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The AFI Films You Need to See

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.

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

 

BULLHEAD On its surface, writer-director Michaël Roskam's debut feature tells the tale of the unraveling of the Belgian mafia's underground trafficking of illegal hormones. There's all manner of backstabbing and double dealing, a police informant with an out-of-bounds relationship with a cop and so on — fairly typical stuff, expertly relayed. What elevates the film into the realm of artful is the way Roskam unpeels the backstory of Jacky, the ostensibly dim-witted muscle of his criminal team. Racist, homophobic and with a hair-trigger temper that results in more than one horror, Jacky has been shaped by a tragedy that we see in a couple of extended and devastating flashbacks. Without being sentimental or overly manipulative, these flashbacks completely recast the entire film, adding new psychological and emotional depth. Roskam has assembled a fantastic cast, from his child actors to secondary performers, but it's Matthias Schoenaerts' performance as Jacky that makes the film. The blankness in the actor's eyes conveys everything from menace to vulnerability to an anguish that breaks your heart. It's a stunning performance. —Ernest Hardy

CARNAGE Roman Polanski brings Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage to the screen as a roundhouse comedy of manners, gleefully skewering upscale propriety as two couples spend a day deciding how best to deal with the fact that one's son cracked the other's son in the face. The dialogue is as much about what goes awkwardly unspoken as it is about the increasingly hostile (and drunken) exchanges between the couples (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly in one corner, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz in the other), but really the film is about Polanski's veritable graduate class in camera placement, blocking and the use of the frame. Every single shot is masterfully designed for maximum effect. The faults of the film are the same as the play, in that the notion that bourgeoisie politesse is but a thin veneer over pathological brutality isn't exactly news. Polanski creates deeper thematic nuance with a simple framing device, offhandedly opening with the altercation that remains unseen in the play as well as a coda that turns the parents' raging into even more of a triviality. The filmmaker even rescues a minor character presumed lost — sympathetic, as always, to survivors not unlike himself. —Mark Olsen

THE DAY HE ARRIVES One Hong Sang-soo movie is much like another — especially when it comes to the director's uniformly clueless and hard-drinking males, each of whom seems like a stand-in for some aspect of Hong's personality that he finds bleakly hilarious. The Day He Arrives openly acknowledges that sense of interchangeability and repetition, turning it into a more surreal, far less goal-driven Korean variation on Groundhog Day. As usual, our hapless hero is a filmmaker, just arrived in Seoul and bumping into friends, colleagues and fans on every street corner. We see what appear to be the next several days of his life, except that the same basic things keep happening over and over, though nobody seems to particularly notice or care. Nor is anything explicit made of the fact that a woman at a bar the guy frequents is played by the same actress seen elsewhere as his ex-girlfriend; the unacknowledged familiarity just adds to the cognitive dissonance. If there's a lesson to be gleaned from this orbital journey, nobody comes even moderately close to learning it. Hong has made more incisive movies (Turning Gate, Night and Day, Tale of Cinema), but this one may be his friendliest and funniest. —Mike D'Angelo

FAUST Aleksandr Sokurov's Venice Film Festival grand prize winner opens with a scene of a nude male corpse filmed at an angle that shows both his genitalia and his torso, the latter sliced apart and flapping open. This setup both nods to the original literary source and also evokes the Frankenstein tale — fitting, since both Faust and Frankenstein are about the price of human hubris in the pursuit of the unattainable. Sokurov's take on the story of the good doctor's bargain with the devil is a sometimes jarring mixture of tone and intention. Never establishing a time period more specific than "the olden days," Sokurov sets slapstick humor and energy jostling alongside a voice-over filled with philosophical musings on the meanings of art, power and life itself. Things move slowly at times, and this is not a film for the uninitiated, but what makes Faust a must-see for fans of the director is his promiscuity not only with tone but style. The film is filled with images that are painterly in their loveliness, but then veer off into effects of distortion, artsy blurriness and — in the case of the devil's hideous nude body — the grotesque. —Ernest Hardy

 

