The Phoenix Film Festival Opening Night, Industry Night, Jon Hamm, and all-around good movies set the stage for the 18th annual Phoenix Film Festival, and the 14th annual International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival.

It’s early morning in Phoenix as this goes to press, but the newly-expanded Phoenix Film Festival started its first full day of movies with a bang. The mood of festival goers was pleasant as a mixture of shorts, documentaries, competition, and feature films beamed onto cinema screens. The staff of the newly-remodeled Harkins Scottsdale 101 in North Phoenix was more than ready to handle the extra rush of festival goers as the PFF volunteer staff moved everyone through the queues.

Before I get into Friday’s films, we should talk about the opening night.

As the sun set and the spring evening temperatures kicked in, the opening gala was in full swing with several local restaurants offering small bites off of their menus. Filmmakers, guests, and festival staff mingled amongst the items on hand for the festival’s silent auction, which helps promote the ongoing educational programs for the Phoenix Film Festival.

Our stomachs full of amazing local cuisine, we were ushered in to the Cine Capri, Arizona’s largest cinema with a laser projection system and Dolby Atmos sound system. The set up might have been slightly overkill for Andrew Haigh’s melodramatic Lean on Pete, the festival’s opening film. However, there were certain scenes where, with the added low frequency channels, helped to drive the sound of the film home. We’ll have a full review of the film when it releases here in Phoenix next Friday, April 13, exclusively at Harkins Camelview. Suffice it to say, it is a difficult, but rewarding watch and it set the right tone for this, the 18th year of the festival.

Phoenix Film Festival executive director Jason Carney welcomed us to the start of the festival, and with 299 more screenings to go, let’s get into Friday’s action!

Executive Director, Jason Carney opens up the 2018 Phoenix Film Festival.

We had a slightly shortened day at the cinema due to other commitments, but rest assured we caught some excellent films. First up, was Locating Silver Lake, from director Eric Billitch featuring Tate Birchmore, Valerie Cruz, and a stellar performance from Finn Wittrock. It is a competition film and if you haven’t yet seen it, there will be plenty of chances yet this weekend to catch it. You can see the trailer here.

Burt Reynolds stars in the dramedy from A24, Adam Rifkin’s The Last Movie Star. We’ll have a full review of the film, but it was nice to see Reynolds play a vulnerable character while reflecting on his performances over the years. You can catch the trailer, here.

Director Mark Maxey was on hand for his feature-length documentary, Up to Snuff, another competition film which takes us through the varied phases of W.G. Snuffy Walden, a blues guitarist-turned-award-winning film and television composer. It’s a stunning documentary that shouldn’t be missed.

In the mainstream section, Bleeker Street’s upcoming melodrama, Beirut, featuring Jon Hamm, screened to a sold out crowd tonight. We’ll have a full review, but it is worth your time.

The 14th annual International Horror and Sci-fi Film Festival kicked into gear tonight with its premiere film, Downrange, a solid horror flick with a strong story and a solid cast. We’ll have a full review soon. Electric Bento closed out its first evening with the Sci-fi Shorts A program, featuring some familiar names and some new names.

The cheeky Invasion, directed by Vessa Manninen, had some classic Hollywood help in the form of Ed Neumeier (RoboCop, Starship Troopers) Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. (Aliens). This was the best looking of the shorts in this program. Qihong Wei’s Isabella plays like Blade Runner, but has a nice twist at the end. Warren Flannigan’s Metta Via has an excellent look and feel and a lead to die for. Echo and Solomon by Jem Garrad is another short with an interesting twist that kept you invested in the story.

The cheeky Apocalypse Will be Automated, is every zombie-escapee’s worst nightmare with hilarious results. Melanie Killingsworth is someone to keep on your radars. Jackson Tobiska’s Visage touches on many of the social challenges that we all talk about, but do very little about. It has a nice sci-fi twist to it that keeps you involved in its unfolding story. Finally, Daniel Bydlowski’s Bullies was the strongest, character-wise. If you have a chance while you’re at the festival, this program will screen again.

The festival’s Industry Night was still in full swing as we left. That’s our wrap for the first, full day.

On Saturday, don’t forget that the Kids’ Day runs from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. Children of all ages will get the chance to learn about the art of film making. From 2:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m., there will be multiple, free panel discussions with filmmakers, film lovers, and industry professionals. Finally, Geek Day runs from 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., so get your geek on with other geek lovers.