The Best Movies of AFI Fest 2016

The free annual Hollywood festival gives the public a wide-ranging palette of cinematic goodness.

AFI Fest is the annual celebration of both acclaimed, established filmmakers and up-and-coming ones staged every year by the American Film Institute, the privately-funded organization that pays tribute to the history of cinema while looking into its future. The festival is the only one of its kind that is free to the public, and it brings audiences a chance to see both high-profile major studio releases and Academy Award contenders as well as international and independent offerings, all within an intense seven-day period.

AFI Fest is a terrific chance for a moviegoer with a week or so to spare to immerse him or herself in a full, rich, well-rounded selection of films from all over the world and all over the genre map, and this year’s event was no different. I’m sorry as always that I don’t get to see as many movies there as I would like, and I’m equally sorry that I am finally getting around to writing up what I did see there — but don’t worry, with one or two exceptions most of these films haven’t opened yet.

Miss Sloane

One of the movies that has already opened, Miss Sloane has received some generous acclaim already from our own David Crow here. And aspects of the film — starting with Jessica Chastain’s brilliant performance and the crisp pacing — deserve high praise. But this political thriller about an icy, ruthless lobbyist who takes on the biggest, most entrenched lobby of all — the NRA, although they’re never named in the film — features a lot of people shouting exposition at each other and a twisty plot that becomes a bit too implausible as it reaches the finish line.

Jackie

Opening this Friday and reviewed by Edward Douglas here, this portrait of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination is built around an astonishing performance by Natalie Portman that is almost certain to land her a second Oscar win for Best Actress. Her Jackie is sad, vulnerable, steely and empathetic, her perfectly poised surface hiding an incredibly complex woman out of history.

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Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s English-language debut is an impressive piece of work featuring a strong supporting cast and an eerie and heartrending score from Mica Levi.

La La Land

The movie to apparently beat at the upcoming Oscars, this new feature from writer/director Damien Chazelle — whose Whiplash was my favorite film of 2014 — has unfortunately not impressed this viewer as much as it has others.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling give it their all, but when your leads in a musical can neither sing nor dance very well, that kind of sinks you right there. The film does look beautiful, and the opening dance number on a traffic-clogged highway is full of spectacular promise, but the rest of La La Land never soars. It’s a homage to Hollywood musicals that never really gets at the heart of what makes them work.

 

The Commune

Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration, Far from the Madding Crowd) semi-returns to his roots with this incisive, heart-rending look at a group of Danes living together as a collective in one house in the 1970s. The couple who own the house (Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm, both excellent) begin splintering almost as soon as their housemates move in; the husband, a professor of architecture, takes up with a student who he soon wants to move into the house.

Vinterberg’s most personal film yet (it’s said to be based partially on his own childhood), The Commune veers into heavily melodramatic territory at times but retains its basic humanity and sense of changing values.

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Things to Come/Elle

Our David Crow reviewed Elle here and while I liked the film more than he did, I agree with a lot of what he said about the way it disguised sexual provocation in upscale clothing. But Isabelle Huppert was superb in it, and she is equally outstanding in Things to Come, about a middle-aged philosophy professor in Paris coming to terms with the end of her marriage and her mother’s impending death.

The film is quiet, episodic and resolutely French in its approach to the narrative and characters, but builds a powerful portrait of a woman grappling with aging, love and vast life changes. It’s time that Huppert was acknowledged in a big way for the acting treasure that she is.

 

The Eyes of My Mother

This thoroughly unsettling debut from writer/director Nicolas Pesce stars Kika Magalhaes as a young woman whose semi-isolated existence on her Portuguese-American family’s lonely Midwest farm, disrupted by an act of violence when she was a child, continues to propagate horrors well into her adulthood. The movie, shot in beautifully atmospheric black and white, keeps you off-balance and disturbed throughout: is Francisca a victim or a monster?

Pesce doesn’t offer any answers or real explanations, keeping events ambiguous and surreal. While its graphic visuals may turn some off, The Eyes of My Mother introduces two genuine new talents to the genre in this boldly experimental work (it opens this Friday in limited release).

 

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The Untamed

This Mexican production from director Amat Escalante plays as if David Cronenberg had decided to direct a telenovela. An unfulfilled wife and mother (Ruth Ramos), her marriage to her cheating husband fraying, is introduced to a new world of sexual pleasure — thanks to a mysterious young woman and a tentacled alien that has crashed to Earth in a meteorite. The story never quite comes together thematically, but it certainly delivers its share of grotesquely erotic body horror.

 

I, Daniel Blake

Except for Patriots Day, which I reviewed separately here, I’ve saved perhaps the best for last. Director Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) won his second Palme d’Or earlier this year at Cannes with this devastating study of modern bureaucracies making it nearly impossible for working class people to survive. Dave Johns is heartrending in the title role, a 59-year-old widower and Newcastle carpenter on the mend from heart surgery and advised by his doctors to not go back to work — except that the state won’t provide him the benefits he needs to sustain himself because they declare him fit.

While battling an impersonal and cruel system, Daniel also befriends a young mother who has moved from London with her two children and is desperately trying to make ends meet. Simple human dignity and compassion are precious and scarce commodities in the world that Loach shows us, and Daniel’s struggle to retain the former while still providing the latter is unforgettable.