(This is a series of brief unedited descriptions of films in the festival I found time to write about. There are MANY other great films playing at the fest but I only have time to write about these few.)

Alisa leaves Moscow for St. Petersburg, hoping to get away from loneliness there. Looking for love, she destroys everything on her way to happiness. This young woman finds herself in a bleak modern landscape and tires to pull together some semblance of a life. In this stark Russian landscape he soon becomes involved in the lives of her troubles neighbors and so begins her tragic journey. This tale of drugs and sex is set against one of the most visually innovative backdrops in contemporary cinema

This is the latest visually stunning effort to emerge from modern Russian cinema but this time from an emerging talent in the filed. NIRVANA is a brightly colored gritty punk drama with amazing artistic ambition. The thumping pulse of the story is dashed with neon and sharp design. And the high contrast and vibrant set decoration is like none other you will see in any film this year.

A fantastic example of the stunning visual innovation, which is the defining characteristic of the modern Russian film renaissance, this work from director Igor Voloshin, is a powerfully cinematic vision.

NIRVANA plays AFI FEST Saturday, November 1st 12:30pm



(This is a series of brief unedited descriptions of films in the festival I found time to write about. There are MANY other great films playing at the fest but I only have time to write about these few.)

George Washington Winsterhammerman lives an ordinary life. He has a wife, a kid, a house, and a boat. Every day George gets in his minivan and goes to work as a Level Three Tunt at the Jeffers Corporation, the largest and most profitable corporation in the history of mankind. It is an utterly comfortable life, but when people around George begin exploding, he fears he might be next. George visits his doctor and learns that the dreams he’s been having are a symptom of impending explosion. Unfortunately, George can’t stop dreaming, and as the explosion epidemic worsens, he is forced to question the life he’s been living.

This is a quirkily unique story, utterly original in every way. One of the most inspired casting decisions of all time has placed acclaimed actor and comedian Zach Galifinackis at the lead of this ensemble. He is joined by the delightful Judy Greer and terrific indie mainstay James Le Gros. VISIONEERS is the debut film from the sibling filmmaking team of Brandon and Jared Drake. It’s a darkly comic view at a world so skewed it could only be our own.

VISIONEERS plays at AFI FEST Saturday, November 1st 9:45pm.


WENDY AND LUCY gets an R-rating

This is a perfect example of the deep problems of the MPAA's rating system (and possibly of their bias against independent film.) Kelly Reichart's film WENDY AND LUCY received an R-rating from the organization today. The under 13 audience for this film is probably not very big but it's still a shame that such a beautiful film is made so difficult for young cinephiles to see. (We were all young once, right?)

None of the films that play at AFI FEST (or most film festivals for that matter) have any ratings. The festival relys on individuals to learn about films and make their own informed decisions. Unlike other festivals though, AFI FEST does however create an "Under-18" guide where they identify films that audience members should consider sharing with their younger film fans.

The irony of course, is that WENDY AND LUCY was selected as one of the "Under-18" films for this year. Where the MPAA saw something dangerous, the AFI FEST staff saw a great opportunity to share an independent film with our younger audience.

ps-if you have not seen Kirby Dick's fantastic documentary about the MPAA's rating board, THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED, do yourself a favor and put it on your Netflix list now.


Bad book re-design

This article about a possible film adaptation of the YA book "Lizard Music" sent me into a tizzy of nostalgia. And one of the strongest things that set me off was the image of the old book cover:

So then I hopped over to Amazon to look a bit more at the book. To my dismay I was presented with this new cover image.:

Who possibly thought this was a better design choice?

Digital Filmmaking and the subjective point of view

Two films at AFI FEST explore the world in unusual and original ways especially in regards to the use of a subjective point of view and image framing which heightens the intensity of a story in most unusual ways.

The films are: AFTERCHOOL from the US directed by Antonio Campos and INVOLUNTARY from Sweden and directed by Ruben Ostlund.

What’s most interesting and most similar about these two films made in the same year but from radically different cultures is this: they both use new media sources to tell their stories. In AFTERSCHOOL, the kids are drawn to You-Tube and pornography online like moths to a flame. Their lives become so enmeshed in the world of video that two characters end up getting their death captured on video camera. In INVOLUNTARY two young girls make themselves the dangerous object of desire by posing and vamping for their web cams. Besides the webcams, this stilted, unprofessional framing is the defining aesthetic of the film. This device carries thought the Swedish film most memorably in claustrophobic scenes capturing the human drama boiling over on a cross-country bus line, and in the film’s opening moment with its distant and unwavering framing heightens a startling small scale terror.

