All posts by Christopher Schobert

My Top 10 Films of 2020 (from The Film Stage)

Yes, 2020 will forever be known as the year with an asterisk etched next to it. This strange 12-month span saw a pandemic grip the world, cinemas shuttered, tentpoles delayed, and the advent of new, potentially devastating streaming models. Even so, there were numerous masterful films and dynamic performances––as well as more VOD dreck than ever before.

On a personal level, the move to virtual festivals gave me the opportunity to cover a number of festivals from home: Toronto, New York, AFI, and Chicago. Several of the entries on my top 10 (and five honorable mentions) list were festival selections, and the memory of watching them on my sofa next to my snoring terrier is rather surreal, and also rather wonderful.

Two additional notes: My initial hope was to have all five Small Axe films at number one, but given Steve McQueen’s preference for the five entries to be seen as individual films, I decided instead to go with my two favorites in spots No. 1 and 2. (Mangrove and Red, White and Blue are certainly in my top 20, with Alex Wheatle someplace in the top 30.)

I would also like to mention my favorite first-time-for-me of 2020, Dennis Hopper’s explosive and shattering 1980 drama Out of the Blue (which I watched through AFI Fest). In addition, my pick as finest re-edited film is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. I’ve long felt that The Godfather Part III, while flawed (the absence of Robert Duvall still seems, to me, an almost insurmountable obstacle), is deeply underrated. Coda goes a long way toward restoring its reputation. That’s a beautiful and rather unexpected 2020 development.

Now, on to my list––and then on to a better 2021.

Honorable Mentions: 76 Days, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, The Assistant, Time, Minari

10 Emma. (Autumn de Wilde)

Full disclosure: For me, rewatching Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma stirs some sentimental feelings, as I vividly recall watching it with my wife — IN AN ACTUAL MOVIE THEATER — just days before COVID necessitated a lockdown. We had little idea of what was to come, and emerged from the cinema with smiles plastered on our faces. For Emma. is a genuine delight, a film of wit and warmth that is lovingly directed by de Wilde and performed with brilliance by Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, and Bill Nighy, among others. This is not “just another” Austen adaptation. Do not sleep on 2020’s sweetest romantic comedy. 

9. The Twentieth Century (Matthew Rankin)

Can a film become a cult classic after its festival premiere, and a year before its actual release? In the case of Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century, the answer is a resounding yes. The absurdist historical comedy won the Best Canadian First Feature Film prize at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, and it is easy to see why. Playfully artificial, dramatically dubious, and hilariously anarchic, Rankin’s feature debut is unlike any other film in memory. And while it can safely be classified as a comedy, it is limiting to think of The Twentieth Century as simply a joke. We become genuinely invested in Mackenzie King’s quest to become Prime Minister of Canada, even as the film reaches new heights of absurdity. 

8. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)

I caught the latest collaboration between director Thomas Vinterberg and star Mads Mikkelsen near the end of September’s Toronto International Film Festival, and by that point I was a little movie’d out. Still, I enjoyed it, and hoped for a re-watch. That opportunity came a couple months later, and this time Another Round absolutely knocked me out. This very sharp, very funny look at maturity, marriage, and heavy drinking is a daring and wise look at the disconnect between age and behavior. (As someone who turned 40 in 2020, let’s just say it seemed especially resonant.) Round is anchored by Mikkelsen at the peak of his powers, never more so than at film’s end. The final (dance) sequence is both joyous and profound — just like Another Round.

7. Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell)

Thank goodness the calendar year included the release of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, a provocative, startlingly resonant revenge drama. And while the twisty script and smart direction from Killing Eve writer Fennell is noteworthy, Carey Mulligan is just as crucial to the film’s success. Strong one minute, wounded the next, but always fiercely in control, Mulligan’s performance is the finest of 2020. From jaw-droppingly fresh musical cues (if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about) to an ending that is both laugh-out-loud funny and breathtakingly sad, Promising Young Woman is the emotional grenade this year desperately needed. 

6. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman)

A few minutes into Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I was thinking of ending things. Specifically, the film itself. It seemed dull and off-putting––and had barely begun. A few minutes later, during one of the many long stretches of roadway dialogue between Jesse Plemmons’ Jake and Jessie Buckley’s Lucy (sometimes?), I was mesmerized. This feeling of wide-eyed interest subsisted through the end of Kaufman’s adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel, and long after. Yes, it is a tense, even stressful view. But it is also a deliriously engaging puzzle. Things is certainly Kaufman’s finest work as a director to date.

5. Ema (Pablo Larraín)

It is a shame that Pablo Larrain’s wild, ambitious story of a dancer, her on-again, off-again significant other, and the child they adopted but gave up seems to be flying under the end-of-year radar. Admittedly, many critics caught the film long ago, during its fall 2019 festival run. (Home viewers had an opportunity when MUBI premiered it for free, one day only, in May.) For me, its impact has lingered. Larrain’s latest effort is often deliberately shapeless. Yet this feeling of messiness creates a hypnotic hold on our minds and emotions. Mariana Di Girolamo gives a performance that deserves to be considered iconic as Ema, an enigmatic character whose passion, flaws, and fire are ever-intriguing. Ema is a beautifully dizzying concoction that will be ripe for re-discovery in the years to come. 

4. Sound of Metal (Darius Marder)

I had been hearing about this one ever since the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, and my goodness, the buzz was warranted. Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal is, quite simply, unforgettable. Riz Ahmed is note-perfect as Ruben, a drummer rapidly losing his hearing, and he is almost matched by Olivia Cooke as his bandmate and girlfriend, Lou. Just as strong is Paul Raci as Joe, a warm but straight-talking Vietnam vet running a community for deaf recovering addicts. There is a conversation late in the film between Ruben and Joe in which the former is asking for help — help that we know Joe will not provide, and that Ruben is ashamed to ask for. It is a riveting and utterly devastating scene. And in typical Sound of Metal fashion, we feel sympathy for both parties. The film culminates in an ending that is one of the smartest and most audacious of the year, and the type of morally complex conclusion most films avoid. All told, Sound of Metal is a harrowing, heartbreaking, immersive experience. 

