With its pared-down lineup and friendlier weather, Sundance's NEXT FEST is such a good idea that it may discourage Angelenos from attending the festival proper. Bringing a selection of films from Park City's most ambitious, innovative programming bloc to Los Angeles for the second year running, the weekend-long affair is back with a new name (it went by NEXT Weekend last year) and venue (the recently renovated Ace Hotel in downtown). It begins Thursday with a Cinespia-hosted screening of Napoleon Dynamite at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, a questionable opening-night choice that we won't hold against it, and launches for real the following night. The leisurely Friday-through-Sunday schedule includes six films, three musical acts and a few special Q&A sessions.
Zombie farce Life After Beth will be followed by a solo acoustic performance courtesy of Father John Misty; returning-veteran drama The Guest features a panel moderated by Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn; and up-and-coming Tinashe will perform after the Watts-set Imperial Dreams.
Three of the films screened in advance stand out as exceptional. Easily the most outré selection, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night may also be the first vampire romance to combine black-and-white cinematography with spaghetti Western overtones and all-Farsi dialogue. Call it a Middle Western, maybe.
If that description sounds off-putting, you might find yourself won over by director Ana Lily Amirpour's innate ability to match German Expressionism–inflected visuals with an eclectic soundtrack — the film is a sensory delight. Its sui generis energy can't quite be contained in the frame or on the screen, especially in a sublime bedroom scene that you'll know when you see it; you keep waiting for it to turn its fangs on you. Amirpour is a gifted image-maker, and several indelible moments from her film will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi (Babel) plays the title role in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a Fargo-inspired tale of obsession that's by turns charming and dispiriting. Convinced that the cash-filled briefcase Steve Buscemi's character abandons near a highway in rural Minnesota is real, Kumiko hops on a flight from Tokyo and makes her way across the North Star State in search of the money. Kikuchi is mesmerizing, causing us to question her character's sanity but never her heart. We know the quest is hopeless just as surely as do the friendly locals who reluctantly help her, but as David Zellner's film (which he co-wrote with his brother Nathan) veers between comedy and tragedy, the mundane and the mythical, it's hard not to hope against hope for the happy ending you fear won't come. But don't despair: Even if the movie bums you out, guest panelist Werner Herzog will be there to cheer you up.
Intensely literary and even more aggressively cinematic, Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip tells of a young novelist (Jason Schwartzman) whose second book is about to be published. Claiming that New York has a “creative energy but not a productive energy,” he absconds to his literary hero's country home and finds himself just as dissatisfied there. Philip's caustic personality compels him to says things such as, “I used to consider you my favorite ex-girlfriend” and leave his current partner (Elisabeth Moss) in limbo for weeks, months at a time; suffice to say he'd never give poor Kumiko the time of day.
Yet you can't help but keep watching this lost soul, if only to see whether he'll course-correct or continue on his self-destructive path. Philip emerges, finally, as a man with a very particular set of ideals who holds everyone else up to the same standards to which he holds himself. (You can probably guess whether anyone meets those lofty standards.) It thus makes perfect sense that Bret Easton Ellis will serve as the special guest panelist: If anyone can relate to being a misunderstood writer, it's the beleaguered, brilliant author of Less Than Zero and American Psycho.
SUNDANCE NEXT FEST | Ace Hotel | Through Aug. 10 | sundance.org/next