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AFI Fest opens with 'Mudbound' and continues with a bounty of world cinema

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES -- One of the pleasing ironies of AFI Fest is that, although presented annually by an organization called the American Film Institute, this Hollywood-based, independent-spirited festival has become a vital destination for moviegoers seeking some of the best that world cinema has to offer.

Don't get me wrong. Any overview of this year's festival highlights would have to include more than a smattering of American titles, including Errol Morris' 4 1/2-hour documentary-fiction hybrid, "Wormwood," soon to be seen on Netflix; "The Disaster Artist," James Franco's wild look at the making and unmaking of an L.A. sensation named Tommy Wiseau; and a dazzling, 12-film Robert Altman retrospective.

But it would also have to feature the farther-flung likes of "Loveless," Andrey Zvyagintsev's bleak, brilliant look into the dark heart of contemporary Russia, or "A Man of Integrity," a gripping moral tale from Iran's Mohammad Rasoulof.

One of the best films in the festival is the enchanting romantic reverie "Let the Sunshine In," directed by the French master Claire Denis and graced by a vivid lead turn from Juliette Binoche. (It's listed in the festival materials as "Bright Sunshine In," the film's English title being almost as indecisive as Binoche's lovelorn heroine.)

The richness of this event's international scope -- a heartening priority for the festival's director, Jacqueline Lyanga, and her team of programmers -- should not be taken for granted. (Nor should the fact that, courtesy of robust event sponsorship, admission to all screenings is free.) You could see it as AFI Fest's way of keeping faith with its legacy -- a throwback to the old glory days of the institute's long-defunct Los Angeles International Film Exposition, a.k.a. Filmex, which from 1971 to 1987 was a notable local bastion of globe-trotting cinephilia.

Thirty years on, the need for that kind of discerning, adventurous curation is stronger than ever. This is Los Angeles, after all, where the public's movie love can nonetheless seem fickle and fatigued, and where opportunities to screen adventurous foreign-language cinema are invariably overshadowed by the hype and flash of the motion-picture industry.

AFI Fest, with its strategic year-end positioning and its headquarters at the tourist-jammed intersection of Hollywood and Highland, certainly benefits from some of that hype and flash, though it has already been jolted by an unpleasant reminder that glamour these days is often a smokescreen for scandal.

Until just a few days ago, the festival was expected to close with the Nov. 16 world premiere of Ridley Scott's hotly anticipated "All the Money in the World," but the film was yanked from the program by its distributor, Sony Pictures, in the wake of sexual assault allegations against Kevin Spacey, one of its stars. (As of now, the film is still set to open theatrically Dec. 22.)

The last-minute change of plans cost AFI Fest one of its highest-profile attractions, but also spared it some potentially awkward headlines at a time when charges of rape and sexual harassment have engulfed the industry.

The rest of the show will go on: With more than 90 features screening over the next eight days, it really has little choice. On Thursday night the festival was to start with Dee Rees' "Mudbound," a sprawling, powerfully acted epic of racial discord set in the WWII-era American South, featuring an excellent ensemble that includes Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Rob Morgan and a revelatory Mary J. Blige. The film reaches Netflix and select theaters Nov. 17, but Rees' richly textured canvas -- already projected at the Sundance, Toronto and New York film festivals -- deserves the biggest screen possible.

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