A teenage rites-of-passage drama, AFTERSCHOOL vividly captures the corrosive omnipresence of web video footage for American teens. From violent You Tube-style clips to Internet pornography, our new media is creating a tangled web of confusion for the young people going through puberty. Among them is the skinny, socially awkward sophomore Robert (Ezra Miller), who already has developed a taste for rough porn. As two girls suffer fatal drug overdoses on campus, Robert inadvertently captures the tragedy with his video camera. When his video begins circulating, the atmosphere of paranoia and unease on campus grows, and he becomes increasingly troubled and withdrawn. But AFTERSCHOOL scratches gently at this phenomenon, rather than pushing to excess. Just 24, Campos demonstrates his skill at weaving together a variety of themes and concerns: the alienated angst of voyeurism, the pervasive influence of media violence, and the empowering nature of the web cam

I loved this director’s previous effort BUY IT NOW about the real life attempt of a young girl to sell her virginity on eBay. And this latest effort is winning raves from its recent showcase at the NYFF.

And these raves are also being received from the other film, INVOLUNTARY.

It’s almost summer in Sweden. Throughout the city, people are engaging in minor indiscretions and misbehavior. Leffe likes to show off for his friends and play salacious pranks, especially when he’s drinking. A righteous grade-school teacher doesn’t know where to draw the line: she insists her fellow educators need a bit of instruction. And two young teenage girls who like to party and pose for sexy photos go a few steps too far. Inflected with an edgy, urban realism and dark, laconic wit, INVOLUNTARY offers an astute meditation on the intermingling of humans in our modern world. It's innovative in form, defiantly deeper in tone than a mere series of comic vignettes, and beautifully enacted by its ensemble cast. Director Ruben Ostlund writes about the germ of the idea behind the stories: “I played a computer game. The aim was to build and maintain a city. It was played from a bird’s eye perspective, with humans represented by small dots. One press of the icon resulted in pandemonium amongst the inhabitants. I felt that through the emotional distance, I was able to observe in an interested yet distanced manner, without judging and without any feelings of discomfort.” Ostlund replicates this effect, with astonishing success, with INVOLUNTARY.

It’s this distancing in our modern society that both of these filmmakers are clearly interested in exploring. And they do so in tremendously successful ways with these two cinematic endeavors.


Candid photos of Obama

I love this gallery of images. I looked at it last night and again today. Hard to pick a favorite, I love the pull-ups and the shoes, but this one rocks:
The photographer's caption is:
It was primary morning in New Hampshire. Barack and Michelle Obama had been campaigning separately all week. In the first few months of 2008 their private time seemed to consist of a few crossover moments in back hallways before rallies. This moment was rare and you could tell they just loved being able to sit together. Jan. 8, 2008.
Plus I also love that he's reading a newspaper. Just one of them of course, not "all of them" like Palin "reads."

AFI FEST short film competition

As I tweeted earlier, the most fun part of my job is probably building the short film programs. It's like making a movie mix tape! So this year we have grouped them a little more thematically than we have in the past. In one program we have the majority of the Documentary shorts together. A few other doc shorts leaked out into other programs but I think these films sit together quite nicely.

We have also grouped together a bunch of our animated shorts again this year. One of my favorite things growing up was a Saturday morning cartoon, and I eventually went on to study animation in school so this is a subject close to my heart. However I don’t want to give the impression that these "cartoons' were meant as fun for the whole family. They do have some frank sexual content in them and besides I think they would just be more interesting to adults that to children anyway. So we've called it the Adults only Cartoon show. We should have programmed it on Saturday morning that would have been clever.

And then we have what is being called the ALT_shorts program. These are the more challenging films in the short competition. (All films in all sections are part of the International Shorts Competition. Fair warning, not all of these films will have linear narrative story telling or other conventions of mainstream filmmaking. But they are stellar examples of artist pushing the medium further and being unafraid to explore their world s more fully with the use of cinema.

Our final two shorts programs are the narrative or dramatic shorts. They are titles, Worldviews and Amuse Bouche. I don't want to give away why they are titled that here, you have to come down to the theater and see for your self!


AFI FEST films nominated for Gotham awards

IFP announced their annual "Gotham Awards" yesterday and a number of films that we are showing got nominated.

Best Feature nominee THE WRESTLER is one of our Centerpiece galas at next week's festival.

Anotonio Campos and Dennis Dortch both got nominated for Breakthrough Director for AFTERSCHOOL and A GOOD DAY TO BE BLACK & SEXY respectivly.

AFTERSCHOOL also got nominated for the "Best Film Not Coming To A Theater Near You Award" along with the film WELLNESS which also has its Los Angeles premiere here at the festival.

