My Picks for AFI FEST 2018

by Tom Nguyen

AFI FEST 2018 presented by Audi is one of the largest annual film festivals in Los Angeles and the only one of its stature that is free to the public. The 32nd edition of the festival runs from November 8-15, 2018, and opens on Thursday, November 8, with the film ON THE BASIS OF SEX. Directed by AFI Conservatory alumna Mimi Leder, the inspiring drama tells the story of young lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg before she became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

The festival features upcoming filmmakers from all over the world with 18 films in its New Auteurs section, with 12 helmed by female filmmakers, and 10 films by independent filmmakers in its American Independents section, half of which are directed by women. The World Cinema section features 28 titles from 27 countries, 7 of which are official Best Foreign Language Film Oscar entries.

And if that wasn’t enough, there are Galas and Special Screenings and Short Films too! The festival closes on Thursday, November 15, with the world premiere of MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS. Directed by Josie Rourke and written by Academy Award® nominee Beau Willimon, the historical drama is based on John Guy’s biography, “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart.”  The film stars Academy Award®nominees Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie.

There is something for everyone in this immense festival of films, and it can be pretty overwhelming deciding what to see — Here are my top picks for AFI FEST 2018. Be sure to secure your FREE tickets online! Tickets go FAST!


ON THE BASIS OF SEX – Inspired by a true story, ON THE BASIS OF SEX is the stirring and spirited film that follows young lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she teams with her husband Marty to bring a groundbreaking case before the U.S. Court of Appeals and overturn a century of gender discrimination.


DESTROYER AND AN EVENING WITH NICOLE KIDMAN – This Gala screening of DESTROYER will be preceded by an onstage conversation with Nicole Kidman, moderated by Vanity Fair’s Krista Smith. In the tradition of films such as HEAT, TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA and TRAINING DAY, director Karyn Kusama drops us into the world of Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman), a hardened LA detective who, many years ago, barely survived a brutal undercover operation. When a dead body turns up on the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River, Bell realizes the malevolent gang leader whose operation she once infiltrated has returned. Anchored by a transformative performance from Kidman, DESTROYER is the kind of fast-paced, hard-hitting cerebral action film Kusama (GIRLFIGHT) is known for, bolstered by a strong supporting cast and a smart, labyrinthine script. Meanwhile, Kidman’s Bell acts as a modern-day Charon, taking the audience on a tour of the hell of modern-day Los Angeles.

WIDOWS – Academy Award®-winning director Steve McQueen returns with a crime thriller where women take charge. Veronica’s (Viola Davis) decadent lifestyle is abruptly interrupted when her husband is killed, along with his criminal gang, in a heist gone wrong. She soon discovers the debt with which she, and other widows from his gang, are suddenly burdened. Under Veronica’s leadership, the women band together and form a plan to take their future into their own hands. WIDOWS goes beyond the trappings of the crime genre to explore political power-plays and urban corruption. Striking performances from a top-flight cast, along with McQueen and GONE GIRL scribe Gillian Flynn’s sharp, twisty script, make this gritty crime caper a new classic.


AKASHA – Documentarian Hajooj Kuka makes his attention-grabbing, intelligent debut with AKASHA, a comedy set in a rebel-held area of Sudan, where fighting has stopped amid the rainy season — and a man, a woman and an AK-47 are entangled in a love triangle. DIR Hajooj Kuka. SCR Hajooj Kuka. CAST Ekram Marcus, Kamal Ramadan, Ganja Chakado. Sudan, South Africa, Qatar, Germany

RAFIKI – Kena likes to kick around a soccer ball with her boys. Bubbly Ziki likes to dance with her girls. Yet when their paths cross, the two fall in love. Banned in Kenya, Wanuri Kahiu’s gay romance is delightful and full of life. DIR Wanuri Kahiu. SCR Jenna Cato Bass, Wanuri Kahiu. CAST Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Jimmi Gathu, Nini Wacera, Dennis Musyoka, Patricia Amira. Kenya [Another queer coming-of-age drama in the New Auteur section is L’ANIMALE.]

THE RETURN – In Malene Choi’s formally daring work of docufiction, the temporary residents of KoRoot — a Seoul-based guesthouse for transnational adoptees seeking information on their Korean birth parents — form a unique bond with one another while they each process the intense emotions inherent in their journey of self-discovery. DIR Malene Choi. SCR Sissel Dalsgaard Thomsen. CAST Karoline Sofie Lee, Thomas Hwan, Seong In-Ja. Denmark, South Korea

STYX – Rike (Susanne Wolff) is sailing solo through open Atlantic waters. When she spots a vessel in the distance in a dire situation — a boat, brimming with migrants, is sinking — her voyage crystallizes into a sharp moral dilemma:  What is an individual’s personal responsibility when faced with the refugee crisis? DIR Wolfgang Fischer. SCR Ika Kuenzel, Wolfgang Fischer. CAST Susanne Wolff, Gedion Wekesa Oduor. Germany, Austria [Other compelling films, by new auteurs, exploring the plight of refugees and immigrants, include AND BREATH NORMALLY (ANDIÐ EÐLILEGA) and LEMONADE (LUNA DE MIERE).]


THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM – Filmmaker John Chester documents the eight-year effort of an ambitious, life-changing personal venture: moving out of Los Angeles with his wife and building a diverse, sustainable farm. As the farm’s ecosystem begins to awaken, the couple explores the complexity of coexisting with nature and all its intricacies in this poignant documentary. DIR John Chester. SCR Mark Monroe, John Chester. USA

BLOWIN’ UP – BLOWIN’ UP is an intimate portrait of a New York criminal court and the rebel heroines working to change the way women arrested for prostitution are prosecuted. Stephanie Wang-Breal’s essential and fascinating documentary reveals the complex hurdles sex workers must face, and the steadfast efforts of those helping to change their lives. DIR Stephanie Wang-Breal. SCR Stephanie Wang-Breal. USA

JINN – Being a teenager can already be dramatic. Now add religious conversion, first love, and having to change your favorite pizza topping. When her mother joins a local mosque, Summer is forced to explore whether she too wants to convert to Islam. Nijla Mu’min’s coming-of-age story grows into an exploration of spirituality seen through the eyes of a girl trying to find her place. DIR Nijla Mu’min. SCR Nijla Mu’min. CAST Zoe Renee, Simone Missick, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Dorian Missick, Hisham Tawfiq and Kelly Jenrette. USA


AMATEURS (AMATÖRER) – When German investors show interest in building a superstore in the small town of Lafors, community leaders decide to create a promotional video. Turning to students for help, teenagers Aida and Dana begin filming — and the battle for the true image of Lafors is on. Director Gabriela Pichler returns to AFI FEST with a sharp, funny, youthful and complex drama about giving a voice to those most often unheard. DIR Gabriela Pichler. SCR Gabriela Pichler, Jonas Hassen Khemeri. CAST Zahraa Aldoujaili, Yara Aliadotter, Fredrik Dahl. Sweden

CAPERNAUM (CAPHARNAÜM) – CAPERNAUM tells the story of Zain, a Lebanese boy who sues his parents for the “crime” of giving him life. Zain journeys from gutsy, streetwise child to hardened 12-year-old “adult”: fleeing his abusive, negligent parents, surviving through his wits on the streets, and finally, seeking justice in a courtroom. DIR Nadine Labaki. SCR Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Michelle Kesrwany. CAST Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawthar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Youssef, Cedra Izam, Alaa Chouchnieh, Nadine Labaki, Nour el Husseini, Elias Khoury. Lebanon

DOGMAN – Matteo Garrone’s latest film is a gripping drama about Marcello, a gentle yet cowardly dog groomer who finds himself caught up in Italy’s criminal underworld. Marcello forms a dangerous, one-sided relationship with former boxer and cokehead Simone, who terrorizes the community. Before long, Marcello is part of his reckless antics. DOGMAN will screen at AFI FEST in partnership with Cinema Italian Style, an annual showcase of contemporary Italian cinema in Los Angeles. DOGMAN will be the opening night film of Cinema Italian Style. DIR Matteo Garrone. SCR Ugo Chiti, Maurizio Braucci, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso. CAST Marcello Fonte, Edoardo Pesce, Nunzia Schiano, Adamo Dionisi, Francesco Acquaroli. Italy, France

“I DO NOT CARE IF WE GO DOWN IN HISTORY AS BARBARIANS” (ÎMI ESTE INDIFERENT DACA ÎN ISTORIE VOM INTRA CA BARBARI) – Mariana is a young, defiant artist mounting a theatrical production of the Odessa massacre, in which Romanian soldiers killed thousands of Ukrainian Jews. As she attempts to stage a realistic reenactment, to force her fellow Romanians to confront their sins of the past, she meets with stiff resistance from local powers. Radu Jude’s latest masterpiece is at once funny, uncomfortable and profound. DIR Radu Jude. SCR Radu Jude. CAST Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan. Romania, Czech Republic, France, Bulgaria, Germany

NEVER LOOK AWAY (WERK OHNE AUTOR) – Inspired by real events and spanning three eras of German history, NEVER LOOK AWAY tells the story of an art student Kurt, who falls in love with classmate Ellie. Ellie’s father, Professor Seeband, is dismayed at his daughter’s choice of boyfriend, and will stop at nothing to destroy the relationship. DIR Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. SCR Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. CAST Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer, Oliver Masucci Saskia Rosendahl. Germany, Italy

SHOPLIFTERS (MANBIKI KAZOKU) – The winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, SHOPLIFTERS tells the tender story of a family of misfits and grifters struggling to make ends meet. After taking in a girl off the street, a sudden incident upends their lives and exposes their secrets. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to the screen with a nuanced class critique, and a beautiful portrait of family life. DIR Hirokazu Koreeda. SCR Hirokazu Kore-eda. CAST Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki, Kiki Kirin. Japan

