AFI Fest 2011: A Biased Preview

This year’s AFI Fest kicked off last night with the world premiere of Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, and I head to my first screenings tonight. There will be very little sleep over the next week as I overload on cinema from around the world, catching up on films praised at other festivals and trying to find a few hidden gems on my own. I probably won’t end up going to most of the big-name galas, despite my excitement for some of the titles, due to the difficulty of procuring passes to these things (trying the rush line is an option, but takes up so much time I’d miss other screenings to do it, something I’m not always willing to do for films that will be out in a few weeks anyway). If you’re in the LA area, there’s still time to reserve tickets to various screenings at the AFI Fest website. A lot of things are still available, other things aren’t right now, but they always release more tickets the day before the screening online, or at the box office the day of, or you can wait in the rush line and there’s a good chance you’ll make it in. Here’s the list of what I’ll likely be seeing (getting some major things I won’t be out of the way first). You can see the full lineup here.

All the trailer links open in a lightbox, so you won’t have to leave the site to watch them. Synopsis text stolen shamelessly from the AFI website.


Some of these are gala screenings I’d hoped to see but ended up not being able to get tickets, a few others are ones that fell to the vagaries of scheduling because as much as I wanted to see them, they were against ones I wanted to see more. The good news is most of these are going to be easily available in regular release within a few weeks, so it’s no great loss.

The Artist

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Béjo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller
Country: USA/France
Synopsis:Silence is golden in director Michel Hazanavicius’ delightful and dialogue-less black-and-white feature about Hollywood’s bumpy transition from silent films to “talkies.”
My take: Let’s see, a B&W silent film made in 2011 set in Hollywood during the late 1920s? This movie was friggin’ MADE for me, and the fact that it’s gotten raves at every festival so far this year doesn’t hurt, either. Most anticipated not just of the festival, but of the year.

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Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly
Country: France/Germany/Poland/Spain
Synopsis:Razor-sharp and acidly funny, CARNAGE strips away the thin veneer of civilization to find the savage heart beating just below the surface. Adapting Yasmina Reza’s smash comedy play “God of Carnage” to the screen, Roman Polanski assembles a dream cast to portray two sets of New York City parents locked in a showdown after their children clash on a playground.
My take: Polanski plus these four actors piqued my interest already (as well as hearing very positive feedback from the play), but seeing the trailer sealed the deal. This looks HILARIOUS in the best way.

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Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie
Synopsis: A searing examination of sexual compulsion, the film features two extraordinary performances. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a seemingly normal New Yorker trapped by his erotic compulsions. Carey Mulligan pivots 180 degrees from her sweet and vulnerable performance in AN EDUCATION as Sissy, Brandon’s needy, neurotic sister.
My take: This sounds both incredible and really hard to watch, at least it would be for me. I want to see it eventually, though, for sure, if only to see what is almost sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance from Fassbender. (Kurt’s review)

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My Week With Marilyn

Director: Simon Curtis
Starring: Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Judi Dench, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond, Dougray Scott, Dominic Cooper
Country: United Kingdom
Synopsis: Michelle Williams gives a luminous performance as Marilyn Monroe, ably supported by Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench in this intimate portrait of the tragic Hollywood icon.
My take: Advance reviews from people I trust take the film down a few notches for being pretty much your standard biopic, reinforcing the legend more than looking at the actress, but have had nothing but praise for Williams’ performance. As a huge fan of both Williams and Monroe, that’s enough for me.

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A Separation

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Leila Hatami, Peyman Moadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Babak Karimi, Merila Zarei
Country: Iran
Synopsis: Winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin, this drama is a complex portrait of an Iranian family torn apart by a divorce and an escalating feud.
My take: This is Iran’s official Oscar entry, and everything I’ve heard about it has been great. It’s only scheduled ONCE at the festival, though, which made it difficult to squeeze in.

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I likely won’t make it to quite all of these, because some of my schedule for later days is still a bit in flux. But they’re all at least tentatively on there for now. I’m also planning on hitting two or three of the short programs, but I don’t usually research those in advance, just fit them into my schedule as possible. I will recommend Shorts Program 1 if you’re attending the fest because it has The Eagleman Stag in it, which was easily the best short I saw at LAFF – it won the best short subject award at that fest, and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t come up for an animated short nomination at the Oscars.


Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, Brady Corbet, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård, Kiefer Sutherland
Country: Denmark/Sweden/France/Italy
Synopsis: Denmark’s most celebrated and notorious filmmaker returns with a drama about depression, severely dysfunctional families, and the end of the world.
My take: I’m generally a fan of von Trier, provocateur that he is, and if anything, this looks like his most accessible, most lyrical film in…ever, really. It’s getting praise even from people who don’t like him, while not losing the support of those that do. I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time.

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The Day He Arrives

Director: Hong Sang-soo
Starring: Yu Jun-sang, Kim Sang-joong, Song Sun-mi, Kim Bok-yung
Country: South Korea
Synopsis: In director Hong Sang-soo’s sublime black-and-white vision of Seoul in winter, a filmmaker’s visit to an old friend reverberates with déjà vu-inducing parallels and repetitions.
My take: Hong Sang-soo’s HaHaHa was one of my favorite films of last year’s AFI Fest, so I was excited about this as soon as I heard about it a few months ago and was really hoping AFI would program it.

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This is Not a Film

Director: Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
Starring: Jafar Panahi
Country: Iran
Synopsis: Banned by Iran from filmmaking for 20 years and threatened with imprisonment, Jafar Panahi offers a remarkable portrait of an artist at the crossroads.
My take: I’m slowly gaining a thing for Iranian film, especially underground Iranian film (I’ve seen and enjoyed one at every festival I’ve been to so far), and though I haven’t seen any of Jafar Panahi’s films, I’ve certainly heard of some – The Circle and Offside are both well-known in world cinema circles. Filmmaking is risky in Iran, though, requiring permits and government approval – Panahi’s personal account of running afoul of the government is sure to be fascinating.

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Director: Wim Wenders
Country: Germany/France
Synopsis: Wim Wenders captures the world of choreographer Pina Bausch and her dance company in spectacular 3D with thrilling performances of many of her most famous works.
My take: I’m not a huge fan of 3D, but my best experience with it was Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams last year, and I think Wenders’ use of it in a dance performance piece could be amazing as well. Even the 2D clips in the trailer are pretty exhilarating.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin

Director: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
Country: United Kingdom
Synopsis: Tilda Swinton gives a remarkable performance as Eva, a reluctant mother whose life is shattered beyond repair by her son’s Columbine-like atrocity.
My take: Personally, I don’t gravitate toward school-shooting movies, but everything I’ve heard about this one (including Kurt’s numerous affirmations – review) says that it’s far from your typical take on the genre, instead focusing on the parents in a way that almost turns the film into psychological horror.

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Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Aksel Hennie, Synnøve Macody Lund, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Country: Norway
Synopsis: In this thriller, corporate headhunter by day, art thief by night Roger will do anything to keep his gorgeous wife happy, even stealing from the wrong adversary.
My take: This has been getting solid reviews (Kurt’s) from the genre festival circuit (it played Midnight Madness at TIFF), and it certainly looks right up my alley. Even that screenshot above is awesome.

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Director: Alexander Zeldovich
Starring: Maxim Sukhanov, Justine Waddell, Danila Kozlovsky, Daniela Stoyanovich
Country: Russia
Synopsis: In this flamboyant and ambitious Russian science fiction drama, a wealthy couple from Moscow search for the source of eternal youth.
My take: This wasn’t on my radar at all, one of the few I’m really hoping to see that I hadn’t heard of at all before the fest. But I’m always up for foreign arthouse sci-fi, and the trailer looks GORGEOUS.

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Le cercle rouge (1970)

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Starring: Alain Delon, André Bourvil, Gian Maria Volontè, Yves Montand, Paul Crauchet, Paul Amiot, Pierre Collet, André Ekyan, Jean-Pierre Posier, François Périer
Country: France
Synopsis: “LE CERCLE ROUGE is one of those rare, very personal films that achieve the miracle of entertaining all kinds of spectators. It relates in meticulous detail the drama of a robbery in an elegant Parisian jewelry store, but it brilliantly combines the action scenes with the descriptions of the men who commit the robbery and the policeman who pursues them.” ~ Pedro Almodovar
My take: This is a film I’ve been wanting to see for a long time, as a fan of Melville’s other crime films (especially Le samouraï, which also stars Delon). I usually don’t see rep stuff at festivals because I’d rather focus on new stuff, but in this case the timeslot worked out, and I’m really looking forward to seeing this on the big screen for the first time.

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Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Starring: Julian Villagran, Michelle Jenner, Raul Cimas, Carlos Areces, Miguel Noguera
Country: Spain
Synopsis: TIMECRIMES director Nacho Vigalondo’s surprising second feature finds an alien invasion providing the backdrop for one of the most delightful romantic comedies in years.
My take: I loved Vigalonodo’s Timecrimes, and though the concept of this one isn’t grabbing me as immediately as that one (time travel > aliens), I’m still on board to see what he comes up with.

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Cafe de Flore

Director: Jean-Marc Vallé
Starring: Vanessa Paradis, Kevin Parent, Hélène Florent, Evelyne Brochu
Country: Canada
Synopsis:In his follow-up to C.R.A.Z.Y., Jean-Marc Vallée tells two parallel stories connected by music about a Montreal D.J. and a mother devoted to her special-needs son.
My take: I wasn’t aware of this film at all until Bob posted a rave review and said he didn’t think he’d see a better film all year. Bob and I tend to have pretty similar taste, so I’m sold.

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The Kid With a Bike

Director: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Starring: Cécile de France, Thomas Doret, Jérémie Renier Fabrizio Rongione, Egon Di Mateo, Olivier Gourmet
Country: Belgium
Synopsis: Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Dardenne brothers’ latest is the story of a feisty 11-year-old who must overcome his parents’ abandonment.
My take: I’ve had my eye on the Dardennes for a while, but have never actually seen any of their films. This looks to be the year that changes, with a sweet-looking coming-of-age-way-too-young story.

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Kill List

Director: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring
Country: United Kingdom
Synopsis: As bills stack up and pressures at home mount, an unemployed dad realizes it’s time to get back on the horse and kill some people.
My take: I’ve heard both extremely positive and extremely negative things about this film; I suspect I will like the general idea but may find it too brutal for my tastes. But this is a midnight film and has no competition, so I miss out on a time slot if I don’t see it. 🙂 I do generally like British hitman thrillers, so there’s that.

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Spark of Being

Director: Bill Morrison
Country: United States
Synopsis: Award-winning experimental film director Bill Morrison masterfully retells the classic tale of Frankenstein, using meticulously repurposed found footage.
My take: Come on. It’s a found footage version of Frankenstein. How the heck am I not gonna be interested in that? The most experimental feature film at the festival, too, and that certainly piques my curiosity.

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Director: Cristián Jiménez
Starring: Diego Noguera, Natalia Galgani, Gabriela Arancibia, Trinidad González, Hugo Medina
Country: Chile
Synopsis: In Cristián Jiménez’s wry and nostalgic tale of love and literature, struggling writer Julio revisits and revises his memories of his college romance with Emilia.
My take: Movies or books that take literature as a basis for interrogating memory and the lines between reality and fiction are some of my favorites, and it looks like that’s what this is doing – definitely whets my interest.

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Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan,Taner Birsel, A. Mumtaz Taylan, Ercan Kesal
Country: Turkey
Synopsis: A confessed killer leads detectives to his victim’s body in this slow-burning and far from routine police procedural from Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
My take: I’ve never seen a Turkish film! This looks like a serious slow burn, and maybe not in a good way, but I do like police procedurals that don’t quite play by the rules, so I’ll give it a chance.

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The Loneliest Planet

Director: Julia Loktev
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Hani Furstenberg, Bidzina Gujabidze
Country: Germany/USA
Synopsis: Intensely in love and engaged to be married, Alex and Nica live, breathe and yearn for travel adventures. The journey through the mythical hills begins blissfully, but abruptly spins off course due to one crucial action that plunges the couple into a haze of disconnection and doubt.
My take: Yeah, I like this still. And Bernal. This is mostly just a gut feeling that I want to check this film out, which is something I try to listen to at festivals – sometimes gut feelings are totally wrong, but sometimes they bring me wonderful finds.

The Dish & the Spoon

Director: Alison Bagnall
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Olly Alexander, Eleonore Hendricks, Adam Rothenberg, Amy Seimetz
Country: United States
Synopsis: Furious over her husband’s infidelity, Rose recklessly drives to her parent’s deserted beach house with a single goal: revenge. Along the way, Rose meets a young British teen who tags along to bear witness to Rose’s rage-filled, and often humorous, meltdowns.
My take: There seems to be some Mumblecore in this film, but Bagnall has been in the indie film world for a while. I’ll see most anything with Gerwig, and the SXSW clip below is pretty winning.

