The 25th year of AFI Fest kicks off tonight with the world premiere of Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar starring Leonardo DiCaprio. To guarantee admission to any of the films, of course you can buy a festival pass, but like the last couple of years, tickets are available for every film individually for free. You can get details and screening schedules at the AFI Fest website.

While I was only able to see 6 of the films in advance myself, I’ve been keeping a close eye on the major festivals throughout the year and have a pretty strong list of stuff I want to see. Read on for a few recommendations and a survey of some of the more interesting looking screenings this year.

First, let me break down the 6 films I’ve already seen roughly in order of how much I liked them and then I’ll run through the most promising films by category.

Pina. I can’t say Pina is the best film of the festival until I see more, but I can say it’s one of the best movies of the whole year, period. I have little familiarity with modern dance and had never really been curious about it, but Wim Wenders’ 3D celebration of legendary German dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch really blew me away. It’s the first use of 3D I’ve seen where the technology was integral to the film and made it better rather than just being an excuse to inflate ticket prices. While it doesn’t quite replicate the “you are there” feeling that the 3D hucksters would have you believe, in some ways it’s a better experience than really seeing the dance performed on stage. Wenders takes you up close and moves his camera in and around the performance while the illusion of depth gives it a vitality it couldn’t quite achieve in two dimensions. Consisting mostly of Bausch choreographed dance numbers, Wenders also slips in thoughts and remembrances and commentary from those who made up Bausch’s troupe. What quietly and movingly emerges is a picture not only of a gifted dancer and a revolutionary choreographer, but also a woman who had the stuff to bring out the best in those around her. If you’re already a fan of dance, this is a must see. Even if you’re not and the film still doesn’t inspire passion in you and move you, then you’re dead inside. Special Screenings Program. (AFI page) RECOMMENDED

Green. With Sophia Takal’s feature directorial debut, it’s easy to see why she was chosen as one of the Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film in 2011. Made on a shoestring with a tiny crew, Green charts the relationship of a scruffy hipster Brooklyn couple who spend 6 months in the rural south so the boyfriend can blog about sustainable agriculture. Perhaps it’s the stress of a new environment, or perhaps the relationship was already on shaky ground (the boyfriend is pretty much a patronizing dick) or perhaps it’s the pretty-if-pretty-simple local they meet played by Takal herself, but the seeds of jealousy take root and threaten to drive the couple apart. Interestingly, Green unfolds exactly like a horror movie – complete with creepy, unsettling score and sound design – so that you’re constantly waiting to see if and how everything is going to blow up. It’s an interesting choice, but what sets Takal’s film above scores of others of its kind is the psychological incisiveness and emotional honesty it’s based on. Takal probes some very difficult mental terrain with a clear-eyed directness you’d expect from an older person. Rather than another pose by a young artist designed to net her more lucrative Hollywood gigs, Green feels like the first strong expression from a new voice in film. The filmmaking is rough around the edges, perhaps by design, but it is self-assured, nice to look at and has a haunted, dreamy quality that fits the psychology of the main character. Recently nominated for the Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near Your award at the Gothams, Green is the kind of movie you hope for when you take a chance on a first film from an artist you don’t know. Young Americans Program. (AFI page) RECOMMENDED

The Kid with a Bike. Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne paint another humanist portrait of characters on the fringes of society with this Cannes prize-winner. This time they focus their lens on a little boy named Cyril (Thomas Doret) who has been abandoned by his father (Dardenne regular Jeremie Renier). He’s taken in by a hairdresser named Samantha (Cecile de France), but a little care and roof over his head aren’t quite enough to help him through his abandonment issues leading him to act out and form a friendship with a local hoodlum. Cyril’s behavior is often infuriating, especially in light of the kindness shown him by Samantha, but he’s essentially blameless. Will Samantha’s kindness and care turn out to be enough to save Cyril before he finds himself on a criminal path he won’t be able to return from? Quiet, subtle and leisurely paced but never boring, The Kid with a Bike is another winner from the Dardennes. Special Screenings Program (AFI page) RECOMMENDED

Alps. If you really loved Yorgos Lanthimos’ twisted, dark, violent and unsettling Dogtooth, you might actually be disappointed at how humane  and melancholy his followup Alps turns out to be. It’s still odd, but it has a much more thoughtful and philosophical bent and it’s much less willfully subversive. Like Dogtooth, the less you know going in the better so I won’t explain too much of what it’s about. Suffice it to say it involves a strange team of people who have dedicated their lives to comforting those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. What that exactly entails isn’t revealed until 30 minutes or so into the film, but from that point on, I think Alps uses an extreme situation to probe basic human relationships. It’s similar in a way to how Dogtooth amplified family relationships to comment, among other things, on parenthood and more broadly on politics. I know that probably doesn’t convince you to run right out and see Alps, but I promise you you’ve never seen anything quite like it. World Cinema Program. (AFI page) RECOMMENDED