SUNSET (NAPSZALLTA) – As World War I approaches, Irisz arrives in Budapest with the dream to work as a milliner at Leiter, a store once owned by her family. Her hopes dashed by the new proprietor, she discovers news that a previously unknown sibling may exist, and sets out to meet them. DIR László Nemes. SCR László Nemes, Clara Royer, Matthieu Taponier. CAST Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Evelin Dobos, Marcin Czarnik, Judit Bárdos, Benjamin Dino, Balázs Czukor, Christian Harting, Levente Molnár. Hungary, France


3 FACES (SE ROKH) – Jafar Panahi and Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari travel to a small village in northwest Iran to investigate the possible suicide of an aspiring young actress. Content to sit in the car while three generations of women examine their dual oppression, Panahi traverses moral and ideological pathways through rural Iran with trademark heart, charm and wit. DIR Jafar Panahi. SCR Jafar Panahi. CAST Behnaz Jafari, Marziyeh Rezaei, Narges Del Aram, Jafar Panahi, Maedeh Erteghaei. Iran

ASH IS PUREST WHITE (JIANGHU ER NV) – Jia Zhang-ke returns to AFI FEST with his latest sprawling masterwork. Centering on the struggles of Qiao (played by Zhao Tao), a gangster’s girlfriend who spends five years in prison after getting caught up in a violent attack, ASH IS PUREST WHITE is a haunting, enigmatic portrait of individuals navigating China’s new “capitalism” at the dawn of the millennium. DIR Jia Zhang-ke. SCR Jia Zhang-ke. CAST Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng. China, France

OF FATHERS AND SONS – Award-winning documentarian Talal Derki gained the trust of a radical Islamist family in Syria and filmed their daily lives for two years. The result is OF FATHERS AND SONS, a jaw-dropping, intensely uninhibited look at young boys training as Jihadi fighters, and their Caliphate-obsessed father. DIR Talal Derki. Germany, Syria, Lebanon

PUTIN’S WITNESSES (SVIDETELI PUTINA) – With PUTIN’S WITNESSES, Vitaly Mansky returns to footage he filmed when commissioned — and provided with unnervingly intimate access — on a propaganda film promoting Vladmir Putin’s first presidential election. In this captivating portrait, Mansky both chronicles the alarming ease of the dictator’s rise to power and examines his own complicity in his near two-decade rule. DIR Vitaly Mansky. SCR Vitaly Mansky. Latvia, Switzerland, Czech Republic


THE COLD BLUE – In 1943, legendary Hollywood director William Wyler crafted MEMPHIS BELLE, a celebrated tribute to the titular WWII bomber. Using footage from the National Archives shot by Wyler and his team of cinematographers, director Erik Nelson has crafted a new film, featuring gripping narration from some of the last surviving B-17 pilots. A meditation on youth, war and stunning bravery. DIR Erik Nelson. USA. The film will be followed by Wyler’s THE MEMPHIS BELLE: A STORY OF A FLYING FORTRESS (1943). This screening in celebration of Veterans’ Day has been underwritten by the Cecil B. DeMille Foundation.

COLD WAR – Zula and Wiktor meet in a provincial talent search in a love story that traverses borders and years. In this stunning black-and-white depiction of 1950s Poland, two unlikely people find love at an almost impossible cost. DIR Paweł Pawlikowski. SCR Paweł Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki. CAST Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar. Poland, UK, France

DIVIDE AND CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES This documentary explores the rise and fall of the late Roger Ailes, a Republican Party heavyweight. From his early media influence on the Nixon presidency to his controversial leadership at Fox News, director Alexis Bloom documents the creation of his media empire and how Ailes was one of the earliest giants toppled by accusations of sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement. DIR Alexis Bloom. USA. [Another documentary under Special Screenings that is very relevant to the current political climate is ENEMIES: THE PRESIDENT, JUSTICE & THE FBI.]

ROMA – Alfonso Cuarón’s ROMA is a semi-autobiographical recounting of one year in the life of an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City in the 1970s. From the perspective of their live-in maid and nanny Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, in an exceptionally subtle yet powerful performance), this profoundly compassionate and humanistic portrait delivers a transcendent masterwork from one of our greatest living filmmakers. DIR Alfonso Cuarón. SCR Alfonso Cuarón. CAST Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira. Mexico, USA


CAM – Lola (Madeline Brewer of THE HANDMAID’S TALE) is a modern-day camgirl who makes her living through online private chats, but her world is about to turn upside down. Written by former camgirl Isa Mazzei, this thriller is one of the most surprising and intelligent films of the year. DIR Daniel Goldhaber. SCR Isa Mazzei, Daniel Goldhaber. CAST Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Melora Walters, David Druid, Imani Hakim, Michael Dempsey. USA


MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS – Directed by Josie Rourke, MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart. Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Mary (Saoirse Ronan) defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. But Scotland and England fall under the rule of the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Each young Queen beholds her “sister” in fear and fascination. Rivals in power and in love, and female regents in a masculine world, the two must decide how to play the game of marriage versus independence. Determined to rule as much more than a figurehead, Mary asserts her claim to the English throne, threatening Elizabeth’s sovereignty. Betrayal, rebellion and conspiracies within the court imperil both thrones — and change the course of history.

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