A couple of weeks ago, in a cramped room at the Newport Beach Film Festival office across from John Wayne Airport, most of the programming staff shared their many, many favorite titles that will be screening this year. Based on the unbridled enthusiasm detected in their faces and voices, here are the top 12 in descending order.
1. Redline. The pole position is awarded to Takeshi Koike's anime from the famed Madhouse Studios in Japan. The animator known for Ninja Scroll and Animatrix is reunited with his longtime collaborator Katsuhito Ishii (Funky Forest: The First Contact) for a wild ride about top drivers from across the universe participating in an illegal underground racing competition to crown the best of all. Think of it as Speed Racer meets Cannonball Run with a little of the Star Wars bar scene thrown in. At Big Newport. May 2, 7:30 p.m. $15; film and Asian Showcase Block Party, $35; party only, $25. Also at Lido. May 3, 3 p.m. $12.
2. East Fifth Bliss. When Michael C. Hall, who stars in director Michael Knowles' debut feature, was mentioned, a female programmer swooned. When Hall was mentioned at a subsequent Weekly staff meeting, a female intern swooned. Based on his best-known roles in Six Feet Under and Dexter, a repressed-gay-mortician/straight-serial-killer vibe must be the true key to a woman's heart. Here, in a dramedy based on Douglas Light's novel of the same name, Hall plays schlubby Morris Bliss, a 35-year-old New Yorker who won't grow up until the sexually precocious daughter of a former high-school classmate comes along to help unravel and open up his life. Hall comes to Newport Beach opening night, so if you hear swooning coming from that direction. . . . At Big Newport. Thursday, April 28, 7:30 p.m. Film and Opening Night Gala, $125; gala only, $80. Black tie optional. 21+.
3. Guard Dog Global Jam. "We love Bill Plympton!" said Leslie Feibleman, the festival's director of special programs, of the Portland-born animator whose shorts have played at NBFF several times. A couple of years ago, Plympton issued a worldwide call via the Internet to artists to re-create the 70 images in his Oscar-nominated masterwork Guard Dog, which is about an overprotective guard dog. Animators, working in the styles of their choosing, responded with the scenes in this Plympton mash-up that, Feibleman observes, "transcends his own style." Screens as part of Criminal Shorts and More program at Triangle Square. May 1, 3:30 p.m. $12.
4. Hand Held. "We love Don Hahn!" Feibleman also said of the longtime Disney producer (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) who took over the helm of the festival's annual Walt Disney Studio Spotlight retrospective program from the late Roy E. Disney. Hahn will be at it again with Disney creative director David Bossert this year. But Hahn also has a documentary feature he produced and directed as a regular festival selection that examines photographer Mike Carroll using his photographs to expose the world to the pediatric AIDS epidemic in Romanian orphanages. Bring hankies. At the Lido. May 1, 3:30 p.m. $12.
5. Puppet. You know what else festival folks love? Puppets. The late Jim Henson is honored at every other festival (or at least it seems so, not that we're up here in the Muppet Theater balcony complaining), and among this year's special events is the Handmade Puppet Dreams Highlights program that showcases nine short films from a new generation of puppeteer filmmakers. That's followed by David Soll's feature-length documentary about one such artist, Dan Hurlin, struggling after a New York Times review prematurely closes his show. But there is more to the film than one puppeteer's lonely battle, says associate director of programming Amanda Salazar. "This gives the whole history of puppetry. It shows where puppetry has gone as an art form." At Triangle Square. Handmade Puppet Dreams Highlights program, May 1, 1 p.m.; Puppet, 3 p.m. $12.
6. Silver Tongues. The winner of the Best Narrative Feature Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year is also the favorite Newport Beach selection of senior programmer Jay Winterstein. Scottish-born director Simon Arthur and a cast of unknown actors made this American thriller about a couple getting its jollies by traveling from town to town fucking with strangers. But the game spirals out of control, leaving the audience to figure out who are the true victims. "It's one of those films that always keeps you guessing," informs Winterstein. At Triangle Square. April 29, 7:45 p.m. $15; film plus Showcase Party at Newport Lexus (3901 MacArthur Blvd., Newport Beach), $40; party only, $25. 21+ .
7. Superheroes. Another Winterstein fave from Sundance is Michael Barnett's documentary about people who create real superhero costumes and personas before patrolling actual streets. Are festival organizers trying to persuade some of these caped crusaders, whose names include Master Legend and Apocalypse Meow, to come to Orange County? You bet your sweet spandex, fair citizens. At Triangle Square. April 29, 7:45 p.m.; May 4, 5:15 p.m. $12.
8. Trollhunter (Trolljegeren). Senior programmer Max Naylor has a soft spot for Norwegian director André Øvredal's horror flick, which was another fan favorite at the last Sundance. Three Norwegian film students venture into the woods (Jeez, haven't they seen any horror films?) to investigate mysterious bear killings. There they encounter Hans, a black ops government type whose job is to protect the masses from the violent trolls who rule the forest. Let's hope festival organizers are not trying to bring them to Orange County (unless the superheroes get here first). At Triangle Square. April 29, 8:15 p.m.; May 3, 5:30 p.m. $12.
9. Simple Simon. If festival director of programming Erik Forssell had been in the room with the rest of us and not out teaching his film class (um, priorities!), he would have told me his favorite is Swedish director Andreas Öhman's sweet boy-meets-girl story—with a strange twist. Simon is an 18-year-old with Asperger's syndrome, who likes space, science and circles but knows nothing about love. Then his brother gets dumped, and Simon takes it upon himself to find bro a new girlfriend—using science, of course. At Big Newport. May 3, 7:45 p.m. $15; screening followed by International Showcase Party at Fashion Island (401 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach), $35; party only, $25. 21+.
10. Space, Land and Time: Underground Adventures With Ant Farm. I've learned not to question the Art, Architecture + Design program Feibleman puts together every year as her selections are invariably the best documentaries presented at the festival. When she says don't miss Elizabeth Federici and Laura Harrison's documentary about the 1970s architectural collective Ant Farm, book it. Best known for its Cadillac Ranch land-art piece, the collective shunned the traditional corporate architectural model, embracing alternative methods, materials and lifestyles. Like the collective, Feibleman says, the film "celebrates the joy of creating." At Triangle Square. May 1, 1 p.m. $12.
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11. Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place. Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney shares directing duties with his producing partner Alison Ellwood for this examination of the trippy California-to-New York trip taken by 1960s icon Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. The author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest not only led the journey in a drug-loaded school bus painted in psychedelic colors, he captured it on 16mm film, but his footage had not found an audience until Ellwood and Gibney restored it with the help of Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation. "That one I think will do very well for us," Feibleman said of the Sundance hit that contains never-before-seen footage of the Grateful Dead and Jack Kerouac's On the Road partner Neal Cassady. At Triangle Square. May 1 , 8 p.m.; May 5, 2:15 p.m. $12.
12. Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone. Everyone was excited about the new music series, and eyes really lit up during our discussion of Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler's documentary on the South-Central LA punk-funk band born the year before Ronald Reagan seized the White House. Brothers John Norwood Fisher and Phillip "Fish" Fisher, "Dr. Madd Vibe" Angelo Moore, Kendall Jones, "Dirty" Walter A. Kibby II and Christopher Dowd smashed musical genres, racial stereotypes and political order, along the way influencing Ice-T, Perry Farrell, Gwen Stefani, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Gogol Bordello, among others. Some turn up to praise the 'Bone, while Laurence Fishburne narrates. You will be funked. At Triangle Square. May 4, 7:30 p.m. $12.