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The AFI Films You Need to See 

Our critics' recommendations for the best of the fest

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Los Angeles' own Fall Classic returns this weekend, with AFI Fest 2011 (running Nov. 3-10) making good on its promise to be a Festival of Festivals.

Not only will most of the past 12 months of film festival triumphs be presented over the course of the next 10 days, many of them still without distribution, but Lane Kneedler and Jacqueline Lyanga's programming team has also done an excellent job of cutting a swath through multiple sectors of cinephilia, from international award winners (the Berlinale-topping Iranian drama A Separation; Aleksandr Sokurov's recent Venice champ, Faust) to glam-but-serious studio flicks (Clint Eastwood's opening-night selection J. Edgar; red-carpet galas for My Week With Marilyn and Roman Polanski's Carnage) to the cream of no-budget American indies (such as Brooklyn exports The Color Wheel and Green).

Avid festgoers surely know by now that the ticketing system has changed, somewhat controversially: The movies are still technically free (thanks again to presenting sponsor Audi), but each moviegoer now is entitled to a limited number of advance tickets per person. Of course, you can still rush the box office the day of the show, or if you don't want to deal with that hassle, you can buy one of the passes and ticket packages, priced from $100 to $5,000. Convenience, as always, has a price; good thing the AFI team has curated a collection of films that are priceless.

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For screening locations and times, see afi.com/afifest.

ALMAYER'S FOLLY Chantal Akerman's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's first novel wastes no time in dispelling any fears of literary stodginess, opening with a hypnotic set piece in which the camera seems less interested in the brutal murder of a pop singer than in the weirdly oblivious reaction of one of his numerous backup babes. Flashing back, the film then details the various self-inflicted misfortunes of Almayer (Stanislas Merhar), a Dutchman in Malaysia whose liaison with one of the locals gave him a mixed-race daughter (Aurora Marion) and a head full of fucked-up colonial-era notions about purity. Akerman, who also wrote the screenplay, has shifted Conrad's story forward from the 1890s to the 1950s — keeping it period, while noting that the colonial era never ends — but her alchemy is primarily formal. The film is an odd, fascinating amalgam of mobile camera work, declamatory performances, striking locations and baldly theatrical staging — a work of pure cinema that nonetheless has one foot in the novel and another on the stage. Its only significant deficiency is Merhar, an inexpressive actor for whom Akerman, who also cast him as the lead in 2000's La Captive, has an unaccountable fondness. —Mike D'Angelo

A SEPARATION Eyebrows were raised when a small Iranian melodrama by a relatively unsung director, Asghar Farhadi (About Elly), swept the top awards at the most recent Berlin Film Festival. If anything, that jury was too circumspect. Radiating outward from a middle-class couple's decision to call it quits, which initiates a chain of increasingly fraught incidents far too complex to summarize here, this intimate epic of conflicting self-interest and good intentions gone sour restores the good name of classical, character-driven screenwriting, which had all but vanished from art cinema. Farhadi has a terrific eye and intuitive camera sense, but it's his rich understanding of human nature, worthy of nonhyperbolic comparison to the likes of Ibsen and Chekhov, that repeatedly stuns. Among a multitude of other heartrending triumphs, A Separation captures like no other film the ways that parents unwittingly manipulate and even emotionally terrorize their kids, convinced that they're acting in the child's best interest. The cast, meanwhile, is pitch-perfect down to the smallest roles — which is crucial, since it's in the nature of Farhadi's moral reckoning that there's no such thing as a minor character. Miss this masterpiece at your peril. —Mike D'Angelo

BONSAI Based on a novella by Alejandro Zambra, Cristián Jiménez's second feature begins with a voice-over spoiler: "At the end of this film, Emilia dies and Julio remains alone." In chapter segments, Jiménez shuttles back and forth between two time periods: literature undergrads Emilia (Nathalia Galgani) and Julio (Diego Noguera) meet at school in idyllic Valdivia and fall in love; eight years later, Julio, now living in Santiago and casually sleeping with neighbor Blanca (Trinidad González), begins to write a novel about a man looking back on his first serious relationship — a veiled gloss on Julio's own memories of Emilia. The core of Julio and Emilia's affair — and of the film — is the habit he develops of reading aloud to her before and/or after sex, depicted as a deeply romantic manifestation of the couple's bond. When Blanca begins typing Julio's handwritten manuscript under false pretenses, it's a less satisfying replication of the idealized past that only strengthens Julio's obsession with having "let the only woman he ever really loved go away." A bittersweet and low-key pondering of the ways in which fiction and unreliable recollection consciously and unconsciously infect and shape relationships, Bonsai is a quietly moving testament to art as shared experience. —Karina Longworth

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