Five Stand-Out Films at AFI Fest 2016

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The only film festival of its stature to offer the best of contemporary Hollywood cinema to the public for free, the AFI film fest is a true gem on a landscape competitively littered with film festivals. A week-long fest chockablock with cream o’ the crop screenings, filmmaker panels, Q&As with cast and crew, and sure, some VR experiences because now, no film fest is complete without ‘em. Read on this year’s stand-out films to watch out for, all to be released in the next few months.

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Dave Johns in ‘I, Daniel Blake’

I, DANIEL BLAKE
“That sounds so boring.”

So goes the response of every person to whom I have described the plot of this film. At its base synopsis, I, Daniel Blake is about a 59-year old man battling the bureaucratic labyrinth of the British government assistance program after a heart attack has left him unable to work for a couple months while his heart regains strength.

In the hands of anyone else, this perhaps would have been a snoozefest, but in Ken Loach’s dignified, Palme d’Or-winning hands, this film is an utter masterpiece that sent me running to a toilet stall to sob my eyes out for a solid 10 minutes after the credits rolled. (Full disclosure: I am pregnant and extraordinarily hormonal, but I really doubt my reaction would have been much different otherwise).

Dave Johns gives a truly perfect performance here, without a single false note. You ache for him as he struggles to take on the inhumane attitude inflicted on him by his own government, and you cheer for him as he helps a similarly downtrodden young single mother, helping her get adjusted in Newcastle while both their funds grow so low due to their anemic government assistance program that neither of them can afford to eat.

I, Daniel Blake is a truly extraordinarily relevant tale about the gross inequities of our contemporary class systems in even the wealthiest of countries and the shameful ways their administrations buttress it, with senseless paperwork and zero compassion. In an extraordinary contrast, this film is all compassion, every beautiful, heaving minute of it.

Toni Erdmann
Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller in ‘Toni Erdmann’

TONI ERDMANN
Toni Erdmann is the 3rd feature from German writer-director Maren Ade, a bizarre comedy about an extremely eccentric father who surprises his daughter on a hectic week for her high-stakes oil company consulting career. In a way that you see so often in real life, the daughter clearly rebelled against his laissez-faire, practical joke-loving father by becoming a tight-fisted ice queen, über-successful in her career and utterly unable to emotionally connect with anyone: friends (distant, humorless duds) or men (this film has surely one of the oddest sex scenes I’ve ever seen, as she commands her lover to not touch her but to masturbate onto a tray of petit-fours. “Which one?” he asks. “I don’t care…the pink one,” she muses.)

My major and only problem with this film is that it is twice as long as it needed to be for a funny, humane, bizarre gem. Clocking in at nearly three hours, someone needs to tell Ade (me?) that the magic of comedy is in its pacing. Comedic timing is all but lost in the halting pace of this film, which could have been so much more delightful had it not over-indulged in all that simmering to really ever SING.

With two powerful performances by the daughter and father, Toni Erdmann does, however, do an excellent job at illustrating the unspoken cracks between family members.

The Comedian
Robert De Niro and Leslie Mann in ‘The Comedian’

THE COMEDIAN
In this dark comedy from Taylor Hackford (Ray), Robert De Niro takes back up the 34-year old mantle of a stand-up comedian from his beloved beginnings as Rupert Pupkin in Scorcese’s King of Comedy. Exploring the same themes as its forebearer, The Comedian is in essence about a bitter comedian in his 70s at the mercy of no money and a modern celebrity-obsessed culture. While his off-stage antics keep going unexpectedly viral, his ineffective attempts at earning an income from reality television and autograph conventions are intercut with a burgeoning relationship with an equally troubled, lonely woman many years his junior, deftly and compassionately played by Leslie Mann (Jennifer Aniston was originally slated for the role).

While this film is by no means perfect, it’s always an enjoyable ride with DeNiro, and his caché attracted a happy if mostly one-dimensional cast of characters to surround him, among them Danny DeVito as his brother (!), Patti LuPone, Harvey Keitel, and a fun little cameo by Billy Crystal.

Unfortunately, it’s only really pleasurable to watch DeNiro’s character Jackie in his off-stage skin. On-stage, his stand-up never quite clicks. Jeff Ross’s contribution to the script really shows in the stand-up material, always and almost senselessly blue without a hint of clever nuance. This film would have been a lot better if it had dug deeper into the dark psyche of a comedian, but rather it remains moored to the surface, bobbing along entertainingly enough but never committing to saying anything particularly interesting or new about the aspirations or mindset of a troubled mind who pursues comedy as a career.

However, DeNiro’s unflagging charisma carries Comedian along and there are some especially delightful moments, particularly the last scene of the film. Also, he remains weirdly attractive at 73 years old, so much so that by the second act, a romance with Leslie Mann really doesn’t seem all that implausible.

Miss Sloane
Jessica Chastain in ‘Miss Sloane’

MISS SLOANE
The only dead giveaway that this film wasn’t written by Aaron Sorkin but was rather Aaron Sorkin Lite was a rookie mistake: one too many callbacks to its own clever wordplay. A character gives a quick-witted definition of the word naïve—and it’s referenced 2-3 more times thereafter—incidentally a rather naïve excess that Sorkin himself would have never indulged. Otherwise, this film’s script (Jonathan Perera) and direction from John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) moves it along at an incredible Sorkin/Fincher-like clip, an intense political drama that borders on thriller thanks to its architecture and bleakly relevant content.

Jessica Chastainutterly beyond reproach in this role, nailing an icy lobbyist who is always seven steps ahead of her opponent—takes on her own firm’s opponent because for once she actually believes in the cause to be lobbied: stricter gun control measures. A ruthless warrior, she is willing to work every possible angle to win the fight, much to the chagrin and horror of her younger, less jaded colleagues. Though her opponents, led by Sam Waterston, are somehow not animated Disney villains, they are portrayed almost as one-dimensionally as possible, but hey—this film is doing a LOT of twists and turns with its 2 hours and 12 minutes, and the audience is always kept guessing.

While the audience (and other critics) balk at the finale, I found the dénouement to be less credible than the grand reveal at the end, but in the end, I forgave it, because this film is one hell of a ride, and I was with Chastain’s pitch-perfect performance every second of the way. Bonus points: masterful music maker Max Richter, longtime keeper of my heartstrings, composed the score.

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‘Julieta’

JULIETA
Pedro Almodóvar is back with this haunting tale of a woman in search of her daughter, redemption, and forgiveness. Julieta is a lyrical adaptation of a triptych of Alice Munro stories from her series Runaway. Like most Almodóvar films, Julieta uses his thematic trademarks of character doubles (we begin with the middle-aged version of Julieta and flash back frequently to her younger counterpart), beautiful, painterly setpieces, and a backwards dive into the hushed tones of a woman’s troubled past.

Almodóvar is one of my favorite filmmakers, and as such I obviously wanted to love this film, but it stopped short of greatness for me. It felt like a less baked version of Talk to Her, for instance, which had the same driving suspense with a more inspiring, passionate, and captivating execution.  

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Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in ‘Bright Lights’

ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR: BRIGHT LIGHTS
Bright Lights is a truly delightful documentary on Carrie Fisher and her mom, Debbie Reynolds, as they look back at their Hollywood beginnings, twists, and turns through divorces, addictions, Elizabeth Taylor’s infringement, MGM contracts, rehab, bankruptcy, Vegas stints, and more. Coming to HBO in 2017: a must-watch for all lovers of the halcyon days of Hollywood and their filial legacies.

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