The 19-year-old event may be some distance from the realm of top-tier festivals

As the nineteen-year-old AFI/Los Angeles Intl. Film Festival ready to move into the grown-up realm of top-tier festivals?

That remains one of the lingering questions hovering over the event, now firmly settled into its much-improved venue, the viewer-friendly ArcLight theater complex and adjacent Cinerama Dome in central Hollywood, and in its fifth year under the leadership of festival director Christian Gaines and programming director Nancy Collet.

For a festival able to cherry-pick from 11 months’ worth of choices on the Palm Springs-to-Toronto festival circuit, AFI does offer some juicy items to sample.

Robert Lepage’s space race tour-de-force “Far Side of the Moon,” Terry George’s Toronto hit “Hotel Rwanda,” Mark S. Wexler’s admired docu “Tell Them Who You Are” (on his master d.p. dad Haskell) and Venice-Toronto favorite “Yesterday” from South Africa’s Darrell James Roodt are standouts in the Special Screenings section.

Bright items in the International Features category include Pjer Zalica’s admired “Days and Hours” from Bosnia-Herzogovina, Mexican helmer Fernando Eimbcke’s superbly deadpan “Duck Season,” Cate Shortland’s Oz feature debut, “Somersault,” and South African apartheid drama “Zulu Love Letter.”

Specialty sections such as those devoted to Latin American films have yielded a couple of goodies, such as Rotterdam discovery “Dias de Santiago” from young Peruvian writer-director Josue Mendez and Andres Wood’s fine Chilean Oscar submission, “Machuca.” The standouts among Asian titles are surely the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy (first shown as a trio outside of Asia in Palm Springs) and Zhang Yimou’s second consecutive martial-arts epic, “House of Flying Daggers.”

The festival’s Made in Germany section (produced with Teuton firm German Films Service and Marketing) offers the first chance on the West coast to see the Berlin Golden Bear-winner, “Head-On,” from Fatih Akin, as well as the well-liked Cannes entry “Soundless.”

As can be expected from a festival traditionally slanted toward European cinema, well-travelled and respected Euro titles are a given: Ken Loach’s “Ae Fond Kiss” via Berlin; Nimrod Antal’s crowd-pleasing “Kontroll,” which seems to be at every festival this fall; Jean-Luc Godard’s “Notre Musique,” nearly unanimously acclaimed at Cannes and designated best film of the year by Fipresci, the international federation of film critics; and Toronto prize-winner “Omagh” from Ireland’s Pete Travis.

Results of a newly created docu programmer post, filled by Natalie McMenemy, include nonfiction standouts such as Robert Stone’s Sundance sensation about the Symbionese Liberation Army, the retitled “Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst,” and “The Take,” a look at Argentine workers from Avi Lewis’ and “No Logo” author Naomi Klein.

Underneath these highlights, though, is the tougher reality.

Though long expected to rise to some prominence in the North American landscape, AFI has remained a mid-level gathering, outdoing regional fests in smaller cities, but still less compelling than the recently concluded Chicago Intl. Film Festival, or the increasingly rangey and richly international Vancouver event.

Ever since AFI took the reins from the long-defunct Filmex in 1986, many have been waiting to see Los Angeles’ primary international cine-confab realize its potential as a truly cosmopolitan, international event.

Meanwhile, there have been big developments in the L.A. fest scene:

  • The Independent Feature Project/West assumed control of the struggling Los Angeles Independent fest and built a powerhouse.

  • Institutions and venues, from the American Cinematheque to the CalArts-run film program Redcat in downtown’s Disney Concert Hall complex, have been aggressively expanding programming and premieres.

  • With a small or large festival geared to every possible taste, culture and language seemingly popping up in Los Angeles every weekend, the very notion of a central or key festival for the city has been seriously undermined.

Until recently, the most notable stride forward for the AFI Fest in recent years was its laudable move from scattered venues to the ArcLight two years ago.

Now comes the next dramatic step: the festival has teamed with the American Film Market to forge a union with the intended impact of a Berlin or Cannes, festivals that dovetail with brawny and successful markets for mutual benefit.

Given that AFM is one of the world’s top three annual markets, its calendar shift from January to November may spread awareness about AFI to buyers and sellers who habitually attend the Santa Monica film mart, but the partnership faces a singular obstacle — proximity, or the lack thereof.

Whether at Cannes, Berlin or other fests with well-defined and organized market components (Rotterdam), or those North American fests with informal but hyperactive zones of business action (Sundance, Toronto), attendees are never more than a few steps or blocks away from either the fest or the market.

But as AFM visitors may quickly discover, the roughly 15-mile distance between the two sites could prove, in the presence of sclerotic traffic jams, a real challenge. Once both fest and market are in full gear, there’s every possibility that regulars at one will make no contact with the other.

Beyond that, what could draw AFMers from the comforts of their beachfront hotels? One lure would be discoveries, but this has remained a pronounced weak spot for the AFI fest.

It’s a problem not noticeably improved upon this year. This year’s program yields a few promising possibilities, particularly among docus: “The Art & Crimes of Ron English,” “The Big Question” (lensed by thesps on the set of “The Passion of the Christ”), the topical “Gay Republicans,” international graffiti survey “Rock Fresh” and “Seoul Train,” about North Koreans attempting to reach the South.

A few U.S. narrative titles may draw interest, including Ariel Vroman’s “R/X,” “The Deal” (toplining Christian Slater and Selma Blair) and homeless kid drama “Downtown: A Street Tale.”

Foreign firsts

The festival will provide the first chance on the world fest circuit to sample some (nine, so far) of the foreign-language submissions to the Oscar race, with one making its world preem: Ivo Trajkov’s “The Great Water.” Significant non-U.S. debuts remain scarce, however, with two being Latin American political thrillers: Jorge Ramirez-Suarez’s “The Rabbit on the Moon” from Mexico and Jonathan Jakubowicz’s “Secuestro Express” from Venezuela.

The majority of the festival’s lineup belongs to work that has already trekked the fest circuit far and wide, yet the lineup comes up short as a solid survey of the latest from vet and blossoming world-class helmers.

A brief list of exceptions includes Alex De La Iglesia (“Ferpect Crime”), Michael Radford (“The Merchant of Venice”), Pablo Trapero (“Rolling Family”), Alejandro Amenabar (“The Sea Inside”), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“A Very Long Engagement”) as well as aforementioned films from Akin, Godard, Lepage, Loach and Zhang. Amenabar’s fellow Spaniard (and frequent Oscar rival) Pedro Almodovar receives a mini-tribute, with his “Bad Education” unspooling in a gala screening.

Similarly, AFI has managed to score only a few of the hot new titles that emerged during the fall festival season, such as “Omagh,” while missing out on numerous others, from Claire Denis’ mesmerizing “L’Intrus” and Jia Zhang-ke’s stunning “The World,” to universally praised docus with a slim chance at U.S. distribution such as Raymond Depardon’s “10th District Court” and potent new works from old masters Ousmane Sembene (“Moolaade”) and Theo Angelopoulos (“Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow”).

To be sure, the New York Film Festival also blew it by failing to program Denis’ newest, and every fest can retrospectively sit back and consider the Ones That Got Away. (While AFI nabbed “Head-On,” Toronto didn’t.)

Asian deficit

And unlike their counterparts in Vancouver and Toronto, American festivals in general this year have notably failed to program new work from Asia, particularly east Asia, where there is arguably more innovative filmmaking emerging than any other spot on the planet.

A real measure of the work that AFI/Los Angeles still

has to do is in its Latin American sample.

In a city with the largest Latino population in North America

outside of Mexico City, the fest’s efforts to gather up a roster of titles from south of the border is in a nearly static position: Seven in 2003, eight this year. This, despite notable outreach in drawing a larger Latino audience to the fest.

The section includes just one film each from two of the

hemisphere’s most active and exciting film-producing nations: Argentina (“Rolling Family”) and Brazil (“The Other Side of the Street,” marking the helming debut of Walter Salles’ writing collaborator, Marcos Bernstein).

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