I spent most of the first week of November (October 30-November 7) at the AFI Film Festival which, for the first time ever and thanks to sponsors Audi and others, was completely free. It was my first real film festival, and it was an incredible experience – sixteen films in ten days. I exhausted myself a few times during it, but it was completely worth it just to be in that atmosphere of film, filmmakers, film critics, and filmgoers. I posted my immediate thoughts during the festival on Twitter with the hashtag #afifest and full reviews over on RowThree, but I wanted to provide a more personal view of my festival experience here.
The AFI Festival positions itself as a “festival of festivals,” bringing the best of the earlier festivals (Toronto, Sundance, Cannes, etc.) to LA, and capping it off with five days of gala premieres of Oscar-bait studio films at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. I avoided the gala premieres because it was difficult to impossible to get advanced tickets and getting there early enough to join the rush lines (where people waited to take any seats left-over after pass-holders and ticket-holders took their seats) was problematic, plus the one night I was outside the Chinese theatre before a premiere, it was INSANE and I remembered why I generally avoid the tourist-ridden Hollywood-Highland area.
Instead, I spent my time catching foreign and smaller films, and it was well worth it – I found several films that will easily make my best of the year list, and saw a few that may not even get distribution, which I feel fortunate to have been able to see in a theatre. I’m not sure what to make of the fact, actually, that all three films with well-known actors (in the US, anyway – some are major stars in their home countries) are near the bottom of my list.
SIX FILMS IN ONE DAY, BABY. Yeah. Films from 10am through 2am the next morning, that’s what I call a good day. And still plenty of time to stretch my legs and get food in between.
Seeing a film in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. That thing is SWANK. Screen the size of an IMAX, just about, I swear, and really ornate decorations everywhere. The seats, though, weren’t quite as comfortable as the regular Mann theatre next door. So perhaps it’s good that only one of the six films I saw that day was in Grauman’s.
Checking out the changing crowd over Halloween – normal tourists in the morning, families with costumed kids in the afternoon, then costumed 20-30somethings overnight. They were still out in force when I left at 2am, though the rest of the nights thinned out fairly rapidly approaching midnight. Possibly a weekend thing as well as a Halloween thing; I haven’t spent too much time in Hollywood.
Meeting Karina Longworth, one of my favorite film critics (founding editor of Cinematical, then editor-in-chief of Spoutblog, now freelancing), albeit briefly. I knew she was at the festival from Twitter, but she doesn’t know me from Eve, so I didn’t want to be all “hey, @karinalongworth, I’m here too, come meet me!” so I just hoped I’d run into her and recognize her. And I did! She came in and sat right in front of me for Woman Without Piano, and we chatted briefly about the Chabrol film she’d just come from. And I dropped my end of the conversation completely because I realized that the only Chabrol film I’d seen was his first one, from 1960. Oops.
A completely full house for Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. I was a fan of her debut feature Red Road, and it was so great to see such a good turnout for her second feature. With that kind of audience, in that atmosphere, the film crackled. It was the epitome of a perfect festival screening.
Being at the front of the After.Life rush line when Justin Long and Christina Ricci arrived. I’m not a celebrity watcher, but it’s still fun to have a good view when people come to the premieres of their films. Christina Ricci is TINY. And she was funny in the Q&A section, as well.
Not knowing where to park or go the first night. I ended up having to walk way around to avoid the gawkers checking out the Fantastic Mr. Fox premiere. That’s one I would’ve really wanted to go to, but considering how much difficulty I had getting to the one I was going to on time, I would’ve had little chance at rushing it, plus I was already annoyed just walking around all the tourists, much less making my way through them to find the rush line. It wasn’t worth the hassle for a film that came out only a few weeks later (I’ve already seen it now, as a matter of fact). And that decided me against trying for any of the other gala premieres later in the week.
Having to miss the Troll 2 documentary Best Worst Movie, due to a scheduling conflict. It was the only serious scheduling conflict I had, aside from ones that involved gala premieres, which as I said above, I had decided to skip anyway.
Following the amazing I Killed My Mother with the lackluster The Messenger – the latter film opened in theatres last week to quite positive reviews, which leads me to think that at least part of my dislike of it was due to seeing it so soon after one one of the best films of the year, hands down. The downside of double-features and seeing so many films in close proximity to each other.
Not having anything to see on Wednesday. It was good in one way, because I was so physically beat by Tuesday night that I needed a day off, but I had withdrawal, too, like coming down off a high. I mean, I guess it was like that. I’ve never actually…moving on now.
Changing venues to Santa Monica for Saturday’s shows. I love Laemmle cinemas, and that’s not a bad one at all (and I did enjoy the chance to hang around the Promenade in between shows), but it has nowhere near the atmosphere of Grauman’s/Mann’s. Plus I parked in the wrong place the first time, which was a super-pain.
