After taking the film challenge helm from departing director Webb Pickersgill, the new IFP Phoenix program directors TJ Houle and Aaron Kes have continued the IFP film challenges without a hiccup or a hitch. Already co-directors Houle and Kes have done a service for the filmmakers by doing away with the required prop, line and genre, and only required the filmmakers to complete their film by the deadline, and utilize only one of a choice of preselected ‘themes’ to be incorporated in the film submissions. Among the awards and accolades presented this year, the challenge winners will receive not only guaranteed entry into the Phoenix Film Festival in April, but will also have submission fees paid for by the IFP to enter their films in several other upcoming festivals throughout the US. If you’ve ever had to pay film festival submission fees, that adds up to some serious cash and can prevent a filmmaker from having the opportunity to share their film with a wider audience. The nine films submitted were screened on February 7, 2013 at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here are the films I saw in the order they were screened.

Sisters of Saint Mary’s – Premium Blend
A vulgar, sacrilegious plumber is called out to Saint Mary’s church on Christmas Day. He arrives in a Santa suit looking like Jimmy Carter’s Christmas tree, you know; half lit. The crude crusader offends the nuns with his wisecracks and butt cracks, so the nuns consult the almighty for the strength and courage to accept their sewage-stopping savior, while humorously relating their own experiences to his sophomoric stories. Cute black and white film with another hilarious performance by Tony Bafaloukos (Love Sucks). Photography and sound are rough but the costumes and characters are fun and funny. Timing and pacing leave the jokes delivered on the seventh day. Final Take – Blessed blockage.

A Day On Bleaker Street – Resonant Films
An older couple mundanely goes about their morning routine, barely acknowledging each other and neither uttering a word. As the husband waters the lawn, he notices his sexy neighbor across the street, standing in her driveway clad only in a black negligee. He envies his young neighbors in silence, not realizing that within their spotless stucco, the tastefully decorated walls reverberate in anger, accusations and mental anguish, as the mistrusting wife (Colleen Hartnett) screams at her young husband (Seth Gandrud) upon his return home, exploding in a terrifying rage that ends only after she becomes exhausted and passes out in the living room. Accomplished indie mainstay Bill Wetherill (The Low) steps behind the camera for the first time, delivering an excellent and simply told story of unfounded envy, and youthful regret. Superb acting, excellent photography and great lighting heighten the tacit, pristine suburban sadness. Winner: Third place film and best actor (Seth Gandrud). Final Take – Green with (astroturf) envy.

The Recipe – Cat3 Productions
Kane Black is a fatherly safecracker on a midnight mission. After encountering his nemesis and fellow safecracker in an office building, the battle for the secret in the safe is on. Felling security guards with golf balls and Ambien overdoses, the two are outdone by a mysterious third thief, leaving them empty handed. Mildly entertaining short film with all the flow and fluidity of oatmeal cookie dough in Alaska. Final Take – Recipe for disaster.

Second Chances – LJR Productions
At the conclusion of a mystifying magic show, one member of the audience is granted their grandest wish. An elderly woman is selected and knows exactly what she wants: to be young again. But the sinister yet sympathetic magician (Jim Coates) warns her over and over that such a wish will only have dire consequences. Disregarding his admonishment, the magical process is allowed to proceed. As the (now) attractive young woman helplessly watches her old, ailing husband fade from her life, her youth leaves her alone and empty. After tracking down the magician, she pleads to be returned to her former self. ‘Chances’ is a very tender, entertaining short film that is never creepy or awkward, highlighting the lifetime commitment couples make in sickness and in health. Final Take – Worth a second look.

I Don’t Even Know Your Name – Running Wild Films
A young white woman finds herself stranded in a black neighborhood with a flat tire and a boyfriend unwilling to come to her aid; all too happy to leave her there to fend for herself. Venturing into a dive bar and seeking assistance, the woman has difficulty trusting the strangers that are unselfishly offering to assist her in getting back on the road. ‘Name’ is not so much a tale of prejudice or acceptance, but the fear and apprehension of finding ourselves in an unfamiliar situation, and relying on the kindness of strangers. Well told, well shot story with a spoon-fed conclusion. Excellent performance by indie newcomer Honda King. Winner: Best actress-Honda King, best director-Michael Coleman. Final Take – What’s in a name.

Mission Control – Save The Airwaves

Little Serenity Dexter dreams of being an astronaut every waking moment. Even after being swept away in somnolent slumber, her dreams are filled with space exploration. Her supportive mom and dad help her construct her spaceship out of cardboard and plywood, and make the final preparations for launch day in the back yard. Neighbors arrive in their favorite Halloween costumes to cheer on the young adventurer, as she embarks on her journey into outer space. Superbly shot and acted, ‘Control’ is a timeless story of encouragement and support, not simply granting wishes, but the strength that can be gained when people come together to help foster imagination. Winner: Best film, best story, best poster. Final Take – Rocket to the top.

Shiny – Studio Gaijin

A homeless guy finds a treasure map in a bottle, carjacks a guy and digs up his treasure in the desert. His fortune becomes misfortune and the reward becomes an unbearable burden. There is probably some deep, symbolic, allegorical lesson in here that demands further insight and analysis but my pizza just arrived. Final Take – Dull

Bad Day – Locked Horns Productions
Before making his crucial presentation, young executive Jeff Solze (Derek Smith) overcomes every obstacle imaginable: razor burns and iron burns, spilled dog food and angry neighbors. The proposal goes as planned but immediately upon returning home, it’s outrageous misfortune all over again. Very well acted and superbly shot, ‘Day’ is a very funny comedy in the tradition of “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” (1953), but takes a left turn into dullsville once the anti-hero returns home. Winner: Best ensemble cast-Keylor Leigh, Bill Wetherill, Trent Wilson, Lindsey Marlin, Steve Briscoe and Eli Godfrey. Final Take – Not bad.

The Face of Innocence – Jump Ship Productions
If you’re not familiar with Jump Ship Productions, these are the guys that are up for each and every film challenge, busting out amazing short films with minimal locations and easy to follow, intriguing stories. For this challenge, the IFP regulars took a bold step outside of their comfort zone to present an ambitious, involved and serious film. Photojournalist Jacob Szczpynski (JP Frydrych) will stop at nothing to find his sisters killer. He constantly pleads with pasta slurping stereotypical u g a t si case detective D’Angelo (Jonathon Levy Maiuri) to reopen the case, but big D’ finds a second look at this case about as appealing as a limited edition box set of ‘Survivor’ (seasons 1 through 5). Jacob bounces off the walls some more and discovers startling evidence that will solve this case once and for all. Before he can confront detective do-little with the new evidence, D’Angelo’s sexy (stereotypical) moll-esque wife (Desiree Srinivas) shows up in a fur coat and drops the bomb a la ‘Chinatown,’ pushing schizo ‘Ski over the edge and packin’ heat for a final showdown with the killer. ‘Innocence’ is a well-photographed, overacted, melodramatic potboiler that might have worked as a film film, but fizzles as a challenge film. That didn’t stop this project from receiving every possible accolade at the premiere. Winner: Second place film, audience choice award, best technical, best music and best trailer. Final Take – Face the music.