Curtain Raiser: Zooming In on L.A.’S Biggest Film Festival, Taking Place October 25-29 at Hollywood (Where Else?)


According to its mission statement, “AFI FEST… showcase[es] the best films from across the globe to captivated audiences in Los Angeles. With a diverse and innovative slate of programming, the film festival presents a robust lineup of fiction and nonfiction features and shorts… along with panels and conversations featuring both master filmmakers and new cinematic voices.” The American Film Institute’s annual film fete, which includes up to 141 productions this year, is taking place at the TCL Chinese Theatre (that iconic movie palace formerly known as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with stars’ cement footprints in its famed courtyard), the nearby TCL Chinese 6 Theatre and right across the boulevard El Capitan Theatre, all conveniently located near one another on Hollywood Blvd.’s fabled “Walk of Fame.”

AFI FEST 2023’s Guest Artistic Director is Greta Gerwig, the cinematic genius behind Barbie. In addition to introducing select movies, including Stairway to Heaven (aka A Matter of Life and Death) – Michael Powell’s 1946 WWII picture with a religious twist co-starring David Niven, Kim Hunter and a young Richard Attenborough – Gerwig has curated five films that will also screen during the festival. According to its website, previous “Guest Artistic Directors have included Pedro Almodóvar, Bernardo Bertolucci, Ava DuVernay, David Lynch and Agnès Varda.”

Festival highlights include the “Red Carpet Premieres” Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic; Sam Esmail’s apocalyptic thriller Leave the World Behind co-starring Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali and Kevin Bacon. The FEST’s “Special Screenings” feature Anthony Hopkins as the founder of psychoanalysis in Freud’s Last Session; the comedy Quiz Lady with Awkwafina, Sandra Oh, Will Ferrell, Jason Schwartzman; the drama Memory starring Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard; and Rob Reiner’s profile of a fellow talent, Albert Brooks: Defending My Life.

Selections in the “World Cinema” category include Mexico’s noir-ish thriller with political undertones Lost in the Night and Brazil’s The Buriti Flower, which was shot in four different villages within the Krahôlandia Indigenous Land of Brazil and is about Native resistance. The “Documentary” section is highlighted by the four-hour-long Menus-Plaisirs – Les Troisgros about a three-star Michelin Guide restaurant in France, directed by that indefatigable elder statesman of filmmaking, Frederick Wiseman. Stamped From the Beginning adapts the anti-racist book by Ibram X. Kendi. 

One of the motion pictures Gerwig chose to screen in this year’s film fete is 1987’s Wings of Desire, which is being presented 8:30 p.m., Oct. 29 in the Chinese 6. According to the festival’s website, “After an eternity of looking after mortal beings, observing their lives, their loves, their passions and pains, intrigued angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) decides to join them, crossing over to live life as they do. He discovers love with circus acrobat Marion (Solveig Dommartin), and in the person of ‘Der Filmstar’ (Peter Falk), something like an old friend. Wim Wenders’ elegant, moody and profoundly moving film was ‘dedicated to all the former angels, but especially to Yasujiro, François and Andrej,’ Wenders’ homage to filmmakers Yasujirō Ozu, François Truffaut and Andrei Tarkovsky.”

The almost 80-year-old Wenders is one of Postwar Germany’s most prolific directors who has made an impact on the international screen. His three Academy Award nominated docs include the 2000 Cuban music documentary Buena Vista Social Club. Wenders also helmed 1984’s Paris, Texas. The Oscar nominee is one of those versatile filmmakers equally adept at creating fiction and nonfiction cinema. In fact, in addition to Wings of Desire, Wenders has both a new documentary and a feature screening at AFI FEST this year. The Wenders “triple feature” also includes:


The Japan-set Perfect Days was nominated for the 2023 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or and won its Ecumenical Jury Award. Kōji Yakusho won Cannes’ Best Actor award for depicting Hirayama, a janitor who works for Tokyo Toilet, traveling around that metropolis cleaning commodes at public settings. The drama unspools at a leisurely pace as we follow Hirayama during his daily routine. On the surface Perfect Days seems like a latter-day Neo-Realist film, depicting the nitty-gritty lives of proletarian protagonists. But the movie Perfect Days most reminds me of is actually 1970’s Five Easy Pieces starring Jack Nicholson as a roustabout and oil rigger. But beneath his blue collar persona, Nicholson’s character actually hailed from a highly cultured milieu of classical musicians, which for reasons never fully explained he eschewed and abandoned to live a more working class life.

Similarly, Hirayama collects audiotapes of mostly American rock and jazz classics and repeatedly peruses a used bookstore, reading novels by Faulkner (William, not Harris). Like Nicholson’s pianist, Hirayama is estranged from his family, as we see when his “long lost” stylish sister shows up in posh apparel with a costly car.  Perfect Days is a well-acted, enjoyable meditation on the things – big and small – that make up our lives and if we’re lucky, make life worth living. It is screening at 12 noon on Saturday, October 28 at the Chinese 6.


Wenders’ stellar new documentary, Anselm, is also being screened at the Chinese 6 the following day at 3:15 p.m., Sunday, October 29. This is a mind-blowing portrait of a German artist, Anselm Kiefer, who, like Wenders, is an aesthetic force of nature, cinematically rendered in 3D and 6K-resolution. Kiefer’s work is often on an industrial scale, with gigantic canvases and sculptures. It’s hard for me to describe and his artwork really has to be seen to be believed and appreciated. His provocative form is sometimes combined with a searing, antifascist content, a sensibility that challenges Postwar Germans.

Using, as I recall, members of Kiefer’s family, Wenders injects some brief reenactments into what is otherwise a nonfiction work – albeit a poetic one, that chronicles the soul and psyche, as well as the work by the Herculean Kiefer. Anselm is gloriously brought alive via the 3D cinematography and if you miss it at AFI (or just want to see it again, as I do), it is being theatrically released in select theaters on December 8. This highly recommended 93-minute 3D experience is a must see for viewers interested in the visual arts, antifascism, 3D cinema and for adventurous filmgoers who just love innovative, offbeat movies, and film as a distinctive art form.

Although it also has plenty of show biz razzmatazz, original productions such as Anselm epitomize what the American Film Institute’s yearly tribute to motion pictures is all about. For more info about AFI FEST 2023 and tickets (which are selling out fast) see: