For #13-10 of our Best of AFI Fest, presented by Audi, click here.
For #9-6 of our Best of AFI Fest, presented by Audi, click here.
Note: For the spoiler sensitive, you may want to return to the "favorite scene" sections after seeing the films.
5. Footnote (dir. Joseph Cedar)
As a Jew who went on birthright this year, I have no qualms about calling this movie, Israel's official foreign language selection for the Oscars, one of the most delightfully Jewish pieces of fiction I've seen in years. It's witty, intelligent, moving, and riddled with guilt and inferiority complexes. This story about a father and son, Professor Shkolnik and Professor Shkolnik, who both work at Hebrew University in Jerusalem studying the Talmud, asks the question, when does a role model become a rival and the student become the competition? It presents the theory that in a battle of egos, he who realizes humility first is always the winner. Expect your loyalties to fly all over the place in this smart, whimsical, and ultimately tragic intellectual comedy from acclaimed director Joseph Cedar. Inventive storytelling, a jaunty score, and top-notch performances help elevate an already brilliant script (it won the Screenplay award at Cannes) to even greater heights. To delve too much into the specifics of why this tale is so riveting would be to give too much away, but it's an absolute must-see.
Favorite Scene: All I can say is this: It involves Uriel (the younger Shkolnik) and a tiny room full of scholars and a lawyer, and is one of the only sequences in the entire film where the score drops out completely.
4. Extraterrestrial (dir. Nacho Vigalondo)
"Something urgent is not the same as something important. That's my lesson." This part of director Nacho Vigalondo's introduction to his new film, Extraterrestrial, stuck with me throughout the whole genre-bending screwball comedy. The film opens with Julio and Julia, awkwardly dancing around each other the morning after a drunken romp. Normal post-one-night-stand protocol is thrown out the window when the twosome notices that all communication lines are down and, more alarming still, a giant alien spacecraft is hovering outside the window. In any other film, made in any other country, by any other director, Julia and Julio would then embark on an adventure of epic proportions, falling in love as their adrenaline from massacring aliens brings them closer together. But this is Nacho Vigalondo, making a character-driven story "filled with bullsh*t" (his words), not a soulless big-budget sci-fi extravaganza. So instead, Julia and Julio use the conventions of alien invasion stories to weave an elaborate web of lies to cover up their brief affair when a nosy neighbor, Angel, and her alpha male boyfriend with a penchant for heroism, Carlos, check in on her. The series of lies becomes more and more elaborate as Angel discovers their secret, and Carlos experiences an entire film of his own off camera, seeking out alien insurgents and fighting to take back the city. Or so he thinks.
Extraterrestrial shows a masterful knowledge of every genre in play. No one could tell a story quite this humorously, this cleverly, without having a vast working knowledge of science fiction, romance, and classic screwball comedies, yet nothing about the film feels too well tread or unoriginal. Even with a straightforward narrative, a huge departure from Vigalondo's first feature, Timecrimes, the film keeps us guessing as we marvel at the absurd length these two people will go to, and to what end? With the world seemingly ending outside, how much does it matter if your boyfriend catches you cheating? It may have been more important to come up with a plan of survival, but the comically urgent human drama at hand took priority. Leads Julián Villagrán and the jaw droppingly gorgeous Michelle Jenner have incredible chemistry, which grounds the outrageous nature of the story.
Favorite Scene: A character makes a "confession" that is at once ridiculous and necessary, perhaps not to the physical survival of the human race, but certainly to the mental survival of the people involved in this comedy of errors.
