Which films impressed at this year's major fall festivals?
The fact that two of the three major fall film festivals happened at all—albeit in new, socially distanced formats—in such an eventful year offered a welcome hint at normalcy during traumatic times. Telluride, which normally kicks off the fall festival season, was canceled outright, but the 77th annual Venice International Film Festival proceeded relatively normally (with smaller audience sizes and twice the number of screenings) early this month, while the just-wrapped 2020 Toronto International Film Festival mixed in-person indoor and outdoor exhibitions and virtual screenings for its smaller-than-normal film slate.
At Venice, the Cate Blanchett-led jury awarded Chloé Zhao's Nomadland top honors, and TIFF audiences (the festival is unjuried) followed up by selecting the same film this weekend. The latter award is almost always a predictor of future Oscar nominations (and, in particular, a best picture nomination), though with the 2020 awards season extended into the opening months of next year and film release schedules still in flux, it seems foolish to forecast anything about the future at this point.
Below, we summarize the reactions of critics to all of the major films debuting at this year's TIFF and Venice festivals. Note that films which previously debuted at January's Sundance Film Festival or that have already opened in North American theaters (like the just-released The Way I See It) are not included here. Also not included is Bruised, the high-profile MMA drama directed by Halle Berry that was just acquired by Netflix at TIFF for close to $20 million. Because the film screened as a work in progress, it has not been reviewed by critics yet.
The standouts and major award winners
Documentary | USA | Directed by Hao Wu and Weixi Chen
Thanks to two reporters in Wuhan and their co-director, Hao Wu (People's Republic of Desire), who edited the footage while in lockdown in Atlanta, citizens around the world can see what it was like at ground zero during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. The focus is on hospital workers and their patients, resulting in what The Film Stage's Christian Gallichio believes is a “profoundly visceral look into how one hospital dealt with the raging virus.” In her review for THR, Sheri Linden calls it a “remarkable front-line report,” and /Film's Jason Gorber is impressed by how the documentary “manages in a concise and remarkable way to illustrate not only the ravages of this new virus but how its effects continue to resonate no matter the political forces looking to downplay its risks.”
Drama/Comedy | Greece/Poland/Slovenia | Directed by Christos Nikou
Christos Nikou’s debut feature brought him comparisons to fellow Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, for whom he worked as an assistant director on Dogtooth. But this story of a man struggling to recover his memory after being infected by a mysterious amnesia pandemic that’s sweeping through Athens is less ironic and more sincere than the work of his countryman. Writing for Screen Daily, Wendy Ide finds it “distinctive enough never to feel derivative of its influences,” and David THR's David Rooney believes “Nikou strikes a pleasing balance between ironic observation and melancholy reality, subtly modulating the tone.” In his review for Variety, Peter Debruge adds, “It tickles the imagination, inviting us to consider the prospect of being given a new beginning, and whether starting from scratch would be such a terrible thing.”
The Best Is Yet to Come
Drama | China | Directed by Jing Wang
Jumping from assistant director for Jia Zhang-ke (Ash Is Purest White) to helming his first feature, Wang Jing tells the story of an idealistic reporter who discovers information that could change the lives of 100 million people. Based on a true story and set in 2003 China, it’s a “thoroughly invigorating blend of character study and investigative thriller,” according to Screen Daily's John Berra. Even though he’s less enthusiastic overall, Christopher Schobert of The Film Stage still believes it’s a “powerful, worthy tale of investigative writing and compassionate reportage.”
Documentary | USA | Directed by Frederick Wiseman
For his latest exhaustive (or is that “exhausting,” considering its 4 1/2 hour runtime) documentary, legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman (Monrovia, Indiana, Ex Libris, In Jackson Heights, National Gallery, At Berkeley) turns his camera on his hometown of Boston, and more specifically, the city’s government and the man leading it, Democratic mayor Matt Walsh. Variety's Guy Lodge finds the documentary “both sober and inspiring: an urban progress report taking into account a plethora of government services, scrutinized by Wiseman’s patient but unblinking eye.” And Lee Marshall of Screen Daily believes the film is “remarkable for its view of a disparate groups of American citizens talking, explaining, disagreeing, correcting, persuading, conceding and engaging with one another.”
