Of all the great things about Los Angeles (284ish sunny days per year, tacos, Snoop Dog) AFI Fest has to be one of the greatest. High-profile showings of some of the year’s most important movies with tickets free to the masses? That’s the kind of world we want to live in. And we do.
Tickets for the fest are up for grabs today, and they’re going like hotcakes—assuming hotcakes are the sort of thing for which people sit in front of their computers manically refreshing Chrome in hopes of catching them at the exact moment they become available. (The first round of tickets sold out instantaneously, but AFI will be dropping new batches of tickets every day.)
Perhaps most exciting this year are the six Centerpiece Gala films AFI has selected to showcase, several of which have already generated significant buzz on the festival circuit. In many ways, AFI Fest feels like the official launch of awards season, and these films are already some of the leading Oscars contenders.
La La Land
Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, this refreshingly cynicism-free story of an actress and a jazz pianist trying to make it in L.A. looks to be at least the second most beautiful thing we’ve seen this year. Critics are singing the film’s praises like Emma Stone singing something about dreaming (i.e. with feeling). The film is Best Picture material, with Emma Stone a guaranteed Best Actress frontrunner. Even if the story, acting, singing, and dancing weren’t on point, this film would still be a must-see for its fond portrayal of Los Angeles. Seriously, the trailer’s color-rich shots of sprawl and sunsets are dreamy, and that scene of Stone and Gosling kissing in Angel’s Flight makes us nostalgic for 2010.
It’s the Jackie Kennedy biopic you didn’t know you needed. Natalie Portman gives Emma Stone a run for her money in what some are calling a career-defining performance as the first lady navigating the aftermath of JFK’s assassination. The film is potent from start to finish, and, per early reviews, it toes the line between overdone and brilliant.
20th Century Women
A mother and her two daughters sort out what it means to, yeah, be women in the 20th century—the late ’70s, specifically. Set in sunny, feel-good Santa Barbara, this one promises epiphanies, spontaneous dancing, and tons of Annette Bening dispensing sage motherly advice.
Rules Don’t Apply
Warren Beatty plays film tycoon Howard Hughes in Rules Don’t Apply, and he also directed it—without ever breaking character. The film follows the relationship between an ingenue and her driver—who fall in love against the explicit rules of their employer, Hughes. Bonus: more Annette Bening motherliness. Double bonus: The perfectly recreated vintage Los Angeles setting.
In what feels like a cinematic response to #GamerGate, Elle is the story of the female head of a video game company (Michèle LeBlanc with a characteristically complex performance) who has fought her way to the top in a male dominated industry. When she is assaulted by a masked man in her own home, she refuses the role of victim and sets out on her own to bring her attacker to justice. The thriller is directed by Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, RoboCop), but it’s in French, so you can sound 1.69 times more sophisticated when you tell your friends you’ve seen it.
Mark Wahlberg stars as police sergeant Tommy Saunders (with Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, and J.K. Simmons in various other law enforcement roles) in this retelling of the Boston Marathon bombing, which follows the intense manhunt to track down the bombers before they do additional damage.
What’s not represented by the gala sections this year are any movies starring a person of color. And that’s a pity, because with films like Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Fences shaping the awards-season conversation, it’s looking like #OscarsSoWhite will actually be averted this year. You’ll just have to pay to go see those movies for yourself.
Thomas Harlander is a staff writer at Los Angeles magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. He recently wrote Reusable Tote Bags Are the Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled