BH Interview: Veteran Critic Still Gets Thrill from New Film Discoveries

As Newsweek's chief movie critic for 31 years, David Ansen attained prominence at the top tier of famed reviewers, just behind Siskel and Ebert while also maintaining the same populist sensibilities employed by the two most famous thumbs in America.

But since retiring he has been pretty busy as the artistic director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, which made a big leap to a prime downtown movie complex in 2010 and started lining up major American film premieres, with this year featuring Woody Allen’s latest “To Rome With Love,” Steve Carell and Keira Knightley’s wonderful “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” and Steven Soderbergh’s latest, “Magic Mike.”

But the fest also has plenty of unique films to offer from around the globe, with 45 filmmakers presenting their works during the showcase’s run from last Friday, June 15, through Sunday.

Ansen spoke about his experiences as a critic as well as this year’s lineup with Big Hollywood, along with sharing just how many movies he’s seen over a lifetime in darkened theatres.

Big Hollywood: What do you think the move downtown has brought the fest and have you been involved in any other festivals before?

David Ansen: I think that move downtown was a good one. It feels more like a fest down there, the crowds are younger and more diverse and there are state of the art screening conditions at Regal. Excitement and ticket sales are building with it. For eight years back in the ‘90s, I was on the committee of the New York Film Festival for eight years, served on juries in other fests.

LAFF is special in being one of the most filmmaker-friendly fests in the world, as we do filmmaker retreats with 45 feature filmmakers who are flown into Skywalker Ranch and get to know each other before the fest and have a great couple days up there that creates a family feeling that lasts throughout the fest. 

It also is a festival in Hollywood, so our access to talent here is unlike any other place. So we have all types of workshops and special events allowing people to hear from experts in all kinds of filmmakers. Woody Allen is coming for the opening night of his film, and it’s hard to lure him out of New York City. Of course Soderbergh and the cast of “Magic Mike.” I think we have 45 filmmakers coming this year, which may be a record, and a lot of them are from all over the world. Some really talented new directors you might not have heard of before, but coming out of this you will.

BH: What are the new films you’re most impressed by? 

DA: Alex Tarpovsky’s “Red Flag” is a very funny neo-Woody Allen kind of comedy with really distinctive voices. There’s a lot of films by women, with one called “Breakfast with Curtis” that’s a very unique joyous movie – and you don’t see joy in a lot of American movies. There’s also a wonderful documentary field this year: high profile ones like the one that won Sundance, about the failure of the war on drugs and rise of the prison industrial complex and another on homophobia in Uganda that’s incredibly involving and audience sobbed at the Berlin fest.There’s a delightful surprising doc called “The Iran Job” about an American pro basketball player who played in Iran for a year, a fish out of water sports doc but becomes something more as he meets women fighting theocracy in Iran.

BH: And how did you wind up becoming a critic in the first place?

DA: I wasn’t planning on being one. I grew up in LA and dad was in the movie biz, so I was taken to movies a lot and started keeping  a list when I was 12 of all the movies I saw with their title and my star rating. I was a critic without knowing it from the beginning and kept that list going my whole life.

I always knew I wanted to write – fiction, screenplays - and put my love of writing and movies together and it clicked. I started with a counterculture paper in Boston, and two years later I was hired by Newsweek. I’m up to close to 10,000 films, with “The Third Man” starring Orson Welles and made by Carol Reed being one I can watch over and over with undiminished pleasure.

And now I’m seeing more than ever in this job. I don’t have to see the dreckiest of the dreck. 5,000 movies are submitted, so teams of screeners take the first look. It’s always exciting to discover a gem out of nowhere - that thrill of discovery when someone you never heard of knocks your socks off.

The LA Film Fest takes place through Sunday at the Regal Cinemas LA Live theater in Los Angeles. For schedule and tickets, visit www.lafilmfest.com.


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