‘Selma’ and ‘American Sniper’ land as an interesting AFI Fest double feature

HOLLYWOOD – AFI Fest sure did put together an awkward bloc of scheduling Tuesday night at the Egyptian Theatre. A moving story of a civil rights leader who was gunned down by a sniper followed by… “American Sniper,” directed by a guy who talks to a chair and hates Obama. OK, that's a little unfair, but after Chris Rock's zinger Saturday night, it was sort of hard for my mind not to go there with two films that deal with political ideologies in both overt and subtextual ways.

Nevertheless, the onus was on Warner Bros. after Paramount finally vacated the theater around 8:30pm. Because anyone asked to follow Ava DuVernay's “Selma” would be facing a tall order as the film landed like some sort of game changer in this year's Oscar race. Honestly, I'm not convinced the studio knew what it had on its hands, but that sigh you hear is one of relief after “Interstellar” failed to catch fire. Fresh off a pair of successful indie productions, DuVernay did not bite off more than she could chew and brought an assured, tender vision to this contained slice of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and legacy. Early scenes at times felt over-reaching, information being explicitly delivered where it need not be, but when it settled into its groove it just got better, and better, and better, and better.

DuVernay has worked with cinematographer Bradford Young – already praised up one side and down the other in this space for another 2014 AFI Fest debut, “A Most Violent Year” – twice now. Here, his work soars again. Simple frames really just aren't so simple to him, capturing intriguing angles that tell the story without words, sun-kissed lighting making the imagery something to behold. The editing is precise and compelling throughout, particularly a sequence depicting the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge incident, the film an intriguing tapestry of sound and image on quite a few occasions. Mainly, though, this is a film of its moment in striking ways, with voter rights under fire as I type these words.

David Oyelowo is stirring and uncanny as King, a role he seems to have been born to play. He has a solid bead on a spot in the Best Actor five, but he'll have to work for it to cut through the competition. Just last year, one of Hollywood's favored sons, Tom Hanks, missed for a beloved performance in a Best Picture nominee. Nothing is ever assured. But I like Oyelowo's chances, particularly since the film feels like a solid contender across a number of races, including Best Picture and Best Director. (And how wonderful it would be if two female directors were nominated this year, Angelina Jolie for “Unbroken” potentially being the other.)

Elsewhere, Tim Roth is great as the slimy Governor George Wallace, though he doesn't have enough scenes to really penetrate. Tom Wilkinson's accent goes in and out as Lyndon Johnson, but the evolution of his position on the Voter Rights Act is fascinating to watch and makes him an intriguing foil. So that could be enough to garner him some awards attention. The Common/John Legend track “Glory” that plays over the closing credits is also quite extraordinary, though it was difficult to hear it over the on-going applause that even people standing in line for “American Sniper” outside could hear through the walls of the Egyptian.

Speaking of which, Clint Eastwood's film is…OK. It's sort of flat, a series of tense battle scenes (some familiar, all compelling) strung together tenuously by Sienna Miller's work in a thankless role that pretty much equates to being pregnant and worried on the phone a lot. But Bradley Cooper is great as real-life hero Chris Kyle, playing it in a low key with a soothing southern twang, drawn up and more and more battle-hardened as the film progresses.

However, the movie never really achieves lift-off. Kyle is obviously a driven guy devoted to his job of a military sniper, but we never really know why. Passion is never all that evident. He becomes a SEAL at 30 on a whim when a life in Texas rodeo doesn't work for him and he hits up four major tours on his way to becoming a legend – or The Legend, I should say (Kyle was so deadly and expert at the gig that a bounty was placed on his head). His fate is public knowledge but – SPOILER ALERT – it's a tragic one. The film ends abruptly with a card briefly explaining that fate and that's the movie.

I was reminded of “Lone Survivor” quite a bit, and I expect the film may well end up with the same two nominations that one got (Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing). But I suppose there's a chance the studio can find passion for it within the Academy. There are elements to love (tight editing, gripping sequences, an enigmatic lead), so maybe it can catch a stride. But again, anything following “Selma” was going to be working uphill on this particular evening.

So a few more cards are on the table. “Into the Woods” and “Unbroken” are still to come. “Big Eyes,” which has screened to some press already (so have the other two, actually), lands Thursday. And by the end of the month, all will be known. All that figures into the equation, anyway. But awkward juxtaposition aside, Tuesday was a real coup for AFI Fest as they landed a pair of major American premieres that weren't expected just two days ago. Nothing like another sudden turn in an increasingly perplexing Oscar race!

Both “Selma” and “American Sniper” open in limited release on Dec. 25.