David Byrne's American Utopia
Documentary/Music | USA | Directed by Spike Lee
Thirty-six years after Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, Spike Lee steps into the director’s chair to preserve another live performance led by David Byrne—this time, his acclaimed Broadway show American Utopia. Filmed during its run at the Hudson Theatre, the show brings new life to songs from Byrne’s whole career as he’s joined by a group of 11 musicians, singers, and dancers who roam freely around the stage. The Playlist's Robert Daniels believes Byrne and Lee “make a perfect pair,” resulting in something “exhilarating and joyful,” and in his review for COS, Joe Lipsett states, “Quite simply: it’s a joy.” Writing for Slant, Pat Brown adds, “American Utopia feels as much like a balm as it is a surprisingly direct call to political action and social betterment.” The film will bypass theaters and instead debut on HBO (and HBO Max) on October 17.
Drama/Comedy | UK | Directed by Roger Michell
Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) reunites with his Le Week-End star, Jim Broadbent, for this true story about a working-class man who, in 1961, steals Francisco Goya’s painting of the Duke of Wellington from London’s National Gallery. This “delightful true-crime caper comes bolstered by a terrific lead performance from Jim Broadbent,” resulting in a “lovely, rousing, finally moving film,” writes Xan Brooks for The Guardian. Also starring Helen Mirren, the film is “such an expertly crafted and highly polished piece of warmhearted escapism that it’s difficult to resist,” according to Nicholas Barber’s IndieWire review. And in her B+ review for The Playlist, Jessica Kiang hails The Duke as a “ridiculously charming British comedy.”
Venice Grand Jury Prize (2nd Place) Winner
Drama | Mexico | Directed by Michel Franco
|2019||An Officer and a Spy||56|
The latest from Mexican writer-director Michel Franco (Chronic) won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize (second place) at the Venice Film Festival, and like his previous films, it is not an easy sit. Depicting a coup from the vantage of the 1%, it’s “easily his most political and his most distressingly provocative” film, according to THR's David Rooney, who adds, “Calling it grim is an understatement.” In his C+ review for IndieWire, Nicholas Barber warns that the film is “endurance cinema that reaches Haneke and von Trier levels of walk-out-ability.” But at The Playlist, Carlos Aguilar claims it “shocks with blistering purpose.”
TIFF People's Choice Winner
Venice Golden Lion (1st Place) Winner
Drama | USA | Directed by Chloé Zhao
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|2016||La La Land||93|
Inspired by Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Chloé Zhao’s third feature, following Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, and her film wowed critics both there and in Toronto. (So much, in fact, that it’s now 2020’s highest-scoring film.) TIFF audiences, too, went crazy for the film, selecting it as this year's People's Choice winner, making it the first time that the top awards at the two festivals have gone to the same film.
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|2016||The Woman Who Left||83|
In a performance many critics praised as one of her best, Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a widow and former teacher traveling from job to job across America. Variety's Peter Debruge writes, “This rich and resonant celebration of the American West straddles the border between fact and fiction, enlisting real people to play poetically embellished versions of themselves in order to reach a deeper truth.” It’s “deeply intimate and desolately beautiful,” according to The Telegraph's Robbie Collin, and Mike Ryan of Uproxx claims, “Nomadland will almost physically take you places. It’s a beautiful, absolutely gorgeous motion picture.”
A theatrical release of some sort is planned for December 4, should theaters still exist.
One Night in Miami
Drama | USA | Directed by Regina King
Regina King’s debut feature as director is based on a play by Kemp Powers (who wrote the screenplay for the film). Like the play, the film imagines what took place on February 25, 1964 when Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kinglsey Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) met after Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston. It’s a “quintessentially American tale; profane, profound, and beautiful,” according to Leah Greenblatt of EW. And THR's David Rooney finds it “both entertaining and illuminating.” In his review for the BBC, Nicolas Barber wishes the film allowed it’s characters “a little more zest and irreverence,” but Variety's Owen Gleiberman claims the film is “a casually entrancing debate about power on the part of those who have won it but are still figuring out what to do with it.” Amazon previously acquired the film (for an undisclosed but reportedly near-record-high price in the eight figures), and an Oscar-qualifying release later this year seems likely given the positive reception from critics.
