Which films impressed at this year's major fall festivals?
A year ago, the pandemic forced the cancellation of Telluride and a dramatic shift in formats for the other two major September festivals, the Toronto International Film Festival and the Venice International Film Festival. One year later, all three festivals managed to launch as scheduled, with both Venice and Telluride holding full in-person schedules with packed theaters and only TIFF adopting a hybrid virtual/physical format.
What certainly hasn't changed is that the three festivals herald the start of the film industry's awards season, with many of the year's Oscar hopefuls making their world premieres at one or more of the these events. In an encouraging sign for movie fans, there were a lot of standouts this year, with over twice as many films scoring 75 or higher at the 2021 festivals than we saw a year ago.
That group includes the latest from Paolo Sorrentino. At Venice, a jury led by Parasite director Bong Joon-ho gave its second-place Grand Jury Prize to the local favorite's semi-autobiographical tale The Hand of God. But the fest's top award went to French abortion drama Happening from second-time feature director Audrey Diwan, while the festival's best-reviewed film, the long-awaited return from legendary director Jane Campion titled The Power of the Dog, settled for a directing award. The latter, like Sorrentino's film, is a Netflix title, and the streamer also earned critical acclaim for several other films premiering at the three festivals, suggesting that Netflix could be a major player in this year's Oscar races.
But the most important fall festival award is given not by a jury of experts but by moviegoers—specifically, audiences at TIFF, where the festival's People's Choice Award is a virtual guarantee of an eventual Oscar best picture nomination (and in many cases, like last year with Nomadland, an eventual best picture win). This year, the award went to Belfast, a semi-autobiographical, black-and-white drama from Kenneth Branagh. Note that the festival's hybrid format made it trickier to qualify for the award this year, and several major films (including Dune, Spencer, and Last Night in Soho) were ineligible for consideration because they were not made available to screen virtually.
Below, we summarize the reactions of critics to all of the major films debuting at this year's TIFF, Telluride, and Venice festivals. Several festival titles have already been released to the public over the past week and are not included below because they received additional reviews outside of the festival setting. This group includes The Card Counter, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Fauci, Amazon's The Mad Women's Ball, HBO's Scenes From a Marriage, and Netflix's The Starling—the latter of which was arguably the worst-reviewed film screening at any of the three festivals. In addition, any titles that first screened at previous festivals this year (including Sundance and Cannes) are also omitted. And note that Steven Soderbergh's newly recut version of Kafka, now titled Mr. Kneff, was a late surprise screening on Friday night and has not been reviewed yet.
The standouts and major award winners
Drama | Brazil | Directed by Alex Moratto
One of multiple Netflix features to debut at Venice (it has yet to be given a release date, though it will head to theaters and the streaming service sometime in November), 7 Prisoners finds Brazilian filmmaker Alexandre Moratto reuniting with the co-writer (Thayná Mantesso) and star (Christian Malheiros) of his award-winning debut feature, Socrates. This time, they examine modern-day enslavement on the streets of São Paulo. Also starring Rodrigo Santoro, the film is a “morality tale which gets increasingly knotty and satisfying as it goes on” and “builds in cumulative power to a wrenching climax,” according to Screen Daily's Wendy Ide. Writing for The Playlist, Monica Castillo believes “Moratto proves himself as a director of many talents,” and TheWrap's Carlos Aguilar claims “Moratto’s concise firecracker of a movie” is an “essential piece of social-realist cinema for our times."
Ali & Ava
Drama | UK | Directed by Clio Barnard
Clio Barnard had directed only one film since 2013's The Selfish Giant, but suddenly the British director is busy. Not only did she just wrap filming on Apple's upcoming miniseries adaptation of The Essex Serpent, but she also brought a new film to Toronto, and, like much of her work, it's set in West Yorkshire—though it is more straightforward and less experimental than some of her past films. The focus here is on an affair between a married, working-class British Pakistani landlord (Adeel Akhtar) and a schoolteacher and single mother (Claire Rushbrook), who form an instant connection over their shared love of music. For IndieWire's Jude Dry, Ali & Ava hits all the right notes, making it an "elegantly crafted and utterly enjoyable new entry into the oversaturated genre" that is the cross-cultural romance. And Slant's Jake Cole is similarly impressed that "Barnard has a gift for finding truth and beauty in the everyday"—indeed, an "uncanny ability to capture the insoluble complexities of life."