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Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Starring: Ariane Labed, Vangelis Mourikis, Evangelia Randou, Yorgos Lanthimos
Country: Greece
Synopsis: Awaiting her father’s impending death, 23-year-old Marina explores her newly awakened sexuality through lessons from her only friend Bella and with Spyros, a visiting engineer.
My take: Greek cinema is turning heads in the festival world over the past couple of years, with Tsangari near the forefront of what may be a new wave – she’s also acted as producer on Yorgos Lanthimos’s films (he appears in this one). Getting in on the forefront of an exciting new national cinema movement interests me more than the plot of this film, but sometimes that’s enough.

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Oslo, August 31

Director: Joachim Trier
Starring: Anders Danielsen Lie, Hans Olav Brenner, Ingrid Olava, Johanne Kjellevik Ledang
Country: Norway
Synopsis: In Joachim Trier’s follow-up to REPRISE, a young man fresh out of rehab journeys through Oslo confronting the ghosts of his past and an uncertain future.
My take: A day in the life of a recovering junkie in Oslo sounds like a downer, but it got rave reviews out of TIFF (including LOVES from Bob and Kurt in our TIFF recap post, and it definitely sounds worth a look.

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Director: Justin Kurzel
Starring: Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris
Country: Australia
Synopsis: In his feature film debut, director Justin Kurzel brings to the screen the horrifying true story of Australia’s most notorious serial killer.
My take: I’ve loved other Australian crime films (notably The Square and Animal Kingdom, but I hear this one is incredibly brutal and hard to watch (David’s review), yet also amazingly powerful and one of the best films of the year. I’m kind of torn, but I’m leaning towards it over against any of its timeslot competition.

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Director: Alexandr Sokurov
Starring: Johannes Zeiler, Anton Adasinskiy, Isolda Dychauk, Georg Friedrich, Hanna Schygulla
Country: Russia (but German-language)
Synopsis: RUSSIAN ARK director Alexander Sokurov offers a poetic meditation on Goethe’s legend of the scholar who exchanges his soul for unlimited knowledge.
My take: I’ve only seen Russian Ark among Sokurov’s filmography, and this looks nothing like that. But I do like the Faust story, and I am curious to see more Sokurov stuff.

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Director: Ralph Fiennes
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain
Country: United Kingdom
Synopsis: In his directing debut, Ralph Fiennes masterfully adapts Shakespeare’s gripping tragedy about power, politics and pride into a bracingly modern and urgent political thriller.
My take: I’ve heard mixed reactions to this coming out of TIFF, and it’s a Shakespeare play I don’t know at ALL, but that cast is hard to beat. I’m going in with low expectations, but we’ll see how it goes.

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Mama Africa

Director: Mika Kaurismäki
Country: Germany/South Africa/Finland
Synopsis: The late, great Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) was one of the most charismatic African performers of her time. At the height of her popularity in Africa, Makeba boldly took a public anti-apartheid stand that led to the revocation of her passport and the beginning of a lifetime in exile.
My take: I’m not a documentary person by nature, but I try to slip one in once in a while. This one looks very intriguing, as it ties into the black Hollywood experience that I keep running up against at the TCM Festivals, but this time it’s a South African singer forced to relocate to the United States mid-century due to her political stance. Seeing this depends on a few scheduling quirks later in the week, but I’m intrigued.

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The Silver Cliff

Director: Karim Aïnouz
Starring: Alessandra Negrini, Thiago Martins, Gabi Pereira, Otto Jr., Carla Ribas
Country: Brazil
Synopsis: Abandoned with shocking cruelty by her husband, Violeta embarks on a heartbroken 24-hour odyssey through the bustling and beautiful cityscape of Rio de Janeiro.
My take: I don’t know how interested in this one I am (the trailer below is just a teeny clip that says very little about the film), but it’s basically the only thing in its timeslot, and I do tend to like films that foreground city locations, which it sounds like this one does.

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Beyond the Black Rainbow

Director: Panos Cosmatos
Starring: Michael Rogers, Eva Allan, Scott Hylands
Country: United States
Synopsis: An intense and hallucinogenic sci-fi film set in 1983, director Panos Cosmatos’ BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW is a one-of-a-kind film experience.
My take: I have NO IDEA what this is going to be like. But there’s no competition for midnight films, so might as well check it out and see.

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Of the ones I’ve heard of (The Artist, Carnage, Melancholia, Kevin), I’m looking forward to seeing all of them.


Haywire, the other Steven Soderbergh film of 2011 is going to be there too.