Animation/Family | Ireland/Luxembourg/France | Directed by Ross Stewart and Tomm Moore
Following Metacritic Must-Sees The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, this tale of a young apprentice hunter who befriends a girl raised by wolves completes director Tom Moore’s Irish folklore trilogy. It’s another critical hit for the animation studio Carton Saloon. In his review for THR, Michael Rechtshaffen calls it a “visually dazzling, richly imaginative, emotionally resonant production that taps into contemporary concerns while being true to its distant origins.” Adding to the praise, IndieWire's David Ehrlich claims it’s “the most visually enchanting feature its studio has made thus far, as well as the most poignant,” and “far and away the best animated film of the year.” Agreeing, Carlos Aguilar of writes in his A+ review for The Playlist, “Not only is Wolfwalkers easily the best animated film of the year, but a stirring masterwork, as stunningly gorgeous as it’s philosophically profound.” The movie will stream on Apple TV+ later this year.
The World to Come
Drama | USA | Directed by Mona Fastvold
Acquired by Bleecker Street in Venice, where the film quickly acquired buzz as a potential Oscar contender, Mona Fastvold’s directorial follow-up to 2014’s The Sleepwalker is adapted from Jim Shepard's 2017 short story of the same name. Set in 1850s upstate New York, the film stars Katherine Waterston and Casey Affleck as a couple trying to overcome the death of a child, and Vanessa Kirby and Christopher Abbott as the couple who move into a neighboring farm. The focus is on the budding romance between Waterston and Kirby, resulting in what Jessica Kiang of The Playlist describes as a “beautiful and quiet, seasons-spanning tale of poetry and pining pioneerwomen.” Xan Brooks of The Guardian thinks “Fastvold’s romance casts a spell,” and The Film Stage's Rory O’Connor believes it’s a “thoughtful, unquestionably moving piece of work with much to say about the inner lives of the women at the center, but it could have used another gear.”
Other notable debuts (neither great nor terrible)
Drama | UK | Directed by Francis Lee
Francis Lee (Metacritic Must-See God's Own Country) directs Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in this 19th century lesbian romance inspired by a real woman, English paleontologist Mary Anning. For some critics, last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire casts a large shadow on Lee’s sophomore feature, with Katie Rife of the A.V. Club calling it “too pallid to really get your blood flowing.” Tomris Laffly, writing for The Playlist, similarly finds the film “too distant, underpowered and colorless for its own good.” But Ammonite does have its defenders, including THR's David Rooney, who believes its “transfixing quietness never conceals the roiling undercurrents of feeling beneath its surface.”
And Tomorrow the Entire World
Drama | Germany/France | Directed by Julia von Heinz
German writer-director Julia von Heinz’s Venice competition title follows 20-year-old Luisa as she reacts to a series of racist terror attacks in Germany by joining Antifa and opposing the neo-Nazi movement. It’s a “political thriller charged with anger and sexual tension” that is “as timely as it is bracingly entertaining,” according to Wendy Ide of Screen Daily. And Variety's Guy Lodge deems the film “politically resonant but also solidly effective as straightforward youth-in-revolt drama.”
Another Round (Druk)
Drama | Denmark | Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Following lukewarm critical responses to his previous two films, The Command and The Commune, Thomas Vinterberg reunites with Mads Mikkelsen, the lead in their critically acclaimed 2013 collaboration The Hunt, for this story of four high school teachers who agree to drink throughout the day to maintain the theoretically ideal blood alcohol level of 0.05%. Finding the result to be a “frustrating and rather muddled experience," Variety's Owen Gleiberman believes a “movie that’s this arduous in its obviousness can make you want to want to reach for a drink.” But THR's Stephen Dalton is more positive, calling Round an “appealing ensemble piece overall, as well as a great vehicle for Mikkelsen's vulpine beauty and nimble dance moves. And Fionnuala Halligan of Screen Daily claims this “funny film” is also “desperately sad” and “somehow compelling, and more than a little sobering.”
Drama | USA | Directed by Ricky Staub
Ricky Staub's debut feature is based on Greg Neri’s 2011 YA novel Ghetto Cowboy. Set in North Philadelphia’s Fletcher Street stables, the film stars Idris Elba as an absent father whose rebellious 15-year-old son (Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin) joins him for the summer, allowing them a chance to form a tenuous bond. IndieWire's Eric Kohn claims it’s a “sentimental father-son drama that doesn’t break new ground, but milks the fascinating backdrop for all its formulaic potential and winds up compelling enough.” Less enthusiastic, Tim Grierson of Screen Daily calls it a “heartfelt but ultimately hobbled coming-of-age drama,” but Variety's Peter Debruge believes this “exceptional father-son drama” feels “poetic but never patronizing.”