Being really disappointed with After.Life. I wanted to like it so much, and it was so mediocre. I didn’t even review it for Row Three, because I couldn’t bear to think about it that much.
The Films, Best to Worst
I have a few reviews by other Row Three writers linked in here (I didn’t write about them again if someone else had already covered them at TIFF or elsewhere). If there’s no link, none of us wrote a full review.
I Killed My Mother
Right now, this Canadian film (Canada’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award) is sitting in my #2 spot for the whole year, second only to Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. I Killed My Mother is a coming of age tale, a coming out tale, a teenage rebellion tale, and an artistic freedom tale, but it’s more than all those things. I literally came out of the theatre too overwhelmed to do anything but sink against the wall and breathe. The fact that the writer/director/star Xavier Dolan was only 19 when the film was made (he’s 20 now, one of the youngest recipients of a Cannes award) only makes an incredible film that much more amazing. Every note, every look, every line of dialogue is perfect. FULL REVIEW
After being suitably impressed with Andrea Arnold’s first feature Red Road, I had extremely high hopes for this follow-up. And she actually exceeded my expectations, creating a film that is realistic and fanciful, personal and ambiguous, beautiful and ugly in all the right ways. 15-year-old Mia struggles with her lowerclass family, her grades in school, conflicts with neighbors, and her own rebelliousness – Katie Jarvis is a revelation in the role, imbuing Mia with just the right mix of tough exterior and wistful dreams. Through it all, Arnold managed to make me hope against hope that certain things wouldn’t happen (because I cared about the characters so much I didn’t want them to) and then when they did happen, convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that the narrative couldn’t have gone any other way. That, my friends, is how you make a story. FULL REVIEW
In the Attic
One of three stop-motion films at the festival, from Jiri Barta, one of the masters of Czech stop-motion animation. The Czechs have excelled at the art form for decades, and if this is any indication, they’re not slowing down at all. The whole thing takes place among discarded toys and other items in an attic, but an attic transformed by imagination into a whole world. It’s a fantastic tribute to childsplay and the incredible innovation that children can bring to their world as they make up stories and use everyday items in new and unexpected ways. My jaw was dropping every few minutes at the sheer inventiveness. FULL REVIEW
The Loved Ones
I have to admit, I was a bit apprehensive about going to a midnight screening of a horror movie, even (especially?) one that got as much praise as this one got at TIFF’s Midnight Madness earlier this year. But I’m so, so glad I stayed. This was a riot from start to finish, a perfectly balanced mix of horror and comedy with a surprising amount of emotional depth (that never threatened to overcome the fun, though). Any fans of over-the-top horror (think Evil Dead meets Carrie) are going to love this one. FULL REVIEW (by Andrew James)
The White Ribbon
Now, The White Ribbon is a better film than most of the ones above it (excepting I Killed My Mother and possibly Fish Tank), but it’s not one that I can really say I enjoyed watching. The film is set in a small German village in the years just before WWI, and everything seems to be pretty normal there, until a series of astoundingly violent and cruel events occur, and no one can figure out who caused them. But this is a thriller with few thrills, much more of a mood piece punctuated with both physical and verbal outbursts that are that much more powerful because the rest of the film is so subdued. Michael Haneke’s mastery of his art is clear from this film, and I expect it will take a few more viewings to even being to get all of the nuances in his themes (it’s not unimportant, for instance, that the children in this film will grow up to be the vanguard of Hitler’s regime). There’s definitely a LOT to chew on here. FULL REVIEW (by Mike Rot)
A Town Called Panic
In this manic and hugely entertaining stop-motion film, Cowboy, Indian, and Horse all reside together, until Cowboy and Indian make a horrible miscalculation when ordering Horse’s birthday present and end up burying their house in a huge pile of bricks. Then they rebuild the house, only to have it stolen. So they follow the thief, only to end up in a series of adventures too wacky to enumerate. I mean, I could enumerate them, but that would spoil the “OMG, WTF NOW” quality you’ll have when you see it. :) Let’s just say a snowball-hurling giant mechanical penguin isn’t the strangest part. If you’d like a taste, search on YouTube – the film is based on a Belgian television show, many episodes of which are on YouTube (mostly in English; the film is in French).
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench
I first heard of this on Getafilm, where Daniel Getahun described it as “as a “verite-style romantic musical dramedy” with a jazz score. That’s accurate, and his mention of both current mumblecore-esque and New Wave influences is as well – it definitely wears its influences on its sleeve, and since I love those influences (among which I’d include early Cassavettes and Jacques Demy), I loved this film. Meeting director Damien Chazelle after the film, I said how much I enjoyed the way the musical numbers just pop out of nowhere, and he said that he didn’t think musicals should apologize for being musicals. Exactly. FULL REVIEW
I don’t see too many documentaries, though I should probably actively try to see more. This one follows New York Times columnist Nicholas Cristof, well-known for his coverage of the Darfur humanitarian crisis, as he goes to the Congo in search of a story that will ignite his readers’ compassion. And really, that’s what the film’s about – how to overcome the psychic numbing that occurs when people are faced with the suffering of millions, and also, to what degree Cristof is compromised in his ideals by his need to find the most horrifying stories. FULL REVIEW
No One Knows About Persian Cats
An Iranian underground film about an Iranian underground indie rock band trying to pull off performances and get visas to leave the country without getting arrested for performing with permits? Sign me up. Especially since it’s starring an actual pair of musicians (who are now in London, having successfully gotten the visas their alter-egos needed). I enjoyed the music a lot and hope to find some more of it. The story was pretty spare; it would’ve been nice to have a little more depth in it (and a little more clarity for those of us not familiar with Iranian laws). FULL REVIEW
Red Riding: 1974
Red Riding: 1980
Red Riding: 1983
England’s Channel 4 aired this trilogy as a miniseries last year; it’s due to release theatrically in the US in 2010. As a whole, the three parts follow a police investigation into a couple of serial killers in 1970s-1980s Yorkshire, all while the corruption within the police force itself shows itself to be more and more widespread and insidious. It’s gritty and frequently disturbing, but with a lot of ongoing interest and integrity, even watching all three back to back. Each part has a different director and is shot using a different method (i.e., one is on 35mm, another using RED digital cameras), giving each a distinct style and look, while still being clearly part of the same universe. On their own, 1980 (directed by Man on Wire‘s James Marsh) is easily the most solid, with Paddy Considine stepping in as an outside officer investigating the Yorkshire police and uncovering just how deep the corruption goes. It has a very good self-contained story that only tangetially relates to the events in the first film and has a greater depth of character and world than the other two films. 1974 is good as well, benefiting from a very violent and unflinching style, but went a little off-track toward the end. 1983 basically continues the story from 1974 almost without any reference to 1980 – it’s good in that it wraps up the story that was left somewhat unresolved from 1974, but it’s also overly meandering and neglects to include hardly any characters to identify with.
London River is set in the aftermath of the July 2005 London Underground bombings, as a conservative English mother and an Algerian father search London for their missing children, only to discover that they were living together. All mixed in are themes of racial and religous prejudice, urban vs. rural life, and relationships between parents and absent children. It was all right, but nothing particularly memorable. FULL REVIEW.
Woman Without Piano
This had a lot going for it – a relatively new director in Spanish cinema, inspired by the silent cinema of Chaplin and Keaton, comparisons by the program directors to Fellini and Masina – but for me, it didn’t really live up to all those expectations. After a day of mundane housework and errands, a housewife dons a wig and heads out into nighttime Madrid, meeting a mixture of people and having a number of ill-timed misadventures. It had its moments, and maybe on rewatch I’d “get” it (it shared a festival prize with Fish Tank, which I LOVED), but I left feeling pretty “meh” about it. FULL REVIEW
After a tour of duty in Iraq, Ben Foster gets assigned to Notification Duty, pairing with Woody Harrelson to be the ones tasked with telling widows and families when their loved ones have been killed in action. As difficult as this job is, it begins to help Foster deal with some of his own demons, especially after he takes a special interest in one of the widows, played with sensitivity by Samantha Morton. Harrelson plays up his role for both comic and emotional results, and it’s a good role for Foster, who’s moving up nicely in his career. But the story as a whole struck me as fairly routine and not nearly as groundbreaking as it thought it was. But it’s been getting decent reviews since it opened theatrically last week, so I may be biased by having seen it immediately after I Killed My Mother.
What a disappointment. Christina Ricci is psychologically haunted by who knows what, and has difficulty connecting with her boyfriend Justin Long. When she’s in a car accident, she wakes up in a morgue to have mortician Liam Neeson tell her that she’s dead, that he has the power to talk to those hovering just after life, unable to quite let go and believe they’re dead. There’s a decent premise in here somewhere, and there’s a solid tension as we’re not quite sure, either, whether she’s actually dead or alive and held prisoner by Neeson. But director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo doesn’t really believe in her film, throws a lot of unnecessary dramatic music, lets it drag to a standstill in the middle, and keeps Ricci naked for an unbelievable amount of time. It can’t decide whether it wants to be an over-the-top cheesy horror flick or a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of life and death, and so it ends up not being very good at either one.