Nicholas Jarecki’s Crisis suffered the misfortune of being releases just weeks after some outrageously awful PR for co-star Armie Hammer (who is undeniably quite good here). That’s a shame, as this multi-layered exploration of the opioid crisis is a fine film, one written with empathy, acted with passion, and directed with efficiency. It is hard to escape the sense that we have seen variations of the three main stories before — an undercover DEA agent, a crusading medical researcher, a recovering addict mother whose life is torn apart by the illegal drug trade — and that keeps Crisis from greatness. However, the film deserves to be seen. The strongest story, by far, is centered on a drug researcher and college professor played by Gary Oldman. Upon finding that a soon-to-be-approved wonder drug is addictive, he faces a moral dilemma, one that could cost him his livelihood. There is a freshness to this particular tale; it is not often we’ve seen the ethics of big-money scientific research or the ambiguity of academic tenure onscreen. I could not help but think that Crisis could have made an appropriately sprawling streaming series, but as a two-hour film, it is still an admirable and passionate effort from the talented Jarecki.
The latest from the great Christian Petzold (Phoenix, Transit) is without question one of the most delightfully mysterious — and best — films of 2021. The hypnotic blend of fantasy and memory stars the splendid Paula Beer as a Berlin historian recovering from a breakup and the always reliable Franz Rogowski as a professional diver who falls for her. Playing with myth, Berlin history, and emotional trauma, Petzold crafts a film both unsettling and uniquely memorable.
OK, here is one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. I held out little hope for Disney’s live-action Cruella De Vil origin story, and admittedly, it is hard to call the film necessary. Yet director Craig Gillespie and star Emma Stone have fashioned a wildly entertaining, enjoyable over-the-top success that managed to please my kids and me equally. Stone is marvelous, and equally strong are villainess Emma Thompson and the delightful duo of Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser. The setting — 1960s and 70s London — is part of the charm. But what makes Cruella really work is that Gillespie and company truly embrace the over-the-top plot and run with it.
A Quiet Place Part II: B+
Another somewhat surprising success is John Krasinski’s sequel to A Quiet Place. Why is it surprising? While the first film was enjoyably suspenseful, the nature of the story seemed difficult to continue effectively. However, it is a more expansive tale that is full of surprises. Emily Blunt is as strong here as she was in the first film, as are Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe as her determined but ever-stressed children. The greatest addition here is Cillian Murphy as a neighbor who reluctantly assists the family in their quest to stay alive. Featuring some stupendous parallel editing and killer jolts, A Quiet Place Part II is a fine film to herald the full-scale return to cinemas. The ultra-sudden ending is a bit of a letdown — although it is no surprise, really — but seeing Western New York sights and people on-screen adds to the fun.
Wrath of Man: Guy Ritchie’s latest is lean, mean, twisty, and violent. In other words, it’s ideal for a return to the movies. Jason Statham, reunited with Ritchie after the disappointing Revolver, brings just the right mix of stoicism and barely concealed rage to this vengeance-driven tale of cash truck heists. I was a fan of the director’s previous effort, The Gentlemen, but Wrath might be his most effective film since The Man From U.N.C.L.E. B+
The Mauritanian: Kevin Maconald’s film about a prisoner from Mauritania held in Guantanamo Boy is at times formulaic and predictable. However, the performances from Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster are revelatory. Rahim, especially, is stunningly powerful. He and foster lead a stand-out cast that also includes Benedict Cumberbatch and Shailene Woodley. It is a flawed film that certainly deserves to be seen, and I expect it will find a larger audience at home. (Now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.) B-
About Endlessness: A Roy Andersson film will never be mistaken for one by any other filmmaker. Quite frankly, his darkly comic takes on reality and fantasy are unmistakable. His latest, About Endlessness, is my favorite since Songs From the Second Floor. The sketches are a bit les surreal than some of his past works, but no less compelling and moving. The most memorable recurring character is the older man continually fixated on a former classmate who ignored his greeting. (Available to rent.) A-