FOOTNOTE The intricacies of Talmudic scholarship don't leap immediately to mind as an ideal subject for high drama, but Israel's Joseph Cedar (Time of Favor, Beaufort) recognizes that tempers frequently rise in inverse proportion to the stakes, especially in academia. After many years of being passed over for the prestigious Israel Prize (a sort of national Nobel), an elderly professor (Shlomo Bar Aba) finally gets word that he's to be anointed, to the express delight of his adult son (Lior Ashkenazi, from Late Marriage), a rising star in the same field. Can you guess the complication? Cedar tries perhaps a little too strenuously to keep things hopping, employing whimsical interludes that would fit snugly in Amélie and setting much of the film to an aggressively histrionic score (composed by Amit Poznansky) that sounds like what you'd get if you coated Bernard Herrmann's stabbing Psycho strings with powdered sugar. But his depiction of petty politicking boasts a sly, knowing wit — one crucial conference takes place in an office so tiny that everybody has to shift position just to get the door open — and throughout, his sense of familial resentment could scarcely be more acute. —Mike D'Angelo

THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD Director Joshua Marston demonstrated that he was able to sustain almost unbearable dramatic tension in his debut feature, Maria Full of Grace; his follow-up illustrates a deepening of that skill. Working from a script by Andamion Murataj, Marston tells the Hatfields & McCoys–reminiscent story of two sparring Albanian families whose tensions finally lead to death. The layers of fallout from the bloodshed are the film's main focus: from religious and cultural dictates that the killer's family submit to housebound isolation, lest the males in his family be fair game for revenge, to the flouting of socially prescribed gender rules that would bar the teenage daughter from taking over the family business, which she does just to have some income coming in. But some of the film's most gripping moments revolve around the teenage son who, in the midst of a fledgling high school romance, broods and chafes against being tied to his house. His all-too-believable adolescent narcissism leads him not only to take foolish risks but to possibly commit an act of unforgivable betrayal. One of the film's great strengths is the ambiguity with which it suggests that betrayal — and the clarity with which it depicts the consequences. —Ernest Hardy

HANAAN The generic, seemingly off-the-cuff bedtime story that a Korean father tells his daughter at the start of writer-director Ruslan Pak's Hanaan is really a crucial bit of historical information setting up the grim, engrossing story that follows. The fairy tale is actually a recap of Stalin's forced relocation of Koreans to the Soviet Union's Asian territories, and in many ways Pak's film — a Korean/Uzbek co-production — is about the dark, enduring legacies of that displacement and forced assimilation. Stas is an ambitious cop whose boyhood friends, and his own past, exist on the shadier side of the law. When a hard-earned drug bust dissolves, a disillusioned Stas falls apart and starts living on the flip side of legality. The world depicted in Hanaan is violent and gritty, illustrating the underbelly of the immigrant experience (criminality, underground economies) as well as the ties often forged between immigrant families and the disenfranchised poor of their new host nations. It also shows how even the possibility of redemption might not put as much distance between the past and the future as one might wish. —Ernest Hardy

INTO THE ABYSS With his latest documentary, Werner Herzog takes a look at a capital-punishment case in Texas. Rather than produce an issue-oriented doc looking to free the innocent or right a wrong, the filmmaker instead ruminates on loss, absence and the placid oblivion of nature. The crime is plain stupid: Two young men hatched a plan to steal a car and ended up killing three people. One is executed for the crime — Herzog interviews him during his last days — and the other is serving 40 years. Herzog isn't interested in retrying their case, especially since it seems undeniable that the pair did what they were accused of, regardless of their pleas to the contrary. Herzog instead looks at what isn't there, the hole that a series of senseless acts has created, the chain reaction of lives forced into change. Rather than a film about the death penalty, Herzog has created a film about death, staring at the cavernous unknown of mortality and still finding beauty, mystery, strangeness, wonder and, most of all, a reason to go on. In typically Herzog-ian fashion, his response to death is to appreciate life, as if to ask, what else is there to do? —Mark Olsen

 

JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME Making the transition from the world of DIY indies to studio-distributed movies starring genuine famous people hasn't curbed the odd instincts of filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass, who with Jeff, Who Lives at Home have made their flat-out weirdest film yet. Jeff (Jason Segel) is a perennially baked layabout who feels particularly attuned to what he interprets as cosmic signs, Ed Helms is his hapless brother, convinced his wife is cheating on him, and — in a boldly distinct story line, at times like its own separate movie — Susan Sarandon plays their mother, whose late-in-life ennui opens up the possibility of an unlikely crush. What's best and most adventurous about Jeff is how purposefully flaky and digressive it is, using a stoner's intuition and wayward attention as guiding narrative principles. It's a shaggy-dude story with an emotional payoff, with the narrative strands dovetailing together for a singular climax. Sharp while knowingly a little stupid, heartfelt and sincere while also more than just a touch stylized  and slapsticky, Jeff is a resonant goof. —Mark Olsen

THE KID WITH A BIKE Like their 1999 Palme d'Or winner Rosetta, the Dardenne brothers' latest hits the ground running — a necessity if it hopes to keep pace with its manically driven title character. Initially — and tragically — bikeless, young Cyril (typically remarkable Dardennes discovery Thomas Doret ) refuses to accept that his deadbeat dad (Jérémie Renier) wants nothing more to do with him. During one of his frantic attempts to escape the state-run facility at which his dad has dumped him, Cyril quite literally runs into compassionate hairdresser Samantha (Cécile de France), who unexpectedly offers the lad a stable and loving home ... but desperation born of abandonment doesn't just vanish overnight. Where Lorna's Silence (2008) saw the Dardennes courageously moving out of their comfort zone (to the consternation of many, who seemed to find their use of a bona fide plot somewhat vulgar), The Kid With a Bike takes comparatively few risks, doubling down on the unsentimental but deeply empathetic naturalism at which the brothers excel. But if this isn't their most adventurous or exciting film, it's nonetheless immensely satisfying — not least in its commitment to a child protagonist whose near-feral intensity and unthinking ingratitude make him the polar opposite of cute. —Mike D'Angelo

KILL LIST A soldier turned workaday mercenary assassin (Neil Maskell) is struggling to settle back into a normal domestic routine after a job goes awry when he lands a new mission from mysterious employers. As he sets to his grim work, each successive target seems closer and closer to him, as if this job was designed specifically for him. A relentless study in narrative disorientation, Ben Wheatley's second feature mercilessly upends viewer expectations at every turn, creating a world in which human cruelty becomes discomfortingly commonplace, grimly marching toward the truly unthinkable. Wheatley's debut, Down Terrace, a queasy comedy about low-stakes suburban gangsters who barely ever made it out of their modest house, had a gripping sense of unease and mounting anxiety. With his latest film, Wheatley creates a tense version of horror that includes both ritual murder and awkward dinner parties, moving between such poles with a cruel, exacting precision. Seemingly random circumstances suddenly reveal a darker true purpose as Maskell's character is pushed on his way to a final freak-out that is devastating, unimaginable and somehow inevitable. When it's all over, audiences are sent reeling out of the theater with heads spinning and guts churning. —Mark Olsen

THE LONELIEST PLANET The second narrative feature from writer-director Julia Loktev (Day Night Day Night), The Loneliest Planet stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg as Alex and Nica, a newly engaged couple who hire a guide (played by real-life guide Bidzina Gujabidze) to lead them on a backpacking trip in the mountains of Georgia. The title, an apparent play on the Lonely Planet travel guides designed for boho tourists like Loktev's couple, takes on more complicated connotations as the trio delve into rugged, desolate terrain, both literally and figuratively. Within Loktev's scantly plotted narrative, single images become spoiler-worthy events. The film is bifurcated by an edge-of-your-seat-gripping shot in which the threat of violence, and Alex's and Nica's reactions to that threat, drastically alter the dynamic of their trip and of the film. Low on dialogue and as painterly as naturalistic, linear narrative cinema gets, Planet is literally a study in colors — the vibrant green landscape, blue- or green-lit interiors, Furstenberg's wild red hair filling the frame — and also the gradient scale of a single relationship. —Karina Longworth

