For #13-10 of our Best of AFI Fest, presented by Audi, click here.
9. Carre Blanc (dir. Jean Baptise Leonetti)
The best of the dystopian sci-fi films presented at the fest (I also caught '80s head trip Beyond the Black Rainbow and the very Russian Anna Karenina by-way-of the fountain of youth Target), Carre Blanc depicts a society where the dead are casually used as meat, job interviews are all trick questions in the form of cruel tests, and a waiter can be beaten to death for spilling champagne, but the only item reported on the news is what happened in the latest croquet match. A disembodied voice on the loudspeaker constantly informs its citizens of the rapidly declining population, sandwiched between encouragements for teenage girls to become artificially inseminated and the same piece of elevator Muzak repeating on a loop. The suicide rates are high, the birth rates low, and the disenfranchised work force is encouraged to smile at all times. But perhaps most horrifying is how little people seem to notice that this world has gone too far. The film asks the question, is being normal in a monstrous society just as damning as being a monster in a normal society -- and how do you rise above? Jean Baptise Leonetti crafts a strikingly foreboding atmosphere with the skill of a seasoned auteur, but doesn't sacrifice concise storytelling (with a healthy dose of frightening social commentary) for the sake of “mood.” Leonetti is firing on all cylinders in his feature-film debut, and of all the filmmakers showing at AFI he's the one I’m most looking forward to keeping an eye on.
Favorite Scene: Not so much a scene as a moment, but the instance we realize the film has marked the passage of time by taking advantage of its established world in a clever and subtle way gave me actual goosebumps.
8. Coriolanus (dir. Ralph Fiennes)
As far as adapting Shakespeare goes, Coriolanus is about as good as it gets. As someone who has studied Shakespeare in numerous ways, including as a classically trained actor, I can say with no hesitation that Ralph Fiennes pulls off a remarkable bit of craftsmanship in his directorial debut, bringing a more refined point of view to the table than I was expecting from an actor-first. Setting this political story in a modern-day version of Rome and displaying it through handheld camera work and intimate close-ups brings a naturalistic urgency to this century's old portrait of a man thrown into an impossible position. Displaying his grasp of what cannot be sacrificed when capturing Shakespeare cinematically, Fiennes often lets the camera hang in the air, allowing the story to be told the way it was meant to be, letting the breaths of the actors communicate their intentions, not the work of an editor in post-production. Fiennes and the brilliant cast of players surrounding him tackle the Shakespearean text with a self-assured precision and hearty understanding, helping to turn this often impenetrable story into an accessible, searing political drama. Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox astound in their specificity and realism, making verse look easy, and Gerard Butler, displaying some pathos for once, is the most likeable he’s ever been. I ecstatically look forward to Fiennes using his talent and savvy to pull together the perfect creative team to adapt a play I'm more familiar with that hasn't yet received the proper big-screen treatment.
Favorite scene: Vanessa Redgrave dares you to defy her as Volumnia, mother to Caius Martius Coriolanus, in a scene where she pleas with him to bring harmony to Rome. If you’ve ever wanted to see a true professional nail an obscure Shakespearean monologue, here’s your chance. Vanessa Redgrave, get ready to meet your seventh Oscar nomination.
7. Pina (dir. Wim Wenders)
Confession: I’m not a fan of dance. I don’t understand it, I can’t do it, I don’t want it. But when I heard that German visionary Wim Wenders had constructed a 3-D documentary about the art of Pina Bausch, I couldn’t stay away. Wenders and Pina had been friends for years already when Wenders approached her about making a film together. He wanted to find a way to communicate the beauty of her brand of storytelling with the world at large, but kept coming against the roadblock of film not yet developing the correct tools. After seeing the U2 3-D doc, Wenders knew he had found the way to properly capture her craft. Sadly, just a couple of days before test shoots were to begin, Pina unexpectedly died. Wenders almost abandoned the film completely, but was urged on by those that loved her to keep going, so he decided to turn the film into a tribute. What results is a documentary unlike anything you’ve seen before; it defies convention and proves 3-D’s use as a tool for the progression of art. In lieu of talking heads, Wenders employs a Warhol-esque series of moving portraits accompanied by voice-over, allowing us to see Pina’s dancers in moments of stillness as their voices surround us, honestly reflecting on the woman and teacher they loved so much. Archival footage of Pina floats above the proceedings as if her ghost is participating in the story, as eerie and effective a use of 3-D as I’ve seen. Adopting Pina’s own choreography technique of “questioning,” Wenders asked each dancer to improvise a movement that encapsulated their memories of Pina. These movements were then formulated into solo pieces and set against locations around Wuppertal, the home of Pina’s dance company. The mountains, the forest, a factory, a cityscape, even on a suspended railway car, these pieces will move, inspire, and spark your creativity without you even realizing. Ultimately, this is why the film succeeds. The proof of Pina's legendary mastery is evident in the way your mind and body react as you experience her work and its impact on those around her.
Favorite Scene: A section from one of her pieces, "Mueller’s Cafe," that was one of four dances restaged and shot in 3-D for the film, that can best be described as an embodiment of the line “the course of true love never did run smooth.” The ferocity with which the three dancers throw themselves into this simple repetition of seven or eight basic moves had the audience spontaneously break out into applause upon its conclusion.
6. Michael (dir. Markus Schleinzer)
Movies about pedophiles are never easy, and this Austrian film about a creepy Tony Hale lookalike named Michael, who keeps a 10-year-old boy locked in his basement, is no exception. In a departure from most films of this nature, no information is ever explicitly given and no sexual act is ever explicitly shown; the film is mostly communicated in befores and afters -- small but telling moments. Michael himself is a fascinating creature who takes equal pleasure in quoting torture porn to the boy as he does behaving like a strict yet loving father, allotting time for TV, providing fresh home-cooked meals, and taking him on day trips. As an audience, we become filled with questions and concerns, eagerly awaiting a rescue, never sure if it will come. Director Markus Schleinzer, best known for casting the films of Michael Haneke, deliberately removes all judgement and solely tracks the day-to-day interactions between this man and this boy, a perspective not often seen. But no amount of objectively chronicling a few months in the life of a child molester makes the act any more acceptable, which is part of the point. Even the most mundane implications make you want this man to pay for what he's done and pay hard. The last frame of Michael is frustrating yet powerful, and a fitting end.
Favorite Scene: A simple tracking shot of Michael walking to his car in a parking lot with a new friend had me on the edge of my seat fighting back tears.