A chorus of groans nevertheless greeted the announcement of the festival’s full program late last month, with a vocal contingent focusing on the omissions rather than the inclusions: Where was Story of My Death, Albert Serra’s Golden Leopard–winning narration of a meeting between Dracula and Casanova? And what of Norte, the End of History, a four-hour offering from Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, or James Gray’s The Immigrant? Such complaints are both inevitable and valid — holding our programmers to as high a standard as possible is a good thing. But for someone whose festival travels were restricted to Sundance this annum — something of a disappointment after cinematic pilgrimages to Locarno, Switzerland, and Busan, South Korea, last year — focusing on the positive was fairly easy. After months of praise, Manakamana was finally en route to Los Angeles; ditto Vic + Flo Saw a Bear and Gloria.
I ultimately saw 44 of these films, about half of them in advance via press screenings and/or screeners. The most memorable were A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, a collaboration between avant-garde stalwarts Ben Russell and Ben Rivers in three segments; Manakamana, the latest ethnographic whatsit from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab; and Mary, Queen of Scots, Thomas Imbach’s tantalizing biopic. The first two are somewhat similar — both experiential works are the product of co-directors shooting on 16 mm with little concern for narrative, and A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness in particular blurs the line between documentary and fiction as it delves into communal living, the solitude of the forest, and even black metal. That justifiably maligned but darkly fascinating subculture with a mythos that’s often more compelling than its accompanying music is here given the most poignant, visceral treatment it’s likely ever to receive. In a bravura sequence capturing a live performance of a neopagan black metal band featuring protagonist Robert A.A. Lowe in Oslo, that musical form is stripped down to its raw essence in a way that documentaries like Until the Light Takes Us have never even approached. A dozen or so different segments comprise Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s equally immersive Manakamana, each lasting nearly 10 minutes and focusing on a single cable-car ride to or from the eponymous Nepalese temple. From this simple template arise a number of touching, borderline profound, and unflaggingly real moments that capture the human experience like no other film in recent memory. Through all of it, Spray and Velez’s 16 mm camera can be heard humming in the background — something Rivers and Russell might consider an example of “living out of time,” a notion present throughout their film.
A sort of dark fairytale cut from the same cloth as Jane Eyre and Farewell, My Queen, Imbach’s biopic Mary, Queen of Scots is sumptuously photographed and less interested in history than atmosphere. As portrayed by Camille Rutherford, Mary herself is not only a tragedy waiting to happen but also a stirringly magnetic presence — an out-of-her-depth monarch with her back against the wall whose ethereality only makes her seem more doomed.
Perhaps the two worst films at the festival were Tom at the Farm and Nothing Bad Can Happen, which both focus on willfully subservient protagonists who arrive at strangers' homes for one reason or another and inexplicably stick around once their new hosts begin mentally and physically abusing them. Imagine a version of 12 Years a Slave in which Solomon Northup willingly endures his abuse without making the slightest attempt to flee. This will give you an approximate idea of both movies’ tiresome plotting — the circumstances of these young men’s would-be confinement are so patently ludicrous that it becomes impossible to take any development thereafter seriously. What little attempt each film makes to psychologize its characters and elliptically explain their reason for staying fall flat and make their actions even more unbelievable. They're the art-house equivalent of slasher-flick characters who go into that dilapidated cabin despite audience members’ loudest protestations.
Shuffling between screens in the Chinese 6 multiplex (to say nothing of the occasional trek next door to the revamped Chinese Theatre or down the street to the Egyptian), opinions seemed to form at roughly the same pace as lines for the next round of screenings. Opening night selection Saving Mr. Banks was a diverting piece of treacle that could have used a little less sugar and a little more medicine while, depending on whom you ask (I didn’t see it), Mark Wahlberg’s indignation at the world premiere of Lone Survivor was more entertaining than the movie itself. Motorola reps walked along the lines hawking the company’s latest phone (remember to always respond “I’ve already tried it” in such situations) and the weekend rush of this Thursday-to-Thursday festival quickly gave way to a slowed-down pace starting Monday. Film festivals are exhausting in a very first-world-problem sort of way, and the promise of AFI Fest — bringing the most lauded titles from Berlin, Cannes, etc., to the discerning Angeleno — is sometimes at odds with the reality of having to fit the schedule into one’s real life.
