As Film Independent’s 21st Los Angeles Film Festival gets under way at LA Live downtown with the June 10th opening of Paul Weitz’s Sundance hit comedy “Grandma,” starring the incomparable Lily Tomlin, the big question surrounding this year’s program is whether festival director Stephanie Allain’s new vision for the selection (booked by a new, less experienced programming team led by Roya Rastegar) will lure audiences.
The fourth festival under producer Allain (“Beyond the Lights”) has taken a dramatic turn. While there are plenty of Cannes, SXSW and Sundance hits such as Ken Loach’s “Jimmy’s Hall,” “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “Infinitely Polar Bear,” and Russell Brand doc “Brand: A Second Coming,” among the 45 world premieres there are fewer galas with recognizable names (instead we get the first episode of the MTV series “Scream,” Benson Lee’s “Seoul Searching” and Todd Strauss-Schulson’s SXSW film “The Final Girl”) and more movies aimed at a younger, multi-cultural audience: of the competition films, 80 percent are directed by first or second-time directors, 40% of the filmmakers are women and almost 30% of the films are directed by people of color.
This year’s LAFF slate includes 74 features, 60 shorts and more than 50 new-media projects from 35 countries. And some of the usual suspects that would have played to the core older arthouse demo, to the surprise of their distributors (such as Oscar-winner Morgan Neville’s rousing 60s documentary “Best of Enemies,” ranked at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, which Magnolia is releasing) aren’t screening at all.
“We are going back to our roots,” Allain says, toward less-established indie fare.”Women directors are out there, they’re making these movies, and our job was just to find them,” Allain told KPCC FM’s John Horn. “This year we opened an industry office with the sole desire to connect these first and second-time filmmakers with new jobs, with people who can see their films, who can offer them gigs, who can pay them to write, pay them to direct. Hollywood is here, the industry is here. It is a great opportunity to make that connection.”
Laudable sentiments all, but will audiences come?
Allain is also focused on local area filmmakers for the L.A. Muse line-up which launched last year; she says that six out of eight of the fiction films in that section sold, including David Oyelowo’s ‘Nightingale,” which went to HBO Films. This year’s slate of ten includes movies about L.A.’s improv comedy scene (“Flock of Dudes”), an aging ballet dancer (“A Beautiful Now”) and Zoe Cassavetes’ “Day Out of Days,” about an actress hitting 40.
Among the higher-profile competition titles are Dennis Hauck’s world premiere “Too Late,” starring John Hawkes as a Southern California private dick, and “A Country Called Home,” starring Imogen Poots.
1. “Inside Out” (Disney/Pixar, June 19)
It isn’t easy to take an original idea–what happens inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl when she turns toward adolescence–and mold it into an accessible, lively, funny, unpredictable animated movie that plays well for both kids and adults. The best Pixar entry since Pete Docter’s “Up,” “Inside Out” is Docter’s bold yet personal exploration of a world that has not been portrayed on film before: the mind.
2. “Diary of a Teenage Girl” (Sony Pictures Classics)
Female sexuality is one of those things that few people get right in movies. And male directors don’t help the cause. Which is one reason why ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ is such an exhilarating ride. Debuting director Marielle Heller, working with the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, gets it right. The film gets away with its underage sexuality because it’s set in the free-wheeling ’70s.
3. “Grandma” (Sony Pictures Classics)
Writer-director Paul Weitz gives Lily Tomlin a juicy character to play–an angry, volatile, outspoken, no-holds-barred, strong lesbian woman who has just lost her life partner to cancer. When her teenage granddaughter (Julia Garner) turns up pregnant, her Grandma heroically navigates through a day from hell in order to raise the money for an abortion, and not only confronts the girlfriend she just broke up with (Judy Greer), but her ex-husband (Sam Elliott), her daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) and beats up her granddaughter’s soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend (Nat Wolff). While there will be tears before bedtime, this is a hugely entertaining, well-structured and delivered movie. –Anne Thompson
4. “Missing People”
Written and directed by David Shapiro, this fascinating true crime doc unfolds as a nonfiction mystery that follows eccentric New York gallery director Marina Batan, whose 14-year-old brother was brutally murdered in 1978. She becomes obsessed with the unsolved case, and with researching the life and work of Roy Ferdinand who until his death in 2004 made sexually graphic and violent works of art depicting African American identity in pre-Katrina New Orleans. Batan travels to Louisiana to investigate him further and ultimately ends up learning more about her own traumatic past than she expected. –Ryan Lattanzio
5. “The Overnight” (The Orchard)
Patrick Brice’s swinger sex comedy (introduced at Sundance) may be a less seething “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” for the polygamous set, but it’s almost the most subversive comedy of the year, indie or otherwise. Its stars are mainstream — Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman and Taylor Schilling — but the film pits them in embarrassing comic scenarios that are both uncomfortable for them and for us as the audience. Yet as Schwartzman and his exotic wife (Judith Godreche) lure Scott and Schilling into a raucous Los Angeles all-nighter, the film also becomes strangely titillating. Duplass Brothers-produced “The Overnight” pushes every sexual button in the book, evincing laughs laced with a cringe because the film, frankly, dares to target our own bedrooms and what we keep hidden in them. –Ryan Lattanzio
6. “Sin Alas”
Part mystery, part ghost tale, “Sin Alas” finds a Borgesian writer named Luis Vargas in Cuba, in Centro Havana, in love with the revolution — and an elusive, young ballerina who’s married to a prominent military leader. The entanglement spins everyone’s lives out of control. 50 years later, Luis reads of her death in a newspaper, which startles him into revisiting the buried emotions of his youth. –Ryan Lattanzio
7. “Too Late”
“Too Late” makes a strong case for celluloid film, specifically 35mm, which this haunting, quintessential LA caper uses to tell the hydra-headed tale of a gumshoe (John Hawkes) and his unraveling existential crisis in the wake of a murder case. He encounters a menagerie of weirdos, from strippers to pimps to deluded pill-popping Hollywood Hills housewives, on his way to redemption. Written and directed by Dennis Hauck, the film is gorgeously shot and edited and boasts more than a few cinematic surprises we won’t spoil here. –Ryan Lattanzio
Sebastian Schipper’s one-take wonder won three prizes at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival and it’s, well, no wonder. The director and his crew really did shoot this vérité art turned heist film in one continuous shot, in the wee hours of the morning in Berlin. We meet a young student who’s abroad to pursue her music career, who then meets a band of friends who lead her into the night on an unexpectedly frightful, suspenseful journey. Don’t obsess over how Schipper pulled off this technical feat; instead, let it wash over you, and let the characters seduce you, because the emotional payoff, however devastating, is worth the ride. –Ryan Lattanzio