What makes AFI FEST different from other high-profile festivals is also what makes it essential: Its programmers don’t care about premiere status. Each edition of the annual gathering tends to feature just a few, often on the first and last nights of the weeklong event, though there have been exceptions — 2014 saw back-to-back surprise debuts of both “American Sniper” and “Selma” on the same night.
Barring any last-minute additions, this year leans in the opposite direction. The only world premiere scheduled was Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World,” which initially received pride of place as the closing-night gala; because the film starred Kevin Spacey before he was replaced with Christopher Plummer at the last minute, it’s since been pulled from the schedule. Opening night, meanwhile, begins with a movie that premiered 10 months ago at Sundance and will be streaming on Netflix by the end of next week: Dee Rees’ “Mudbound.” Here are some of the highlights that deserve just as much attention.
True to its California setting, AFI FEST has always been a more relaxed affair than the likes of Cannes, Toronto, or even New York. Festival Director Jacqueline Lyanga and Director of Programming Lane Kneedler have described it as a sort of almanac of the year in cinema, one that has the advantage of taking place after the other major festivals — allowing it to cull offerings from them as needed and snatch late-breaking awards-season entries when the occasion calls for it.
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So while most of the movies on offer — like Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name,” Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” and Claire Denis’ “Bright Sunshine In” — are making their Los Angeles premieres, nearly all of them first saw light of day thousands of miles away.
It’s quite the lineup. Auteurists will eagerly queue up for not one but two new films by the ever-prolific Hong Sang-soo (“Claire’s Camera” and “The Day After”), the cat-loving Michael Haneke’s latest (“Happy End,” which, like “Claire’s Camera,” stars Isabelle Huppert), and Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman”; stargazers and so-bad-it’s-good enthusiasts can try to snag a ticket to James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist,” which takes an affectionate look at the making of Tommy Wiseau’s infamous “The Room”; and genre fiends have the opportunity to stay up until 2 a.m. with “Good Manners” and “Let the Corpses Tan.”
Just because Lyanga, Kneedler, and their team aren’t the first to program these films doesn’t mean every movie’s reputation precedes it and there aren’t under-the-radar surprises to be found. Joachim Trier’s “Thelma,” for instance, is more in keeping with the original “Carrie” than the remake that came out a few years ago. Starring first-timer Eili Harboe as a college student whose repressive upbringing may or may not have granted her supernatural gifts she’s unable to control, it represents a melding of sensibilities that should appeal to anyone left cold by more conventional genre fare.
AFI FEST has long served as a showcase for up-and-coming filmmakers, which is reflected in the fact that its one juried section is exclusive to first- and second-time directors. This year’s New Auteurs section looks especially promising: Rungano Nyoni’s “I Am Not a Witch” has earned acclaim at Cannes and Toronto, whereas Charlotte Rampling took home Best Actress laurels at Venice for her performance as the title character in Andrea Pallaoro’s “Hannah” and Kantemir Balagov has courted controversy and praise in equal measure since debuting “Closeness” on the Croisette.
None of these movies will fill the Chinese Theatre to capacity, which might be for the best. If right now seems an odd, even inappropriate time to focus on movie stars and red carpets in the heart of Hollywood, it’s also the perfect moment to shine a spotlight on filmmakers emerging from other corners of the globe.
AFI FEST 2017 runs from November 9 – 16 in Hollywood.