This past week in Los Angeles, AFI threw it's 25th film festival, presented by Audi, taking over the Chinese and Egyptian Theaters on Hollywood Boulevard. The films screened were divided into nine categories. Galas and Tributes, Special Screenings, Guest Artistic Director, Spotlight, and Midnight were ineligible for awards, while World Cinema, Young Americans, and Breakthough all had an Audience Award at stake, which went to Kinyarwanda and Jiro Dreams of Sushi in a tie, Wuss, and With Every Heartbeat, respectively. New Auteurs had not only an Audience Award, which went to Bullhead, but three prizes awarded from a specially selected jury. The Loneliest Planet received the Grand Prize, Attenberg the Special Jury Prize, and Matthias Schoenaerts in Bullhead walked away with accolades for his universally lauded performance. But with 26 screenings under my belt, I figured I should award my personal Best of Fest to the 13 films that struck me the most, from all categories. First up, #13-#10.
Note: I saw Melancholia and The Adventures of Tintin separately from the festival in a non-review capacity, so will not be including them in this list -- but had they been a part of my AFI experience, they would have both easily made the cut.
13. With Every Heartbeat (dir. Alexandra-Therese Keining)
In this Swedish romantic drama, two soon-to-be stepsisters, one of whom is engaged to be married, find themselves drawn to each other at their parents' engagement celebration. Ruth Vega Fernandez does a great job as the conflicted Mia, but it's Liv Mjones as the free spirit Frida that steals the show with her offbeat confidence and grace. Although the third act becomes a bit too formulaic for my liking, the attraction between these two women is palpable, resulting in one of the best love scenes on-screen this year, and their love story is well worth watching.
Favorite Scene: After an unexpected encounter in the woods alters their previously icy relationship, Frida climbs into bed with Mia and the unexpected occurs.
12. The Dish and the Spoon (dir. Alison Bagnall)
Alison Bagnall returns to the scene after an eight-year haitus with this sad, sweet look at two lost and dejected souls who find comfort and care in each other. Greta Gerwig plays Rose, a woman who just discovered her husband's infidelity and is on the brink of losing it altogether. Gerwig's performance dangles the question in front of us: Did her husband cheat because she's crazy, or is she this unhinged solely because of the adultery? As she begins to formulate her plan to take down the other woman, she encounters an equally alone British teenager, played by Olly Alexander. The two quickly bond and embark on a safe, quirky -- perhaps even pretend -- romance straight out out of third grade, complete with stories, costumes, games, and role-playing. Whether this connection is real or a coping mechanism remains a concern as we revel in their awkward glow.
Favorite Scene: After their first real kiss, Rose and the boy plot out their future together, complete with marriage and 10 kids. It's utterly innocent and endearing in the best way possible. For a brief moment, you think they could be in it for the long haul.
11. Jeff Who Lives at Home (dir. Duplass Brothers)
When a movie opens with a slightly flabby Jason Segel ruminating on the relevance of M. Night Shyamalan's Signs to life at large, and meaning every damn word, you know it's going to be good. In this delightful follow-up to last year's Cyrus, about three people who find themselves stuck in lives they never wanted, forced to find their true paths on one fateful Louisiana day, the Duplass brothers deliver yet again. Segel's optimism as the titular Jeff is infectious and could melt even the most cynic moviegoer's heart with his determination. And, may I just say, Susan Sarandon looks amazing? Like. Amazing. I had a smile plastered on my face for practically the whole film and in a fest full of mostly depressing material, it was a welcome change of pace.
Favorite Scene: Judy Greer's Linda and Ed Helms' Patrick have a confrontation about their marriage that challenges the quirky other-planeness of the universe that had been so carefully established. It's not the typical choice to have Judy Greer play the person most grounded in reality, and the film greatly benefits from thinking outside of the typecast box.
10. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (dir. David Gelb)
This film that tied for the World Cinema Audience Award takes a look at the three-Michelin star sushi bar in Japan, widely considered to be the best in the world, Sukiyabashi Jiro, and more specifically, the man behind it, 85-year-old Jiro Ono, and his two sons, the oldest of which, Yoshikazu, will eventually and inevitably succeed Jiro as head chef. Although director David Gelb originally set out to make a documentary on sushi restaurants all over the globe, after his experience with Jiro and he food he makes, there was no question that Sukiyabashi Jiro would be the focus. We learn about the techniques that took years to discover, hone, and pass on. Everything from the temperature and texture of the rice, to the fish dealer, to the cut of the fish, to the number of minutes spent massaging an octopus has been boiled down to a science. Or to be slightly more accurate, an art. The family drama surrounding the question of whether the son can truly follow in the footsteps of his father, the legend, brings in another level. As an audience member, I equally found myself wanting to get to Japan as soon as possible to make sure Jiro himself would be the one crafting my fish, and wanting the food community at large to acknowledge that Yoshikazu will be the best heir to the restaurant any father could ask for. But Gelb takes Jiro far beyond a simple documentary. He wanted to shoot food the way Planet Earth was shot, which explains the clean, direct, and full cinematography. In order to properly set the tone of watching a master at work, Gelb chose music from Philip Glass to accompany Jiro's tale, elevated music for an elevated skill.
It should also be noted that in the post-screening Q&A, director David Gelb was asked where he recommends we have sushi in Los Angeles, and the first suggestion was Sushi Nozawa, aka my favorite sushi place in the U.S.
Favorite Scene: We are taken through the entire, specially created, 20-piece menu, described by food critic Yamamoto as a symphony broken into three movements. Each piece of fish looks as delectable -- guaranteed, your mouth will water.