In 2008 and again in 2012, the AFI Fest straddled the presidential election. But even in a city as steeped in cinema as this one, the programmers of Los Angeles' preeminent film festival knew that getting audiences to focus on movies in the midst of this most nail-biting and gut-wrenching election would be a daunting task.
So they didn't even try, instead pushing the start of the annual weeklong festival to Thursday, after all the votes had been cast.
"We wanted to make sure that everyone could focus on the election and vote and then they could really give their attention to the films," said festival director Jacqueline Lyanga.
Now that the drama of the campaign is finally over, the 30th edition of the AFI Fest, which runs through Nov. 17 at the Dolby Theatre, the TCL Chinese Theaters, the Egyptian Theatre and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, is ready to serve up entirely different forms of drama – as well as comedy, suspense, horror and every other color on the emotional palette. For the expected 80,000 people who will attend the festival, there will be 79 features and 39 shorts to suit every kind of mood – foreign-language films, documentaries, big-budget Hollywood fare and small-scale indies alike – all of them screened free for an audience that combines industry insiders with adventurous cinema-lovers.
There are serious, ripped-from-the-headlines films punctuated with violence like Peter Berg's Boston Marathon drama "Patriots Day," which will be the festival's special closing-night gala presentation; light, escapist fare such as the latest Disney animated movie "Moana," which will have its world premiere; and quietly poetic meditations on everyday life like Jim Jarmusch's "Paterson."
And for those whose tastes run to the more offbeat, there's even a musical genre mash-up from Poland called "The Lure" about man-eating mermaids, set in the 1980s (yes, you read that right) – just one of 33 films directed or co-directed by women in a festival that will celebrate women in film in a number of ways.
The AFI Fest runs the anchor leg in the annual film-festival derby that starts in Cannes in May and runs through Telluride, Toronto, Venice, Rome, Berlin and New York in the fall, and, as such, it can help further clarify which films will have the wind at their backs in the Oscar race and which could fade over the long haul.
The festival kick offs Thursday night with the world premiere of Warren Beatty's long-awaited drama, "Rules Don't Apply," in which Beatty plays Howard Hughes. Also screening at the event will be buzzed-about potential awards contenders like Damien Chazelle's romantic musical "La La Land"; the uplifting tear-jerker "Lion"; the period drama "Jackie," in which Natalie Portman portrays Jacqueline Kennedy; and the late-'70s Santa Barbara-set dramedy "20th Century Women," starring Annette Bening.
Bening, who has earned four Oscar nominations over her career — and also has a small role in "Rules" — is considered in the running for another nod for her turn in "Women" as a determined single mother and will be feted with a special tribute.
"Annette plays almost no false notes as a human or as an actress," says "20th Century Women" writer-director Mike Mills. "You get the sense that she doesn't play the movie star game, so it makes me feel all the more lucky I got her in my movie, knowing how much integrity she has and how she doesn't really do things she doesn't want to do."
French actress Isabelle Huppert will also receive a tribute at the gala screening of her new psychological thriller "Elle," while special screenings of restored classics will highlight the work of trailblazing women like director and actress Ida Lupino ("The Hitch-Hiker"); Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star ("Piccadilly"); and Dorothy Dandridge, the first African American woman nominated for an Oscar for lead actress ("Carmen Jones").
At a time when many are pushing for greater equality between men and women behind the camera, the female-directed films at this year's AFI Fest span a wide range of genres, from the German comedy "Toni Erdmann" – one of nine films in the lineup that are Oscar foreign-language submissions this year – to the aforementioned, uncategorizable "The Lure," directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska.
"With these young women especially, it's so fascinating to see the way they see the world and how different it is from so much cinema that's come before them," said festival director of programming Lane Kneedler, pointing to other films such as Brazilian director Anita Rocha da Silveira's coming-of-age story "Kill Me Please" and Bulgarian director Ralitza Petrova's drama "Godless." "These women are making incredibly strong, unique cinematic experiences, not disregarding what's come before them but building on it in a new and interesting way."
For "Toni Erdmann" writer-director Maren Ade, who earned raves at Cannes, having her movie play in the heart of Hollywood is a special treat and seems strangely fitting. A newly invited member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she sees the plot of "Toni Erdmann" – about the strained relationship between a daughter and an eccentric father who adopts prankish disguises – as echoing in an odd way the creative push-and-pull of the movie business.
"In the film, the father invents this crazy alter ego, Toni Erdmann, and I always joked that Toni is the Hollywood part of the film industry and the daughter, Inés, is the art house and they are struggling with each other," said Ade. "I'm very curious how the film will work in the U.S. My fingers are crossed."
There's little question though that, at least in the festival's early days, the earthshaking presidential election results could be the elephant in the room. Indeed, Kneedler says one recurring theme of this year's slate is filmmakers struggling to make sense of a confusing and unsettled world.
In addition to Berg's "Patriots Day," the AFI Fest will screen French director Bertrand Bornello's controversial "Nocturama," about a group of Parisian radicals plotting terrorist attacks around the city, and Tim Sutton's pseudo-documentary-style independent film "Dark Night," which was inspired by the 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
"It's interesting to come to AFI Fest and see these artists deal with the chaotic nature of the world in such different ways," Kneedler said. "There are a lot of filmmakers who are very jarred by the news and what's happening around them and are just trying to come to terms with it through their artistic expression."
But along with the darkness, AFI Fest also brings the light, said Lyanga.
"A film like 'La La Land' resonates so well because it's a musical, it's happy, it harks back to the dreams of youth in this story of these two young lovers' romance," she said. "Even a film like 'Rules Don't Apply,' where you're looking at this view of the romantic heyday of Hollywood at the end of the 1950s – I think there's a place for those kinds of films as well in times like these."