3. David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee)

There is a palpable sense of joy in every second of David Byrne’s American Utopia. Spike Lee directs this document of the former Talking Heads’ frontman’s Broadway show with vivid energy and ingenious physicality. Utopia might be the greatest concert film since Stop Making Sense — electrifying, funny, and genuinely moving — but it is also a thematically apt exploration of who we are now. Or, who we were, pre-pandemic. While 2020 was in many ways the year of no-celebration, Utopia brought to the (small) screen a feeling of true jubilation. That is no small feat.

2. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen) & 1. Education (Steve McQueen)

Each of the five full-length films in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe is, in its own way, extraordinary. Each felt like its own self-contained piece. And yet all three shared common traits and feelings. Above all else, Small Axe is driven by empathy for its heroes and heroines — and appropriate outrage at the world they inhabit. All told, Small Axe is 2020’s finest artistic achievement — and Lovers Rock and Education are its standouts. While Lovers Rock, a captivating dive into an all-night house party (and what comes before and after), is the most joyful, it is Education that hits hardest. It is startling to see a film about a young person that is so believable, so harrowing, and so true. Perhaps not since Truffaut has a filmmaker exhibited such a deft understanding of youth. Education is a triumph, as is Lovers Rock. All five entries in Small Axe demonstrate the pungent, lingering effects of institutional racism. Lovers Rock and Education, especially, are films about the way forward. This is radical, fearless filmmaking — and more than deserving of classification as the finest of 2020. 

From The Film Stage.

SCREENING BUFFALO: Curate your own Queen City-themed virtual film festival

Closed movie theaters caused even the most diehard moviegoers to change the way they experience cinema. And, as Spree explained in recent issues, the pandemic also upended film festivals locally and around the world. Many, including September’s Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, Buffalo International Film Festival, AFI Fest, and Chicago Film Festival, opted for a hybrid model. That meant many films could be watched from home, a nice treat for those craving the festival experience in dire times.

I covered TIFF, NYFF, AFI, and Chicago for Spree and BuffaloSpree.com, and watching festival entries from my sofa was rather wonderful. Plus, BIFF’s strong 2020 lineup included Dark Alley Drive-In screenings of local legend Addison Henderson’s latest, Givers of Death (GOD), as well as Buffalo State professor Meg Knowles’ Runaway.

In other words, despite some geoblocking, film fans in Western New York have had opportunities to experience new films from home. So, what’s next? How about creating your own mini-festival? It is surprisingly easy, and certainly worth more of your time than another round of My 1,000 Pound Life. There are enough Buffalo-set and Buffalo-shot entries, some recent and some older, to put you in the role of curator. 

But first, let’s establish some ground rules:

No Buffalo 66. I adore Vincent Gallo’s grimy love story. However, I’ve seen it plenty, and I’m guessing many of you have, as well. 

Sorry, The Natural—you’re out, too. See above, minus “Vincent Gallo” and “grimy.”

No Niagara. The 1950s Marilyn Monroe vehicle was famously shot in Niagara Falls, Ontario, which is noteworthy. But the film itself is not very good, and there are fresher ways to spend your movie-watching time. 

Understand that you might need to spend a few bucks to rent certain titles. A few of the titles on this list of Buffalo-centric cinema are available for free on streaming services, if you are a subscriber. Considering how much you’ve likely saved on movie tickets, dropping less than $5 on a rental does not sound so bad.

Without further ado, let’s get to the list. 

Clover (2020)

Early in the pandemic, the crime drama Clover was available for virtual rental. It came and went quickly, which was no surprise; Clover is no gem. Yet for WNYers, the film is worthy. Why? Because director/co-star Jon Abrahams is practically an honorary Buffalonian at this point. Like his first film as a director, post-9/11 drama All at Once, Abrahams shot the film in Buffalo. Unlike All at Once (which, it should be noted, is available to stream for free on Amazon Prime), Clover is set in Buffalo, as well. Spotting real locations— Voelker’s, the Central Terminal, Delta Sonic— is actually more engaging than its story of two ne’er-do-well brothers in debt to a gangster. And that’s enough for a recommendation. (Read my Buffalo News review of the film.)

Where to watch: Rent for $3.99 on Amazon or Google Play, or $4.99 on Apple TV.

Buffaloed (2020)

Ahhh, Buffaloed. The debt collection comedy drew some major buzz upon release early in 2020 for the killer performance of its star, Zoey Deutch. That praise was more than deserving. The film itself, though, is a slog. Set in Buffalo but shot in Toronto, Buffaloed painfully strives to prove its Buffalo-ness, but it’s mostly embarrassing. (A courtroom sequence in which a judge asks Deutch whether she prefers Duff’s or Anchor Bar wings is particularly cringe-inducing.) OK, so is Buffaloed worth watching? Yes, for Deutch, and because even bad Buffalo films are of interest to us locals. 

Where to watch: Free on Hulu, rent for $2.99 on Amazon or Google Play, or $4.99 on Apple TV.

Widow’s Point (2019)

The horror film starring Craig Sheffer was Buffalo-based filmmaker Gregory Lamberson’s most high-profile entry to date. It drew much praise from horror fans, and deservedly so. Interestingly, much of Point was shot at the Dunkirk Lighthouse. Very creepy, and very cool.

Where to watch: Rent for $3.99 on Amazon or Google Play, or $4.99 on Apple TV.

Cold Brook (2019)

Spree has featured Cheektowaga native William Fichtner’s directorial debut in past issues. If you’ve not yet had a chance to watch the East Aurora-shot film about friendship and the scars of history, it is streaming free on Showtime. Like the other entries on this list, part of the fun is spotting locations like the Aurora Theatre.

Where to watch: Free on Showtime, rent for $2.99 on Amazon or Google Play, or $4.99 on Apple TV.

Marshall (2017)

When Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman suddenly passed away in August, many Western New Yorkers shared stories of his kindness while shooting this Thurgood Marshall biopic in Buffalo. He gives a strong performance in a so-so film, and watching Marshall now is a reminder of his generational talent. 

