The AFI Fest 2012 used "Hitchcock" to say "good evening," served up a slice of "Pi" and opted for a "Rise of the Guardians" matinee in its first four days, bringing a number of awards hopefuls to Hollywood Boulevard while more challenging indie and foreign fare screened away from the flashbulbs and red carpets.
The first half of the eight-day, Hollywood-based festival had auteurs and snafus, long lines and big stars, Kristen Stewart and Kim Ki-duk – in other words, it was par for the course for a festival that has long been divided between arthouse cinema and Hollywood glitz.
Thursday's opening-night film, "Hitchcock," was the biggest unknown quantity -- mostly, director Sacha Gervasi told the gala audience, because "we just finished it 20 minutes ago." Starring Anthony Hopkins as director Alfred Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville, the film is a marked departure for Gervasi, whose last film was the rock 'n' roll documentary "Anvil! The Story of Anvil."
That band's singer-guitarist, Steve "Lips" Kudlow, was in the audience and got a special shout-out from Gervasi as he introduced his new film. But the director reserved special affection for Fox Searchlight, which he described as "filmmakers pretending to be a studio." (When was the last time you saw a director get choked up and have to hold back tears while thanking his studio?)
Based on Stephen Rebello's book, "Hitchcock" details the making of "Psycho," which it paints as a period in which the iconic director risked his career and house on a film that the studio dismissed as a schlocky horror movie unworthy of the master of suspense.
The film was a pleasant surprise for many in the audience; it's witty, deft and surprisingly light on its feet. First-time narrative director Gervasi doesn't go for anything bold or ambitious, but he has created a thoroughly satisfying piece of entertainment, with an occasional emotional kick.
Hopkins and Mirren have big, meaty roles – and if Mirren registers more strongly, it's probably because she has the advantage of playing somebody we don't know. As Hitch, Hopkins is saddled with an iconic figure who turned himself into a public caricature because it helped him create a brand.
Hopkins nails the mannerisms and the voice without really disappearing into the role, most likely because he's not a close enough match, physically; he gives a bravura performance but stubbornly remains Hopkins, not Hitch.
At the reception afterward, Gervasi admitted to being nervous about the film's reception -- "it was an industry audience, they're tough" -- but he didn't have much reason to fret. Fun was the word tossed around most freely, while opinions on the film's Oscar chances started with common view that the the two leads are clearly in the awards mix.
Its chances for a Best Picture nomination were the object of more debate, with some thinking that it has a real shot at getting in, because Hollywood is bound to appreciate a movie about Hollywood. (In fact, such films have a mixed track record at the Oscars, last year's win for "The Artist" notwithstanding). If Oscar voters opt for a hefty slate of nine or 10 nominees, I certainly wouldn't rule it out; if they go for a more minimalist five-or-six-film slate, it'll probably seem too light to make the cut.
On Friday night, "Life of Pi" screened with a gala at the Grauman's Chinese, while "Silver Linings Playbook" had a special screening at the Egyptian. "Pi" got a respectable round of applause after its screening, with much of the post-screening chatter focusing on the film's dazzling look.
Director Ang Lee didn't make it to Hollywood, but he did supply a 3D video intro (as did Hopkins and Mirren before "Hitchcock") in which he called it the hardest film he'd ever done, and described the challenge of turning "a story about a boy and a tiger on a boat" into an adventure.
Down the street at the Egyptian for "Silver Linings Playbook," director David O. Russell and star Bradley Cooper were on hand – and as it had at the Toronto Film Festival, the deft and quirky comedy played extremely well and won a huge round of applause.
"I need to see it again," said one viewer afterward, "to catch all the lines that I missed because people were laughing so hard."
The biggest crowds, though, were for "On the Road" -- not because Hollywood tourists and teens are suddenly big fans of Jack Kerouac's beat-era novel, but because the AFI Fest brought out the film's leading lady, Kristen Stewart.
She walked the red carpet at Grauman's with co-stars Garrett Hedlund and Amy Adams and director Walter Salles, and for the most part won kudos for her role in a film that struggles honorably with adapting an extraordinarily difficult book.
"Rise of the Guardians," meanwhile, got a rare afternoon gala slot on Sunday at the Grauman's. The film was preceded by AFI President Bob Gazzale lavishing so much praise on DreamWorks Animation's Jeffrey Katzenberg -- couching it as if he was telling the kids in the audience who Katzenberg is -- that it might have seemed embarrassingly fulsome to most people.
But Katzenberg – who Gazzale said was "hiding in the back," which is to stay standing on the side of the theater where a spotlight was trained on him – did not appear overly embarrassed.
And, in fact, he had good reason to be proud: "Rise of the Guardians" stands with "How to Train Your Dragon" as one of DWA's richest, freshest and finest movies. Directed by first-timer Peter Ramsey and based on the "Guardians of Childhood" series of books by the gifted children's author William Joyce, it envisions a world in which the childhood icons -- Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Sandman and new recruit Jack Frost -- must team up to defeat the Boogey Man.
The 3D film is too unrelenting and frantic, like most other big-studio animated features, but it is also imaginative, exciting and just plain wonderful.
The all-star cast – Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher, Chris Pine, Jude Law – is terrific rather than distracting, and there's not a single one of the forced pop-culture references that often make DWA movies seem like desperate attempts to milk the moment. This one is timeless.
"Holy Motors," which had its AFI Fest debut at a special screening on Saturday night, also seemed timeless, but in a different way – which is to say, patrons who waited in line for hours as technical problems at the Egyptian Theatre delayed the screening had cause to wonder if the time would ever arrive when they'd actually get to see French director's Leos Carax's Cannes sensation.
It was the biggest screening of the many serious foreign films that make up an impressive chunk of the AFI Fest schedule, and Carax was one of a number of noted international filmmakers who made the trip to Hollywood. Others included the Korean director Kim Ki-duk ("Pieta") and the Romanian auteur Cristian Mungiu ("Beyond the Hills").
"Holy Motors" finally started about 90 minutes late, and lived up to its reputation as the weirdest thing at this year's Cannes. It follows a man who rides around Paris in a limo for a day, donning different disguises and enacting a variety of scenarios that may or may not include a couple of deaths.
A confounding exercise in deadpan surrealism in which nothing that happens onscreen can be taken be taken at face value and every line and action is divorced from meaning or consequence, it got the crowd laughing at its sheer strangeness and drew robust applause from spectators who probably couldn't tell you what they'd just seen.
Certainly, Carax (with star Eva Mendes, right) wasn't going to provide any explanations. When he took the stage before the screening to introduce his film, he spoke all of 20 words. It went like this:
"Thank you for coming."
"Thank you for waiting."
"I hope you enjoy the film."