema. The centerpiece of Reel Women is Jennifer Siebel Newsom's documentary, "Miss Representation," which spotlights the way women are depicted in the modern media and what those depictions have done to the self-image, goals and lives of women. Featured in the doc are luminaries like Nancy Pelosi, Rachel Maddow, and Condoleezza Rice. In addition, the festival will feature several made-in-Arkansas films that feature either a female director or a female lead, with many of the filmmakers in attendance. Tickets are $10 through March 8, $15 after that, and can be purchased at Market Street Cinema.

Also coming up in late March is the Ozark Foothills Film Fest in Batesville, scheduled for March 28-April 1. One of the most eclectic film festivals in the state, the Ozark Foothills Film Fest is now in its 11th year. This year's slate features several films that focus on family drama, including the Virginia film "A Little Closer," about a single mother juggling her work and the demands of her two sons, and Arkansas filmmaker Mike Akel's "An Ordinary Family," about a man who brings his boyfriend home to meet his meet his conservative kinfolks. Also included this year is a special screening of Morris Engel's innovative 1953 film "Little Fugitive," about a boy who runs away to Coney Island after being told his brother has been killed. Considered an early example of independent film, "Little Fugitive" had a lasting impact on the French directors of the New Wave. This year, the Ozark Foothills Film Fest includes 29 films, including six full-length features, four full-length docs, and 19 short-subject documentaries and narrative films, many with Arkansas ties. Many of the filmmakers will be on hand to answer questions and participate in panels about screenwriting and film. Even better, it's a bargain, at only $5 per screening for regular admission, or $25 for a full-ride weekend pass ($20 for students and adults over 54).

Though we can't say much for KARN talker Dave Elswick's politics, there's nothing wrong with his taste in movies. For several years now, Elswick has been hosting a monthly Classic Movie night on the first Tuesday of the month at Market Street Cinema, giving film buffs the chance to see great old flicks on the silver screen, as they were meant to be experienced. Coming up this spring are the Big House classic "Cool Hand Luke" on March 13, the 1962 Howard Hawks/John Wayne collaboration "Hatari!" on April 10, the 1938 version of "The Adventures of Robin Hood" starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland on May 8, and director Billy Wilder's "The Seven Year Itch" with Marilyn Monroe on June 12. Admission is only $5. Great movies, it seems, are a subject we can all agree on.


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