AFI Fest 2013: 6 movies you should know about
Reviews from the first half of the annual festival, with movies starring Christian Bale, Felicity Jones, Joe Swanberg, and more
We're right in the middle of AFI Fest, the American Film Institute's annual film festival in Los Angeles, and an impressively wide range of films have already been screened, from buzzy Oscar hopefuls to foreign arthouse movies aiming to break into the domestic market. It's quite a lineup, but of all the films screening this year, which ones should be on your radar? Here, six movies you should know about from the first half of AFI Fest:
1. The SacramentDirected by Ti WestStarring: Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, and Amy Seimetz
What is it? A documentary-style horror movie about a group of journalists from Vice — yes, that Vice — who follow their photographer (Kentucker Audley) as he tracks down his long-missing sister.
Should you see it? Yes. Ti West is one of the most interesting directors working in horror today, and he takes the played-out "found-footage" trope and gives it a new and riveting spin. Without giving too much away, The Sacrament has much in common with previous West films like House of the Devil and The Innkeepers: It's a slow-burn, tension-building examination of cults and hive-mind mentality married to a narrative that pokes good-natured fun at Vice "immersion" journalism. With great performances — especially from the terrifically creepy Gene Jones as The Father — The Sacrament gets into your system, as all good horror should.
2. Out of the FurnaceDirected by Scott CooperStarring Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, and Forest Whitaker
What is it? A man (Christian Bale) working in a small, economically deprived town struggles to care for his sick father and troubled younger brother (Casey Affleck). When a series of horrendous events ends with the disappearance of his brother, he has to decide whether to take justice into his own hands.
Should you see it? Nope. Despite a stellar cast, Out of the Furnace feels like a tired variation on an already overplayed genre: Vigilante dramas about blue-collar white dudes set to Eddie Vedder songs. While director Scott Cooper teases out some potentially interesting themes about veterans, the economic climate, and race, the film never discusses these issues with the depth and complexity they require. There are plenty of dramas about male antiheroes, and even if you're a fan of the genre, this isn't the one to see.
3. Stranger by the LakeDirected by Alain GuiraudieStarring Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, and Patrick d'Assumçao
What is it? Over the course of a lazy summer, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) visits the same lakeside cruising spot every day to meet men. He eventually strikes up a friendship with Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao) and falls in love with Michel (Christophe Paou), an impossibly handsome and dangerous man who Franck pursues despite his better judgment.
Should you see it? Yes. Stranger by the Lake won Guiraudie the Best Director award at Cannes, and rightfully so. His direction is gorgeous, from the glint of sun reflecting off a tranquil lake to the more sinister shadows in the nearby woods at night. The film is a gay psychosexual thriller with a dash of Hitchcockian influence, as Franck falls into an erotic and emotionally vulnerable haze of love and sex while ignoring all the warning signs staring him in the face. Coming out of Cannes, the film's sex scenes were the main topic of discussion, and it certainly doesn't hold back. But there's much more to see in Stranger by the Lake: A thrilling, gorgeous film with a perfectly chilling ending.
4. The Invisible WomanDirected by Ralph FiennesStarring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, and Kristin Scott Thomas
What is it? Based on Claire Tomalin's 1991 book of the same name, The Invisible Woman looks at the life of Ellen "Nelly" Ternan (Felicity Jones), a young actress who met Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes) at the height of his career and became his secret mistress until his death.
Should you see it? Yes, but keep your expectations in check. The Invisible Woman is a relatively surface-level look at the relationship between Ternan and Dickens. The main reason to see The Invisible Woman is Felicity Jones, who turns in an excellent, layered performance as a woman caught between her need to keep secrets and a desire to freely live her life. (Thankfully, Fiennes understands that this is Ternan's story more than Dickens' and keeps the bulk of the focus on her.) That's enough to make it worth seeing — but don't go in expecting a new period-piece classic.
5. Little Black SpidersDirected by Patrice ToyeStarring: Line Pillet, Charlotte De Bruyne, Dolores Bouckaert
What is it? In Belgium in the late 1970s, a 17-year-old girl is sent to a halfway home for pregnant teens. Many go to put their pregnancies behind them, but Katja (Line Pillet), an orphan, wants to keep her child. While she bonds with the other girls at the home, she becomes fully aware of what the nuns are planning behind their backs.
Should you see it? Yes. Despite the rather grim topic, the film looks at the school where these girls have been sent as a teen girl utopia filled with clumsily staged plays, bedroom dancing, and unbreakable bonds of friendship. Line Pillet is excellent in the lead role of Katja, who learns a lifetime's worth of lessons about love, loss, and family during the nine months depicted in the film. While the story can be a little overwrought at times (and most unfortunately near the end), Little Black Spiders is a visually stunning ode to the power of female relationships, even in times of distress.
6. GloriaDirected by Sebastián LelioStarring: Paulina García, Sergio Hernández, and Diego Fontecilla
What is it? A 50-something divorced woman (Pailina Garcia) in Santiago lives her life to the fullest, which includes going dancing at local nightclubs. After meeting a mysterious former naval officer, she embarks on a tumultuous relationship with him.
Should you see it? Absolutely. Gloria is one of the most relatable and joyful films released in quite a while. In the wrong hands, the film could easily have turned into a Lifetime-esque meditation on a poor, sad, single older woman. Instead, Lelio's direction and the fearless performance of Paulina García turn Gloria into the joyful celebration of a woman living her life on her own terms. Gloria is a heroine on par with some of Pedro Almodovar's greats; every scene she's in crackles with vibrant, glorious energy. And the film is not afraid to look at female sexuality in a frank, vulnerable, and extremely personal way. Judging from the gleeful audience reaction at AFI, audiences are thirsty for truthful, well-done stories about older women — and hopefully Gloria is just the beginning.