Carol, starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, was one of the most noteworthy offerings at AFI Fest. (Wilson Webb/The Weinstein Company)
The American Film Institute held its annual film festival this week, with premieres of several of what will undoubtedly rank as some of the most acclaimed films of this year, along with screenings of some other films that have already made a splash at earlier festivals such as Cannes and Toronto.
Carol, the Todd Haynes adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith story about a lesbian relationship, again was one of the most noteworthy festival offerings. The film stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as the lesbian couple, and earned Mara the Best Actress prize at Cannes. Both actresses should be mainstays this award season, and the star of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo should be considered the favorite to take home this year’s Best Supporting Actress prize at the Oscars.
Several other films from sources that are not award mainstays also screened at the AFI Festival. Concussion looks to be the first favorably-received Will Smith movie in years. It stars Smith as a doctor who first discovers the neurological injuries that football players receive from trauma. With a cast that includes Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, The Big Short seems a more conventional cast for an awards contender, but the surprise is its director. Adam McKay is best known for directing many of Will Ferrell’s comedies, but this film, based on a book by the author of Moneyball and The Blind Side, is a searing look at the mortgage crisis that caused the great recession of 2008.
This year’s festival owed a debt to the London film scene of 50 years ago, with several prominent films starring actors who first emerged in the swinging ’60s. Michael Caine, the actor who epitomizes the era, stars in the Cannes favorite Youth as a retired conductor on vacation with his daughter (Rachel Weisz) and director friend (Harvey Keitel). Jane Fonda has a remarkable cameo as an actress who has worked with Keitel for decades; it draws upon Fonda’s decades as a star, albeit with touches that seem drawn more from her contemporary, Faye Dunaway. Maggie Smith adds to her list of great leading roles with The Lady in the Van, where she plays a homeless woman who takes up residence in a playwright’s driveway. The role may be vastly different from Smith’s best known work as stuffy aristocrats, but no matter her character’s social class, the actress remains as tart-tongued as ever.
The veteran English actors with the best roles, however, were Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in 45 Years, directed by Andrew Haigh. Rampling first gained international attention with Georgy Girl, and Courtenay with Doctor Zhivago. The latter had its 50th anniversary last year, and the former turns 50 in 2016, but the two actors are as vital as they were a half century ago as a married couple who reevaluate their marriage after receiving word that the body of the long-dead girlfriend of Courtenay’s Geoff has been discovered. The AFI honored Rampling with a retrospective of her career, a reminder that despite 50 years in the film industry and dozens of acclaimed performances, she has never received an Oscar nomination. 45 Years may correct that.
Several of the audience awards went to smaller films, including the Turkish film Mustang, about five sisters who are put under the strict supervision of their family after they are suspected of illicit behavior with their schoolmates. It is a personal project for the director, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who used her childhood experience as the basis for the story. Mustang earned the New Auteurs Audience Award. The other major winner was James White, which stars Christopher Abbott of “Girls” as a young man who discovers that his mother (Cynthia Nixon of “Sex and the City”) is dying of cancer. It won the American Independents Audience Award. The Breakthrough Audience Award went to Ma, a modern-day telling of the Virgin Mary’s pilgrimage that takes place in the American Southwest.