If you’re looking for the perfect item to gift yourself this holiday season, look no further than the 46 foreign films on offer this December at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring.
A welcome antidote to the customary saccharine holiday film fare, the 2019 AFI European Union Film Showcase runs from Dec. 4 to 22. Featuring films from 28 countries, to include 11 Oscar contenders, this year’s lineup runs the gamut from a nudist colony comedy to historical drama to thought-provoking cinema verité.
Now celebrating its 32nd year, the biggest challenge for the nearly 10,000 people projected to attend is deciding which films to catch. AFI staff say pacing yourself is key. “It’s a lot of films, all of which are brand new to the local area,” said Todd Hitchcock, AFI’s director of programing. “It’s a lot to navigate.”
As a starting point, Hitchcock suggests seeing one of the “special presentations.” “Special presentations are of films of especially high quality. We schedule them to show in prime time to showcase them,” he said.
Hitchcock’s personal favorite is the special presentation of the Berlin-debuted “Mr. Jones”. Based on a real-life story, it stars James Norton (of “Grantchester” fame) as a Welsh journalist who secretly traveled into 1930s Ukraine to report on a famine that Stalin’s regime tried to cover up. The Dec. 15 showing includes a Q&A with the film’s screenwriter Andrea Chalupa. “This film is at the top of my list. I was completely drawn into that world, one I knew little about,” Hitchcock said.
Seeing one of the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film nominees is also a great option, he noted. Another is sticking to the films that originate from a country you love, have visited or hope to visit. The films are subtitled in English, so language is never a barrier.
The French film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” will satisfy those in need of a fix of France or romance, or both, according to Abbie Algar, AFI associate film programmer. A winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s a brooding tale of an 18th century woman artist who forms a passionate bond with a young bride while secretly painting her portrait. “It’s a sweeping historical romance that’s full of intrigue,” Algar said of the film playing the evenings of both Dec. 8 and 9.
“The August Virgin,” a joy-filled tale that takes place in Madrid, is the top pick for Ben Delgado, assistant programmer. A star of the Spanish film, Vito Sanz, will appear at a Q&A on the Dec. 18 showing of the prize-winning film. “Sanz has been in every Spanish film over the past five years — he’s popping up everywhere,” Delgado said. “The film has a summery feeling which makes for a nice escape in the winter. It shows a beautiful side of Madrid in the dog days of summer.”
Algar, Delgado and Hitchcock share the enviable task of attending a half-dozen film festivals throughout the year to identify films that will resonate with AFI audiences. From film festivals in Sundance to Berlin, Cannes and Toronto, they determine which award winners, regional box-office hits and work by new and familiar directors and actors to bring back home.
“There’s such a thirst for this kind of international film here locally,” Hitchcock said. “Our audiences do seem to have interest in films with historical and political content; that subject matter does really well here.”
The best of the best of this year’s festival? All three agreed that the opening night film, “Alice and the Mayor”, is remarkable. One of 10 United States premieres in this year’s line-up, the French film explores the how the mayor of Lyon rediscovers his passion for leadership and politics — thanks to a newly arrived young staffer full of ideas. “It’s smart, funny and a lot of the people in the D.C. area will find a lot to like about it,” Hitchcock said.
The AFI Silver and Cultural Center is located at 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. For information, tickets and all-access passes to the 2019 AFI European Union Film Showcase, visit https://afisilver.afi.com/silver/EUShowcase.