It’s coming.. From November 4 through 11 the AFI takes over Hollywood with what is traditionally a fine selection of movies from around the world. Big names from the international festival circuit appear alongside less-heralded movies diligently sought out by the programming team, with plentiful US premieres. The festival is under new management this year, but the programme remains as intriguing as ever and best of all, like last year’s flagship initiative, all of the tickets are free. Yes, free. They go on offer to the general public on October 28 (27 for AFI members) so get ready.

Of the Gala screenings, the ones that most pique my interest are the above-mentioned Black Swan, which closes the festival; Sundance favourite Blue Valentine; and audience award winner at Toronto The King’s Speech. This last concerns the relationship between George VI of England (Colin Firth), who had a dreadful stutter, and his unconventional speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), played out in the foreshadow of World War II, for which the king must get over his reluctance to rule (he succeeded the abdicating Edward VIII – Guy Pearce here) and make himself a fit figurehead for the country. Blue Valentine is also an intimate drama, but sounds altogether rather more raw: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams tear themselves and their marriage apart over a period of chronologically inter-cut years. Both movies sound like they’ll stand or fall on their acting, but I think these are casts we can trust. Black Swan on the other hand sounds like it’s got plenty of melodrama to keep it rolling along but Natalie Portman to bring it down, playing alongside Mila Kunis as rival ballerinas. The central motif seems to be the dual White Swan/Black Swan role of Swan Lake so expect lots of doubling, personality exchange and exploration of characters’ dark sides. And dancing, I should hope!

There’s a good handful more from US indiewood, mostly in the “Young Americans” section, but also including a special screening of John Sayles’ Amigo, set during the Philippine-American war and bound to be good, and John Cameron Mitchell’s pace-changing Rabbit Hole, a stage-derived two-hander that gives Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart plenty of room to get down to some serious acting, as a bereaved young couple. There’s also a new section “Breakthrough”, highlighting films discovered solely through the submission process – three from the US, one from Russia and one from the Netherlands. Young film-makers from elsewhere in the world are also spotlit in the “New Auteurs” section which takes in the US, Hungary, Belgium and South Korea alongside Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats (Les amours imaginaires) from Canada and The Four Times (Le quattro volte) from Italy. Dolan’s menage à trois movie has had slightly tepid word of mouth after last year’s roaring I Killed My Mother success, but will still be a must-see for anyone who caught the latter; and Le quattro volte is a quiet (no dialogue) rural film about an old shepherd, a goat, a house and a tree that has been building consistently excellent word of mouth from the European festivals for director Michaelangelo Frammartino.

The big hitters are to be found in the “World Cinema” section, with new works from Godard, Kiarostami, Beat Takeshi, Bertrand Tavernier, Takashi Miike, Thomas Vinterberg and of course Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Joe) with his Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives. Even acquainted with some of the rest of his highly singular work, I have no idea quite what to expect. The past lives of the title (perhaps) manifest as ghostly animals and there’s something eerie in the jungle. Dreamy, trippy perhaps. Slow, probably. Loved by most at Cannes it’s obviously got to be seen. Not least for a sequence where a woman makes love to a giant catfish, allegedly.

If you’re a certain sort of cinephile, Godard’s Film socialisme has also got to be seen though I’m not sure I’ve the patience for his solipsism and obscurity any more. It was generally well-received (and even described as accessible) in Europe, though one never knows how much lip service is being paid. Not much, in the case of Kiarostami’s Certified Copy – Juliette Binoche and (opera singer and non-actor) William Shimmell meet in an Italian hilltop town. They may already be married or they may be playing a game – the response so far seems to be that Shimmell is not up to snuff and that while Kiarostami branches out in terms of  language (English) and geography, he’s marking time cinematically. Not so Werner Herzog, who gets a special screening of his Cave of Forgotten Dreams wherein the crazy Bavarian takes a 3D camera to the cave paintings of Chauvet (recently discovered; twice as old as the previous oldest known) and intones in his inimitable manner over the top. Plus albino alligators. Can’t be bad.

South Korea continues its excellent streak with a good handful of titles picked by the AFI, including original (1960) and remake of The Housemaid; Hong Sangsoo’s poised fact-fiction blender Oki’s Movie; and Lee Chang-Dong’s Poetry about an old woman finding a new lease of life through a poetry class. Even as I type I hear how ropey that sounds, but it’s been well received on the circuit so far and Lee’s Secret Sunshine (2007; AFI Fest 2008) showed a sureness of touch that is apparently repeated.

A final shout-out for another new section: “Alt/Art”, presenting films about art, artists and the artistic struggles for freedom of expression – I am going to be sure not to miss history of experimental cinema Free Radicals, nor Blank City, which looks at experimental film-making specifically in New York City, specifically at the time of the new wave in music (alright!). There’s a bunch of shorts, documentaries, a Norwegian ninja movie and a telekinetic rubber tire desert horror movie from Mr Oizo, and a couple of special presentations – one on 3d and another featuring Carey Mulligan and the boys from Facebook as representatives of new young talent. Films screen at the Mann Chinese 6 theaters, Grauman’s Chinese and at the Egyptian and David Lynch will probably be hovering around as the festival’s first guest director  – as well as a screening of the frightful and wonderful Eraserhead (1976) he has also programmed a selection of films he considers to be masterpieces: Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968), Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), Tati’s Mon oncle (1958), Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). It’s hard to disagree.

(what, no TM workshop?)

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