AFI Fest 2020

Highlights of my festival viewing (as Lexia Snowe)

The AFI Fest: my favorite film event of the year

This year, the AFI Fest—the annual film festival of the American Film Institute and my favorite film event of the year—shifted forward in the calendar from its traditional November position to its new long-term one in October. As this coincides with the BFI (British Film Institute) London Film Festival, I was forced to choose between the two countries that have made me who I am. Spoiler alert: America won.

Thanks to a-bat-did-it, the 2020 AFI Fest, which runs from October 15th to October 22nd, is virtual. Films, Q&As and panels are all streaming online, with industry mixers playing out as device pop-ups and tings in that giddy combination of immediacy and disembodiment we're all kind of down with thanks to dating apps. It's not how things once were, or how anyone truly wants them to be, but I feel privileged to be a part of the festival as it means this year, even as I think fondly of festival years past.

I miss the hoofing it back and forth between storied theaters on Hollywood Boulevard, brimming with my love of cinema as I weave around the tourists who love it too and just bought the Star Wars license plate to prove it. I miss hanging out in the industry lounge, where all those who are literally behind the scenes exchange bizcards and festival film recommendations while feigning above-carbs indifference to the complimentary cruffins. I miss clacking at my laptop among the other rumpled screenwriters by the Hotel Roosevelt swimming pool and saying to no one in particular, "It cost a million dollars, you know" in a loud mystery voice. At the inevitable question of which script I mean exactly, I smile, "No... that," and point to the David Hockney paint smears on the bottom of the pool, for which the hotel indeed parted with one million presidents. (I cannot tell you how many warm moments this little titbit of local tourism has created between me and perfect strangers. It raises hope in us all somehow. I mean, getting paid that much to write what aren't even letters, that kind of look like faded coaster stains actually, on the bottom of a swimming pool? There is surely in that inspiration to keep doing your thing—just keep on doing and keep on growing—until no one else does it quite like you.)

Yep, I miss everything interpersonal about the AFI Fest. I truly cannot wait to be in a theater again, my nerves jangling as I scan for signs I have been seat-assigned to a row behind a compulsive texter, or someone who laughs constantly throughout Beanpole (which is many things, but constantly funny ain't one), or a ponytail that will be unscrunched and become a three-dimensional subway map of hair right in my sightline as soon as the lights go down. You can't always pick which humans exactly, but, all the same, we can surely agree: cinema is better experienced among humans. Here's hoping that normalcy has sufficiently returned—or the new shrink-wrapped normalcy sufficiently begun if that is the future now—for the AFI Fest in year 2021 to feature in-person humans in all their glories and annoyances.

Until then, mindful that not everyone could make it to the festival this year, I write below on the highlights of my AFI Fest 2020 viewing.

The AFI Fest 2020: film highlights so far (in order of viewing)

The Watermelon Woman
Feature film (1996, USA). Writer/Director: Cheryl Dunye.

A black lesbian filmmaker (who winces with self-doubt when declaring herself that last thing) sets out to make a biopic about an actress of color whose type-casting in "mammy" roles in 1930s Hollywood has aggravated her unease about black representation in filmmaking. Cheryl Dunye (who plays the filmmaker, in addition to writing and directing) fleshes out this loose 'quest' narrative with the parallel story of a souring friendship and a charismatic but drifting interracial romance, the resolution of which didn't entirely satisfy me (it has that 'the funding ran out' feel). But I loved the generous array of vivid characters (in particular, the supposedly enlightened feminist academic who thinks black critics are overthinking racial archetypes), and Dunye's direct-to-camera candor and commitment to inventive storytelling raises this to low-budget modern classic. (And, yes, you will Google "is Fae Richards real".)
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Documentary (2020, USA). Director: Matt Yoka.

In what feels topical, after the reliance of many of us on chopper footage throughout the George Floyd riots in Los Angeles, WHIRLYBIRD followers husband-and-wife team Bob (now Zoey) Tur and Marika Gerrard as they build out an L.A. news business. Initially they pursue developing stories by automobile, then by chopper. What plays at first like a real-life Nightcrawler transforms into a quietly devastating portrait of a partnership straining under both the insatiability of the modern news cycle and the personal demons of one spouse (no spoilers). I remain haunted by the closing words of Zoey Tur as she looks back on the cost of her achievements in the news business: "If you live long enough, you'll hurt people. And if there's any good in you, you'll regret it."
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TV drama (2020, UK)

This glossy but ultimately uneven TV show drops on HBO in the United States, and on BBC Two in its country of origin, in November 2020; I previewed the first 4 episodes. A group of twentysomethings, newly recruited to a top investment bank in London, hustle and fuck and fuck some more and generally try to figure themselves out in a world where big dollars that don't belong to them flit and spin on the three widescreen monitors they each need to get done whatever it is they do exactly (I'm still not sure). For me, the best aspect of the show was the lead (Myha'la Herrold), an American transplant whose morality, history and limits are continually shifting. Strong support from Marisa Abela and Freya Mavor makes this a story in which toxic masculinity is (a bit tiresomely) well-represented but resilient femininity consistently well-played.
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Short film (2019, USA, 21 mins). Writers: Asher Jelinsky, Nicole Vanden Broeck. Director: Nicole Vanden Broeck.

This understated gem explores well-trodden territory (teenage sexual awakening) with a rare combination of specificity and universality that announces several major new talents among the cast and crew. On the eve of one of them moving out of state, two teenage girls probe the ambiguity in their long friendship, an ambiguity which may or may not be one-sided. The slender script knows exactly when to shut up and leave it to the visuals, and the exquisitely textured direction creates a few standout moments in which—à la Portrait Of A Lady On Fire or Call Me By Your Name—deep emotional shifts occur in near silence and throwaway gestures or impressionistic glances imply truths without spoiling them through absolute clarity.
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The Boy Behind The Door
Feature film (2020, USA). Writers/Directors: David Charbonier, Justin Powell.

This is a superior contained thriller: short, sharp (often literally, in its array of kitchen knives, axes and stakes that are snatched up as weapons) and brutal without ever losing its humanity. Two pre-pubescent boys are kidnapped; one escapes but refuses to leave the other and sets out to pull off a high-stakes, low-odds rescue. Some aspects of the film feel very familiar—the quirky house whose creaking stairs almost deserve a mention in the credits; the psychopath watching old Hollywood horror movies to relax; the sudden reversal of a cop's arrival—but this is more than offset by the taut inventiveness in the film's obstacles, quick thinking and sleights, dinstinguishing this debut from Charbonier and Powell as a low-key triumph of the genre.
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Short film (2020, USA, 15 mins). Writer: Wilandrea Blair. Director: Ira Storozhenko.

Trans girl Serena (Reise Alexander) auditions for the role of Juliet in her high school's production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. That simple premise is executed with sensitivity and visual mastery in this knockout short from AFI Conservatory graduates Storozhenko and Blair. While the casual cruelty of Serena's classmates feels rather trite at times, Serena's emotional growth (no spoilers) feels anything but, with Alexander deserving every accolade invented for her performance in the lead role. A backstage rehearsal between Serena and the Colgate-commercial jock the school has already cast as Romeo—in which the only words spoken are Shakespeare's but the subtext is the film's own and voluminous—is perhaps the most powerful scene I've seen in the festival so far.
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Wander Darkly
Feature film (2020, USA). Writer/Director: Tara Miele.

Strained couple Adrienne and Matteo (Sienna Miller and Diego Luna) are six months into parenthood, and still figuring it out, when tragedy strikes. That's about as much as we know for sure for most of this haunting, somewhat overstuffed movie that tells the story of a relationship with the same bending of time and physics as Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. The title (which half-memories from my Literature degree have me suspecting is a quote from something, perhaps Emily Dickinson or a Victorian poet, although Professor Google has so far not confirmed) is the perfect capture of the film's twin qualities: wandering, as the plot often does but with a devastating overall purpose revealed late in the movie, and darkness, with a nagging sense of impending disaster and loss accompanying almost every turn in the narrative. This is the strongest work I have yet seen from Sienna Miller; I expect she, as well as writer-director Tara Miele, will deservedly be the focal point of Lionsgate's awards push for this.
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My Little Sister (Schwesterlein)
Feature film (2020, Switzerland). Writers/Directors: Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond.

