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Institutionalized: The 2002 AFI Film Festival

You haven’t attended a real Hollywood party until you see scores of well-to-do film people aggressively crowding around a free gift bag table. This is the one thing that stood out at the opening night party and it’s one of those funny but scary little incidents that call for a reality check. Forget the films or — for that matter — forget the free booze — if Neutrogena wants to give away some free body lotion then there’s no reason to stop the crowds from coming.

Zany avarice aside, the American Film Institute Film Festival in Los Angeles got bigger and better this year for a few reasons. One is because they have good programmers (led by Festival head Christian Gaines and Programming Director Nancy Collet) who have hit their stride in their third year and garnered enough of a reputation that they have the clout to obtain a fine selection of films. They’ve also done the one thing that is hard to do in Los Angeles: put themselves on the map in the commercial film capital of the world. The third reason is because for the first time the festival was primarily held in one venue: the new Hollywood ArcLight Cinema, where everything is clean, neat and state of the art. Plus, it’s the only cineplex in town that has a restaurant and a bar, which makes it perfect for a film festival.

This year they showed over 70 films from 35 countries. I missed most of the award winning films including Grand Jury Prize International Feature winner Shoulyo: An Adolescent but no one can see everything over the ten day festival. So here are the 18 films that I saw arranged into convenient categories.

Opposites Distract

Man on the Train
(Paramount Classics)
This excellent French film by Patrice Leconte (Girl on the Bridge) is about two men – Jean Rochefort and Johnny Hallyday – who forge an interesting friendship in a small French villa despite the fact that they are complete opposites. Rochefort has money and security while Hallyday has freedom and attitude. Basically each of them wants what the other one has. Featuring masterful acting and direction, the film is a joy from start to finish. As far as plot is concerned, not much seems to happen, but Leconte ties every cinematic part into a satisfying whole. Like many of his past films this is a modern day fable about dreams gained, lost, and deferred.

Shaolin Soccer
This Hong Kong film by Stephen Chow combines the over-the-top martial arts picture with the sad-sack-team-wins-it-all sports genre. A rag-tag bunch of brothers get together and combine their unusual talents to form a Shaolin soccer team, which goes on to the world championships. The film is a real crowd pleaser despite the fact that Miramax cut 20 minutes from the original release and dubbed it (to campy effect) into English.

Don’t Tempt Me aka No News From God
(First Look Pictures)
An angel from hell (Penelope Cruz) and an angel from heaven (Victoria Abril) vie for the soul of a tortured boxer in this rather muddled Europudding film by Augustín Díaz Yanes. Besides being full of ersatz philosophy, the film isn’t as funny as it would like to be but it does boast good performances from both Abril and Cruz who play against type.

Palestine Redefined

Divine Intervention
(Avatar Films)
This Palestinian film was the most original one I saw as well as the most difficult to explain. Director Elie Suleiman uses a series of seemingly disparate, deadpan scenes — such as a man dressed in a Santa Claus suit running through Nazareth or a super ninja Ramallah babe taking on a bunch of dancing Israeli soldiers — to show us the contention that goes on in the present day Palestinian areas of Israel. The film is more of an intellectual ride than a traditional narrative story but it elicits many feelings of humor, anger and consternation to startling effect.

West Bank Brooklyn
(No distributor yet)
This was the best American independent film I saw at this year’s AFI festival. Directed by Ghazi Albuliwi, the film is about a diverse group of Palestinian/American men in New York who contend with culture, religion, and identity in a changing world. The film is primarily about two brothers and their friends and the way that each comes into conflict with neighbors, each other, and everyday life. The film is at times labored and in-your-face but without being annoying, mainly because the performances ring true and the story deals with many issues that are obviously pertinent to today’s world.

A Wedding in Ramallah
(No distributor yet)
At once heart-wrenching and entertaining, this documentary by Sherine Salama, is about an Arab couple who deal with life after an arranged marriage. The husband Bassam lives and works in America and his new wife Mariam lives in Ramallah, where she patiently awaits her visa so she can some day come to him. It is so engaging that at times it feels fictional, yet it’s also intimate in ways that fiction never could be.

We Are Family

(Sony Picture Classics)
The setting of this captivating film, directed by Emanuele Crialese, is the cramped fishing village of Lampedusa, off the coast of Sicily, where the world seems not to have changed for centuries. The particular story involves a slightly off-kilter mother of three (Valeria Golino) who becomes estranged from the village and decides to run away with the help of her son. The film has shades of Italian neo-realism with its grimy setting, poor working class kids, and non professional actors but it also has many poetic interludes which give it a distinctly positive outlook on life, love and family.

