By Mike Wilmington
For any properly enthusiastic movie critic or movie lover, a great film festival, is the Perk of Perks. It’s the grand cinematic banquet or smorgasbord on their schedule, and hopefully more of a Babette’s Feast than a Grand Bouffe. At its best, a first-rate filmfest makes the rest of the year, and most of the rest of the year’s movies, worth the trouble.
So it was with the 2013 edition of AFI FEST — the Los Angeles-based international film festival assembled every year since 1987 by L. A.‘s American Film Institute (and preceded, starting in 1971, by the storied and sometimes stormy Filmex.)
This year‘s Fest (November 7-14), which is free to the public, had lots of variety, and more than a few surprises. And it had some fabulous stuff, including three of the best American pictures I’ve seen all year — a trio that included The Coen Brothers’ Dylanesque folk noir and Cannes prize winner Inside Llewyn Davis (no surprise there), Alexander Payne’s funny-sad folksy road show Nebraska, starring Cannes acting prize-winner Bruce Dern (no surprise there either), and (a mild surprise) director John Wells’ and playwright /screenwriter Tracy Letts’ incandescently played Midwestern small town ensemble drama August: Osage County.
And more, of course. Those three were all among the nightly red carpet Gala presentations, complete with brief appearances by filmmakers and cast members before the show: a tradition perhaps borrowed from Toronto. The entire festival offered over 120 films and programs from more than twenty countries — from France to Kazakhstan, from Israel to Palestine, from the United Kingdom to South Korea,
They were shown on Hollywood Boulevard in two venerable and classic Hollywood movie palaces –The Grauman Egyptian and the once Grauman, now TLC, Chinese (in its new IMAXized raked auditorium), as well as the six-screen Chinese multiplex just upstairs. Fest headquarters and the media center were at the Roosevelt Hotel, site of the very first Academy Awards night back in the ‘20s. and just across the street from the Chinese.
It was a sentimental journey home — for me at least. I covered many an AFI FEST when I wrote for the L. A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Times back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, including the very last Filmex (AFI FEST’s controversial predecessor and the precursor of today‘s American Cinematheque as well). And later I also helped cover the early AFI FESTs, as programmed by a late, great guy, the indefatigable, movie-loving Nebraska-born, tall and gray-bearded Ken Wlaschin.
This one was special though. Since the last time I saw AFI FEST (in 1992), it had moved to the two once-Grauman pleasure domes, and it was now the festival just up the street, since I recently moved back to Hollywood on Yucca, in Philip Marlowe territory – a block away from the Egyptian and four or so away from the Chinese.
Those two nostalgia-drenched, genuinely legendary, and still beautiful movie houses were now my neighborhood theaters (along with Disney‘s gorgeously whimsical El Capitan). And most mornings of the eight day festival, I trooped happily down Hollywood Boulevard to the A. T. & T. box office ( a floor below the Chinese multiplex) to pick up tickets for the Gala (a more arduous task than you’d think), and then start the day of movies – or of waiting in the long, long voucher line to get a seat for the Galas
It was only eight days — major film festivals can be 14 or more. But there was plenty to see, and I had to miss some of the shows I most wanted to catch including Bernardo Bertolucci’s 3D version of The Last Emperor, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Cannes critical hit Like Father, Like Son; Guest Artistic Director and programmer Agnes Varda’s appearance with her youthful nouvelle vague classic Cleo from 5 to 7, Varda’s husband Jacques Demy’s and Michel Legrand‘s effervescent, sweetly melancholy musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; (with the young Catherine Deneuve as the only good argument for dubbing musicals I’ve seen); John Cassavetes’ and Gena Rowland’s emotional 1974 powerhouse A Woman Under the Influence; Japanese animator supreme Hayao Miyazaki‘s perhaps swan-song The Wind Rises (really sorry about that miss), plus one of the funniest movies ever made — Danny Kaye spritzing and swashbuckling through his version of Errol Flynn in Norman Panama’s and Melvin Frank’ boisterous satire The Court Jester. (“The pellet with the poison’s…”)
That’s what a first-class film festival can do to you: you get nostalgic even about the movies you couldn’t get to. I’d seen most of the ones just above, in one form or another — though not, sadly, The Wind Rises. But not always in such ravishing venues. And the best movies always improve on re-acquaintance. (Like Citizen Kane, which I‘ve seen over 60 times, and which I swear just gets better and better.)
Here’s Part One of a little squib fest, though, on some of the movies I did see, just up the street, in AFIFEST 2013. Plus another listlet of this year’s audience and jury prize-winners.
Saving Mr. Banks
(U.S.: Director: John Lee Hancock).