Where to watch: Rent for $3.99 on Amazon, Google Play, or Apple TV.

Henry’s Crime (2010)

Yes, it seems like decades since Keanu Reeves was here in Western New York shooting this heist film. It’s adequate, at best, but now that Reeves is an even bigger star thanks to the John Wick series, it’s worth a rewatch. 

Where to watch: Free (with ads) on Crackle and Tubi, rent for $3.99 on Apple TV.

Hide in Plain Sight (1980)

One of the most enjoyable accounts on Twitter belongs to none other than the great James Caan (@James_Caan). A few months back, he shared the poster for the hard-hitting drama Hide in Plain Sight, a film he starred in and directed. It’s a strong film, one with a rep that has grown through the years. 

Where to watch: Rent for $1.99 on Amazon, Google Play, or Apple TV.

BONUS PICKS: The American Side (2016) and Disappearance at Clifton Hill (2020)

Looking for two more films with local links that you may have missed? Locals Jenna Ricker and Greg Stuhr co-wrote the Niagara Falls-set mystery The American Side, which Ricker directed. And Disappearance at Clifton Hill is an interesting (albeit very flawed) mystery that makes fine use of the Hill’s unique locations and geography. 

Where to watch: American Side: Rent for $2.99 on Amazon or Google Play, or $4.99 on Apple TV. Clifton Hill: Free on Hulu, rent for $3.99 on Amazon or Google Play, or $4.99 on Apple TV.

One final suggestions for your fest: now that local theaters have reopened, you can swing by for some concessions. Buy some legit movie theater popcorn, nestle in, and enjoy your Buffalo film festival. 

Read original piece on BuffaloSpree.com.

A HYBRID FILM FESTIVAL PULLS IT OFF: TIFF20 moves from King Street to sofa

The day before the start of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), my LEGO-obsessed ten-year-old built me a mini version of a TIFF landmark, the giant orange letters stationed on King Street that read “tiff.” (Period included.) It was a meaningful creation, since, for the first time in my fourteen years covering the annual festival, I would not be crossing the border. In fact, I would be experiencing TIFF20 from my sofa. 

After months of wondering how TIFF would manage to mount a festival in the year of COVID-19—and after the cancellation of Cannes and Telluride—a hybrid festival was announced. For members of the press (like yours truly), the festival would be digital only. And the many Americans, some from Buffalo, who attend each year were out of luck, since public screenings were geoblocked to Canada. After these details were settled, TIFF20 finally took place from September 10 to 20.

The process was, shall we say, not easy. And once the festival began, there were other issues. In a provocative piece for Seventh Row (seventh-row.com), a noteworthy film site, writer Alex Heeney analyzed “the shortcomings” of TIFF20: “TIFF has doubled down on what it’s always done, which now means offering a watered down version of the festival. Most years, TIFF has programmed upwards of 300 films, including shorts and features, while, this year, it limited its selection to just 50 features and just 5 short film programmes,” Heeney wrote. “In practice, accessing the festival this year has been even more challenging than past years, in what has proved one (avoidable) PR nightmare after another for the festival—from refusing access to the festival for marginalized critics, to sticking with the (in my opinion, misguided) Ontario recommendations for mask use in cinemas (not mandatory). (Both policies have since been reversed, at least somewhat, though not before TIFF was publicly embarrassed.)”

Having watched nearly thirty TIFF20 films and participating in the online, “Film Twitter” discourse surrounding the festival, I cannot disagree with many of those points. I was sad for my fellow critics who were unable to gain accreditation this year. I was also disappointed for the American moviegoers who travel to Toronto annually for a film fest experience like no other. And, if I’m being honest, I was sad for myself, since attending TIFF is one of my favorite annual experiences.

Yet, it would have been impossible to pull off a festival during a pandemic without a hitch. Cultural institutions are facing unprecedented challenges, and, for an organization that depends on thousands of paying attendees annually, the effects could have been catastrophic. Can film festivals recover? Can the act of moviegoing recover? These are legitimate, unanswerable questions. 

What I can say is that TIFF20, while unlike any other in festival history, had its share of highlights. Yes, there were things that went wrong. But there were a whole lotta things that went right:

The digital screener platform was flawless. This “reimagined” version of the Toronto International Film Festival did include some in-person screenings for Canadian audiences, at venues like the TIFF Bell Lightbox and, uniquely, several drive-in locations. For most audience members (and all press), however, TIFF was experienced via a new digital platform. For this critic, it worked beautifully. The platform was easy to use, never took longer than a few seconds to load, and errors only occurred if a film was paused for hours. Every selection had a forty-eight-hour viewing window, and that made timing a little tricky. But the digital experience itself could not have been smoother. 

The reunions and chats were thoughtful and resonant. One of the most noteworthy elements of TIFF is that it draws a banner collection of stars, which, in turn, draws lots of fans and photographers. Well, that was all out the window in 2020. Instead, festival organizers went with a nice mix of virtual reunions (including Lady BirdRoom, and, most excitingly, Full Metal Jacket) and conversations between folks like Denzel Washington and Barry Levinson, and Claire Denis and Barry Jenkins. They were compelling for both die-hard cinephiles and average movie fans. Plus, a number of TIFF Tribute Awards were presented to folks like Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mira Nair, and Chloe Zhao during an entertaining live-streamed ceremony. 

And the films? Yes, there were some gems. While some distributors like A24 opted against bringing films to TIFF, and the number of entries fell by, oh, 200, the festival lineup was surprisingly strong. Opening night featured David Byrne’s American Utopia, a Spike Lee-directed documentary of the former Talking Heads frontman’s Broadway show. It did not disappoint; Utopia might be the greatest concert film since Stop Making Sense—electrifying, funny, and genuinely moving. The Father, a stunning exploration of dementia, featured award-worthy turns from Hopkins and Olivia Colman. Zhao’s extraordinary Nomadland, a timely study of nomad life starring Frances McDormand, was an audience and critical favorite. And the documentary No Ordinary Man was a breathtaking look at trans representation. 

