LA Film Festival: A Feast of Indie Movies, With a Side of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum

The 20th edition of Film Independent’s downtown fest has a few blockbusters in “festival-adjacent” slots, but its heart is in smaller, artier movies

The Los Angeles Film Festival, which officially kicks off on Wednesday night for an eight-day run in downtown Los Angeles, has always been a festival that’s hard to pin down.

And its organizers like it that way.

So this year’s festival, the 20th under the stewardship of Film Independent, began with pre-festival screenings of the would-be blockbusters “How To Train Your Dragon 2” and “22 Jump Street” and will end with Clint Eastwood‘s “Jersey Boys” – but in between there’s a week of small indies, challenging documentaries and wholly singular entries like the beautiful but unsettling Icelandic story “Of Horses and Men.”

It’s a festival for Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Kirsten Dunst, Emmy Rossum, Michael Fassbender and Liam Hemsworth, but it’s even more a festival for indie directors like Mike Ott, Denis Cote, Ira Sachs and Justin Simien.

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And in between the free public screenings of Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.” and “La Bamba,” the conversations with Oscar-winning composer Atticus Ross, female directors and showrunners including Nicole Holofcener and Marta Kauffman, and Sony Pictures Classics chiefs Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, it defiantly avoids any labels other than “that festival that takes over downtown Los Angeles every June.”

“I’m a little skeptical of themes,” artistic director David Ansen told TheWrap this week. “We’re a proudly eclectic festival that tries to program movies we love, and movies that are going to appeal to many different audiences — high and low and in the middle.”

Since it began in 1995 as the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, LAFF has been held in a variety of locations and has struggled with the fact that it’s not a destination festival like Sundance, Cannes or Toronto, but a hometown event that has to coax movie fans and industry types to see movies at the end of a workday.

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It’s never been a festival for showcasing awards contenders the way the fall festivals (Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York) are, or a thriving acquisitions market like Sundance or Cannes. But it seemed to have found a home when it moved to the downtown L.A. Live campus in 2010, where the Regal Cinemas multiplex lets it put almost all of its screenings under one roof.

The downtown site was christened that first year when the Lakers won the NBA championship at Staples Center, a block away from festival headquarters, during the opening-night screening of “The Kids Are All Right.” And this year, with “Kids” director Lisa Cholodenko back as guest artistic director, the Kings could win the Stanley Cup during Wednesday’s opening-night screening of Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” — though they’d be doing so in New York, albeit with a plaza full of fans watching on a big screen at L.A. Live.

If you don’t count the pre-festival screenings of “Dragon” and “Jump Street” — Ansen likes to call them “festival-adjacent,” and said they’re part of a tradition that began with “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” four years ago — this year’s LAFF is slightly shorter than it has been in past years.

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It kicks off on Wednesday with “Snowpiercer,” and runs through the following Thursday; in previous years, it had begun on a Thursday and continued for 11 days, through a second weekend. Ansen said the idea was to try a compressed schedule with more weekday matinees than usual, though it’s hard not to speculate that Regal didn’t want to give up half of their downtown multiplex for two consecutive summer weekends.

As for the programming that will be compressed into the shorter time frame, it’s typical LAFF fare, with an emphasis this year on on American independent films.

“When I took this job [five years ago] I tried to make the competition sections more international,” Ansen said. “But this is probably the least international narrative competition we’ve had in that time, because this was a particularly strong year for American indies. That was a pleasant surprise.”

Ansen also points to a number of strong documentaries throughout the festival, including Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam,” Jesse Moss’ “The Overnighters,” Johannes Holzhausen’s “The Great Museum” and “Winter’s Bone” director Debra Granik’s first doc, “Stray Dog.”

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Festival director Stephanie Allain, radio host and LACMA curator Elvis Mitchell and artist/scholar Roya Rastegar, meanwhile, collaborated on “L.A. Muse,” a special section devoted to films set in, shot in or inspired by Los Angeles — 11 films designed to celebrate the fact that this is the 20th edition of the festival.

Those films will include David Au’s “Eat With Me,” which explores family and sexuality through food; “Inner Demons,” a Glenn Gers horror film in which a reality-TV intervention show triggers a teen’s demonic side; and Elliott Lester’s “Nightingale,” a tour de force for actor David Oyelowo and the first script produced from the Black List website.

Apart from the special Los Angeles section, Ansen said the festival didn’t do anything particularly different with the programming to salute the milestone. “But we tried to have a very strong local talent participating in our non-film events, our master classes and coffee talks,” he said. “We want to really take advantage of being a Los Angeles film festival, and get people in the industry to share their wisdom.”

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Participants will include actors Demian Bichir and Alfred Molina, directors Kimberly Peirce and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, writers Susannah Grant and Ed Solomon and comics Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

LAFF also continued its tradition of taking its filmmakers on a retreat before the beginning of the fest, though the venue changed this year from Skywalker Ranch in Northern California to the desert resort town of Palm Springs — where, he said, most of the filmmakers ended up gathering in the swimming pool.

One director, he said, got out of the pool, came up to Ansen and said, “Spending half an hour in that pool was like having four years of film school.”