Spent nearly all of Sunday in Westwood at the Los Angeles Film Festival and as I remarked to a number of people at the very end of the night, it was a very good day of festival going. Sunday found the village abuzz with activity - champion jump-ropers and environmental shorts on the festival promenade, numerous talks with actors, directors, writers and composers, and a strong line-up of films, including the first LAFF screenings of three films I've been wanting to see.
First up was Helen Hood Scheer's JUMP!, which prompted the jump roping exhibitions mentioned and shown above. It's almost hard to remember the time, pre-Spellbound, pre-Mad Hot Ballroom, that films dealing with competitions and youth were not a sub-genre all to themselves. This year there have been docs about debate teams, jazz bands and class elections, not to mention another jumper doc which played earlier this month at Silverdocs. But JUMP! reminds you why the genre works and why, when the films are done well, they are such popular, crowd-pleasing successes. Scheer follows six teams (ages range from 12 to 19) from across the US as they practice for upcoming regional and national championships. Stylistically, the film has a lot going for it, with an amazing opening title sequence by Tomorrow's Brightest Minds (who also did the graphics for my film, About A Son) and the fast-paced, montage editing of Scott Morgan. I'd have loved to have seen more full routines late in the film, but Scheer makes a convincing case that the sport is unusually collegial, and lacking the cut-throat competition seen almost everywhere else. In that atmosphere, it makes sense that the subjects are likable and winning, and their athleticism is obvious.
At the Q&A following the world premiere of JUMP! (from left), three of the jumpers featured in the film, composer Matt Messina, LAFF's Doug Jones, writer & editor Scott B. Morgan and director Helen Hood Scheer.
Next up was Jennifer Venditti's BILLY THE KID, the winner of the jury prize at SXSW, where it premiered. This for me was a revelation, an amazingly structured and beautifully rendered film about what it is to be an outsider, starring one of the most interesting characters to grace documentary film since, well Mr. Vig in The Monastery. (It must be a banner year for docs if we can get to meet both Mr. Vig and Billy in the same year.) Venditti's film is so graceful, so funny and yet, at times, so difficult to watch, I found it to be one of the most humanistic films I've seen in some time. There are those who have criticized the film, feeling that Billy was somehow exploited in the making of it. I couldn't disagree more. This is a story of a teenage boy beginning to embrace who he is, coming to terms with what he believes, learning to face his past and have courage in his present. It is, simply, one of the best films of the year.
Took a short break to stop in at the reception for Constantine's Sword, a film that I haven't seen yet but about which I've heard rave reviews. (One person at the reception - unrelated to the film - told me that they'd just watched the film for the third time and told me it was a must-see.) Got to have a glass of wine or two with some of my favorite people in the doc community and we talked about the films that we'd seen of late.
Finally, I was off to the Crest to catch Craig Zobel's GREAT WORLD OF SOUND. I met Craig and Pat Healy, one of his lead actors, at the festival in Sarasota (where the film tied for the prize in the Independent Visions competition) and we got to hang out again in Newport and then again in Vegas. Each time, our films were programmed against each other, and we'd have this conversation that it was kind of weird that they put these two films about music up at the same time. Watching the film last night, I suddenly realized, "oh, it's 'cause their film is funny."
More than that, though, watching GREAT WORLD OF SOUND made me feel like I used to when I watched independent films. The joy of discovering a new filmmaking voice, new actors and a situation that was unfamiliar. And Zobel's mix of narrative and nonfiction devices is a revelation - completely seamless, effortless and without pretense. I may have been predisposed to wanting to like Craig's film based on our newfound friendship, but I ended up loving it because it's fresh and smart and extremely well-crafted and, frankly, hilarious.
By the end of the night, I thought, wow, these last two films today are gonna be two of my favorite films of the year. That's more than I usually get from a day at a festival, but it's what happened to me on Sunday in Westwood.