The Los Angeles Film Festival doesn't always share the same “event” status as its cinematic cousins such as AFI Fest or even the Spirit Awards (which are organized by the group that runs LAFF, Film Independent). This is in spite of the fact that it's the city's main traditional film fest — rather than showcasing the biggest hits from festivals like Cannes and Toronto, as AFI does, LAFF deals largely in world premieres of micro-budget indies. (If movie stars are your thing, though, you'll have a chance at LAFF to see Steve Carrell and Sam Rockwell in The Way, Way Back and Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives.)
Discovery is the greatest joy of any film festival, of course, and with more than 50 features on offer, there are sure to be a few diamonds in the rough at L.A. Live in the next 10 days.
The following is our take on your best bets in each of the festival's sections. For exact screening times see lafilmfest.com. —Michael Nordine
Of the films available for review in this section, only one stands out as a major work. I.D. (screening June 15 and 16) may be the first feature by Indian filmmaker Kamal K.M., but it's an utterly confident, absorbing drama told with visual precision and rhythmic momentum that plunges the viewer into the social fabric of contemporary Mumbai. A young, career-minded woman (Geetanjali Thapa) who recently moved to the city hires a painter to touch up the walls of her high-rise apartment. When he seriously injures himself, she's thrust into a search for his identity. As she journeys from bustling metropolis to littered shantytown, the film becomes a vivid expression of physical spaces and anonymous lives, a meditation on personal awareness and responsibility in an age of rote productivity.
Two other films are less assured but nevertheless mark talents to watch. In recent years, it would be hard to overstate the impact of the Dardenne brothers' modest but gripping dramas on the indie film scene. The handheld camerawork and themes of adolescence in Mother, I Love You (screening June 15 and 16) by Latvian filmmaker Janis Nords owes a lot to their work. A wayward 12-year-old challenges his single mother's ability to parent him when he makes a series of rash decisions and attempts to cover them up. The camera trails the boy throughout, climaxing in a moment of truth. The film may not cut new paths, but its performances (mostly nonprofessional) and shifting narrative prove to be effective and compelling.
Forty Years From Yesterday (screening June 16 and 22), by Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck and Robert Machoian, featuring many of Machoian's family members, offers a moving story about an aging man whose wife dies, and the funeral preparations that ensue. Ostensibly an examination of the man's religious crisis, the film is less successful at achieving spiritual depth than assembling — with an unusual, lingering gaze — intimate scenes of grieving and even the deceased's physical preparations at the local morgue.—Doug Cummings
An air of unreality hangs over Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn's The Act of Killing (June 14 and 16), which is not only the best film in LAFF's International Showcase but also the one that most epitomizes the section's tendency toward quietly gripping documentaries teeming with small but weighty moments. The premise — a group of Indonesian gangsters is asked to re-enact war crimes they committed in that country's anticommunist purge of 1965-66 — is darkly tantalizing; the results are even more bizarrely fascinating than that description lets on. The subjects' bumbling callousness, unchecked egos and affinity for movies starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino actually make them oddly reminiscent of Tony Soprano and his henchmen, another group of gangsters given to waxing poetic about The Godfather when not preoccupied with more unsavory affairs. “We wanted to be more cruel than the movies,” one of them says early on; a moment of retroactive empathy brought about by viewing one of his re-enactments (with himself as the victim) attests to the power of cinema in a much different way.
Hong Kong action auteur Johnnie To's cops-and-criminals action thriller Drug War (Du Zhan) (June 15 and 19) is marked by equally disagreeable characters, but here they're at least fictional. Though the subject matter and plotting are familiar, To is well-served by his yen for prolonged sequences of suspense and an utter lack of the bombast that so often accompanies this type of story. Shoot-outs are rare but methodically detailed, with each bullet feeling deliberate, forceful and indicative of the zero-sum conflict. No one wins To's drug war, but some survive it — at least for a while.
Elsewhere in the Showcase are two documentaries of limited means but admirable aims. Like last year's exceptional Whores' Glory, about Thai prostitutes, Valentina Mac-Pherson and Patricia Correa's The Women and the Passenger (June 15 and 17) documents the inner workings of a brothel, in this case from the collective perspective of the maids who clean it. There's no hand-wringing or put-upon outrage, just an effectively bare-bones aesthetic (fixed camera angles, long takes) and even-keeled ruminations — many of which have little or nothing to do with the Chilean sex hotel in which the women work.
