AFI FEST 2005 Commentary

Heath Ledger in Casanova by Lasse HallstromThe worst thing I can say about the 2005 edition of the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival (AFI FEST 2005), is that it ended — with a mix of bangs and whimpers — on November 13.

The "whimpers" were a result of both a nightmarish traffic jam inside the parking structure of the Arclight Theater complex in Hollywood — courtesy of the Los Angeles premiere of Lasse Hallström’s Casanova, starring Heath Ledger — and the AFI’s choice of MC for its awards ceremony, Tom Arnold. (In all justice, Arnold was no worse than the myriad presenters and MC’s at other award shows big and small, which is like saying that Michael Bay’s The Island is no worse than any other Michael Bay film.)

Ziyi Zhang, Seijun Suzuki, Joe Odagiri of Princess Raccoon

Now, the "bangs" took place at the two screenings I saw that day: Gavin Hood’s social crime drama Tsotsi and Pål Sletaune’s sexually charged psychological thriller Naboer / Next Door. In fact, the quality of the fourteen films I saw at this year’s AFI FEST was quite impressive. Granted, there were no masterpieces — unless I change my mind after a second viewing of Seijun Suzuki’s bizarre fairy tale Princess Raccoon (above) and of Michael Haneke’s disturbing Hidden — but there were no duds, either. (See my list of capsule reviews below.)

As an aside. . . The Tsotsi screening was followed by a a very lively Q&A session with the chatty Gavin Hood, who explained both the film’s casting process and its (marked) differences from the Athol Fugard novel on which it is based. Audience member Anne Archer — the Good Wife who does away with Bad Other Woman Glenn Close in the American version of Fatal Attraction — was probably impressed with the film, too, as she did make a point to speak with the director after the screening.

Annika Hallin and Kristoffer Joner in Kissed by WinterA few movies I missed that I wish I hadn’t: AFI FEST Jury Prize for best film winner Vinterkyss / Kissed by Winter (Norway), a psychological drama directed by Sara Johnsen, and starring Annika Hallin and the excellent Kristoffer Joner of Naboer; Jean-Marc Vallée’s growing-pains dramatic comedy C.R.A.Z.Y. (Canada), co-winner of the Audience Award for best film (along with Tsotsi); Josef Fares’ Zozo (Sweden / U.K. / Denmark), the tale of a Lebanese orphan who immigrates to Sweden; and Jessica Sanders’ documentary After Innocence (U.S.), about the fate of wrongly convicted men who are pushed out into the world without any assistance (or apologies) from the U.S. justice system.

Vinterkyss, C.R.A.Z.Y., and Zozo have been respectively submitted by Norway, Canada, and Sweden for the best foreign-language film Academy Award. After Innocence is one of the 15 semi-finalists in the Academy Awards’ best documentary feature category.

I skipped the top gala attractions, a decision that may — or may not — have saved me some grief. (I’m basing this last remark on my dismal experience at the Arclight parking structure on the night Casanova was shown.) None of the four gala films — James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, the Tommy Lee Jones Western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the Anthony Hopkins vehicle The World’s Fastest Indian, and the aforementioned Casanova — seemed all that appealing. In truth, the gala selections this year were quite a comedown from those of last year, which included Pedro Almodóvar’s La Mala educación / Bad Education and Zhang Yimou’s Shi mian mai fu / House of Flying Daggers.

Johnny Depp at the AFI FEST 2005I also skipped the Richard Schickel interview with Johnny Depp — apparently a wise idea. According to the stories I heard from those who sat through it, Depp was as much of a pro as possible but Schickel was a disaster, taking longer to come up with the most mundane and unilluminating of questions than it took Depp to make his last three films. An eyewitness remarked that even though the generally talkative Schickel kindly allowed his subject to actually answer the questions, several audience members walked out during the Q&A.

On the other hand, the George Clooney interview for the New York Times Magazine’s editor at large Lynn Hirschberg, which I also skipped, was well received. One fellow press member told me it may not have been the most revealing of interviews, but added that the Good Night, and Good Luck. director was "a charmer."

Overall, despite the sometimes grueling drive from the Westside to Hollywood, my festival experience was fully satisfying. As stated above, most of the fourteen films I saw were either good, solid entertainment or intriguing, thought-provoking films — sometimes both. The screenings usually began either on time or with only minor delays, and apart from the inevitable loud latecomers and loud popcorn eaters — all of whom should be condemned to watch a double bill of The Island and The Rock for all eternity — they proceeded without any glitches.

And last but certainly not least, the festival’s volunteers were an almost invariably cheerful, courteous, and helpful bunch. Without their help and kindness, no matter how good the movies; how pleasant the chat with the filmmakers in attendance; how great the sound, seats, and screens at the Arclight theaters (the best in Los Angeles, as far as I’m concerned); or even how convenient the fact that I could work out at the local gym in-between movies, my festival experience would have been considerably lessened.

Continue Reading: HIDDEN Michael Haneke

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