2014 Los Angeles Film Festival—My Top Picks

The 20th Los Angeles Film Festival has come to an exciting conclusion and I've ended my daily commute on the infamous LA freeways to take stock of my nine fun-filled days in sunny Southern California. As usual, I used Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and Instagram to cover the festivities in real time, and posted nightly wrapups with capsule reviews of all the movies I saw. Hopefully you followed along and were able to join me in experiencing the events as if you were there.

The first time I headed west to California for the LA Film Festival was way back in 2008, when the events took place near the UCLA campus in Westwood. Two years later they moved downtown to the brand new (at the time) L.A. LIVE complex, whose Regal Cinemas became the host venue. This was their fifth year at that location and they've settled in to become a big part of that area's draw every June.

The quality of this year's lineup easily surpassed my previous tour of duty here, resulting in one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences I've had in the past year. LAFilmFest 2014 wowed me from the very first screening, so it's a formidable challenge for me to narrow down my favorites to just a few. But, as I do following every festival (this was my 70th since the start of 2006), this wrapup will conclude with my list of Top Picks.

First, some statistics. I attended 19 screenings, including three shorts programs. The total number of short films was 32 (including shorts attached to features). There were 16 full-length films, including one documentary. Therefore, the total number of narrative features was 15. I also went to a screening of Richard Linklater's epic 12-year project Boyhood at the iconic Arclight Hollywood (see my interviews and Q&A pics) but it wasn't part of the festival. I'd missed it at Sundance and SXSW so I can't actually include it in any particular festival Top Picks, but it will be eligible for my year-end list since I do include festival films I saw outside of the fests.

As always, many countries were represented on my schedule. Nine of my 16 feature-length films were exclusively American while there were four US/foreign co-productions and three non-US pictures. The four American films with foreign participation included one US/Australia along with US/Iceland, US/Japan, and US/Argentina/France. The three exclusively from outside the US included two from Ireland and one from South Korea.

In some years as many as half the screenings I've attended were in other languages. This year only three were at least partially subtitled, including two US co-productions. Man From Reno was a US/Japan co-production but was set and shot in the US with Japanese-speaking characters. Recommended by Enrique, set in a Texas border town, was a US/Argentina/France co-production with several Spanish-speaking characters. The only true "foreign film," produced outside the US and completely subtitled, was 10 Minutes (Sib-Bun). Films with foreign financing that were totally in English included the two from Ireland (Frank and Jimi: All is by My Side) and the US/Australia, US/Japan, and US/Iceland co-productions. All were shot at least partially in the US.   

A big reason to attend festivals is to be among the first to see a movie. The Los Angeles Film Festival excels in hosting gala World Premieres. 11 of my 16 features were World Premieres and there was one International Premiere (first time outside country of origin). Only four had been screened at other US festivals. 

One thing that festivals offer over traditional cinemas is an exciting and informative Q&A session with the cast and filmmakers afterward. I saw one movie (Earth to Echo) at a non-public screening so we'll exclude that. Of the 18 remaining screenings, including features and shorts programs, 15 had Q&As while only three did not. At most festivals, pictures usually have at least two showings, and Q&As traditionally wane with successive ones. Of the ten first showings I attended, all but one had Q&As (Frank). Of my eight second screenings, six had Q&As while only two did not (10 Minutes and Jimi: All is by My Side). The three non-Q&A films were also among the four which were not premieres, so that makes some sense. But kudos to filmmaker Aaron Katz, who hosted a Q&A for Land Ho! even though it had played previous festivals.

Every year fewer and fewer films are actually, well, films. Or at least not shot on film stock. It wasn't that long ago when digital cinematography, primarily utilizing the RED camera, was a curiosity. This is now becoming the norm, while the Arri Alexa system is rapidly taking its place alongside the ubiquitous RED ONE (and newer EPIC) as digital camera of choice. This also allows many movies to be projected in the 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio ("scope") as opposed to the common 1.85:1 ("flat") which was the traditional format for domestic indies and foreign films featured at festivals. I used to mark "scope" in my notebook next to those titles, which were few and far between. Lately I've been noting the rare "flat" where it appeared since the overwhelming majority of narratives are being exhibited in the widescreen format. At this year's LA Film Fest, 10 of the 16 features were scope. Only six were flat, including my one documentary (The Overnighters), which is common for docs, and five narratives. Two of the narratives were found footage films, which almost demand the format (Inner Demons and Earth to Echo). The remaining three were The Young Kieslowski, Trouble Dolls, and Recommended by Enrique. Why aren't all films scope at this point? Sometimes it's simply an aesthetic choice (intimate character-driven films often take that route, like The Fault in Our Stars) or a financial one. 

The lost art of the opening title sequence is still, well, lost, as not one of my 16 movies kicked off the old-fashioned way. Four had a few credits or just the title before the action begins, six opened cold with no credits or title at all until the end of the movie, and the remaining six launched cold into a prologue followed by credits or just the title, which has been the film opening style of choice over the past few festivals I've attended. Therefore, 12 of 16 go straight into the first scene. One more reason to get in your seat early, shut off your phone, and shut your mouth. There's not a lot of time to get settled in. Fortunately, fewer films are resorting to conventions like the "opening overhead bed shot," car scene, and/or voiceover narration. The few times these were used I felt they were necessary.

