Now entering its second decade, the North Carolina Gay & Lesbian Film Festival is slimming down. It hasn’t looked this good in years.

There is no denying the longstanding popularity and import of this annual staple of the Durham art scene. It is currently the second largest gay and lesbian film festival in the Southeast, attracting almost 10,000 patrons annually. In recent years, however, the festival has become more of an issue-oriented social gathering, with the quality of its movie programming devolving precipitously into an afterthought of sex-farce schlock and B-genre knockoffs.

But congratulations are in order for Durham’s Carolina Theatre, again the host for this year’s festival, and the NCGLFF Programming Committee for demonstrating a recommitment to excellence and, yes, diversity in its choices. The number of screened films has steadily decreased from a high of 102 in 2002 to the 60 chosen for this year’s schedule. Just 63 films comprised the 2005 festival, but they included a far too generous supply of weak feature-length productions. This year, the number of features has been cut nearly in half.

The happy consequence is a leaner, higher caliber program. For those who are looking for a fun movie unencumbered by social and political import, the festival continues to have a place for lighthearted rom-coms and horror-flick spoofs with names like Creatures from the Pink Lagoon and Fraternity Massacre at Hell Island. However, the decided tone of the vast majority of films is a serious, mature examination of the myriad of issues facing the queer community.

For example, the 17-minute comedy Attack of the Bride Monster is not an especially great short film. However, its message is striking: That the fight for gay marital rights is not only a political strawman being exploited by social conservatives, but a hollow battle whose aim is to stuff gay relationships into an antiquated cultural mold while detracting from more significant problems. The film is just one instance of how this year’s festival is more big-tent than tent-revival.

The Men’s and Women’s Centerpiece selections are indicative of the festival’s new seriousness of purpose. Boy Culture may appear to be a mere comedy about gay relationships. But, according to the film’s production notes, director Q. Allan Brocka (Eating Out) saw in Matthew Rettenmund’s hit novel a unique take on gay-themed romances. Rather than aping the format of heterosexual amour, Brocka (and Rettenmund) recognize the importance of approaching the story as one where “guys” are falling in love, which includes the gender-specific baggage brought to bear.

Meanwhile, reality TV director Katherine Brooks (MTV Real World, The Simple Life) presents an excellent feature film called Loving Annabelle, another parable of forbidden love à la her short films Dear Emily and Finding Kate. The story of a Catholic schoolteacher (Diane Gaidry) who falls for one of her students (an enchanting Erin Kelly) may sound like a lesbian version of the Mary Kay Letourneau story. Actually, this search for emotional and romantic connection unencumbered by societal strictures is inspired by the 1931 German classic Madchen in Uniform.

If documentaries in past festivals have sometimes been slender excuses for soft-core porn, this year’s crop sees a preoccupation with family issues. Queer Spawn is a half-hour study in contrasts between two gay families, one in New York and the other in Austin, Texas. Not surprisingly, the two gay men in Gotham find that they and their son are wholeheartedly embraced, while the Texas lesbians and their daughter struggle against the hostility of their not-so-friendly neighbors. Covering similar territory is Creating a Place at the Table, which looks at a socially and economically diverse trio of lesbian couples and their families. Another evergreen issue is access to matrimony, and this year’s fest features something of an epic entitled Lesbian Grandmothers from Mars, in which an older lesbian couple set out on a cross-country journey by bicycle and camper to rally support for gay marriage.

One of the most fascinating films in the festival is Lover Other, a documentary about a pair of French Surrealists who were at first step-sisters and later lovers. Claude Cahun (née Lucy Schwob) and Marcel Moore (née Suzanne Malherbe) were born into French high literary culture in the late 19th century. They threw themselves into the still-fresh aesthetic revolts of the nihilistic post-WWI period. They were influenced by the likes of Man Ray and André Breton and in turn influenced present day artists like Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin. Lest the two women be dismissed as wealthy dilettantes, when the Nazis arrived to occupy the island of Jersey–where they lived–the two women exhibited exceptional courage at enormous personal cost. Highly recommended.

Of particular interest to Southern audiences is Small Town Gay Bar, which happens to be the only dual Sundance/South by Southwest alumnus in this year’s festival. It’s kept a low profile since then (and was not available for review), but reports say that the film is a moving look at two bars in rural Mississippi, the seemingly isolated gays who patronize them, and the bigots who hang around to write down license plate numbers so that the customers’ names might be read over the radio. (Incidentally, this film was produced by Kevin Smith, of all people.)

The festival runs Thursday, Aug. 10 through Sunday, Aug. 13. Tickets can be purchased at the Carolina Theatre box office by calling 560-3030 or online at Single tickets are $8; a pack of five tickets is $35. Tickets for Margaret Cho in concert are $29 and $32, and Saturday night’s NCGLFF reception is $20.