This year has been so busy and hectic for me. I’ve transferred schools, added more hours to my work schedule, and most importantly, I’ve seen 99 newly released films this year. It’s been crazy to say the least, but seeing all of these movies (well, most of them anyway) has been the real highlight of my year, and the majority of my favorite filmgoing experiences came from this year’s AFI Fest.
For those who don’t know, AFI Fest is a yearly film festival that takes place in Hollywood, CA, where a large majority of films that have aired at previous festivals like Cannes and TIFF make their Los Angeles premieres. This year, while I did have more movies planned out, I had to miss a few for budgetary and scheduling reasons (I, Tonya, Molly’s Game, The Disaster Artist, Thoroughbreds, Bodied). However, every film festival has it’s learning experiences, and I was still able to see seven films in the five separate days I attended. It was a crazy and wonderful experience, and I can’t wait to share it with all of you.
FILM #1: The Shape of Water; Dir. Guillermo Del Toro (Pans Labyrinth, Crimson Peak, Pacific Rim)
While I can’t say I’ve always been a fan of Guillermo Del Toro’s films, he has really become one of my favorite filmmakers over the past few years, and is in my opinion one of the greatest auteur filmmakers working today. Even though I still think that Pans Labyrinth is and always will be his best film, The Shape of Water comes pretty damn close. This film is not only a beautiful spectacle to watch, but it has one of the most unique and heartwarming romances I’ve seen in a film in a very long time.
While it does have sort of a predictable ending and story structure, the uniqueness of the characters and how they interact with one another more than makes up for it. It also helps that this movie is just an absolute joy to watch. All of the performances are fantastic, the costumes and set designs are gorgeous, the creature’s design looks both familiar and unique at the same time, and the characters are all fleshed out and interesting. This movie was one of my favorites from the festival, and I will definitely be seeing it again when it comes out in theaters.
FILM #2: GEMINI; Dir. Aaron Katz (Land Ho, Quiet City)
The next film I saw at the festival was GEMINI, a movie I was actually quite excited for. Not only was I excited to see what new indie distributor NEON would release next, but the film was described as a female centered neo-noir set in Los Angeles, so I was like “sign me up!” I was also hooked by the fact that this film had quite a few noteworthy actors in it like Lola Kirke (Mistress America), Zoe Kravitz (Big Little Lies), and John Cho (Columbus). This movie had a lot going for it, and unfortunately, it’s really just a big ball of nothing.
If there was one word I would use to describe this movie, it would be LAME. While there are a few nice shots here and there, and John Cho’s performance is semi-interesting, the major weakness of this movie is that it has no idea what it wants to be. It wants to be this interesting film noir with mystery and intrigue, but it also wants to be Drive, and quite frankly, it sucks at being either of those. While the film can be visually interesting at times, in terms of shot composition it’s a complete bore. As for the performances, while John Cho is pretty solid, Lola Kirke and Zoe Kravitz fall completely flat. But most of all, the story is so weightless and boring that I got up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the film just to prevent myself from falling asleep. It tries to have some sort of crazy twist ending, but that ending makes no sense at all and makes the rest of the film feel completely pointless. This is just a big wet blanket of a movie, and I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
FILM #3: Loveless; Dir. Andrey Zvyaginstev (Leviathan, Elena, The Return)
The third film I saw at the festival is definitely not light-hearted or warm and fuzzy, but that does not mean that Loveless isn’t an absolutely mind-blowing and beautiful film. Maybe it has to do with the fact that my parents divorced when I was much younger, but I was really invested in the story of this film and how the actions of the parents affected their child. This film isn’t only interesting story-wise, but it’s visually breathtaking. This was directed by Andrey Zvyaginstev, the Russian filmmaker behind Leviathan, and while I don’t love this film as much as Leviathan, I would say it’s just as riveting.
Not only is it visually interesting, but the score by Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine is haunting. While minimal, when the score does come in, it hits really hard. Although I do love the score in this film, it’s silence and bleakness really adds to the desired effect that it has. There are many long takes that almost remind me of something Michael Haneke would do, but the film takes it one step farther by actually moving the camera, and setting it up in really unique and interesting places. If you couldn’t already tell, I absolutely adore this film, but I would be cautious about who I recommend it to. If you aren’t a huge fan of foreign film, or depressing films, maybe skip this, but if you love the art of cinema like I do, and you are a fan of stories about real people with real problems, then I would absolutely recommend this. It’s fantastic.
