The Los Angeles Film Festival has grown into an all-things-for-all-moviegoing-people kind of event.
The 19th edition officially starts Thursday with Pedro Almodovar's Spanish airliner-set orgy "I'm So Excited," but sneaks in a pre-festival screening of "Man of Steel" on Wednesday. That juxtaposition sets the tone for what will follow through June 23, mostly but not exclusively downtown at L.A. LIVE's Regal Cinemas.
Upcoming Hollywood blockbusters such as Pixar's "Monsters University" will rub shoulders with the latest works from international auteurs Marco Bellocchio, Costa-Gavras, Takash i Miike, Nicolas Winding Refn, Hong Sangsoo and Johnnie To.
Most of the hot titles you've been reading about from Sundance, South By Southwest and other earlier film festivals will have their L.A. debuts in the Summer Showcase section, alongside Narrative and Documentary Competition features from newer filmmakers, all of which will be world premieres.
Plus classic cinema, shorts, all kinds of panels, seminars and get-togethers with talent, a family day on Nokia Plaza and much more.
"We really do try to put together a festival that will appeal to L.A., that will reflect the completely divergent interests in L.A.," LAFF's artistic director, David Ansen, explained. "It's an incredibly diverse assortment of films that we have, ranging from horror films to high art films. We try to make sure that we've got a lot of African-American films, Latino films, Asian films, because this is one of the most multicultural cities in the country, and it would be crazy not to reflect that."
And, appropriately for something called Los Angeles Film Festival, which is put on by the nonprofit filmmaker support organization Film Independent, the fest will showcase a variety of movies with a local focus.
There are documentaries about the county's emergency rooms ("Code Black"), area artist Llyn Foulkes, indie hip-hop label Stones Throw Records ("Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton") and, at a gala screening at the L.A. County Museum of Art, "Levitated Mass: The Story of Michael Heizer's Monolithic Sculpture."
"People can look at the rock and then go watch the movie about it," said "Mass" director Doug Pray, who filmed the 340-ton boulder's slow journey down Southland streets to its LACMA installation. "What could we love more than something moving through the streets that is just crazy and weird and makes no sense? It's perfectly California. It couldn't happen in Europe or New York, but it's very L.A. because we have the space."
Compton-raised, San Fernando Valley-based filmmaker Ava DuVernay makes her second LAFF appearance in a row this year with "Venus Vs.," a documentary about fellow Comptonite Venus Williams' efforts to secure equal pay for women on the professional tennis circuit. Last year, DuVernay's acclaimed fiction feature "Middle of Nowhere" had a packed, LAFF gala screening.
"To look up and see 1,200 Angelenos, it's a very different experience from the Sundance experience," DuVernay recalled of the event. "Sundance is amazing, but this is just hometown. It was the people who live in the community that the film is set. So all that meant a lot to me. And for diversity's sake, it was wonderful to look up and see so many black and brown faces at that screening, which was something that I hadn't experienced at Sundance."
Narrative features set in L.A. include the aspiring actor comedy "Four Dogs" and actress Lake Bell's Sundance award-winning directing debut about the cutthroat business of voice-over recording, "In a World . . ."
"We already kind of know that the voice-over industry is the stepchild of the film industry," Bell explained. "We already know that it's a story that's somewhat in and around Hollywood, but because it's a stepchild, I wanted my locations to be more in the Valley, Koreatown, downtown, where it's not quite glamorous and it's a little more relatable."
L.A. films are an automatic aspect of an indie-focused festival in the movie industry's hometown, Ansen said.
"There's always a bunch, and I think a lot of L.A. filmmakers want to premiere in L.A., so they may wait to submit their movies to us" instead of other festivals, the artistic director reckoned. "Obviously, we know a lot of the filmmakers here, we have relationships, which always makes it awkward when you reject them. So we don't really set out to do it, but it's almost inevitable."
More and more though, filmmakers from all over the world have become as eager to get their work seen at LAFF as at Toronto, Telluride or even Cannes.
"Living and working in Texas, one feels a little removed from the epicenter of the film business, so it's great to be able to come to L.A. and show this movie on the big screen at such a great event," said David Lowery, whose country noir "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, was a Sundance favorite that will be at LAFF.
"I've never been to the L.A. Film Festival," enthused Chilean director Sebastian Silva, who's bringing his own Sundance hit, "Crystal Fairy" starring Michael Cera, here. "This year I will. I love L.A. I have so many friends there, and I'm sure they're all gonna show up for the screening, so it's going to feel really comfortable and familiar to show the movie there. I'm really excited about that because it's always been Sundance, and I don't have friends in Utah, sadly."
For others, LAFF feels like a kind of homecoming.
"Los Angeles is my home. I'm a proud member of Film Independent, and it's such an honor to share 'The Spectacular Now' with friends, family, and the amazing people who helped make the film," said James Ponsoldt, who directed the well-reviewed, Shailene Woodley-starring teen romance.
Other recent festival circuit hits coming here for the first time at LAFF include "The Act of Killing," "The Crash Reel," "Short Term 12," "Fruitvale Station," "The Patience Stone," "Wadjda" and the closing night gala, "The Way, Way Back."
"Obviously, you're going to have a lot of people in the industry looking at your stuff. It's one of the things that separates this festival," Ansen said of LAFF's attraction factor for hot new filmmakers. "And we try to take advantage of the fact that we're in L.A. in terms of the kind of access we have to the talent, the sort of value-added we can give to audiences in terms of all the conversations we have, the Coffee Talks, Q and A's; we can get a lot of people down to share their knowledge of the film business."
For more information, go to lafilmfest.com. Tickets can be purchased from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. through June 22 at the Event Deck at L.A. LIVE, atop the West Garage (Lot W), 1005 Chick Hearn Court, Los Angeles, or by phone 866-345-6337 ($5 handling fee) and online at LAFilmFest.com/tickets ($3 handling fee). ___