Each year, AFI FEST’s programming schedule seems stricken by an identity crisis. On the one hand, you have the highfalutin premieres of Oscar favorites defined by their red carpet glitz and glam. Stars and paparazzi flood Hollywood Boulevard while awestruck tourists look on in amazement, all to celebrate films that are already primed for the long awards season ahead. This is the festival’s facade.
I’m more interested in the festival’s beating heart–the latest and greatest foreign entries out of Cannes, Toronto, and Venice, and fringe discoveries that span the spectrum of genres and national cinemas across the globe. Consider this a preview showcasing some of the festival’s finest entries.
Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat is a beguiling cinematic oddity, a symphony of sounds and an expansive mosaic of telling details. Stuck inside a middle-class German apartment, we watch a family awaken, engage in allegorical conversation, and prepare for a dinner to be held that night. Audible patterns emerge (the youngest daughter screams whenever the espresso machine snaps into action) while the camera stays mostly static, watching and logging patterns with meticulous precision.
We see acts of play and hints of brutality. A foot hovers over a cat’s neck, and there’s mention of monsters. Later, the cat will eat a moth that has been fluttering by all the action. It all feeds into a rhythm of daily life very particular to this group of people who’ve been interacting (and repressing) together for so long.
Everything in this tightly confined space revolves around facial expressions, and none is more conflicted than that of the matriarch’s (Jenny Schily). She seems perpetually torn between rage and mundanity, expression and duty. But we aren’t sure why. What’s clear is this family remains a product of her life, and she’s stuck with watching it flower one day at a time.
Time also passes slowly in Hong Sang-soo’s latest joy, Our Sunhi, a sunny companion piece to his Nobody’s Daughter Haewon that pinpoints the selfish cycle of men attempting to possess a woman’s admiration, energy and love.
A trio of intellectuals pander for the attention of Sunhi (Jung Yumi), a lovely but confused film student who has been living in self-imposed exile for the last year for muddled reasons. Hong structures the film around different pairings and drinking sessions, each in it’s own way an indicator of fluctuating desires and motivations. More often than not, what’s said is not what’s felt, and this leaves the characters fittingly bewildered in perfect Hong fashion.
Enigmatic Canadian art-thrillers seem to be all the rage at AFI FEST this year. Xavier Dolan’s nervy but unnecessarily self-indulgent Tom at the Farm finds the Quebecois-wunderkind experimenting a bit with Hitchcockian menace and Dardenne-style pacing in this story about a city slicker who attends his lover’s funeral in the countryside only to be swept up into the warped family matters.
Much more reserved (and altogether frightening) is Denis Côté’s Vic + Flow Saw a Bear. Set entirely in quiet rural area where deceptively kind neighbors roam freely across properties and treelines spell disaster, this story of long-gestating revenge is one of those seamless gut-punches that drifts calmly by with the wind.
Finally, speaking of horrifying, Patrick Daniels and Robert Berger’s Charlie Victor Romeo is my worst nightmare come to life. Over the course of its harrowing running time, actors reenact six different air disasters using the actual dialogue recorded from flight recorders. Essentially extended theatrical scenes containing the tension of a great tragedy, the film conveys a bitter truth: all the work, hope, and energy these fledgling pilots put into fending off the inevitable just leads to awful, deafening silence.