Now in its fifth year, the Gasparilla International Film Festival didn't appear to be a good bet in its first. What a difference four years, better industry connections and generous sponsors make. • Gasparilla is looking more vital with each passing year, and 2011 features its strongest lineup of films, celebrities and soirees yet. Still too early to rate Gasparilla among the nation's best regional film festivals, like Sarasota, but it's heading in the right direction. • So should you, toward any Gasparilla Film Festival event striking your fancy. We've highlighted a few key events but the joys of cinema showcases are those surprises found on your own. Browsing the festival's website (www.giff2011.com) is highly recommended for complete information and show times to map out a plan. • Start by considering these Gasparilla offerings:
More than 80 features, documentaries, shorts and student films will be presented this weekend — plus a partnership with the concurrent Ybor Festival of the Moving Image at Hillsborough Community College at Ybor City.
Most Gasparilla screenings are at Muvico Centro Ybor 20 in Ybor City and Cinebistro in the Hyde Park shopping district. Projectors start humming at both locations at 5 p.m. Friday and at 11 a.m. Saturday, and Cinebistro only at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday.
Bookending the festival are two Tampa Theatre events: tonight's 7:30 p.m. screening of The Music Never Stopped and tribute to actor M. Emmet Walsh, and Sunday's 5 p.m. screening of Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja with a filmmaker Q&A and award presentations.
The Music Never Stopped stars J.K. Simmons as a father reconnecting with a seriously ill son (Lou Taylor Pucci) through rock 'n' roll. Square Grouper comes from director Billy Corbin, whose previous documentary, Cocaine Cowboys, also focused on South Florida's drug legacy.
Other spotlighted films include Paul Giamatti as a volunteer wrestling coach in Win Win (7:45 p.m., Friday, Cinebistro), the eco-documentary Carbon Nation (4:45 p.m. Saturday, Cinebistro) and the juke joint drama Black, White and Blues (1:30 p.m. Sunday, Cinebistro), directed by Mario van Peebles and written and co-starring former Tampa resident Morgan Simpson.
Just to prove that film festivals aren't always about quality filmmaking, there's also a screening of The Room (10 p.m. Friday, Centro Ybor), acknowledged as one of the worst — and therefore funniest — movies ever made.
Gasparilla also features films from Africa, South America, Italy and India, sidebars devoted to Cuban cinema and movies based in Florida, a few horror flicks (Herschell Gordon Lewis' The Uh-Oh Show looks like sick fun) and plenty of documentaries and shorts.
One of the festival's hottest tickets is a retrospective of the Oscar winner Platoon (9:30 p.m. Saturday, Cinebistro), with nominee Tom Berenger attending. Berenger will also join Armand Assante (The Mambo Kings), Michael Roark (Dolphin Tale) and others in a panel discussion on acting (2 p.m. Saturday, Centro Ybor), one of five educational events offered free to the public.
Something for every film fan but when you're ready to get out of the theater . . .
Tonight's opening festivities begin at 6 p.m. with a VIP reception ($55 including movie admission) with classy food and drink in the Tampa Theatre lobby. At 10, there's no cover charge at nearby Fly Bar for an after-show shindig.
Friday at 9 p.m. the festival takes over 717 South in Hyde Park for drinks concocted by a mystery celebrity bartender. Admission is free.
Saturday's party goes from 8 p.m. to closing at New World Brewery in Centro Ybor, with a performance by the Scissormen, featured in the festival entry Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues. Admission is free to festival passholders.
The closing night cocktail party Sunday at the Kress Building ($100) includes an open bar, food and live entertainment.
Don't get discouraged, those without festival passes. Sunday's block party on Franklin Street Mall is free and family-friendly, with games and clowns from 1 to 5 p.m. Starting at 6, the party grows up and gets cooking with Taco Bus, beer trucks and live music. Watch out for the fire eaters and contortionists.