Drama | Russia | Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
Eighty-three-year-old Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, whose varied filmography includes 2016’s Paradise, 1985’s Runaway Train, and 1989’s Tango & Cash, won a Special Jury Prize in Venice for this dramatization of the 1962 Novocherkassk massacre told through the eyes of Lyuda, a loyal member of the local Communist Party, played by the directors wife, Julia Vysotskaya, with what The Guardian's Xan Brooks describes as a “fierce, hardbitten intensity.” As protestors are killed and her daughter goes missing, Lyuda realizes what she has enabled, resulting in a film Jack King of The Playlist calls a “fascinating blend of dark satire and bleak archaeology.” In her review for Variety, Jessica Kiang concurs, praising the film for being, “meticulous and majestic, epic in scope and tattoo-needle intimate in effect.”
Drama | India | Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane
Writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane’s sophomore feature, following the critically acclaimed Court, examines the life of a devoted student hoping to master the art of Khayal, a modern form of classic Hindustani singing. Winner of a screenplay award at Venice, this “remarkable coming-of-age drama” is a “dreamy, transcendent character study,” according to IndieWire's Eric Kohn. Rory O’Connor of The Film Stage likewise labels it a “fascinating film.” Praising the 33-year-old writer-director, the A.V. Club's A.A. Dowd writes, “He’s not one to waste a scene or even a shot, often building his movies in single takes that convey volumes of cultural, emotional, or psychological information.”
Enemies of the State
Documentary | USA | Directed by Sonia Kennebeck
National Bird director Sonia Kennebeck’s latest documentary attempts to find the truth about Matt DeHart, a former Air National Guard member turned hacktivist, and his parents. In 2010, the FBI raided their home, looking for evidence of child pornography. DeHart spent 21 months in jail before getting out on bond, reuniting with his parents and seeking asylum outside the U.S., including Canada. In her review for Variety, Tomris Laffly describes the film as a “mind-boggling, often challenging spy-thriller in documentary form.” The Playlist's Jason Bailey agrees, writing, “Enemies of the State unfolds through a series of interweaving timelines and dueling framing devices, and suffice it to say that it’s not the kind of movie you’ll be able to half-watch while scrolling.” And Alonso Duralde of TheWrap believes it’s a “chilling watch” that “brilliantly dissects the way that conspiracy theories work and why they’re so irresistible.”
Documentary | UK | Directed by Luke Holland
British documentarian Luke Holland spent the last decade of his life interviewing the last generation of Germans who participated in Hitler’s Third Reich, including SS members, concentration camp guards, and men and women who were civilian witnesses to the atrocities. This 90-minute film can’t do justice to the over 250 accounts Holland gathered, but it’s a start that contains “shocking footage which hasn’t quite made the leap into being a forensic film,” according to Screen Daily's Fionnuala Halligan. Xan Brook’s review for The Guardian is more generous, calling the results “damning,” thanks to testimonies that “chill the blood.”
Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds
Documentary | UK/Austria/USA | Directed by Clive Oppenheimer and Werner Herzog
After exploring volcanoes in Into the Inferno, Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer go around the world hunting for meteors and their meaning in what Barry Hertz of The Globe & Mail calls a “neat-enough educational experience, if not a fulfilling work of documentary cinema.” IndieWire's David Ehrlich believes the documentary is “often lost in space without [Herzog] on screen as its star,” but in his review for TheWrap, Steve Pond writes, “If it may be a return to familiar pleasures rather than an excursion into anything new, that’s hardly a problem when those familiar pleasures include Herzog dropping bon mots.”