The Djinn: This horror film centered on a mute boy recovering from family tragedy has style and atmosphere to spare. However, the story is ponderous and the frustrating. The lead performance from young Ezra Dewey is notable. The film, sadly, is not. (In cinemas and on-demand.) C-
The Dry: Eric Bana makes a welcome return to the big screen in a reasonably involving take on Jane Harper’s detective novel. Bana is fine as a federal agent who returns to his hometown to deal with the murder-suicide of a friend from his youth. The end twist was rather obvious, but The Dry is never boring, and packs a surprising punch. (In cinemas and on-demand.) B
Come True: Anthony Scott Burns’ psychological horror film scared the hell out of me — and ensured I’ll never participate in a sleep study. Julia Sarah Stone is heartbreaking as a troubled teen both desperate for — and haunted by — sleep. Come True deserves cult classic status, and I hope to see its rep grow over time. (Available to rent.) B+
Saint Maud: For months, there was growing buzz around Rose Glass’ British horror film, Saint Maud, and it continued unabated when A24 delayed its release. The wait was worth it, and the hype was completely warranted. We are unlikely to see a better performance in 2021 than that of Morfyyd Clark, whose devout nurse becomes increasingly unhinged. It builds to a fiery conclusion that is, in a word, unforgettable. (Now streaming on Hulu.) A
I had the opportunity to write about the Buffalo hockey fan documentary in the May issue of Buffalo Spree — see feature below — and found it to be an intimate, moving, and entertaining documentary exploring the special relationship that exists between the Buffalo Sabres and the team’s long-suffering—but ever-enthusiastic—fanbase. Director Mary Wall and producer Eric Wojtanik smartly found a unique, memorable group of Western New Yorkers to follow, and seeing their reactions as the Sabres fortunes rise and fall is genuinely involving. It’s a highly recommended film for Buffalonians, of course, yet any sports fan will relate. It more than earns a B+.
As Buffalo News sports columnist Mike Harrington put it in on March 12, “In what might rate as the least surprising thing that’s happened to the Buffalo Sabres in recent weeks, season ticket holders did not snap up all the tickets for the March 20 game against the Boston Bruins, the first in KeyBank Center open to fans in more than a year.” Indeed, only a few hundred season ticket holders chose to claim tickets, significantly fewer than the 1,900 seats the team made available.
It was a sadly telling sign of how far the Buffalo Sabres have fallen in the eyes of Western New Yorkers and in the standings. (To be fair, snagging tickets for the game also required a COVID-19 test, which could add to the cost.)
Though Sabres’ faithful are as devoted as any in professional sports, they need a reason to believe. The last time that was the case? Probably the tail-end of the 2011-12 season. That time period is covered in remarkably vivid detail in The Fan Connection, an intimate, moving, and entertaining documentary exploring the special relationship that exists between the Buffalo Sabres and the team’s long-suffering—but ever-enthusiastic—fanbase.
The 2019 Buffalo International Film Festival selection made its virtual premiere in February 2021 through the Fredonia Opera House, giving more Western New Yorkers the chance to experience the film, and maybe even spot themselves. (Visit fanconnectionmovie.com/see-the-film for additional streaming news.)
For director Mary Wall and producer Eric Wojtanik, the journey from concept to getting the film before audiences has been long but rewarding.
“An incredible sense of urgency”
Wall grew up outside of Buffalo, and, after stints as a teacher and environmental engineer, she moved to Los Angeles where she worked on NBC’s The Office and Parks and Recreation. She even earned a Writers Guild Awards nomination for writing an Office webisode. While on a hiatus from that job in 2006, she returned to Hamburg to spend time with her family.
“It happened to coincide with the incredible Sabres playoff run, ending in a loss to Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals,” Wall says. “Throughout the run, I was taken by the sense of community it brought to Buffalo and Western New York. Then, after the loss to Carolina, I remember seeing fans at the airport welcoming the team home and thanking them for the run. These were fans who had just been devastated by the loss and still found it in themselves to express gratitude to the players. That struck me as special, and I wanted to explore that idea.”
