For those of you that don’t know, the AFI Fest is Los Angeles’ largest film festival. Films from all over the world are brought in and screened over the course of a week. The fest itself takes place in Hollywood with the big gala premieres rolling out at the famed Chinese Theatre. Other venues include the Egyptian Theatre down the block and the Mann Chinese 6 in the Hollywood/Highland center. The after-parties and events all took place across the street at the Roosevelt Hotel.
Many of the films that show are making some kind of premiere, including all of the galas (the bigger films that show during the evenings), which brings out most of the cast and crew associated with each of the films. Other random filmmakers and celebrities usually pop in to check out some of the movies. All and all, it makes for an extremely fun and often wild time.
I spent the past week bouncing across the fest and most of the parties that followed. I mainly stayed with the big gala events that went on during the evening, but did manage to make it out to some of the events during the day. Here’s a break down of what I did and some thoughts on all of the films I saw.
To start, I felt like the overarching theme of the fest was amazing performances. Almost all of the films I saw had at least one actor who’s going to get some attention come awards season. Sadly, I missed the opening night gala featuring AFI alum Ed Zwick’s Love and Other Drugs. But I’ll start with the first film I did see which was the gala event the next evening for The King’s Speech.
Putting it bluntly, The King’s Speech was easily the best film I’ve seen all year. If I didn’t see another film at the fest, I would have been OK with that. At this point, I think The King’s Speech has to be the best picture favorite come Oscar time. Now, at first glance you might think, “oh a film about the King of England getting over a speech impediment, big freaking deal”. But, when you put it in context, the story is actually quite compelling. This was the man who was the King of England during World War II. He needed to be able to inspire confidence and hope in his people as the entirety of Europe faced the onslaught of the German army. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are both at their finest. Firth was especially convincing as stammering King George the Sixth. He captured the regal nature of a king, yet balanced it perfectly with the insecurities of a man which a speech impediment. Just as impressive as the performances, if not more, was how beautifully this film was shot. There are images that pop up throughout that are simply breathtaking. To me, this is a film that puts you in your place as a filmmaker. It makes you realize just how much farther you have to go and how much harder you have to work. Making the night even better was the fact that Heather Graham was sitting a few seats in front of me.
Saturday night, I went to the gala for the Ryan Gosling/ Michelle Williams film Blue Valentine. The movie’s been getting a lot of buzz for it’s NC-17 rating. I can tell you right now, it didn’t deserve to be slapped with such an extreme rating. There were some emotionally charged scenes, but nothing that warranted an NC-17. Gosling gave what I thought was his best performance to date and remains one of the best young actors around. Every time he was on screen he stole the show. The film itself was a really interesting look at the end of a relationship. It was one of the most honest and real movies I've seen in a long time. It really felt like I was watching two people I knew going through relationship troubles. And the film's ending was so perfectly devastating just like the rest of the story. It definitely grew on me.
Sunday night was Rabbit Hole starring Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman. Both of them were great in the film, which is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play about a couple struggling with grief after the death of their young son. Although I think Kidman has a shot to get an Oscar nod for her performance, it was Aaron Eckhart that really impressed me. There’s a moment where the two get into an argument after Kidman actually accidently deletes a video of their dead son that really blew me away. The raw emotion that comes out of Eckhart was stunning to watch. There are some other extremely powerful moments in the film, which, like Blue Valentine, got a lot better as the story progressed. I ended up really liking this one. Go see it if you’re a fan of emotionally charged dramas.
Afterwards, Eckhart, James Cameron Mitchell (the director), and Miles Teller (another actor from the film) did a Q & A. They all praised Nicole Kidman’s performance and pointed out that she was the driving force behind getting this picture getting made. Eckhart also talked about preparing for the role and had this quote:
The party afterwards was pretty wild because it was the private reception for Abel a Mexican film by actor Diego Luna. This film was getting a lot of praise at the fest, so I'm going to try to check it out as soon as I can. The party that followed was fittingly Latin themed and brought with it a huge following. Let's just say there was a lot of salsa dancing going on and even more tequila.
“All I had to do was think about my son who has died. My work as an actor is to imagine your child is dead and you feel responsibility and guilt… It seems like an uncomfortable place to be, but it’s a wonderful place to be as an actor.”
Monday night brought the gala event for Casino Jack, a Kevin Spacey starrer about infamous Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But the Los Angeles premiere started off with a very somber note; the director, George Hickenlooper, had passed away less than a week prior from a heart attack. Kevin Spacey gave a heart-felt speech prior to the screening, praising George’s vision and drive as an artist. Even at the after-party later in the evening, you could tell Spacey was probably only their to promote the film at the producers' request and that all of this was still weighing very heavily on his mind.
