This year’s Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) offers a uniquely broad-ranging view of contemporary cinema.
Aside from their World Premiere-heavy Documentary and Narrative Competitions, the fest has both an International Showcase and a Summer Showcase, featuring a surfeit of well-regarded entries from other festivals (e.g. Drug War, The Act of Killing, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Concussion, The Crystal Fairy, The Spectacular Now, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) ad a Midnight-style section, The Beyond, featuring Takashi Miike‘s Lesson of the Evil and Adam Wingard‘s long-festering You’re Next.
There are also special screenings, like a newly restored print of Jean-Pierre Melville‘s only American-set film, the little-seen Two Men in Manhattan. Then there are panel discussions with the likes of Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, and Ricky Jay and David Mamet. Then there’s the North American Premiere of Pedro Almodovar‘s latest, I’m So Excited. In short, as with most major film festivals, I wish I was there. Leaving aside the well-known entries mentioned above, here are the 10 movies from the festival I’d be most interested in seeing.
1. American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs d. Grace Lee, Documentary Competition, World Premiere
Nonagenarian Chinese-American Grace Lee Boggs graduated Barnard in 1935, and went on to become a prominent leftist activist, particularly focused on issues affecting the African-American community. I like the clip I’ve seen from this doc, wherein Boggs states, “I feel sorry for people who don’t live in Detroit,” then proceeds to make a case. Filmmaker Lee (no relation) has had an interesting career herself, often testing the boundaries between documentary and narrative filmmaking in compelling and playful ways, as in her mockumentaries, American Zombie and Jeaneane from Des Moines. This looks to be a more straightforward work, but she’s chosen a fascinating subject. Tickets
2. I.D. d. Kamal K.M., Narrative Competition, North American Premiere
Kamal K.M.‘s debut feature was well-received at the Torino Film Festival. It’s about a middle-class, carefree woman living in Mumbai whose life is upended when the day laborer she hired to paint her apartment collapses in her living room. As she tries to get the man medical attention, and then to learn his identity, she becomes increasingly conscious of another city within the one where she lives: a bleak, dangerous metropolis of desperate people who have fallen through the cracks. The trailer looks like great, grim international cinema—maybe like a more literal-minded version of Lucrecia Martel‘s stunning The Headless Woman. Tickets
3. Levitated Mass: The Story of Michael Heizer’s Monolithic Sculpture d. Doug Pray, Galas, World Premiere
Doug Pray (Hype, Scratch, Surfwise) is another documentarian whose track record suggests that anything he makes is worth a look. Levitated Mass is about a 340-ton rock discovered in a Riverside quarry, which “land artist” Michael Heizer had transported, ultimately to LACMA, and put on display as an exhibit. Pray’s doc covers the logistical puzzle of transporting the boulder, and the wide-ranging response to its presentation as a work of art. Those attending the film will be able to view the thing for themselves beforehand. Tickets
4. My Stolen Revolution d. Nahid Persson Sarvestani, Documentary Competition, North American Premiere
If there’s one film at the fest I would call an absolute must-see, based solely on the synopsis and trailer, it’s this one. Filmmaker Persson Sarvestani (Prostitution: Behind the Veil) got out of Iran in 1979, as the Islamists took over, but the close-knit group of friends and the brother she left behind were stuck facing the unforeseen and tragic consequences of the revolution they’d fought so hard for. My Stolen Revolution traces her efforts to reconnect with the friends she left, and to document her brother’s final days. Hopefully, this kind of honest, personal filmmaking highlights the complexity of Iran’s recent history, and serves as a corrective to the banal myth-making of Hollywood films like Argo. Tickets
5. The New Black d. Yoruba Richen, Documentary Competition, World Premiere
Richen produced Brother to Brother starring Anthony Mackie and directed the award-winning South African land distribution documentary Promised Land. Here she explores the complex issue of homophobia in the Black community, dealing with racism in the LGBT community, the Christian right’s efforts to exploit homophobia in the Black church, and the efforts of organizations like the National Black Justice Coalition to find common ground. This is timely subject matter, and again, an honest documentary could highlight the complexity of the issue, and combat the soundbite-driven misperceptions of the mainstream media. Tickets
6. Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton (This is Stones Throw Records) d. Jeff Broadway, Summer Series, World Premiere
This film documents the journey of Chris Manak, A.K.A. Peanut Butter Wolf, who began his career as a hip-hop producer for the talented rapper Charizma, and went on to found the celebrated Hollywood hip-hop label Stones Throw—giving voice to such unique artists as J Dilla, Madlib, Aloe Blacc, and Homeboy Sandman. The documentary tells a worthwhile story, and the trailer hooked me with that Guilty Simpson track. Jeff Broadway also produced Cure for Pain: The Mark Sandman Story, which I somehow never knew about until last night, but now must see. Tickets
7. Venus Vs. d. Ava DuVernay, Summer Showcase, World Premiere
This 50-minute doc is notable not only for its subject, but for being Ava DuVernay’s follow-up to her buzzed-about 2012 breakout feature, Middle of Nowhere. Venus Vs. focuses predominantly on tennis superstar Venus Williams‘ efforts to elevate women to equal status with male tennis players in the WTA. It’s an aspect of her career that might otherwise be overlooked, with all the other ground she and her sister have broken. Tickets
8. Winter in the Blood d. Alex and Andrew Smith, Narrative Competition, World Premiere
Hey, look, this one’s not a doc! It’s just that it’s so much easier to tell, with limited info, whether a documentary will be worth your time than a narrative feature. In this case, we have a strong trailer, and the track record of the filmmakers, who somehow haven’t made a feature since the early Ryan Gosling vehicle The Slaughter Rule—back before he became an internet icon. Before Facebook, even. I’m not sure how that happened, probably an interesting story, or maybe just sad, but here they are again, with another intimate rural drama featuring the great character actor David Morse. This one is based on the debut novel of Native American author James Welch (Killing Custer), who the Smith brothers knew growing up, and set in a remote part of Montana known as the Hi-Line. It’s another one I feel justified in getting excited about. Tickets
9. The Women and the Passenger d. Valentina Mac-Pherson and Patricia Correia, International Showcase, U.S. Premiere
Back to documentaries. Correia and Mac-Pherson’s debut is a beautifully shot (based on the trailer, of course) Chilean doc that explores the working lives of four employees at El Pasajero, an infamous “no-tell motel” in Santiago, and their views on love and romance. It looks like a well-observed, warmly witty film that examines its potentially scandalous subject with a cool eye. It didn’t get much buzz out of Hot Docs, but it looks intriguing to me. Tickets
10. Workers d. Jose Luis Valle, Narrative Competition, U.S. Premiere
Valle’s debut feature focuses on two taciturn workers in Mexico: Rafael (Jesus Padilla) is a cleaner in a light bulb factory, and an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, while Lidia (Susana Salazar) works as a housekeeper for a wealthy old woman who only loves her pet greyhound. When the modest dreams of both of these workers are unfairly thwarted, they decide to take a kind of vengeance. Valle’s film got good reviews out of Berlin for its sly wit, its gorgeously composed long takes, and its unsentimental observation of daily working life. Sounds like my kind of movie. Tickets MM