Dallas IFF: Sunday (4/18) – 'Casino Jack,' The Big Wrap-Up!

Ah, the runner stumbles even in film review.  After what had been an almost perfect week of movie choices at the 2010 Dallas International Film Festival, I found myself wondering what had happened in those final moments, as I closed out my experience with one of the biggest (and most surprising) failures of the fest.

Perhaps I should have known it couldn’t be that good.  DIFF had played out like something from a dream, cinematically:  I had very little foreknowledge of most of the films I saw, yet was absolutely blown away by a large majority, which just doesn’t seem statistically possible.  The few films I felt didn’t cut it were at least well-made.  The science-fiction tale Earthling just didn’t know how to explain away its promising theories, and felt awkward in its execution despite a great sense of unease that recalled Lynch and Cronenberg.  And the grueling you-won’t-go-to-the-prom-with-me-so-I’ll-drill-a-hole-in-your-head horror film The Loved Ones just became so deadening in its relentless monotony that you wished the amusing subplot would have gotten more screen time.

Unlike Wake, which I missed due to the wife’s brief but unpleasant bout of food poisoning, no such illness stopped me from seeing Casino Jack and the United States of Money, though after the film was done I might have preferred spending that time enduring a protracted herbal colonic.  Director Alex Gibney takes a huge step backward from his two winning efforts (Taxi To The Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) to make a plodding, shockingly dull examination of lobbyist Jack Abramoff that was filled with Film School 101 bad choices.  From awkwardly obvious and blaring musical cues to a no-style film style, Gibney trudges through a case well-documented by every news outlet in America without ever shedding any new light on matters or revealing anything of interest.  When, late in the film, an image starts to skew slightly (remember the old Batman TV series, when “arch” villains would be on screen?), you really feel like Gibney has nothing to offer on the subject.  A disappointing end to a fantastic week, Casino Jack was a fraud.  (Note to filmmaker: it doesn’t pay to refer to your film as a “dreary documentary” unless you’re very certain it isn’t.)

But in the end, there was just too much brilliant cinema on display at DIFF.  And that’s never a bad thing (unless you end up lacking sleep, as those early, non-stop days proved hazardous).  Here are my ten choices for the best films of the 2010 festival:

(in alphabetical order)

American: The Bill Hicks Story

City of Life and Death

Down Terrace

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird

I Am Love


My Queen Karo

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson

The Red Chapel

A Town Called Panic

Seek them all out; I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.  Personal favorites?  I don’t think you can beat Down Terrace and City of Life and Death (Full disclosure: as Senior Programmer for the Asian Film Festival of Dallas, the presenting partner for City, I had not seen the film previously and can say with all honestly it is one of the most staggering films I’ve viewed in years, Asian or otherwise…take that to the bank).

One last, drawn-out note.  My thanks go out to the festival staff, respective theater staffs and numerous volunteers that tirelessly made the whole festival run, in my view, like a well-oiled machine.   I applaud DIFF and all involved for managing a fairly flawless presentation for the duration of the run.

Sure, there were those occasional, awkward, piercing audio bursts, and the DIFF promo-reel was a) too long and b) stuck a song in all of our heads that we can never truly be rid of.  But the TM Advertising spots – blessedly short and not at all serious – were excellent.  The crisp, beautiful projection at the Angelika and Magnolia theaters was a godsend.  And for the most part, the crowds were great: lots of interesting, fun people excited about films.  Standing in line has rarely seemed less like drudgery and more like a pleasant diversion.

And yes, there were some entertaining loud-talkers who deserved an Annie Hall Marshall McLuhan moment.  But they helped make it just that much more special.

Thank you, DIFF;  see you next year!

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