Getting My Brother Laid
(No distributor yet)
This audacious and accomplished German entry by first time director Sven Taddiken is about a sexually budding14-year-old girl and her two brothers: one a cop and the other a 30-year-old retarded brother who takes a liking to his brother’s new girlfriend. The film takes all things that are sexually risqué in films from incest to masturbation… and presents it as comedy.

Antwone Fisher
(Fox Searchlight)
This film by first time director/star Denzel Washington opened the festival and it’s everything you expect a Hollywood star’s first-directed film to be: well acted, competently directed, pleasingly written, completely safe, and just a bit manipulative. The film is an inspiring true story about a young man (Derek Luke) in the Navy who still feels the stress and strain of a brutal childhood and who finds his moorings from a father figure psychiatrist (Washington).

Games of Death

(Lions Gate)
This fiercely original drama by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is a remarkable story of destiny and luck. The basic story is about a battle of wills between a man (Eusebio Poncela) who is seeking revenge against another man (played by the devilish Max von Sydow) who wins gambling contests of death by staking peoples lives. At once a taut thriller and an intellectual game of chance the film takes more twists and turns than you can follow but it all works. See it before Hollywood conjures up a remake.

City of God
This devastatingly effective Brazilian film about the violent drug filled streets of Rio during the 1970s is a slam-bang cinematic ride. Despite the fact that the filmmaker (Fernando Meirelles) has clearly watched GoodFellas too many times he manages to get effective performances and plenty of gut wrenching violence on the screen. The film is tough to watch and in some cases unfortunately glorifies the violence it shows, which is probably why it won the Audience Award.

Yet another serial killer movie, this one, directed by Robert Schwentke, plays a lot like Seven in that it is dark, mysterious, and occasionally grotesque. The basic story is about a young new cop who reluctantly takes on a case with a more experienced cop concerning a killer who flays tattoos off of his victims. The film doesn’t go anywhere you don’t expect, but it is skillfully directed and suspenseful from start to finish.

Not So Safe Journeys

Rabbit-Proof Fence
Philip Noyce directs this compelling Australian film about three young Aborigine girls who run away from an Anglo-indoctrination institution and travel 1500 miles to their homeland. The film is bolstered by good performances (except Kenneth Branagh, who overdoes the bad-guy routine), grainy, washed-out cinematography by Christopher Doyle, and an amazing soundtrack by Peter Gabriel.

This Indian film by Pan Nalin is about a Buddhist Monk (Shawn Ku) who, after surviving three secluded years in a mountaintop shed, decides to live a normal civilian life. Inspired by Siddhartha, he goes into the nearest village, gets a job, marries a beautiful woman, and begins a family. He learns hardship, patience, and the true meaning of love. Shot in CinemaScope, the film is gorgeous to look at and the music is great, but there seems to be something precious about the whole thing.

Nowhere in Africa
This by-the-numbers German film by Caroline Link is about a Jewish family that expatriates from Nazi Germany to Kenya in the 1930s and learns to live a whole new life. They go through the trials and tribulations of the times but they all become the better for it. The film is beautifully done in all categories, but it’s quite predictable. It’s already won numerous awards in its homeland and is expected to be a contender for the best foreign language Academy Award.

Days Gone By

Photos to Send
(No distributor yet)
This excellent documentary by Diedre Lynch is about the life behind a series of photographs taken in County Clare, Ireland during the 1950s by Dorothea Lange. With the help of archival material, director Lynch went to Ireland to meet the people Lange photographed. What she found were people who really hadn’t changed that much – except, of course, in age. The film was a six year project but is very tightly structured and remains fresh and genuine all the way through.

Jimmy Scott: If Only You Knew
(No distributor yet)
This is a good documentary about a great subject. Filmmaker Matthew Buszzell gets the lowdown on Jimmy Scott, the almost forgotten jazz vocalist from the 1950s who didn’t get a second chance until he was 65 years old. Due to a disease as a child, Scott never fully developed, so his voice retains a distinctly high pitch. Using interviews with friends and family as well as archival photos and recent performances by Scott, the documentary goes into the ups and downs of his life taking us through his remarkable resurgence.

(No distributor yet)
Any film buff can relate to the people in this fascinating documentary. Filmmakers Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak followed and interviewed five extreme cinemagoers around New York for a couple of years attempting to find out what makes them tick. Each of them (four men and a woman) watch between two and five films a day, every day of the year, and what’s evident is that these are not people you would necessarily invite for dinner – especially if a movie was playing near by. Fortunately, the filmmakers treat these characters with respect – something all of us, who occasionally overindulge in movies, need.

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