Around the World with AFI Fest

The 2014 festival features films from across the globe—including a few set here in L.A.

Since it was founded as Filmex in 1971, AFI Fest has been Los Angeles’s premier festival for international cinema. Taking place in mid-autumn it’s the last major world festival of the year, which means programmers are able to cull the best of what’s come before. 2014 is no different. Some of the most acclaimed movies from around the globe will be playing the film festival this year.

USA – Inherent Vice, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, Foxcatcher, The Gambler, A Most Violent Year
Let’s start at home. A major theme among this year’s American selections is crime. P.T. Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice, the fist of Thomas Pynchon’s books to come to the screen, stars Joaquin Phoenix as a private eye navigating L.A in the 1970s. Tales of the Grim Sleeper is also an L.A. story, a documentary about a serial killer who went uncaught for more than 25 years. Foxcatcher features Steve Carell in an eerie turn as an Olympic wrestling benefactor who later murdered a coach. The Gambler, making its world premier at the fest,stars Mark Wahlberg as a reckless, well, gambler. And A Most Violent Year, also making its world premiere, has Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain as a couple struggling to get ahead in crime-ridden 1981 New York.

Argentina – Jauja, Wild Tales
Heading south of the border, we have two distinctly different offerings. Wild Tales is an anthology of six comedic short films in which normal situations spiral out of control. Jauja stars Viggo Mortensen as a Danish general searching for his daughter in the Patagonian wilderness during the 1800s.

Ivory Coast – Run
In this semi-realistic, semi-fantastical drama an orphan grows up dreaming of becoming a rainmaker only to end up embroiled in political upheaval. Director Philippe Lacôte has already directed a documentary about his home country. His dramatic follow-up mines similar themes of social strife.

Mauritania – Timbuktu
Moving further north, we come to Mauritania’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The topical drama condemns the jihadist persecution of citizens in Northern Mali through the stories of several characters who are struggling under the control of an Islamist group.

France – Clouds of Sils Maria, Eden, Girlhood
Several festival darlings have made the trek across the pond. Clouds of Sils Maria stars Juliette Binoche as an actress experiencing a personal crisis and Kristen Stewart as her assistant; both have won accolades and awards for their performances. Eden, directed by art house darling Mia Hansen-Love, follows the 20-year career of a DJ who just can’t seem to make it. Girlhood, directed by Céline Sciamma, is a coming-of-age tale centered around a free-spirited group of black girls pushing against societal restrictions.

Belgium – Two Days, One Night
Marion Cotillard plays a woman desperate to keep her job in this low-key but powerful story. The Dardennes brothers have their fingers firmly on the pulse of contemporary working-class life, and this Oscar submission showcases it perfectly.

UK – The Duke of Burgundy, Mr. Turner
Mr. Turner is an unusual biopic, eschewing traditional structure as it relates the life of 18th-century painter J.M.W. Turner, who is played by Timothy Spall. As befits a film about an artist, it’s often beautiful to behold. The Duke of Burgundy, meanwhile, is a half-romance, half-duel between two women who share an enthusiasm for sadomasochism.

Norway – Blind
This tale of a recently-blinded woman learning to cope with her condition does its best to approximate what things “look” like from her point of view; the environment constantly shifts to reflect what she assumes about the world around her.

Ukraine – The Tribe
Here’s another movie with disabled characters, though this one approaches them in a drastically different manner. The Tribe takes place at a school for the deaf that’s riddled with criminal activity. And it’s performed entirely in sign language without any voiceover or subtitles.

Russia – Leviathan
A satire that’s also a retelling of the story of Job, this movie pits a small town auto shop owner against an impossible bureaucracy. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev is one of Russia’s most respected modern filmmakers, and his portraits of life in his home country are always indelible.

China – The Iron Ministry
For three years, the makers of this documentary rode the rails of China’s extensive train system, spending time with passengers from all social classes and walks of life. The result is almost an ethnographic study, an incredible and unique sensory experience that conveys what it feels like to travel on a train.

South Korea – Haemoo
A fishing captain in dire straights accepts a bribe to transport illegal immigrants, but the voyage goes wrong when a storm hits. Co-written by Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho, the drama seems similarly claustrophobic and dialed in to modern class conflict.

Philippines – From What is Before
Director Lav Diaz is famous (some might say infamous) for the staggering length of his movies. This five-and-a-half-hour epic is no exception. A magical realist tale set in a small village in the years leading up to the enactment of martial law in the Philippines, From What is Before is likely to be an absorbing piece of work–if you have the patience for its runtime.

Canada – Mommy
French-Canadian Xavier Dolan has earned a reputation as a wunderkind, having directed his first feature at 19. Now 25, he’s on his fifth film, which follows the travails of a single mother struggling to raise her sometimes violent son. Mommy won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, so it’s on everyone’s radar.