The Los Angeles Film Festival may not be every bit as sprawling and diverse as L.A. itself, but it's pretty damn close. Thirty-five countries are represented among the 74 features and 60 shorts in this year's lineup, with movies directed by women and/or filmmakers of color accounting for nearly half of the features. That may not seem an especially impressive figure, but it's a great deal closer to race and gender parity than at most other festivals and cinematic institutions.
LAFF's program doesn't come vetted and pre-approved by other festivals around the world the way AFI Fest's does. Thirty-nine world premieres rank among this year's feature selections, making the thrill of discovery a very real possibility every time you step into the theater. That the result is often a mixed bag only adds to the fun: Some of the buzzed-about galas may not warrant waiting in line for two hours, but that postapocalyptic Ethiopian film could end up being a masterpiece. LAFF has added two sections this year — genre exercises in Nightfall, coming-of-age dramas in Zeitgeist — to further expand its scope.
It's in that spirit of cinematic discovery and with no small amount of cautious optimism that L.A. Weekly points you toward the following 10 films, none of which this critic has seen but all of which have piqued our interest:
Charles Manson has been a cult figure since, well, he led a cult back in the 1960s. Curiosity has rarely waned in the ensuing decades, with Manson Family Vacation being just the latest example. A favorite at South by Southwest, where it world-premiered in March, writer-director J. Davis' Buzz section entry finds two brothers on a macabre road trip to the infamous ringleader's most notable haunts. Davis and collaborator Jay Duplass (who also stars) launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to turn their dark vision into reality.
Speaking of persistently fascinating disasters, The Babushkas of Chernobyl first sees light of day in the documentary competition. Holly Morris and Anne Bogart have chosen poignant (if potentially radioactive) material for their first collaboration, which tells of a community of Ukrainian women who refuse to leave the "Exclusion Zone" surrounding the nuclear meltdown that killed 31 people in 1986 and still affects the area today. Radiation, wild animals and "stalkers" are but a few of the pleasantries they live with every day, yet the three elderly heroines persist.
John Hawkes is a different kind of world-weary as a tired P.I. in Too Late, a "dark love letter to Los Angeles" that devotes as much attention to the back alleys as it does to the glitzy storefronts of Beverly Hills. It's in the U.S. Fiction competition, an occasionally uneven program that always produces a few standouts. Hawkes has been a must-see since Winter's Bone, and may well prove a worthy descendant of Philip Marlowe.
He's best known for the never-ending series of jokes and his support for Mike Huckabee these days, but it would appear that the star of Walker, Texas Ranger contributed to the downfall of the Eastern Bloc. Ilinca Calugareanu's Chuck Norris vs. Communism provides a glimpse into the way Hollywood culture was smuggled into, and slowly helped undermine, Nicolae Ceauescu's reign over Romania. The Romanian New Wave may not be as high in the world cinema power rankings as it was a few years ago, but there's no questioning the disproportionately high number of great films to emerge from Bucharest and beyond over the last decade.
Introduced just last year, the L.A. Muse section is exactly what it sounds like: a selection of films reflecting the manifold experiences of Angelenos. Oscar nominee Renee Tajima-Peña takes a unique approach to that endeavor in No Más Bebés, highlighting a number of Mexican women who sued L.A. County USC Medical Center for "coercively sterilizing them without their consent" in the 1960s and '70s.
Of the two new sections this year, Nightfall looks especially promising. Crumbs boasts the most out-there premise in the entire festival, melding the sci-fi and postapocalyptic genres in its tale of a man traversing surreal environs in Ethiopia en route to a mothership that's just appeared in the sky. If the actual movie is half as compelling as the setup, writer-director Miguel Llansó could have something unique on his hands.
In the Zeitgeist section, meanwhile, Adam and Aaron Nee riff on Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in Band of Robbers, which envisions Mark Twain's literary duo as a corrupt cop and a recently released prisoner hunting for the treasure that eluded their grasp as children. What could go wrong?
Childhood bonds also factor into home-invasion thriller Shut In. An agoraphobic woman mourning the death of her brother is pitted against a criminal troika who get more than they bargained for when they break into the rundown home she's lived in since she was a girl. Both director Adam Schindler and editor Brian Netto are LAFF veterans, so here's hoping this is a worthwhile homecoming.
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Vladimir Tumaev may be responsible for the most geographically remote film in the fest; his ethnographic drama White Moss is about the rites and rituals of the reindeer-herding Nenets people in arctic Russia, who send their children off to school in the "big lands" every year and can't always be sure they'll return.
World Fiction tends to be the most rewarding section at LAFF, with a high level of under-the-radar gems. One potential standout this year is Sin Alas (Without Wings). Ben Chace wrote and directed the ghostly romance about a man who, nearly 50 years after falling in love with a ballerina, reads of her death in the newspaper and attends her funeral. Shot on location in Cuba with glorious-looking Super 16mm by Sean Price Williams, the unofficial cinematographer of all indie films everywhere, the film purports to have been inspired by Borges' Labyrinths and "embellished by the poetry" of Cuba's José Lezama Lima.