Good Joe Bell
Drama | USA | Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
In this sophomore effort from Monsters and Men director Renaldo Marcus Green, Mark Wahlberg plays the father of the title, who decides to walk from Oregon to New York to shine a light on bullying and honor his to son, Jadin (Reid Miller). Based on a true story and written by Brokeback Mountain Oscar winners Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, the film divided critics. Variety's Peter Debruge thinks it’s a “uniquely terrible treatment of an important topic,” and A.A. Dowd of the AV Club writes, “Good Joe Bell is a redemption story that barely attempts to understand why its protagonist needs redemption. It’s a paper-napkin sketch of a drama, the soul searching never shaded in.” But Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson believes “the film is, in some senses, a warning, a PSA staged with enough artistry to offset the didacticism.” And David Rooney of THR agrees, writing, “Green's grasp of this tender, family-focused story shows equal restraint and compassion, and mastery of a tricky structure.” The film was acquired by Solstice Studios at TIFF for a reported $20 million, but the distributor has not yet named a release date.
Documentary | USA | Directed by Orson Welles
It’s 1970. Dennis Hopper flies to LA to take a break from editing The Last Movie. A rising star thanks to the success of Easy Rider, Hopper finds himself in front of Orson Welles’ camera, being questioned for two hours by a legend who is working on what would eventually be his final film, The Other Side of the Wind. The resulting documentary (credited to Welles but assembled by some of the team behind the recent release of Wind) is a curiosity—though one that is “challenging and occasionally intoxicating,” according to Steve Pond of TheWrap, or “fascinating” in the words of Variety's Owen Gleiberman. Writing for The Guardian, Xan Brooks finds it “periodically fascinating, generally exasperating,” an “intriguing relic,” but one that may be best savored by “die-hard devotees.” Calling the film “the stuff of poets,” THR's Sheri Linden suggests it will be “manna to film buffs and rewarding viewing for anyone who appreciates high-octane conversation that's searching, precise and refreshingly devoid of contemporary buzzwords.”
I Am Greta
Documentary | Sweden | Directed by Nathan Grossman
Director Nathan Grossman captures Greta Thurnberg’s rise from 15-year-old student strike-leader to world famous activist in what THR's Caryn James describes as a “close-up, behind-the-headlines portrait of a passionately committed, media-savvy young woman.” Writing for Variety, Guy Lodge finds the documentary’s account of Greta’s public life “reasonably thorough, and sometimes rousing,” but as a “portrait of the girl behind the cause, it’s cautious and rarely illuminating.” Slightly more positive is Rodrigo Perez of The Playlist, who writes, “I Am Greta may be a bit uneven, a little unsatisfying, and low on Climate Change context but it will stir the spirit and absolutely inspire your deep admiration for this devoted and steadfast teenager, and her commitment to real change and political accountability.” The film will debut on Hulu on November 13.
I Care a Lot
Drama/Thriller | UK | Directed by J Blakeson
The Toronto Globe & Mail's Barry Hertz finds this third feature by writer-director J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed, The 5th Wave) “immensely watchable,” just “not especially memorable.” Rosamund Pike stars as Marla Grayson, a legal guardian who exploits the law for financial gain, but she meets her match when her latest client (Dianne Wiest) leads to a battle with a mob boss played by Peter Dinklage. In his review for The Guardian, Benjamin Lee claims it’s a “bracingly heartless movie,” and IndieWire's Kate Erbland believes it’s “at its most purely enjoyable when it’s leaning right into just how very, very bad people can be.” For his part, David Rooney of THR can’t decide if it’s “delectably wicked or dyspeptically sour,” but admits “there was never a moment when I wasn't glued.”
In Between Dying
Drama | Azerbaijan/Mexico/USA | Directed by Hilal Baydarov
After making three documentaries about his relationship with his mother, Azerbaijani director Hilal Baydarov divided critics with this narrative feature about a man whose existential journey is plagued by death. THR's Deborah Young claims it “resonates with filmic influences at the expense of original expression. And Screen Daily critic Jonathan Romney agrees, writing, “Baydarov’s contemplative essay in cinematic symbolism isn’t quite distinctive or assertive enough to set alight that increasingly imperilled corner of the arthouse sector specialising in this brand of elliptical image making.” On the positive side, Joe Blessing of The Playlist believes it’s a “powerful parable of spiritual awakening.” And IndieWire's David Ehrlich praises this “wispy but arresting piece of work from a filmmaker who’s fascinated by the camera’s ability to trace the outlines of the things we can’t see for ourselves — the negative images of life itself.”
