AFI FEST Wrap-Up: Our Favorite Movies Were About Moms
Our hearts sink a little every time AFI FEST closes out. Not only does it mark the beginning of the dreadful movie awards season, but it also means our chance at seeing dozens of critically acclaimed foreign arthouse films and breakthrough indies has passed. Even though the festival runs for a whole week in Hollywood, there's practically never enough time to see everything you want. Here's a wrap up of what we liked (and were disappointed by) at this year's AFI FEST.
Let's Hear It For Moms
Two of our favorite films at this year's festival were centered on mothers and also had to make us dry our eyes in the theater. The first was Chantal Akerman's No Home Movie, a deeply moving non-narrative documentary tribute to the filmmaker's mother Natalia in the last months of her life. Akerman eschews the conventions of a pure narrative, instead candidly recording moments of everyday life inside Natalia's Brussels apartment and conversations between Chantal and Natalia at the dining table. Contrasted with voyeuristic-like footage of the outside world and Skype conversations with Natalia while the director is away, in No Home Movie Akerman mourns for her mother's practical confinement within her own home in her last days. The spectre of death looms large over No Home Movie—Akerman, sadly, took her own life last month.
Over in China, director Jia Zhangke mourns for the loss of not a literal, but a figurative mother figure in Mountains May Depart, an ambitious triptych about China's economic ascendance and what it means for a sense of identity, both national and personal. Told over three time frames—the past (1999), present (2014), and a speculative near-future (2025)—Mountains centers on Tao (Jia regular Zhao Tao, in a stellar performance) and her son Daole/Dollar, who eventually moves to Australia and loses his sense of Chinese identity (including his mother tongue).
The third segment of Mountains has rightfully been knocked for its shoddy English dialogue and acting (it's Jia's first time working outside of China), but it's frankly par for the course for most Chinese productions. The first two segments move along at a graceful pace that bridges his earlier "slow cinema" sensibilities with the mainstream mold he has been moving into since A Touch Of Sin, and he also masterfully uses pop music from both the Pet Shop Boys and Cantopop star Sally Yeh.
Where to Invade Next (directed by Michael Moore)
In Michael Moore's latest documentary, Where To Invade Next, he trades in his cynicism for optimism, and turns up the humor like he did in his earlier films, Roger & Me and Bowling For Columbine, as he makes a pitch for socialism. Moore "invades" European and African countries by dropping in, interviewing factory workers, political leaders and CEOs, and "stealing" their good ideas for America. He covers everything from the education system to healthcare and the prison system, and shows us what other countries are doing right. However, as the audience, you need to understand that you are not getting the whole picture when it comes to the countries he focuses on, and the conflicts they face, but even Moore tells you upfront that he choosing to pluck the flowers from the weeds. It's a surprising fresh of breath air, and an engaging glimpse into the ideas that once made American what it was, and a reminder in how we shouldn't forget our roots. —Jean Trinh
The Treasure (directed by Corneliu Porumboiu)
Porumboiu's takes on life in post-Soviet Romania are full of dry wit and wry humor, but they can also be maddeningly slow and meandering. The Treasure, a cynical, updated take on the Robin Hood myth, breaks up the monotony with some pretty clever sound gags courtesy of a metal detector searching for loot buried to hide it from the Communists. Enjoyable, and not as terribly concerned with the same sense of strict order that his previous films (When Evening Falls On Bucharest, or Metabolism, Police, Adjective) burdened themselves with, but it also feels slight as a result.
Dheepan (directed by Jacques Audiard)
As director Jacques Audiard has proven in his other films like in Rust & Bone and A Prophet, he is able to weave together gripping stories about love and violence, oftentimes giving us a glimpse into a world we oftentimes know very little about. In Dheepan, which won the coveted Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, he does the same, with even a more powerful force. He tells the story about a Sri Lankan immigrant and rebel fighter, Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), who seeks political asylum in France after a devastating civil war that has left him forever broken. He's able to go to Paris as a refugee under another man's passport and brings along with him a phony family, a wife (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and 9-year-old daughter (Claudine Vinasithamby). We see the "family" try to make it work under the struggles and hardships of being immigrants in an unfamiliar country. The film is equally tense and full of hope, and never is there a dull moment, even in the slowest and quietest times as the family learns to understand one another. The characters, who despite all their faults win us over with their charm, pull us into the film. The actors, especially Jesuthasan, who's not a professional actor and lived a similar life to the titular protagonist, brings an honest performance that is full of raw emotion that will leave your heart pounding. —Jean Trinh
Looking for some time to kill one day, The Liar stood out among the options I was presented with. Even though Korean cinema has generally become easily accessible, seeing independent productions can be difficult (especially on the big screen). The Liar held promise: a brisk drama about a pathological liar whose numerous deceits come crashing down on her. Unfortunately, The Liar is more an obvious than sharp critique of consumerist and superficial culture, and Kim Dong-myung's directing is pedestrian.