Powerful smaller films to watch for in the months to come include Wolfwalkers, a magical animation treat set in seventeenth century Ireland; New Order, a morally complex, astoundingly chaotic tale of rich-vs.-poor violence in Mexico; Limbo, a warm-hearted but somber portrait of a Syrian refugee in Scotland; Violation, an upsetting, fascinating non-linear revenge thriller; and a harrowing drama set during the Bosnian genocide called Quo Vadis, Aida?

So … what’s next? The real question, of course, is what any of this means for the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. The obvious answer: who knows? The only known, for me, is this: I went from experiencing TIFF at home to experiencing the 2020 New York Film Festival at home, as an accredited member of the press. Yes, more festival selections on my sofa, while petting my dog, after the kids are asleep. That opportunity may never come again. Even though it was impossible not to miss the energizing feeling of TIFF on-ground in Toronto, I feel thankful to have had the opportunity to watch, ponder, and talk TIFF from home. I can’t imagine 2021 will look like 2020. But whatever form it takes, I’ll be there.

Check out Christopher Schobert’s reviews of TIFF20 entries Akilla’s EscapeThe Best Is Yet to ComeUnder the Open SkyShiva BabySummer of 85Concrete Cowboy, and Spring Blossom on thefilmstage.com

Read original piece on BuffaloSpree.com.

2020 AFI FILM FEST AND CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL RUNDOWN

Following the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival, my fall of virtual festivals continued in October with the Los Angeles-based AFI Fest and the Chicago International Film Festival. Both experiences were extraordinarily enjoyable. Having seen many of the season’s “biggies” at the Toronto and New York fests, I tried to spend as much time as I could on international fare and more obscure entries.

Here are the results: 

AFI FEST 

Out of the Blue: A

For me, this restoration of Dennis Hopper’s 1980 drama was the highlight of the festival — and one of the cinematic highlights of this year. It is, I believe, Hopper’s masterpiece as a director. (Yes, I’d place it above Easy Rider.) The incomparable Linda Manz plays a punk-loving teen whose father, played by Hopper, is an alcoholic fresh out of prison. Their relationship is disturbingly complex, and so is the film.

The Sound of Metal: A-

I had been hearing about this one ever since the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, and my goodness, the buzz was warranted. Riz Ahmed is note-perfect as a drummer rapidly losing his hearing, and he is almost matched by Olivia Cooke. Sad, moving, and unforgettable, Metal is one of 2020’s best.

76 Days: A-

76 Days plunges us directly into the scene at a hospital in China at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — and I mean directly. It is a stunning documentary, and a vitally important one that hammers home the terror of the pandemic in profoundly memorable fashion. Expect to hear plenty about this one in the next few months.

Nine Days: B+

While it does not quite stick the landing, Nine Days is a widely original, vividly soulful sci-fi film anchored by Winston Duke. He gives one of the year’s finest performances in first-time filmmaker Edson Oda’s bold and provocative Sundance hit.

Collective: B+

A gripping, twisty documentary about a tragedy that was unknown to me: the 2015 Colectiv nightclub fire in Bucharest, Romania. The footage of the fire itself is harrowing, but even footage of evasive press conferences and newsroom meetings is enthralling in Collective.

Wildland: B+

From my review for The Film Stage: “Wildland undoubtedly does not present us with anything particularly new; this is a film in which a character actually utters the line, ‘You don’t rat on family!’ What director Jeanette Nordahl does present, though, is a harshly memorable family dynamic. It feels like the pilot to a gripping crime series, one with richly drawn characters and riveting violence.”

There Is No Evil: B+

There is much to be impressed with in this four-part drama from Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, who was famously banned in his homeland. All four stories are centered around capital punishment. I found the first half to be more emotionally involving than the second. Even so, it is a complex, thoughtful anthology that deserves to be seen worldwide 

Citizen Penn: B

There is nothing special about this documentary exploring actor Sean Penn’s noteworthy humanitarian efforts, yet it’s mostly engrossing. And Penn’s efforts truly deserve this spotlight.

My Donkey, My Lover & I: B

My AFI Fest experience came to a close with this charming romantic comedy about a woman who follows her married lover on a mountain vacation. Bubbly and sweet, with a lovely performance by Laure Calamy.

My Little Sister: B

Like Miller in Wander DarklyPhoenix star Nina Hoss makes My Little Sister worth watching. She excels as a wife and mother whose brother (played by Lars Eidinger) is dying of cancer.

Belushi: B-

This clip-heavy documentary is undeniably fascinating; how could a film about John Belushi not be fascinating? Yet anyone who has read about the comedian’s life will find little that is surprising. Still, there is some previously unseen archival footage that makes the doc a must-see for SNL fans.

Jumbo: C+

Portrait of a Lady on Fire standout Noémie Merlant enchants again in this strange comedy about a woman who falls in love with a ferris wheel is never as enjoyable as it should be. Still, there are a few charmingly offbeat moments to enjoy.

Wander Darkly: C+

There is one reason, above all others, to see this drama about a couple whose life is upturned by an accident, and leaves them … well, you’ll see. That reason is Sienna Miller, who once again excels as a woman attempting to grapple with a surreal new reality. The similarly consistent but underrated Diego Luna costars.

Uncle Frank: C

Six Feet Under mastermind Alan Ball’s latest is another disappointment, and a waste of a wonderful cast. The acting from Paul Bettany and company is strong, but the script is mawkish and never surprises 

The Intruder: C-

From my review for The Film Stage: “On paper, Natalia Meta’s film promises wicked, wild supernatural warfare. The reality is something far more disappointing––and sadly, rather dull. Still, this Argentina-set thriller has offbeat humor to spare, and some legitimately clever moments.”

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Sweat: B+

I was pleased to see Magnus von Horn’s film about a social media celebrity and fitness guru take home the festival’s Gold Hugo Award. It is an unexpectedly resonant tale, and features a truly award-worthy lead performance from Magdalena Koleśnik. The final stretch, which involves a stalker and a long-awaited TV appearance, is riveting.

