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David Ansen’s First Film Festival

David Ansen's First Film Festival

“I’m just hoping the Lakers don’t go to game seven, because it would happen at the same time as our opening night,” David Ansen concedes as he looks ahead to the upcoming Los Angeles Film Festival, which kicks off on June 17.

It’s not just that the city’s attention would be dominated by a final game showdown between its championship basketball team and the arch-rival Boston Celtics; it’s the fact that the festival will be based for the first time at the Regal Cinemas, a ritzy new 14-plex a mere half-block from the Staples Center, where a game seven would start at 6 p.m.

Staging the festival downtown at an unfamiliar venue is a major gamble, especially for an event that most recently took place many miles away in Westwood. While West Siders and industry types will occasionally venture downtown for a Lakers or Dodgers game or to go to the Music Center, they’re certainly not accustomed to going all that way just for a movie; the joke is that no one who lives in Santa Monica or the Palisades wants to go any further east than La Cienega, and it’s certainly true that getting downtown during rush hour is a drag from any direction.

While Ansen, in his first year as he festival’s artistic director, admits there was “lots of initial static about going downtown, and we do run the risk of losing some of our West Side audience,” he counters that, “We’ll tap into Silver Lake and Hollywood,” as well as into the general sense that there’s suddenly quite a bit happening in what used to be a virtual ghost town at night.

For Ansen, who was Newsweek’s film critic for three decades, the festival represents an unexpected and entirely welcome new chapter in his career. On a sort-of rolling on-line phase-out from Newsweek over the past couple of years that in a way prefigured the diminution of the magazine itself, Ansen had never imagined a role for himself as the director of a film festival. “I think every critic fantasizes about about being a curator of some sort, but I wasn’t pursuing this job.” Ansen was approached about it during the Berlin Film Festival in February, which didn’t give him and associate director Doug Jones a great deal of time to piece together the program. A June slot on the festival calendar also presents its own built-in limitations, as anticipated highlights of the fall season are normally saved for Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York.

Ansen’s prior festival experience consisted of eight years as a member of the selection committee at the New York Film Festival during the 1990s, although he stressed that, “This is very different from the New York job. There, I found no difference between selecting films and being a critic. But here, we’re all trying to shape a festival for Los Angeles. There is cineaste stuff but also very populist programming designed for L.A.”

Beginning with the opening night attraction, Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right,” in which Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a lesbian couple whose home life with two teenagers is disrupted by the arrival of the biological father and biker played by Mark Ruffalo, a number of the entries debuted at Sundance. Among them are David Michod’s outstanding Australian gangster saga “Animal Kingdom,” Davis Guggenheim’s essential critique of the American educational system in “Waiting for Superman,” the Duplass Brothers’ “Cyrus,” Mark Lewis’ 3D documentry “Cane Toads: The Conquest,” scabarous British satirist Christopher Morris’ “Four Lions,” Amir Bar-Lev’s devastating documentary “The Tillman Story,” Christian Frei’s documentary about rich people who pay to become “Space Tourists,” Mads Brugger’s account of an absurdist comedy team goofing on the North Koreans during a cultural exchange visit in “The Red Chapel,” Jose Padilha’s expose of misbehaving anthropologists “Secrets of the Tribe” and Jake Scott’s “Welcome to the Rileys” with James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart.

K-Stew will also be on view at a special, limited access (i.e., no press) premiere of “The Twilight Saga: The Eclipse,” which Ansen likens to “a festival adjacent” event. The other big Hollywood title will be “Despicable Me,” a French-made 3D animated feature about a wannabe super-villain voiced by Steve Carell.

Some further titles came from Berlin, including such prize-winners as Pernille Fischer Christensen’s “A Family” from Denmark and Isao Yukisada’s “Parade” from Japan, as well as from Rotterdam. Ansen also says he “got the cream of South By Southwest,” notably Jeff Malmberg’s documentary “Marwencol,” Gareth Edwards’ “Monsters” and Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Japanese hit “Golden Slumber.” But he is pleased to be presenting far more world premieres than was the case last year; in the documentary competition alone, all but one of the nine films are premieres. He has also reconfigured the program to suit his tastes. “One thing I wanted to do in the dramatic competition was to balance it from an international point of view. In the past, there were maybe one or two foreign films, while all the rest would be U.S. indies. This year, it’s 50/50.”
In the international arena, Ansen is particularly keen on the selection from Eastern Europe and Russia. “Right now, films are being made by the generation that grew up under communism but matured under perestroika and are now making their “American Graffitis.” One he particularly recommends is Levan Koguashvili’s “Street Days” from Georgia.

From various quarters I have heard some promising things about “Revolucion,” a ten-part mosaic inspired by the centenary of the Mexican Revolution with episodes directed by the likes of Diego Luna and Carlos Reygadas; Percy Adlon’s “Mahler on the Couch,” in which the cuckholded composer consults Sigmund Freud about his impetuous wife Alma; Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary “The People Vs. George Lucas;” Claire Denis’ “White Material;” Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s drug-and-sports documentary “The Two Escobars” and Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm’s Danish prison drama “R.”
There is nothing I can urge more strongly than to take advantage of the opportunity to see the new digital restoration of Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard,” which I raved about upon its debut in Cannes last month and will be presented in the appropriate splendor of the old Orpheum Theater downtown on June 26. Also high on any cinephile’s list should be the restoration of Satyajit Ray’s “The Music Room.” A 70-minute 1913 German silent, “The Life of Richard Wagner,” a tie-in with the ongoing “Ring Festival L.A.,” is sure to be a curiosity, while Ansen guarantees that South Korean director Jung Sung-il’s 197-minute “Cafe Noir” will be the festival’s “most challenging art film.”

Among those appearing for special “evenings” and conversations will be Sylvester Stallone, Roger Corman, John Lithgow, Ben Affleck, Paul Reubens, Quincy Jones and restaurant critic Jonathan Gold.

I’ll be curious to check out as many films as I can, if only for the personal reason that, through the years, I grew to realize that Ansen’s taste coincided with my own more consistently than that of any other critic. We’ll see if that translates into a first-rate film festival.

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