The idea for The Fan Connection took shape over the next five years. “In 2011, I was visiting just after Terry and Kim Pegula had purchased the team,” Wall says. “The Sabres came from the bottom of the league to make the playoffs. Everywhere I went, it seemed everyone was talking about winning the Stanley Cup in the next three years. It almost seemed like a given at that time. I felt an incredible sense of urgency.”
Wall felt that telling a story about Buffalo through the fans of its hockey team was ripe ground for a documentary: “This was a story about loyalty in the face of near-constant disappointment. It wouldn’t be the same if the Sabres had won a championship; it’s easy to cheer for a winner.”
Finding (and filming) fans
With a concept in place, casting sessions were held in August 2011. Over the course of five days, the filmmakers met with roughly 170 people and narrowed that list to thirty-plus. Wall met with each personally, and then picked thirteen to follow over the next four years. “While everyone ended up in the movie in some way, it was through several years of editing that we narrowed it down to the three stories in the final cut,” she says.
In a happy coincidence, filming occurred during the Sabres’ 2012 playoff push. The team missed the playoffs, but Wall is unsure whether that made for a better or worse conclusion:
“What I like about the ending we have in the movie is the sense of possibility it provides. Even though a large part of the city’s and the individuals’ identities are centered around the Sabres, both the city and the individuals are able to experience their own growth even when the team loses. There’s something I really like about the realization that the power to make a better community or to better your own life lies within you.”
A challenging release
While making the film was a joy, getting it seen has been tricky. Producer Eric Wojtanik says the pandemic profoundly complicated distribution plans.
“We spent close to a year mapping out a plan, which was largely built around booking live, in-person screenings with independent theaters,” he says. “By mid-March 2020, everything changed. It took time, but toward the end of the year we pivoted to a new plan centered around virtual events and educational screenings for universities.”
Interestingly, he sees parallels between the process of bringing the film before audiences, and Buffalo’s lengthy road to rebirth and renaissance: “There are no silver-bullet solutions. A major distributor is not going to swoop in and acquire The Fan Connection, much like Bass Pro and big box development wasn’t the solution for improving Buffalo. In both cases, the only way to achieve real tangible success is through the hard work and dedication of those most invested. Also, in both cases, there’s a lot of work left to do.”
In addition to more screenings, the filmmakers are working to finish Fan Connection bonus features for a Kickstarter backers’ DVD. Wojtanik notes that they are also “trying to shape a story that utilizes some of the unused footage shot during the making of the film to examine Buffalo’s history and current situation through the lens of racial and social equity in urban development.”
As more audiences see the film beyond WNY, Wall says she is learning that the story of Buffalo fan passions is relatable to fans everywhere. “We’ve had people reach out to say this reminds them of Nebraska Cornhuskers, New York Mets, New York Knicks, and Chicago Cubs fans,” she says. “That is pushing us to work to continue to get this story out there to more cities.”
The ongoing pandemic meant that 2021 was the first year in which I had the opportunity to attend the Sundance Film Festival. Well, virtually attend. As with the Buffalo, Toronto, New York, Chicago, and AFI festivals, Sundance shifted to a mix of virtual and in-person screenings. The results were extraordinary, with more than 500,000 views of the film program.
In terms of quality, I’m happy to say I found the festival a mostly stellar experience. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to discover so many unique small-scale and independent films — as well as one Nicolas Cage-starring Mad Max-esque Western (!).
Here are my 2021 Sundance rankings.
From my review for The Film Stage: Flee “ranks as one of the most uniquely memorable animated films of the last decade. It is remarkably successful as a study of the refugee experience, as a coming-of-age drama set against a backdrop of fear and danger, and as a tribute to one individual’s ability to survive and even flourish. More than deserving of its selection as Grand Jury Prize winner in Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition, Flee is an extraordinary achievement. ”
The Sparks Brothers: A-
Before watching Edgar Wright’s documentary about the band Sparks, I was aware of the Mael brothers, but only by appearance. This hugely entertaining career study made me appreciate the band’s music in a major way. It is the type of film you may want to watch again seconds after it ends. Yes, it’s that strong. (Cue up “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” right now.)