Dear Comrades!: B+

Set in 1962 Moscow and beautifully shot in black and white, Andrei Konchalovsky’s drama masterfully blends dark humor and grim violence. This is a memorable, humanistic look at an important event in European history.

Gaza Mon Amour: B+

The latest from Tarzan and Arab Nasser is a sweet, funny festival entry about an aging Palestinian fisherman, the dressmaker he longs for, and a statue of Apollo. (Yep.) It’s a delightfully unpredictable film.

The Columnist: B

“Don’t read the comments” is a key line in this black comedy about a newspaper columnist who goes Serial Mom on her angry commenters. There is some juicy fun here, but the darker it gets, the less effective it feels. Star Katja Herbers is a delight.

Kubrick by Kubrick: B

As a Stanley Kubrick die-hard, I was predictably intrigued by Gregory Monro’s documentary, which attempts to use the late master’s own words as much as possible. It is, of course, a pleasure to hear Kubrick talk Kubrick. Yet there is something lacking here. Much of the footage of others has been seen many times before. Fascinating? Yes. But not as fresh as a fan might hope.

Fireball: B

Werner Herzog continues his streak of strong documentaries with an exploration of the impact of meteorites. Clive Oppenheimer co-directs this interesting but unexceptional film.

The Dark and the Wicked: B

The latest from Bryan Bertino (The Stranger) is a grim, sober horror film that is surprisingly focused on aging more than jolts. Marin Ireland’s lead performance is a gem.

Careless Crime: B-

No film this festival season has a plot summary quite like this one: “A group of four men in modern-day Iran plot to burn down a movie theater, an act that replicates a historical tragedy that occurred 40 years prior, as society was teetering on revolution.” While it is certainly fascinating, it is also rather tedious and unsatisfying. Crime is a film to be respected, but very difficult to truly engage with.

Striding Into the Wind: B-

If Wei Shujun’s tale of aimless youths in China was, um, a bit shorter, would it rank as a coming-of-age comedy-drama to remember? Perhaps. But at 130 minutes it’s awfully tiresome.

Sleep: C

A nightmarish German thriller that alternates between fantasy and reality, Sleep is admirably weird but not successful.

Of Fish and Men: C

Director Stefanie Klemm’s Swiss thriller is a bit of an oddity, a film that often seems on the verge of success but can’t overcome its missteps. The greatest misstep is a character (you’ll know who) who ranks as one of the most obnoxious screw-ups in recent cinema.

Read the original piece on BuffaloSpree.com.

2020 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL ROUNDUP, FROM ALMODOVAR TO MICHELLE (PFEIFFER)

NYFF 2020

Thanks to COVID-19 — it feels weird saying that, but whatever — I was able to experience the New York Film Festival for the first time. Now, admittedly, there is a qualifier to that statement: I was able to virtually experience the New York Film Festival.

I watched a total of twenty films, twenty-one if I count a re-watch of Nomadland, which I watched at the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks earlier. It was an almost uniformly stellar group. In fact, I was positive about all but one, the last film I watched. You’ll see it at the bottom of the list …

Lovers Rock/Mangrove/Red, White and Blue: A

The three full-length segments in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology that played NYFF were equally extraordinary. Each felt like its own self-contained piece, and yet all three shared traits and feelings. Lover’s Rock, the story of an all-night house party, is the most joyous of the three. Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, on the other hand, were often harrowing, and always bursting with tension. Each featured noteworthy performance, especially John Boyega in Red, White and Blue. Each was emotionally affecting. Each was, dare I say it, a masterpiece. McQueen, the director of Shame and 12 Years a Slave, has reached new heights. And the fact that there are still two more segments to enjoy when Small Axe begins streaming on Amazon Prime is genuinely exciting.

The Human Voice: A-

Pedro Almodovar’s short film starring Tilda Swinton and an adorable dog was shot during the pandemic. In fact, one might argue this is one of the great works of art made during COVID. Swinton unforgettably plays a woman whose life is in a tailspin following the end of a relationship. The only real criticism of this adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s play is that it is just thirty minutes long.

The Disciple: B+

Chaitanya Tamhane’s film about a Indian musician dealing with the expectations and disillusionment earned raves at both TIFF and NYFF. It was warranted. This is one of the most astute films about artistic failure in recent memory.

MLK/FBI: B+

This hard-hitting documentary from Sam Pollard explores the FBI’s unceasing surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a moving and upsetting film, especially the elements touching in King’s assassination.

The Plastic House: B+

From my review for The Film Stage: “The Plastic House is a largely quiet film, one drenched in emotion but never outwardly melodramatic. Often dialogue-free, plotless, and running just 46 minutes, Plastic is a uniquely involving sensory experience.”

Days: B+

The latest from Tsai Ming-liang is a demanding, even rigorous viewing experience. Yet it is also a tremendously moving romance about two lost men. There is no one making films quite like the director of Goodbye, Dragon Inn. But those who are able to put in the time and deal with the pacing are hugely rewarded.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue: B+

No film at NYFF was more visually sumptuous than Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke’s documentary. A uniquely structured piece centered around past and present life in Shanxi province, Swimming is a powerful, fascinating creation that rivals the director’s fiction work.

Beginning: B+

No film I saw at NYFF led me to wrestle with my feelings quite like Beginning, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s story of a Jehova’s Witness wife and mother. There are scenes here of such sudden violence — and, also, simmering, slow-building tension — that I had to watch the film twice. I’m still not entirely certain how I feel. What I know, though, is that Beginning is stunningly powerful and extremely upsetting. Ultimately, I found myself returning to certain images and scenes, and even weeks later, I cannot stop pondering this one.

City Hall: B

Either you embrace the films of Frederick Wiseman or you do not. Yes, they are long (City Hall is four hours long), and delve into the types of minutiae many of us never experience otherwise. But City Hall, a look at Boston city politics from the inside, is a rewarding experience. Not an easy one, but certainly worth it.

