This year’s Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival kicks off with the presentation of the Gabriel Figueroa Lifetime Achievement Award to iconic Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, followed by a screening of his new film Broken Embraces, starring the auteur’s current muse, Penélope Cruz. If the $75 ticket price makes attending the opening-night gala a nonoption, there is still plenty of worthwhile fare to check out. Director Victor Nuñez returns to the big-screen with Spoken Word, the story of a San Francisco spoken-word artist and teacher who returns home to New Mexico to care for his estranged, dying father. A too-conventional family drama of emotional dysfunction and healing, Spoken doesn’t rise to the sublime heights of Nuñez’s Ulee’s Gold or Ruby in Paradise, but the director’s painterly eye renders the Southwestern landscape lovely, and he pulls moving performances from his cast, especially Rubén Blades as the slow-thawing father. Similarly, Peter Bratt’s La Mission captures San Francisco’s Mission District with gorgeous, vibrant visuals and such a great soul music soundtrack that you wish Bratt had taken another stab at his script of a college-bound Latino boy coming out to his violent, ex-alcoholic father (played by the director’s brother, Benjamin). The tale sells some formulas wonderfully well (the father’s sitcomlike band of garage mechanic buddies is winning) and puts an interesting twist on the issue of neighborhood gentrification but too often turns trite when exploring the homophobic father’s emotional journey. If you can only see one film in the festival, make it Cruz Angeles’ Don’t Let Me Drown, one of the best films of the year. At its core, this New York tale is the story of the courtship between Mexican teen Lalo (E.J. Bonilla) and the Dominican girl Stefanie (Gleendilys Inoa) who captures his heart during the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But Angeles, working from a script he co-wrote with Maria Topete, seamlessly weaves in issues of intra-Latino racism (the kids in the film humorously jab at one another around issues of immigration and ethnic difference, while the adults are often rooted in genuine bigotry), the exploitation of immigrants, and the myriad ways people handle loss. Smart, funny and hugely emotionally involving, Drown had me wishing it was at least an hour longer. (Mann Chinese 6; Sun.-Fri., Oct. 11-16.

LA Weekly