FILM #4: Sweet Country; Dir. Warwick Thorton (The Darkside, Samson & Delilah)
I’m just gonna cut to the chase and say that I did not like this film at all, even though I desperately wanted to. For the 99% of you reading this thinking “what the bloody fuck is Sweet Country,” let me explain what this film is about and why I saw it. I had just gotten out of Loveless, and I was starving because I had rushed to Hollywood without eating breakfast. So I ran down Hollywood Boulevard from the Egyptian Theater to where the Chinese 6 multiplex was. On the same level as that theater is a small dining area where I could grab a quick Poke Bowl and relax while overlooking Hollywood BLVD. Once I finished eating, I noticed that it was 3:59PM, and that Sweet Country was starting at 4. I walked over to theater 3 where it was being played (there was no line since everyone had already entered the theater), they scanned my ticket, and I was able to find a seat with no problem since about 30% of the theater was empty. So I sat down, got comfortable. As soon as the movie started, and I immediately noticed something was wrong.
The film takes place in the Australian Outback during the 1920s, where an aboriginal farmhand who shoots a white man in self defense, and has to go on the run from the local law enforcement. That sounds great in concept, but the execution of this film left a lot to be desired. The opening shot is really interesting and unique, but is almost completely ruined by some absolutely terrible sound design and voice acting. Along with that, it feels like this movie was dropped into a paper shredder and the editor was just putting random pieces together for no reason. The editing in this film is full of random jump-cuts that have almost no purpose, and it makes the film feel really convoluted and confusing. While this film does have a really unique setting and mostly good performances, the characters are so underwritten and badly developed that it made it impossible to care. While visually the film looks nice, the story and pacing of this film is so tedious that I could stop checking my watch. It felt like I was in that theater for three hours, so you can imagine my surprise when I left the theater and found out that the runtime of the film was only an hour and fifty minutes. Do not watch this. It’s such a waste of potential. I only saw this so I could kill time in between Loveless and A Fantastic Woman.
FILM #5: A Fantastic Woman; Dir. Sebastian Lelio (Gloria, Disobedience)
One of the biggest tragedies about mainstream Hollywood productions is that they never properly represent transgender people in a meaningful respectful way. Whenever transgenderism is a topic of a more mainstream film, it’s usually a sidenote in a larger story, or in the rare case that it is the main focus of the film, it’s a gross misrepresentation of the lifestyle (*cough *cough The Danish Girl *cough). Even though I am not transgender myself, I still have a pretty good nose for what’s bullshit and what isn’t. Now, this doesn’t mean there have never been good films about being trans. Films like Bad Education, All About My Mother, and Tangerine are all great examples of how to properly tell these stories, and A Fantastic Woman is another brilliant edition to that list.
Not only does this film have the style and charisma of a 1990s Pedro Almodovar film, but Daniela Vega’s performance in the leading role is so personal and heartbreaking that she would be my personal pick to win Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Oscars next year (everyone is predicting Margot Robbie will win for I, Tonya, but hey I can dream can’t I?). After the film ended, Sebastian Lelio (the director of the film) and Daniela Vega came out for a Q&A. When she was asked how personal the role was for her, she said that even though the film’s story isn’t very autobiographical, she did draw from a lot of personal experiences that she had in her life. This not only cements the uniqueness of the character she portrays, but the personal aspects of the performance make the film even more heartbreaking to watch. Even though I’ve been praising Daniela Vega, she isn’t the only great thing about this movie. The cinematography is gorgeous, the music is superb, the moments of surrealism are incredibly interesting and entertaining to watch, and the overall theme of the film is very powerful. I would recommend you see this as soon as it’s in theaters. It’s “FANTASTIC.” Ok, I’ll stop now.