The Woman Who Ran: B

As usual, the latest from Hong Sansoo is an involving, often very funny character study. And while this story of a woman visiting a series of friends is ideal for in-home viewing, its final moments make the viewer long for a return to the theatrical moviegoing experience.

Tragic Jungle: B

Perhaps “rollicking” is not the right word, but Jungle certainly has that feel. It is set in a Mayan rainforest in the 1920s and, despite some missteps, nearly pulls off a mix of adventure and mystery. This is the fifth film from Mexican director Yulene Olaizola, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

NotturnoB

Gianfranco Rosi’s anti-war documentary is somber and unsettling. The narrative jumps from person to person lessens the impact, but this is certainly an important film — at times, even a haunting one.

IsabellaB

This loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure by Measure is smart, fanciful, and beautifully made.

The Monopoly of ViolenceB

From my review for The Film Stage: “A note just before the end credits salutes the brave individuals who managed to shoot video during these moments of chaos. It is this footage that makes The Monopoly of Violence a work of tangible, visceral power.”

I Carry You With MeB-

It is understandable why Heidi Ewing’s docudrama is drawing raves; this is a beautiful, epic romance about two men who fall in love in Mexico and make the difficult decision to travel to the U.S. Yet for me, the second half, featuring the real characters on which the film is based, felt forced.

The Truffle Hunters: B-

This French documentary is perfectly pleasant, yet unremarkable. It is far too oh-these-wacky-folks (and their faithful dogs) and not enough exploration of why truffle-hunting is a pastime. Still, it is entertaining, to be sure.

The Salt of Tears: B-

Philippe Garrel’s latest black-and-white tale of doomed love is nothing special, yet feels a bit more fresh than some of his recent efforts.

French Exit: C

This story of privileged (but downward-spiraling) Manhattanites was, for me, a disappointment. It is an oddity, to be sure, and some will find its tart-tongued script appealing. I found it overly sour and never particularly involving, despite the best efforts of a game cast. Michelle Pfeiffer gives her finest performance in years as widowed heiress Frances Price; I hope she’s remembered come Oscar time for her marvelous work.

Read the original piece on BuffaloSpree.com.

Capsule reviews: The Nest, Martin Eden, 12 Hour Shift, and Alone

While much of my viewing and writing in recent weeks has centered around the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival (more to come on the latter soon), I did have time to watch a few new releases. Here are four recommended films to watch at home.

The Nest

Opening in theaters (outside of Buffalo) on September 18 and VOD November 17 (more info)

Is marital drama The Nest a downer? Some will make that argument, but that is a surface-level look at a film that deserves a much deeper exploration. I found it to be darkly fascinating, always involving, and anchored by two powerhouse performances, from Jude Law and Carrie Coon. They play a 1980s-era married couple who move to England for his job, leasing a mammoth country house. Soon, their marriage is failing, their kids are floundering, and don’t even ask about the horses. The Nest is the latest from Martha Marcy May Marlene director Sean Durkin, and it shares that film’s somber, mysterious power. It is one of the year’s best films. [A-]

Martin Eden

Available on virtual cinema (trailer)

The Platform program at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival featured a number of very well-reviewed films, among them Sound of Metal, Proxima, Rocks, and Anne at 13,000 Ft. But the film that took home the Platform Prize was Martin Eden, a Jack London adaptation from director Pietro Marcello. It is not hard to see why, as the Naples-set reimagining of the novel is a swoon-worthy visual stunner. The impressive Luca Marinelli stars as Eden, who attempts to attain fame as a writer in order to woo a woman far beyond his station. Key moments here seem to lack the dramatic strength that would move Eden from good to great, yet it remains an intriguing film. Its final tragic moments feel inevitable — if a tad predictable. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful, often stirring drama [B] 

12 Hour Shift

Available through the North Park Theatre and on-demand (more info)

Brea Grant’s 12 Hour Shift ranks among the wildest and most deliciously nasty releases of recent months. And perhaps the time is right for such a thing. Angela Bettis plays a nurse caught up in organ trafficking whose night takes an even-rougher-than-usual turn when a convict is brought to the hospital. Grant also wrote the film, and deserves major kudos for making subject matter this dark feel hilarious and genuinely entertaining. The final moments, especially, are note-perfect. [B+]

Alone

Available through the North Park Theatre and on-demand (more info)

The first half hour of Alone, a new thriller from director John Hyams, has a positively Duel vibe — and that’s a good thing. The film eventually pivots from the Spielberg-esque mysterious follower motif, and becomes less interesting. Yet there is still plenty to recommend about the film, which stars Jules Wilcox as a woman traveling alone and being followed by a Ned Flanders-ish creep. Wilcox is phenomenal here, proving herself a star-in-the-making. It is imperfect, to be sure, but Alone is a solid, sturdy thriller. [B-]

Brandon Cronenberg’s startling ‘Possessor’ highlights a Dark Alley double bill

Courtesy of Neon

The pop-up cinema known as Dark Alley Drive-In has been one of the few positive developments for local movie fans during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the latest double feature scheduled for the former K-Mart parking lot at 1001 Hertel Avenue might be the most enticing yet. 

This “Cronenberg Double Feature” starting at 8 p.m. consists of David Cronenberg’s 1981 classic, “Scanners,” followed by “Possessor: Uncut,” the second feature from the Canadian filmmaker’s son, Brandon.

While “Scanners,” the iconic story of people with telepathic (and head-exploding) powers  is a welcome view any time, the real draw here is “Possessor.” 

For he eagerly anticipated follow-up to his sharp debut, “Antiviral,” Brandon Cronenberg assembled a stellar — Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Sean Bean, Jennifer Jason Leigh — and a deeply disturbing story of assassins who inhabit (or possess) other people’s bodies. 

The result is an extraordinary sci-fi/horror film that poses complex questions about identity and spiritual theft, while also succeeding at crafting genuinely horrific imagery. (The film’s poster gives a good indication of what’s to come.)

Its ending is even darker than the rest of the film. It also upends the narrative in a way that is both confounding and delightful. “Possessor” is the kind of film that requires a post-watch analysis — as well as a deep-dive on the internet. 

