ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Realism on tap at AFI Fest

Film fans, it's time to get your passports stamped.

When the AFI Fest begins Thursday night, it will kick off 11 days of screenings and events that will bring some of the best films from the international festival circuit here to Los Angeles, including highlights and award winners from Berlin, Cannes, Toronto and smaller fests around the globe.

"I think we're trying to assemble a collection of films that have been under discussion and that film audiences in Los Angeles have been reading about," said Rose Kuo, creative director of AFI Fest. "Certainly these are the films people who travel on the festival circuit have been writing about, and it's an opportunity to see these films all in one place at one time and to join the discussion."

AFI Fest, now in its 22nd year, will open with the world premiere of "Doubt," starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman. "Doubt," a drama about allegations of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church that becomes a parable on faith, is the last-minute replacement for "The Soloist," a fact-based film about the friendship between a journalist and a homeless musician, which was withdrawn from the fest last week after its release was postponed until next spring.

Though many of the festival's screenings will be at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood -- as they have for the last several years -- this year the festival has switched its headquarters to the venerable Roosevelt Hotel, as it had outgrown its previous HQ space on top of the parking garage next to the ArcLight. Taking advantage of its new locale on Hollywood Boulevard, there will be a handful of screenings at the Mann 6 Multiplex and Grauman's Chinese Theatre, as well as festival-affiliated screenings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the American Cinematheque.

Among the screenings being held at the legendary Chinese Theatre will be presentations of "Che," director Steven Soderbergh's controversial biopic of the revolutionary leader with Benicio Del Toro, and "The Wrestler," director Darren Aronofsky's heartfelt drama about a washed-up grappler starring Mickey Rourke. The midlife romance "Last Chance Harvey," with Dustin Hoffman, will screen in the Cinerama Dome. The festival will close with the world premiere of "Defiance," a WWII action-drama starring Daniel Craig and directed by Ed Zwick.

Kuo noted that the programming theme for this year is "a return to realism." Marked by films that blur the boundaries between documentary and fictional forms, the rubric covers such diverse films on the schedule as "The Class," "Waltz With Bashir," "Wendy and Lucy" and "Gomorrah," all standouts from previous fests.

In addition to tribute events for director Danny Boyle and actress Tilda Swinton, including screenings of their new films "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Julia," the festival will also include spotlight programs for new films from Kazakhstan and Argentina, the recent output of the Chinese production company Xstream and a retrospective of French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin.

While the festival is presenting a handful of prestige pictures and year-end awards hopefuls, for many other films, screening at festivals such as AFI Fest is their best, and possibly, their only chance to connect with audiences. Here are a few of the festival's high points and must-sees:

'Doubt'

This last-minute substitution as the opening-night screening has set awards watchers buzzing. John Patrick Shanley, an Oscar winner for his screenplay for "Moonstruck," directs the adaptation of his own Broadway hit (already winner of three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer). The film is screening in a version being described as "unfinished," giving audiences an early look at the highly anticipated performances from Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. The film is expected to be a player in the year-end prestige derby, and its fate could rise or fall on opinions formed at this screening.

Playing: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.

New Spanish- Language Cinema

In a special section, AFI Fest will spotlight the strong filmmaking that has been coming out of Argentina, and will also screen other films from Mexico, South America and Spain. Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martell has been a favorite on the festival circuit, and her latest, "The Headless Woman," has been well-received elsewhere. Mysterious and disturbingly beautiful, the film tells the story of a woman who thinks she may have hit a child with her car, and if it makes it back to local screens will likely not be seen again in such top-notch projection facilities for film buffs to really savor. Other Spanish-language highlights include Argentine director Pablo Trapero's prison drama "Lion's Den" and Mexican filmmaker Fernando Eimbcke's "Lake Tahoe," which made a mark earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival.

"The Headless Woman"

Playing: Nov. 6, 9:50 p.m. and Nov. 8, 8:30 p.m.

"Lion's Den"

Playing: Nov. 5, 9:30 p.m. and Nov. 7, noon

"Lake Tahoe"

Playing: Nov. 3, 7:15 p.m. and Nov. 5, 12:30 p.m.

'Wendy and Lucy'

At first it may seem like nothing much is happening in "Wendy and Lucy," the latest from "Old Joy" director Kelly Reichardt, but as a young woman finds herself stranded alone with her dog in the Pacific Northwest it becomes more apparent that the film is a keenly observational look at the increasing struggle to just get through the day. With a riveting, delicate performance by Michelle Williams, the film builds to something enigmatic and moving.

