Will AFI Fest put on a good show?
The largely free, eight-day annual celebration of high-end American and international cinema kicks off Thursday night in Hollywood with the premiere of the Anne Hathaway- Jake Gyllenhaal romantic dramedy "Love & Other Drugs."
The festival, in its 24th year, will also host the Southern California premieres of a number of films generating award buzz, including "The King's Speech," in which Colin Firth stars as the Duke of York afflicted by a crippling stutter and Geoffrey Rush plays his unorthodox teacher; "Blue Valentine," in which Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams try to hold together a crumbling marriage; and "Rabbit Hole," John Cameron Mitchell's direction of the David Lindsay-Abaire play about a couple ( Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) that loses a young child. Darren Aronofksy's supernatural ballet drama "Black Swan" will close the festival Nov. 11.
AFI Fest will also contain a heavy dose of international films, particularly from South Korea, including Kim Ki-Young's 1960 thriller "The Housemaid" and Im Sang-Soo's remake. Audiences will also get to see this year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner, "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," in which Thai director Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul follows the mystical journey taken by a dying man.
Amid challenging economic times and following some personnel changes, AFI Fest is seeking to reconfirm its status as a go-to venue for prestige films. "We think we're in a really good place, a place of stability," said festival director Jacqueline Lyanga. "Festivals have had a difficult time around the country, but we've put together a great program and expect a great turnout."
Lyanga, a programmer at the festival since 2005, was promoted to director after artistic director Rose Kuo and two other executives left in January amid budget issues and other frictions. As a result of some of these difficulties, last year's AFI Fest — held largely at Grauman's Chinese and Mann's Chinese 6 theaters — featured only 67 films, down from nearly 100 in 2008. The festival shrunk from 11 days to eight.
This year, organizers are seeking to restore a bit of the festival's luster, or at least steady the ship. Although the number of movies is about the same as last year — 66 feature-length films will be shown — and the event will remain at eight days, the organizers have made several tweaks to broaden the festival's appeal. Among those changes are the additions of several new audience awards and a section that includes movies submitted by filmmakers instead of just the usual curated list, plus five chosen by David Lynch.
AFI Fest is continuing an initiative begun last year to hand out free tickets for all its films via its website and at its box office, in addition to selling premium packages. (The festival is largely supported by sponsors, primarily Audi.) But unlike last year, when many filmgoers found themselves out of luck when they tried to land the free tickets, organizers said they are staggering the release of these tickets to ensure they don't run out right away. "We want to make sure there's no cost barrier to anyone who wants to attend the festival," Lyanga said.
The festival's slate, curated by head of programming Lane Kneedler, remains as high-end as ever, mixing more obscure films with award contenders that have played the festival circuit from Venice, Italy, to Toronto but not yet hit screens in the Southland.
The festival also features a number of independent movies from young American filmmakers, which this year will include "Aardvark," a quirky drama about a blind man. A midnight section will feature "Julia's Eyes," a supernatural horror movie produced by Guillermo del Toro, and "Norwegian Ninja," a piece of Scandinavian mayhem involving ninjas, fjords and the Cold War.
"What we like are films with a strong point of view," said Kneedler. "And being at the end of the fall-festival season gives us a nice perspective on everything that has screened so far this year."