After eight days and 178 screenings, the Phoenix Film Festival concluded on April 14 and brought the Valley another wonderful opportunity to enjoy a highly-concentrated, cinematic barrage for the senses. Each spring, the Harkins Scottsdale 101 carves out (up to) seven of its theatres for Arizona’s premier film festival, and 2016 did not disappoint. I was in attendance each day and attempted to catch a wide variety of flicks, and after the end credits finished rolling – on the closing night movie, “Five Nights in Maine”- I organically decided on my favorites for the week. Of course, it is impossible to see every movie, and in fact, I did not even see “Coming Through the Rye” which won the Best Picture award. With my “incomplete-viewing disclaimer” in full view, here are my favorite movies from the 2016 Phoenix Film Festival.

“Beyond Glory” – Stephen Lang (“Avatar”) has delivered a one-man stage performance – over 300 times – which pays homage to eight Medal of Honor winners from WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Over the years, Lang performed this show for big crowds and also for a small circles of troops, and director Larry Brand brilliantly constructed and edited several of these individual performances into one presentation. The film cuts and moves between locales while the audience stares in amazement at Lang’s awe-inspiring ability to honor these eight heroes. In 2016, Americans do a good job at recognizing military veterans’ sacrifices, but this movie lets us pause for 80 minutes to truly pay our respects. (3/4 stars) Winner: Special Jury Prize for Acting: Steven Lang

“Home Care” – Vlasta (Alena Mihulova), a 50-something year-old nurse, takes the bus – and many times walks – from house to house in the Czech Republic countryside to deliver care to her patients. A completely selfless human being, Vlasta puts her patients, husband and grown daughter always before her needs, but suddenly, life changes, and she must begin thinking about her own happiness. Director Slavek Horak’s “Home Care” is a warm and thoughtful indie that takes us on an underdog’s satisfying journey to self-discovery under difficult circumstances. Mihulova successfully runs with the material, and Tatiana Vilhelmova is terrific in a supporting role. (3.5/4 stars) Winner: World Cinema Best Picture

“I Am What I Play” – Before video killed the radio star, iconic DJs flourished and inserted themselves as the main link between music fans and pop music. In this nifty documentary, director Roger King interviews Meg Griffin, Charles Laquidara, David Marsden, and Pat O’Day, as they reflect upon their lengthy careers and their passions for the radio. The film constantly rotates between the four radio personalities, and just when Griffin opens up on dealing with a past sexist remark, King then cuts to O’Day’s substance abuse problems. All of the singular journeys hold our attention, as we look back at a time when DJs ruled the North America airwaves. (3/4 stars)

“Love & Friendship” – This Jane Austen novella adaptation breaks from tradition and bequeaths bunches of chuckles in a delightfully-written comedy starring Chloe Sevigny, James Fleet, Stephen Fry, and Kate Beckinsale. Beckinsale plays Lady Susan, a woman who carefully parses her words to manipulate and scheme her way to…well, get her own way. The others attempt to mentally and verbally catch up, but Lady Susan always appears to be two steps ahead of them in a fun and playful narrative. Director Whit Stillman takes the material seriously, but still allows the audience to let their collective hair down for a period piece. (3/4 stars)

“The Man Who Knew Infinity” – Dev Patel plays renowned mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, a genius who traveled from India to England to study under G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) in 1914. Soon, Hardy realizes that his young protégé’s knowledge and abilities vastly surpass his own, and the teacher tries to learn from the student. Writer/director Matt Brown explores the racism that Ramanujan suffered in many circles outside of Hardy’s office, and Irons gives an Oscar-worthy performance as an unsocial academic who opens up his heart to friendship. Ramanujan’s story is a fascinating one, and Brown’s top-notch production values and skillful camerawork add to a successful formula. (3.5/4 stars)

“Night of Something Strange” – A group of teens – on their way to the beach for spring break – unwittingly bump into a STD virus which has the unexpected effect of turning people into zombies. Writer/director Jonathan Straiton unleashes completely sick material and splatters it on-screen in the most twisted, gory and sexual manners. Fortunately, the script also includes several tasteless comedic sequences which allow adolescent humor and vile visuals to swim together for 1 hour and 34 minutes. Straiton’s film feels like an utterly depraved grandson of “The Evil Dead” and will rightfully garner oceans of praise from the horror movie crowd. On the other hand, this film will surely offend and disgust almost everyone else. (3/4 stars) Winner: Best Horror Feature

“Sing Street” – The unpopular high school kid who bids to win the heart of the pretty girl is a timeless tale told in movies for decades, but writer/director John Carney (“Once”, “Begin Again”) takes us back to – specifically – 1985 Dublin in an endearing take that wins our heart and touches our musical funny bones. In some hilarious early sequences – reminiscent of “The Commitments” (1991) – Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) looks for friends to form a band, and they promptly jump into the world of making modern-rock videos. In between original and classic 80s numbers, the movie also spends thoughtful moments on teen challenges, family and first love. Jack Reynor and Lucy Boynton are particularly effective as Cosmo’s older brother and love interest, respectively. (3.5/4 stars)

“Welcome to Happiness” – Los Angeles, CA might be the City of Angels, but in “Welcome to Happiness”, it also houses some magic too. Well, one house – in particular – does. Woody (Kyle Gallner) writes children’s books, but he also works part-time as gatekeeper for a waist-high door in his closet which sends people to an undisclosed location to find happiness. Writer/director Oliver Thompson keeps us guessing with wonder as he includes strange – but likable – characters and a quirky locale or two in a Wes Anderson-like way for an inspirational and enjoyable experience. Thompson’s movie is the most creative effort I saw at the festival, and I look forward to enjoying it again. Olivia Thirlby, Nick Offerman, Keegan-Michael Key, and Molly C. Quinn costar. (3.5/4 stars) Winner: Best Acting Ensemble

“Weiner” – Anthony Weiner’s political career took a well-documented and drastic tumble in 2011, but he decided to run for New York City mayor just two years later. In this intriguing documentary, the former U.S. congressman allowed directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg all access to film his upstart, Big Apple campaign. If you are not familiar with New York City politics, Weiner did not win the election, but this film captures the limited highs and the very painful lows of his efforts. The movie offers some laughs at Weiner’s expense, but more importantly, it garners much sympathy for his wife, his campaign workers and, yes, also some for him as well. The lesson is that the American people will forgive a transgression but do not lie to them. (3/4 stars)

Image credits: Phoenix Film Festival, Lightstorm Entertainment, The Weinstein Company, TVORBA Films, IFC Films