From filmmakers to characters, strong females rule AFI

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Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie from Mary Queen of Scots

Now that I’ve finally recovered from my beef slider coma (the food most served at the AFI Presented by Audi Galas) and red wine running through my blood veins, I can now reflect upon what was the 2018 AFI Festival.

As I have said on multiple occasions, I believe the festival is the best one that LA has to offer. Under new director Michael Lumpkin, one can sense he is carrying on the mission originally laid out by former director, Jacqueline Lyanga.

And that mission is to deliver the best films to audiences who truly love film. This year was no different as the festival raised the bar on all genres. Want great horror? Get it with Blumhouse’s release of Cam. How about historical drama? Look no further than Focus Feature’s Mary Queen of Scots. How about an edge-of-your-damn-seat thriller? Have you seen Steve McQueen’s Widows?

The AFI is a candy store for film lovers.

If there was any common thread this year, it was that AFI celebrated women in film. From directors like On the Basis of Sex’s Mimi Leder to strong characters such as Sandra Bullock’s mother in Academy Award-winner Susannah Bier’s intense thriller Bird Box, the talents of women were on display everywhere.

Nowhere could that display be seen more than on the iconic Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. Audi, a 15-year supporter of the fest, worked with marketing communications AOR PMK*BNC and Santa Monica-based studio BARTKRESA to light up the sides of the hotel with the faces of over 200 female filmmakers having an impact in the film industry. The featured women were all a part of the film festival’s lineup which included 65 female-helmed films.

Let’s chat about some of those films.

‘Bird Box’

What a crappy title for a film. 🙂 I was so not interested in seeing Academy Award winner Susanah Bier’s film based on the title alone. The lesson here is that I should read beyond the title.

I became more and more curious after I read the synopsis – “a mother, Malorie (Sandra Bullock), and two children navigate a hostile, even demonic landscape after an apocalyptic event. As Malorie confronts her ambivalence toward motherhood while learning the rules of her new uncertain existence, she and a small group of survivors must grasp in the dark — figuratively and literally — in the hope that there is life outside of themselves.”

Then I watched the trailer:

And I was hooked. But I still wasn’t prepared for what I would eventually see, which became my favorite film of the AFI. Bird Box is as intense of a thriller one can possibly watch. Mixing elements of The Walking Dead, Frank Darabont’s The Mist, this year’s A Quiet Place and even Viggo Mortenson’s The Road, Susannah Bier has crafted a classic thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Malorie’s character arc reminds me in a way of Linda Hamilton’s original strong woman – Sarah Conner’s arc, as she quickly moves from an ambivalent, self-absorbed character to someone who has the weight of the world (in this case her young children) on her shoulders.

In her extreme presentation, Bier makes it clear that being a parent, especially a mother, is hard work and is quite frankly, heroic. And sometimes you have to keep them safe by not allowing them to see the horrors that the world sometimes offers.

ALSO READ: Audi celebrates the faces of AFI’s female filmmakers


Remember 1990’s Set it Off? F. Gary Gray’s 90’s “gangsta” film with Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett broke all kinds of new ground.

Academy Award-winning director Steve McQueen has created this decade’s Set it Off crime drama with the riveting Viola Davis vehicle, Widows.

Veronica’s (Viola Davis) decadent lifestyle is abruptly interrupted when her husband (played by Liam Neeson) is killed, along with his criminal gang, in a heist gone wrong. She soon discovers the debt with which she, and other widows from his gang, are suddenly burdened.

Under Veronica’s leadership, the women band together and form a plan to take their future into their own hands. Widows goes beyond the trappings of the crime genre to explore political power-plays and urban corruption.

When Viola Davis is on screen, she is mesmerizing. You literally can’t take your eyes off of her. The surprise performance belongs to 6′ 3″ Elizabeth Debicki.

Her Alice holds her own against not only Davis, but Michelle Rodriguez as well. I’ve never seen the statuesque blonde in anything else, but I can’t wait to see her in more. Striking performances from a top-flight cast, along with McQueen and GONE GIRL scribe Gillian Flynn’s sharp, twisty script, make this gritty crime caper a new classic

‘On the Basis of Sex’

I have been a fan of Academy Award nominee Felicity Jones since Star Wars: Rogue One and my favorite film of 2016, A Monster Calls. Whether her role is playing a driven soldier seeking to avenge her dad or a mother dying of cancer or in this case steely eyed Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Jones brings an every woman (and man) relatability to the role.

Mimi Leder’s (Deep Impact, The Leftovers) On the Basis of Sex follows the true story of young lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she teams with her husband Marty (Armie Hammer) to bring a groundbreaking case before the U.S. Court of Appeals and overturn a century of gender discrimination. The cast also features Justin Theroux, Academy Award winner Kathy Bates, Academy Award nominee Sam Waterston, Jack Reynor and Cailee Spaeny. Take a look at the trailer below:

Leder hails from the AFI Conservatory and it shows in the care she brings to everything she directs. On The Basis of Sex is extremely relevant in these times as we do see a new (and much needed) women’s movement on the rise. With the current administration desperately trying to load the Supreme Court with conservative male justices, it’s important to reflect on what Bader Ginsburg had to go through to make it to the nation’s top court.

That’s the greatness about the film and the drawback as well. On the Basis of Sex is a love letter to RBG. That’s understandable as the screenplay was penned by first-time writer Daniel Stiepleman, who is also Bader Ginsburg’s nephew.

Since it is a film created out of love, we don’t really get to see all sides of the famed supreme court justice. Jones’ portrayal is a little one-dimensional as we don’t get to see what Bader Ginsburg’s flaws are or the fears she has to overcome.

It is a triumphant film and one worth seeing, but is flawed because of that.

There are other films to celebrate, both by men and women, here. Green Book starring Viggo Mortenson and Academy Award nominee Mahershala Ali is a brilliant film about racism and friendship in the 1960’s. And while Mary Queen of Scots drags a bit in the middle it does tell a hypnotic and memorable story of the feud between the queens of England and Scotland.

But we will address those films in other pieces. As I can write about them forever, but my editor will never forgive me for taking up the space.

Contact Colin Costello at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @colincostello10.