One of the pleasing ironies of AFI Fest is that, although presented annually by an organization called the American Film Institute, this Hollywood-based, independent-spirited festival has become a vital destination for moviegoers seeking some of the best that world cinema has to offer.
Don't get me wrong. Any overview of this year's festival highlights would have to include more than a smattering of American titles, including Errol Morris' 4 1/2-hour documentary-fiction hybrid, "Wormwood," soon to be seen on Netflix; "The Disaster Artist," James Franco's wild look at the making and unmaking of an L.A. sensation named Tommy Wiseau; and a dazzling, 12-film Robert Altman retrospective.
But it would also have to feature the farther-flung likes of "Loveless," Andrey Zvyagintsev's bleak, brilliant look into the dark heart of contemporary Russia, or "A Man of Integrity," a gripping moral tale from Iran's Mohammad Rasoulof.
One of the best films in the festival is the enchanting romantic reverie "Let the Sunshine In," directed by the French master Claire Denis and graced by a vivid lead turn from Juliette Binoche. (It's listed in the festival materials as "Bright Sunshine In," the film's English title being almost as indecisive as Binoche's lovelorn heroine.)
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The richness of this event's international scope – a heartening priority for the festival's director, Jacqueline Lyanga, and her team of programmers – should not be taken for granted. (Nor should the fact that, courtesy of robust event sponsorship, admission to all screenings is free.) You could see it as AFI Fest's way of keeping faith with its legacy – a throwback to the old glory days of the institute's long-defunct Los Angeles International Film Exposition, a.k.a. Filmex, which from 1971 to 1987 was a notable local bastion of globe-trotting cinephilia.
Thirty years on, the need for that kind of discerning, adventurous curation is stronger than ever. This is Los Angeles, after all, where the public's movie love can nonetheless seem fickle and fatigued, and where opportunities to screen adventurous foreign-language cinema are invariably overshadowed by the hype and flash of the motion-picture industry.
AFI Fest, with its strategic year-end positioning and its headquarters at the tourist-jammed intersection of Hollywood and Highland, certainly benefits from some of that hype and flash, though it has already been jolted by an unpleasant reminder that glamour these days is often a smokescreen for scandal.
Until just a few days ago, the festival was expected to close with the Nov. 16 world premiere of Ridley Scott's hotly anticipated "All the Money in the World," but the film was yanked from the program by its distributor, Sony Pictures, in the wake of sexual assault allegations against Kevin Spacey, one of its stars. (As of now, the film is still set to open theatrically Dec. 22.)
The last-minute change of plans cost AFI Fest one of its highest-profile attractions, but also spared it some potentially awkward headlines at a time when charges of rape and sexual harassment have engulfed the industry.
The rest of the show will go on: With more than 90 features screening over the next eight days, it really has little choice. On Thursday night the festival was to start with Dee Rees' "Mudbound," a sprawling, powerfully acted epic of racial discord set in the WWII-era American South, featuring an excellent ensemble that includes Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Rob Morgan and a revelatory Mary J. Blige. The film reaches Netflix and select theaters Nov. 17, but Rees' richly textured canvas – already projected at the Sundance, Toronto and New York film festivals – deserves the biggest screen possible.
Also receiving high-profile gala screenings are Luca Guadagnino's sublime and passionate "Call Me by Your Name," with Armie Hammer and the sensational newcomer Timothee Chalamet, and Scott Cooper's brutal frontier western "Hostiles," starring Christian Bale. Along with "Mudbound" and "The Disaster Artist," these titles all premiered to much acclaim at festivals held earlier this year, as did Craig Gillespie's snarkily entertaining Tonya Harding biopic, "I, Tonya," and Guillermo del Toro's ravishing Cold War-era fantasy, "The Shape of Water."
Two of the year's strongest imports are making early stopovers in the festival's World Cinema section. "Loveless," Zvyagintsev's follow-up to 2014's "Leviathan," is a studiously grim but intensely compelling drama that hinges on an unhappy marriage and a missing child.
The same plot outline could be roughly applied to the very different "Foxtrot," a devastating three-act tragedy from the Israeli director Samuel Maoz, displaying an even more sophisticated formal command than he brought to his celebrated 2009 debut, "Lebanon."
You will get the chance to see these critical darlings when they hit theaters in the coming weeks, which doesn't mean you shouldn't try to snag tickets now. But you might also consider losing yourself in the less duplicable pleasures of seeing an Altman classic like "Nashville," "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" or "California Split" on the big screen, or attending Friday night's conversation with the great Agnes Varda before a screening of her lovely new documentary, "Faces Places."
Or you might steel yourself and surrender to "A Gentle Creature," a surreal, enveloping and ultimately terrifying plunge down the rabbit-hole of contemporary Russia from the gifted Ukrainian auteur Sergei Loznitsa. Writing about the film earlier this year at Cannes, I described it as "about as strange, perplexing and foreign an experience as any I've had" at that festival, which makes it all the more gratifying that audiences will get a chance to see it at this one.
If you favor a less confrontational immersion in a world we rarely see on American screens, check out "Western," a slow-burning, beautifully filmed drama about German laborers in rural Bulgaria, expertly navigated by the director Valeska Grisebach.
One of the sacred dictates of the international film-festival circuit is that you can never have too much Isabelle Huppert, who received a tribute at AFI Fest last year en route to her Oscar nomination for "Elle." That theory is put to the test here by the inclusion of no fewer than three Huppert vehicles: "Happy End," another master class in art-house severity from Austria's Michael Haneke; "Claire's Camera," a Cannes-set curio from South Korea's prolific Hong Sang-soo (who also has another film in the festival, the absorbing "The Day After"); and "Mrs. Hyde," a new work from the French auteur Serge Bozon that I'm looking forward to catching up with. Also on my list of hopefuls are buzzy festival favorites like Joseph Kahn's "Bodied" and Antonio Mendez Esparza's "Life and Nothing More," both premiering in the American Independents section alongside "Sollers Point," a compelling, tough-minded character study written and directed by the Baltimore-based auteur Matt Porterfield ("Putty Hill," "I Used to Be Darker").
Still more potential discoveries loom in the New Auteurs lineup, devoted to promising first and second features. One of them is "What Will People Say," a culturally specific, thoroughly accessible sophomore feature from director Iram Haq, about a young teenager forcibly ripped from the only home she's ever known. It begins in Norway, shifts to Pakistan and is screening in Hollywood; don't miss it.