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Reel realism gets a workout

'Doubt,' opening the 11-day fest Thursday, is one of the films that blurs the line between storytelling and fact.

October 29, 2008|Mark Olsen | Olsen is a freelance writer and critic.

Film fans, it's time to get your passports stamped.

When the AFI Fest begins Thursday night, it will kick off 11 days of screenings and events that will bring some of the best films from the international festival circuit here to Los Angeles, including highlights and award winners from Berlin, Cannes, Toronto and smaller fests around the globe.

"I think we're trying to assemble a collection of films that have been under discussion and that film audiences in Los Angeles have been reading about," said Rose Kuo, creative director of AFI Fest. "Certainly these are the films people who travel on the festival circuit have been writing about, and it's an opportunity to see these films all in one place at one time and to join the discussion."

AFI Fest, now in its 22nd year, will open with the world premiere of "Doubt," starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman. "Doubt," a drama about allegations of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church that becomes a parable on faith, is the last-minute replacement for "The Soloist," a fact-based film about the friendship between a journalist and a homeless musician, which was withdrawn from the fest last week after its release was postponed until next spring.

Though many of the festival's screenings will be at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood -- as they have for the last several years -- this year the festival has switched its headquarters to the venerable Roosevelt Hotel, as it had outgrown its previous HQ space on top of the parking garage next to the ArcLight. Taking advantage of its new locale on Hollywood Boulevard, there will be a handful of screenings at the Mann 6 Multiplex and Grauman's Chinese Theatre, as well as festival-affiliated screenings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the American Cinematheque.

Among the screenings being held at the legendary Chinese Theatre will be presentations of "Che," director Steven Soderbergh's controversial biopic of the revolutionary leader with Benicio Del Toro, and "The Wrestler," director Darren Aronofsky's heartfelt drama about a washed-up grappler starring Mickey Rourke. The midlife romance "Last Chance Harvey," with Dustin Hoffman, will screen in the Cinerama Dome. The festival will close with the world premiere of "Defiance," a WWII action-drama starring Daniel Craig and directed by Ed Zwick.

Kuo noted that the programming theme for this year is "a return to realism." Marked by films that blur the boundaries between documentary and fictional forms, the rubric covers such diverse films on the schedule as "The Class," "Waltz With Bashir," "Wendy and Lucy" and "Gomorrah," all standouts from previous fests.

In addition to tribute events for director Danny Boyle and actress Tilda Swinton, including screenings of their new films "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Julia," the festival will also include spotlight programs for new films from Kazakhstan and Argentina, the recent output of the Chinese production company Xstream and a retrospective of French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin.

While the festival is presenting a handful of prestige pictures and year-end awards hopefuls, for many other films, screening at festivals such as AFI Fest is their best, and possibly, their only chance to connect with audiences. Here are a few of the festival's high points and must-sees:

-- 'Doubt'

This last-minute substitution as the opening-night screening has set awards watchers buzzing. John Patrick Shanley, an Oscar winner for his screenplay for "Moonstruck," directs the adaptation of his own Broadway hit (already winner of three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer). The film is screening in a version being described as "unfinished," giving audiences an early look at the highly anticipated performances from Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. The film is expected to be a player in the year-end prestige derby, and its fate could rise or fall on opinions formed at this screening.

Playing: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.


New Spanish- Language Cinema

In a special section, AFI Fest will spotlight the strong filmmaking that has been coming out of Argentina, and will also screen other films from Mexico, South America and Spain. Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martell has been a favorite on the festival circuit, and her latest, "The Headless Woman," has been well-received elsewhere. Mysterious and disturbingly beautiful, the film tells the story of a woman who thinks she may have hit a child with her car, and if it makes it back to local screens will likely not be seen again in such top-notch projection facilities for film buffs to really savor. Other Spanish-language highlights include Argentine director Pablo Trapero's prison drama "Lion's Den" and Mexican filmmaker Fernando Eimbcke's "Lake Tahoe," which made a mark earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival.

"The Headless Woman"

Playing: Nov. 6, 9:50 p.m. and Nov. 8, 8:30 p.m.

"Lion's Den"

Playing: Nov. 5, 9:30 p.m. and Nov. 7, noon

"Lake Tahoe"

Playing: Nov. 3, 7:15 p.m. and Nov. 5, 12:30 p.m.

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