AFI went so far as to incorporate imagery from Varda’s 1961 film “Cléo From 5 to 7” into their posters and presentation video (which makes great use of The Doors’ L.A.-centric song, “The Changeling”).
Also on hand for presentations and Q&As are famed filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci and Steve McQueen (pictured below with AFI Festival Director Jacqueline Lyanga), as well as star power along the lines of Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson (who were on hand to present their new film “Saving Mr. Banks” at one of the gala screenings).
There is everything from corny cannibal horror to classic New Wave, and lots in-between. As always, AFI Fest offers a fantastic mix of art-house dramas, Hollywood blockbusters (pre-release), documentaries, socio-political eye-openers, costume spectacles, and earnest indies (many of which are the product of crowd-funding).
I missed a few on my list of to-do’s this year, but here’s a peek at what I did see:
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(2013, USA, Thriller, Directed by Jeremy Saulnier)
When an aimless beach bum finds out that the killer of his parents is being released from prison, he swings into action to wreak bloody revenge. He gets his man, but what he doesn’t count on is the loyalty and solidarity of the con’s well-armed and very pissed-off family. Excellently-acted, beautifully shot and deliberately-paced to nail-biting perfection, “Blue Ruin” takes a deserved place in the pantheon of no-holds-barred revenge thrillers. Fans of Chan Wook-Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” will especially enjoy this flick. (And do yourselves a big favor: watch “Blue Ruin” instead of the odious “Oldboy” remake.)
“Cléo From 5 to 7”
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(1961, France, Drama, Directed by Agnès Varda)
A chronicle of minutes that make up a possibly doomed pop singer’s life, “Cléo From 5 to 7” is a buoyant blend of vivid vérité and marvelous melodrama. In France, the afternoon hours from five to seven are known as the time when covert lovers meet, but in this afternoon nothing could be further from the truth as Cléo awaits possibly fatal test results from her doctor. While the subject matter seems heavy, the movie is light as soufflé and as easy to absorb. It offers brilliant insight on how inner beauty affects outer beauty and whether or not the two can be mutually exclusive. The locations, costumes, and fantastic cinematography and editing present a time-capsule of pure wow.
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(2012, USA, Comedy, Directed by Mike Brune)
When 8 year-old Paul Ryan Gray goes missing from the living room of his own home during a party for his older brother’s graduation party, Detective Dan Skok of the Missing Persons Bureau and his team of investigators move into ‘the scene of the crime’ and launch an investigation from its source: the Gray family house. Never straying from the property lines, the defective detectives paste ‘missing’ posters all over the house, search under the beds and behind the curtains, and – on occasion – call the boy’s name. An oddball mystery to be sure, this is the kind of flick that will appeal to fans of absurdist comedy along the lines of Monty Python or Kids in the Hall and who enjoy the antics of clueless detectives like “Sledge Hammer!” or “Andy Barker, P.I.”
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(2013, Isreal/Germany, Sci-Fi/Semi-Animated, Directed by Ari Folman)
Featuring an all-star cast, “The Congress” merges live-action drama and pseudo animé sci-fi. It’s about an aging, out-of-work actress who decides to sign away her forever-young digital image for a future Hollywood, but once her 20-year contract is up she learns the true impact of her vain decision. While the sociopolitical aspects of the film are undeniably interesting, it’s an entertaining but ultimately uneven and unfulfilling experience at best.
“Documenteur: An Emotion Picture”
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(1981, France/USA, Drama, Directed by Agnès Varda)
A naturalistic, understated cinema vérité, “Documenteur” follows a French woman who, separated from her lover and getting by as freelance typist, struggles to find a place in L.A. for herself and her young son. Not a lot happens in the film; it’s mostly musings and the cacophony of monotony of day-to-day life, yet there is a spiritedness in the work that’s quite unique to its director, Agnès Varda. It’s also quite a treat to see the so-alive Los Angeles locations as they were in the very early 1980s. From the expansive hand-painted murals of Downtown to the gentle rolling of the Pacific Ocean of Venice, it’s all about the big picture as seen through the eyes of an ordinary woman.
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(2013, Chile, Drama, Directed by Sebastián Lelio)
Gloria is a middle-aged divorcée trying to remain vibrant and viable, but it’s hard when no one really seems to need – or even notice – her. First seen picking up casual dance dates at a local disco, Gloria eventually forms a steady relationship with one of them. All too soon she finds herself entangled in her boyfriend’s inability to extract himself from the ruins of his previous marriage, as her own grown children and ex-husband become even more distant from her. While there’s a lot to draw from here, there was perhaps too much Lelio found precious; a sagging center had me leaving the theater for another screening before I could see how it all ended.
“Green Inferno, The”
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(2013, USA, Horror, Directed by Eli Roth)
The story follows a group of privileged New York college kids who go off to the Amazon rain forest to show their seriousness about activism – one is motivated by fame, one to bring attention to barbaric practices played out by the native tribes, while another is interested only in the killer pot. Little do they know, they destined for a ‘killer pot’ of another kind when they encounter a tribe of bloodthirsty and flesh-famished cannibals. (Read more of my report for Fangoria magazine at their website). Fans of Roth might eat this up, but I consider myself in that camp and I was actually pretty disappointed. It’s been 6 years since Roth’s last foray behind the camera, making it even more of a shame he has not evolved or grown as a screenwriter or filmmaker since his 2004 debut, “Cabin Fever.” Characters from “Cabin Fever” or “Hostel” or “Hostel II” could have been slotted into “The Green Inferno” or vice versa, and no one would be the wiser.