The casting of Riseborough and, especially, Abbott is spot-on. The latter is carving out a fascinating career as a tense, solemn character actor, and his performance in “Possessor” rivals his work in “James White” and First Man.” And Riseborough finds the right mix of intelligence, fragility and outright fear. 

An ability to create feelings of unsettling exhilaration is what truly links Brandon Cronenberg with his father. Yes, there are thematic and aesthetic connections. But the greatest similarity in their work is in their talents at surprising and to provoking the audience. That makes for engaging cinema, and there is no better example than “Possessor.”

It is more than a worthy follow-up to “Antiviral.” It is, in fact, one of the most startling and involving genre films of 2020.

Rating: B+

Post-festival grades for thirty (virtual) TIFF20 entries (for BuffaloSpree.com)

Film stills, clockwise from left: Nomadland, No Ordinary Man, Quo Vadis, Aida?, The Father, Shiva Baby, and David Byrne’s American Utopia.
COURTESY OF TIFF

The 2020 Toronto International Film Festival came to a close on September 20. And while this year’s hybrid model was atypical, the fest itself featured a mostly impressive lineup. I outlined some of the more buzzed-about titles and under-the-radar picks in past buffalospree.com columns, but now that it’s all over, I’m sharing my grades for the thirty entries I caught virtually this year. 

*This piece originally ran on BuffaloSpree.com.

David Byrne’s American Utopia: A-

TIFF’s opening night selection was this Spike Lee-directed document of the former Talking Heads frontman’s Broadway show. It did not disappoint. Utopia might be the greatest concert film since Stop Making Sense — electrifying, funny, and genuinely moving. 

Shiva Baby: A-

From my review for The Film Stage: “Shiva is a viewing experience that is at once hilarious, awkward, uncomfortable, and unforgettable. Writer-director Emma Seligman demonstrates that there is no greater dramatic minefield than that of the family get-together.”

Quo Vadis, Aida?: A-

Strong word-of-mouth caused me to watch Aida, a harrowing drama set during the Bosnian genocide. I am so glad I did. It was one of the festival’s most resonant selections. 

No Ordinary Man: A-

TIFF’s documentary game was particularly strong in 2020, and No Ordinary Man ranks at the top. It is a breathtaking look at trans representation centered around the unforgettable story of late jazz musician Billy Tipton. 

Nomadland: B+

Zhao’s extraordinary Nomadland, a sadly current, ripped-from-the-headlines study of nomad life starring Frances McDormand, was an audience and critical favorite. It deserved the praise, and should fare well come awards time. 

The Father: B+

The Father, a stunning exploration of dementia, features award-worthy turns from Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. Anyone who has watched as a loved one has faded away will find this a difficult but memorable watch. 

Limbo: B+

Ben Sharrock’s warm-hearted yet somber portrait of a Syrian refugee in Scotland was, like Aida, a word-of-mouth sensation at the festival. The ending is particularly moving. 

Another Round: B+

I caught the latest collaboration between director Thomas Vinterberg and star Mads Mikkelsen (following The Hunt) near the end of the fest, and it left me hoping for a re-watch very soon. It’s a sharp, very funny look at maturity, marriage, and heavy drinking. 

New Order: B+

I find myself still wrestling with New Order, a morally complex, chaotic tale of rich-vs.-poor violence in Mexico. I found its sheer power to be almost overwhelming, and unquestionably involving. Yet I cannot argue with the concerns some critics have voiced regarding its view of Mexico’s indigenous people. I look forward to seeing this unsettling film from Michel Franco again, and having the chance to spend more time contemplating its message. 

Wolfwalkers: B+

Wolfwalkers is the latest magical animated treat from the team behind The Secret of Kelis. It is set in seventeenth century Ireland, and features animation that can only be described as gorgeous.

Akilla’s Escape: B+

From my review for The Film Stage: “What it lacks in surprises, Akilla more than makes up for with visual flare, thematic energy, and a major performance from Saul Williams.”

Spring Blossom: B

From my review for The Film Stage: “Suzanne Lindon directed, wrote, and stars in this remarkably assured story of a 16-year-old Parisian who falls for an older man. Though Blossom is a bit slight at just 73 minutes and sometimes prone to posing too many questions, this TIFF entry heralds the arrival of a major international talent.”

One Night in Miami: B

While I was impressed with many elements of Regina King’s feature directorial debut, I was not quite as high on One Night as some of my colleagues. The first half hour was, to me, slow-moving and uninvolving. But once King brings together Malcom X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke together in a Miami hotel room, the film takes off. The final stretch is particularly wonderful.

The Ties: B

Like New Order, I hope to see this Italian drama about a dissolving marriage again at some point. I found it occasionally tiresome but also insightful, with a surprising conclusion that proved very effective.

Under the Open Sky: B

From my review for The Film Stage: “Writer-director Miwa Nishikawa’s film about a recently released former yakuza member is a rich character study that fumbles its landing but remains compelling.”

Apples: B

Filmmaker Christos Nikou has worked as an assistant director for Yorgos Lanthimos, and it shows; Apples is a tonal cousin of films like Dogtooth. It is a beguiling, not entirely satisfying account of an amnesia pandemic.

Beans: B

An important film that shines a light on the 1990 standoff between Quebec’s Mohawk communities and government, Beans is powerful when it focuses on this key moment in Canadian history, less so when stuck in coming-of-age drama mode. 

Memory House: B

The hardest film to watch at TIFF may have been João Paulo Miranda Maria’s imaginative study of an indigenous man who suffers near-constant abuse. Viewers who can stick with it are well-rewarded. 

Violation: B

Violation is an upsetting, altogether fascinating non-linear revenge thriller. Like Memory House, it is difficult to watch but pays off. Co-director Madeleine Sims-Fewer gave one of the festival’s finest performances. 

Like a House on Fire: B-

Jesse Noah Klein’s story of a woman’s struggle to reconnect with her daughter is unremarkable but heartfelt. The rather rote story is saved by fine acting and a strong emotional pull. 

