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Movie fans can have a feast at film fest
0415Marker-feed the fish
"Feed the Fish"
Atlanta Film Festival
When: Today through April 23
Where: Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, 931 Monroe Drive NE, Atlanta
How much: $10 general admission, $75 for opening night gala, $50 for closing night extravaganza

For the next eight days, the Atlanta Film Festival offers movie lovers a veritable paradise — more than 100 films that celebrate local talent, discover voices from around the world and frequently defy categorization.

The festival rumbles into action tonight with an opening night gala and a screening of “Freedom Riders,” a documentary about more than 400 Americans who, in 1961, protested peacefully against racial segregation.

Another documentary, an all-access-style doc about the Athens band The Drive By Truckers called “The Secret to a Happy Ending,” closes the festival on April 23. That closing-night event includes a live performance by the band.

Between those bookends await films of virtually all varieties. Festival organizers do an excellent job of choosing a mix of feature-length narratives and documentaries, live action and animated shorts, international imports and regionally made films. Most of these movies are made by emerging filmmakers on modest or zero budgets, so it’s a great opportunity to catch stars in the making and quality films struggling for exposure.

You never know exactly what to expect from this festival, and that’s a good thing. While some of the choices will certainly disappoint us, we will just as surely stumble upon something unexpected. Revelations rarely happen at the multiplex, but they happen each year at this festival. If you love movies, that’s a truly joyous experience.

Here are a few highlights from the first weekend of the festival.

‘The Things We Carry’
I can’t declare my choices for best of the fest until I’ve seen all the films, but “The Things We Carry” will almost certainly be a contender. This entry in the narrative competition offers the best writing and best lead performance I’ve seen yet, and they both come from the same person, actress and screenwriter Alyssa Lobit.
Free spirited 20-something Emmie (Lobit) receives the message from her estranged sister Eve (Catherine Kresge) that their drug-addict mother (Alexis Rhee) has died. Emmie returns home, where she and Eve journey through seedy L.A. neighborhoods in search of a package their mother left behind, an experience that forces Emmie to deal with her conflicted memories of her family. It’s an outstanding drama and feels like a career-making moment for Lobit.

‘Pushin’ Up Daisies’
This mockumentary/comedy/zombie movie was filmed in Georgia and features scores of homegrown talent. Film student Darren (Sheehan O’Heron) returns to his hometown — Tokyo, Ga. — to make a serious documentary about his brother Rusty (Simon Sorrells), who delivers flowers for a living and dispenses wisdom in a laid-back drawl. But Darren’s plans are derailed when a global zombie outbreak happens, which ruins Darren’s movie (the zombies keep wandering into his shots) and leads the two brothers to mend their troubled relationship. Having fun with zombies is nothing new, but first-time director Patrick Franklin and his crew manage to do something that feels fresh.

‘Feed the Fish’
Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”) executive produces and co-stars in a romantic comedy billed as the “feel-good movie of the winter.” Children’s book author Joe (Ross Partridge) struggles with writer’s block and a frustrating relationship, so he and his friend JP (Michael Chernus) go for a winter vacation in northern Wisconsin. L.A. native Joe might find more than inspiration when he meets beautiful small-town girl Sif (Katie Aselton), if he can avoid Sif’s distrusting father, Sheriff Andersen (Shalhoub), and keep himself from freezing to death. The pic is a little light on story, but a talented cast, which also includes Barry Corbin and Vanessa Branch, warm up the film with plenty of charm.

‘Racing Dreams’
This expertly made documentary follows three pre-teens with NASCAR dreams. Brandon, Josh and Annabeth race karts on the national circuit, but they’re each reaching a crossroads, both in their racing careers and their lives. Racing fans should love the movie and so will everyone else, as it slowly becomes more about the people rather than the sport. Director Marshall Curry and his crew have created a fascinating, irresistible look at the desires and struggles of three talented kids.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.