“Herblock - The Black & The White”
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(2013, USA, Documentary, Directed by Michael Stevens)
Political cartoonist Herbert Block’s career at The Washington Post spanned 55 years and 13 presidents, a timeframe in which he claimed three Pulitzer Prizes, the Medal of Freedom and a significant role in President Nixon’s resignation. Gwen Ifill, Ben Bradlee, Tom Brokaw, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Ted Koppel and Jon Stewart are among the witnesses to Block’s life, work and indelible contribution to American satire in this very informative and well-made documentary. Although a lot of it is talking heads, I was never once bored: the editing and presentation are every bit as dynamic as the anecdotes.
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(2013, USA/France, Documentary, Frank Pavich)
It is not necessary to be familiar with French-Chilean cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky to enjoy this lively doc about ‘the greatest movie never made’ – what was to be an epic, experimental sci-fi cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic novel “Dune.” Set to roll in a pre-“Star Wars” early 1970s, the film became a victim of its own unprecedented grandiosity. Director David Lynch would later go on to do the Hollywood version, while midnight movie maverick Jodorowsky would continue to steep himself in relatively obscure arty endeavors. Admirers of quixotic quests (not to mention fans of “Lost in La Mancha”) will thrill to the ecstasy and the agony of dreams dreamt and then dashed. Fortunately, the film’s not a downer and there’s nothing more charming than the interviews with the now 80-something year old auteur himself. A must-see for filmmakers, aficionados, dreamers, doers and ‘warriors’ of all ilk.
“Little Black Spiders”
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(2012, Belgium, Drama, Directed by Patrice Toye)
Set in 1978 and set in a secret Catholic home for unwed mothers, we follow the tale of winsome, bookish Katja. Some of the entrenched teens want to put their mistake behind them as soon as possible, but Katja, herself an orphan, longs to have her little baby. She dreams of a life with the married literary teacher with whom she fell in love, writing him a series of naïve, unsent letters as she awaits the birth of their child. During the long wait, the girls share each other’s ups and downs, form friendships and amuse themselves with whatever distractions they can. One fateful day the bubble bursts, and Katja becomes aware of the plans that the nuns are making behind their backs. More a dreamy coming of age drama than baby-stealing suspenser, “Little Black Spiders” nonetheless managers to present an ending that’s harrowing, gripping, and effective.
“Marriage of Maria Braun, The”
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(1979, West Germany, Drama, Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Taking place during the fallout of World War II, a young bride tries to cope with poverty and loneliness in the wake of her soldier husband’s presumed death. This is the first film in Fassbinder’s famed “BRD Trilogy” (though it does no harm to see them out of order), and we follow this blonde bombshell’s sense of survival as she ruthlessly does anything and everything to rise above the rubble. While the film is somewhat turgid in places, it’s still wonderful to behold on the big screen.
“Mary Queen of Scots”
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(2013, Swiss, Drama, Directed by Thomas Imbach)
Her tale is one I never tire of – I’ve read several books on the subject of the tragic Queen, and enjoyed many a melodrama. While this version brings nothing new to the table in terms of storytelling or style, “Mary Queen of Scots” is enjoyable enough for both the completest and the casual costume drama fan. Its leads are well-cast, and the story is told in a straightforward fashion (except for a through-line of puppet-populated dream sequences which quickly wear out their welcome).
“Selfish Giant, The”
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(2013, UK, Drama, Directed by Clio Barnard)
In a contemporary reworking of the titular story by Oscar Wilde, we follow the illegal exploits of Brits on the breadline. Thirteen year old Arbor and his best friend Swifty have been expelled from school, are all but abandoned by their poor and ignorant parents, and have no talents other than stealing and horsemanship. When the boys meet Kitten, a local scrap-dealer and street horse-racer, what little innocence the youngsters have left is exploited, transformed, and leads to a tragic event which is shocking as it is poignant. Deftly directed, Barnard’s film gives just as much credence to quiet dialogue scenes as it does to a danger-fraught harness pace-race that’s reminiscent of Ben Hur on a budget.
“Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, The”
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(2013, Belgium, Horror/Suspense, Directed by Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani)
From the makers of “Amer” and “O is for Orgasm” comes an even more bizarre fever dream mixing elements of psychedelic giallo (“The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh”), spousal paranoia (“Possession”), and architecturally-aware suspense (“Suspiria”, “The Tenant”). In “The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears”, we follow – or rather, try to keep up with – a man whose wife has gone missing and is presumed dead. Maybe murdered. Style rules over substance here, and what style it is! Breathtaking Art Nouveau curves blend seamlessly with shapely nude bodies and women’s tendrils and tresses while razors, knives and strangling hands in black leather gloves provide bloody mayhem that’s good to the last drop.
“Stranger by the Lake”
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(2013, France, Thriller, Directed by Alain Guiraudie)
At a remote waterfront cruising spot for men, Franck falls for Michel but Michel is already spoken for. Our protagonist pines for a few days, watching from afar. One night, he witnesses Michel drowning his lover… he is shocked, but his desire for this dangerous man overrides any sense of personal safety, and the two men begin an affair. (Read my entire review at the Fangoria magazine website.)
Until next year… that’s my AFI Fest fun! [read my 2012 Round-up here]