Best fete forward

A look at the star-studded events happening during the AFI Fest.

Opening Night

Wednesday, Nov. 1, Grauman's Chinese Theatre
Emilio Estevez directs this multifaceted feature about a host of characters in and around the historic Ambassador Hotel the day that Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. The large ensemble cast includes Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Ashton Kutcher, Lindsay Lohan, William H. Macy, Demi Moore, Freddy Rodriguez, Martin Sheen, Christian Slater, Sharon Stone, Elijah Wood and Estevez himself (not to mention appearances from Kennedy, courtesy of archival newsreel footage). Homages to 1932's "Grand Hotel" notwithstanding, Estevez has been lauded for crafting a complex narrative that raises timely questions about war, immigration and social justice. MGM is set to release the film for the Weinstein Co. "I think it's a landmark kind of a film," AFI Festival director Christian Gaines says. "Not only is it a collaborative effort among the cast, but I think that it really says something about a period of time and about a humanist approach to governing and to being a part of the world."

Gala Screening

Volver/Penelope Cruz tribute
Thursday, Nov. 2, ArcLight Cinemas
The AFI Film Fest's tributee Penelope Cruz stars in the latest film from revered Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar, playing a mother of a teenage daughter who must deal with the ghosts from the past that continue to haunt her family. Cruz's performance has earned raves from critics across the globe -- "Volver," which is being distributed domestically through Sony Pictures Classics, screened earlier this year at the Festival de Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival -- and she is already being touted as a potential Oscar nominee. But the film isn't just a starring vehicle for the talented actress; it also is a strangely empowering film about the connections between women and the bonds that hold together mothers and daughters and sisters and friends. The screening follows the festival's tribute to Cruz, which will include a live onstage conversation and clips from important films from Cruz's career.

Centerpiece Gala

"Inland Empire"
Friday, Nov. 3, ArcLight Cinemas
If there's such a thing as stream-of-subconscious filmmaking, this is it. In David Lynch's first major feature release since 2001's "Mulholland Dr.," Laura Dern leads a cast of Lynch regulars in dual starring roles -- as an actress and the character she portrays -- and if you're expecting any sort of linear narrative, you'll be sorely disappointed. Notes for the trivia-minded: Lynch began production on "Inland Empire" without an actual script, writing each scene just before filming it in order to draw more spontaneous performances from the actors.

"An Evening with Ed Zwick"
Wednesday, Nov. 8, ArcLight Cinemas
In this special presentation, director Edward Zwick will screen extended clips from Warner Bros. Pictures' planned December release "Blood Diamond," a Sierra Leone-set drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou as two African men who join forces to try to recover a valuable rare gem; Jennifer Connelly co-stars as an American journalist. Shot on location in Africa, the film has drawn fire from major players in the jewelry industry for its depiction of the horrors associated with the illicit diamond trade -- the movie is named for so-called "conflict diamonds," smuggled stones that have been sold to finance violent regimes in various African countries.

Centerpiece Gala

"The Fountain"
Saturday, Nov. 11, Grauman's Chinese Theatre
Darren Aronofsky's trippy, time-traveling romance might have divided audiences when it premiered last month at the Venice Film Festival, but no one can suggest that the writer-director's vision is anything other than wholly original. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz play lovers throughout the ages who are confronted by terrible tragedy, and while critics might say that the Warner Bros. Pictures film occasionally ventures into self-indulgent territory, others will be swept up by the dazzling visuals that transport the audience from the remote jungles of 16th century South America to the unfathomable isolation of 26th century outer space.

"Curse of the Golden Flower"
Sunday, Nov. 12, ArcLight Cinemas
The latest period epic from venerable Chinese director Zhang Yimou closes the 20th-anniversary edition of the festival. "Curse of the Golden Flower" has been described as the filmmaker's most ambitious production to date -- with sweeping vistas, ornate costumes, spectacular martial-arts set pieces and regal turns from Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li as a king and queen pitted against one another. Sony Pictures Classics plans to release the film in late December.