FILM #6: Hostiles; Dir. Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, Black Mass)
While I’ve admired films of his in the past, I’ve always considered Scott Cooper to be a bit of a mixed bag. It’s no doubt in my mind that Crazy Heart & Out of the Furnace are great films, but with his most recent film before this being Black Mass, I had hyped it up to an insane level. I even had a spot reserved for it on my best films of 2015 list. But, as the story usually goes, I was incredibly disappointed. So when the trailer for this new film Hostiles came out, while I did think it looked great, I was still very skeptical. I went into this film very cautious so I wouldn’t be let down by it, and you know what? This turned out to be a really solid western.
The thing I appreciated the most about this movie was it’s old fashioned style of filmmaking. When I say “old fashioned,” I don’t mean it was made in the style of a 1950s or 1960s western, I mean old fashioned in the sense that this felt like a western that was made in 2005. That may sound like an insult, but it’s really not. This brought me back to that nostalgic feeling I have about films like Open Range (2003) and 3:10 to Yuma (2007), and I really appreciated that about it. Christian Bale is really good for the most part, although there are moments when he overdoes it just a bit (I would say the exact same thing about Rosamund Pike by the way). Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Timothee Chalamet, Jessi Plemons and Rory Cochrane were all great in their supporting roles, although I wish that a certain character wasn’t killed off so early in the film, since they could have gone in a very interesting direction with that character. Some of this film could be considered cheesy, but there are other moments that are unapologetically tense, brutal and heartbreaking. While this film does have quite a few flaws, it is a really worthwhile watch overall, although I wish I didn’t end up waiting in line for 7 hours to see it.
FILM # 7: Happy End; Dir. Michael Haneke (Amour, The Piano Teacher, Cache)
Once I got around to seeing Happy End, I had become so exhausted and broke from driving into Hollywood every day of that week that I was in a very bizarre state between lucidity and madness. However, that did not at all prevent me from enjoying this film, and boy am I glad that this was the last film I saw at the festival, because it was definitely my favorite of the films. Ever since I saw Funny Games (1997) for the first time, I knew that Michael Haneke would be a director I would admire for a long time. Happy End may not be my favorite of his films (that is and will always be The Piano Teacher), but this film comes very close to being a masterpiece. While there are a few characters I would have liked to have seen been developed a little bit more, other than that, this film was a flawless experience from start to finish (with the exception of the fellow sitting next to me in the theater who reaked of booze and was loudly belching through the whole movie).
Something that surprised me about this film before I saw it was the intense negative feedback it had not just from a lot of festival goers, but of long time Michael Haneke fans. After watching the film, I can definitely see what bothered those people, although it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the film in the slightest. The first big thing that threw people off was the tone. Usually when you go into a Michael Haneke film, you expect to come out either in tears or completely shocked, which is a perfectly reasonable response. The last thing I expected to be doing at the end of this film was laughing, and I don’t mean chuckling, but laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. I can see people being turned off by the idea of Michael Haneke directing a dark comedy, but quite honestly, I loved every second of it. Another thing people didn’t like about this film was the connections between it and another film of Haneke’s that I will not spoil (because knowing exactly which film it is can be considered a spoiler), but it added to the experience for me. What else is there to say? Of course the acting is incredible, of course the cinematography is immaculate, of course the writing was clever and interesting, what else would you expect from Michael Haneke? This film is not just my favorite of the festival, but it’s a modern masterpiece, and I cannot wait to see it again.
There was a lot I learned from this year’s festival.
- Make sure to save up at least $350 in order to have a safety cushion for gas and food.
- Keep your hands in your pockets while walking through crowds on Hollywood BLVD.
- Don’t get baited into having incredibly weird and awkward conversations with loud old people in the lines for the films (I’m specifically referring to when I was waiting in line for Loveless and an old Romanian man was loudly describing the gay sex scenes in Call Me By Your Name to me).
- Dodger Dogs ain’t got shit on street vendor hot dogs on Hollywood BLVD.
- If you’re standing outside of Mel’s Diner, prepare for a really tacky looking sports car full of teenage guys to pull up next to you and ask you “where the hoes at?” (Yes, that actually happened).
- If you’re not staying in the area and need to constantly be commuting, make sure you have a car that can handle the wear and tear.
Another great year of AFI Fest comes to an end, and I cannot wait to go back next year. Maybe next time I’ll be able to go to all the screenings I want to without running out of money.