Now that the Los Angeles Film Festival is no more, AFI FEST is more important than ever. It was the premier event of its kind even before its crosstown rival announced its permanent closure late last month, but now that it’s the only game in town, it’s unmissable. This year’s edition of the last major festival of the calendar year comes with a handful of world premieres — “On the Basis of Sex,” “Mary Queen of Scots,” and “Bird Box” — and a robust slate of offerings from the likes of Berlin, Cannes, and Venice.
AFI FEST’s strength has always been the way it eschews world premieres in favor of high-quality films that premiered elsewhere on the festival circuit; Jacqueline Lyanga, whose eight-year tenure as Festival Director came to an end this summer, likened it to an “almanac of the year in cinema.” With that in mind, seek out these 10 movies when the festival begins this Thursday, November 8.
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“Amateurs” (World Cinema)
It’s been six years since Gabriela Pichler announced herself to the world with “Eat Sleep Die,” and the moviegoing world has been sorely lacking her anarchic sensibility. Sweden’s most exciting up-and-coming writer-director returns to AFI FEST with “Amateurs,” about a small town trying to lure German investors into building a superstore via a promotional video — and the unruly youths whose approach to the project may ruin the whole endeavor. Pichler’s debut feature demonstrated a unique ability to portray the joy and pain of being a young adult coming of age in a world that isn’t ready for you; that she did so without showing any growing pains herself makes the prospect of her sophomore outing all the more exciting.
“Daughter of Mine” (World Cinema)
Good things happen when Laura Bispuri directs Alba Rohrwacher. The first-time filmmaker proved as much with “Sworn Virgin,” which left its mark on AFI FEST in 2015, and looks to do so again in her follow-up. Following a 10-year-old girl in Sardinia whose existence is upended when she learns that the fall-down drunk she’s seen around town is actually her birth mother, “Daughter of Mine” sounds like a companion piece of sorts to Bispuri’s debut. Rohrwacher plays the alcoholic in question, with Sara Casu as the kiddo and Valeria Golino rounding out the trio as the girl’s adoptive mother; Bispuri is once again tackling distinctly feminine subject matter in Italy. If “Daughter of Mine” lives up to its predecessor, it’ll be well worth a visit.
“Dead Horse Nebula” (New Auteurs)
If you can resist a title like that, you have more discipline than me. A standout at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, where Tarik Aktaş won the award for Best Emerging Director, “Dead Horse Nebula” concerns the attempted removal of (you guessed it) a dead horse from a field in Turkey. Man’s dominion over this planet is not as complete as it often seems, and Aktaş’ film — which runs a scant 73 minutes and has been described as a “fever dream” — looks to be a bizarre, comical reminder of that important fact.
“Diamantino” (World Cinema)
If you’re experiencing World Cup withdrawals, get your fix with “Diamantino” — but be forewarned that Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s exceedingly strange-sounding fairy tale also concerns evil twins, a mad scientist, and giant puppies. Lots of them. Cristiano Ronaldo lookalike Carlota Cotta plays the footie star in question, a Portugese phenom who chokes so badly in the World Cup final that his own father dies on the spot. If “Diamantino” is as good as it is weird, it’s a must-see — and can you honestly resist finding out?
“The Great Pretender” (American Independents)
Nathan Silver is no stranger to AFI FEST, and the American Independents section is always better when he’s included. His latest followers four New Yorkers (Esther Garrel, Keith Poulson, Linas Phillips, and Maëlle Poésy) in what sounds like the strangest play-within-a-movie since “Madeline’s Madeline,” with a nonlinear narrative that uses everything from still photos to archival footage to advance the oddity. Throw in cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the indie stalwart whose increasingly impressive resume includes the likes of “Good Time” and “Listen Up Philip,” and “The Great Pretender” sounds better and better.
“In Fabric” (Midnight)
Fans of “Berberian Sound Studio” and “The Duke of Burgundy” will be first in line for “In Fabric,” but you should seek out this ‘70s-set thriller even if you aren’t already familiar with the work of Peter Strickland. Gwendoline Christie stars alongside Marianne Jean-Baptiste in what might be his most bizarre outing yet; it does tell of a dress that may or may not be possessed by the devil, after all. (And you thought “Phantom Thread” took a strange look at the fashion industry.) Strickland has the rare ability to match his out-there premises with velvety visuals and haunting atmospheres, so give “In Fabric” a chance.
“Sunset” (World Cinema)
Béla Tarr may have retired, but Hungarian cinema has found a worthy standard-bearer in László Nemes. “Sunset” confirms the Oscar-winning “Son of Saul” director as a major talent, one whose sophomore feature is both astonishingly beautiful and profoundly sorrowful: It unfolds like a cross between a memory of pre-war Budapest and a dream, the kind so vivid you’ll swear it was real as you hang on to every half-remembered detail. Nemes displays flashes of his mentor’s formal mastery even as he emerges as a unique cinematic voice in his own right, one that may only grow louder and more prominent in the years to come. There’s sadness and beauty in every frame, as though the writer/director is nostalgic for this era despite not being born until many decades after the sun had indeed set on the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
“Too Late to Die Young” (World Cinema)
Dominga Sotomayor Castillo made one of the most striking debuts of the last several years with “Thursday Till Sunday,” and her latest sounds worth the wait. Set during Chile’s political unrest of 1990, “Too Late to Die Young” — which premiered earlier this summer at Locarno, where Sotomayor won Best Director — it likewise concerns a small family whose story begins in a car. Any new project from this sensitive, promising filmmaker would be an enticing prospect, but the fact that this one has already received such praise and left a larger festival footprint than “Thursday” is even more reason to be excited.
“Vision” (World Cinema)
Your mileage may vary with Naomi Kawase, who’s beloved by festival programmers (especially at Cannes, where the Croisette mainstay won the Grand Prix in 2007) but hotly debated among critics. Even so, her latest elicits curiosity if for no other reason than its cast: Juliette Binoche stars opposite Masatoshi Nagase, a mainstay of Japanese cinema most recently seen by western audiences in Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson.” The premise is equally hard to ignore: Binoche plays a travel writer in search of a sacred plant that blooms once every 997 years and is said to cure human weakness and pain. One imagines that her time in the forest with a blind herbalist isn’t entirely curative, but that shouldn’t suggest it isn’t worth seeing.
“Vox Lux” (Special Screenings)
Venice Film Festival
To call “Vox Lux” a pop-star drama would falsely suggest that it in any way resembles “A Star Is Born” or is at all interested with the music industry, especially when you learn, in its opening minutes, what compels its heroine to start singing in the first place. The film begins in 1999, at which time a 13-year-old Celeste is in music class when a classmate opens fire in her classroom, killing several and leaving her with a spinal injury that will cause her pain for the rest of her days. It’s a horrific sequence, coming out of nowhere and filmed in such a way that puts you closer to the violence than you’d ever want to be; this is Celeste’s life, and for the next two hours it’s also ours. “Vox Lux” is a powerful, haunting film in part because Natalie Portman is a powerful, haunting presence — you may not want to play “Vox Lux” on repeat, but this is a song that demands to be heard at full volume.