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10 Movies at AFI Fest You Need to See

Christophe Paou, left, and Pierre Deladonchamps play lovers in Stranger by the Lake.
Christophe Paou, left, and Pierre Deladonchamps play lovers in Stranger by the Lake.

AFI Film Festival is one of L.A.'s top cinephile gatherings, aiming to feature the best films from the world's best film festivals throughout the year. 2013's edition, in particular, offers an embarrassment of riches. Narratives about family weigh heavily in this year's programming, with filmmakers from around the globe tackling the subject with approaches ranging from comedy to political allegory.

Below are the Weekly's recommendations of 10 movies worth seeing. We've left aside the big studio pictures screening at the galas, instead giving attention to the under-the-radar offerings that will be more difficult to see after the festival is over.

In addition to these films, be sure to check out the special events. For instance, AFI Fest will host a conversation with director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) on Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. at the TLC Chinese Theatre — that's sure to be a hot ticket. Plus, David O. Russell is speaking about his new film, American Hustle, on Nov. 8 at 9 p.m. at the Egyptian. More info on all events is at afi.com/afifest. —Ernest Hardy

B Is for Boy: Proving that mother-in-law tension is universal

In just the first moments of their greeting, the wariness with which pregnant Amaka (Uche Nwadili) and her mother-in-law gaze at one another telegraphs years of barely masked mutual disdain. It's one of many crackling scenes in this Nigerian production, in which 40-year-old Amaka and her husband, already parents to a precocious daughter, are expecting their second child. When the pregnancy ends in tragedy, Amaka is set on a desperate course of action. Writer-director Chika Anadu uses this narrative frame to explore clashes between modernity and tradition in contemporary Nigeria, revealing how age-old gender rules and expectations still exact heavy costs for women. (E.H.)

Gloria: I'm looking for baggage that goes with mine

Paulina García deservedly won Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival for this beautiful Chilean character study, about a middle-aged divorcée fighting hard to remain vibrant and alive. First seen picking up men at a local disco, Gloria eventually forms a serious relationship with one of them (Sergio Hernández), but gets more and more frustrated with his inability to extract himself from the rubble of his previous marriage. García underlines Gloria's melancholy by making her overly chipper in other people's company, and the character deepens enormously as the film goes along, until what had looked like miserabilism resolves into a moving paean to resilience. (Mike D'Angelo)

Like Father, Like Son: The prince and the pauper in Japan

Two Japanese families are ruptured after learning that their young sons were switched at birth in the hospital. One family is headed by a wealthy, abrasive architect used to getting his way; the other dad, a laid-back electrician, lives almost hand to mouth but is a teddy bear to his wife and kids. The men's personality differences clearly manifest along class lines, shaping the very dynamics of their homes, but in the hands of masterful writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda, what unfolds as the two families grapple with a solution is a sublime look at fatherhood, class, gender and childhood. Charming and poignant, Like Father, Like Son is one of the year's best films. (E.H.)

Manakamana: The joy is in the journey

This elegantly paced, gorgeous documentary has inspired walkouts at some film festivals, where a few patrons felt it was slow, tedious or pointless. True, it is a measured film experimenting with repetition, long shots and long stretches without dialogue. But as directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez allow their camera to simply capture the faces, attire, dialogue (if there is any) and interaction (if there is any) among assorted pilgrims making their way across Nepal Valley in cable cars, headed to the Manakamana temple, the film gracefully evolves into a hypnotic exercise, becoming the very thing — a spiritual excursion — it seeks to capture. (E.H.)

The Missing Picture: Brutality told through toys

Having previously documented the atrocities of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge via more traditional documentary form (most notably in S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine), Rithy Panh takes a more unusual approach in recounting his own childhood under the brutal regime. Since almost all of the archival footage from the era was government-sponsored propaganda, Panh re-creates the daily lives of his family and other ordinary citizens using clay figurines, either posed on diorama-style sets or superimposed onto photographs. Rather than feeling gimmicky, the device proves surprisingly poignant, especially as accompanied by poetic voice-over narration that captures the distant throb of long-ago suffering. (M.D.)

Moebius: Korea does gross-out comedy, too

Korean director Kim Ki-duk's latest provocation could more appropriately be titled Dickless. Beginning with a distraught mother cutting off her son's penis with a butcher knife, it somehow manages to escalate from there, with almost the entire male cast eventually winding up schlong-free and devising alternate methods of sexual release. It's not always easy to know how serious Kim is, but Moebius unmistakably plays like a Troma-style sick comedy (complete with lots of hilarious Google searches on terms like "orgasm no penis"), and those who aren't easily offended or grossed out will find themselves howling. (Mike D.)

The Past: Divorce, Iranian-style

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's Paris-set follow-up to his masterful A Separation stars Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) as a woman whose long-estranged husband (Ali Mosaffa) arrives to belatedly finalize their divorce, complicating her engagement to another man (A Prophet's Tahar Rahim) in unexpected ways. Farhadi may be the greatest pure dramatist alive right now, working terrain that's been left mostly fallow since the heyday of Ibsen and Strindberg. The Past hits its central metaphor a tad hard, and relies more on sudden revelations than its predecessor, but it still achieves a singular power. Not to be missed. (M.D.)

The Selfish Giant: Metal men

Clio Barnard's previous film, The Arbor, was such a unique hybrid of documentary and theater that it was hard to imagine what her first stab at pure fiction might look like. As it turns out, this loose adaptation of Oscar Wilde's short story could have been made by Ken Loach or Shane Meadows, though either one would have to be at the top of his game. In particular, Barnard gets terrific performances from newcomers Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas, as two young boys whose efforts to make some ready cash by stealing valuable scrap metal and copper wiring eventually take a tragic turn. (M.D.)

The Strange Little Cat: An audacious first project

One of the year's most delightful, unclassifiable whatsits, Ramon Zürcher's debut feature (which began life as an assignment for a workshop he was taking with Hungarian director Béla Tarr) unfolds almost entirely within the confines of a German apartment, observing the chaotic interactions of an extended family on an apparently ordinary day. Nothing of any significance happens, yet the film's precise compositions, staccato rhythm and discordant sound design combine to create a beguiling window into a slightly altered state of consciousness. Here's a chance to get in on the ground floor with a potentially major filmmaker. (M.D.)

Stranger by the Lake: When your crush is a murderer

It might seem odd to apply the word "subtle" to an erotic thriller set on a French gay cruising beach in which total male nudity and unapologetic depictions of gay sex are on full display. But director Alain Guiraudie has crafted a slyly subversive film in which he upends expectation with such a light touch that what shocks the viewer isn't sexual frankness but the power of the story and its masterful plotting. Franck falls for Michel after spotting him several times at the beach, and shortly after they hook up, Franck accidentally spies Michel commit murder. Instead of reporting what he sees, Franck continues the affair, setting a wild chain of events into play. Languidly paced, with excruciatingly mounting tension as it unfolds, Stranger is an absolute must-see conversation starter. (E.H.)

See the rest of our AFI preview issue:

AFI Fest: The Race to Find the Year's Best Indie Films

Charlie Victor Romeo's Script Uses Actual Black Box Recordings From Plane Crashes

AFI Fest 2013: Frequently Asked Questions


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