Let's be real: you can't really go wrong with Nina Hoss, perhaps Europe's most watchable actress, who features in almost every frame of this sibling-centered drama. The movie flits between Berlin and Switzerland in physical reflection of the duelling forces playing on Hoss's Lisa. There's her new life with her husband and children in Switzerland, where she is materially comfortable but spiritually peckish, versus her formative years in Berlin, where her abandoned writing ambitions and her mother's corrective visions for her life paw at her plaintively with every visit. Her twin brother's battle with leukaemia effectively forces Lisa to reconcile those two worlds, then, when that fails, to pick one. A few plot points felt a little unimaginative (for example: the brother's head-first dive into blowjobs and drunkenness; the husband's career-first insensitivity), but what should really nail this movie to your viewing calendar is Hoss's performance. Without ever resorting to extremes, she captures with haunting intricacy the breadth and depth of inexorable loss.
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My Donkey, My Lover & I (Antoinette dans les Cévennes)
Feature film (2020, France). Writer/Director: Caroline Vignal.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when the filmmakers pitched this one: "Think rom com with a donkey". Whether or not "don rom com" becomes the hot new filmmaking space in the future, I'm glad Caroline Vignal tapped this new terrain for her otherwise quite familiar story: a woman a little too into her lover relearns her self-worth and self-sufficiency. Laure Calamy, the adorably batshit assistant in Call My Agent, plays our heroine, an adorably batshit teacher, in MY DONKEY. She brings to her performance a bigger-than-the-room energy that means she'll annoy the actual crap out of you at first, but you'll follow her anywhere by the end. In almost everything she does, Calamy is remarkable for her total eschewal of, ahem, grace but also of vanity. Whether clunking her hot-pink suitcase down hillside steps on arrival in the Cévennes, or high-pitch giggling in pure pleasure whenever she's around her totally unworthy lover, or stiletto-sprinting with arms flapping to say goodbye to the donkey who has gruffly taught her independence, Calamy holds nothing back. Many venerated faces of French cinema pop up throughout her foot travels through the mountains, without any of them lingering too long: a compressed lesson that people—and by extension, lovers—come and go, and that's fine, and that's life. While not suitable for children, thanks to its red-blooded interest in below-the-belt matters, MY DONKEY is whimsical and uninhibited in ways likely to win over the child in us all.
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The American Sector
Documentary film (2020, USA). Writers/Directors: Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez.

This documentary would make great counter-programming to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. In search of all of the panels of the Berlin Wall now exhibited in the United States, the filmmakers cut from state to state in a beautifully understated mosaic of America. In an exercise of narrative discipline that lends the film a "collector's slideshow" feel, a panel of the Berlin Wall is in every shot (even if, at first, we don't realize it), and primarily in long shot to enable a full appreciation of the often incongruous surroundings this symbol of state control now finds itself. (Ambient sound—the creaking of Pennsylvanian trees, the ululations of Iowa birds, the grill sizzle from nearby food trucks on L.A.'s Wilshire Boulevard—is captured with the same fidelity.) Private residences in Los Angeles, military bases in Texas, diner forecourts and freeway medians in the Midwest: all across the nation, history points to the sky in the form of an often flamboyantly graffitied piece of the Berliner Mauer. Laconic commentary from locals or a few unlikely private "owners", who pose by their piece of wall as they talk about its meaning to them, is where the film really packs a punch. There's the C.I.A. spokeswoman who admits the fall of the Berlin Wall prompted something like an "identity crisis" in the agency as it struggled to find a purpose after reunification. The UVA students who question the Wall's pride of place on college grounds that were built by slaves commemorated only by a single paving stone. The military veteran who declares the only combat he wants now is with the crayfish he fishes from the river. The Latina who sees not hope in the Wall, as others do, but a reminder that the state can divide and deprive, the fate she continually fears for her own undocumented family. (One correction for the filmmakers: the skyscraper with L.A.'s ten Wall panels at its foot—the longest segment of the Berlin Wall in the United States—has not been the "Variety Building" since 2014. SBE occupy the building now.)
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Wildland (Kød & blod)
Feature film (2020, Denmark). Writers: Ingeborg Topsøe and Jeanette Nordahl. Director: Jeanette Nordahl.

Contains spoilers. This is tagged as a "gangster thriller", but note that's "gangster" as it means to white folks in the happiest nation on Earth, where hospitals are gleamingly clean, child psychologists seem to have endless time for their patients, and policemen are hot, preppily dressed and uncannily effective. Ida (a knockout Sandra Guldberg Kampp) loses her mother in a car accident at just 17 years old, and is shunted to a new life with her aunt Bodil and her three male cousins. Each of her new (or newly acknowledged) family is toxic in a way that will reveal itself slowly, then suddenly, in the simmering crime plot, which predicates on debt collection that is never depicted directly or very clearly. The camera lingers often on Ida's face—a face that remains largely inscrutable—as she is incrementally made complicit in the transgressions of the others, whether that's the temporary kidnapping of a schoolgirl, the pregnancy she knows has no happy future, or the gunshot that interrupts the liquor shots and violent video games with which her cousins unimaginatively celebrate their criminal proceeds. This is a winningly brisk movie, but at times that's brisk to the point of impressionistic, with a number of plot lines feeling over-abbreviated (Ida's desire for her cousin's girlfriend, for example; and the ambiguous identity of the low-security facility at the end, denying us the specifics of Ida's legal fate). This may frustrate as much as it intrigues, but it is nonetheless intensely watchable.
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