Congradulations to all our nominees! Can't wait to see you next week!


MY support for Obama

Here's to a smooth victory.

And avoiding the bitter taste of defeat.

Thanks to Stacey for my Obama 08 shotglass!

AFI FEST 2008 and the Ripley Rule

Eisner winning cartoonist Alison Bechdel articulated her three rules for a movie to attract her interest thusly:

1. Does it have at least two women in it,
2. Who [at some point] talk to each other,
3. About something besides a man

Her admiration for the film ALIEN led her to name this commandment “The Ripley Rule.” Sadly it seems to become increasingly harder these days to find films, which meet this criterion in mainstream multiplex. Luckily AFI FEST comes to the rescue this year with a few films about genuine and insightful stories involving women.

From Iran there is 3 WOMEN the story of Minou, an expert weaver, who grows so obsessed with repairing a valuable old rug that she barely notices when her daughter disappears. Minou sets off on a quest, through one of Iran's most remote regions, that may both reunite her with her daughter and help her discover herself.

Another film from the middle east, NILOOFAR is about Niloofar, a 12-year-old Iraqi girl, who dreams of reading and writing, but she lives in a village where education is only for boys. Her mother, a well-known midwife, insists that Niloofar become her apprentice. While assisting her mother during a delivery, Niloofar meets a feminist woman who undertakes to educate her in secret. Unfortunately, in exchange of a field of palm trees, Niloofar's father promises her in marriage to an older man once she becomes a woman. Horrified, Niloofar does everything in her power to postpone her first period. Destiny catches up with her, but she continues to hide her womanhood from her community, until one day, the truth is revealed.

And representing the Argentine showcase is LION’S DEN. This film, which swept the Lima festival awards, follows an ill-fated and beautiful woman who, after killing her lover, gives birth to a son in prison. A brave new take on the women-in-prison genre, Trapero's movie explores the themes of redemption and survival.

Finally, kind of stretching the rules a bit is American independent film WENDY AND LUCY by director Kelly Reichart. Wendy is driving with her dog Lucy to Alaska, in hopes of a summer of lucrative work at the fish cannery. When her car breaks down in Oregon, the thin fabric of her financial situation comes apart, and she faces a series of increasingly dire challenges. The latest from Reichardt (OLD JOY) affirms her status as cinema's poet laureate of the American working class.


In-and-Out rumors and secrets

A popular celebration technique for restaurant anniversaries is to roll back the prices to their original pre-inflation prices. I think this is especially popular here in Los Angeles, where we are often lacking in historical perspective but have some lovely old restaurants. So the rumor going around town was that In-and-Out Burger was going to be rolling this priced back in honor of their upcoming 60th Anniversary. Well on a trip to my Sunday morning burger church today I found out this was NOT TRUE!

Outrageous. But I do love and admire a company that actively addresses the issues instead of ignoring them. In-and-Out is a burger palace of the information age.

Actually one of the best examples of their attitude towards communication are the legendary "secret menu items" at In-and-Out. With no traditional marketing to support it, this is probably the best known aspect of In-and-Out and aside from their general high level of quality is probably what they are best known for.

And the levels of secrecy increase (as does my fascination) the more you learn. In every listing or article about the secret menu items, no one ever mentions my personal favorite item, the flying Dutchman. Order one next time you are there, in my opinion it's way better that the wish burger or the Neapolitan shake.


Spanish Science Fiction

There seems to be a trend in some contemporary Spanish filmmaking toward unusual genre storytelling these days. Time travel, cloning and apocalyptic fiction are themes in films coming from the nation of Spain this year.

This trend first hit the global stage in January of this year with the premiere of Nacho Vigalondo’s TIMECRIMES at the Sundance film festival. The film won strong praise and the remake rights have already been attached to the mast of genre mutation David Cronengberg.

The Spanish science fiction slant continued later in the year at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival with the premiere of Javier Gutierrez’s BEFORE THE FALL. This film further shatters genre mold by applying a disaster movie backdrop overtop a slasher film, which sounds like a disastrous idea but somehow it works really well. This is due in no small part to the dusty Spanish setting, which infuses everything in the film with golden grit.

And the trend continued in many other films which we have unfortunately not had space for in our festival, but hope to see them pop up in some of the other fantastic genre festivals around the world this year.

It’s unclear what perfect combination of inspiration and innovation has lead to this recent resurgence of Spanish Science Fiction, but we can all be thankful for it. Now all that is left to find a fun name for this funky fresh movement. Maybe Cyberia? Or Barcelonasploiation?


