AFI Fest Round Up: What We Saw This Year

The annual Hollywood film festival offers a rich mix of studio contenders, indie discoveries and international gems.

Queen and Slim
Universal Pictures

Last week heralded the arrival of AFI Fest, the annual film festival presented by the American Film Institute that combines major studio and independent releases, festival favorites, and noteworthy new films in an eight-day blitz at the famous TCL Chinese Theatre complex in Hollywood.

More than 125 films screened at this year’s event, and festival organizers proudly proclaimed that more than 51 percent of 2019’s titles were directed by women. In a world where just an estimated 14 percent of the year’s top-grossing films will have women behind the camera, that is a considerable movement in the right direction–especially given the quality of the films that we saw.

With such an intense schedule packed into a little more than a week, Den of Geek managed to get a taste of some of the festival’s more buzzworthy films, starting with the movie that kicked off the fest with a gala premiere: director Melina Matsoukas and screenwriter Lena Waithe’s Queen & Slim.

Queen and Slim

Queen & Slim

Although initially described as a black Bonnie & Clyde, Queen & Slim has a lot more in common with Thelma and Louise, as two wronged people go on a road trip against their wishes that takes on mythic overtones and offers a snapshot of black America.

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Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Jodie Turner-Smith (Nightflyers) star as the unnamed couple whose rather uninteresting first date takes a turn for the horrific when they are pulled over by a police officer in a clear case of racial profiling. The incident ends with the cop dead and the couple forced to go on the run together, knowing full well that there is almost no chance to real justice to be served at this point. As they drive through the Deep South, their flight grips the nation, the community, and the media while they inevitably are drawn to each other.

read more: Queen & Slim Review

Matsoukas’ visual sense is perfect as she shoots one striking vista after another, and the opening encounter with the police officer is as harrowing a sequence as we’ve seen this year. But despite great work from the leads (and a scene-stealing turn from Bokeem Woodbine as Queen’s eccentric Uncle Earl), Queen & Slim makes its title characters into icons almost too soon, telling us more about them instead of showing us who they really are. The movie is mostly powerful and often moving, and takes us on a journey through an American experience that many white people never get to see, but there’s a subtle emotional distance that keeps it from true greatness.

Clemency

The African American experience with justice is handled in a different context in Clemency, just the second feature film from writer/director Chinonye Chukwu. In a stunning lead performance, Alfre Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, a prison warden whose supervision of some 12 Death Row executions over the years has taken a steady psychological and emotional toll on her. After the latest goes horribly wrong, Williams is tasked with making the next one go as smoothly as possible–even as she begins to bond with the inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), who insists he’s innocent.

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While some of the plot turns in the film’s second half seem either perfunctory or veer close to misery porn, the spiritual transformation of Williams and Woods is simply devastating, and the sheer awfulness of what the death penalty means on a granular level permeates the entire film with a sense of grief and cruelty. Woodard deserves to be in the Best Actress Oscar race, and there’s an extended shot near the end of the movie that is unlike anything else we’ve seen this year.

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The Two Popes

Perhaps it was for the best that we saw The Two Popes right after watching Clemency since director Fernando Meirelles’ (Blindness) Netflix film was a more optimistic palate-cleanser–even for cranky non-believers like us. But like that effort, The Two Popes is a character-driven exercise based around two excellent performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as, respectively, Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, whose vast differences of opinion over the future of the Catholic Church end up becoming the basis of not just a warm friendship but one of the more radical successions in papal history.

read more: New Netflix Releases for December 2019

We’ll have more to say about The Two Popes later, but the chemistry and repartee between two of England’s national acting treasures is what makes the film endlessly entertaining to watch. And you don’t have to be religious to appreciate the issues and profound questions that it brings up, even if some of the Church’s moral failings are not given the depth of examination required.

Atlantics (2019)

Atlantics

A spiritual odyssey of a very different kind is examined in Atlantics (Atlantique), another of the eight offerings that Netflix brought to AFI Fest in 2019. Another feature directorial debut–this time from French actress Mati Diop–Atlantics is a surprising blend of genres that turns from one kind of film into another with largely satisfying results.

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The movie, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes earlier this year, takes place in the Senegalese capital of Dakar and opens on a group of workers demanding that they get the three months’ back pay owed to them as they toil on the construction of a vast, futuristic tower along the city’s coastline. One of the workers, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore), leaves empty-handed and dejected with the rest, but his spirits are buoyed by a meeting with his love, Ada (an excellent Mame Bineta Sane).