Drama | UK | Directed by Ben Sharrock
In his sophomore feature, Scottish writer-director Ben Sharrock finds a thread of melancholic humor in the plight of Omar, a Syrian refugee killing time on a remote Scottish island while awaiting word on his appeal for asylum. THR's Stephen Dalton believes Sharrock “displays a winning flair for small observational detail and minor-key mirth in his warm-hearted second feature, whose deadpan ironic tone invites comparison to Aki Kaurismaki or Jim Jarmusch.” In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw acknowledges Sharrock’s “elegant deadpan style,” but he believes it’s not a barrier to getting audiences to “invest in the characters and care deeply about what happens to them” thanks to his “superlative film-making.”
Comedy/Fantasy | France/Belgium | Directed by Quentin Dupieux
Since his 2010 feature debut, Rubber, writer-director Quentin Dupieux has been creating films that have their own twisted sensibility. Last year’s Deerskin earned him the best Metascore of his career, but his latest looks to top that with a story of two simple-minded friends (played by French TV comedians Gregoire Ludig and David Marsais) who find a giant fly in their trunk and set out to train it in hopes of making a fortune. The result is Dupieux’s “most affable and accessible film to date,” according to IndieWire's Nicholas Barber. David Katz of The Film Stage similarly concludes, “It’s Dupieux’s most polished, expensive, and well-made film, and, not coincidentally, also his best.” The Guardian's Xan Brooks declares it a “rollicking, rambunctious tequila-dream of a movie.” And Guy Lodge writes for Varlety, “Mandibles is as brazenly and riotously stupid as it sounds, but with a chill, dopey sweetness that makes it stick.”
Documentary | USA | Directed by Samuel D. Pollard
The latest from documentarian Sam Pollard (Two Trains Runnin') looks at J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to undermine and discredit Martin Luther King Jr. by any means necessary. Based on The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr.: From “Solo” to Memphis by David J. Carrow, it’s “more an important history lesson than riveting cinema,” claims Screen Daily's Tim Grierson. But Eric Kohn of IndieWire argues that it’s a “sobering and essential documentary” that “reveals shocking behavior by the American government, but the most troubling aspect of its revelations is that nobody had to answer for it.” IFC Films acquired the film and plans to release it theatrically in January around the MLK Day holiday (which will also qualify it for awards consideration, given this year's extended deadlines).
Drama | UK/Greece/USA | Directed by Argyris Papadimitropoulos
Sebastian Stan and Denise Gough star as Mickey and Chloe in filmmaker Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ follow-up to Suntan. Mickey is an American DJ who has a 6-year-old son he never sees because he’s chasing the high life at various Greek resorts. Chloe is an American lawyer he meets and falls for, leading to several wild Fridays before the inevitable Mondays. For Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, the film is a “disappointment: an unconvincing, undeveloped and emotionally directionless non-drama that just goes pointlessly around and around in circles.” On the other hand, THR's Leslie Felperin believes this “sensual, funny and above all honest look at amour fou” becomes “darker, more daring and deeply sad” as it “works its way to its strange, abrupt but brilliantly ambiguous ending.”
Night of the Kings
Drama/Fantasy | Ivory Coast/France/Canada/Senegal | Directed by Philippe Lacôte
Writer-director Philippe Lacôte sets his new film in the Ivory Coast prison La Maca. Ruled by its inmates, La Maca’s traditions demand a designated “Roman” to tell a story to the other prisoners. On his first night in the prison, a young man must make his story last until dawn. The Globe & Mail's Barry Hertz believes the film is “frequently engrossing and formally inventive, even if the finale arrives abruptly, and with a whiff of inevitability.” And Ryan Lattanzio of IndieWire thinks it’s “through and through an intoxicating and immersive visual experience even as it unfolds almost like a filmed play.”
Documentary | Italy/France/Germany | Directed by Gianfranco Rosi
The new documentary from Gianfranco Rosi (Sacro GRA, Fire at Sea) was shot over three years around the war-torn borders between Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon. Focusing on those trying to live beyond the frontlines, it’s a “sombre, forceful new documentary” from an award winning filmmaker, according to Lee Marshall of Screen Daily. TheWrap's Steve Pond finds it “simultaneously devastating and lyrical,” while IndieWire critic Ben Croll adds, “Whether Notturno challenges the mind and rewards the eye ... is unambiguous. The film’s qualities are clear as day.”
Pieces of a Woman
Drama | USA/Canada | Directed by Kornél Mundruczó
Vanessa Kirby took home best actress honors in Venice for her portrayal of a woman dealing with immense grief in this first English-language film from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó (White God) and his partner/screenwriter Kata Wéber. While critics praised Kirby’s performance, the film as a whole received a more mixed reaction. IndieWire's David Ehrlich believes “the stoic uncertainty of Kirby’s ultra-committed performance is unfulfilled by a script that isn’t sure how to apply its heroine’s strength.” And in The Guardian, Xan Brooks compares the film to a “workshop at the Actors Studio.” Much more positive is Jessica Kiang, who writes in her review for The Playlist, “None of the situations it describes are familiar to me, and the locations and lifestyles it depicts are very far from my own experience, and yet in a quietly momentous way that is extraordinarily fulfilling despite the often devastating turns its story takes, Pieces of a Woman happened to me.” Netflix acquired the film at Venice but hasn't yet announced a release date.
Shadow in the Cloud
Action/Horror | USA/New Zealand | Directed by Roseanne Liang
Set in 1943, writer-director Roseanne Liang’s sophomore feature stars Chloë Grace Moretz as Women’s Auxiliary Air Force Captain Maude Garrett, a woman on a secret mission who boards a B-17 Flying Fortress on which she not only has to deal with the sexist crew and a Japanese attack squadron, but also another, unexpected and sinister passenger. For The Playlist's Jason Bailey this is an “excruciatingly stupid movie,” a film “where every single decision, all the way down the line, was the wrong one,” but he is in the minority. Peter Debruge of Variety believes it’s an “insanely entertaining high-altitude horror movie,” and in her review for IndieWire, Kate Erbland writes, “Part creature feature, part war-is-hell nightmare, and entirely dedicated to cutting down the misogynist jerks who populate it, there’s enough giddy fun to power Shadow in the Cloud through just about anything." Despite the mixed critical response, Cloud was picked up for nearly $5 million by Vertical Entertainment for a release next summer.
Comedy | USA/Canada | Directed by Emma Seligman
Emma Seligman’s feature debut was supposed to premiere in the Narrative Feature Competition at SXSW. (We know how that ended up.) TIFF gave the film a chance to reach more critics, and that was a good thing. Rachel Sennott stars as Danielle, a struggling twenty-something whose issues—her relationship with a sugar daddy, her ex, her academic career—come to a head while sitting shiva with her family. Christopher Schobert of The Film Stage finds it “at once hilarious, awkward, uncomfortable, and unforgettable,” and the A.V. Club's Katie Rife thinks it’s an “assured and impressively choreographed debut that gets funnier with every new complication.” In her review for The Playlist, Kristy Puchko writes, “All in all, Shiva Baby is a savagely smart comedy that dives deep into excruciating embarrassment. It’s a marvel and will pull you to the end of your seat, biting your nails in second-hand cringe. Utopia Media acquired the film at TIFF for an undisclosed amount.
Sun Children (Khorshid)
Drama | Iran | Directed by Majid Majidi
Like his 1999 Best Foreign Language Film nominee Children of Heaven, Iranian director Majid Majidi’s latest tells its story from a child’s point-of-view. In this case the child is 12-year-old Ali (Rouhollah Zamani, winner of the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor at the Venice Film Festival), who works in a garage and commits petty crimes to help his family survive. When he’s recruited to find a buried treasure, he and his three friends enroll in the Sun School, a charitable institution with access to the tunnel where they need to dig. THR's Deborah Young praises the “compulsively watchable cast whose weary stoicism leaves room for moments of humor and tenderness.” And in his review for The Guardian, Xan Brooks admits that the “acting is broad, the plot gears often creak, but it has guts and heart and a grubby, street-smart charisma,” and is “one of the finest films playing in this year’s Venice competition.”
Wife of a Spy
Drama/Thriller | Japan | Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
The eclectic career of writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Before We Vanish, Tokyo Sonata, Pulse), who won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival, continues with this Hitchcockian thriller set during World War II. The screenplay by Happy Hour collaborators Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara concerns a Japanese silk merchant, who distrusts where his country is headed, his wife, and her childhood friend, a military policeman. It’s a “fine, knotty original screenplay,” that supplies the basis for one of Kurosawa’s “most purely enjoyable, internationally accessible entertainments,” according to Guy Lodge of Variety. Adding to the praise, THR's Deborah Young claims it’s an “absorbing, exotic, well-paced thriller with moments of disconcerting realism and horror.”
Laila in Haifa
Drama/Comedy | Israel/France | Directed by Amos Gitai
The latest from Israeli director Amos Gitai (Rabin, the Last Day, West of the Jordan River) takes place in a single location—the Fattoush Bar & Gallery in Haifa—a place where Israelis and Palestinians, radicals and moderates, straight and gay all intermingle. Unfortunately, Gitai fails to capture what makes the location so special. Wendy Screen Daily's Wendy Ide places the blame on the writing: “There is none of the wildfire crackle of actual living conversation. You don’t even get the sense that the people are listening to each other. And for a film about socio-political dialogue, that’s a real problem.” In his review for Variety, Guy Lodge suggests a documentary might have served the club and Gitai better, and, writing for IndieWire, Nicolas Barber warns that the film is “theatrical in the worst way,” advising potential viewers to “head to the nearest bar instead, where the company is bound to be more stimulating.”
Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by Gia Coppola
Gia Coppola’s follow-up to 2013’s Palo Alto stars Maya Hawke, Nat Wolff and Andrew Garfield as a trio of Angelenos who get caught up in internet fame. Unfortunately, it’s a considerable drop-off from her debut feature, a “messy, childish scrawl of a film, but it is high on energy,” according to THR's Deborah Young. Writing for The Playlist, Guy Lodge calls it a “big, blunt, sanctimonious satire of YouTuber idolatry that, for all its bug-eyed, pin-balling energy, never feels remotely ahead of the curve.” And Jessica Kiang of Variety describes it as an “old film dressed in new clothes, that best evokes the fickle, ephemeral nature of internet stardom by flaring garishly bright for a moment, and almost immediately burning out.”
Padrenostro (Our Father)
Drama | Italy | Directed by Claudio Noce
Director-co-writer Claudio Noce uses the 1976 attack on his father, the head of the anti-terrorism police, as the basis for this story of a 10-year-old boy who wakes to gunfire and witnesses his father (The Traitor's Pierfrancesco Favino, who won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival) being shot. Variety's Jay Weissberg believes it’s the “handsomely made" drama that features "a few powerful sequences studded within a less satisfactory screenplay.” And while Fionnuala Halligan of Screen Daily finds Favino a “solid, commanding presence,” she suspects the story is “too personal” for Noce to handle.
Drama | Australia | Directed by Glendyn Ivin
Based on a true story, Glengyn Ivin’s sophomore feature comes 11 years after Last Ride and stars Naomi Watts as Sam Bloom, an active mother to three boys who becomes paralyzed after a bad fall. When the family takes in a stray magpie and names it Penguin, Sam is reluctant to tend to it, but over time she and the bird heal together. Benjamin Lee of The Guardian warns that the film is “slight and has notable flaws” but also believes, “It’s a minor, much-needed victory for Watts.” In her review for Variety, Tomris Laffly also praises Watts but not Ivin, whose “bland direction” results in the film staying “afloat on Watts’ shoulders alone.” However, Screen Daily's Tim Grierson would add the magpie to Watts shoulders, noting “with her shrieking wail and comically ungainly walk, Penguin emerges as Penguin Bloom’s funniest, most lively figure. Unlike her human costars, she’s not reined in by the film’s glossy earnestness.”
Run Hide Fight
Action | USA | Directed by Kyle Rankin
Many critics asked if we need a movie that is basically Die Hard set during a school shooting, and the resounding answer, unsurprisingly, was “no.” Kyle Rankin (The Battle of Shaker Heights) directs what Jessica Kiang of The Playlist calls a ”staggeringly misguided, deeply noxious” film about 17-year-old Zoe’s (Isabel May) attempt to thwart the deadly plan of four teenage murderers. IndieWire's David Ehrlich goes even further, branding the film “glib, artless, and reprehensibly stupid” and giving the film an F, adding, “It’s hard to say what’s more offensive: That Rankin is pissing into an overflowing reservoir of national pain, or that he’s doing it so poorly. Just kidding, it’s not hard at all.”
All images on this page courtesy of TIFF and La Biennale di Venezia.