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Preview of Movies to Watch at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival

The 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) begins June 16, and runs through June 26

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Big budget blockbusters, sequels, and comic book adaptations dominate the annual summer movie season, but there’s an excellent alternative Southern California filmgoers can search for more diverse programming. The 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF), which begins tonight, June 16, and runs through June 26, will feature a wide range of exciting premieres, retrospectives, and short film programs throughout its ten-day run. Whether your taste sways toward the adventurous or mainstream, there’ll be something for every cinematic palate.

LAFF’s opening volley houses some serious star power, screening the world premiere of Bernie, a dark comedy starring Jack Black and directed by Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater. The two previous struck gold with the excellent The School of Rock.

Other high profile Gala screenings, which will undoubtedly sell out so act quickly, including screenings of the soon-to-be-cult hit Attack the Block, an alien invasion film set in the ghettos of London, and Drive, a Los Angeles-based genre firecracker directed by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. I was lucky enough to see Drive at The Cannes Film Festival this year, where the film won the Best Director prize. It’s one of 2011's best and not to be missed.

The heart and soul of LAFF remains its Narrative and Documentary Competitions, where diverse and edgy fare dukes it out for the respective festival awards. Dynamiter and Sawdust City, both competing in the Narrative block, look like interesting entries on paper, each focusing on regional character-driven stories. In the Documentary camp, Salaam Dunk, which follows an Iraqi team of novice female basketball players, will surely be festival hit due to its pertinent subject matter and potential for sports film crossover success.

The Summer Showcase screens a number of independent and documentary films industry folk are already buzzing about since many have screened at other festivals, including Sundance and South-by-Southwest. I’ll be catching Miranda July’s The Future, the quirky auteur’s follow-up to her critically acclaimed debut film, Me and You and Everyone We Know. Also on my list of must-sees: Another Earth, a keen melding of science fiction and melodrama that could be this year’s equivalent to Monsters, The Guard, a jet-black comedy starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle, and Terri, and independent comedy starring John C. Reilly as a vice-principal trying to help a distraught student.

There will also be a fascinating sidebar highlighting the latest in foreign cinema entitled The International Showcase, which screens Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within, an action-packed sequel to the international hit from 2007. Later in the festival, I’ll be blocking out 4+ hours for Raul Ruiz’s mammoth period piece, Mysteries of Lisbon, the director’s first film in nearly ten years. Talk about an event.

LAFF Guest Director Guillermo del Toro will introduce some neglected films that influenced his work, while the festival offers a variety of other intriguing sidebar programs. A Retrospective series will give you a chance to revisit films like Boyz in the Hood, Das Boot, and Elia Kazan’s Wild River on the big screen, and an International Spotlight on Cuba plus the Documenting Mexico series will undoubtedly shine a light on those country's social and political issues. The Films That Got Away series is one of my favorite programming ideas, providing a rare opportunity to catch films that have never screened on the West Coast before.

The Los Angeles Film Festival is primarily held at the Regal Cinemas L.A. Live near The Staples Center, but will also show films at The Downtown Independent and The Redcat Theaters, so make sure to check the listings before buying tickets. The commercial area surrounding L.A. is perfect for a dinner and a movie combo, if you’re feeling like a cinema-themed trip up the coast.

Look for my Wrap-Up coverage on the last day of the festival, including film reviews and other festival highlights. For screenings and locations, please go to lafilmfest.com