Another World (Un autre monde)
Drama | France | Directed by Stéphane Brizé
With this look at the struggles of an executive manager both at work and at home, the triumvirate of writer-director Stéphane Brizé, co-writer Olivier Gorce, and actor Vincent Lindon take a third incisive look at the ravages of late capitalism following The Measure of a Man and A War. In The Hollywood Reporter, Jordan Mintzer thinks World is an “intense and intimate saga of workplace malaise,” while Lee Marshall of Screen Daily describes it as an “odd blend of high-tension cine-verite with something more like moral philosophy.” And Ben Croll writes in IndieWire, “Another World succeeds in captivating on the sheer strength of its caustic tone, which offers a sustained performance of ice-cold contempt quite unlike anything Brizé has tried before.”
Documentary | USA | Directed by Stanley Nelson
Documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, who previously tackled topics ranging from the Black Panthers to Jonestown, turns his attention to the largest prison uprising in American history: a 1971 revolt at New York's Attica Correctional Facility that spanned five days and ultimately left 43 people dead after a violent police response. (Yes, that's what Al Pacino is shouting about in Dog Day Afternoon.) But why did the uprising start in the first place? Nelson traces the myriad reasons and, forgoing a narrator, uses the voices of those involved on all sides and archival footage from prison cameras to show the shocking events as they happened. For The Wrap's Ronda Racha Penrice, the result is a "bone-chilling account," while IndieWire critic Robert Daniels similarly labels it "a harrowing piece of filmmaking." Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, Dan Fienberg notes some "gaps in [Nelson's] storytelling" caused by the small number of witnesses still available 50 years later, but nevertheless lauds what could be the director's "most important [film] yet." The film will play in theaters sometime in October before heading to Showtime.
TIFF People's Choice Winner
Drama | UK | Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Opens in theaters November 12
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As he waits (thanks to Armie Hammer) for the release of Death on the Nile, his follow-up to the 2017 box office hit Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh gets personal with this cinematic memoir of his youth in the titular port city in Northern Ireland. Alongside Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Caitríona Balfe, and Jamie Dornan, newcomer Jude Hill stars as Branagh-surrogate Buddy, whose “enthusiasm carries so much of the movie that whenever fear or sadness get the better of him, it feels more pronounced and heartbreaking,” according to The Playlist’s Monica Castillo. THR critic Stephen Farber admits the film is “imperfect,” but believes Branagh “brings off moments of humor and pathos that leave a lasting impact.” And Steve Pond of TheWrap is even more enthusiastic in his praise, finding the mostly black-and-white film “visually stunning, emotionally wrenching and gloriously human.”
Drama | UK | Directed by Terence Davies
The latest from English writer-director Terence Davies (Sunset Song, The Deep Blue Sea) is another look at a poet, following his Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion. This time he sets his exacting eye on English poet Siegfried Sassoon (played at different times by Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi), resulting in what The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw labels an "uncompromisingly sombre film.” Wendy Ide of Screen Daily thinks Benediction an “elegant piece of filmmaking, if a little too decorous at times.” And in his Critic’s Pick review for IndieWire, David Ehrlich writes, “This is a film that trembles with a need for redemption that never comes, and the urgency of that search is palpable enough that you can feel it first-hand, even if Benediction is never particularly clear about the nature of the redemption it’s hoping to find.”
Documentary | USA | Directed by Emelie Coleman Mahdavian
Emelie Mahdavian’s “meditative" and “picturesque" documentary chronicling four months in the lives of veteran ranch hands Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline “embraces the sweeping tradition of the Western genre,” according to Tomris Laffly of Variety, who adds, “As seen through Mahdavian’s observational and unobtrusive perspective (thankfully not littered by interviews or excessive title cards), their work is always tough, often soothing, sometimes dangerous and perennially rewarding.” THR's Sheri Linden praises the film’s “respectful, measured intimacy” and ability to pose “piercing existential questions about purpose and independence, particularly for women choosing work that has long been deemed the exclusive province of men.”
The Box (La caja)
Drama | Mexico/USA | Directed by Lorenzo Vigas
Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas, who won the Golden Lion with his 2015 debut From Afar, returned to Venice with his narrative follow-up, a social-realist drama that examines the father-son relationship while also offering a peek into the corruption within Mexico's manufacturing industry. His window into both worlds comes through a young man named Hatzín (first-time actor Hatzín Navarrete in a widely praised performance), who journeys to a northern Mexico town to collect the remains of his late, estranged father, only to encounter his father's doppelgänger (or is it really his dad?) on the street. The older man takes in the boy and makes him his apprentice as he goes about "recruiting" workers for a local clothing factory. In Screen Daily, Jonathan Romney describes the result as "a canny blend of detective story, political drama and rites of passage vignette" whose simplicity makes it "easy to miss how meticulously conceived and constructed it is." THR's David Rooney labels The Box, like its predecessor, "another stealth gut punch," while Variety's Guy Lodge praises, among other things, Navarrete's "riveting" performance and the "exquisitely composed" cinematography (by Pablo Larraín's go-to DP Sergio Armstrong). Slightly less positive is The Guardian's Xan Brooks, who thinks "Vigas’s direction is efficient, pedestrian, entirely built for purpose" but adds that the director nevertheless "manages to keep the audience on-board throughout the tale’s twists and turns."