Rebecca Hall’s feature directorial debut, an adaptation of the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, is a fascinating and moving study of identity and race. The performances of Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are revelatory, and Hall excels at crafting moments that are subtle but hard-hitting.
The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet: A-
This offbeat, black-and-white Argentinian drama snuck up on me. It’s a bit coming-of-age drama, a tad satire, a pinch political. In final analysis, The Dog is altogether beautiful, strange, and unforgettable.
Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised): A-
Roots drummer Questlove’s directorial debut is a joyous documentary featuring footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Considered lost for years, this archival footage is jaw-dropping. There won’t be a better music doc released in 2021.
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World: A-
A documentary about Björn Andrésen, the iconic young star of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, Boy seems to have hit me harder than some Sundance attendees. To me, Andrésen’s tale is wildly compelling, and this look at his sudden thrust into teenage fame and descent into a difficult and sad adulthood was extremely moving.
From my review for The Film Stage: “It is hard to think of a recent horror film in which the main character is tasked with a job as original and ingenious as Enid Baines, the protagonist of Prano Bailey-Bond’s riveting Censor. She is, yes, the titular censor. It is 1980s England, the time of ‘video nasties’ that drew parental consternation and tabloid outrage. These were the low-budget, ultra-violent VHS cassettes that earned their own category in the collective consciousness. Not all were UK productions. In Censor, however, the nasties are homegrown, in more ways than one.”
On the Count of Three: B+
Comedian Jerrod Carmichael stars in and directs one of the festival’s most pleasant surprises, a sharp, funny, somber buddy film featuring another great performance from Christopher Abbott. Annapurna picked this one up, and I expect it will draw some well-deserved attention upon release.
Judas and the Black Messiah: B+
It has been fascinating to read some of the mixed reviews that have accompanied Shaka King’s film about the Black Panther Party and its chairman, Fred Hampton. Some great points have been made, especially this from Angelica Jade Bastién, but I found the film powerful and involving. Daniel Kaluuya is riveting as Hampton.
In the Same Breath: B+
One Child Nation director Nanfu Wang’s documentary is a first-hand account of the early days of COVID-19 in China. While it does not quite have the impact of 76 Days, this is a profound and unmissable film. It will air soon on HBO.
An involving documentary about Texas teenagers, Cusp is breathtakingly intimate. Let’s hope for a follow-up centered around these same teens in a few years.
Perhaps the most controversial film of Sundance 2021, Pleasure is an explicit drama set in the L.A. porn scene. There has been some cogent analysis of Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature (especially Orla Smith’s review for Seventh Row), and reading these has definitely impacted my opinion of the film. It is hard to watch but unquestionably important, and star Sofia Kappel gives a simply stunning performance.
Prisoners of the Ghostland: B
Sion Sono’s ultra-violent, dystopian Western starring Nicolas Cage hit me just right. Wild, adrenalized, and often very funny, Prisoners is one of Cage’s finest (and strangest) action films. It would be a blast to see it in a packed cinema.
Misha and the Wolves: B
From my review for The Film Stage of the twisty documentary Misha and the Wolves: “The story of Misha Defonseca checks a number of boxes on the documentary checklist. Serious surprises? Juicy legal proceedings? Jaw-dropping historical details? Check, check, check. And there is one more box to check: Stories that were too good to be true.”
Actor Fran Kranz wrote and directed this searing drama about the aftermath of a school shooting. It is undeniably powerful, but too stagey to have a lasting impact. Still, there is plenty to savor in this one, especially the performances from its main cast — Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney.
There is no question that Sian Heder’s story of a teenager living with her deaf parents and brother was the big winner at Sundance. It’s a sweet, heartwarming, and very funny film — but others found it far more impressive than I did. Still, it’s a winner, and Apple audiences will adore it.
There has never been an animated film quite like Cryptozoo, and while I found it moderately satisfying, it drew some raves at Sundance. Director Dash Shaw’s world of fantastic creatures is dark, violent, and utterly unique.