Daniel Dencik's The Expedition to the End of the World (June 15 and 22) isn't altogether different in its depiction of a unique work environment. It charts a team of Scandinavian artists and scientists aboard a research ship in Greenland. Dencik doesn't always balance the left/right brain tendencies as well as his subjects do, but there are a number of memorable details: the soundtrack transitioning from Mozart to Metallica, a T-shirt reading “FUCK EVERYTHING BECOME A PIRATE,” a man tripping on ice and accidentally firing his rifle to no real consequence. —Michael Nordine
Grace Lee's lovely, sporadically tough-minded American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (June 16 and 17) traces the biography and political trajectory of the iconic, Detroit-based, Asian-American, nonagenarian, black-power activist in fairly standard form (lots of rare archival footage; big-name talking heads such as Angela Davis; copious old photos and home movies), with Boggs exhorting us to fight the good fight against evil because it will fall eventually.
Kevin Jerome Everson's Island of St. Matthews (June 16 and 17) is a meditative look at the small African-American community of Westport, Miss., where near-annual floods have strengthened communal bonds even as they've destroyed artifacts of home and culture. Long takes of bodies of water or a male figure waterskiing are juxtaposed with charming interviews with locals, which echo conversations with Detroit residents in the Grace Lee Boggs film.
Ryan McGarry's Code Black (June 18, 21, 22), about the history, legacies and day-to-day workings of L.A. County Hospital, would benefit from greater critical distance. McGarry, a first-time filmmaker, is a doctor at the hospital, and Code often has the feel of a home movie crossed with a fundraising infomercial. But there are captivating moments of real-life tension (and some very graphic operating-room footage) that illuminate the struggles of running an ER in a city full of poor folks and gang violence amid a crumbling economy.
Also recommended: Yoruba Richen's The New Black (June 14 and 16), which examines homophobia and the lives of LGBT folks in the African-American community, and how African-Americans have been scapegoated for the passing of homophobic ballot measures across the country; Llyn Foulkes One Man Band (June 20 and 22), Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty's sympathetic look at how impossibly high personal standards and self-sabotage have shaped the career arc of the L.A.-based artist; and Venus Vs. (June 19 and 22, part of the Summer Showcase section), Ava DuVernay's portrait of tennis star Venus Williams, which focuses on her little-acknowledged political and social activism. —Ernest Hardy
BEST OF THE REST
(This section includes the Summer Showcase, Community Screenings, the Beyond and Retro sections.)
First Cousin Once Removed (June 15 and 17) is a remarkable documentary: an absorbing portrait of distinguished poet Edwin Honig — struggling with Alzheimer's disease near the end of his life — which is also a lively meditation on perception, memory and identity. Director Alan Berliner (Honig's cousin) uses staccato editing and aggressive sound design to grapple with his subject's unquenchable love of words and metaphor, simultaneously looking at and through the illness to reveal the fascinating person within.
Sebastián Cordero's ambitious sci-fi thriller Europa Report (June 15 and 19), about the first manned voyage to Jupiter's moon, elevates its narrative structure — a group of characters imperiled one by one — with multiple viewpoints. Interviews with mission planners and astronauts are intercut with television news, and split screens mix first-person and surveillance footage into suspenseful collages. For once, the technobabble is smart, the human emotion is palpable, and the sense of discovery is thrilling.
The festival's most interesting repertory pick is 1959's Two Men in Manhattan (June 18) by French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Melville, known for his icy crime movies and love for Americana. Melville (unusually) plays the lead role, a reporter who teams with a photographer to find a missing French diplomat in New York City. As the duo navigates the back alleys of the city's political and cultural institutions, the film becomes an atmospheric summary of its era — neon streets, jazz recording studios, smoke-filled newsrooms — and a notable riff on journalistic ethics.
Economic disparity has been on the rise in America since the late 1970s, affecting the wealth and health of the middle class and the economy as a whole, and Inequality for All (June 22, free) — an invigorating documentary about the work of economist Robert Reich — highlights the need for bipartisan concern. Though he relies a bit too heavily on Reich's affability and charm, director Jacob Kornbluth's interviews across the political spectrum and inventive graphics are a strong articulation of the devastating problem that continues to confound our politicians and media but seems plainly obvious to everybody else.
The Los Angeles Film Critics Association's long-running “The Film That Got Away” series, highlighting movies missed by local exhibitors, presents Sri Lankan filmmaker Vimukthi Jayasundara's mesmerizing and haunting 2009 film, Between Two Worlds (June 23). A tone poem and episodic fable, its wide-screen compositions and long takes depict enigmatic characters navigating their country's civil war. With surrealist flair, the film juxtaposes reality and dreams, immersing viewers in indelible mountains of madness. —Doug Cummings