3. The Loneliest Planet (dir. Julia Loktev)
The winner of the Grand Jury prize, and for good reason, this story about the notion of what is masculine and feminine and the roles their fluctuation plays in our lives and relationships connected with me on a deep and immediate level. Nica (the charming Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) are on a backpacking trip together in the Republic of Georgia, happily engaged to be wed. She is goofy yet tough, he is strong yet caring, and they are the picture of perfection. While in the mountains with their tour guide, Dato, a moment occurs that is so small, so brief, so fleeting that if you look down at the wrong time you *will* miss it, but the moment is so powerful that it dramatically alters the dynamic of this perfect couple, perhaps forever. Guilt, shame, resentment, and passive aggression swallow the second half of the movie, a sharp contrast from the light, adventurous beauty of the first half. A landscape which at once seemed so freeing and filled with potential becomes claustrophobic and uncomfortable. A film like this, with little dialogue and almost no action, could have easily crashed and burned in lesser hands, but Loktev's confident direction has you completely enraptured, aching for a satisfying resolution but unsure if one could ever be possible.
Favorite scene: Directly after the "incident," Nica and Alex walk on opposite sides of the screen, a range of emotions hanging in the air, the only sound to speak of coming from the repetitive plodding of their shoes in the muddy terrain.
2. Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
In this hopeful fairy tale from the Dardenne brothers, a young boy abandoned by his father at an orphanage goes on a series of quests to find the familial love he has been so callously denied. In one particular instance of desperation, the boy, Cyril, sneaks out of the orphanage and goes back to his old apartment to find his father, or at the very least, find his bike, an item so important to him there is no question in his mind that his father would leave it for him. Here, he encounters a woman, Samantha (played with a delicate softness by Cécile De France), taken with his vulnerability, who becomes determined to give him what he needs in more ways than simply tracking down his beloved bike. Thomas Doret gives a heartbreakingly realistic performance as Cyril, seamlessly shifting back and forth between problem child and sweet little boy (a routine mimicked by a very different kind of child in our #1 choice below) as he seeks acceptance and worth. He is still too young to lose faith or sink into despair, and Samantha recognizes that if a glint of hope remains in his eyes, he can be saved. To awkwardly quote Shame, which also screened at AFI, he is a good person who came from a bad place, and it's Samantha's mission to nurture Cyril until he feels the love he deserves.
Favorite Scene: Cyril and Samantha go biking and share lunch. Simple, understated, and a preview of their potential happy ever after.
1. We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsey)
No amount of nurture seems to be able to bring the titular boy in Lynne Ramsay's bold return to the silver screen out of the darkness. This is a film so relentlessly upsetting that to even think about it is to rip a tiny tear in your soul. Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a mother dealing with her son's unquenchable thirst for destruction. Screaming nonstop as a baby and staying in diapers till well into elementary school are signs pointing to a defect in the boy, but all the doctors deem him normal. Still, Eva sees a side to him hidden from the rest of the world. The rot inside of him seems aimed solely at his mother and taking her down one notch at a time. But no matter how disturbed she gets by his actions, and how designed he is to ruin her, he is her son, she loves him, and nothing means more to her than his acceptance, no matter the cost.
Ultimately, Kevin may feel the same way about his mother, seeking a deeper connection to the person he felt never truly loved him, as he was initially unwanted and the reason why his mother's passion for travel had to come to an end. Because we see the film from Eva's perspective, we relate to her exasperation with him and it isn't until the movie is long over that we begin to think back on her mothering skills and wonder how much they may have affected Kevin's outcome.
Tilda Swinton bears her soul with the performance of her career, John C. Riley does a fine job as her optimistically oblivious husband, and Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller shine as Kevin. Both (along with toddler Kevin Rock Duer) are stunningly beautiful and portray their up and down moments with a twisted believability.
Favorite Scene: Kevin gets sick to his stomach and for a brief evening, shows his mother the love she craves. Although he resorts to his cruel tendencies the next morning, their bond on that night has repercussions for years to come. Whether his behavior was genuine or part of a plan to upset his mother further is left to the viewer, as all dissections of the emotions running so high in this film are, but no scene better captures the heartbreak of a parent's worst nightmare coming true, than this all too momentary look into what Eva's life could have been.