Top Picks from the San Diego Film Festival

This SoCal film fest had plenty of stars on screen, and some on the red carpet

The San Diego Film Festival, currently in its ninth year, took over the Gaslamp Theatres in downtown San Diego for five days last week, and remained true to its original concept of providing an intimate setting for filmmakers and fans to share their love for movies. The 85 screenings included Sundance 2010 notables "Welcome To The Rileys" and Audience Choice Best Documentary "Waiting For Superman" as well as the world premier  of "The Kane Files: Life of Trial" and the U.S. premiere of "Conviction," starring Oscar winner Hilary Swank.

Opening night of the SDFF kicked off with the solemn movie "Morning" (seemingly a play on words about death), a raw and poignant motion picture about parents dealing with the death of a child. This powerful drama was written and directed by actor Leland Orser ("ER," "Saving Private Ryan") who made a special red carpet appearance to discuss the sensitive nature of his film and to talk with viewers in a Q&A after the film. During an interview I asked Orser why he decided to make a film most parents won't want to watch. He told me fear, among other things, compelled him to confront this unthinkable subject matter. The cast includes Orser's  wife, Jeanne Triplehorn, with Laura Linney, Robert Gould and Jason Ritter.

The movie-watching event also showcased powerful documentaries like "Making the Boys" (Tribeca). This documentary is based on Mart Crowley's 1970 groundbreaking yet controversial  gay play "The Boys in the Band" and subsequent Hollywood movie. "My Run" is  the inspirational true story about a 57-year-old man's determination to raise awareness about single parenting,  which led him to run 75 consecutive marathons. "Dive!" and "Bag It" further illustrate our nation's slow path toward a greener lifestyle.

kristen stewartThe five-day festival awarded Best Feature to the dramedy "A Little Help" starring Jenna Fischer ("The Office, 'Blades of Glory"). Director Michel Weithorn was on hand to accept the award. In an earlier interview Fischer said she'd taken on this role to try to break out of her TV character, Pam — and it looks like she succeeded. (Fisher didn't make the SDFF due to rare stormy weather that hit SoCal last week.)

Day three of the festival witnessed a packed house with people eagerly lined up to watch "Conviction" and "Welcome To The Rileys."  The true story portrayed in "Conviction" (Toronto)  is about Kenneth Waters  and his sister Betty Ann's (Swank) triumphant mission to free her brother  wrongly convicted in 1983 and incarcerated for 18 years.  After the film, an Innocence Project exoneree,  along with California and Hawaii Assistance Director for the organization, Jeff Chinn, held an emotional Q&A to shed light on this persistent flaw in our judicial system. This truly riveting film is a must-see when it opens in theaters October 15th.

"Welcome To The Rileys" with James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart is a moving, yet gritty look into a couple's downhill spiral after the tragic loss of their daughter. The couple reconcile after they encounter a 16-year-old runaway-turned-stripper (Stewart) who changes their lives. Producer Giovanni Agnelli proudly introduced his film to a standing-room-only audience, and cautioned us not to expect any Twilight-ish or Soprano's traces in the main character's roles. He was right. In fact, fans of the Twilight series will definitely  see much more than Stewart's versatile acting in this film.

"The Kane Files: Life of Trial," an action-packed drama, was officially selected to premier at SDFF with most of the cast making a true Hollywood red carpet appearance to fans' delight. Living up to the relaxed nature of this film festival, Drew Fuller, Ethan Embry, William Devaine, William Atherton, David Quaine and Leanna Pareja, among other,s sat surrounded by festival attendees and enthusiastically cheered for each other as their names started to roll during the opening credits of the film.

Other winners at this year's SDFF were:  Best Actress – Emily Van Kamp for "Norman;" Best Actor – Drew Fuller for "The Kane Files: Life on Trial;" Best Short Film – "Touch;" Best Documentary – "Waiting for Superman."

The San Diego Film Festival continues to grow with each successful year. By bringing celebrated cast members and filmmakers to America's Finest City, the fest continues to attract swelling crowds to watch acclaimed films or catch a glimpse of industry insiders therefore confirming that loyal support for this annual film showcase is here to stay.