• Mayreni Sweis

AFI Virtual Film Festival- My Favorite Films Reviewed

Graphic courtesy of AFI FEST

Will virtual film festivals be the way of the future? I certainly hope not because watching an exciting new film from home is not quite the same as queuing up to enter a beautiful theatre with other cinephiles to embark on a shared film adventure. On the flip side, not having to deal with parking, people traffic, and wearing my comfy sweats are not so bad either.


In 2019, I was a volunteer at the American Film Institute's annual film festival in Hollywood and it was a thrilling experience. From volunteering at the filmmaker’s lounge at the iconic Roosevelt Hotel, to running errands back and forth on Hollywood Boulevard, and then finally watching film debuts after a good day’s work, was definitely a highlight of 2019.


This year was starkly different, but I am still elated that I was able to participate even through these Covid times. Bravo to AFI for making their first virtual film festival a smooth and enjoyable experience.


This year’s AFI FEST lineup had a total of 124 films. There are a number film categories such as features, new auteurs, documentaries, shorts, AFI conservatory, and much more. Additionally, this year 53% of the films were directed by women, 39% were directed by BIPOC filmmakers, and 17% directed by LGBTQ+ artists. This is a first for AFI FEST and I look forward to even more inclusion measures in the coming FEST years.


With 124 film options, it was incredibly difficult to choose which ones to watch, but I managed to view a total of 13 films in the span of a week, so yay! This lucky number 13 does not include the "Sofia Coppola Director Tribute"or the "Hillbilly Elegy: A Conversation with Director and Cast" (co-stars Glenn Close and Amy Adams are getting pre-Oscar buzz for their performances). The conversations were insightful and I always recommend attending director/ film talk backs because they provide an inside look into the artistic process (which can vary depending on the person) and it is exciting to discuss the work with much greater intimacy and detail.


In this article, rather than reviewing each of the 13 films, I’ve chosen the ones that made a lasting impression on me, the ones that I will for sure be watching again. This list only includes full length films, but I will name the short films at the end of the article that I think are a definite must watch. The short film category this year had exceptional work and these visionaries are ones to keep your eyes on for their future work.


I’m Your Women

As the AFI FEST opener, this film definitely lead the charge. Directed by Julia Hart and starring Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), this film was one of the best films I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a lot. Hart states that she was inspired by 1970’s cop films and wanted to create a story that explored what happens to the women/ the other bystanders that are often considered the "minor characters" in these male-dominated story-lines. Hart did the “minor characters” justice in this film. The story follows Brosnahan as she questions everything she thought she knew, basically the constructs of her life. She must navigate an unconventional motherhood and eventually come into her own as a badass woman who is now the driver of her life, not a passenger in a man's car. The acting talents of Marsha Stephanie Blake and Arinze Kene elevate this story from excellent to incredible. Their characters are fully formed and their relationship with one another reveals itself through smart writing. A talented and diverse cast, strong female characters, a well-thought out script, and epic 70’s fashion. . . this is a definite MUST WATCH.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAveuCPBYSw


Under the Open Sky

Tears! I was reaching for the tissue box by the end of the film. Japanese filmmaker Miwa Nishikawa is an incredible visionary. This is the first film of hers that I've seen and now I must explore Nishikawa’s repertoire. This is a true story capturing the post-prison life of middle-aged Tsunoda, a former yakuza member (a notorious Japanese gang), as he reenters Japanese society. This is a poignant and compassionate story of redemption. It explores freedom and conformity: are you really free in a society that has social expectations and procedures of decorum that you must conform to or is prison a free space to be your true inner self, despite the uniform and lack of access to the outside world? This is a moving story that I recommend everyone watch and it will no doubt be one you'll remember for a long time. There are moments of comedy, drama, beautiful Japanese scenery, ethos and pathos. Definitely put it at the top of your list.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pe78yP2U13w


À L'abordage

À L'abordage, which translates to All Hands on Deck, is a road trip serio-comedy with much heart! A trio of young Parisian men use a car share app to carpool together to the south of France. One of the young men plans to visit his mother, another is on a quest to conquer love, and the third serves as the emotional support while trepidatiously trying to try new things. When their journey hits a bump in the road, all plans and expectations quickly dissolve. This story is really about unconventional friendships and the creation of deep connections with strangers who seemingly look and act differently than you, but the similarities always outweigh the differences. Guillaume Brac’s film will quickly have you invested in each character and laughing out loud. As a side note, in the last few years I have watched a lot of French films from talented BIPOC actors and filmmakers. I encourage you to check out more modern French films to support French BIPOC artists and to learn more about a country that is often romanticized and portrayed as uniformly white in mainstream media.

Scene Clip: https://cineuropa.org/en/video/385215/


My Donkey, My Lover and I

A romcom with oneself. . . and a donkey. If that's not a hook to entice you to watch this film, I don't know what is. Directed by French filmmaker Caroline Vignal, this story follows Parisian schoolteacher, Antoinette (Laure Calamy), as she travels to the south of France hoping to surprise her married lover after he abruptly announces that he must cancel their secret vacation in order to holiday with his family at the Cévennes National Park. Antoinette decides to salvage her relationship as she treks the Cévennes region with a donkey in tow anxiously looking to run into her lover along the way. As she hikes the pilgrimage, she begins to discover who she is, what she wants, and what she ultimately deserves. Comedic and slightly far-fetched moments that somehow still seem realistic make this a light-hearted Friday night film to watch. Lastly, the beautiful landscapes and lovable donkey (a character on his own) may have you booking your next trip: French pilgrimage with a donkey as your ride or die.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eHwfiYra_M


The Father

Academy Award winners Sir Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman. . . the household names should be enough to get you to press play. This is a trippy movie and all I can say is that you cannot keep pausing the frame to question everything that unfolds (or you think unfolds). We tried this strategy and gave up real fast, which is fantastic because even director Florian Zeller states you must resign yourself to sit, watch, and then all will be revealed in due time. Easier said than done, but you eventually surrender to a seemingly incomprehensible illusion. I refuse to give you details about the plot because I don't want to ruin the fun of watching it for the first time. This is a standout directorial debut from Zeller, a director with a curious mind full of intriguing story ideas. The powerhouse actors and well-written script will have you either munching away on you Trader Joe's popcorn or or throwing it in frustration at T.V.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TZb7YfK-JI


Farewell Amor

This film is may appear like a seemingly simplistic story of a family reuniting, but it is so much more. It explores the reality of assimilation into a new country and the ways relationships, or more accurately people, change when the distance has been constant and the time too long. Tanzanian-American director, Ekwa Msangi, captures the reunification and transition from Angola to the U.S. in three acts, one act dedicated to the father/husband Walther (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), his wife Esther (Zainab Jah), and their daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson). A clash of cultures, religious beliefs, and challenged relationship expectations paints a reality that many can empathize with. Farewell Amor is a beautiful film that chronicles the heartache and little triumphs of being an immigrant family trying to make it work inside of the home and outside of it too.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J364vYbwpzo


*Notable Shorts:

Furthest From directed by Kyung Sok Kim

Juliet directed by Ira Storozhenko

The Speech directed by Haohao Yan




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