Three years ago, when I first attended AFI Fest in Los Angeles as a replacement for the then-recently departed CineVegas, the festival had just started offering free tickets to all of its screenings, and I was able to score a seat to almost every movie I wanted to see, just by reserving tickets online, picking them up onsite or standing in a rush line. This year, I made sure to show up extra early for every screening, even though I had a press pass, because the festival has grown immensely in popularity. As high-profile film festivals like Sundance and South by Southwest become more and more exclusive, AFI Fest remains admirably committed to its goal of being accessible to film fans, and it’s still a great alternative for Vegas moviegoers who are missing CineVegas.
In past years, the festival’s Vegas connections have included a pop-up Cosmopolitan lounge/game room and the feature-film debut (Electrick Children) of Vegas filmmaker Rebecca Thomas. This year, former CineVegas associate director of programming Mike Plante was on hand to screen his short film The Masque, a documentary about the landmark Hollywood punk club of the same name. Plante works as a programmer for the Sundance Film Festival (alongside former CineVegas artistic director Trevor Groth), so he was especially appreciative of the AFI Fest programming team during his introduction of The Masque, a sort of impressionistic look at the semi-decrepit, graffiti-covered remains of the influential club, narrated by a young punk fan who works in the building that once housed it.
The Masque was paired with the low-budget Mexican dramedy We Are Mari Pepa, about a group of Guadalajara teenagers starting a punk band. Mari Pepa is charming if a little unfocused and occasionally crass, but it paled in comparison to another movie about teenage punks that ended up being my favorite of the festival. Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! is an exuberant, heartfelt and funny story of three 13-year-old girls starting their own punk band in 1982 Sweden. Based on a graphic novel memoir by the filmmaker’s wife, it beautifully captures the anything-is-possible enthusiasm of adolescence, and it’s also a touching, honest portrayal of female friendship, with great performances from the lead actresses.
My other festival favorite was the polar opposite of We Are the Best!, a dark, minimalist revenge thriller called Blue Ruin, from writer-director Jeremy Saulnier. Saulnier takes familiar elements of the revenge story and twists them in clever but completely organic ways, and the lead performance from Macon Blair is haunting and melancholy, bringing out the sadness and regret in the relentless pursuit of vengeance. Both We Are the Best! and Blue Ruin have been picked up for U.S. distribution (We Are the Best! by Magnolia Pictures, Blue Ruin by Radius-TWC), so Vegas audiences should get the chance to see them on VOD at least, if not in theaters.
Revenge stories seemed to be a running theme among the movies I saw, and while I didn’t care for the glib, cynical Israeli movie Big Bad Wolves, I was impressed with Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, from French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté. Even more minimalist and unconventional than Blue Ruin, it functions as a character study of an aging lesbian couple as much as a slow-burn crime story, but by the time the violence arrives, it’s both brutal and heartbreaking.
One of the movies I was most looking forward to at the festival was The Strange Little Cat, the debut from German filmmaker Ramon Zürcher. Acclaimed at a number of film festivals (including Berlin, Cannes and Toronto), it’s a sort of baffling portrait of one day in the life of a middle-class family, set almost entirely inside a cramped apartment. I kept waiting for the alleged brilliance to arrive, but overall the movie struck me as incredibly banal and pointless, although the heaps of acclaim may mean that there was some profound formalist exercise going on that completely escaped me.
I preferred the similar (in some ways) Exhibition, from British writer-director Joanna Hogg, which also takes place mostly inside a single urban apartment, and also uses the amplification of everyday sounds as a way of illustrating its characters’ moods. While Cat came off to me as colorless and obtuse, Exhibition created a more engaging mystery, in terms of both its (extremely minimal) plot and the background of its two main characters. In the end, the movies were probably equally inscrutable, but I left Exhibition with more to consider and more of an emotional reaction.
That kind of unexpected thought-provoking experience (I knew essentially nothing about Exhibition before sitting down to watch it) is the greatest value of an event like AFI Fest. Even though some movies I saw were disappointing, and one or two were downright terrible (Sundance favorite Breathe In, starring Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones, is the Platonic ideal of “pretentious pseudo-indie twaddle”), I always appreciate the chance to see a range of independent and international films on a big screen amongst other film fans. Until we see the return of CineVegas, I’ll keep going to AFI Fest, and the trip to Hollywood is worthwhile for any Vegas cinephile looking for the same experience.