Captain Volkonogov Escaped
Drama/Thriller | Russia/Estonia/France | Directed by Aleksey Chupov and Natasha Merkulova
The third feature directed by the married Russian filmmaking duo of Aleksey Chupov and Natasha Merkulova is a post-modern thriller set in what appears to be (but is never called by name) Leningrad in the late 1930s,. There, Fyodor Volkonogov (played by a widely praised Yuriy Borisov, who has been af festival staple in 2021), a captain in Stalin's National Security Service, repeatedly tortures and executes innocent citizens—until doubt creeps in and he runs off, resulting in a brisk and darkly comedic cat-and-mouse chase that multiple critics compared to Catch Me If You Can and The Fugitive. The "powerful and troubling" result is what Screen's Jonathan Romney describes as "an involving and surprisingly hallucinatory take on Soviet history" and "one of the most original works of the year." The Guardian's Xan Brooks admires a film that "[...] never feels especially dour or heavy. If anything, Chupov and Merkulova’s handling of the material is almost playful, choosing to frame Stalin’s Russia as nightmarish deadpan comedy." But though Variety critic Jessica Kiang thinks the directors nail the "visceral aspects of this Dostoevskian tale particularly well," she warns that the protagonist's internal journey is "underdeveloped" by comparison and thus rings "hollow."
Documentary/Sports | USA | Directed by Rex Miller and Samuel D. Pollard
Trailblazing tennis Hall of Famer and HIV/AIDS activist Arthur Ashe—who won major tournaments like Wimbledon and the U.S. and Australian Opens and was the first Black member of America's Davis Cup team—is the subject of a documentary from MLK/FBI director Sam Pollard, co-directing with Rex Miller (Althea). The film's premiere at Telluride (which also debuted this fall's other tennis movie, King Richard) was greeted by positive reviews. In an "A" review at IndieWire, Tambay Obenson calls Citizen Ashe "a fascinating portrait that weaves together his on- and off-court life seamlessly." If there are any complaints, it is that the film is too conventional and straightforward. While The Playlist critic Murtada Elfadl admits the film can sometimes be "so agreeable it can quickly fade away from memory," he also thinks it "comes alive when digging into Ashe’s psyche while playing." There's no date yet, but Ashe will air on CNN and stream on HBO Max later this year or early next year.
Drama | USA | Directed by Mike Mills
After playing off of biographical elements in his father’s life (Beginners) and his mother’s (20th Century Women) in last two features, writer-director (and father) Mike Mills gets a little closer to home with this tale starring Joaquin Phoenix as a radio journalist who becomes a temporary, surrogate father to his nine-year-old nephew (Woody Norman) while his sister (Gaby Hoffman) cares for the boy’s ailing father (Scoot McNairy). For EW's Leah Greenblatt it’s “another rich creation in Mills' bittersweet, gently profound collisions of art and life,” while Peter Debruge of Variety believes C’mon to be a “small, soft-spoken yet casually profound family drama.” IndieWire's David Ehrlich is less sure of its success, finding it “a bit more wishy-washy than usual” for Mills, even though “Phoenix has never been more natural.” But the last word for now goes to Rodrigo Perez of The Playlist, who writes, "It’s yet another perceptive, impeccably crafted winner in an informal trilogy about family, what makes us human, and how people struggle every day to do their best amidst the many challenges and pains of life.”
Costa Brava, Lebanon
Drama | Lebanon/France/Spain/Sweden/Denmark/Norway/Qatar | Directed by Mounia Akl
Writer-director Mounia Akl’s debut feature, co-written with Clara Roquet, follows a couple (Nadine Labaki and Saleh Bakri) as their idyllic home in the countryside outside of Beirut is ruined when a “green” landfill is placed just beyond their fence. In his review for THR, Keith Uhlich calls it a “compelling, if ultimately shallow, fiction-feature debut,” and “despite Akl’s confident directorial hand and her cast’s exceedingly natural rapport, it proves an unconvincing conceit.” Disagreeing with that assessment, Screen Daily's Wendy Ide calls Costa Brava a “terrific feature debut from Mounia Akl which works both as a compelling domestic drama and an elegant political allegory.” And Andrew Crump of The Playlist claims the film is “partly magical, partly real, but total fiction, because fiction is the best way to capture the tragicomic clown show that unfolds throughout.”
Drama/Musical | USA/UK/Italy/Canada | Directed by Joe Wright
Opens in theaters December 31
Filmed during the pandemic, the latest from Joe Wright (Darkest Hour, Hanna) is based on a stage musical adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s classic tale Cyrano de Bergerac written by Erica Schmidt (who also takes screenwriting duties on the film) and originally performed at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House in 2018 with stars Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett, who reprise their roles in the film. With songs by Bryce and Aaron Dessner and lyrics by Matt Berninger (all of The National) and Carin Besser, the film is good “in parts” according to IndieWire's David Ehrlich. In her review for TheWrap, Monica Castillo is also left with a mixed impression, writing, “The movie’s highs are enjoyable and riveting, they’re reason why the character has endured for decades. But the lows – they hurt even worse.” But Stephen Farber of THR thinks it’s “Wright’s best film, even though it has some problematic elements.” And Variety's Peter Debruge calls it a “splendid new adaptation” in which Wright “once again displays the kind of radical creativity that made early-career stunners Pride and Prejudice and Atonement so electrifying in their time.”
Sci-fi/Drama/Adventure | USA/Hungary | Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Opens in theaters and streams on HBO Max beginning October 22
Most critics came away impressed with part one of what Denis Villeneuve hopes is a two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic—a film sequel is likely but unconfirmed, though a TV spinoff has been ordered—but plenty had their reservations too. Villeneuve and his team of craftspeople definitely provide the spectacle, but narratively, some critics, like Brian Truitt of USA Today, find the $165-million film incomplete. He writes, “The sci-fi epic Dune boasts a few films’ worth of giant sandworms, amazing spaceships, cosmic armies and galactic political drama, though it essentially is only half a movie.” IGN's Scott Collura concurs: “The film is a triumph when it comes to its visuals and sound. But there’s a shapelessness to the latter part of the movie that drags it down and distracts from its beauty; it’s a story that ends at Act 2, and it shows.” EW's Leah Greenblatt has similar concerns, calling it a “dazzling high-toned space opera written on sand,” but Tim Grierson of Screen Daily believes it “dwarfs most contemporary sci-fi in its scope and execution, ably juggling multiple characters and settings so that its matches the sprawling drama of the original tome.” And in his 5-star review for The Guardian, Xan Brooks praises Villeneuve’s ability to fuse “the arthouse and the multiplex to create an epic of otherworldly brilliance." At the very least, it's certain to finish with a higher Metascore than David Lynch's 1984 adaptation.
Venice Grand Jury Prize (2nd Place) Winner
The Hand of God (È stata la mano di Dio)
Drama | Italy | Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Opens in theaters December 3 and streams on Netflix beginning December 15
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While critics were slightly more mixed than the Venice jury on Paolo Sorrentino’s latest, the director of the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty took home the festival's Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize for his most personal film to date. This coming-of-age story, set in Sorrentino’s hometown of Naples, follows Best Young Actor winner Filippo Scotti as he celebrates soccer star Diego Maradona’s arrival, loses his parents, and discovers his love of filmmaking. TheWrap's Dan Callahan warns that “Sorrentino serves up his memories in an unappealingly inert and flat manner.” While Xan Brooks of The Guardian has reservations about this “sweaty, close-up evocation of youth,” the critic nevertheless enjoys the film’s “bawdy vigour” and “delicious set pieces.” And in an “A” review for The Playlist, Rodrigo Perez writes, ”Flecked with moments of the absurd, it succeeds in balancing a lighthearted tone with somber ones, somehow easing in and out with so much grace. It’s a rueful love letter to Naples, to family, and the pain that shaped him, and it’s wonderful and sentimental in the very finest sense of the word.”
Venice Golden Lion (1st Place) Winner
Drama | France | Directed by Audrey Diwan
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French-Lebanese filmmaker Audrey Diwan’s sophomore feature as a director (following 2019's Losing It, unreleased in the States) won the top prize in Venice. Adapted (with Marcia Romano) from Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel, the film stars French-Romanian actress Anamaria Vartolomei as Anne, a university student in 1963 France who finds few options when she wants to terminate her pregnancy. THR's David Rooney believes this “slice of clear-eyed French social-realism” is “is often a tough watch, compassionate but brutally honest, and almost breathless in its chronicle of a struggle that has obviously stayed with the author for decades.” Xan Brooks of The Guardian finds the film “serious, gripping and finally honourable,” with a “superb performance” by Vartolomei.
Drama/Horror | USA | Directed by Stephen Karam
Opens in theaters and airs on Showtime on November 24
In writer-director Stephen Karam’s adaptation of his Tony Award-winning play, the Blake family (Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, and Jayne Houdyshell, the latter reprising her Tony-winning role) gathers for Thanksgiving dinner in the lower Manhattan apartment their daughter (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend (Steven Yeun) have recently begun to share. Writing for the The Playlist, Robert Daniels believes the film “meanders—sleepwalks even—through its desired seismic beats and is only partly saved by some exceptional sound work and well-layered performances.” And C.J. Prince of The Film Stage agrees, concluding “The Humans is lucky to have such strong talents to elevate it, since Karam’s gambits fail on their own terms.” But they are in the minority; most critics believe the film is a success. THR's Frank Scheck claims Humans is a “remarkably insightful and powerful portrait of the human condition,” and also thinks the acting is “uniformly superb, with all the performers plumbing subtle depths and displaying a convincing familial chemistry.” In his review for Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson writes, “The most arresting thing about The Humans is how it blends its discursive verité with the interruptions of haunted-house terror.” Adds Variety's Peter Debruge, “The Humans is about a hundred or more recognizable aspects of being alive in America at this moment.”
Animation/Fantasy/Music | Japan/China | Directed by Masaaki Yuasa
Set in 14th century Japan and based on Hideo Furukawa’s 2017 novel The Tale of the Heike: Inu-Oh, this animated feature from director Masaaki Yuasa (Ride Your Wave, The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, Lu Over the Wall) reimagines the life of Inu-Oh, a unique Noh performer who teams up with Tomona, a blind biwa player, to create amazing performances that threaten the shogun. In his review for TheWrap, William Bibbiani writes, “The competition may be fierce, but it’s probably safe to say that Masaaki Yuasa’s Inu-Oh is the best feudal-Japanese-hair-metal-demonic-curse-serial-killer-political-tragedy-rock-opera of the year. At least so far.” IndieWire's David Ehrlich claims this “head-scratching, jaw-dropping, head-banging freak-out” is the first animated feature since 1973’s Belladonna of Sadness to “reimagined ancient history in such hypnotically psychedelic fashion.” And in his review for IGN, Rafael Motamayor applauds this “electrifying” animated rock opera that tells a “poignant story about the importance of art in preserving history, about memory and artistic defiance, all while inspiring headbanging through each musical number.”
Drama/Sports | USA | Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
Opens in theaters and streams on HBO Max beginning November 19
Will Smith stars as Richard Williams, the father of Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), in director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s (Monsters and Men, Joe Bell) look at the hustle and sacrifices required of Richard and his wife Brandi (Aunjanue Ellis) to raise two tennis icons. Critics had good things to say about many of the film’s various components following its Telluride unveiling. Variety's Peter Debruge praises Zach Baylin’s script: “While the arc is familiar, hardly a single detail could be described as clichéd, seeing as how the specifics are virtually unprecedented.” And Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair believes “what keeps us invested is the cast’s invigorating performances,” while EW critic Leah Greenblatt highlights Green’s ability to make “something fresh out of the familiar — a smart reminder that when a story is told well it can hit all the beats we know, and still somehow surprise us.”
Listening to Kenny G
Documentary/Music | USA | Directed by Penny Lane
Wait—don't leave yet. You may think you don't want to spend another second reading about reading about writing about looking at Listening to Kenny G. But Penny Lane's new documentary is about exactly that. She knows that the smooth jazz saxophonist (who participates in the film) is hated by as many (or more) music fans than those who adore him and buy his records by the millions, and her painstakingly researched, often humorous film doesn't just trace his life story but focuses a good chunk of time on the backlash while exploring the meaning of "good" and "bad" music through interviews with music critics, DJs, and scholars. According to critics, her film is definitely more good than bad. Variety's Peter Debruge calls it "ruthlessly entertaining," and, in an "A" review in IndieWire, Christian Blauvelt declares, "Lane set out to make a documentary about the nature of taste, and she’s accomplished that with panache." The Wrap's Steve Pond admits it's not a life-changing movie ("it doesn't really go anywhere"), but has fun with it anyway, finding Lane "smart enough to know she can’t avoid the topic of Kenny G’s extreme divisiveness and playful enough to make it the defining characteristic of her film." And The Film Stage's Jared Mobarak calls Lane "masterful," adding that Kenny G "proves yet again that nobody can tonally marry edification and entertainment onscreen so effortlessly." The film will air on HBO sometime in December as part of the network's periodic "Music Box" documentary series.
The Lost Daughter
Drama | USA/Greece/Israel/UK | Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal
Opens in theaters December 17 and streams on Netflix beginning December 31
Maggie Gyllenhaal took home the prize for Best Screenplay in Venice for her impressive debut feature as a director, an adaptation of My Brilliant Friend author Elena Ferrante’s novel The Lost Daughter. Olivia Colman stars as Leda (played by Jessie Buckley in flashbacks), whose interest in a young mother, played by Dakota Johnson, brings back memories of her own struggles with motherhood. In her review for TheWrap, Yolanda Machado calls Daughter a “triumphant debut for Gyllenhaal” and a “masterwork in perception and all that society places upon mothers and motherhood.” At The Playlist, Tomris Laffly claims the film will leave you “haunted, shaken, and crushingly scarred like only the best of films are capable of doing.” And Screen Daily's Wendy Ide declares it a “sinuous adaptation” and a “supremely confident feature directing debut.”
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
Animation/Comedy | USA | Directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp
Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp expand their lovable shorts to feature length with this “sweet, uncomplicated film whose message about self-compassion and community feel especially prescient,” writes Lovia Gyarkye of THR. The film adds Marcel’s Nana Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) as Marcel deals with newfound fame. IndieWire's Kate Erbland believes it “seamlessly marries big ideas with charm and humor (and inventive stop-motion work to boot),” and Peter Debruge of Variety advises, “Don’t miss this strange, special little film.”
Drama | USA | Directed by David Siegel and Scott McGehee
In the latest from directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End, What Maisie Knew), two estranged siblings must confront a painful past when they return to care for their ailing father on the ranch where they grew up. For THR's David Rooney it’s an “affecting drama” with “performances of heart-searing sensitivity from Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague.” And Robert Daniels of IndieWire believes “Teague and Richardson are perfectly cast” in this “patient, captivating portrait of the past that stays with us long after the wind stops blowing.” Screen Daily's Tim Grierson adds to the praise for the leads, writing, “Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague are both excellent at conveying everything that remains unsaid between these estranged siblings, eschewing melodramatic flourishes for stoic insights.”
Parallel Mothers (Madres paralelas)
Drama | Spain | Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Opens in theaters December 24
Pedro Almodóvar’s feature follow-up to 2019’s critically-acclaimed Pain and Glory follows two new mothers—Janis (Venice Best Actress winner Penélope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit)—over three years, resulting in “undoubtedly one of Almódovar’s breezier and more accessible domestic dramas,” according to Nicholas Barber of IndieWire. It is also a “perfect distillation of his artistic fascinations and marked evolution in the depth of his thematic explorations,” writes Slashfilm's Marshall Shaffer. Time critic Stephanie Zacharek believes Cruz gives “what may be the best performance of her career so far” in a movie of “infinite tenderness.” And in her review for The Playlist, Jessica Kiang likens Mothers to a “piñata that’s been crammed with storylines as contrived as its feelings are genuine, so that melodrama rains down in ribbons from the screen, and conflicting emotions scatter like so much color-blocked confetti.”
The Power of the Dog
Drama | New Zealand/Australia | Directed by Jane Campion
Opens in theaters November 17 and streams on Netflix beginning December 1
Returning to film—triumphantly—after a 12-year hiatus, Jane Campion (Bright Star, The Piano) collected the Silver Lion for Best Director at Venice for her adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel about ranchers Phil and George Burbank in 1920s Montana. When George (Jesse Plemons) takes a wife (Kirsten Dunst), Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) sets out to torment her and her son (Kodi Smit-McFee). The Guardian's Xan Brooks claims it’s a “brawny, brooding drama about the wreckage caused by men, beautifully framed in muted neutral tones as the camera circles the ranch-house with a deliberate, stealthy tread.” David Ehrlich of IndieWire describes Dog, rather colorfully, as a “poison-tipped dagger of a Western drama wrapped in rawhide and old rope; a brilliant, murderous fable about masculine strength that’s so diamond-toothed its victims are already half dead by the time they see the first drop of their own blood.” According to Time's Stephanie Zacharek, it is a “pleasure to sink into Campion’s smart, entertaining and terrifically tense sand-painting of a picture.” And David Rooney of THR declares it a “work as boldly idiosyncratic, unpredictable and alive with psychological complexity as anything in the revered director’s output.” The rapturous critical response instantly made Campion's film the favorite to take home next year's best picture Oscar—and if it does so, it would be the first one collected by Netflix.
Documentary | USA/UK | Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Opens in theaters October 8
Life and directing partners Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Meru, Free Solo) continue their exploration of extreme human achievement with this chronicle of the 2018 rescue of 12 boys and their coach from a flooded cave in Northern Thailand. Writing for TheWrap, William Bibbiani admits that Rescue is “an enthralling documentary,” but thinks the “film’s overwhelming polish sometimes undermines the real-life story it’s trying to tell.” But THR's Frank Scheck believes the film “keeps you on the edge of your seat for every minute, even if you already know the outcome,” and in her review for Variety, Tomris Laffly proclaims it “truly breathtaking stuff,” a documentary of “bone-deep moral resonance and cinematic mastery that deserves to be experienced on the big screen.” The National Geographic-produced film will play in theaters in October before heading to TV and/or streaming.
Drama | Germany/UK | Directed by Pablo Larraín
Opens in theaters November 5
Kristen Stewart steps into the role of Princess Diana in this second look at a famous, isolated woman from Jackie director Pablo Larrain. Taking place over a Christmas weekend at Queen Elizabeth II’s Sandringham estate in 1991, the film is an “immensely cinematic, gloriously melodramatic portrait of the disintegration and despair of celebrity,” according to Jessica Kiang of The Playlist. In his review for The Guardian, Xan Brooks calls it an “extraordinary film” in which “Kristen Stewart proves entirely compelling in the title role.” The Telegraph's Robbie Collin also praises Stewart, who “navigates this perilous terrain with total mastery, getting the voice and mannerisms just right but vamping everything up just a notch, in order to better lean into the film’s melodramatic, paranoiac and absurdist swerves,” while also lauding Larrain’s “thrillingly gutsy, seductive, uninhibited filmmaking.” Owen Gleiberman of Variety adds to the plaudits: “Spencer is a film with the daring, and the imagination, to portray Diana not as a “princess,” or as a rebel princess either, but as the idiosyncratic flesh-and-blood woman she was, and the movie creates a kind of dream projection of her inner life.” Expect Stewart to receive serious Oscar consideration for a role that could also win an Emmy for Emma Corrin this weekend.
Other notable debuts (neither great nor terrible)
Documentary | USA/Mexico | Directed by Rebeca Huntt
For her debut film, Rebeca "Beba" Huntt spent eight years filming and piecing together a self-portrait that traces her life growing up in a tiny New York apartment as the daughter of immigrants from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. At The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw notes some growing pains that at times make the film akin to a "student graduation piece," but he nevertheless praises the film's "rich, dense texture." IndieWire's Robert Daniels is a bit more positive, highlighting a "painstaking self-exploration" that "really makes this film worthwhile." But The Playlist's Charles Bramesco cautions, "Never lacking in earnestness or vigor, she nonetheless teeters over the lines separating introspection from navel-gazing and the raw from the simply underdone."
Documentary | USA | Directed by Liz Garbus
Opens in theaters October 22
Debuting first at Telluride and also screening in Toronto, the Nat Geo-produced Becoming Cousteau offers a look at famed French undersea explorer, filmmaker, and conservationist Jacques Cousteau from prolific documentarian Liz Garbus (who also produced but did not direct fellow Telluride entry Fauci). In THR, critic Frank Scheck praises her film as "consistently engrossing as well as informative," while also noting that "Garbus doesn’t shy away from dealing with Cousteau’s sometimes messy personal life." IndieWire's Kristen Lopez is slightly less appreciative, noting some pacing issues that renders the first half of the film less lively than the second, but still describes the doc as "a dazzling dive into the depths of an undersea world." Other critics had additional minor quibbles: The Playlist reviewer Chris Barsanti wishes Garbus focused more on Cousteau's film and TV work, while The Wrap's Elizabeth Weitzman thinks the doc "could have used a little more focus on his earthly experiences."
Colin in Black & White
TV/Drama/Documentary | USA | Directed by multiple directors
Miniseries streams on Netflix beginning October 29
The real Colin Kaepernick narrates this autobiographical six-episode series that stars Jaden Michael as a teenage Kaepernick prior to his time as an NFL quarterback (and activist). Kaepernick co-created the series with Ava DuVernay (who also directs an episode), and Nick Offerman (sans mustache) and Mary-Louise Parker co-star as his adoptive parents. The first three episodes screened at TIFF, and while most critics are holding their reviews for October, The Playlist's Marya E. Gates has already awarded the series an "A", concluding, "DuVernay and Kaepernick have crafted a hybrid docudrama limited series that is both personal and universal, educational and raw." And in an early take from RogerEbert.com (the publication's official review will come later), Robert Daniels finds the opening episodes "subversive and provocative, bearing passing similarities to DuVernay’s 'The 13th'—it's brisk, witty, and sweet, and offers a thoughtfully constructed critique of America’s racial history and present."
