Los Angeles’ annual AFI FEST presented by Audi kicks off this week, and boasts a robust slate of some of the festival season’s most beloved offerings and a few highly anticipated new premieres. If you’ve missed out on the rest of the year’s big festivals, AFI FEST is a prime opportunity to catch up on the starriest titles before awards season really kicks into high gear, along with enough bonafide premieres to keep even the most ravenous movie-goer very happy indeed.
Ahead, we pick out 14 of our most anticipated films from the fest, including a handful of genuine classics, some big contenders and at least one very buzzy debut. Take a look and start filling up your schedule now.
The hype is real. Pablo Larrain’s English-language debut features Natalie Portman in not just the best performance of her career, but what’s currently shaping up to be the best performance of the entire year. The boundary-busting fact-based feature follows Jackie Kennedy (Portman) in the days immediately after her husband’s assassination, but it cuts back and forth between time and space with a staggering grace and fluidity, anchored by a narrative device that sees Jackie telling her story to an eager journalist (Billy Crudup, who is quietly having one heck of a year). Larrain asks a lot of his leading lady, and Portman responds in kind, embodying Jackie without ever aping her, lending equal passion to seemingly more straight-forward scenes and wildly off-the-map sequences, and never even approaching the concept of “showy.” It’s revelatory, and it all lives inside a film built from the ground up to match her wattage. -KE
Sophia Takal previously mined the rich and thorny world of female friendships and jealousies in her “Green,” but her latest feature, the Mackenzie Davis- and Caitlin FitzGerald-starring “Always Shine,” ups the ante and skill with lasting impact. The pair play best friends — and fellow actresses — who attempt to reconnect by taking a girls’ weekend to the leafy environs of Big Sur. While the intentions are (seemingly) pure enough, the film happily and ambitiously zings into wild territory right off the bat. Takal’s film uses the girls’ professional animosity as a jumping off point to address their very tangled relationship, effectively shining a big ol’ light on Hollywood’s demands of its female stars while also cutting to the bone of their own friendship. At turns scary, illuminating and disarmingly well-measured, it’s the kind of thriller that packs plenty of scares while also providing the sort of cultural commentary that leaves you shaken long after the credits roll. -KE
Writer-director Josh Locy’s first feature provides terrific material for under-appreciated character actor Andre Royo (“The Wire”) as the alienated Ashley Douglas, who’s fresh out of a three-year prison stint and stuck at his mother’s house. Approaching middle age, Ashley can’t seem to find his place anywhere: His ex-girlfriend has moved on and he doesn’t have a job. Struggling to set up a ramshackle career selling discarded refrigerators, Ashley joins forces with a young sidekick in his aimless pursuit of restarting his life. Both gently amusing and melancholic, Royo’s performance is matched by Locy’s astute direction, which make its beleaguered anti-hero’s series of dead-ends into a kind of lower class adventure tale. While set in a struggling African-American community, “Hunter Gatherer” exists a world away from the simplified portraits found in countless other dramas with similar settings. It’s also got one of the most charming ex-cons to grace American screens in some time. Royo won best actor at this year’s SXSW Film Festival; it’s a great new direction for this under-appreciated actor. -EK
“Buster’s Mal Heart”
Writer-director Sarah Adina Smith’s second feature film after her 2014 drama-mystery “The Midnight Swim” represents the first silver screen lead role for actor Rami Malek (an Emmy winner for his “Mr. Robot”). The film follows Jonah, a mountain man and fugitive who’s surviving the winter by breaking into vacation properties. Jonah has earned the nickname “Buster” by frequently calling into talk radio shows to warn listeners of the impending doom to be brought on by Y2K. Prior to becoming a fugitive, Jonah was a night concierge at a hotel with a wife named Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil). Jonah is haunted by a recurring dream of being lost at sea, but discovers that the dream is actually real. He is one man in two bodies. The movie is the story of how he split into two. -GW
A jarring, disjunctive journey inside the life of a couple through their home movies, Dean Fleisher-Camp’s “Fraud” is a daring experiment in 21st century storytelling. Allegedly strung together from a bunch of clips the filmmaker found on YouTube, the movie finds the North Carolina family who catapult from suburban bliss to life on the run as they transform into con artists. With their young kids in tow, they launch on a journey across the country, cutting corners wherever they can in a quest to take advantage of the consumer society around them. (You’ve never met a family more intent on getting their hands on an iPhone.) As scenes constantly shift from one setting to another, we’re drawn into an unsettling odyssey in which viewers must stitch together the broader context of various events based on the eerie breadcrumbs at our disposal. When it premiered at Hot Docs, “Fraud” was met with harsh criticism from audiences dubious of its non-fiction elements. But just like “Catfish,” the ambiguity its production history is part of the point. In our digitally-enhanced society, everything is vulnerable to manipulation, and “Fraud” both documents that reality and reflects it with wonderfully provocative results. -EK
Fred Elmes / Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street
Jim Jarmusch’s lyrical drama has been attracting universal acclaim since its premiere in May at the Cannes Film Festival, with many critics hailing it as his best feature ever. IndieWire’s own Eric Kohn called it Jarmusch’s most personal film yet, good enough for the film to earn a rare A rating. The story of a New Jersey bus driver and poet played by Adam Driver is remarkably simple and methodical, but the film’s intimacy can be moving. As is often the case with Jarmusch’s movies, the writer and director finds beauty in the smallest of details, creating a film whose events unfold like lines in a poem. The Cannes crowdpleaser is Amazon Studios’ second-ever original movie. -GW
It’s growing increasingly clear that Peter Berg will not rest until he’s made a blue-blooded blockbuster about every American disaster since 9/11. After tackling a botched combat mission in “Lone Survivor,” an environmental catastrophe in “Deepwater Horizon” and that time Rihanna saved us from aliens in “Battleship,” Berg is back with the first Hollywood movie about the Boston Marathon bombing. Mark Wahlberg (natch) leads a cast that includes John Goodman, J.K. Simmons and Kevin Bacon, all of whom play local or federal agents who are responding to the crisis and trying to track down the young men responsible for the horrific terrorist act. If you’re proud of being an American, or desperately looking for a reason to be, “Patriots Day” is essential viewing this holiday season. -DE
The Weinstein Company
The true-life story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian boy who was separated from his family for decades before Google Earth allowed him to relocate them, “Lion” sounds like it should be the silliest and most shameless Oscar bait of the year. But it isn’t — not even close. On the contrary, “Lion” is an emotional stunner from deep left field, a tremendously moving film that boasts a ferocious lead performance from Dev Patel, a flawless supporting cast (including Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara), and is welded together by careful, emotionally vivid direction from “Top of the Lake” helmer Garth Davis. Don’t miss it. -DE
Following in the footsteps of last year’s “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos,” Alexa Lim Haas and Bernardo Britto’s “Glove” brings us another animated story from space. The existential short follows a lonely piece of interstellar equipment, floating through the solar system while we see its full history of creation, use and freedom. It paired excellently with “Operation Avalanche” earlier this year at Sundance, but it has plenty of charm to work on its own. Haas and Britto’s design is a nice blend of the simple and the fantastical, all impressively packed into its deceptively short runtime. -SG
AFI FEST has a knack for putting together quality repertory screenings alongside their other programs. This year, alongside “Citizen Kane,” the heaviest of hitters, the fest will also show the great Harold Lloyd comedy “Speedy.” As with last year’s screening of “Safety Last!,” there will be live accompaniment, this time provided by DJ Z-TRIP. Ted Wilde’s thrilling, chaotic chase sequences and trolley stunts should play well on the big screen, nearly 90 years after they were first shot. And for anyone suffering from baseball withdrawal, there’s a pretty swell Babe Ruth cameo as well. -SG
A hard-driving noir based on the real life story of murderous hitchhiker who forced (at gunpoint) two men to help him escape the police, the film was the first from actress Ida Lupino’s production company, which was set up to make small, low budget, issue-driven noirs. When the original director fell ill, Lupino stepped in to shoot the film and ended up launching one of the great (and unfortunately forgotten) directing careers. Lupino’s stripped down, hard-nosed approach to making these films — she’d go on to direct four more for her company — has been celebrated by many, including Martin Scorsese, who wrote, “The five films she directed between 1949 and 1953 are remarkable chamber pieces that deal with challenging subjects in a clear, almost documentary fashion, and they represent a singular achievement in American cinema.” -CO
“Flirting With Disaster”
The funniest movie of the 1990s? Probably. Unable to name his new baby, Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller) sets out on a road trip to meet his biological parents with his wife (Patricia Arquette) and neurotic caseworker (Tea Leoni). Nothing goes according to plan as the film dissolves into chaotic comedic bliss. The road trip aspect of the film lends itself to a number of pitch perfect supporting characters, highlighted by Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins as partners at work (cops) and in life. The surprise hit from director David O. Russell was an early indication of director’s ability to create frenetic pace with a group of off-kilter characters. Stay after the AFI Fest screening, as IndieWire’s Anne Thompson will interview Russell in celebration of the film (and IndieWire’s) 20th anniversary. -CO
If you’ve been following the 2016 festival circuit, chances are you’ve met several critics who are head over heels in love with Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann.” The breakout hit of the Cannes Film Festival, where it earned two rapturous mid-screening applauses, this father-daughter comedy is so funny and so introspective, it leaves you in a state of self-reflective transcendence. The plot should not be spoiled, though it does concern the relationship between a prank-loving father and his corporate-climbing daughter. The script awakens their bond, but only after a push-and-pull dynamic sends them both on a collision course with their own identities. In the excellent Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller, “Toni Erdmann” creates two endlessly relatable characters you desperately want to keep watching. It’s the fastest two-and-a-half-hour dramatic comedy you’ll ever see. -ZS
“20th Century Women”
The magic of Mike Mills’ new feature is right there in the title. Featuring dynamic performances from Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning, “20th Century Women” may center around the coming of age of a Santa Barbara teenage boy, but its themes and worldview is shaped entirely by its powerful feminine voice. Bening is a supreme force, mixing the frustration of maternal angst with the melancholy of letting your child go into the world. Her work is tremendous. Fanning is aces as the promiscuous girl next door, bottling up repressed rage that you know is doing some serious emotional damage. But Gerwig might just be the best. She takes a very traditional character (the quirky artist) and finds the painful humanity and humility in her. With these three women, “20th Century Women” is dynamite. -ZS
The festival runs from November 10 – 17.