The Los Angeles Film Festival occupies a unique and challenging middle ground. It comes after the annual opening festival rounds of Sundance, Berlin, South by Southwest and Cannes but before the fall circuit that includes Telluride, Venice, Toronto, New York and the local AFI Fest. It's organized by Film Independent, yet takes place in the backyard of Hollywood studios. Over the years, LAFF has taken shape as a multifaceted event that can be many things to many people, and 2013 is no different.
The festival sort of starts June 12 with a pre-fest screening of "Man of Steel" before the June 13 official opening-night selection of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar's "I'm So Excited." That a festival would make an opening salvo of a Hollywood superhero franchise and a freewheeling, sexually omnivorous foreign-language airplane farce perhaps neatly encapsulates the open-mindedness of LAFF.
"There's so much happening in L.A., there's a premiere every night in L.A. That's not a big deal," festival director Stephanie Allain said. "So how do you stand out in a town that every single day has someone shouting from the rooftops? You try to create these one-of-a-kind experiences where you have to be there."
The festival, in its 19th year, is again taking place mostly in downtown Los Angeles with its main venue the Regal Cinemas at L.A. Live. In the Summer Showcase and International Showcase sections, there are plenty of films culled from fests earlier in 2013, such as "The Spectacular Now," which premiered at Sundance and will be released this summer. In the Narrative and Documentary competitions, meanwhile, all of the selections are U.S. (if not international) premieres, including the drama "Goodbye World," an indie entry to the current trend of apocalypse pictures. The festival concludes on June 23 with a screening of the Steve Carell comedy "The Way, Way Back."
This year, the festival also has a particularly strong selection of conversations, panels and events that take audiences beyond simply watching movies.
"Both for the filmmakers and for the audience it makes for a richer experience," said David Ansen, artistic director of the festival. "It's not just going to the movies. You're really getting a taste of what the filmmaking process is like."
An event on June 14 will have actress Maya Rudolph discussing comedy; on June 17, "Zero Dark Thirty" screenwriter Mark Boal will moderate a conversation with French Greek political filmmaker Costa-Gavras. Collaborators Ricky Jay and David Mamet will be in conversation June 18; filmmakers Spike Jonze and David O. Russell sit down together June 22. (Russell is the festival's guest artistic director this year and will have an event of his own June 16.)
It is always tempting to look for themes within the programming. This year LAFF has a strong selection of films from the Middle East, including a number directed by women, as well as a more local focus of films set in Los Angeles.
"We don't have any say over what movies are being made," Allain said. "It always cracks me up when people talk about themes, because it's really the filmmakers who are making the movies, living in the same zeitgeist. That's how the themes come up, really."
Director Ava DuVernay was at the festival last year for a gala screening of her film "Middle of Nowhere." She is back at LAFF this year for the world premiere of her made-for-ESPN documentary "Venus Vs." about tennis player Venus Williams' fight for equal pay for female champions at Wimbledon.
DuVernay said she has come to appreciate the broad slate of films shown at LAFF. "I see films from Iranian filmmakers, filmmakers from Austin, filmmakers in Sweden, glimpses of life that I would never know and you're only seeing these films on the festival circuit."
She added of LAFF, "It's become one of my favorite festivals, and I can't say that it always was that."
The festival's slate of nearly 200 feature films, shorts and music videos can be a bit overwhelming to even the most dedicated moviegoers. Our cheat sheet offers a brief selection of highlights.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun