Playing to a capacity crowd at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with all the principal cast attending, Black Swan is a dramatic tour de force, underpinned by Natalie Portman’s staggering portrayal of a lead ballerina battling for her emotional and professional survival.
Intriguing, intense and occasionally overwrought, Black Swan is a commendable companion to Aronofsky’s 2009 award winner The Wrestler, with Portman’s performance every bit as impressive as Mickey Rourke’s turn as the aging fighter. Response to the premiere was largely favorable at the gala party following the screening at the Roosevelt Hotel, with more than a few audience members gushing about Portman and predicting awards nominations for the actress.
Now in its second year of free screenings sponsored by Audi, AFI Fest’s innovative format again exceeded box office expectations, despite some audience frustration over limited ticket availability. Many screenings were sold out, with rush lines forming for the last available seats.
The festival opened Nov. 4 with the world premiere of romantic comedy Love and Other Drugs, directed and co-written by AFI alum Ed Zwick. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a Pfizer pharmaceutical rep whose career takes off with the 1998 introduction of Viagra. Anne Hathaway co-stars as an early-onset Parkinson’s disease patient who falls for the charming salesman, even though both insist that they’re only in the relationship for the steamy sex. Romantic complications predictably ensue and the film is more diverting than substantial – it's more solid entertainment than prize-winning material.
Other high-profile AFI Fest gala screenings included The King’s Speech, which played to another sold-out house, persuasively reinforcing the film’s awards prospects. Director Tom Hooper genially hobnobbed at the gala after-party, where executive producer and distributor Harvey Weinstein was beaming while hanging out on the upstairs level of the Tropicana Bar.
Another film to get an awards boost was David O. Russell's The Fighter, which Paramount slotted as a surprise screening.
AFI Fest presents audience awards to feature-length films and juried awards to short filmmakers. Indie production Littlerock, written and directed by Mike Ott, was the winner of the “Young Americans” section. A charming, quirky comedic drama, the film centers on Japanese tourist Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka), who decides to hang out in the California desert town of Littlerock after getting stranded by car trouble, even though she doesn’t speak any English. Ensuing friendships and romantic entanglements with the small-town’s outcasts and slackers amusingly introduce her to an entirely different culture than what she anticipated in the U.S.
“It’s such a compliment to receive an audience award,” Ott told TOH at the Black Swan gala party. AFI Fest is “the festival you always want to play at,” he continued. “We exceeded my expectations for the movie.”
Hamill, a profile of deaf professional fighter Matt Hamill, won the narrative feature award in the “Breakthrough” section. Celebrating at the closing night party, Hamill director Oren Kaplan informed TOH that the filmmakers were already fielding distributor interest and setting up buyer screenings this week.
With filmmaker David Lynch as the inaugural Guest Artistic Director, it seemed that AFI Fest might be heading for a radical makeover this year, but instead it appears to have settled into a comfortable format that will likely continue as long as festival presenting sponsor Audi is supporting free screenings.