By far the most difficult selection to make heads or tails of, Ari Folman's The Congress is rough around the edges, underrealized, and actively bad for its first 20 minutes. Once it transitions from live action into animation, however, these flaws start to dissipate and the film becomes impossible to dismiss outright — not least because the uneven dialogue works much better when spoken by cartoons than by actual humans. The story of a past-her-prime actress (Robin Wright, playing a fictionalized version of herself à la John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich and Paul Giamatti in Cold Souls) who licenses her likeness and name to the fictional Miramount Studios, the film becomes more enjoyable as it moves away from plot and toward its rich inner world. Folman’s ambitions are rarely equaled by his execution, but Wright’s decades-long journey — a sort of inversion of David’s in A.I. Artificial Intelligence — between the real and imagined world to find her son is moving all the same. In both its successes and failures, it inspired me to seek out other animated features I’d slept on over the last several years, which must count for something.
Of the many coincidences and trends that emerged among AFI’s offerings, the most interesting was the depiction and significance of animals in films as diverse as Closed Curtain, Inside Llewyn Davis, Manakamana, My Dog Killer, and The Strange Little Cat. In some cases this was to be expected — namely those whose titles contain the word “dog” or “cat” — but in others it was a pleasant surprise. Consider Manakamana: the most daring of its segments shows nothing more than the transport of four goats up a mountain, yet even here we’re able to see the extraordinary in the everyday.
Closed Curtain, Jafar Panahi’s second film since he received a 20-year ban on filmmaking from the Iranian government and was placed under house arrest, seems a step down from his first, the invigorating This Is Not a Film. It concerns a man hiding away in a beachfront home so that the authorities are not alerted to the presence of his dog — they’ve been deemed impure according to Islam and thus outlawed. The film turns characteristically self-reflexive in its second half and can’t help feeling like an unfulfilling rehashing of its predecessor from there on out. My Dog Killer, a sort of Slovakian descendant of Samuel Fuller’s devastating White Dog, is even less accomplished — it’s conventionally understated and well shot, but its exploration of intolerance isn’t nuanced enough to compensate for how derivative it is.
Viewers as feline-obsessed as this writer may be disappointed to learn that The Strange Little Cat isn’t really about a cat, but the film is beguiling even without a feline protagonist. Its screening was preceded by The Date, a considerably more cat-centric short, presumably as a preemptive concession to anyone who showed up hoping for the fusion of art-house cinema and cat videos we’ve all been waiting for. Somewhat surprisingly, that melding came courtesy of the Coen Brothers’ closing night film.
The title character of Inside Llewyn Davis, a sort of folk-music corollary to A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik, is a lost soul with a guitar. His (im)permanent residence is a series of friends’ couches, one of whose cats comes under his care after escaping its apartment upon Llewyn’s hasty departure one morning. Llewyn then loses, finds, and returns the cat only to discover that the tabby he recovered is a lookalike. With nothing else to do, he brings his nameless companion along on a trip to Chicago in hopes of securing a manager (minor spoilers to follow). On the drive there, he abandons the imposter cat; while headed home, he grazes it with his car during a snowstorm and watches it limp into the wilderness moments later. Neither moment is lingered (or even remarked) upon, but both speak volumes.
Near the end, he discovers that the first cat’s name is Ulysses and happens upon a movie poster for The Incredible Journey, its tagline in full view: “They face an unknown world of adventure with instinct their only guide to home.” His own odyssey is much less uplifting, especially given his lack of any real home to return to, but it did provide a fitting end to this well-traveled festival. As bad as we may rightly feel for Llewyn and his cats, the film of which they are a part is structured in a cyclical manner that doesn't emphasize clearly defined beginnings and ends so much as the ongoing rhythms of what might be called real life. The Coens find not only sadness in this, but hope as well — Ulysses eventually returns home, no thanks to Llewyn, and there's comfort to be derived from the mere fact that their journey continues.
Michael Nordine, a Los-Angeles based film critic, is a regular contributor for LA Weekly and the Village Voice.