Los Angeles’ grandest festival begins in Hollywood next week, and it’s movie paradise.
AFI Fest (November 10-17, 2016), now in its 30th year, is entirely free, and offers a special treat for lovers of international cinema.
Nine films submitted for Oscar’s Foreign Language category this year join 26 others in the fest’s most traditionally robust category, World Cinema. France’s pick, in fact—the Isabelle Huppert-starring Elle—is one of the high-profile titles, including Jackie and La La Land, comprising AFI’s snazzy, hot-ticket Galas at the TLC Chinese Theatre. Of note this year, as well: The 2016 lineup boasts several Chinese films, some of which played at the China Onscreen Biennial at UCLA last month.
There are, of course, also plenty of films from emerging American filmmakers. With 11 documentaries (AFI runs a separate fest, AFI Docs, in June), 12 animated films and titles from 19 returning alumni also on show, choosing what to watch can lead you into a maze where, well, Rules Don’t Apply—to borrow the name of Warren Beatty’s latest directorial effort, which opens the fest with its world premiere. (Speaking of which, other glitzy world premieres include John Madden’s Jessica Chastain-starring Miss Sloane and Taylor Hackford’s The Comedian, with Robert De Niro as the titular aging stand-up.)
To give you some direction, we asked Director of Programming Lane Kneedler for the films he wants to highlight in this year’s expansive line-up. Kneedler gushed about several standouts, such as Mifune: The Last Samurai, a documentary on Japanese cinema’s great Toshiro Mifune, who will get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the day after the screening; Nocturama (pictured above), which boasts echoes of Dawn of the Dead, with a group of young terrorists hiding out in a clothes shopping mall in France the night after an attack; and The Net, from Korean legend Kim Ki-duk, about a poor fisherman who accidentally crosses the border from South Korea into North Korea.
Without further ado, here are 10 films you should consider watching in Hollywood next week.
(Note: Quotes from the moviemakers are taken from the films’ press kits, made available by AFI Fest.)
The Woman Who Left (Ang Babaeng Humayo)
Dir: Lav Diaz
Inspired by the premise of Tolstoy’s 1872 short story “God Sees the Truth But Waits,” Lav Diaz returns to AFI Fest with what Kneedler describes as a “beautifully expansive, rich” film. At four and a half hours, it’s shorter than Diaz’s previous films screened at the fest (such as the 338 minute-strong From What is Before in 2014). In his latest, the Filipino auteur tells the story of Horacia, a former elementary school teacher who has been released from 30 years of wrongful imprisonment and is seeking both revenge and reintegration into society.
Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, The Woman Who Left is a “deeply moving” pic about identity and community, says Kneedler. It shall screen in its entirety without intermission. So, if you’re going to soak in this meditation in black and white, ensure that you’re in an observant frame of mind. The film will be screened as part of the World Cinema Masters in Conversation series. [Tickets]
Dir: Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel
A film way under the radar, according to Kneedler, is Mister Universo, an Italian-Austrian co-production about Tairo Caroli, a lion tamer, and his girlfriend Wendy Weber, a contortionist. Actors are untrained and play those roles in real life traveling circuses. In what Kneedler calls a “funny, endearing, energetic movie,” they are on a mission to meet mythic strongman Arthur Robin, a former real-life Mr. Universe, who they have heard can bend iron.
In their chasing him across the Italian countryside, directors Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel create a fiction that, as they describe it in their film’s press kit, links “fundamentally different people in a story that is as simple as possible” but behind which is a “great deal of mental work.” It is their fourth film set in the world of circus people and comments on “professions that are dying out, that you can criticize a lot” but which the directors tried to “preserve without judging.” [Tickets]
Kill Me Please (Mate-me Por Favor)
Dir: Anita Rocha da Silveira
In Kill Me Please, local youth of the Barra di Tijuca area of Rio de Janeiro are overwhelmed by morbid curiosity after a spree of murders. Playing in New Auteurs, AFI Fest’s competition section for first- and second-time filmmakers, this debut feature is a blend of genre elements including teen angst, coming of age and Italian Giallo, with religious overtones. Kneedler says, “When you’re looking at hundreds of films a year and you see a filmmaker with a really original point of view, it makes us sit up and take notice.”
Uniquely, the film has no characters over age 25, set as it is in what 28-year-old Brazilian director Anita Rocha da Silveira thinks of as an “alternative universe with permission to fantasize.” The journey of Bia, the movie’s 15-year-old protagonist, corresponds somewhat to da Silveira’s own “discovery of love and sex” as a teen, as well as “my first encounter with death.” Why not then add YA to the film’s inventive genre salad? [Tickets]
The Ornithologist (O Ornitólogo)
Dir: João Pedro Rodrigues
The Ornithologist’s lead character, Fernando (Paul Hamy), undergoes a journey that loosely follows that of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of Portugal—although director João Pedro Rodrigues (The Last Time I saw Macao, O Fantasma) imbues Fernando with his personal story and imagination, producing a work that Kneedler calls “hallucinatory.”
According to legend, Saint Anthony, born Fernando, spoke to fish. Rodrigues, who studied biology before he studied film, imagines Fernando traveling up a Portuguese river in search of endangered black storks and getting caught up in a series of increasingly bizarre adventures. He is kidnapped by two Christian Chinese tourists; meets a deaf, naked man on a beach; and is chased around by topless women riding horseback. All characters are in a transitory state, muses Rodrigues, but Fernando’s gradual enlightenment reflects the “very essence of Saint Anthony and his existence within me.” The Ornithologist, like all his films, is about spirituality as an “initiation journey” within a symbolic and collective unconscious. [Tickets]
Dir: Dean Fleischer-Camp
A working class family chasing the American Dream—sort of—is the object of study of Fraud, a fascinating found-footage film by returning filmmaker Dean Fleisher-Camp, whose 2010 project, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” won Best Animated Short at AFI Fest. Fleisher-Camp culled this spry 52-minute intimate look into an American family’s vacations and struggle for survival from 100 hours of home movies obsessively uploaded by them to YouTube between 2007-2015. Given the name of the film—Kneedler points out, chuckling—one cannot be sure how much of it is real, but it is arresting as a hybrid documentary, akin to another hybrid film playing the fest this year, Nathan Silver and Mike Ott’s Actor Martinez.
On Fleischer-Camp’s website, the film’s logline is even simpler: “A struggling family commits fraud.” Without any other images or a trailer being released to press, Fraud is as ominous a reminder as any that by next week, when the festival rolls into the Hollywood/Highland area, America will have a new president, after an election season that takes the notion of “hybrid” to another level while preserving it for digital posterity. [Tickets]
Dir: Sophia Takal
The second feature from writer-director-actor Sophia Takal follows two actress friends on a weekend getaway to Big Sur. What is meant to be a relaxing weekend turns out to be a slow burning cauldron of petty jealousies and resentments. With an aura of mystery and suggestions of horror-esque territory, Always Shine had its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Festival and stars Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis and Master of Sex’s Caitlin FitzGerald. [Tickets]
(A sidenote on horror: Fans may not want to miss Fear Itself, playing in the fest’s Midnight section—a film essay by Charlie Lyne (Beyond Clueless), made up of clips of horror films that wonders, as Kneedler puts it, why horror “burrows so deeply into our collective minds.”)