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AFI FEST 2014: First Thoughts On 'Inherent Vice,' A 5-Hour Filipino Epic, Viggo Mortensen Disses 'Interstellar'

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AFI FEST 2014 came and went, with last night's screening of the likely Oscar contender Foxcatcher closing out the festivities. Although much of the festival revolves around star-studded galas of Hollywood films and tributes to legends (this year's honoree was Italian actress Sophia Loren), the majority of the films programmed are a more eclectic swath of the most interesting films to come from the festival circuit and American independent scene. Here's a roundup of some of what we caught at this year's edition of AFI FEST and our reactions.

Inherent Vice (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)

Although AFI FEST opened and closed, respectively, with star-studded screenings of A Most Violent Year and Foxcatcher, the gala we were most excited about was the Los Angeles premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice. Not only was it the latest from one of the best working directors in Hollywood and the first film adaption of a Thomas Pynchon novel, but it was the only new film at the festival to be projected on celluloid!

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Inherent Vice is a hilarious, drug-fueled romp through a tangled web of conspiracies and syndicates in a post-Manson Los Angeles. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as "Doc" Sportello, a hippie P.I. who spends his off-time chemically indulging in his Gordita Beach (a fictional town based on Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon lived briefly) bungalow. His enigmatic ex Shasta Fay Hepworth (Kate Waterston) comes along and drops a case in his lap that might be too deep for one man to crack and too close to home for Doc.

In a plot that is too long to summarize for this capsule review, Doc must unravel a yarn that cuts right to the heart of post-60s Californian and American life. Slimy L.A. developers, hippie cults, COINTELPRO agents, crooked LAPD cops, and a dentists' union all become individual players working for their own cut the American dream. As good as Phoenix is, Josh Brolin steals the show as the larger-than-life "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, an LAPD detective with his own hidden agenda in Doc's case. Ultimately the plot is a bunch of shaggy-dog nonsense, but intricate and intriguing enough to warrant repeat viewings. At the very least, Robert Elswit's beautiful cinematography deserves to be seen on 35mm where possible.

In attendance at our screening of Inherent Vice on Saturday night was L.A.'s very own Jonathan Gold, whose self-documented journeys on Pico seemed to have been referenced in Pynchon's novel. Hey JGold, tell us what you thought about the movie!

The Homesman (directed by Tommy Lee Jones)

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Tommy Lee Jones wears many hats in The Homesman—director, actor, co-writer—and pulls it all off with grace. This is his second feature film as a director and it's an epic Western journey that takes audiences through the harsh and unforgiving prairie, sometime in the late 1850s. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) who says she's "as plain as an old tin pail" volunteers to take three women in her community who have lost their minds to get them help at a church. She brings along scrappy claim-jumper George Briggs (Jones) on her weeks-long trip from the Nebraska Territory over the Missouri River in Iowa. The vastness of the landscape is beautifully shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, Argo), the narrative never stops surprising you with the twists and turns it takes, and the storytelling is a thoughtful one of human emotion and frailty. (The Homesman is now playing in theaters.) —Jean Trinh

Foxcatcher (directed by Bennett Miller)

There's been a lot of buzz for Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher as Oscar-bait, so we had to check out the film—which closed out AFIFest last night—for ourselves. Based on true events, Foxcatcher tells the story of two Olympic champion brothers and their weird and tragic relationship with John du Pont (Steve Carell), scion of one of America's richest families. Du Pont convinces gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to move to his estate to help form a private team to train for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. A co-dependent and unhealthy bond forms between the two, and when self-assured older brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) shows up to help Mark, things spiral out of control. Our verdict? The hype on this film is real. It's a downer for sure, but the complexity of the relationships make for a compelling watch. The acting will surprise you, too. While Ruffalo is great as usual, and probably on paper du Pont was marked to be the film's centerpiece character, it's Tatum that steals the screen. His performance was intense, gutsy and raw. Pretty impressive, Magic Mike. (Foxcatcher is now playing in theaters.) —Christine N. Ziemba

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Red Army (directed by Gabe Polsky)

