With a calendar date falling just as studios are desperately trying to secure some awards-season traction for their Oscar hopefuls, the AFI Fest has no trouble booking its share of glamorous galas and high-profile events. This year’s festival, which wrapped Thursday with a splashy showing of the Coen brothers’ latest film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” upped the number of galas (one per evening over the eight days) and attracted large crowds.
AFI Fest 2013 opened with “Saving Mr. Banks,” Disney’s nostalgic, behind-the-scenes story of the making of “Mary Poppins,” a movie that climaxes with the premiere of “Poppins” at the Chinese Theatre — the same venue that hosted the “Banks” gala. The recently remodeled theater evoked a fair share of wistful memories this year from stars and filmmakers. It’s a setting that remains one of Hollywood’s most alluring spots some 86 years after opening.
“I love this movie theater ... if you like understatement,” Joel Coen joked before Thursday’s “Llewyn Davis” gala.
Ben Stiller told an audience gathered to see “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which he directed and stars in, that “when I was 8 years old, I snuck in here with my sister to see ‘The Exorcist.’ I also premiered ‘The Watch’ and ‘The Cable Guy’ here so I’m due for a good reaction.”
Let’s just say the evening exceeded his expectations, a sentiment that could just about summarize this year’s festival. A look back at some memorable moments:
‘Banks’ banks it in
The last two best picture winners — “The Artist” and “Argo” — have sported strong hooray-for-Hollywood elements, so it’s no surprise that this warmly sentimental look at Walt Disney’s protracted attempt to persuade British author P.L. Travers to sign away the screen rights to “Mary Poppins” would resonate with the AFI crowd. Stars Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson walked the red carpet and glad-handed well-wishers at a reception before the movie, but the night’s biggest star may well have been Oscar-winning composer Richard Sherman, who with his brother Robert wrote all those classic “Poppins” songs. When Sherman left the Chinese Theatre following the movie, he had tears in his eyes as he was greeted by well-wishers. “Just lovely,” he said. “Simply lovely.”
Tarantino exalts ‘Dernsies’
Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino became the latest to laud the career of the great Bruce Dern, introducing a reel of highlights from the actor’s work before a screening of “Nebraska,” arguably Dern’s greatest performance. Tarantino took pains to point out Dern’s consistently interesting acting choices — “Dernsies” he called them (as have many others) — in movies that otherwise wouldn’t be worth watching. “He grabs your attention, never letting you go, spontaneous, always looking for a moment, always looking for an opportunity to do something, not content to be palsy-walsy with the other actors,” Tarantino said. “He’s trying to beat them!”
Amid the top-shelf galas of celeb-heavy movies vying for awards-season consideration, AFI Fest also showed dozens of lower-profile movies, largely culled from the year’s international festival circuit. A few of those films seemed to catch a strong updraft of word-of-mouth enthusiasm. Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson’s heartfelt and rambunctious punk rock coming-of-age tale “We Are the Best!” generated beaming smiles while Ari Folman’s head-spinning “The Congress” created looks of pleasantly dazed bewilderment. Ti West’s documentary-style horror film “The Sacrament” freaked people out, while genuine documentaries “Jodorowsky’s Dune” and “Caucus” delighted and inspired.
Foreign Oscar hopefuls
AFI Fest this year also screened 15 of the 76 films submitted for the foreign language Oscar. Chile’s “Gloria, directed by Sebastian Lelio with a powerfully understated performance by actress Paulina Garcia, went over well, as did the Israeli film “Bethlehem,” which plays out the Israel-Palestine conflict as a complexly layered crime drama. Italy’s rapturous “The Great Beauty” brought a ravishing sense of style, while the Paris-set Iranian film “The Past,” from Oscar-winning “A Separation” filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, packed an emotional wallop.
‘Lone Survivor’ Q&A
Following the world premiere screening of the blistering action-adventure drama “Lone Survivor,” a fact-based story of a small cadre of Navy SEALs battling the Taliban in Afghanistan, star Mark Wahlberg sat for a Q&A alongside director and screenwriter Peter Berg and the soldier Wahlberg portrays in the film, Marcus Luttrell. The actor unexpectedly let loose with a nearly five-minute monologue in which he decried actors who compare the experience of training for a film to that of actual military work, noting “You don’t do what these guys did. How … dare you.” Causing something of a media sensation, his words perhaps read more harshly than the weary earnestness with which he spoke them, but also showed the passion and conviction behind both his performance and the film.
Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’
With what is fast looking like an unlikely but legitimate awards contender, filmmaker Spike Jonze unveiled his new “Her” for its first public audiences in Los Angeles. No other film is perhaps set to challenge the generational divides within the academy and other voting bodies quite like this film, with its blend of technology and intimacy, mix of distant chill and intimate warmth and earnestly sincere emotions. Set in Los Angeles in a not-so-distant future, the film stars Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely man who falls in love with the artificial intelligence of the advanced operating system on his computer, voiced in a rather remarkable heard-but-not-seen performance by Scarlett Johansson. During a post-screening Q&A Jonze was even able to pull media-averse producer Megan Ellison onstage for rare public comment.
Coens’ sweet folk
“Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coens’ look at the early ‘60s New York folk scene, concluded the festival, but not before making maximum use of the time of its filmmakers and stars — and musicians. Like most other movies playing AFI, “Llewyn Davis” booked its creative team for Q&As and receptions and, most memorably, a concert hosted by T Bone Burnett at Santa Monica’s Buffalo Club. If you get Barbra Streisand tapping her toes to your film’s songs as “Llewyn Davis” lead Oscar Isaac did then, yes, people, happy days are here again. Or at least until Oscar nominations are announced.