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:
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.
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.
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 Darkly, Phoenix 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.