For the last several years, I’ve gone into each edition of the Las Vegas Film Festival with the hope that it would merely be a slight improvement on the last, so even though this year’s festival took place in a new location (Inspire Theatre and Scullery Downtown) and had a more promising slate of films, I showed up with my previous skepticism intact.
And the changes were so impressive that it was like attending an entirely different festival. New programming director West McDowell, who came onboard toward the end of planning for last year’s festival, put together an ambitious and diverse program, full of movies made with genuine passion and artistry. My favorite films included The Infinite Man, a clever, funny, sometimes headache-inducing time-travel love story from Australia; the extremely weird ensemble comedy Party Time Party Time, created by a group of improv comedians from Chicago; and the inscrutable but often hauntingly beautiful drama Memphis.
Even the movies I didn’t like were worthwhile choices for the festival, which hasn’t been the case in the past (when the programming leaned more toward middle-of-the-road pandering). McDowell also increased the festival’s commitment to local filmmaking, showcasing the Vegas premiere of Popovich and the Voice of the Fabled American West, the second feature from local filmmakers Jerry and Mike Thompson (disclosure: I was one of the movie’s Kickstarter backers, and I have a brief cameo). It’s cute and fun, a family-friendly story starring Strip headliner Gregory Popovich and his animal performers, along with some of the Thompsons’ signature oddball characters (Mike nearly steals the movie as a character known as Space Mime). Northern Nevada-shot feature The Motel Life, with production work by Downtown’s Lola Pictures, also played to a packed theater.
Quite a few screenings played to packed houses at Inspire, although the secondary screening room at Scullery hosted much smaller crowds. There were occasional technical glitches, and the Scullery screening room suffered from poor audio insulation and uncomfortable seats. There’s still room for improvement at next year’s event, but for the first time, it’ll have an established high standard to live up to.