And so the 2009 American Film Institute Festival has, as all good things must, come to an end. A smaller selection of films than recent years, showing mostly in one screening only, was offset by the remarkable fact that in conjunction with its sponsors, the AFI was able to present the entire festival for free. This is obviously a good thing, and it would be remarkable if viable in the long term. The drawbacks, however, are that about two thirds of the screenings I attended had empty seats despite advance ticket “sell” outs, and some of the late-night screenings had a back-row contingent of the Hollywood blvd demographic looking for anywhere warm inside at that time of evening. A nominal dollar or two fee would perhaps take care of these issues, but the aura and allure of the free ticket remains unmatchable.

As curated by new programming head and ex-Variety critic Robert Koehler, the AFI fest considers itself a “festival of festivals”, with triumphs from Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Pusan, Karlovy Vary, Toronto and more, and several American and North American premieres amongst the diverse and consistently interesting selection. The New Lights section, for first and second features, pitted eleven titles in the sole competitive strand of the festival (considered by a jury including Angela Bassett, Julie Delpy and Bill Krohn).

I caught six of them, and Fish Tank (refreshingly unsqualid look at life on a British council estate; excellence in direction, acting and photography) was a worthy winner. Diverting but definitely not deserving of a co-victory was the Spanish minimalist “comedy” A Woman Without Piano, and I missed special jury prize winner Ajami, tank-set Israeli war drama. Of the others I did see, Everybody Else (from Germany) was an extremely impressive, microscopic examination of a relationship coming apart, so acute as actually to be relevant to, yes, everybody else. From Peru,  Milk Of Sorrow was well-executed and eminently worthy, but ultimately unimpressive; I Killed My Mother was a cherishable ejaculation of youthful autobiography from 20 year-old Quebecois director/writer/star Xavier Dolan; and Police, Adjective was a remarkable collision of uneventful police procedural, the semantics of ethics and the ethics of semantics.

You can peruse my ramblings and extended ramblings here. Apart from the above, I was particularly taken with A Lake, quasi-abstract visuals and minimlist folkloric plot in a remote lakeside pine forest – quite gorgeous; and Mother, skewed murder mystery with a great sense of humor and a wonderful central performance as a mother stumbles through the clearing of her son’s name in small-town Korea.  Not everything was great: I left Perpetuum Mobile (lackadaisical working-class Mexican drama whose redeeming feature was a charismatically ugly lead – I gather it picked up a bit by the end); Kanikôsen, set aboard a Japanese crabbing ship which took 45 unhurried minutes to find an uninteresting tone of strained comedy under capitalist exploitation; and critical fave Pedro Costa’s documentary Ne change rien (from Godard’s “ that everything may be different”) which looked at an actress-turned-singer with painfully limited musical and vocal abilities as she did her thing in the studio and on stage without. It provided an iota of insight into the artistic process, aside from her frustration with an offscreen vocal coach, patient or interfering as my similarly unimpressed screening companion and I disagreed. We left when her MOR outfit committed horrifying desecration of”Johnny Guitar”.

There was plenty more of interest, including things I missed – notably Tom Ford’s A Single Man – and all in all it was an excellent run, with plenty of exciting new discoveries, the welcome chance to consider for myself a number of titles so far well-covered in festival reports from elsewhere, and best of all a legitimate excuse the best part of a week watching movies.