The best film festival in the West of Irelandâ„¢, the Galway Film Fleadh reached the ripe old age of 23 this summer and celebrated in style with a host of home grown hits, controversy-baiting international features, industry events and a hobo with a shotgun. Running from the 5-10 July, the festival opened with Darragh Byrne’s Parked, a timely feature staring Colm Meaney as a man forced to make his car his home in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. This well-received film ultimately went on to win the Best First Feature award. Parked shared the accolade with Charlie Casanova (Terry McMahon), a film that could also be given the Marmite award for divisiveness – an unapologetic film that split its outspoken audience. There was no ambiguity over the audience award winner for Best Irish Feature, the Galway-shot The Guard (John Michael McDonagh) which was always going to resonate with local audiences. However, lest one thinks the film only secured the award due to a home-team advantage, the feature later managed to displace Transformers at the top of the Irish box office. In fact the Brendan Gleeson comedy’s half million haul was good enough to see it place at number five on the combined Ireland and UK box office, even though it won’t hit British screens until mid-August.

The festival also cherry picked from international production, with Girlfriend (Justin Lerner) meriting particular attention for its measured portrayal of Down syndrome. The ‘Good Will Hunting in Brooklyn’ coming-of-age drama White Irish Drinkers (John Gray) enlivened a late night screening, while Hobo with Shotgun proved a sure-fire winner among gore junkies.

Documentaries were also well represented, with UK comedian Keith Allen’s unrelenting investigation into the death of Princess Diana, Unlawful Killing, garnering most of the headlines, while Blazing the Trail (Peter Flynn), an insightful look into the earliest films shot in Ireland, was enlivened by screenings of some of the original one-reelers replete with musical accompaniment. Ultimately, Lelia Doolan’s Bernadette: Notes on a political Journey took the feature documentary award.

The Fleadh has addressed criticisms of its previous shorts programming by scheduling films into more manageable two-hour chunks (previously shorts programmes could run for a bladder-troubling four hours). Unfortunately a number of screenings were still blighted by technical problems. Nonetheless the talent shone through, with Asal (Tom Sullivan), Washed Up Love (Dylan Cotter) and End of the Reel (Ailish Bracken) among the standout films. Although animation was uncharacteristically lacklustre, deserved Best Animation winner The Boy Who Lived in a Bubble (Kealan O’Rourke) reminded audiences why Ireland is world-leading in animation.

Within the Irish film festival calendar Galway could be considered the most industry-driven. Accordingly, the Fleadh hosted a trio of masterclasses: Acting (Amanda Plummer), Directing (Dave Mackenzie) and Writing (Gil Dennis), along with a public interview with honorary Galwegian Martin Sheen, whose new film Stella Days (Thaddeus O’Sullivan) also screened at the festival. Hundreds of meetings between filmmakers and financiers were hosted at the Fleadh’s productive Film Fair, while the always enjoyable Pitching Award, an X-Factor style screenwriting competition, was won by the promising Potato Famine Western Death Rattle (Rioghach Ni Ghrioghair). However, the competition is in danger of becoming staid with all finalists this year concentrating on Irish stories with a capital ‘O’.

The 23rd Galway Film Fleadh ended at the beginning, with Mike Mills ‘dramedy’ The Beginners capping off a successful year for the festival and its new programmer Gar O’Brien, which deservedly saw attendance increase over previous years. Roll on 2012!