Even if this year's AFI Fest weren't well timed to offer Los Angeles moviegoers an eight-day retreat from a long and bitterly contentious election season, it would still be one of the most significant events on the city's film calendar.
Held in Hollywood each November — well after the Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York film festivals have come and gone — the American Film Institute's annual showcase is invariably well positioned to showcase a handful of the year's late-breaking awards hopefuls for the first time, as it did with 2014's "American Sniper" and "Selma," and last year's "The Big Short."
The 2016 edition will get off to a similarly high-profile start on Thursday night with Warren Beatty's "Rules Don't Apply," a romantic drama torn from a chapter of the life of Howard Hughes (played by Beatty). The festival closes on Nov. 17 with the world premiere of "Patriots Day," a dramatization of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings that marks the latest collaboration between director Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg after "Lone Survivor" and this year's "Deepwater Horizon."
Naturally, this L.A.-based program wouldn't be complete without "La La Land," Damien Chazelle's sparkling musical valentine to the city, whose Oscar prospects have been touted since the film's world premiere in Venice. Other acclaimed titles making stopovers at AFI Fest include "Jackie," Pablo Larraín's penetrating portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy, starring a never-better Natalie Portman, and "20th Century Women," a tender family dramedy from writer-director Mike Mills ("Beginners"), featuring superbly calibrated performances from Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning.
Happily, these much-buzzed titles are scarcely the only ones that make AFI Fest the essential destination that it is. Under the direction of Jacqueline Lyanga, the festival has long embraced a programming methodology that prioritizes excellence over exclusivity, and that routinely seeks out some of the finest titles from the international festival circuit. Here are 10 that you shouldn't miss — not the only 10, by any means, but a good 10 to start with.
"Dark Night." Although made under the spell of Gus Van Sant's school-shooting drama "Elephant," Tim Sutton's teasing, dread-soaked meditation on the origins of gun violence in America exerts a strange, lyrical pull all its own.
"The Demons." As a formally audacious study in paranoia and unease, centered around the real and imagined horrors that lie in wait for a young boy in '80s Montreal, this narrative feature debut from the Quebec documentary filmmaker Philippe Lesage would make a fine double bill with "Dark Night," provided that you can get a good, stiff drink afterward.
"Elle" and "Things to Come." Both of these films are set to open in theaters shortly (Paul Verhoeven's "Elle" on Nov. 16, Mia Hansen-Love's "Things to Come" on Dec. 2), and both feature unsurprisingly bravura performances by Isabelle Huppert, playing two women who could scarcely be more different in their refusal to cower in the face of adversity.
"Graduation." A father's efforts to protect his daughter — or at least, her college prospects — in the wake of an unexpected assault kicks off this morally probing drama from the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"), whose sense of dramatic construction and formal exactitude proves as gripping as ever.
"The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki." A sly, seriocomic portrait of a Finnish boxer (played by Jarkko Lahti) who just can't get his head or his heart in the game, Juho Kuosmanen's black-and-white biographical drama tackles its subject in engagingly loose-limbed fashion.
"Harmonium." It's seldom a good sign in the movies when a friend from the past suddenly resurfaces after a years-long absence. So begins Koji Fukada's return-of-the-repressed family drama, which takes a power drill to your nerves and emotions without ever misplacing its sense of compassion.
"Hunter Gatherer." If you've watched "The Wire," it will come as no surprise that Andre Royo gives an excellent performance in this winningly unpredictable debut feature from writer-director Josh Locy about an L.A. ex-con who undertakes a decidedly eccentric road to redemption.
"The Ornithologist." This spellbinding new work from Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues offers a cheerfully blasphemous take on the life of St. Anthony of Padua, recast here as a handsome bird watcher whose latest wilderness excursion takes several frightening, erotic and hilariously surreal turns.
"Toni Erdmann." A critical hit at Cannes, Telluride and Toronto, this unclassifiable third feature from German writer-director Maren Ade miraculously synthesizes prankish comedy, family drama and corporate satire into a singular whole.