Considering many films premiering at the Locarno Film Festival can take years to get a release here in the United States—should they get any at all—Locarno in Los Angeles has been a welcome addition to the festival scene. Now in its fifth edition, the series (curated by Jordan Cronk and Robert Koehler) highlights the best of Locarno over four days, and kicks off this Thursday at 2220 Arts + Archives. Check out our recommendations for what to seek out this year below.

Belle (Mamoru Hosoda)

If a name can trigger nostalgia, don’t be surprised when the occasional sense of deja vu sets in while watching Belle, a dazzling near-future tech fantasia wrapped around a tale, yes, as old as time. Directed by Mamoru Hosoda and mostly set in a vast online world of sweeping musical numbers and weightless action sequences, it tells of Suzu, an awkward teenager (as if there were any other kind) who finds quick fame performing as the pop-singer Belle: her avatar on a hugely popular social media platform called U that looks like a sugary cocktail of Tik Tok and “The Oasis” from Spielberg’s Ready Player One. – Rory O. (full review)

FIRST TIME [The Time for All but Sunset – VIOLET] (Nicolaas Schmidt)

Romance is front and center in Nicolaas Schmidt’s FIRST TIME, even if it’s not obvious. The opening plays Robin Beck’s power ballad over footage of ’80s Coca Cola ads of people showing outward expressions of love and affection before it transitions to the main event: a 40-minute single take of two young men sitting across from each other on the subway, total strangers who sit in silence on their commute while throwing quick, stealthy glances at each other every now and then. Schmidt sets the scene but leaves plenty room for interpretation, given the setup of the shot itself. You can admire views of Hamburg during golden hour; you can hone in on the soundtrack of post-rock tunes combined with the hustle and bustle of passengers; you can see a tale of unspoken queer romance building before your eyes; or you can just get bored senseless by two guys sitting on a train. FIRST TIME is a film made up of possibilities, and by laying them all out so plainly it makes a strong case for acting upon one’s own desire rather than letting the moment pass. – C.J. P.

From the Planet of the Humans (Giovanni Cioni)

What begins as a study of migration centered on a border station between Italy and France evolves into something wholly unexpected in Giovanni Cioni’s From the Planet of the Humans. Fans of Theo Anthony’s work will find much to appreciate in this peculiar, free-form essay film, which enthusiastically jumps around to tell the tale of Serge Voronoff, whose villa overlooked this border. A Russia-born, France-raised surgeon, he became known for his experiments in grafting monkey testicle tissue onto men. Exploring human-animal bonds, fascism, classic cinema, and no shortage of poetic quandaries on life itself, the documentary’s scattershot nature is part of its intrigue—we never know what Cioni may turn his eye to next. – Jordan R.

The Sacred Spirit (Chema García Ibarra)

Welcome to the OVNI-Levante Ufology Association, please take a seat. It’s the 37th meeting for this band of alien-obsessed misfits from Elche, Spain, and the last to be chaired by president Julio before he’ll pass away and leave the helm to his second in command, “Cosmic Pharaoh” José Manuel (Nacho Fernández). Not exactly the best time for a cabinet reshuffling, considering the six-strong OVNI-Levante has spent the past few months (years?) gearing up for a cosmic event which, the President has promised, will change the world as we know it. The date is looming; there’s no time to lose. Is it an extraterrestrial sighting these drifters are bracing for? An invasion? And how, if at all, is the mystery related with the disappearance of José Manuel’s 10-year-old niece Vanessa, gone missing 25 days ago? Darkly surreal, perched on the edge of comedy and drama, of social realism and the occult, Chema García Ibarra’s feature debut The Sacred Spirit is a UFO of its own: a rare, singular gem that skirts all attempts at pigeonholing and hangs in a volatile space. – Leonardo G. (full review)

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (Edwin)

Back in the ‘80s, martial arts B-movies from Hong Kong made their way into Indonesian cinema. People were obsessed with them because they were fun and entertaining, and most of all reflected the hyper-machismo culture that bloomed in the country during the regime of Soeharto from the late ‘60s to the end of the ‘90s. Most Indonesian men, influenced by how the country was ruled, were all about virility. If they didn’t know how to fight, they weren’t manly enough. However, in Edwin’s brilliant and offbeat sixth feature, the Golden Leopard-winning Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, this toxic trait of the country gets knocked down in a story about erectile dysfunction. – Reyzando N. (full review)

Virgin Blue (Niu Xiaoyu)

An impressively assured directorial debut and an effective memory piece, Niu Xiaoyu’s Virgin Blue follows Yezi, a recent college graduate who spends the summer with her dementia-ridden grandmother as dreams and reality converge. Unfolding with serene, rhythmic patience, this Chinese drama is equal parts haunting and soothing, a reverie to one’s final, fading memories and a family portrait suffused with spirituality. Reminiscent of another recent debut, Yui Kiyohara’s Our House, Niu Xiaoyu is clearly nodding to a number of masters, but does so with a refreshingly original voice. – Jordan R.

Zeros and Ones (Abel Ferrara)

There will never, ever be need to make the definitive COVID movie, and surely Abel Ferrara—who I once saw respond to an over-involved question with “yeah we all saw the movie bro”—would take my claim with, at best, a shrug and grunt. But nothing’s so transposed the sensations of being alive in spring 2020—wandering empty streets that make you feel like the last man alive, every meet-up with friends carrying the air of a clandestine operation, failing to compartmentalize bits and pieces of information from a phone—and especially nothing’s translated them to a narrative focused elsewhere. Maybe elsewhere. I remain uncertain what actually happened in Zeros and Ones, notwithstanding memory of the Vatican (?) blowing up and Ethan Hawke’s twin brother screaming patriotic agitprop. Who cares: a new classic, and already evidently one of the greatest films from a great American artist. – Nick N.

Locarno in Los Angeles 2022 takes place March 17-20 at 2220 Arts + Archives.

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