At the AFI Fest in Los Angeles, a world of ideas come calling

Among AFI Fest screenings: 'A Most Violent Year,' 'The Gambler, 'Inherent Vice,' 'Foxcatcher'

"A Most Violent Year," written and directed by J.C. Chandor, stars Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in an explosive story of a couple struggling to grow their heating oil business that is part crime saga, part domestic drama. It's very much a New York story, set specifically in 1981 as one of the most statistically violent years on record. But the film's world premiere will be in Los Angeles on Thursday night, as the opening film for this year's AFI Fest.

"In a weird way, while the movie is set in New York," Chandor said in an interview this week, "its DNA is a good '70s and '80s Sidney Lumet-style movie-movie. There's a good old Hollywood feel, so it's a fun place to launch."

The film festival, running through Nov. 13, will also feature the world premiere of "The Gambler," directed by Rupert Wyatt and starring Mark Wahlberg. In other high-profile screening slots are the Los Angeles premieres of Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice," Tommy Lee Jones' "The Homesman" and the festival's closing night film, Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher."

With its smartly curated sampling from the festival circuit and glimpses at newer foreign-language films, documentaries, American independents and high-minded Hollywood fare, the AFI Fest has become a vital crossroads for the multiplicity of ideas that surround the world of cinema, ranging from the state of the art and technology to awards-season positioning and the culture at large.

This year's festival will be its sixth with free public tickets, unique among high-profile festivals on the national circuit, which includes Sundance, Tribeca, South by Southwest, the Los Angeles Film Festival, Telluride and the New York Film Festival. Last year, AFI Fest brought in more than 90,000 attendees, its most ever.

"We hope we are a catalyst for conversations," said festival director Jacqueline Lyanga, "and to really draw people to see foreign films, to see independent films, specialty films. I think in Los Angeles the audiences are there for the blockbusters everyone knows about, but it's a challenging art-house environment. It's so exciting at the festival when people are talking about smaller films."

AFI Fest will screen 118 films this year, 73 features and 45 shorts, from 39 countries. Nine of the submissions for the foreign-language Academy Award will screen, including France's "Saint Laurent" from director Bertrand Bonello, Belgium's "Two Days, One Night" from directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Russia's "Leviathan," directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, and Mauritania's "Timbuktu," from director Abderrahmane Sissako. (All of these directors, including a few other foreign-language filmmakers, are scheduled to be in attendance.)

And though AFI Fest has screened all four previous features from 25-year-old Xavier Dolan, this year will mark the director's first time appearing at the festival. His French-language "Mommy" is Canada's foreign-language submission.

A movie like "The Gambler," opening Dec. 19, has the appearance of a strictly commercial thriller while also being released in the thick of awards season; an AFI Fest screening helps give it an added boost of respectability. "It's great for a December movie because it's a little bit later," said Megan Colligan, president of worldwide marketing and distribution at Paramount Pictures, the studio behind the movie. "To get a launch in November with a great audience and a nice big room to screen your movie to head into December with a head of steam, it's a very comfortable, warm place to be."

Though "The Gambler" features many locations around Los Angeles, another film telling a different Los Angeles story is Nick Broomfield's documentary "Tales of the Grim Sleeper." Examining the case of a serial killer who for decades operated in South Los Angeles and the arrest of Lonnie Franklin Jr. in 2010 (who still awaits trial), the film explores disturbing disparities within the community and its expectations for service and safety.

"It's a parallel universe," Broomfield said of what he discovered. "I think there is just a whole different value system operating there, on so many different levels. And I think that's an incredible failure."

The film's screening on Sunday will be its first time showing publicly in Los Angeles. Broomfield hopes that many of those featured in the film will attend. "It's incredibly exciting," he said. "You never quite know what's going to happen at the end of a film, particularly one like that, which I think affects people deeply. I think for a lot of people it will be shocking and surprising."

And though his film has already screened at festivals in Telluride, Toronto and New York, for this very L.A. story the AFI Fest event is an important one; as Broomfield said, "It's kind of the screening in a way."

Among other events as part of the festival will be a conversation between actors Michael Keaton and Edward Norton from the film "Birdman," as well as celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins, discussing his work on the upcoming film "Unbroken," directed by Angelina Jolie.

A tribute to Sophia Loren will feature an appearance by the legendary actress hosted by Rob Marshall, who directed her in "Nine." The festival will screen "Marriage Italian Style" and "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," two of her best-known films, and the recent short, "The Human Voice," in which she is directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti.

The festival will also screen 30 minutes of the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. biopic "Selma," followed by a conversation that will include director Ava DuVernay, star David Oyelowo and producer Oprah Winfrey.

One of the advantages of the festival's free ticketing is that it creates for audiences and programmers alike a more adventuresome spirit. While films such as "Clouds of Sils Maria," "Eden," "Human Capital" or "Haemoo" may have more (relatively) obvious selling points, suddenly even the most outré or obscure tiles such as "Goodnight Mommy," "Felt," "The Tribe," "Girlhood," "Faults" or "The Duke of Burgundy" seem somehow less intimidating.

"Audiences find they've been exposed to something significant and original, something they want to talk about," AFI's Lyanga said. "It's not just. 'Is it a contender?'"

"If everything possible is at your fingertips all the time," said Lane Kneedler, associate director of programming, "then I think audiences are open to push themselves, to challenge themselves a bit more to find stuff that's darker or deeper or stranger or more shocking. It's refreshing to see when we are able to supply these filmmakers with an audience that is right there with them."

Thursday night's "A Most Violent Year" premiere will be the festival's first time using the Dolby Theatre as a screening venue, better known as home to the

Academy Awards telecast, with room for some 1,800 people.

Admitting that his film simply wasn't finished in time for any of the festivals earlier in the fall, "Violent Year" director Chandor said, "At this point for me it's just exciting to share the movie. The first time you see the movie in a room with a thousand people in it watching it, you kind of know, you can feel it in the room whether what you hoped you were doing is happening or not."

Twitter: @IndieFocus

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