Having narrowly escaped jury duty this past spring, I volunteered myself for another. No, not for a DUI case like the one I nearly had to hear at an L.A. county court, but for the fun, exciting kind—the kind where you find yourself deliberating among esteemed colleagues to award the best of competition at Mammoth Lakes Film Festival’s fifth annual edition.

Held every Memorial Day weekend (this year May 23-27, 2019), MLFF steeps itself in the mountainous milieu of the village from which the festival takes its name: Mammoth Lakes, a rustic resort destination that stands as the sole municipality of California’s Mono County. If, like me, you’ve never touched the Sierra Nevada range outside of a beer bottle, adjusting to the five-day event’s elevated environs can exhaust you within hours of arrival. But with the support of a small yet omnipresent staff, founder and Festival Director Shira Dubrovner eased moviemakers and other industry attendees into the altitude with warmth, grace, and an ace itinerary—uncorked on my first evening in town with a dinner and wine-tasting heady enough to rival the high climate’s dizzying effects.

Judging the International Narrative Feature section, I made a point to see the films vying for top honors more than once. That goal, however obsessive-compulsive, was made reasonable and rewarding by Director of Programming Paul Sbrizzi and company, who offered up a consistently fresh and surprising cinematic slate. There was Monument, Polish director (and winner of my section’s award in 2018) Jagoda Szelc’s bewitching and bewildering tale of a group of students whose internship at a strange hotel descends into delirium; there was No Exit, a Twilight Zone-tinged social satire made by American writer-director Sarah Louise Wilson with an all-Kazakh cast and crew; and there was Cat Sticks, a stark, haunting depiction of addiction that immerses audiences in the ebbs and flows of one endless night in Calcutta.

MLFF’s great projection may be taken for granted more than its great programming, but it’s not every day that a U.S. Forest Service lodge is transformed into a formidable film forum—one whose consummate sound and picture presentation enriched my enjoyment of each film’s distinct world. The expertly equipped auditorium had me sticking around to visit other worlds, too—a whole galaxy’s worth, imagined by the myriad moviemakers who showcased their stuff in MLFF’s stellar shorts blocks. One of my favorites delivered projection in a different, yet equally absorbing manner: Ryan Betschart and Rachel Nakawatase’s “A Collection of Attempts In Astral Travel” lulled me into hypnosis with its abstract riff on the paranormal practice of astral projection, coated with kaleidoscopic colors and adorned with an oboe-infected original score. And, as if to enter the void of light opened up by that film, I reached into the cosmos a little further still while watching Matthew Wade’s “Eyes at the Specter Glass,” a mesmerizing, space-bound spectacle of light and sound that moved with such patience and pulsated at such high frequency that I worried the screen had developed a mind of its own.

In the after-hours of the closing night party, I at last hitched a ride with some newfound friends to Mammoth’s hot springs for a pitch-dark dip. And as I wriggled my toes into the thermal well’s scalding clay floor, I wondered if maybe all that cosmic curation was just prepping me for my farewell to the fest: one last round of star-gazing in the best seat for miles, under the great screen in the sky. MM

The 2020 Mammoth Lakes Film Festival will be held May 20-24, 2020. Featured image photograph by Miles Weaver, courtesy of Mammoth Lakes Film Festival.