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AFI AIMS TO BE BEST OF THE FESTS FILMMAKERS COMPETE FOR EARLY AWARDS BUZZ.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

Of the dozens upon dozens of film festivals that unspool in the Los Angeles area each year, the American Film Institute's November shindig, centered at the ArcLight theater complex in Hollywood, strives to remain the class act of the bunch.

The organizers of AFI Fest 2005 Presented by Audi, as it's officially called, have done all they can to continue that tradition.

The effort is spearheaded by a batch of high-profile, awards-season hopefuls, starting with Thursday's sold-out, opening-night gala presentation of the Johnny Cash biopic ``Walk the Line,'' starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.

Over the ensuing 10 days, AFI will screen such other prize-seekers as ``Transamerica'' (Sunday), with desperate housewife Felicity Huffman going for a sex-change operation; ``The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada'' (Monday), Tommy Lee Jones' Cannes Film Festival award- winning contemporary Western; ``The World's Fastest Indian'' (Tuesday), starring Anthony Hopkins as a record-setting motorcycle racer; ``The Libertine'' (Nov. 11), starring Johnny Depp, as part of an in-person tribute to the actor; Neil (``The Crying Game'') Jordan's latest gender bender, ``Breakfast on Pluto'' (Nov. 12), starring ``Batman Begins'' and ``Red Eye'' villain Cillian Murphy; ``Mrs. Henderson Presents'' (Nov. 12), in which Judi Dench opens a strip club; and the swashbuckler ``Casanova'' (Nov. 13), with Heath Ledger and Sienna Miller.

Those films, of course, are just the festival's commercial tip. Feature films from 44 countries, including 10 nations' official entries for this year's foreign language Academy Award, are included among the 92 features scheduled. There are also slates of documentaries, American independent productions, short films and both international feature and documentary competitions.

The feature contest highlights the work of first- or second-time filmmakers who, according to AFI's director of programming, Nancy J. Collet, ``have a vision. Where you're like, 'Who is that person who made that film?' specifically, more than just, 'What a great cast or script, but a real visionary.' We look for people who are going to go on to great things in the future.''

Among other operations designed to help newer filmmakers interact with veterans, distributors and producers, AFI Fest 2005 continues the alliance begun last year with the overlapping American Film Market in Santa Monica, providing shuttles between the two venues, access to screenings, etc.

As for the general public, AFI director of festivals Christian Gaines promises more of the same old, same old - which, to him, means the best of the best.

``What I like the most about the festival is what remains the same about it from year to year,'' Gaines says. ``One of the things that really helps an L.A. film festival along is to maintain consistency and constancy in terms of location, programmatic focus, dates and, of course, film quality. We hope that the audience will just step back into the experience every year - and bring a friend.''

That said, fest goers at the ArcLight complex will be treated to a spectacular new reception area high above Sunset Boulevard.

``The biggest innovation this year is our rooftop village,'' Gaines notes. ``Necessity being the mother of invention, we found ourselves in need of thousands of square feet of staging space for the festival. In the past, we've used vacant retail space right across from the ArcLight. Thankfully, all of that space has now been rented, so we've moved to the seventh floor roof of the adjacent ArcLight parking structure.

``We have about 20,000 square feet that we're putting under roof, plus a courtyard. That is our box office and production space, as well as our registration desks, check-in, will-call, our Cinema Lounge hospitality area for badge- and pass-holders, media suites and the Loft, our big reception space. And it commands stunning views of downtown Los Angeles to the south and the Hollywood Hills to the north.''

The parking space the rooftop village covers will be compensated for in a structure directly across the street at Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street.

Sounds so Hollywood, doesn't it? But this festival is actually so cosmopolitan that it's devoting a good chunk of Nov. 12 to discussions about war movies, and an interview with George Clooney, presented by writers and critics from The New York Times.

Which, on the surface of it, sounds kind of weird for L.A.'s signature festival.

``I don't think so,'' Gaines counters. ``This Times Talks program is a branded program that they do in many places.''

Asked what really distinguishes AFI from all the other film festivals in town, Gaines responds that it's careful planning of every aspect.

``We think through and rehearse it from beginning to end,'' Gaines says. ``We care very deeply about the entire experience, and I think that's how we differentiate ourselves. More programmatically, we think that we're the festival of record for the best in international film at a great time of the year. We're able to be both a launchpad for the awards season, while also being a real discovery program for U.S. and world premieres and first- and second-time filmmakers.

``It's an infrastructure beyond just showing movies,'' he adds. ``Everything from the volunteer corps to putting on special events to bringing in hundreds of filmmakers from around the world to our transportation department - it takes all year long to create this village for 10 days. I don't think any other film festival in L.A. creates the centralized excitement that we do.''

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss(at)dailynews.com

AFI FEST 2005

What: Filmmakers from the U.S. and around the world screen 92 features in a preview of sorts for the movie awards season.

Where: ArcLight theater complex, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood.

When: Thursday (a sold-out screening of ``Walk the Line'') through Nov. 13.

Tickets: For information, a full schedule and to buy tickets and festival passes, go to www.AFI.com, call (866) 234-3378 (11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily), or visit the box office at the rooftop village, seventh floor of the ArcLight Cinemas parking structure, just south of the theaters at 6360 Sunset Blvd. (Box office hours 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. today and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Nov. 12, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 13.)

CAPTION(S):

5 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) `Walk the Line'

(2 -- cover -- color) `World's Fastest Indian'

(3 -- cover -- color) `The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada'

(4 -- cover -- color) `Casanova'

(5) Johnny Depp will be honored Nov. 11 at the AFI Fest screening of his new film, ``The Libertine.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 2, 2005
Words:1089
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