Who would have thought that, nearly 40 years after the release of Walt Disney’s favorite creation, the bouncy Disney mass audience movie musical of P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins (which also played at this year’s AFI FEST), they’d make a Hollywood art movie and biopic on the making of Poppins, and that it would be graced by performances as rich and good as Tom Hanks’ gentle mogul Disney, Emma Thompson’s tart Britisher Travers, and Paul Giamatti’s good-guy turn as her driver. A nice show — and I mean that in a nice way.
August: Osage County
(U. S.: John Wells),
A blisteringly good script by Tracy Letts — using the classic “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”/“Who’s Afraid if Virginia Woolf?” theatrical form of a loud, partly drunken gathering where secrets are revealed and wounds torn open. And with a super cast: Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Margo Martindale and others. The virtuoso center of the film however is (stop me if you’ve heard this one) Meryl Streep. In an uncharacteristically rowdy and foul-mouthed turn as Violet Weston, a nasty, drugged-out old pseudo-matriarch, celebrating her husband’s (Sam Shepard) passing by flaying alive her daughters and their men, Streep brings down the house, in more ways than one. It’s a classic scene-stealing performance by a lady who’s stolen many a scene before.
(France,: Robert Bresson, 1959).
An ascetic looking, light-fingered young man who looks like, and is, a starved artist (played by the visually impeccable Martin Lasalle), lives out a Parisian Dostoyevsky tale, when he begins picking pockets at racetracks and metros. One of Guest Artistic Director Agnes Varda’s special movie picks and, together with Diary of a Country Priest, one of the untouchable masterpieces of a true master, France’s austere film genius Robert Bresson.
(U. S.: Jeremy Saulnier).
More proof that filming well is the best revenge.
The Green Inferno
(U.S.: Eli Roth).
Confession. I’ve never seen an Eli Roth horror movie before. But this one — a jungle tale, inspired by the infamous Cannibal Holocaust — was engaging, grisly and punchy.
(U.S. Michael Stevens).
The ferociously left-wing and peerlessly ballsy Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herblock (short for Herbert Block) gets a fitting tribute from almost everybody in Washington journalism except Fox News sourpuss Brit Hume.
Out of the Furnace
(U. S. Scott Cooper).
Cooper, the director-writer of the moving, finely-crafted 2009 Crazy Heart, which won Jeff Bridges his Oscar, scores again, if not quite as movingly, with this fierce urban crime drama about two brothers (Christian Bale, Casey Affleck), the bare-knuckle off-ring fight racket and an especially vicious criminal boss (Woody Harrelson, smoking).
The Selfish Giant
(U.K.: Clio Barnard).
A tremendous British realist drama, in the great tradition of Ken Loach and Alan Clarke, about two young boys and best friends (Conner Chapman, ——–Shaun Thomas) in a harsh Northern England world. This memorable film, the first fictional feature by documentarian Clio Barnard (The Arbor), was one of the most powerful films of the festival, and of the year.
Big Bad Wolves
(Israel: Navot Papushado, Aharon Keshales.)
An M-style maniac in contemporary Israel is abducting and murdering and beheading children. And one of the little girls’ fathers and a cop who lost the case team up to abduct, imprison, and grill and (they say) kill the main suspect. It’s the same general theme and plot as the recent Prisoners, but done more compactly and effectively. Of all the horror movies I saw, this was clearly the best — and the directors are admirers of Sam Peckinpah and Robert Aldrich.
(U.S.: Todd Sklar).
Like speedy dialogue? Two antagonistic brothers (James Pumphrey and co-writer Alex Rennie) inherit their dad’s house, try to renovate and sell it, and make a total mess of things in this rowdy, fast-talking, high-energy, low-budget bromantic comedy. I’ve seen worse.
We Gotta Get Out of This Place
(U.S. Zeke and Simon Hawkins).
A small town teen threesome get mixed up in crime and craziness. Imagine a John Hughes comedy scripted by Jim Thompson and you’ve got what these brother-filmmakers, who make good use of a small indie budget, were going after. They almost get it.
(Australia, Kim Mordaunt)
. The seemingly “cursed” boy-child of a poor Laotian family displaced and sent wandering by a dam project, tries to redeem himself by building the winning rocket for a sensational local contest. A familiar story, but done so well, with such heart and sincerity and humanity, that it became one of the festival’s major crowd-pleasers. Australia‘s candidate for this year’s foreign film Oscar, it might pull a surprise there too.
(Iran: Jafar Panahi, Kamboziya Partovi).
Jafar Panahi (The Circle), whose idiotic government in Iran has banned him from making movies (because they don‘t like criticism), makes another one anyway — writing, co-directing, and appearing in this tense, engaging chamber drama about a timid filmmaker and dog owner (co-director Partovi), hiding out in his home because of another idiotic law that declares dogs “impure” and makes dog ownership illegal. He has two unwelcome guests. Great dog, by the way.
(Israel: Yuval Adler).