Doc short Acadamy Awards

The Academy Awards have released the short list of short docs (follow me?) I've seen about half of these during my sojourn as a programmer this year. The ones I have seen were really fantastic docs but unfortunately you won't be seeing them at my festival. The biggest drawback for me being able to program them were the fact that they were long shorts, each about 30 minutes or so in length. I was hoping to have some slots in the festival to showcase these types of films, like a 90-minute program of 2-3 mid length docs. But unfortunately we just did not have the time/space this year.

I'll try and make this a priority for next year, because these types of combo programs were some of the best experiences I had at the various documentary festival I attended this year like Silverdocs and Full Frame.

However if you want to see some other truly outstanding short docs, you easily can at AFI FEST. We have set up a single showcase of short documentaries for your viewing pleasure. The subjects and style are diverse and I hope we've come up with an enjoyable program for all. Come check it out, one show is on election day, so tell your boss you are leaving early to vote and come see movies (be sure to vote too.)


BSG on The Office

This was the best scene in last week's episode of the Office. And it's how my mean roommate treats me all the time!

If you liked that be sure to check out the BSGLT.


The intimate POV of family documentary

Every year there are a number of fantastic documentaries that deal with personal family issues, from such an intimate perspective they seem like incredibly dramatic home movies. The Sundance FF even had a small section for these types of family dramas a few years ago, yet they don’t break these out this way any more. Probably the most successful of this type of film was Jonathan Colette’s TARNATION which was famously edited on a home computer and became one of the most highly praised documentary films of the decade.

The spectacular epic stories that come out of these modest perspectives seem to ebb and flow over the years, last year there was a relative dearth of these family drama documentaries, with notable exceptions. This year however there has seemed to be an explosion of films being discovered that are either made from within a small family or with such access as to feel internal. And these documentaries all have emotionally expansive impacts even if their scope never extends beyond the small towns they are set-in.

One possible reason for the increased visibility of these types of documentaries might be the success of documentary film festival in the US. These are the types of films which do not have easily marketable appeal but once you get an audience to view them, the have the potential to become word of mouth smash hits. And there are a number of “smaller” documentary festivals in this country, which have really seen tremendous success in the last few years. The top three festivals that come to mind and have been championing these films are Silverdocs in Silver Spring Maryland, Full Frame in Durham North Carolina and True/False in Columbus MO. Drawing from these festival and from other corners of the world, these are some of the amazing family drama documentaries:

INTIMACIES OF SHAKESPEARE AND VICTOR HUGO -- A filmmaker uncovers the true tale of her grandmother Rose Elena's friendship with Jorge, the strange, transsexual and perhaps schizophrenic man who rented a room from her. Could Jorge, Rose Elena's close companion, have been responsible for a string of unsolved murders in Mexico City?

PINDORAMA - THE TRUE STORY OF THE SEVEN DWARVES -- A wandering family of performers—all dwarves, all children of a legendary Brazilian clown—travels the countryside celebrating magic, humanity, happiness and courage. In this award-winning documentary, a team of filmmakers follows this remarkable, enchanting circus as it charms audiences.

PRODIGAL SONS -- This is a family reunion film like no other. It involves two rivals who were once like brothers, and are now like brother and sister and the DNA of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. This film is an unforgettable, moving first-person excursion into family dynamics, identity, gender and the past.

And finally, possibly most strongly to this point, there is:

OF ALL THE THINGS -- In the 1970s, songwriter Dennis Lambert had four songs in the top 100 at once, a feat previously accomplished only by the Beatles. Now retired, and selling real estate, Lambert's discovery of an unlikely cult following—in the Philippines!!—lures him back on tour. This hilarious doc captures every note.


Festival full lineup announced

I spent the last couple of weeks sad and depressed about the films that we could not find space for. But now I'm all about being excited for the films we do have!

So we announced all the films yesterday and I could not be more thrilled.

The films selected this year are more challenging and more original than the types of film we have chosen in the past. One reason it that it has been such a wonderfully original year in filmmaking is that there are many new voices in international cinema using incredibly unique storytelling styles and there are a number of more established anti establishment filmmakers who continue to challenge the very notion and definition of film.

Also we felt like it was time for the festival to evolve a bit. In the past we have always shown incredibly unique and talented fare, but as audiences become more evolved and sophisticated so must we.

We have seen a trend in many smaller film festivals across the country to become increasingly international in their selections which is wonderful but also to showcase rather melodramatic Oscar bait type dramas, in moving away from that type of programming we are trying to reflect the increased sophistication of our audiences and the continued innovation of the global filmmaking community.

I look forward to discussing it more with you here, and I hope to see you all at the festival.