Kevin Spacey was absolutely brilliant in this one. The writing by Norman Snider took clear advantage of Spacey’s casting and Jack Abramoff’s well-known love for movies. Abramoff’s character in the film quotes numerous lines from classic movies, allowing Kevin Spacey to do many of his famous impressions. My favorite was Spacey channeling Al Pacino's famous monologue at the end of Scent of a Woman. The film itself was a humorous and often times absurd look into the world of Washington power brokers. Barry Pepper and Jon Lovitz give memorable performances as well. Anyone who likes political movies or fast-paced slick talkers will love this one.
The next night was another gala for The Company Men starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, and Craig T. Nelson. The film was written and directed by John Wells, best known for showrunning ER and The West Wing. It’s about a large company downsizing and the effects this has on some of its white-collar workers who end up losing their jobs. It took me a little bit to get into this one, I think because it' pretty hard to quickly sympathize with a guy losing his job when he's driving a Porsche, but once I did I ended up liking what I saw. I think what’s really going to hurt this film is its timing. While well executed, it really hits close to home in terms of the layoffs, unemployment, and economy in turmoil. I don’t know how many people are going to want to watch a film about the struggles they face everyday in their real lives… especially around the holidays. It’s a shame, because the film has some really devastatingly powerful moments that are often times difficult to watch. Rosemarie DeWitt (loved her as Midge on Mad Men) gives a very strong performance in her supporting role.
I missed the gala the next night, which was billed as a “secret screening”. The movie was revealed to be the world premiere of The Fighter the morning of. I was actually pretty bummed out I couldn’t make it to this one, because I heard nothing but good things from everyone who saw it. I’ll definitely catch it in theatres. I ended up attending a SAG (Screen Actors Guild) party across the street which actually brought out a few names. Being in a room with nothing but actors is always an interesting affair.
The last film I saw, and last one of the festival, was the closing night gala of Darren Aronofsky’s (another AFI alum) Black Swan. The event was packed. The entire cast was there along with appearances by Heidi Klum, Sylvester Stallone, Dita Von Teese, and a host of others. The main theatre was so packed that they had to have an overflow screening at another theatre down the street. Ticket holders were being turned away left and right. It was utter chaos at one point. I was really lucky to even get into the theatre.
But the opening shot of the film made it all worth it. It’s a long take of Natalie Portman performing part of Swan Lake and it’s absolutely mesmerizing. My words can’t even do it justice. The film has a very dark and sensuous mood that’s only heightened by Clint Mansell’s masterful score. There are also some very creepy moments throughout and Aronofsky skillfully uses the camera to heighten the tension in these scenes. Black Swan was definitely a lot more sexual than I anticipated. Yes, there’s some serious action between Natalia Portman and Mila Kunis. Natalie is great in her role, but Mila Kunis really stood out for me. I think this could be a breakout role for her that propels her into more dramatic material. Winona Ryder also gives another strong performance in her supporting role as does Vincent Cassel. As much as I enjoyed this one, I think the film’s really going to polarize audiences. You’ll either love it or hate it. Either way, this is a film you have to see twice, just to catch all the subtly. Without revealing too much, it delves really deep into the psychology of Portman’s character and the little details that bring all of this to life are what really made the film for me.
The after-party for Black Swan was easily the most lavish of the festival. The bars were made of ice. Actresses were dressed up in black leotards and face paint to resemble Natalie Portman in the film and stood around the venue in various “ballet poses”. And the entire space was literally overflowing with people. They were even serving a speciality Blackberry Caipirinha they were calling a Black Swan.
Sometime in the middle of the fest I was supposed to check out a 20 minute preview of Tron: Legacy, but a long night at the cinema lounge the night before made waking up in time a little bit of an issue. But I did get to see a bunch of shorts that were screening at the fest. They played them back-to-back in one-hour slots, which was a lot of fun. I’d also highly recommend checking out Hamill a documentary about Matt Hamill, a deaf UFC fighter. The film follows his early career as a college wrestler and how he dealt with his deafness. It won the Breakthrough Film award at the fest. I also got to check out a Q&A with the beautiful Halle Berry. Seriously, she’s even more stunning in real life. Halle went through clips of various films she was in and talked about her preparations and why she takes on certain roles. Apparently, she loves playing tortured souls.
All and all, the AFI Fest was a hell of a time. I’m already looking forward to next year.
You can check out photos from the event by following the links below…Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7, Day 8