Before I select my Top Picks, a few observations about the direction film festival lineups have taken in recent years and where we may be headed. One of the curious and, occasionally, most frustrating consequences of attending multiple films back-to-back is coming across trends which may or may not have been as apparent if not for the quick succession of these themes. Perhaps it's because I see so many low budget narratives at festivals, causing conventions and romantic comedy tropes to become tiresome, but I find myself tuning out a lot sooner than I used to. Here's a template for an indie trying to be mainstream: Begin with voiceover describing every character. For example, "This is my sister Bonnie. She broke up with her husband over a bad meatloaf. This is her girlfriend Kate. Kate likes to walk around the house with nothing on but a clown nose..." Make sure one of the first scenes is an overhead shot of the protagonist(s) in bed. If the first shot isn't a bed it's in a car. At some point, have the leads say, "I have something to say." "No, I have something to say." "Okay, you first." "No, you first." Unless there’s a very good reason for it, clichés like this will take me right out of the movie.

While death and issues surrounding grief are not uncommon topics, I first noticed this plot trend in 2009 when my favorites from Sundance (The Greatest) and Tribeca (Accidents Happen) both involved families grieving over the loss of a child and how parents and siblings come to cope with these tragedies. At one festival I saw six films centered on fathers dying of smoking-related illnesses. Three of these opened with a shot of a man lying in bed hooked up to tubes, coughing his lungs up. One movie opened with a young girl asking her mother, "Mommy, is daddy going to die?" The very next one opened with a young boy asking his mother, "Mommy, is daddy going to die?" I kid you not. I had an equally surreal experience at a recent Sundance. The first six pictures I saw all dealt with death. The first five of these included death and guns. Two involved death, guns, and suicide. One juggled themes of death, guns, and homophobia. And one had death, guns, suicide, and homophobia (the very first one I saw). I found myself walking into theaters saying, "Please don't let this be about death..." It wasn't until my seventh screening that I finally found a film without any of these four themes. But my very last movie there was, like the first one, about death, guns, suicide, and homophobia.

Sundance 2013 went down in the books as "Porndance," as the week was filled with tales of love, lust, and sex bordering on soft pornography. Grief and death played a prominent role in more than half of my choices at SXSW 2013 and at Palm Beach last year a whopping 17 of 27 films featured issues surrounding grief and death as significant storylines. At September’s Toronto International Film Festival I somehow ended up picking a number of selections dealing with death, guns, and suicide again. I went straight from Toronto to Austin, Texas for Fantastic Fest, a genre festival whose focus is on the crazy, twisted, and macabre to begin with. Those dark themes involving death, guns, grief, and mental illness are almost prerequisites for a film to be booked there. I had two films in a row which opened with a hanging. The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival last fall also proved morbidity isn't dead. The overwhelming majority of the films I saw there had death as a major storyline.

But relationship dramas dominated the last several festivals I attended, including Santa Barbara in January and Palm Beach in April -- and this year's Los Angeles Film Festival. "Write what you know," the old adage says, and screenwriters are doing just that. Even the most horrific ones had touches of humor, mirroring real life which, for me, is one of the definitions of an indie. Whether comedic drama or dramatic comedy (sort of like partly cloudy and mostly sunny -- I never could tell the difference) my favorites made me laugh and cry, often within the same scene. That's the power of cinema.

Summing up my experience at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival...there were only about five disappointments out of the 16 films I saw. Most met or exceeded expectations and there were at least a half dozen pleasant surprises. So please keep in mind that even the "worst" ones on my schedule here could, theoretically, be among the best at other festivals, and would make my Top Picks from those respective fests. Just because you don't see a title listed below doesn't mean I didn't love it.

I've narrowed the list down to my Top Picks using a one through five rating scale. Only one film deserved one star (avoid at all costs) and I gave two stars to two films (not recommended). Four films merited a three (I recommend it). That leaves the cream of the crop, which I've listed below. There were three with a rating of four stars, ones I'd not only recommend but also would see again. Five films merited five stars -- films I'd recommend, see again, and add to my DVD collection.

Here is my list of Top Picks from the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival. Countries of origin are listed in parentheses. Titles link to interviews, Q&A photos, and capsule reviews reviews where available.


