Updated: Mar 8, 2019
When the Las Vegas Film Festival organizers announced former CineVegas programmer Mike Plante as their “Captain of Strategy” earlier this year, they were obviously making a serious commitment: Nearly every selection I saw at this year’s festival seemed like a clear reflection of Plante’s taste, honed not only over the years he spent working with CineVegas programming director Trevor Groth before that festival’s untimely demise in 2009, but also the 17 years he’s spent working on programming for the Sundance Film Festival (where he’s currently senior programmer for short films).
Plante’s involvement meant that almost all of the features in this year’s LVFF (held once again at the Brenden Theaters inside the Palms) were genuine festival favorites, acclaimed at major film events including Sundance, South by Southwest and Tribeca. That’s a great sign for the overall quality of the festival’s offerings, although it also means that there weren’t any unique discoveries at this year’s event. My two favorite features, David and Nathan Zellner’s deadpan Western Damsel and Bing Liu’s affecting personal documentary "Minding the Gap, will both be available soon to general audiences (albeit almost certainly not in theaters in Las Vegas).
The Zellners have a long association with CineVegas and LVFF, so there’s a certain amount of pride in bringing their biggest production to date (starring Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska) to the festival. And while the Zellners may have a bigger budget and some recognizable stars this time around, they stick to their oddball style, with a bone-dry sense of humor, abrasive characters and long, slow scenes often full of silence.
That may make Damsel sound like a chore (and indeed about a third of the tiny audience at the Wednesday-night screening I attended walked out during the movie), but if you’re on the Zellners’ wavelength, it’s hilarious and engaging, with an off-kilter, unpredictable storyline that features Pattinson and Wasikowska as alternating protagonists. The Zellners subvert familiar devices of Westerns, beginning with Pattinson as a noble cowboy out to rescue his beloved from kidnappers, and letting the story spiral delightfully out of control from there.
Minding the Gap, which has been racking up awards at festivals since its premiere at Sundance in January, is a lyrical coming-of-age story focused on director Liu and two of his close friends, working-class teen skateboarders in rundown Rockford, Illinois. Over a period of years, Liu gathered footage of his friends skating, hanging out and struggling to figure out their lives, in a movie that starts like a breezy skate video and eventually deepens into an examination of class, race, domestic abuse and toxic masculinity. Although he gives more screen time to his friends, Liu also turns the camera on himself, and in all cases he never shies away from confronting tough, painful issues. The result is a movie that is as heartbreaking as it is hopeful.
Also heartbreaking, but in a more inscrutable way, is Christina Choe’s debut feature Nancy, starring
Andrea Riseborough as the title character, a lonely, depressed woman who also appears to be a pathological liar. When Nancy tells an older couple (played by Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) that she’s their long-lost daughter who was kidnapped 30 years earlier, it’s not clear whether she’s just conning them or is essentially conning herself too. The ambiguity gets a bit tiresome, especially since so much is left unresolved, but the performances (particularly from Riseborough and Buscemi) are all very strong, and the movie mostly works as a character study of a character who doesn’t even understand herself.
It was a bit disappointing that Plante and the other programmers didn’t include any local features in the lineup this year (after a high of five Vegas-connected features in the 2016 program, and two last year), but the third of three shorts program showcased work from a number of talented locals (and former locals), including Charles Cantrell, Chris McInroy and Jake Pepito.
Cantrell’s Yule Tidings is an absurd, madcap comedy about two friends attempting to throw a Christmas party, thwarted by their possibly Satan-worshiping next-door neighbors. McInroy’s We Summoned a Demon (which previously played at the Dam Short Film Festival and the Sin City Horror Fest) is an equally absurd comedy, with copious gore, about two friends accidentally conjuring up a denizen of the underworld. And recent UNLV grad Pepito’s Thrifters is a gentler comedy about two thrift store-obsessed friends whose dedication to shopping efficiency eventually comes between them.
Among the non-local shorts, highlights included the very funny Pink Trailer, from writer-stars Macey Isaacs and Jenny Leiferman, about two friends house-sitting for one’s vacationing grandmother, in a mobile home suffocating in cute decorations; Don’t Be a Hero, starring Missi Pyle as an aimless woman working a dead-end retail job and living with her mother, while leading a secret double life as a bank robber; and Nevada, a poignant stop-motion animated drama about a couple’s pregnancy scare while on vacation.
This year’s festival felt more focused, streamlining the feature selections under Plante’s direction and trimming the number of shorts (which have been a festival strength in recent years). Turnout at many of the screenings I attended was small, but the crowds grew over the weekend, and when I saw Plante on the afternoon of the last day of the festival, he was off to talk strategy for next year with festival president Milo Kostelecky. LVFF has pretty much always been an event in transition, and this year was no exception. The future direction of the festival looks to be in good hands.