OSLO, AUGUST 31 Joachim Trier's uncompromising and clear-eyed follow-up to Reprise is a quiet successor to Ingmar Bergman's and Lars von Trier's screaming poetics of depression. Set to a soundtrack of cool electronic pop, the film traces 24 hours in the life of Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a deeply melancholic, recovering drug addict who's given a day pass from his in-patient treatment facility. Anders has the ghostly presence of a man already gone from this world, his rare smiles fighting losing battles against the sadness that has eaten his soul. Trier has a remarkable understanding of the complexity of human interaction, expertly charting the scars in the air between people with shared histories, ever observant of the ways in which, during the course of a conversation, contrary emotions — love, anger, fear — ricochet against each other. With a predilection for long takes, alternating between tripod setups and handheld camera work that's reflective of Anders' unease, Trier presents life as an unceasingly tepid stream of the mundane — with an occasional, exquisite pinprick of hope. —Veronika Ferdman

 

ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA A three-car caravan snakes through the Anatolian steppe under cover of night, searching for a body buried somewhere by a pair of killers — maybe around the next bend, or over by the fountain near the road, or.... This sequence, which comprises nearly the first two-thirds of director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, is a pinnacle of HD photography, with headlamps carving false horizons out of the night — is the body just out of sight, on the other side? It's also a structural marvel, a beeline toward justice built of curlicues and digressions into local color that eventually reveal the film to be flailing against itself with Pynchonian grace. The rupture (or is it the rapture?) finally arrives in the most audacious cut of the year: Suddenly there is sunlight, and the body is found. As the search party disintegrate back into their quotidian tasks — the keystone kops (one bitter, one oblivious) and the murderers (one bitter, one oblivious) fall away entirely, leaving Ceylan's attention on a depressed prosecutor and a Tarkovskian medical examiner faced with an awful truth. It becomes clear that the horizon separating "justice" from morality can be seen only in the daylight. —Phil Coldiron

PINA Those already familiar with the work of legendary choreographer Pina Bausch won't necessarily learn much from Wim Wenders' 3-D documentary, which was intended to be a collaboration between the two artists but turned into a memorial tribute when Bausch died suddenly in June 2009. If you know little or nothing about modern dance, however — and especially if you believe yourself wholly uninterested — this dynamic primer may wreak some serious havoc on your preconceptions. Pedro Almodóvar recognized the cinematic potential of Bausch's intensely physical work almost a decade ago, featuring an excerpt of her "Café Müller" in Talk to Her, but even he might be surprised by how vital her routines remain when transferred from stage to screen. Wenders pushes in close to capture the ecstatic exertion of each individual performer, yet maintains a firm grasp on each piece as a single fluid organism. Interviews with members of Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal are unenlightening, but tend to be employed more as a rhythmic device than for their actual content. Even if you think this couldn't possibly be your thing, give it a chance. At the very least, it's one of a precious few recent 3-D films in which the extra dimension feels expansive rather than distracting. —Mike D'Angelo

PLAY Inspired by actual incidents that took place in Sweden a few years ago, this coolly methodical, stubbornly uninflected, practically real-time portrait of racial intimidation aims to make you uncomfortable, and succeeds handily. Three young boys — two white, one Asian — are accosted by a group of black kids in a mall and accused of having stolen a cellphone. What follows would be tough to believe were it not true: an all-day odyssey in which the black kids, without ever once making an open threat, gradually wear down their victims' resistance, secure in the knowledge that political correctness will prevent these well-heeled liberals from seeking help or even just walking away, lest those actions be perceived as racist. No doubt David Mamet would approve, but Play largely avoids his penchant for gleeful table-turning provocation, impassively observing the entire episode (which unfolds across an entire city) as it, well, plays out, almost entirely in exquisitely choreographed wide shots that demonstrate a keen eye for interspatial relationships among bodies. Only a too-pointed epilogue and a (mostly) unrelated parallel story about a cradle abandoned on a passenger train suggest that director Ruben Östlund may have loaded the deck. —Mike D'Angelo

RAMPART Woody Harrelson is getting to the point in his career where his lack of formal recognition probably feels like a problem — the kind of problem a movie like Rampart seems to exist primarily to solve. Directed by Oren Moverman (The Messenger) from a script co-written by L.A. noir master James Ellroy, Rampart tracks the downward spiral of Dave Brown (Harrelson), a cop whose unique moral code allows for extreme bad behavior (sex, drugs, casual racism, indiscriminate violence) in the name of a hazily defined greater good. Set in the wake of the titular cop scandal, Brown's blur of self-destruction and slipping grip on reality dovetail with the LAPD's public relations campaign meant to prove that the police are capable of policing themselves. To Ellroy and Moverman's credit, the conspiracy machinations that ensue are never allowed to overwhelm their character study of a monster, whom they manage to humanize without pardoning or guaranteeing redemption. Making a meal of Brown's seductive sociopathy and ugly desperation, Harrelson turns this blatant Oscar-bait gambit into eminently watchable pulp. —Karina Longworth

 

THE SILVER CLIFF Here's further proof, if any were necessary, that the easiest and most effective means of generating tension and excitement is to skip right past the so-called "inciting incident." Set in Rio, Karim Aïnouz's tender character study establishes the ordinary routine of a middle-aged woman (Alessandra Negrini), happily married with children and content with her job as a dentist, who goes from serene to frantic in the space of an ordinary, unobtrusive cut, embarking upon a nocturnal odyssey through the city streets. What happened? We don't yet know, but it's amazing how immediately one can identify with a character in crisis, even in a vacuum. By the time Aïnouz finally reveals what's going on, the hook has been sunk deep enough to ward off any Oh-is-that-all? reaction, especially given Negrini's magnificently volatile performance as a woman who can't stand still but for the time being has nowhere to go. The film goes a bit soft toward the end, following the introduction of a father-daughter combo who are equally adrift and ripe for tentative bonding, but it nonetheless remains a lovely, minor-key portrait of intolerable impotence gradually dissipating into weary acquiescence, framed by Rio's daylight cacophony and nighttime twinkling. —Mike D'Angelo

SPARK OF BEING Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison's version of Frankenstein, clocking in at just over an hour, not only tells the classic tale but, in its piecemeal construction, also embodies it. Spark of Being is comprised of images lifted from crackling old nitrate films that are then recontextualized — given fresh life — alongside new, artfully distressed footage. It's all set to a shape-shifting jazz score by Dave Douglas that runs the gamut from nightclub cool to thrillingly cacophonous. Broken into chapters — "The Doctor's Creation," "The Creature's Education," "Observations of Romantic Love" — the film is faithful to some of the most iconic passages of Shelley's text, presenting moments (the mysterious body pulled from icy waters at the book's beginning; the little girl picking flowers) that provide familiar narrative anchors while abstract, impressionistic images fill the screen. As the film progresses, its chapters become shorter and the overall narrative and images presented become more linear, almost conventional, making it seem like Morrison ran out of steam or ideas by the end of the project. The bulk of the film is so captivating, however, that you don't feel cheated. —Ernest Hardy

THE TURIN HORSE No movie could possibly live up to the monumental, forbidding grandeur of The Turin Horse's lengthy opening shot, but Hungarian master of morbid Bela Tarr, who insists this will be his final film, goes ahead and attempts the impossible, and comes frighteningly close to succeeding. (You really wouldn't want him to, honest.) Shot in stark, high-contrast black-and-white, it's set almost entirely in a single sparsely furnished farmhouse, where a middle-aged man and his daughter live in silence, performing the same repetitive tasks each day: Fetch water from well, hitch horse to cart, boil two potatoes (to be eaten by hand — and did I mention that Dad has only one functioning arm?). On the second day, the horse won't budge, which proves to be only the first step in the agonizingly slow shutdown process of what appears to be the entire world. No bleaker film has ever been made, to my knowledge — if this were a William Castle production, viewers would be handed cyanide pills with their tickets — but there's no denying the powerful integrity of Tarr's all-encompassing desolation. Just be sure you can hack it. —Mike D'Angelo

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American Film Institute, AFI Mark Goodson Screening Room

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