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Unfortunately, Ada is already engaged to another man from a very wealthy family, with Ada’s own parents and friends seeing this as a way for her out of the poverty that they live in. When Souleiman and his fellow workers attempt a doomed voyage across the windswept Atlantic Ocean in an attempt to reach Europe and a better life, Ada is grief-stricken–until evidence surfaces that Souleiman actually survived the trip and has returned to try and sabotage Ada’s wedding. The truth is much stranger and eerier, and leads Ada to finally take matters into her own hands.

Atlantics begins almost as a standard festival foreign film, touching on matters of class, wealth, religion, and human rights in an almost predictable fashion, but its sudden swerve into the realm of the ghost story–the manifestation of the film’s spectral visitors is handled in subtle but unsettling visual terms–is unexpected and bracing. The location shooting is rich and striking throughout, and the movie never does descend into other typical tropes. It’s probably too long and the film’s last act too thinly stretched, but Atlantics is one of the more distinctive films you can catch from Netflix this year (it opens in limited theatrical release this Friday, Nov. 29, and will show up on the service next month).

The Aeronauts (2019)

The Aeronauts

The Aeronauts, from director Tom Harper (Wild Rose), is another visual feast as it documents the (sort of) real-life attempt by British aeronauts to travel higher into the atmosphere in a balloon than anyone previously before them. We say “sort of” because the trip that the movie is mostly based on was attempted by meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) and pilot Henry Coxwell–only in the movie the latter has been swapped out for Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a fictionalized hybrid of several women who were alive at the same time and whose back stories have been fused in the Wren character.

read more: Uncut Gems Review

It’s a shame that Coxwell–who was, by accounts from the time, a hero who saved the mission–has been sidelined to give the movie a more politically correct balance for 2019. It’s an even bigger shame that Wren is largely defined not by her own courage, intelligence, inventiveness, and showmanship, but by her relationship to her late husband, whose own death on a similar ride is portrayed in Jack Thorne’s script as the dominant factor in her own efforts to reach the sky.

Luckily, the thinly sketched characters are given some vitality by the game Jones and Redmayne (not as annoying here as he can be, although his Glaisher seems awfully dumb when the script needs him to be). In the end, though, The Aeronauts is worth watching for its sumptuous recreation of the flight itself, capturing both the wonder and terror of floating 30,000 feet above the earth in a small basket. It’s worth catching on the big screen (or IMAX), but it will also turn up on Amazon Prime soon.

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Knives and Skin

Knives and Skin

We were sad that we couldn’t catch the acclaimed horror film Saint Maud at the fest during one of its midnight screenings, but we did watch Knives and Skin, the feature debut from writer/director Jennifer Reeder. Set in the small town of Big River, the film is set in motion by the vanishing of a high school sophomore named Carolyn (Raven Whitley), who never comes home after we see her left abandoned and bleeding by the thuggish football player whose sexual advances she rebuffs. The rest of the movie details the aftermath of Carolyn’s disappearance on her single mother (Marika Engelhardt), her small circle of friends and their families, each of which has its own secrets that gradually come to light.

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If the small town setting, the disappearance of a teenage girl and the hidden lives of the town’s inhabitants all sound vaguely like something out of the David Lynch playbook, Reeder makes the connection obvious by attempting her own version of a Lynch fever dream. Arch dialogue, a gauzy visual style and oddball characters doing strange, often inexplicable things comprise most of Knives and Skin’s 112-minute running time, along with a school choir that sings eerie versions of ‘80s pop songs and moments of either implied or matter-of-fact violence.

There are some strong character moments, particularly from a heartrending Engelhardt and Grace Smith as one of the other girls in Carolyn’s circle, while Reeder’s attempts to break through the suffocation of a small town’s often hypocritical sexual and class-based morality lands its share of punches. But we also can’t shake the feeling that we’ve seen all this before, and the full-on embrace of a Lynchian esthetic ultimately proves too distracting. We’re interested, however, to see what Reeder does next.

Our last AFI film was the premiere of Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, which we’ve reviewed in fuller detail here. Apple’s premiere of The Banker with Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson was cancelled over accusations of sexual harassment leveled at the son of the film’s late main character. Other AFI Fest offerings that we missed but are worth watching for based on what we heard around the festival included Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Babyteeth, To the Ends of the Earth, Anne at 13,000 Ft., I Am Not Alone, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, I Was At Home, But… and more.

Next year’s AFI Fest is moving to almost a month earlier and will take place in Hollywood from October 15 – 22. If you’re in town and love discovering new movies, it’s worth your time.

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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye