Christmas comes early for cinephiles in Los Angeles, in the form of AFI Fest. L.A.'s preeminent movie festival got a boost last year with the surprise world premieres of Selma and American Sniper, both of which went on to dominate the year-end discussion and create a wave of momentum that this year's event is looking to ride. Angelina Jolie Pitt's By the Sea kicks off the festivities at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Nov. 5, financial-crisis drama The Big Short brings things to a close a week later, and more than 100 films screen in between.
“One thing we've been working toward,” fest director Jacqueline Lyanga says, “is to be this end-of-the-year celebration of cinema.”
AFI Fest's program spans much of the year's most buzzworthy fare from around the world. The lineup includes 45 Years, which won prizes for actors Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February; Dheephan, which arrives six months after its surprise Palme d'Or win at Cannes; and Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman's stop-motion follow-up to Synecdoche, New York, which makes its latest stop on the festival circuit after beginning that journey in Toronto.
You've probably noticed that the aforementioned films have graced prior cinematic fêtes. That's intentional. The majority of AFI's movies arrive after building anticipation at earlier events, though the November slot gives its organizers the chance to snag movies that may not have been ready in time for Telluride, Toronto and New York — such as Concussion, starring Will Smith, and Mountains May Depart, the latest offering from Chinese master Jia Zhang-ke.
One of the best parts: AFI Fest is free. There's no need to spend hundreds of dollars on a pass as long as you can master the free ticketing system. And even if you don't get into the movie you want, there's a good chance you'll still end up seeing something great.
Here are the 10 AFI films we think you shouldn't miss:
Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg was a highlight of AFI Fest 2011. If winning Best Film at the London Film Festival is any indication, Chevalier might be even better. One of the Greek Weird Wave's foremost auteurs, Tsangari can be off-kilter and even absurd without being cutesy. It's a rare trait, and one well-suited to this story of six men interrupting a fishing trip to compete in a bizarre, ill-advised quest. (Michael Nordine)
Pablo Larraín's shifty psychological drama The Club is set on the coast of Chile where, at any minute, an angry wave threatens to sweep our protagonists out to sea. They might deserve it. These four men are disgraced priests quarantined by the Catholic Church to this crap town where they're forbidden to preach. Instead, they and their increasingly sinister nun caretaker drink wine, race greyhounds and meet for regularly scheduled choir practice, while avoiding the rest of the community — particularly the town drunk who stands outside their living room window and screams that they like touching little boys. After one roommate dies violently, the diocese sends a stern handler to disband their unusual home. Where will the five go after dedicating their lives to an institution that can no longer shelter their behavior? They aren't sure, but they're willing to sin to stick around. You'll pray to never meet its characters on a cold, gray beach, but The Club boasts the best ensemble of the fest. (Amy Nicholson)
Dheepan's surprise win of the Palme d'Or at Cannes was seen by some skeptics as a lifetime achievement award for Jacques Audiard, whose body of work (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) has endeared him to cinephiles the world over. There are far less deserving filmmakers upon whom to bestow that most prestigious of prizes, and if the timely Dheepan — about a Tamil refugee trying desperately to make it into France — comes even close to deserving that honor, it's a must-see. (Michael Nordine)
Colombia's submission for the Foreign-Language Film Oscar, Embrace of the Serpent, is based on two early–20th century expeditions into the Amazon. There's talk of a mythical plant with curative properties called yakruna, which the intruding Europeans want; the edenic land has already been soiled by a conflict over rubber, and so the natives are wary of these latest adventurers. Ciro Guerra documents these parallel excursions with the help of striking black-and-white photography, prophetic dreams and one of the most hallucinatory climaxes this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey. His film is continually shedding its skin and transforming into something even stranger and more rewarding than it was just a few moments earlier. You won't be sure what exactly you just saw by its end, but it will resonate on a level that's difficult to put into words. (Michael Nordine)
Gabriel Mascaro returns to AFI Fest with Neon Bull just one year after his debut, the sparsely beautiful August Winds, established him as a talent worth watching. His sophomore feature concerns a Brazilian rodeo cowboy with aspirations of entering the world of fashion design, which sounds like the setup for a tongue-in-cheek comedy but is more likely the formula for another understated look at life on the fringes of an already strange society. (Michael Nordine)
Grímur Hákonarson's Rams arrives in Los Angeles six months after winning top prize in Cannes' Un Certain Regard. It tells of a livestock epidemic that, in addition to devastating the sheep population in a remote Icelandic valley, nudges two estranged brothers toward reconciliation after decades of not speaking. Icelandic cinema has been nearly as odd as its Greek counterpart of late, but all accounts point toward Hákonarson's tragicomedy being more bittersweet than bizarre. (Michael Nordine)
Countless movies have been made about the Holocaust, making it all the more special when one comes along that feels new and urgent. László Nemes' Son of Saul is such a film, and it's so assured in its vision that you'll likely have trouble believing it's also the Hungarian filmmaker's first. An up-close account of a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, it observes unspeakable tragedies out of the corner of the camera's eye; that so much happens in the periphery somehow makes it more difficult to look away. We're allowed only the same limited field of vision as Saul, making it immediately clear how questions of morality evaporate when the slightest wrong turn could mean summary execution at the hands of an eager Nazi guard. Son of Saul was a favorite to win the top prize at Cannes this year, though it ultimately went home with the Grand Prix (second prize). (Michael Nordine)
Matteo Garrone transitioned from hyperrealism in Gomorrah to a more heightened reality in, well, Reality. Now, in Tale of Tales, he's in full-on fairytale mode. Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly and a few mythical creatures (including a gigantic flea, an ogre and a sea serpent) star in the two-time Cannes prizewinner's English-language debut, which melds three stories from Italian folklore into what looks to be the most appealingly bizarre movie of the entire festival. Garrone is a uniquely gifted filmmaker whose range continues to impress, so miss this one at your peril. (Michael Nordine)
Good things happen when director Tobias Lindholm collaborates with actor Pilou Asbæk. You already know this if you caught A Hijacking at AFI Fest three years ago, but even if you didn't, don't sleep on A War. The collaborators find themselves in Afghanistan, where Asbæk (whose haunted eyes give him the look of a Scandinavian Michael Shannon) is the commanding officer of a Danish unit tasked with fending off the Taliban and keeping a nearby village secure. Lindholm excels at documenting ungodly tense situations without the slightest bit of bluster, and here he moves confidently from the fog of war to the retrospective clarity of a courtroom after one of Asbæk's in-the-moment judgment calls has lethal consequences. (Michael Nordine)
In 2007, six humanitarians were arrested in Africa for abducting 103 children as they prepared to board a flight from Chad to France, where adoptive parents eagerly awaited their arrival. Many of these “orphans” had guardians who believed that they were merely sending their kids to boarding school. The White Knights, Joachim Lafosse's fictionalized retelling, wants to find the line where good intentions become bad faith, and his moral thriller casts a bureaucratic chill over this hot desert where literally everything goes wrong: Tribal lords demand cash for kids, translators can't be trusted, planes need parts and no one writes down birth records. The aid workers are certain they're saving a generation from poverty. We aren't, but they make a strong enough case that audiences will leave the theater continuing their argument long after the well-meaning kidnappers were reluctantly set free. (Amy Nicholson)