While the script for Clint Bentley’s likable film about an aging jockey often feels rote, there is no denying the award-worthy performance from Collins. He is simply unforgettable.
All Light Everywhere: B
This documentary exploring shared histories — centered around police body cameras — was the festival’s most mentally challenging entry. It will likely benefit from a second viewing.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair: B
One of the negatives of a virtual film festival — or in-person, really — is that the sheer number of entries means one does not always focus properly. I wish I’d spent more time pondering this bold study of online role-playing and loneliness; I look forward to seeing World’s Fair again one day, and expect that when I do, it will rise even more in my mind. Even so, it is a film I would certainly recommend.
The World to Come: B-
World boasts two powerhouse performances, from Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby, and has a strong premise. Ultimately, however, the drama feels a bit underwhelming. It is certainly worth a watch for Waterston and Kirby.
One for the Road: C+
This Wong-kar Wai production looks positively wonderful and has some nice moments, but overall it’s a disappointment. A ho-hum road movie set in New York City and Thailand, Road may play better outside of the festival setting.
Robin Wright stars in and directs this tale of a woman who decides to leave society and move into a cabin in the woods. She gives a fine performance and shows some real promise as a filmmaker, but the premise simply never feels fresh.
Ambitious, visually enticing, and a bit dull, Karen Cinorre’s unique debut feels like it would’ve made a fantastic short. As a feature-length film, this fantasy drama felt lacking.
Of all the films I saw at Sundance, Hive might be the most forgettable. That’s a shame, since this well-intentioned drama about a woman in Kosovo who starts a small business is based on the true story of a very admirable individual.
A Glitch in the Matrix: C
Room 237 director Rodney Ascher’s latest documentary explores a mind-bending topic: simulation theory. Yet it never coalesces into anything memorable. I was never bored, but never felt very engaged, either.
The Blazing World: C-
Despite some memorable visuals, Carlson Young’s horror film saddles a nice cast — Udo Kier, Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw — with a substandard story. Still, director/star Young shows some promise.
In the Earth: D+
From my review for The Film Stage: “Creating a new film is not the worst way to spend some forced COVID-19 downtime. It is, however, no excuse for making one as tiresome and disappointing as In the Earth. There are no new insights into pandemic mania, and despite strong performances from four well-cast actors, some sharp humor, and a few go-for-broke moments that engage, the majority of director Ben Wheatley’s horror film is an utter slog.”
Exploring Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, a history of folk horror, and a raucous pregnancy comedy
Just a few weeks after the Sundance Film Fest came the opportunity to attend another virtual festival, South by Southwest. The annual Austin, Texas collection of films, concerts, conversations, and more moved online for 2021. And while it did not offer the pleasures of Sundance, it was nevertheless a unique opportunity to experience new cinema.
I ended up seeing two truly great films, a couple very good ones, and then lots that I would categorize as so-so (or worse). Here are my 2021 SXSW rankings.
From my review for The Film Stage: “The title of 2021 Berlinale and SXSW selection Ninjababy might conjure thoughts of wacky superhero adventures; ‘Ninjababy’ could be Astro Boy or Turbo Kid’s infant cousin. Director Yngvild Sve Flikke’s film, based on Inga H Sætre’s graphic novel, is no superhero adventure, although it is a bit wacky. Rather, Ninjababy is a delightfully unruly, genuinely moving portrait of a young woman stuck in a situation with no easy way out. Smartly plotted and downright hilarious, it features a star-making performance from lead Kristine Kujath Thorp.”
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A-
The most unique, compelling, and enjoyably upsetting film of SXSW was Kier-La Janisse’s three-hour (!) exploration of folk horror, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched. This stunning deep-dive into the history and art of this genre includes oodles of film clips and commentary from a fascinating group of historians, authors, and filmmakers. While I found the first two hours a bit more enthralling than the third — I was especially interested in the sections exploring U.K. folk horror, like the iconic horror film The Wicker Man — Woodlands is so strong, and so deep, that one finishes wanting even more. This is a truly stunning film.
Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free: B+
From my review for The Film Stage: “The Tom Petty in this documentary is both joyful and devastated, powerful and wounded. This dichotomy exists in many of Petty’s greatest songs, and as Somewhere shows, it is essential to understanding how the Wildflowers album came to be. The ability to see all of this for ourselves is what makes the film more than a standard making-of doc. As Petty says on-screen, ‘I had no control over what I wrote this time. I didn’t edit myself.’ In Somewhere You Feel Free, we have a very rare––and very welcome––opportunity to see that truth for ourselves.”
The Fallout: B+
There have been a number of films centered on the aftermath of school shootings at recent festivals, and The Fallout might be the best yet. While there is nothing new here, exactly, Megan Park’s film stands out due to the performance of Jenni Ortega. The former Disney Channel star finds just the right mix of sadness and hope as the emotionally devastated survivor of a California shooting.
Alien On Stage: B
From my review for The Film Stage: “The documentary is the rather delightful story of a group of bus drivers and crew in Dorset, England, who stage an amateur performance for charity each year. Most years, that meant family-friendly pantomimes around Christmastime. But those days are over. Recently, the Dorset thespians brought Ridley Scott’s Alien to the stage. The film is a sweet treat for Alien fans, cinephiles, and anyone who gets goosebumps at the sight of let’s-put-on-a-show enthusiasm.”
See You Then: B
This conversation-heavy drama about the reunion of two exes is beautifully acted by stars Pooya Mohseni and Lynn Chen, and features piercing dialogue from writer-director Mari Walker.
Here Before: B
A psychological drama set in Belfast, this story of a wife and mother dealing with the death of a child is remarkably acted by Andrea Riseborough. While the story is not ultimately satisfying, Riseborough’s standout performance is a reason to watch. Her pain and fear is palpable.
Kevin Smith fans will be delighted by this documentary tracing his career from convenience store employee in New Jersey to breakout writer-director with films like Clerks and Chasing Amy. Smith is an ever-gregarious storyteller, but interest flags after the section documenting the controversial Dogma. Still, even though the stories here have been told before, it’s an enjoyable watch.
Haunting and unsettling, this eco-horror film is not an easy watch. But viewers who have the stomach to stick with this tale of a woman who comes upon a man and his son deep in the forest is certainly memorable and always unpredictable.
Our Father: B-
The first film from writer-director Bradley Grant Smith is an often funny but rather dreary look at two sisters brought back together after their father’s suicide. There is much to savor here, most notably the performance from star Allison Torem.
As Justine Bateman’s film came to a close, I found myself a bit conflicted about this look at a film executive whose inner voice may have been steering her wrong. Yet even when the “voice” element feels rote, there is Olivia Munn. She gives a remarkably layered performance here — one of the festival’s finest.
The Feast: B-
A shockingly bloody horror entry set in rural Wales, The Feast is a strange, sometimes hard to follow film about a dinner party you do *not* want to attend.
How it Ends: C+
I might be in the minority with this one, but as much I respected the tone of star/writer/co-director (with Daryl Wein) Zoe Lister-Jones’ film about the last day on earth, the story left me bored. This one could be a cult classic in the making, and I could see myself finding more to enjoy on a second viewing. There is no question that Jones is the real deal.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion: C
Creepy conspiracies and grainy VHS nightmares are great on paper, but Jacob Gentry’s film never adds up to anything truly compelling. Still, there is style to spare; Gentry is a filmmaker to watch, for sure.
Potato Dreams of America: C-
Wes Hurley’s autobiographical film about his closeted childhood in the U.S.S.R. has an admirable go-for-broke energy, but also feels like an amateurish production. I look forward to seeing what’s next from Hurley, but Potato Dreams did not work for me.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Bird, Room, 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 Escape, The Best Is Yet to Come, Under the Open Sky, Shiva Baby, Summer of 85, Concrete Cowboy, and Spring Blossom on thefilmstage.com.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
This loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure by Measure is smart, fanciful, and beautifully made.
The Monopoly of Violence: B
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 Me: B-
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.