It's easy to take the richness of Los Angeles film culture for granted, what with the steady stream of festivals, new venues and regular revival screenings. Local film fans now have one more exciting event to add to their calendars.
This weekend sees the first edition of the Sundance Next Fest, a reconfiguration of last year's Next Weekend; it's moving mostly to downtown and bringing six movies from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival for their local premieres, plus a 10th anniversary tribute to "Napoleon Dynamite."
Three of the pictures will feature post-screening conversations between the filmmakers and artists who have inspired them or been an influence, with Werner Herzog, Bret Easton Ellis and Nicolas Winding Refn. And in a twist, like-minded musical artists Father John Misty, Tinashe and Warpaint are scheduled to perform after the other three films.
Every film in Next Fest is in its own way a must-see. But even more intriguing will be seeing how the overall event comes together. Will the artist-to-artist conversations have a teacher-student dynamic or one of mutual admiration? Will the movies be like opening acts for the live music, or will the performances enhance the worlds created by the movies?
Too often, audiences get only exactly what they pay for. The air of expectant uncertainty over Next Fest gives it a vibrancy that I for one have been looking forward to since the concept was first announced in May. Not entirely sure what's going to happen but with the possibility of a genuinely unique and even revelatory experience — how often does that happen?
So, with all respect to "Napoleon Dynamite" and the only-in-L.A. fun of watching movies in a celebrity cemetery, Next Fest really begins Friday when it moves from Hollywood Forever Cemetery to the dramatic Theatre at Ace Hotel downtown. That evening will feature a screening of "Life After Beth," written and directed by Jeff Baena, in which a young woman (Aubrey Plaza) dies and curiously comes back to life. Her parents (John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon) and boyfriend (Dane DeHaan) are understandably befuddled.
The team behind the film has taken to calling it a zom-com-rom-dram, and the eccentric screen presences of Plaza and DeHaan — they both thrive on awkward silences and off-the-beat reactions that reveal an inner resolve — makes for an inspired match. But can true love conquer the undead? Plaza previously appeared in a music video for Father John Misty, so his performance after the film should have a continuity of sensibility.
Whether you take it all in or pick a single event at the festival, Saturday looks to be full of great options. Where the festival world often rewards overnight sensations and come-from-nowhere discoveries, brothers David and Nathan Zellner are success stories of a different sort. After a series of short films that made them fixtures on the festival circuit, they moved on to features, displaying an open-hearted sensitivity previously only hinted at.
With "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter," they reveal something entirely new. A lonely young woman (Rinko Kikuchi, in a marvelous performance) travels from Japan to Minnesota in search of the treasure buried at the end of the Coen brothers movie "Fargo." The film is sad and stirring and also unexpectedly inspirational. That the Zellner brothers will be in conversation with Herzog, a master of complicating fact and fiction and wrenching pathos from the foibles of humans and nature, should make for a fascinating talk.
"Listen Up Philip," written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, follows a struggling young writer (Jason Schwartzman) as he tries to get over his estranged girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) by spending time with an older mentor (Jonathan Pryce). With a literary shifting of perspectives, the film is a blistering satire of high-minded pretensions while also a sympathetic examination of the insecurities that so often make each of us our own worst enemy.
Perry, who with "Philip" confirms that he is one of the freshest and most vital voices of the independent film scene, will be in conversation after the screening with Schwartzman and author and cultural provocateur Ellis.
Saturday's program wraps up with "Imperial Dreams," which won the Best of Next audience award at Sundance in January. The film is the feature debut for director and co-screenwriter Malik Vitthal, and it stars John Boyega, who was recently cast in the upcoming "Star Wars" movies.
Shot on location in Watts, the film captures parts of Los Angeles too rarely seen on-screen while working hard to avoid the clichés of depicting inner-city life. It's the only film at Next Fest currently without distribution, so it's a great opportunity for local audiences to catch a local story while they can. Young R&B singer-songwriter Tinashe will perform after the film.
Sundance has often been a home for unusual genre filmmaking, and Sunday brings together two distinctive takes on the new pulp. "The Guest" is the latest collaboration from director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, also behind the gleeful home-invasion thriller "You're Next." Their new film finds a young soldier (Dan Stevens of "Downton Abbey") arriving on a family's doorstep, claiming to have served with their son. After the family takes him in, it soon becomes apparent that he is not as he first seems.
The film is gritty, a touch grim and a lot of fun, a dreamy re-envisioning of a late-night cable action thriller, with a synth-heavy score that is a nod to the heyday of John Carpenter. After the screening, Wingard and Barrett will be in conversation with filmmaker Refn, director of "Drive" and "Only God Forgives."
Also on Sunday, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" has been referred to as an "Iranian vampire western" so often that it would be easy to mistakenly think there are other films like it. The film, the feature debut for writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour, sets a singular mood, reconfiguring reclaimed parts into something new and exotic.
After the screening, the tranced-out rock of the female L.A. band Warpaint should continue the sensual, enigmatic groove of the movie itself and perhaps really achieve the unified sense of vibe and place that Sundance's organizers are hoping for.
Sundance Next Fest
Where: The Theatre at Ace Hotel and Cinespia at the Hollywood Forever Cemetary
When: Thursday to Sunday