AFI Fest Adds Global Cinema to Starry Awards Contenders

Gregory Ellwood

If you think AFI Fest exists just as a hometown awards-season exercise, think again.

The festival, which runs Nov. 10-17 at Los Angeles’ TCL Chinese Theatre, is celebrating its 30th edition this year and has grown into an increasingly diverse mix of world and local premieres that focus on new auteurs, the best of global cinema, and, of course, potential Oscar players.

“We are unique in that we are at the end of the year,” says festival director Jacqueline Lyanga. “Our goal is to showcase not only the significant films of the year and find a way to contextualize those films for the audience; we are trying to find ways to bring the international conversation about cinema to Los Angeles.”

To that end, this year the festival is introducing what it hopes will become a new tradition, the series “World Cinema: Masters in Conversation,” highlighting outstanding international filmmakers who might be under the radar of the general public.

The fest has recruited notable moderators to spark each chat in the series. Raoul Peck will discuss his body of work with Toronto Intl. Film Festival director Cameron Bailey,  as well as screen his latest documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro.” Venice festival director Alberto Barbera will join Gianfranco Rosi to reflect on the filmmaker’s latest endeavor, the Golden Bear winner “Fire at Sea,” which is Italy’s entry for the foreign-language Oscar.  Filipino director Lav Diaz will showcase his latest work, “The Woman Who Left.”

AFI Fest is also celebrating its third decade by highlighting the cinematic contributions of three women of color who made historical strides in the industry: Dorothy Dandridge, the first African- American nominated for a lead-actress Academy Award, for her role in “Carmen Jones”; Ida Lupino, a trailblazing filmmaker and actress who directed 11 feature films between 1949 and 1966; and Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese-American movie star. “Carmen Jones” and Lupino’s “The Hitch-Hiker” will play as part of the festival’s Cinema’s Legacy section. And the projection of Wong’s 1929 classic silent “Piccadilly,” accompanied by a live set from DJ Miss 45s, enters the realm of can’t-miss events.

But it’s the galas and tributes that draw the most attention at AFI. Lyanga and her programming team have recruited a stellar lineup. The festival kicks off on opening night with the world premiere of Warren Beatty’s first directorial effort in 18 years, “Rules Don’t Apply,” bringing Howard Hughes cinematically back to the TCL Chinese Theatre.

Other notable world premieres include John Madden’s “Miss Sloane” with Jessica Chastain, Taylor Hackford’s “The Comedian” starring Robert De Niro, and Walt Disney Animation’s “Moana,” which features original music written by “Hamilton” sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Los Angeles will also have a chance to bask in the glory of the legendary Isabelle Huppert as she is honored with a tribute before the screening of Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” in which she stars. It’s France’s submission in the foreign-language Oscar race.

Annette Bening will receive a tribute before a centerpiece gala screening of Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women.”

Other high-profile selections include Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom’s moving documentary “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds”; Gareth Davis’ Toronto festival audience favorite “Lion”; Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson”; Maren Ade’s acclaimed dramedy “Toni Erdmann,” which is Germany’s foreign-language submission; Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie”; and the Hollywood homecoming of Damien Chazelle’s musical “La La Land.”

There are numerous other selections in the American Independents, Midnight, New Auteurs, Shorts World Cinema, and aforementioned Cinema’s Legacy sections.

Lyanga is excited for this year’s films. She makes it clear that even though AFI Fest takes place during award season, when plenty of films are looking for an L.A. spotlight, shaping the slate is no easy task.

“Every film, every filmmaker, and every year, to some extent, is different,” Lyanga says. “As much as this time of year sometimes works out really well for films, sometimes there are films that we love that we do not have an opportunity to showcase. A film may have opened before us, or a film may not be ready. So we certainly face challenges like any other festival of this size and scope.”

One of the reasons AFI Fest’s reputation has grown over the years is because of the world premieres that have gone on to make a mark not only at the Academy Awards, but also with cinephiles around
the world.

Lyanga has been director of AFI Fest for seven years, and during that span, the event has generated a tremendous amount of acclaim by securing the first screenings of David O. Russell’s “The Fighter,” J. C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year,” and, last year, Adam McKay’s “The Big Short.”

But Lyanga’s most memorable moment at the festival so far: the back-to-back debuts of Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” and Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” two years ago.

“It was just really exciting, not just because they were excited to be premiering their films, but the audience was so excited,” Lyanga recalls. “And to see all these people who are in the industry and filmmakers and critics and fellow curators racing into the theater excited to see films? That’s what a festival is about. To me it’s about bringing that excitement and joy you have when you are anticipating great work and having that fulfilled. There is nothing like it if you love working in cinema. So that was really rewarding to share that and experience it with so many people that night.”

While it’s unclear if the festival will feature any surprise screenings this year, the fact that many in the industry are trying to guess whether there will be only brings more excitement to the event.

“I think it’s one of those things that, looking for the opportunity or having the challenge of presenting a sneak that people are anticipating is never a burden,” Lyanga says. “That’s really exciting for us. I hope each year it happens that it works out, and it has to be the right film. So, there is just a lot of watching films and waiting and hoping for some serendipity.”

What: AFI Fest
When: Nov. 10-17
Where: TCL Chinese Theatre

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