The 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF), which opens tonight with the L.A. premiere of Lisa Cholodenko's KCRW-crowd-pleasing gay-marriage rom-dramedy The Kids Are All Right, will uphold a few traditions from previous years. The directors of the 16 films in the Narrative and Documentary competitions will have just returned from an annual retreat, a two-day getaway to Skywalker Ranch chaperoned by 2010 LAFF guest director Kathryn Bigelow. The lineup itself still combines hot-ticket Hollywood films (such as Twilight: Eclipse, which will play to a crowd of invited guests with no press or ticket buyers allowed) with open-access premieres of micro-indies. Most heartening in the Age of Cutbacks: The winner of each competition will still receive a cash prize of $50,000.

Pretty much everything else will be totally different. Longtime director of programming Rachel Rosen left the fest after last year's installment; Film Independent (FIND), the nonprofit responsible for LAFF, brought in former Newsweek film critic David Ansen as its new creative director. The event itself has been uprooted from its recent home in Westwood, and moved downtown, where its central venue will be the L.A. Live complex, across from Staples Center. In tandem, these changes could fundamentally affect the festival's demographics, personality and future viability.

The downtown location wasn't exactly a hit when FIND test-drove it in February, moving its annual Independent Spirit Awards from a tent on the beach in Santa Monica to a tent on top of a parking structure at L.A. Live. Naysayers on the ground and bloggers after the fact bitched about the impersonal feeling of the L.A. Live complex, citing the irony of celebrating independent film in a space that felt like a massive mall. “It's not [a mall],” LAFF director Rebecca Yeldham says. “There's no shopping there.”

Still, she admits, “I had my own initial hesitations. The sense that downtown itself was dislocated — we were looking for a center, a place where people could congregate.”

But after five years in Westwood, LAFF was still growing, while the neighborhood's supply of cinemas was dwindling. One of its venues, the Festival Theater, was gutted immediately after LAFF ended last year. Between the Regal Cinemas at L.A. Live, screens at REDCAT, the Downtown Independent and a host of other venues, downtown has screens in abundance. The final sticking point was that L.A. Live, for all its state-of-the-art technology, didn't have the ability to project 35 mm prints. “We were, like, 'If we're going to have this conversation, you need to have 35 mm projection, because your future may be now, but ours isn't.' ”

Yeldham says, “They took care of it.”

The LAFF team is willing to combat the variety of antidowntown stigma (Worried about traffic? All screenings start post–rush hour!), because the area offers myriad possibilities for expansion. “They have a capacity with those hotels and restaurants to really host a world-class-destination film festival,” Yeldham says. “We didn't have that before. In fact, in scouring the city, we didn't find anything that competed with the opportunities downtown.”

Those opportunities should put LAFF in a position to foster its own growth while simultaneously playing a role in the expected explosion of downtown as the city's go-to hangout hood. It's a risky gambit — downtown isn't “there” yet, and there's always the possibility that, no matter how many local institutions and corporate franchises build there, Angelenos won't come. But let's not begrudge LAFF its good intentions — if only all local film festivals had such utopian dreams of civic synergy.

The forward-thinking extends to the top tier of the LAFF competition lineup. “You used to go to Sundance and see the 450th knockoff of Mean Streets,” Ansen cracks. “You won't say that about these movies.”

The competitions contain at least three total knockouts, films that boldly announce new talents either behind the camera or in front of it: Ditteke Mensink's experimental-but-accessible documentary Farewell; Brett Haley's The New Year, a moving drama about a beautiful brainiac in a rut, starring Trieste Kelly Dunn, who Ansen predicts is “the next indie Parker Posey”; and Laurel Nakadate's The Wolf Knife, a wild, bored-teen spin on Thelma and Louise. A few lesser features take enough chances and show enough promise to be more than worthy of their place in LAFF's high-stakes competitions: Camera, Camera, a documentary about tourist photographers in Laos, a country that doesn't have a free press; Dog Sweat, a narrative made surreptitiously on the streets of Iran; and Upstate, a relationship drama shot on 16 mm, which unexpectedly evolves first into an identity thriller, then into a kind of stoner comedy. (For more thoughts on the cream of LAFF's crop, see our festival picks.)

One much-talked-about innovation of the Ansen administration is its diversity: For the first time in recent memory, a significant number of foreign-language films have been placed in competition. “The emphasis was always on American indies, but we decided to open it up,” Ansen says. “I think you get a better competition that way, quite frankly.”

Is that akin to saying American independent film is not up to par? “Sure,” says Ansen, and Yeldham agrees: “I think we all know that.”

The equal-opportunity selection process does not prevent the inclusion of a few flat-out dogs. The fatally slight, student-quality triptych Hello Lonesome would seem to be the kind of vapid American indie that the foreign discoveries should have shoved out of contention, while Vlast is pure PBS-ready edutainment, a blind spot in a documentary competition that's otherwise chock-full of formally daring nonfiction. Percy Adlon's Mahler on the Couch, the only world premiere in the festival's Gala section (an underwhelming lineup that also includes Cyrus, a film that opens in L.A. on June 19, and will thus be showing in commercial theaters hours before its sole LAFF screening), and the Gabriel Garcia Marquez adaptation Of Love and Other Demons feel like relics of Weinstein-era Miramax — bloated, pretentious middlebrow pablum leavened sporadically by “sensuality,” films that Look Like Art but maintain as shallow an understanding of context and character as standard multiplex fare. These are movies that LAFF should be saving us from, not selling us. They're the regrettable blights on a festival that, for the most part, seems to be charting an exciting path for the future.

LA Weekly