AFI Film Festival November 11, oddball filmmaker and Guest Artistic Director David Lynch (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet) had filmgoers reciting "I love AFI!" along with him during his endearingly earnest endorsement statement, shown before each of the fest screenings. While not everyone loved closing film Black Swan (reviewed here in advance on November 5), there were enough celebrity appearances, parties with open bars and (best of all) free tickets to all the movies to keep attendees happy throughout the fest's seven days.
I was only able to take in a handful of the 60+ films shown, but each was a gem. Here are my more detailed reactions to them:
Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Speaking of oddball filmmakers, Lynch wasn't alone: obsessive auteur Werner Herzog introduced and responded to questions following the screening of his latest documentary. Following his awful Bad Lieutenant sequel/re-imagining last year, it was great to have Herzog on more secure cinematic ground. In this case, he actually goes underground into France's remarkable Chauvet Cave... and he takes the audience with him courtesy of 3D. Watching this film is truly the next best thing to actually being there, as rock overhangs, stalactites and fossils extend out of the screen. The cave, discovered only in 1994, also houses a collection of highly accomplished drawings estimated to be 32,000 years old. They depict now-extinct mammoths, wooly rhinos, cave bears and lions, as well as an occasional human form and at least one artist's well-preserved handprints. Herzog goes a little off course at times when he asks philosophical questions such as "What constitutes humanness?" and during a postscript about irradiated, albino crocodiles. The movie shouldn't be missed, though, especially since the Chauvet Cave has since been restricted to limited scientific explorations. Reverend's Rating: B+
Rabbit Hole: The audience of the packed-to-the-rafters LA premiere of this domestic drama, based on the Tony-nominated play by David Lindsay-Abaire (who also wrote the excellent screen adaptation), struck me for its broad demographics. There were older, more mature "theatre types" likely familiar with the material; more than a few gay men who would claim to be fans of either Nicole Kidman or Aaron Eckhart, who star, or the film's director, John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus); and a number of younger film and/or theatre students. There was also a significant turnout courtesy of festival sponsor Clarisonic. The plot, about a married couple grieving the accidental death of their 4-year old son 8 months prior, is inherently engrossing as well as achingly authentic, powerfully moving and surprisingly funny at times. Kidman will likely be among this year's Best Actress nominees, and Eckhart has a shot in the Best Actor category. Mitchell (who looks positively elfin and all of 12 years old in person) is also an award candidate for his lovely, sensitive direction. Reverend's Rating (despite some critical — yet understandable — remarks about God in the film): A-
Chico & Rita: A stunningly animated love story about a pair of Cuban musicians who forge an enduring, affecting relationship despite personal differences, political unrest and international separation. Seven years in the making, the movie (which I pray receives a theatrical release and future awards consideration) features excellent use of light and shadows; a great depiction of 1940's, Capitalist Cuba; a magnificent, period score that includes both standards and original songs; and "cameos" by musical greats Charlie "Bird" Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Tito Puente, Nat King Cole and Desi Arnaz. The film has a melodramatic vibe that can be excessive despite being proper to the cinematic milieu, historically speaking. I was also reminded stylistically of Ralph Bakshi's films of the 1970-80's, especially his American Pop. Not to be missed by animation, music and history buffs, or anyone who appreciates a good love story between people separated by distance and/or time. Reverend's Rating: A-
Precious Life: It was just announced that this extraordinary documentary is one of 15 currently under Academy Award consideration. The film provides a gripping, intimate perspective on the ages-old conflict between Jews and Palestinians via the plight of little Muhammad Abu Mustaffa. Born without an immune system to Palestinian parents, Muhammad is in need of a delicate bone marrow transplant that can only be performed with the technical expertise found in an Israeli hospital. Journalist Shlomi Eldar (who states at the outset, "I don't like hospitals, and I don't like hospital stories") would find himself inexorably drawn into the situation, ultimately befriending the principals in addition to directing and narrating the movie. The suspicion and skepticism that Muhammad's parent, Ra'ida and Faozi, hold toward the Jews, who are ultimately funding and providing their son's care even as the Israeli military bombards Gaza with missiles, serves as a microcosm of the ongoing strife. Precious Life is powerful stuff. Reverend's Rating: A-
Audience Awards in four categories were presented at AFI Fest's conclusion. Of the films I saw, only Chico & Rita was an award contender, in the World Cinema category, but it was beaten by the New Zealand entry, Boy. The other winners were Hamill (Breakthrough Award), Bedevilled (New Auteurs Award), and LittleRock (Young American Award), about which I heard considerable buzz following its fest screening. Indeed, my only gripe about AFI Fest is that each film is shown only once (although the four Audience Award recipients were screened a second time on the fest's final day, after they were announced as the winners). Since most of the movies are shown concurrently, there is no way for one to catch all of the festival entries. Also, only a handful of them were screened for critics beforehand.
As a festival for the people, though, with many free tickets generously provided through the support of sponsor Audi, AFI Fest is hard to beat. I'm already looking forward to next year!
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.