AFI Fest 2021: 11 essential films in the program


It has been a year of resurgence for film festivals around the world. After being absent last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cannes and Telluride both returned with masked attendees and sturdy queues. Venice, one of the few major festivals to have a successful in-person event in 2020, has fared even better this year. New York and Toronto, which went mostly virtual last fall, greeted the crowds and relaxed their restrictions. All of this is great news for AFI Fest, which will bounce back from its fully online edition last year with a mix of in-person and virtual screenings, and which will feature a number of strong titles from several of these previous events.

There are also incredibly unknown amounts in the lineup, including the opening night selection: “Tick, Tick… ​​Boom!” is an Andrew Garfield adaptation of the late Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical. Kicking off the festivities Wednesday night at the TCL Chinese Theater, Netflix’s release marks the directorial debut of one and only (and extremely busy) Lin-Manuel Miranda.

That said, world premieres and red carpet galas have rarely been the main selling point of AFI Fest. What makes this annual event such a vital destination for Los Angeles moviegoers is its unwavering commitment to showing some of the best films that have been played all over the world and its trust in an audience as adventurous as its selectors ( directed by Sarah Harris, Director of Programming).

I’ve only seen a fraction of the lineup myself and can’t wait to catch more. But here are 11 of my personal highlights, listed alphabetically:

“Ahed’s knee”
In a season of directors turning the camera on vaguely fictionalized versions of themselves (Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II, filmmaker Nadav Lapid (“Synonyms”). Here he follows his arrogant alter ego in a leather jacket ( Avshalom Pollak) in a remote desert village, where long walks give way to fierce arguments and where denunciations arise about art and censorship, justice and injustice. Lapid is not easy on himself, but he reserves his fiercest condemnation for an Israeli government that he calls out again and again in that raw and scratched scream of a film.

“Drive my car”
Lasting three hours without any moment of boredom, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s masterful adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami follows a grieving actor and director (Hidetoshi Nishijima, in one of the great performances of the year ) as he quietly embarks on a new multilingual production of “Uncle Vanya. “A fascinating emotional and psychological triangle develops; the Chekhovian blends delightfully into the Murakamian; and the power of art is both confronted and affirmed by a filmmaker working at the crystalline peak of his powers.

Rihane Khalil Alio and Achouackh Abakar Souleymane in the film “Lingui”.

(Mathieu Giombini / Pili Films)

“Lingui, the sacred bonds”
In the months since its Cannes premiere, this beautifully interpreted and filmed latest drama from Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (“A Screaming Man”) has only become more disheartening. Centered on a woman (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) who seeks an abortion for her 15-year-old daughter (Rihane Khalil Alio), this fast-paced and suspenseful drama becomes a devastating attack on the patriarchy – and a warm reaffirmation of the “sacred bonds” that bind all the women who are suffering below.

Neon has sparked applause and controversy with its recent announcement that this wonder of Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul will be shown exclusively on the big screen as part of an endless city-to-city theatrical tour that begins December 26 in New York City. It’s worth sitting down early at AFI Fest, where you can dive into this deeply mysterious and ultimately fascinating journey through sound, perception, history and, yes, memory, in which the great Tilda Swinton turns out to be the most intrepid of the guides.

“Parallel mothers”
The recent “Pain and Glory” earned Pedro Almodóvar some of his best marks in recent memory. He deserves even more for this glorious melodrama, which achieves that rare balance of exuberant life and exquisite control typical of his best work. As visually and emotionally vibrant as you’d expect, the film revolves around subjects and motifs that are classically Almodovarian (motherhood, femininity) and others that are not (the dark history of the Spanish Civil War), the all grounded by Penélope Cruz in one of her best effortless performances.

Milena Smit and Penélope Cruz kiss in the movie

Milena Smit and Penélope Cruz in the movie “Parallel Mothers”.

(Iglesias Más / Sony Pictures Classics)

“Little mom”
Céline Sciamma’s short and bittersweet sequel to “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” would make a nice double program with “Parallel Mothers” and also a fascinating study of contrasts. It’s the quietest of magic tricks, deaf and wintry in its colors and slow to reveal its secrets, but its tale of a mother-daughter adventure unlike any other comes to a similar source of deep and delicate emotion.

I watched Ninja Thyberg’s lightning debut feature via the Sundance Virtual Film Festival and had to imagine the impact it could have had in the crowded theaters of Park City, with its bluntly confrontational portrayal of it. ‘a young Swede (an excellent Sofia Kappel) trying to do it in an American porn industry that thrives on degrading extremes. Presenting her protagonist neither as a barn assault heroine nor as a helpless victim, Thyberg instead took a pretty harsh and serious look at a business where sexual violence is commodified rather than covered up.

“The power of the dog”
The lives of four characters living in 1920s Montana ranch territory are drawn into a tense and gnarly web of secrets and lies in Jane Campion’s elegantly baffling adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel. A western set in the tone of a psychological chamber room, with all kinds of puzzling rhythms and dissonances in passing, it’s also a wonderful showcase of the talents of Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons and, above all, Benedict Cumberbatch, giving what may be his scariest – and saddest – performance.

A man rides a bicycle in front of a power station.

Simon Rex in the movie “Red Rocket”.


Six men recount their childhood sexual abuse by Catholic priests in this conceptually daring and intensely collaborative latest work from non-fiction filmmaker Robert Greene (“Bisbee ’17”, “Kate Plays Christine”). But they don’t just share their stories; they write, direct, and even appear in filmed reconstructions of themselves, asserting their power and authority over memories they have spent most of their lives trying to erase. The result is a work of a rare and nervous insight into group therapy and individual trauma, as well as a moving vision of male friendship and strength in the face of evil.

“Red rocket”
Simon Rex delivers the performance of his hugely varied career, playing a failed pornstar who returns to his old Texas playground – on the eve of the 2016 US election – in this boisterous and depressing American-style odyssey. . The latest of Sean Baker, one of the great humanist pranksters working in independent films (“Tangerine”, “The Florida Project”), he would play the role of an intriguing companion of “Pleasure”, funnier but to his manner no less appalling. .

“The worst person in the world”
A welcome return to form for the talented Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier (“Reprise”, “Oslo, August 31”) who also announces the birth of a star in Renate Reinsve, a deserving winner of the best actress award at Cannes this year. As a young woman moving between men, career paths, and other life decisions big and small, Reinsve gives this extremely nimble romantic comedy-drama its choppy energy, sharp changes in tone, and piercing emotional depths. unexpectedly.

AFI Party 2021

Or: TCL Chinese Theater and 6 Chinese theaters

When: Wednesday to November 14

Tickets: $ 17 for regular screenings ($ 10 for virtual; $ 25 for red carpet premieres); $ 150 for the passes

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