The Top Features of L.A. Film Fest 2012

This past Sunday marked the end of the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival, which boasted the world premieres of big ticket films like "To Rome With Love," "Magic Mike," "Brave" and "Seeking a Friend For the End of the World." But the heart of the fest is in its lesser-known titles, the indie flicks without distributors or making festival rounds and the docs that may be destined for Oscar nominations.

Here we take a look at the former of these categories with our favorite narrative features of L.A. Film Fest 2012.

3. "Robot and Frank" (dir. Jake Schreier)

Throw together the tropes of a cantankerous old man with Alzheimer's movie, a heist flick and a science fiction picture, and you get "Robot and Frank," a film set in the near future where people have the option of buying robot companions, butlers, assistants and the like to help in everyday life. Frank Langella plays Frank, an ex-thief reaching old age who clearly isn't all there anymore, whose son, played by James Marsden, gets him one of the newfangled robotic inventions to keep him healthy while he's living alone in a remote area of upstate New York. Though Frank is initially skeptical, he soon finds use for the robot and develops a friendship with him despite the robot's constant reminders that he is not a person and cannot feel.

"Robot and Frank" explores the real-world possibilities of owning robots in a fascinating way, exploring how one can manipulate something that's based in logic and how even when we are told over and over that a thing cannot reciprocate our feelings, we have an overwhelming desire to anthropomorphize, especially if the thing in question is able to have a conversation with us. Making the choice to view this changing world through the eyes of a man somewhat stuck in the past was an ingenious move, as the changing technology seems just as new to Frank as it does to us. Even the way people make themselves up is somewhat futuristic, with hints of "The Hunger Games" Capitol in the hairstyles and makeup of the women at a fancy party.

Langella gives an outstanding performance, which is not surprising considering his pedigree, and in addition to James Marsden, he is joined by a warm Liv Tyler, a radiant Susan Sarandon and a robot voice on par with "Moon"'s Kevin Spacey in Peter Sarsagard . A third act emotional punch to the gut will immediately make you want to see the film again as you dab welling tears in your eyes and puts a new perspective on everything you've just witnessed, but the end will leave you somewhat hopeful when you catch a glimpse of just how much of an indelible mark Robot has left on Frank. It's refreshing to see a movie dealing with something as difficult to watch as Alzheimer's in a fresh, atypical way, in that it brings you closer to the subject and makes you empathize more strongly.

"Robot and Frank" is a wonderful and promising debut feature from director Jake Schreier, who really wanted to depict a future that wasn't dystopic but rather a natural evolution from where we are now (for the positive) and present a robot that was neither evil nor capable of developing a heart but represented more accurately where we could be headed. A bold move to make in the genre field, but one that works exceptionally well, joining the ranks of fellow 2012 films like "It's a Disaster," "Extraterrestrial," "Sound of My Voice" and "Safety Not Guaranteed" as a smart indie flick that use science fiction in a clever, minimalist way, proving that tropes and catalysts rather than special effects are where the value lies in sci-fi and providing a lovely and poignant piece of filmmaking.

2. "Celeste and Jesse Forever" (dir. Lee Toland Krieger)

When at first you hear about a movie starring Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg, a very specific idea comes to mind: Wacky comedy times?! Instead, the two friends who've always wanted to work together star in this bittersweet "loved" story about best friends Celeste and Jesse who after six years of marriage decide to get a divorce but continue to hang out as best friends, with Jesse even living in the guest house instead of completely moving out. What ensues captures beautifully and heartbreakingly the reality of a finite breakup, from the unconscious denial to the power plays and struggles, to the guilt, to the yearning, to the letting go -- "Celeste and Jesse" gets it all in, and thanks to some crafty filmmaking that seems to mirror Celeste's state of mind, you feel very much a part of her psyche as the film goes on, always understanding her motivations even if you disagree with her actions.