Israel’s Oscar submission: a gripping war drama about an Israeli intelligence officer (Tsahi Haliv), cultivating as a source a Palestinian teenager (Sahdi Mar’i), who is the younger brother of s high-ranking rebel. As much, or more, a psychological drama as a war thriller, this absorbing film directed and co-written by an ex-Israeli intelligence officer (Yuval Adler), looks at both sides (Adler’s co-scenarist is Muslim writer Ali Waked) with unusual even-handedness and compassion.
(U.S.: Alexander Payne).
A great road movie full of desiccated lives, oddball comedy and bleak black-and-white landscape beauty. In Payne’s new show, Dave a dutiful son (Will Forte) and Woody, a father who’s slipping away from reality (Bruce Dern, off-type but fantatstic) drive from Lincoln Nebraska to Billings, Montana to pick up the fortune that Woody believes he‘s won in a sweepstakes give-away, and take a side trip, to their old home town and Woody’s gullible ex-neighbors and checkered past.
Like the dark flipside of Payne’s wonderful California winery road movie, the side-splitting Sideways, this picture pulls us into an American landscape that’s both recognizable and absurd — and funny and sad and real. Payne understands and conveys the feel, culture and quirks of small and middle town heartland America like few other filmmakers of his generation, and this black-and-white comic odyssey has another grand ensemble (including Stacy Keach as Woody’s smilingly rotten bully of an old business partner and June Squibb stealing scene after scene as Woody’s venom-tongued wife, a gal with a past). Terrific. The AFIFEST gala for Nebraska also had a heartfelt tribute to “Dernsie” by Quentin Tarantino and a solid interview with the mercurial star by Leonard Maltin. Listen: You had to be there.
The Invisible Woman
(U.K.: Ralph Fiennes).
A highly pictorial British bio-film about Charles Dickens’ “invisible women“: his not-so-secret mistress Nelly Ternan. The sex life of Charles Dickens might seem an unpromising subject (“God bless us, every one!”), but perhaps only because some academics so fatuously underrate and misperceive this brilliant writer. Here –with star-director-writer Fiennes and co-writer Abi Morgan intelligently adapting Claire Tomalin’s book, we get a long look at the adulterous love affair between Dickens (Fiennes, who becomes an amazing look-alike) and Nelly (Felicity Jones) — we get, touchingly, the grand passion of a great novelist and what seems to have been the (unfortunately invisible) love of his life.
When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism
(Romania: Corneliu Porumboiu)
Highly praised, much awarded Romanian New Wave writer-director Porumboiu (Police, Adjective) made this austere backstage movie satire — about a glib young filmmaker (Bogdan Dumitrache) trying to persuade his female star (Diana Aviamut) to strip on screen for their movie — in only 20 shots, and that may have been 19 too many. I jest. But you don’t have to trust me: I didn’t get Police, Adjective either. Besides, anyone who goes to a movie named When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, probably deserves exactly what he or /she gets. Or metabolizes.
(South Korea: Kim Ki-duk)
. In this bizarre experiment by the audacious and usually (but not here) excellent South Korean cineaste Kim Ki-duk (no plays on that name, please), a cheated-on wife starts chopping off her family’s penises, beginning (unsuccessfully) with her faithless husband and then (right on target) with her hapless son. As an added audacity, nobody in the movie ever talks. (They do groan and scream). But after all, what can you say?
A Moebius strip, by the way, is a band or strip turned in on itself in a figure eight so that it has one continuous side. I’d hate to think how it applies to this movie.
Also seen (and to be reviewed later) The Past (Iran: Asghar Farhadi); Nothing Bad Can Happen (Germany: Karin Grebbe); Child’s Pose (Romania: Calin Peter Netzer); Philomena (U.K.: Stephen Frears); After Hours (U.S.: Martin Scorsese, 1985); Inside Llewyn David (U.S.: Joel and Ethan Coen)
2013 AFI FEST AWARDS
World Cinema: The Rocket (Australia: Kim Mordaunt). See Above
New Auteurs: The Selfish Giant (U.K.: Clio Barnard ). See Above.
American Independents: We Gotta Get Out of This Place (U.S.: Zeke & Simon Hawkins). See Above.
Breakthrough: B for Boy (Nigeria: Chika Anadu).
NEW AUTEURS CRITICS’ AWARD
Nothing Bad Can Happen
(Germany: Karin Grebbe).
Other Mention: The Selfish Giant (See Above); In Bloom (Georgia/Germany/France: Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Grass).
GRAND JURY AWARDS (Short Films)
Live Action Short: Butter Lamp (France/Tibet: Hu Wei)
Animated Short: The Places Where We Lived (U. S. A.: Bernardo Britto)
Special Jury Awards: Balcony (Kosovo: Lendita Zequiraj).
Syndromeda (Sweden: Patrick Eklund).
Datamosh (U.S.A.: Yung Jake)..