Memphis cinephiles are lucky. Not only do we have a thriving film scene and world class film festival of our own, but one of the best regional film festivals in the country is only a little more than an hour's drive away. For the past 15 years, the Oxford Film Festival has been bringing new and innovative films to the college town that Mississippi and Tennessee residents would have no other opportunity to see. This year sees the festival growing bigger and better than ever, says festival Executive Director Melanie Addington. "This year, we've struck a wonderful balance between films that are thoughtful, provocative, reflect the world we live in, and address the issues of the day without blinking, with films that are just pure, fun entertainment. The festival continues to increase in size and scope, and that growth can also be seen in the work of our local Mississippi filmmakers, whose exceptional work continues to impress. This year's festival includes 18 films from Mississippi artists, the most to date, and they will be highlighted right next to the best films we could find from all around the world."
The festival gets started on February 8 with a film about looking back. In The Last Movie Star, directed by Adam Rifkin, Burt Reynolds is an actor facing the end of his career who is invited to a film festival to receive an honorary award. But it turns out that, unlike Oxford, the film festival is a bust, so the rudderless thespian sets out on a road trip with a woman he has just met, played by Ariel Winter, to visit old friends and settle some scores.
The closing night film also brings some impressive star power. Mad to Be Normal, which headlined the 2017 Glasgow Film Festival, is a frothy, energetic biopic of R. D. Laing, a real-life renegade psychologist from the 1960s who rejected drugs and electro shock therapy. Instead, the therapist, played by former Doctor Who David Tennant, talked to his patients and took their experiences seriously. Also appearing in the film is Mad Men and Handmaid's Tale star Elisabeth Moss, Gabriel Byrne, star of Miller's Crossing and dozens of other projects, and former Dumbledore actor Michael Gambon.
- Mad to Be Normal, starring Elisabeth Moss (left) and David Tennant, is the closing night film.
In between opening and closing night are 33 feature films and 169 shorts and music videos. One of the most intriguing offerings is Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape that screens at Malco Oxford on Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday morning at 10:15 a.m. Director Zack Taylor tracked down the creator of the cassette tape, the now 89-year-old Lou Ottens, and traces the history and the impact of the technology that first gave listeners control of their music on the go.
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, attention has been focused on empowering women in the film industry. And yet only 7 percent of films released in 2017 had women directors, a number that is actually lower than the year before. Seeing Is Believing: Women Direct is a documentary about female helmers directed by Cady McLain that will screen on Friday of the festival. After the movie, a panel of several women directors who have work at Oxford will convene to discuss their experiences getting their films produced and busting into the indie film boy's club. Another timely film with a panel discussion is I Am Evidence, a documentary screening on Saturday by co-directors Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir. The subject is the glut of unprocessed rape kits languishing in police evidence lockers all over the country, an issue which Memphis and Shelby County law enforcement has been wrangling with for years.
On the goofier side, BASEketball will be celebrating its 20th anniversary with a screening on Saturday. The cult comedy is directed by the legendary David Zucker and features South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone in rare live-action acting roles. Another comedy to look forward to is the world premiere of Mark Potts' Cop Chronicles: Loose Cannons: The Legend of the Haj Mirage. The rare two-colon title presages a parody of police buddy cop movies by the director of Spaghettiman, which was the hit of the 2016 festival.
Shorts programs are always a good bet at festivals, and you can't go wrong with the Best of the Louisiana Film Prize program on Saturday at noon, featuring the top five films from the annual competition, including the $50,000 winner "Exit Strategy" by Travis Bible. And the Kid Fest programming includes Niki Caro's beloved classic Whale Rider, and the heartwarming Meerkat Moonship by South African director Hanneke Schutte.
The Oxford Film Festival runs from February 7 to 11. You can find more details about the hundred of film offerings, as well as festival passes, and individual screening tickets, at oxfordfilmfest.com.