Playing: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. and Nov. 8, 7:45 p.m.

'Slumdog Millionaire'

Director Danny Boyle -- who has genre-hopped from the drug-fueled mayhem of "Trainspotting" to the interstellar overdrive of "Sunshine" -- lands in Mumbai, with a cracking story of a young man who wins big on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Colorful, energetic and unpredictable, the film has been picking up acclaim since it hit the festival circuit earlier this fall.

Playing: Nov. 7, 7 p.m.

'Afterschool' 'I'm Gonna Explode'

Two new takes on the venerable Teens in Trouble picture, both "Afterschool" and "I'm Gonna Explode" come to AFI Fest after having played at major festivals in Cannes and New York. "Afterschool" is written and directed by 25-year-old Antonio Campos, and his chilling, stylized take on alienation and the confusion of the virtual and the real at an elite prep school feels particularly fresh and immediate. "I'm Gonna Explode," from filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo, is a Mexican take a young couple on the run, shot through with the breezy vitality and adventuresome spirit of the French New Wave.

"Afterschool"

Playing: Nov. 7, 9:30 p.m. and Nov. 9, 3 p.m.

"I'm Gonna Explode"

Playing: Nov. 8, 9:40 p.m. and Nov. 9, 3:15 p.m.

'Gomorrah'

A mob movie like no other, Matteo Garrone's "Gomorrah," the Grand Prix winner at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is a scalpel-sharp look at life under the Camorra crime syndicate in Naples, Italy. Based on the bestselling nonfiction book by Roberto Saviano, the film has a staggering richness and machine-like complexity, getting into the inner workings of overlapping systems of crime, corruption, murder and moral decay. Any glamour that may remain attached to mob life is fully drained away by the unrelenting inevitability of the end results. No one comes out unscathed.

Playing: Sunday, 3 p.m. and Nov. 7, 9:30 p.m.

'A Christmas Tale'

'Summer Hours'

Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas are two of the most idiosyncratic and exciting filmmakers working in France today. AFI Fest is presetting a retrospective of Desplechin in conjunction with LACMA, capping with a screening of his latest sprawling saga of domestic discord, "A Christmas Tale," which features a veritable who's-who of French acting talent including Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve. Assayas' latest, "Summer Hours," stars Juliette Binoche as one of a trio of siblings reconciling their past with the future as they break down the family's country vacation house.

"A Christmas Tale"

Playing: Sunday, 6:45 p.m. and Nov. 7, 7:30 p.m.

"Summer Hours"

Playing: Saturday, 3 p.m. and Nov. 5, 7 p.m.

'The Class'

Winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, "The Class" is the latest film from Laurent Cantet. Turning a classroom into a microcosm of larger social currents, the film is sparky and combative but also deeply compassionate. Along with numerous other films playing at the festival, such as "24 City" and "Liverpool," "The Class" is an example of what might be thought of as the New Realism, combining documentary techniques with fictional storytelling to create a hybrid form that explores with exacting detail how life is lived now.

Playing: Sunday, noon and Nov. 8, 10 p.m.

'Waltz With Bashir'

A mix of intimate storytelling, documentary and animation, "Waltz With Bashir" finds director Ari Folman exploring his own personal history, the time he was a soldier for Israel in the 1982 war with Lebanon. Building from his memories as well as recollections of his friends who served with him, Folman reconstructs events that had become unclear in his own mind. With its unconventional style, "Waltz With Bashir" hauntingly examines how memories of war forever change those who fight them.

Playing: Saturday, 3:45 p.m. and Nov. 7, 7 p.m.

'Hunger'

A film that has been steadily picking up awards as it has made its way around the festival circuit, "Hunger" is a staggering feature film debut for visual artist Steve McQueen and includes a devastating performance by actor Michael Fassbinder as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. The film takes a multifaceted approach to the horrors of what goes on inside the prison's walls, encompassing the point-of-view of the guards and prisoners alike with an unsettling lack of judgment. The film features a jaw-dropping scene between Fassbinder and actor Liam Cunningham with one 17-minute-plus take that sets the mind reeling. This one is sure to get audiences talking.

Playing: Saturday, 7:15 p.m. and Sunday, 3:15 p.m.

Olsen is a freelance writer and critic.

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