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Checking out indie buzz movies and a high-profile Vegas feature at AFI Fest

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Like Someone in Love was Josh Bell’s favorite film from last week’s AFI Fest in LA.

Last week I headed to LA for my third visit to AFI Fest, which is both an excellent substitute for the much-missed CineVegas (albeit a five-hour drive away) and rapidly becoming the most prominent film festival on the West Coast. I managed to see 18 features (plus two shorts programs) in five days at the festival, including a number of this year’s most talked-about festival favorites and a few exciting new discoveries.

Of the high-profile movies I saw, my favorite was Like Someone in Love, from Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, whose Certified Copy was my pick for the top movie of 2011. Like Certified Copy, Like Someone in Love is an elliptical, sometimes obtuse meditation on identity, with shifting relationships among its main characters. It’s beguiling and inscrutable in an enticing way, with lush visuals and a playful sense of mystery. Kiarostami once again works outside his native country, this time in Japan, and the shots of Tokyo at night are haunting and melancholy. The movie has been picked up by IFC Films, so it might even open in Vegas at some point.

I also liked Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta, which won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in September. The South Korean film is a slow-burn revenge drama that takes a little while to get going, but is seriously powerful once it does, with a devastating ending. I was less impressed with other recent festival darlings, including the Swedish drama Eat Sleep Die, which won AFI Fest’s Grand Jury Award for the New Auteurs section. It’s an admirably unsentimental drama about a working-class immigrant making her way through a menial job, but there’s a fine line between making a movie about the mundane drudgery of everyday life and making a movie that’s just mundane drudgery, and Eat Sleep Die falls on the wrong side of that line too often.

The biggest disappointment for me was Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux, which won the best director award at Cannes in May. Mexican director Reygadas (Silent Light, Battle in Heaven) is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in world cinema right now, and I was eager to finally check out some of his work. I’m willing to acknowledge that I just didn't get Post Tenebras Lux, with its minimal narrative, confusing visual style and seemingly irrelevant digressions, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily think there’s some great meaning that I missed out on. The movie is willfully obtuse and stubbornly confrontational, completely failing to engage the audience via narrative, character, dialogue or even visual poetry.

Electrick Children is the first feature film from Bonanza High graduate Rebecca Thomas, who grew up in Las Vegas and studied film at Columbia University.

As in the past, I found some of the greatest pleasures in movies that I hadn’t necessarily planned to see. As AFI Fest has gotten more popular, thanks to its wonderful practice of offering free tickets to the public, screenings have gotten more difficult to get into, and so I had to make some last-minute adjustments. I’m glad I made a detour to see the deadpan Israeli comedy Not in Tel Aviv, a black-and-white charmer about an accidental love triangle. It’s often nonsensical, but sticks to its own perversely amusing internal logic.

There was a decent showcase of horror films at the festival as well, and my favorite was Berberian Sound Studio, definitely the creepiest movie ever made about sound design. It features a great performance from Toby Jones as a British sound editor working on an Italian horror movie in the 1970s, and does a wonderful job of mixing deadpan horror-geek humor with legitimate scares.

Given AFI Fest’s proximity to Vegas, there’s been some local spillover in the last few years. American Film Institute graduate and Vegas filmmaking veteran West McDowell has produced a number of shorts with fellow AFI students, including Nani, which played in this year’s festival. The most high-profile festival showing for perhaps any Vegas-based indie feature has been Rebecca Thomas’ Electrick Children, which played the Berlin Film Festival and South by Southwest before being showcased at AFI Fest, and has been picked up for distribution by Phase 4 Films.

Thomas is a Bonanza High School graduate who was raised in Vegas and went on to study screenwriting at Brigham Young University and film directing at Columbia University, where she received a master’s degree. Electrick Children is her first feature film, and it takes place mainly in Vegas, where a sheltered fundamentalist Mormon teen (Julia Garner, in an excellent performance) comes to seek out the musician she believes mystically impregnated her via a song on a cassette tape.

“I love Las Vegas, first of all,” Thomas told me about returning to her hometown to shoot. “I didn’t realize how bizarre it was to grow up there, especially as a Mormon, until I moved away from it. But of course I love Las Vegas, and I like the suburbs of Las Vegas. I just feel an affection for the suburbs, and I wanted to show that side of it, too.”

With a supporting cast that includes Rory Culkin, Billy Zane and Lost’s Cynthia Watros, Electrick Children should grab some attention when it premieres on VOD and in a limited theatrical release (sadly probably not in Vegas) in January. At one time, Thomas likely would have brought the movie to CineVegas, but for now, AFI Fest is the next best option. And that’s just one of the reasons why I’ll be back there next year.

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