Melancholia. For a guy who seems to thrive on stirring up trouble, Lars von Trier is unsettlingly calm and implacable in the face of crippling depression and of the end of the world. He looks at both here in his latest film which is divided in half to tell the story of two sister. The first half shows self-destructing depressive Justine (Kirsten Dunst) on what should be the happiest day of her life, her wedding day. Except it isn’t. It’s a complete disaster and Justine seems to be the one sabotaging it herself. Part two involves Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). By this time, Justine has been effectively crippled by depression and has come to stay with Claire and her family. And, oh yeah, a mysterious planet is heading for earth threatening to destroy all life as we know it. The irony here is that depressed Justine is completely at peace with the end. To her, life has no special meaning anyway and the world is kind of a terrible place. Not for Claire though. She’s a wife and the mother to a young son and she’s devastated by the idea there might be no future for any of them. Though always intrigued, overall I never felt fully engaged with Melancholia. It had many great moments, particularly a haunting and beautiful, yet disturbingly apocalyptic dream sequence that made up the film’s prologue. I wish the rest of the film had been as impactful as the first 8 minutes, but it’s still something to see. Special Screenings Program. (AFI page) RECOMMENDED

The Color Wheel. I’m not going to be that guy who dumps on tiny films from young filmmakers, but at the same I’m not going to tell you to run out and see a movie I just wasn’t crazy about. A squabbling sibling road trip comedy that mines the awkward early 20s for laughs, The Color Wheel is the sophomore feature of Alex Ross Perry (Impolex) who also stars alongside Carlen Altman. The dry, ironic humor may well be your cup of tea in which case you’ll happily overlook the indifferent direction, acting and camerawork leading up to a finale that seems to come out of left field until you think back and remember the signs were there all along. For me, fewer jokes hit than missed so it didn’t grab me, but your results may vary. Young Americans Program. (AFI page)

Galas

These are the films that give the festival its sizzle. While it’s fun to see the red carpet and the searchlights outside the historic Chinese Theater (which is a wonderful place to see a movie), keep in mind that all of these films will be opening in LA within the next few weeks. Plus, if last year is a guide, even if you have a hard ticket you might not get in depending on how many industry types show up. If you don’t have a hard ticket, you may be able to get leftovers on the day of the show or you can try the rush line. Since everything is free, you have nothing to lose but time, though that time might  be better spent discovering a movie you’ve never heard of. Having said that, there are from very intriguing galas this year and if you simply have to carve of a slice of star-studded Hollywood, this is the place to start.

  • Shame. This is the gala film I’m most interested in seeing. Director Steve McQueen and his star Michael Fassbender made quite an impression with Hunger and now they’re back with this story of sex addiction. Carey Mulligan co-stars. Not every critic has loved the picture (most are positive), but everyone seems to agree that Fassbender is once again something to see.  (Opens in theaters 12/2) (AFI page)
  • The Artist. Michael Hazanavicious and his stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo made a pretty big splash with the fun international spy spoof OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies a couple of years back. They’re all back this time with a silent, black and white ode to 1920s Hollywood. It received a great reception when it premiered at Cannes earning Dujardin a best actor prize and it has continued to light up the festival circuit along the way. There has been no small amount of Oscar talk surrounding The Artist, though I wonder how much audiences will warm up to a silent film. On the other hand, The Weinstein Co is distributing so underestimate it at your own peril. (Opens in theaters 11/23) (AFI page)
  • The Adventures of Tin Tin. The initial buzz over Steven Spielberg’s adaption of the beloved comic by Herge seemed to be strongly positive, but the overall reaction has been much more mixed with a number of Tintin fans crying foul. Personally, I have no familiarity with the source material and I’m curious to see if Spielberg can do anything more interesting with 3D mocap technology than the disappoints that have come before.(Already playing in Europe. Opens everywhere 12/21) (AFI page)
  • Carnage. I’ve heard limited grousing from a couple of people who are fans of the original Broadway production of the comedy Gods of Carnage, but this is Roman Polanski so who cares? Besides, the reviews so far have been decisively positive. Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz star as a pair of couples facing off after their children are involved in a playground fight. (Opens in theaters 12/16) (AFI page)
  • J. Edgar. This year’s opening night gala comes only a week before the film’s theatrical open, yet there are no reviews so far of Clint Eastwood’s bio of the late FBI director starring Leonardo DiCaprio and the trailer looked kind of unbearable. Still, this is the film’s world premiere and if you go for that kind of thing, it ought to be kind of exciting. (Opens theatrically on 11/9) (AFI page)
  • My Week With Marilyn. Response has been muted for this story of the time Marilyn Monroe spent in England filming The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier, but Michelle Williams herself has been getting good notices as the icon everyone recognizes but no one really knows. (11/23) (AFI page)
  • The Lady. Reviews of Luc Besson’s bio of Brumese activist Aung San Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh) haven’t been great, but I like Yeoh and I’m curious to see what Besson does with a movie without action scenes. David Thewlis costars. (12/2) (AFI page)

Special Screenings

Not quite as high profile as the galas, the special screenings can always be counted on for good stuff that will be lighting up the arthouse circuit in the next several months.

