For the third year in a row, The American Film Institute offered free tickets to all screenings at their annual AFI Fest, Los Angeles’ premier international film festival. This year, the festival’s 25th anniversary, may not have been jam-packed with great films, but there were still plenty of gems and memorable second-tier work from cinema’s giants (many of whom showed for Q&As after the screenings) that made the week more than worthwhile.
One thing I always appreciate about AFI Fest is that it embraces the Hollywood locale, with a majority of screenings taking place at the historic Mann’s Chinese theaters in Hollywood, bookending the fest with gala screenings of Clint Eastwood’s and Steven Spielberg’s new films (J. Edgar and The Adventures of Tintin) while still providing access to the widest array of films you could hope for — from the most obscure independent, foreign, and avant-garde to the newest offerings by auteurist favorites like Béla Tarr and Hong Sang-soo. This collision of Hollywood glamour and truly independent art could not have been summed up any better by Béla Tarr, who while introducing his film, The Turin Horse, said [paraphrasing] with a huge goofy smile, “This film is black-and-white… slow… miserable… don’t say I didn’t warn you. But outside, the sun is shining. Remember that.”“
J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood)
As much as I love and respect Clint Eastwood, it’s hard not to approach this film with hesitance and somewhat low expectations. I’m no DiCaprio hater either, and I think he did a great job playing Howard Hughes in Scorsese’s underrated The Aviator (which I’d take over The Departed any day of the week), but imaging him as J. Edgar Hoover is a bit like imagining my nephew as a prince in a school play. I have no doubt he’d believe it, but it’d seem like dress-up to the rest of us. Still, while I won’t go so far as saying Eastwood and DiCaprio completely defied my expectations, the film’s modest success and, given Eastwood’s politics, surprisingly frank depiction of Hoover’s repressed sexuality made it at least somewhat engaging. Unfortunately the make-up on DiCaprio and Armie Hammer’s elder J. Edgar and Clyde was distractingly awful, so in the end, I guess the dress-up feel to the film couldn’t be avoided.
This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)
To forever be remembered as the notorious “USB stick film,” Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film is first and foremost a revolutionary act against a repressive regime, a film shot mostly in Panahi’s own home (as he faces potential prison time and a 20-year ban from filmmaking) and snuck out of Iran on a USB thumb drive. Panahi’s films, like his Iranian contemporaries, have always had elements of self-reflexivity and a blend of fact and fiction, but this film takes it to a new level. Panahi discusses his new film project and, over the course of several scenes, even attempts to create an imaginary set and act it out himself, only to accept the futility of such an attempt (as he says, “What’s the point of making a film if you just describe it?”) before taking the film in a radically different direction. I won’t ruin it for you, but I will say it takes the statement that is the film’s title head-on and deftly explores the effects of new technologies on storytelling, social activism, and the “cinematic.”
Faust (Aleksandr Sokurov)
Unfortunately, “real life” and sleep deprivation made staying awake throughout Aleksandr Sokurov’s bizarre, Kafka-esque take on Faust an absolute chore. As a fan of Sokurov’s work, I was disappointed in myself for not showing up better rested, but somehow, I have a feeling this didn’t really hurt my experience of the film. Although I never fell asleep, I struggled against the desire to pass out to the point of sheer physical pain, yet this actually complemented Sokurov’s dreamlike visions of the Faust tale and the doctor’s own physical struggle to navigate the emotional and moral terrain as the devil leads him further and further into his own decline. Sokurov’s atypically brutally materialist approach here — the physical qualities of the world he creates are highly emphasized, from guts spilling on the ground to Faust’s increasingly absurd inability to travel without being bumped into or squeezing through a crowd — is in stark contrast to the spiritual struggle that lies at the story’s core. Yet the ying-yang approach, remarkably different from any other interpretation of the source I’ve seen, is equally invigorating and frustrating, but in the best way.
The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr)
There’s no doubt that Béla Tarr was right in his introduction (cited above), but if you’re going into a Tarr film not expecting something slow and miserable, you’ve probably entered the wrong theater. Like most of Tarr’s films, The Turin Horse focuses on the daily struggles and miseries of peasants, but he takes his aesthetic and typical setting to its logical, minimalist extreme. The father and daughter of the film are the only two characters, aside from the titular horse, of course (and also one character who pays the duo a brief visit), to appear onscreen, and much of the action involves the repetition of mundane routines (getting dressed, boiling and eating potatoes, getting water from a well, etc.). If it sounds boring, it is, but it is the most engaging sense of boredom, unfolding in Tarr’s own unique sense of time, a pacing that is perhaps outdone only by the great Andrei Tarkovsky. The aforementioned repetitions slowly begin to take on a heart-wrenching significance as the gusts of wind pick up and signs of the apocalypse creep into the frame, the repeated failure to take the horse into town accumulating an absurdist Sisyphusian quality as the cyclical misery of poverty takes on a frighteningly metaphysical, apocalyptic form. Tarr’s delicate sense of lighting takes advantage of both extremes, the fiery white of grace and hope slowly extinguished by the inevitable, impending doom that slowly takes over. While it’s not among Tarr’s greatest works, this self-proclaimed final film could not be a more fitting conclusion to a great career, in its strict adherence to both his formal and thematic tendencies.
The Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-soo)
The Day He Arrives is a minor effort from Hong, but it’s also rather humorous and, like his other films, contains a brilliantly constructed narrative that continually turns back on itself, repetitions occurring more and more frequently as a once talented film director-now-professor struggles to not regress any further. The wounded male ego is present in a more subtle, restrained way than Hong’s standard, as Songjoon has a less abrasive personality (aside from when he drinks, which in any Hong film is quite often), his mindset reflected in the film’s cyclical mundanity, the unexamined, unmotivated life doomed to repeat itself, the inevitable yet almost unnoticeable downfall of a man whose response to high expectations was to avoid either meeting or not meeting them at all costs. Unfortunately, as fascinating as it is on a grand structural level, many individual sequences lack a discernible purpose or dramatic punch that Hong’s best works brought in droves.
Oslo, August 31 (Joachim Trier)
Reprise, director Joachim Trier’s debut, made some waves in the festival circuit a few years ago, and while I wasn’t as awestruck as some, it was clearly the expression of a unique voice whose talent showed signs of great things to come. Unfortunately, Oslo, August 31 is more of a step sideways than anything else, taking the easy way out with a drug-addiction narrative that helps Trier circumvent any major risks and thus preventing him from reaping any major rewards. But despite its disappointing subject matter, Trier fortunately manages to mine some interesting territory by focusing on the resistance of loved ones to a chronic addict’s genuine attempt to go clean. Anchored by a wonderfully nuanced performance by Anders Danielsen Lie, who also starred in Reprise, and Trier’s ability to gracefully render his protagonist’s struggles, Oslo, August 31 still marks him as a young filmmaker worth keeping an eye on.
The Kid With a Bike (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)
Few directors have a more consistent track record over the past decade and a half than the brothers Dardenne. From La Promesse through their latest, The Kid With a Bike, their deceptively complex brand of neo-realism transforms the small, the forgotten, the hopeless and helpless into embodiments of the human condition and all of the moral turmoil that comes with it. After the more intricate, sprawling narrative of Lorna’s Silence, The Kid With a Bike marks a return to the more intimate character-/relationship-based films, the relationships here being both those between Cyril and his bike, and Cyril and Samantha, the hairdresser who becomes his guardian once his father abandons him. The Dardennes deftly avoid the clichés and pitfalls of the coming-of-age genre, infusing the film with a subtle yet palpable spiritual core and a brutally realistic yet wholly humanistic perspective that is a threadline throughout their work. Cyril’s journey is not merely an “awakening,” but a move towards defining one’s morality, actively putting it into practice and accepting the results. Unsurprisingly, the results are emotionally ingratiating and quite touching.
Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari)
Co-starring Giorgos Lanthimos (director of TMT and personal favorite Dogtooth) and containing a similar aesthetic taste for the absurd and predilection for deconstructing human behavior, Attenberg just doesn’t have the former’s sense of true purpose and cohesion. Tsangari’s dry, occasionally morbid sense of humor makes for some hysterically awkward sequences, yet the believability of Dogtooth’s insular universe is missing, leaving us with a cousin of sorts, bearing similar traits without the true sense of purpose that once made those traits seem remarkably innovative and clever.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)
A surprisingly pedestrian film from the usually engaging and inventive Lynne Ramsay, We Need to Talk About Kevin feels more like an early film by an American indie filmmaker looking for his/her big break. There are flashes of brilliance in her stylish flourishes portraying her heroine’s subjective delusions, but aside from those brief moments and Tilda Swinton’s brilliant performance (a given at this point in her career), the script’s rote psychological preoccupations and the oversimplified mother-son dynamic (complete with at least a few dozen scowling/furrowed-brow countershots) often drag the film to a screeching halt. I appreciate the material’s unique take on school violence, but the way the film slowly reveals the tragedy in piecemeal, thriller-esque fashion is pretty offensive, even if it’s meant to play into a condemnation of our innate bloodlust. It’s not a particularly bad film — it’s probably worth seeing for Swinton alone — but go rent Ratcatcher if you’re looking for something more engaging.
Snowtown (Justin Kurzel)
Yes, this is a film about John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer, but it is only slightly more about the killings themselves than Zodiac was about those committed by the Zodiac killer. As Fincher’s film filters its history through the mundanities of procedure and extensive obsession, Snowtown’s tale is told through the innocent young teen who Bunting befriends and methodically shapes into a highly coerced yet somewhat willing accomplice. The poverty-stricken locale takes on a character of its own; life within the town is shown not so much as a struggle for survival, but as a struggle to avoid dying of sheer boredom. The barrenness of the landscape mirrors that of the culture, a town where pedophiles and miscreants reign free since a legit police force is too far away to bother; seconds feel like hours, yet the blur of aimless daily life extends to an eternity. Jamie’s unstoppable descent into criminal life is tragic, but the environment within which it occurs and the pure terror of rural mundaneness and geographical remoteness turning savage and deadly is ultimately the most stirring and chilling notion presented by Snowtown.
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
Along with Snowtown, A Separation was the film of the festival for me. Winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin, the film is an ever-expanding morality play where seemingly innocuous occurrences force characters to make life-changing and life-defining decisions. What makes the film so impressive, aside from the universally superb performances, is how effectively it examines the weight, effects, and consequences of each of these decisions on its wide array of characters while retaining its intimate feel. The central drama, all occurring after Nader and Simin’s separation, begins to spiral out of control after Nader runs into trouble with the woman watching his Alzheimer’s-inflicted father and the moral codes of the law, family, religion, and self-preservation. What sounds potentially heavy-handed is anything but; these aspects arise organically throughout the film, accumulating power as each character’s perspectives become crystallized, their subjective voices coming together to invite the audience to ponder the very some quandaries themselves. Rather than build to some sort of falsely constructed crescendo, A Separation ends on the perfect note, a nearly impossible decision whose weight is left on our shoulders while the credits roll. It’s rare to get a film that tackles so many moral decisions without the slightest trace of preachiness, but this one manages to do so with both subtlety and grace.