Winner of the World Cinema Audience Award at the festival, its easy to see how this documentary about the Soviet hockey team is a crowd-pleaser. Director Gabe Polsky centers the narrative on an interview with one of the team's stars, the fascinating "Slava" Fetisov (who now serves as Russia's Minister of Sports). Like most documentaries, the curation of clips and historical anecdotes make for a compelling story even if the filmmaking comes off as ordinary. At times, though, Polsky's shoddy directing can be frustrating. When the film arrives at the 1980 Winter Olympics, Fetisov says, "You want to hear a story?" and instead Polsky opts for a montage of one of the most rebroadcasted sporting events in history instead of sharing with us Fetisov's own experience of those Olympic games. Really? (Red Army is now playing in New York.)

What We Do In The Shadows (directed by Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clements)

What We Do In The Shadows is a faux documentary about the lives of vampires, written, directed and starring Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clements (of Flight of the Conchords fame) as two of the vampire flatmates living in modern New Zealand. It's a riotous comedy that proves vampires are just like us (except for the feasting on human blood thing). They squabble over doing dishes and other chores, and have trouble navigating 21st century living. The film made a splash at Sundance earlier this year, and if you missed it at AFI FEST, you'll have to wait until February to see it. —Christine N. Ziemba

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Jauja (directed by Lisandro Alonso)

Another movie we were excited for at the festival, Jauja wound up being this reviewer's favorite film at AFI FEST and earned a second viewing. A strange metaphysical journey with Viggo Mortensen through the Argentinian wilderness combining elements of The Searchers, Heart Of Darkness, and The Chronicles Of Narnia, it was a hypnotic and befuddling experience that demanded the big screen. Making heads or tails of the story will leave you racking your brain; that it was such a singular film was enough for us.

During the post-screening Q&A, star and producer Viggo Mortensen offered what seemed to be a backhanded diss of Interstellar, saying that sci-fi movies about space that "cost $200 or $300 million" tackled the same topics of time and reality that Jauja did for a fraction of the cost. "We need more movies like Jauja," said Mortensen. Amen.

'71 (directed by Yann Demange)

Director Yann Demange's directorial debut is more of a gripping action and conspiracy thriller than your average war story. '71 follows warring factions—British soldiers, and Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries—in Belfast, Northern Ireland during The Troubles, but there's a universal and timeless element to it that makes it feel like this could take place anywhere in the world and at any time. We get a look into the psychological and physical effects of soldier and civilian life, especially focusing on British Pvt. Gary Hook (played by the talented and charming Jack O'Connell), who gets left behind from his troops in a nail-biting Belfast street riot scene and desperately tries to get back to his barracks. It's a taut film with beautiful cinematography and superb acting. —Jean Trinh

10.000 KM (directed by Carlos Marques-Marcet)

Carlos Marques-Marcet's 10.000KM won the American Independents Audience Award at AFI FEST, and we can see why. The film examines the good, bad and the ugly of long-distance relationships and how technology (Skype, texts, Facebook) plays a factor in keeping the love alive. Barcelonian couple Alex (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer) have decided to have a baby after seven years together, but she receives an offer for a year-long, career-boosting photography fellowship in L.A. With 10,000 kilometers separating them, the couple tries to hold on as long as they can. While the technology in 10.000KM will no doubt be out of date in five or 10 years, the raw emotions and the conflict between Sergi and Alex are real and relatable—that part of the story is timeless. Tena and Verdaguer give great performances in this two-hander. —Christine N. Ziemba

From What Is Before

With a runtime of 338 minutes, tackling Lav Diaz's latest epic felt more like a dare than anything else. Luckily, we were up for that challenge and From What Is Before was well-worth the effort. Diaz, who has a reputation for lengthy films, justifies From What Is Before's runtime by using all five-and-a-half hours to show that the evil forces plaguing a small Filipino village in the early 70s gradually seeped in through the cracks instead of suddenly happening when Marcos declared martial law in 1972. With no intermission, finding a suitable spot for a pee break was difficult with such a compelling narrative and gorgeous black & white shots of the Philippine landscape. We gritted through and were able to hold it in for all 338 minutes. Mind over matter!

Were you able to catch anything at AFI FEST? Let us know and what you thought in the comments! See you at next year's festival!