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Los Angeles Film Festival Starts Today!

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Hmm, the skies are overcast, you can barely see downtown from Miracle Mile and (thankfully) traffic has gone from post-apocalyptic bad to just fleeing-a-tsunami bad: it's summer in L.A.! All of which presents the perpetual quandary--what to do? Sure, the celebrities and A-listers have decamped from Malibu and the Hills to the typical Mediterranean haunts and South East Asian hideaways, but what are us plebes to do? Well, despite the omnipresence of June gloom, our vast, slightly-less-smoggy-these-days city never runs out of possibilities and, for the next week and a half, the Los Angeles Film Festival offers a bevy of cinematic opportunities for those of us not quite jet-set enough to festival hop from Sundance to Berlin to Cannes and onward around the globe, feasting on little canapés and being really jet-lagged and jaded.

Fortunately, the LAFF, i.e. the unpretentious little-festival-that-could run by our city's own native Film Independent, does a great job of gathering the choices bits from its more glitzy bigger brothers like Cannes and Sundance, and serving them on an accessible slab to us film lovers who've left our yachts in the shop. On top of that it has its own interesting, eclectic selection, which it serves on the smorgasbord that is L.A. Live. So this weekend if you're itching to get out of the Valley's crushing heat (or just exhausted from E3)--head on downtown to cool off in a theater and then bar or restaurant hop. Heck you might even use public transportation it you're really gung-ho about it! A Metro pass saves you money on tickets--and a potential DUI if, like me, you can't get enough of the pisco sours at Mo Chica. And in that spirit, here are some bourbon-fueled recommendations of my own for festival goers.

Even though it generated a split opinion from Cannes' notoriously temperamental audiences, I'm still excited to check out Only God Forgives Nicholas Winding Refn's follow-up to Drive: re-teaming himself with Ryan Gosling but departing LA's night noir streets for Bangkok's steamy neon jungle. Gosling plays an underworld muscleman who's psycho-mom (apparently a deliciously vicious Kristin Scott Thomas) flies in to oversee his vengeance on the mysterious cop who killed his brother. It may not quite be Chinatown but it still sounds like dark fun to me.

Fruitvale Station was the darling of Sundance this year and deservedly so. Ryan Coogler's debut film features a stunning Michael B. Jordan as a young man tragically killed by BART officers on New Year's day. Based on the real incident that ignited fury and protest in Oakland, Coogler's film is a neo-realist gem that follows the final day in the life of a tough man fighting against the hard knocks of a rough life and harkens back to classics like The Bicycle Thief.

Also from Sundance, and not to be missed--are The Spectacular Now James Ponsoldt's follow-up to his indie gem Smashed, which also follows a young alcoholic Ferris Bueller-type as he nearly drives his life into a brick wall. Meanwhile, if Austin is more your speed, South by Southwest darling Short Term 12 is now playing at LAFF. This story of a young supervisor at a group home for at-risk teens who finds redemption in a troubled new arrival at the home won both the Grand Jury Award and the Audience award at SXSW so it's definitely on my list to check out.

LAFF also gave me the opportunity to catch Crystal Fairy from one of my favorite directors Sebastian Silva. I missed it at Sundance, thanks to the notoriously frustrating bus-system but Silva's one of the best young directors out there, who crafts psychologically compelling films like The Maid, Old Cats and Magic, Magic from bizarre and initially obnoxious personalities. This one starts in the same vein with Michael Cera as an American ex-pat at play amongst the hipsters of Chile: his one goal is to have the ultimate psychedelic experience by ingesting the famed San Pedro cactus. But he's so neurotically focused on it that he drives his Chilean hosts nuts. However, he meets his match in Crystal Fairy, another hippie-dippie American run amok in Chile, played pitch-perfectly by Gabby Hoffman. Their two bizarre, enervating personalities provide the film its central conflict and catharsis: Silva's a master at taking people you'd flee from at a party and drawing an endearing recognition of their fragile humanity from your reluctant viewing heart. It's a bit like a magic trick, which is why I wholeheartedly recommend Crystal Fairy for adventurous LAFF-ies.

However, LAFF isn't just about second-runs of interesting festival films--and the fun of even the glitziest festival is finding the unexpected gems, hiding in the rough of non-celebrity obscurity. Just perusing the schedule Winter in the Blood's story of Indian alcoholism piques my interest, as does the comedy Forev's tale of a whirlwind engagement started on a 6-hour drive through the desert in which "nothing goes wrong... nothing at all," according to the coy press notes. I'm also interested in Four Dogs because it features my favorite obnoxious congressman from Veep, Dan Bakkedahl as well as Mother I Love You because it sounds like a Latvian version of The 400 Blows.

On the documentary front Code Black sounds like an interesting investigation of being an ER doctor at the LA County Medical Center; and speaking all things L.A. I'm particularly interested in Levitated Mass, the documentary about every Angeleno's favorite rock (Michael Heizer's massive 300+ ton megalith/sculpture that sits in LACMA's backyard.) I say, let's relive the glory of watching a massive rock cruise through the city at slightly-better-than-rush-hour speeds. Also in the vein of artworld L.A., I'm interested in Llyn Foulkes One Man Band, especially after his big retrospective at the Hammer this spring. Foulkes anti-establishment oddities seem like the secret ingredient that keeps L.A.'s art scene fresh and alive compared to New York's money-narcotized gallery hierarchy. And lastly, I'm curious to catch Inequality for All--mostly because I love listening to Robert Reich's NPR commentaries to get myself all worked up about capitalism's sins on my ride home from the office.

But don't take my picks as the final word! Hop on the Expo Line, take a ride and pick your own fresh fruit at the 2013 L.A. Film Festival.