L.A. Film Fest Preview: Event Opens Thursday, Sans Lakers Game 7 Traffic

Festival, which had its opening night both disrupted and buoyed by Game 7 of the NBA Finals at Staples last year, returns downtown

It's going downtown again.

And this time, the Los Angeles Film Festival will tip off, starting Thursday, without the Lakers wreaking havoc on opening night.

LAFF posterLast year, the festival's opening night screening and party took place across the street from the  Staples Center the same night as Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

This year, there will be no raucous Laker fans clogging traffic at the end of the screening, and no police chief warning the entire city not to travel downtown (even though festival organizers were hoping to persuade lots of Westsiders to do just that).

But the Lakers' victory last year, during the LAFF screening of "The Kids Are All Right," also gave the festival a shot of adrenaline and helped kick off its first year downtown in style.

"We were petrified that people were going to stay away," said festival director Rebecca Yeldham. "But it was packed, and it was an extraordinary night. When they emerged from the screening, the people were not only celebrating the movie, but also the victory for the Lakers."

This year's festival, which kicks off on Thursday night and runs for 11 days, will have to count on its programming to provide the excitement — that, and a downtown setting that proved to be a hospitable and even vibrant setting for a festival that had previously been based in Hollywood and Westwood.

Last year's attendance of 92,000 set a record for LAFF, which has been run by Film Independent since 2000.

It was the first full year for Yeldham (a producer whose films include "The Motorcycle Diaries," "Anvil!" and the upcoming "On the Road"), and the first year for critic David Ansen as artistic director.

And, Yeldham told TheWrap, it was a year in which she began to get a handle on the programming philosophy of a festival that has always faced the problem of trying to appeal to the industry and the public, to cineastes and fanboys, to out-of-towners and to locals who are seeing movies after working all day.

LAFF"I think the personality of this festival is that our films are really good, but also fun and entertaining," Yeldham said. "Some inclusions are for the ardent cinephile, but if you look across the board and look at our tentpoles, these are not only great films but great pieces of entertainment.

"I think that that's where David and I are very much in sync: We have a love of the high and  the low. We have very high standards, but we don't turn up our noses at films that are pure genre. So you'll see studio films and auteur films and specialty films and micro-budget films." 

Last year's lineup included Oscar Best Picture nominee "The Kids Are All Right," along with Davis Guggenheim's documentary "Waiting for Superman," the Australian crime drama "Animal Kingdom" (with its Oscar-nominated performance from Jacki Weaver), the raucous British comedy "Four Lions" and the moving doc "Marwencol."

This year kicks off with Richard Linklater's "Bernie," with Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine, and closes a week and a half later with the horror film "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," directed by Troy Nixey and produced by the festival's guest director, Guillermo del Toro.

Among the other notable entries, which will be screening in more than a dozen downtown venues and theaters from June 16 through June 26:

DriveGalas screenings will include Nicolas Winding Refn's car-chase film "Drive" (right), which was widely praised at Cannes, as well as Chris Weitz's "A Better Life," the aliens vs. London street kids thriller "Attack the Block," and a special late-opening-night screening of "Green Lantern."

Other selections include films that have played well at previous festivals: Miranda July's "The Future," the apocalyptic "Another Earth," Vera Farmiga's directorial debut "Higher Ground" and Robbie Pickering's Sundance winner "Natural Selection," among others.

A promising slate of sports-related documentaries covers tennis ("Renee"), auto racing ("Senna"), ultimate fighting ("Once I Was a Champion") and basketball in both Senegal ("Elevate") and Iraq ("Salaam Dunk," below).

Salaam Dunk"Hot Coffee" is an eye-opening and surprisingly emotional doc about the hot-button issue of tort reform; "Wish Me Away" is reportedly an inspiring look at country singer Chely Wright's decision to come out of the closet (with a performance by Wright to follow its June 20 screening); and "The Bully Project" a devastating chronicle of school bullying set to be distributed by the Weinstein Co.

On the lighter side are anniversary screenings of "Stand by Me" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," while Cuba will receive an international spotlight and the rock band Sparks will present a work-in-progress collaboration with Guy Maddin intriguingly titled "The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman." 

In the "Festival Conversations" lineup, a Sidney Lumet tribute should be emotional, a Julie Taymor conversation could be fascinating (she'll have to address the "Spider-Man" debacle, right?) and a game-show style talk with Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine ought to be a kick.

Then there's "An Evening With James Franco," at which the actor/writer/director/poet/Oscar host/student will show his film "The Broken Tower," a wildly experimental biopic of poet Hart Crane that will likely confound audience members expecting something more conventional.

There's lots more: "The Guard," "Life Happens," "The Fatherless," "How to Cheat," "Tomboy," "The Yellow Sea" and "An Ordinary Family" are all on my want-to-see list, which is unmanageable now but keeps growing longer.

Who needs the Lakers, anyway?