FIVE STARS– (in alphabetical order)


The Ever After (USA, Australia) -- I was simply blown away by The Ever After, largely due to literally stunning, jaw-dropping performances from stars/co-writers Teresa Palmer and Mark Webber (who also directed). Hyperbole fails me. It's shocking, moving, powerful...Palmer and Webber pack so much in. The movie is truly blessed by the presence of Oscar winner Melissa Leo, as well...a goddess on Earth, and playing one here. It's always a joy to see this woman work. The icing on this cinematic cake is the music of Moby and Daniel Ahearn, whose original score packs a hauntingly powerful wallop. Raw, visceral, and hard to watch at times, full of "did I just see that?" moments. Yes, you did. This is what independent film once was and can be again, pushing the envelope of audience expectations. -- See my capsule review and Q&A photos

Nightingale (USA) -- As Iraq war veteran Peter Snowden, David Oyelowo's stunning performance is destined for recognition. Certainly another Film Independent Spirit Award nomination (and, hopefully, a win) is in his future. -- See my video interview with director Elliott Lester

Runoff (USA) -- This is what the sweet little American indie should be...an authentic story with believable actors in an honest setting, with production values worthy of a bigger budget movie. I was moved to laughter and tears, delight and horror, and in the end felt like I'd witnessed a true slice of Americana rapidly disappearing to Big Agriculture...the small family farm. -- See my capsule review, Q&A photos, and trailer

The Well (USA) -- Appropriate to the title of the section it was programmed in, the Los Angeles Film Festival went deep into The Beyond with The Well, led by a tour de force performance from 17-year-old Haley Lu Richardson and a career changer for Booboo Stewart, who lost a shocking amount of weight to play the role of a young man on the verge of death from kidney disease. They killed (in many ways). As expected, indie darling Michael Welch turns in yet another head-turning performance, stealing every scene he's in and leaving an emotionally powerful impression on the audience. Chinatown meets The Road in a post-apocalyptic neo-water wars world where years of drought have turned H2O into a commodity more precious than oil. -- See my capsule review, Q&A photos, and trailer

The Young Kieslowski (USA) -- This is only writer/director Kerem Sanga's second feature, and what an auspicious sophomore effort it is. The lion's share of the credit has to go to the movie's two charismatic young leads, Haley Lu Richardson (who also stars in my Top Pick The Well) and Ryan Malgarini as late blooming college students discovering first love -- and how refreshing to see actors playing their ages (they were 18 and 21, respectively, during filming). The picture's level of authenticity is grounded by that fact alone, and furthered by dialogue that's shockingly real. It's not that it feels unscripted -- it really doesn't (and that's okay) -- it's that the characters say what one would expect people to say in these often extraordinary situations in the non-movie world, not a writer's artificial construct to fit the boundaries of the plot and satisfy string-pulling executives. I found myself thinking, "Wow, they really said that" in moments where I thought I heard a "movie line" coming from a mile away. I was proven wrong time and time again, and boy, did it feel refreshing. -- See my full-length review and my Q&A photos, and trailer (Won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature)

 

FOUR STARS– (in alphabetical order)


Comet (USA) -- A sweet little film that takes us in a wonderfully enigmatic direction which, to reassure, is obvious even before the first frame as a title card indicates we're about to slide into parallel universes. Dell and Kimberly (Justin Long and Emmy Rossum) meet cute on a line waiting to get into a meteor shower viewing in a Hollywood cemetery (why not?), followed by haunting glimpses of what may or may not be a developing relationship over the course of the next six years. It's never clear whether we're seeing different versions of the same life or abbreviated glimpses of the past as our memory selectively chooses what it wishes to recall. Either way it's tantalizing, and Long & Rossum are delightful enough that we happily go along for the cerebral ride.-- See my capsule review and stills

Frank (USA) -- An absurdist comedic drama that takes viewers on a cryptic journey, figuratively and literally, across two continents in a band's search for recognition. The heart and soul of the movie is the titular musician (played by Michael Fassbender inside a fake head) who may be the most enigmatic character in recent indie film memory. The "songs" (not exactly Top 40 material) are real with live performances in lieu of dubbing, a plus. No spoilers here so I won't divulge the essential themes which are revealed slowly, but patience is required on the part of the viewer...especially as the film turns dark and heads off into a decidedly non-Hollywood studio direction which kept me on the edge of my seat. -- See my capsule review and trailer

Man from Reno (USA, Japan) -- The magical writing team of Dave Boyle (who directed), Michael Lerman, and Joel Clark does it again. This is an epic noir slow burn of a mystery thriller that's so multi-layered, so complex, so nuanced, you'll want to see it again and again. It wasn't a mystery that it was the hit of the festival. Both screenings sold out and it won the competition, taking the Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature. -- See my Q&A photos and trailer

 

I also want to give a recommendation to Earth to Echo, although I considered it to be more a theatrical preview than a true "festival film," as it's being released wide through Relativity this coming Wednesday. The Goonies meets Super 8 x 10. With some E.T., Gremlins, and Wall-E thrown in there as well. The kids are adorable, the story is somewhat plausible, and the effects are stunning with some jaw-dropping "oh wow" moments in the third act. Fast-paced found footage from teens' perspective, kids are loving it. For a non-studio film it's pretty impressive. Sure, it's derivative, but what's not? The negative reviews will call it a knockoff. I'd call it an homage. Nobody calls a murder mystery with adults a knockoff because it's been done before. So I don't see why kids and aliens can't be done as many times as the story, actors, and production allow for an entertaining film.



Author

Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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