You don't have to watch movies during the L.A. Film Festival. Instead, you could attend the master-class discussion "Re-Imagining L.A.," co-hosted by production designer K.K. Barrett of Her, which dreamed of a future L.A. where the subway stretched to the Pacific. The all-star panel "Women Who Call the Shots," headed by director Nicole Holofcener, digs into the current state of female filmmaking in Hollywood, while the Internet and TV make their presence felt with Funny or Die's sketch video showcase and Comedy Central's conversation with Key and Peele. And if you'd rather shimmy than sit down, the festival is hosting a free dance-along screening of La Bamba at Union Station.
But with a lineup of movies this strong, you'd be silly not to see something — make that several somethings. Here are a few of our picks from the 70 features playing at the fest, which runs June 11-19.
Nightingale isn't just the most unusual film in this year's fest — it might be the most unusual film you see all year. David Oyelowo (The Butler, Jack Reacher) tackles his first leading role, and boy, is it a challenge. As an Iraq War veteran in a rage because his mother won't let his friend/platoonmate/obsession come over for dinner, the rising British actor channels a frenzy of emotions while being the only actor onscreen.
Speaking of transformations, get a sneak peek at Outkast's André Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix in the biopic All Is By My Side, directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), or watch Michael Fassbender disappear altogether in the messianic comedy Frank, in which Ireland's most intense actor hides himself in a giant cartoon head while leading an experimental art-rock band back across the pond to SXSW.
After producing the reality show Intervention, director Seth Grossman came up with this scary, fictional spinoff: What if the addict his crew was hired to save — say, a straight-A student–turned–heroin junkie — was actually possessed? Thanks to Grossman's real-life resume, the resulting horror flick, Inner Demons, has managed to give found footage one last jolt of energy.
Apocalyptic nightmare The Well doesn't need a gimmick — it's as brutal and beautiful as genre flicks get, which makes sense, as director Thomas S. Hammock production designed great-looking thrillers You're Next and the upcoming The Guest. In her character's search for fresh water, young star Haley Lu Richardson survives some unsettlingly real battles, including a ragged fistfight against a guy in a burlap mask.
Richardson has an easier go of it — barely — in the biting comedy The Young Kieslowski, in which she plays a religious girl who loses her virginity to a geek and miserably discovers she's pregnant with twins. Can he convince her to have an abortion? Do we want her to?
Elsewhere on the college campuses of America, four black students are polarized by the news that a frat at their Ivy League school is throwing a "Black Culture"–themed party. First-time director Justin Simien's fearless and very funny Dear White People is a calling card for the next wave of young black filmmakers eager to share their stories with a wide audience — no Tyler Perry fat suits allowed.
An indie hit in its native Korea, the haunting Han Gong-Ju tracks a teenage girl forced to switch schools after a gang rape, only to realize she can't escape the whispers. It's a tough and ambitious debut for new helmer Lee Su-jin, who proves he's a name to watch. To cheer you up, Japan offers the goofball girl comedy Jossy's, about five best friends who dabble as superheroes. Facing down silly, retro-style monsters in their color-coordinated costumes, they're like the Spice Girls crossed with the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
Iceland's delightful Of Horses and Men is a daffy epic about, well, exactly what the title foretells. Horses have a natural dignity, which they often extend to their riders, who here trot around the countryside like six-legged lords. But horses can just as quickly snatch that dignity back, say when one mounts a willing mare, forcing her passenger to wonder if he's a bystander to their act of love or a participant.
Meanwhile in Denmark, the self-centered rock legend of Someone You Love has returned home from Hollywood to find his daughter addicted to cocaine and his 11-year-old grandson a stranger. Director Pernille Fischer Christensen (A Family) doesn't make excuses for her prickly leading man — she just patiently watches to see if he can find a new way to harmonize.
Of course, there's no such thing as a film festival without something good starring Juliette Binoche. This time it's the jarring drama A Thousand Times Good Night, in which Binoche plays a war photographer whose family simply can't bear another close call like the one she had with suicide bombers in Kabul. Forced into retirement, Binoche realizes she's incapable of playing it safe. Director Erik Poppe covered Beirut in the 1980s for Reuters and understands the danger — and thrill — of the perfect shot.
How do you give The Bachelor emotional resonance? Shift the premise to retirees in Transylvania. In documentary Stream of Love, an octogenarian widower sorts through his village's 25 widows in search of one last great, or even merely pleasant, romance. Bawdy and funny, what elevates it to brilliance is that each senior trusts that they're worthy of love, wrinkles be damned. Their sex lives aren't punchlines — they're natural and noble, and we western whippersnappers could learn from their example.
Trek even farther and explore Farida Pacha's My Name Is Salt and Eliza Kubarska's Walking on Water, two mesmerizing docs about people who live and work in the middle of nowhere: a lunar-esque salt farm in an Indian desert, in the former, and 60 feet under the sea off the coast of Borneo, where generations of free divers have become famous for plunging into the deep without oxygen tanks.
Here at home, two soul-searching films explore our prisons. When Darius Clark Monroe was a 16-year-old honor student, he shocked his teachers by holding up a bank. Now a free man in his 30s, Monroe turns the camera on himself in Evolution of a Criminal to ask how the armed robbery affected his victims and his family. He's working through his own guilt.
But the so-called New Jersey 4, the subjects of Blair Dorosh-Walther's Out in the Night, refuse to feel guilty. On a summer night in 2006, these four women, all black lesbians, were attacked on a New York street by a homophobe. They fought back — violently — and were sentenced to up to 11 years in prison. The question isn't simply one of standing their ground. It's whether the courts, and the media, would have been so quick to condemn them if they were white, male or straight.
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Meanwhile, Thomas G. Miller's decades-spanning Limited Partnership celebrates a gay couple who took their battle to the courts. In 1975, Tony and Richard realized they could legally get married in Colorado thanks to a loophole. But when Tony applied for a green card, federal immigration authorities denied that a marriage could exist between "two faggots." Meet the men who launched a four-decade fight for equality, and then meet Stray Dog's Ron Hall, a Vietnam vet who's also still unpacking the 1970s while trying to build a new life with his Mexican wife and her two sons. Hall is a deceptively brutish-looking biker with a tough and tender core, and there's no better filmmaker for his story than Winter's Bone director Debra Granik in her documentary debut.
20TH ANNUAL LOS ANGELES FILM FEST | June 11-19 | Citywide | lafilmfest.com
See also: A New Section of Films About Los Angeles