Jones delivers a fine performance, proving that she is so much more than the supporting girlfriend/best friend character she's rocked for years. Samberg too has a surprisingly low-key charm to him. Although others I've talked to at the fest were on the fence about his performance, I bought him as the goofy slacker who eventually realizes love isn't enough and, though it almost kills him, must keep it hidden the best he can. The movie is also littered with great smaller roles from Ari Graynor, Chris Messina, Elijah Wood playing the gay friend who wants to be a gay friend stereotype so bad but he just isn't and Emma Roberts as a young pop star Celeste is forced to work with. While the film is romantic in its own way and very funny at times (a scene where Jones and her co-writer of the movie, Will McCormick, get stoned stands out), it is far from a romantic comedy, so don't kid yourself going in. But as an original tale of two people saying goodbye, the film succeeds on all levels.

1. "It's a Disaster" (dir. Todd Berger)

While the other movies on this list were ones I had heard great things about before seeing them, "It's a Disaster" screened for an audience for the very first time at L.A. Film Fest. While many people are drawing comparisons to the similarly premised "Seeking a Friend For The End of the World,"  the two are in fact entirely different genres that just happen to be set against similarly apocalyptic circumstances. "It's a Disaster" is an out and out comedy, one of the most hilarious ones I've seen all year, that manages to still be grounded in reality with plenty of heart surrounding its goofball core.

The film follows eight self-involved Los Angelenos gathered for a typical Sunday Couple's Brunch who discover that the world is coming to end right outside their door. The problems bubbling beneath the surface for the couples come to a breaking point when they're faced with imminent death, as each person adopts a very specific way of dealing with this sudden grief over their fleeting mortality. The characters are deliberately more offbeat and ostensibly unlikeable than anyone in "Seeking a Friend" but they never ring false, and you still find yourself relating to their relationships, interactions and coping mechanisms, growing to love each one, quirks and all, by the end. The conversations these characters have are ones we've all had at one point or another, and the multiple pop culture references are sublime because of *course* our brains would go there (You saying you wouldn't think of "Armageddon"  during the Armageddon? I don't believe you) -- this movie is just smart enough to go ahead and voice them.

But to get into any real specifics would ruin some moments too perfect to spoil. In fact, every moment in the film lands so well that, despite my overwhelming desire to recount the jokes to everyone know, I have to restrain myself because they are just too good to take away from in any way.

The film, produced by (and starring) many members of the comedy troupe The Vacationeers, was shot in two weeks in one rented house, after director Todd Berger watched "Night of the Living Dead" and so admired the idea of a film taking place in one location with one group of people while disaster occurs outside. Having shot a viral video with Julia Stiles in 2009, they decided to send her the script to "It's a Disaster" -- because these guys are effing talented, she loved it, and brought some other well-known people on board, the result of which is a cast filled out with folks like America Ferrera, Rachel Boston and David Cross, performing alongside Vacationeers regulars Kevin Brennan, Jeff Grace and Blaise Miller. The chemistry is top notch, the jokes well placed and satisfying and the specificity in performance (Julia Stiles' last scene in particular comes to mind, but there is not a weak link in the entire cast) is stellar. The film has yet to receive a distributor, but I'm positive it will be paired up with a great studio in no time, especially if any representative was at the raucous premiere at LAFF Wednesday night and saw how well the film was received by its audience.

Honorable Mentions:

- "Dead Mans Burden"'s authentic and exceptional costume design from Courtney Hoffman.

- "History of Future Folk"'s jaunty original bluegrass tunes.

- "Gayby"'s delectable screenplay and performances, especially from star Jenn Harris and the director Jonathan Lisecki as bear-in-training Nelson.

- "P-046"'s elegiac exploration of identity.

- "Juan of the Dead"'s almost literal dance of death and the energetic zombie massacre scenes that bookend it.

- "Sister"'s skilled performance from 14-year-old lead Kasey Mottet Klein.

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