The Best Is Yet to Come: B-

From my review for The Film Stage: “The timely, China-set investigative drama is compelling and important, to be sure. But there are numerous missteps that lessen the impact and slow down the dramatic energy.”

Good Joe Bell: B-

Many critics were unkind to Bell, and it’s not hard to see why. Mark Wahlberg is atypically cast as a father who walks across the country to raise awareness of the impact of bullying, while the script takes some wildly emotional sudden turns. But Wahlberg gives a fine performance, and even better is Reid Miller as a teenager facing homophobic bullies. It is certainly imperfect, but also a worthy exploration of a tough topic..  

Wildfire: C+

Cathy Brady’s film about two Irish sisters recovering from a tragedy is well-acted by leads Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noone, but never as fresh or inventive as it should be. 

True Mothers: C+

Writer-director Naomi Kawase earned praise for her story of motherhood and adoption, but it never connected for me. 

Night of the Kings: C

An African prison drama from Philippe Lacôte, Kings is unbearably intense. That intensity left me feeling exhausted, not exhilarated.

Concrete Cowboy: C

From my review for The Film Stage: “Cowboy is watchable, well-acted, and occasionally moving. It’s also overly predictable and never transcends the tropes of the standard coming-of-age drama.” It features an exceptional turn from Stranger Things star Caleb McLaughlin and sturdy support from Idris Elba. 

Summer of 85: C

From my review for The Film Stage: “Summer of 85 is in-between the sublime and the absurd, drama and thriller, compelling and monotonous. It is utterly so-so, but it is also, undeniably, so-Ozon.” That’s a reference to Swimming Pool director François Ozon.

Pieces of a Woman: C-

Vanessa Kirby is extraordinary and award-worthy as a mother trying to recover from tragedy in the uncomfortably harrowing, manipulative Pieces of a Woman. The opening stretch is undeniably gripping, but the rest feels utterly hollow. 

Shadow in the Cloud: C-

Chloë Grace Moretz energizes (but cannot save) this absurdly silly World War II thriller. It may have been more fun with an in-person Midnight Madness crowd.

Passion Simple: D+

Based on a French bestseller, this story of an obsessive affair was the most forgettable film I saw at TIFF, despite a game performance from star Laetitia Dosch.

In addition to the reviews linked above, I was happy to be one of the 127 critics to contribute to a post-festival survey for Indiewire and one of fifteen critics to contribute to a survey for a favorite site of mine, Seventh Row

And … that’s that. While TIFF20 is in the books, watch for my post-festival feature in the November issue of Buffalo Spree. I’ll also soon be sharing some coverage of the 2020 New York Film Festival, as well. See you next year, Toronto! Hopefully, in person …

A Zoom Interview with ‘Ravage’ Writer/Director Teddy Grennan (by Alycia Ripley)

Ravage writer/director Teddy Grennan, with star Annabelle Dexter-Jones.

Writer Alycia Ripley speaks with Teddy Grennan, writer/director of Ravage about his new film: motivation, influences, the trials of shooting on location, film funding, his casting process, Ravage‘s inventive third act, and the film festival he founded (Sun Valley Film Fest). An engaging and down-to-earth creative force, Grennan shares the kind of tidbits aspiring writer/directors can build upon in their own work and sheds humor on the challenges of the film industry. (Check out Alycia’s review of the film here.)

Capsule reviews: Helmut Newton, John Lewis, Relic, The Beach House, and Fisherman’s Friends

Helmut Newton, ARENA, MIAMI
IMAGES FROM HELMUT NEWTON: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL — PHOTOS BY HELMUT NEWTON, COURTESY OF THE HELMUT NEWTON FOUNDATION.STILLS FROM THE BEACH HOUSE COURTESY OF EXILE PR.

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Available through the North Park Theatre

The documentary Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful might not be as provocative as the work of the photographer, but it is nevertheless a wildly entertaining, conversation-starting study of a master artist. The late Newton was known for his nudity-filled photos of women for magazines like Vogue, and the work still packs a punch. The Bad and the Beautiful is appropriately celebratory but also explores the controversies of Newton’s work. A TV exchange with Susan Sontag is particularly compelling. Featuring interviews with an array of fascinating figures — among them, Anna Wintour, Grace Jones, Marianne Faithfull, Isabella Rossellini, and Charlotte Rampling — and interview footage of Newton himself, Bad is as colorful as its subject. 

John Lewis: Good Trouble

Available through Dipson Theatres and the North Park Theatre, and VOD

Congressman John Lewis passed away on July 17 after a lifetime of advocacy and service. That life is chronicled in detail in the documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble, a must-see film — now more than ever. The sight of Lewis as the film begins, walking slowly but with great purpose through Washington, D.C., is tremendously powerful. So is the film, which explores his important role in the fight for civil rights and his continued efforts for the greater good. Good Trouble is a fitting tribute to a legendary figure. 

Relic

Available on VOD

Relic, the debut film from writer-director Natalie Erika James, is a haunting story of an elderly woman’s strange disappearance and even stranger reappearance. The woman’s daughter (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) come to help, but both are soon drawn into the mystery of the family home. It culminates in a genuinely moving finale, one that might not thrill all horror fans but, with contemplation, feels remarkably bold.

The Beach House

Available on VOD

The Beach House, the feature directorial debut of Jeffrey A. Brown, is just as gripping as Relic. The story involves a young couple visiting a seaside home, the sudden appearance of an older couple, and an icky contagion. Just wait until you see what happens to the foot of the protagonist, nicely played by Liana Liberato. With a dash of Cronenberg and a touch of COVID paranoia, The Beach House is a legitimately strong horror film.

Fisherman’s Friends

Available through the North Park Theatre and on VOD

British comedy Fisherman’s Friends is the kind of audience-pleaser Miramax Films and Fox Searchlight once excelled at — consider the likes of Brassed Off and The Full Monty. While Friends is not as memorable as those 1990s favorites, it’s a sweet, enjoyable effort about a London music exec who — as a joke — signs a group of sea shanty-singing fishermen in a small town.