  • We Need to Talk About Kevin. Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller star in this well-reviewed Cannes hit from Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar), a psychological thriller about a mother confronting the awful truth about her first-born.  (AFI page)
  • Rampart. Woody Harrelson’s performance as a dirty cop whose personal and professional lives crumble during the LAPD’s infamous Rampart scandal is the main drawing card of this second film from Oren Moverman (The Messenger, also with Harrelson) written by novelist James Ellroy (LA Confidential). Is it strong enough to get him an Oscar? We’ll see.
  • Jeff, Who Lives at Home. This is 2nd pic for a major studio by indie favorites Mark and Jay Duplass (Baghead, Cyrus). Jason Segel stars as Jeff, a late-bloomer who still lives with his mom whose world is plunged into existentialist drama when a simple errand for mother goes off course. Susan Sarandon, Ed Helms and Judy Greer co-star. (AFI page)
  • Coriolanus. Ralph Fiennes makes his feature directorial debut with this adaptation of  Shakespeare’s late tragedy about a noble general whose military skills do not serve him well in politics. Fiennes, who also stars, has kept Shakespeare’s verse but has updated the setting from Ancient Rome to modern times. Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave and Gerard Butler co-star. (AFI page)
  • Into the Abyss. Werner Herzog’s latest documentary has gotten another raft of terrific reviews. This time he takes on a Texas death row case, but unlike recent court dramas, this one never questions the guilt of its subject, but instead looks at the system that would put him to death for his crimes. (AFI page)

Guest Artistic Director – Pedro Almodovar

Each year the festival invites a film community noteworthy to a handful of films. This year’s guest Pedro Almodovar has lined up presenting Nightmare Alley (1947) starring Tyrone Power, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) which was a pretty clear inspiration for Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic crime drama starring Alain Delon Le Cercle Rouge (1970), the director’s own Law of Desire (1987) and finally Robert Siodmak’s sharp-edged noir The Killers (1946) starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. (AFI page)

 

Spotlight on Joe Swanberg

Some people love Joe Swanberg (Hanna Takes the Stairs) and others find him unbearable. I fall somewhere in between but those on the positive end of the scale will be thrilled I’m sure to screen the three latest from the king of mumblecore: Silver Bullets, The Zone and Art History (AFI page).

World Cinema

Some of the best of the most recent crop of foreign films that have been making waves at festivals around the world.

  • The Turin Horse. The latest (and reportedly the last) from arthouse favorite Bela Tarr was inspired by a supposed mental breakdown suffered by Friedrich Nietzsche at the sight of a horse being whipped. (AFI page)
  • A Separation. Iran’s official submission for the Foreign Language Oscar which tells the story of a modern Iranian family torn by divorce has been pretty much universally beloved since its Golden Bear-winning debut at Berlinale. (AFI page)
  • Faust. A retelling of the legend of Dr. Faust, the new film from Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov (Mother and Son, Alexandra, Russian Ark) has wowed and confounded/bored critics in equal measure. Previous fans of the filmmaker seem to be more receptive. (AFI page)
  • Almayer’s Folly. Noted Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman (Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Buxelles) takes on Joseph Conrad’s novel. (AFI page)
  • The Day He Arrives. South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo (Night and Day, Woman on the Beach) returns to AFI with a loosely plotted character study of a man whose life is either the same day-in and day-out or he’s literally reliving the same day over and over. I can relate. Filmed in beautiful black and white. (AFI page)
  • Arirang. Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring) retired from filmmaking after an on-set accident nearly took the life of one of his cast. Here he directs, shoots, edits, scores and stars in a kind of documentary/self-interview about his art and his reasons for retiring. (AFI page)
  • This is Not a Film. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Pahni has been in the news a lot in the last couple of years for his imprisonment and ban from filmmaking by his home country Iran. This is Not a Film is a document of his experiences. (AFI page)
  • Extraterrestrial. I really enjoyed Nacho Vigalondo’s twisty sci-fi debut thriller Timecrimes so I’ve been looking forward to his follow-up, a romantic comedy about a man who meets the girl of his dream on the day earth is invaded by aliens. (AFI page)
  • Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Nuri Bilge Ceylan directed Turkey’s official entry in the foreign language Oscar race. A confessed killer leads the police on a cross-country journey to the place where the body is buried… only it turns out he can’t quite remember the exact spot. (AFI page)

2 Responses to “LiC’s 2011 AFI Fest Preview”

  1. Wow that’s really an impressive list of films and a ton of information you’ve compiled there, and I always enjoy the little Craigisms and turns of phrase you use to jazz the blurbage up. Real world busyness and injury have kept me away from the blogosphere more than I’d like lately, but I feel a lot more informed about what I want to see this next year just from reading this post. Handy.

    I’m already envious of the “only six” AFI films you got to see earlier, particularly Pina. That’s an awfully strong write-up of Green, too. If I were the director, I’d be pleased.

    The others I most want to see are Shame, The Artist, Into the Abyss, Coriolanus, Rampart, and A Separation. I’m quite curious about many of the others, too.

    Sounds like a great festival. Have fun!

  2. Shame is definitely the biggie for me this year, though I’m also looking forward to We Need To Talk About How Awesome Tilda Swinton.

    I’m curious about The Artist, but alas I’m not cool enough to have gotten an invite from The Weinstein Co.

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