Drama/Horror | UK/France/Belgium | Directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Co-written by Geoff Cox (High Life), the enigmatic English-language debut for French writer-director Lucile Hadzihalilovic (Evolution) adapts the surreal and disturbing 2019 novella by Brian Catling. Set in mid-20th century Europe, Earwig centers on the titular man (Paul Hilton), who is charged with periodically swapping out the teeth of the 10-year-old girl who lives next door. (They are made of ice cubes, you see.) He takes orders from an unseen man, and eventually those commands force him to escort the girl on a cross-country trip that brings the film fully into horror territory. Visuals, atmosphere, and mood are always a strength of Hadzihalilovic, who is sometimes compared to David Lynch, and that's the case again here, even if the film suffers from its plotlessness. In The Film Stage, C.J. Prince concludes, "Earwig, her latest, offers more of the same for better and worse; the level of control over image and sound remains as potent as ever, but in service of a lackluster story." THR's Jordan Mintzer offers a similar sentiment, while also comparing the film to an overlong Eraserhead: "Viewers looking for explanations should probably stay away, but those willing to be carried by the film’s casual pace and haunting aesthetic will find there are few places like it in contemporary cinema."
Sci-fi/Thriller | USA/UK | Directed by Michael Pearce
Opens in theaters December 3 and streams on Prime Video beginning December 10
Writer-director Michael Pearce’s follow-up to Beast stars Riz Ahmed as a Marine who takes his two young sons (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada) on an increasingly dangerous journey. The film “sustains its tension, even as it sideswipes the audience with slickly executed change of tone,” confirming “Pearce as a considerable talent,” according to Wendy Ide of Screen Daily. In her review for Variety, Tomris Laffly praises Ahmed’s “exceptionally talented young co-stars,” and Pearce’s “meticulous craftsmanship that’s always gripping even when it registers a touch heavy-handed.” A different impression comes from TheWrap's Steve Pond, who believes the film “tries to be a bravura piece of genre-hopping cinema,” but “too often feels confused rather than assured.”
Drama | UK | Directed by John Michael McDonagh
The latest from John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Calvary) is an adaptation of Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel about a wealthy couple (Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain) visiting Morocco who accidentally run over and kill a young local man on their way to a lavish party hosted by a couple played by Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones. For Benjamin Lee of The Guardian, it’s a “strange watch – unsure of itself at times, hugely, bullishly confident at others – but one that’s never less than curiously compelling.” Variety's Peter Debruge finds it “undeniably wicked yet deliciously prickly in its portrayal of adult affairs,” and, while some disagree, Chris Evangelista of Slashfilm believes, “McDonagh sticks the landing, bringing the entire story full circle into a shocking-yet-predictable conclusion that makes us rethink everything we've just seen.”
The Good House
Drama/Comedy | USA | Directed by Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky
Directors Maya Forbes (The Polka King) and Wallace Wolodarsky (Seeing Other People), working with screenwriter Thomas Bezucha (Let Him Go), adapt Ann Leary’s 2013 novel about the struggles of a realtor (Sigourney Weaver) in a small, affluent New England town. IndieWire's David Ehrlich thinks this “weak-kneed adaptation sacrifices the rich interiority of its source material for the sake of something much broader.” But Fionnuala Halligan of Screen Daily has more positive things to say, finding Weaver’s “striking performance” to be an “acting masterclass.” And TheWrap's Alonso Duralde agrees, praising Weaver’s “powerhouse performance” and those of the strong supporting cast—Kevin Kline, Morena Baccarin, Rob Delaney, Kelly AuCoin, Paul Guifoyle, and Beverly D’Angelo—making this the “rare movie that’s both a star vehicle and an ensemble piece.”
Drama/Thriller | USA | Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Opens in theaters September 24 and streams on Netflix beginning October 1
Antoine Fuqua directs Jake Gyllenhaal in this remake of Gustav Möller’s (superior by Metascore) 2018 Danish thriller; both films unfold over a single day in a single location (here, a 911 call center). Writing in IndieWire, Kate Erbland believes “Nic Pizzolatto’s adaptation is not as tightly wound as the original’s (penned by Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen), but it does build in fresh touches that add resonance,” and even though the film “lacks some of the gritty tension of Möller’s original … Gyllenhaal’s explosive performance keeps it fresh and moving along in different ways.” Siddhant Adlakha of IGN adds, “Its efforts at social commentary mostly fall flat, but its thrilling moments and Gyllenhaal’s intense performance largely make up for that.”
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song
Documentary/Music | USA | Directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine
The new documentary from Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine (who previously directed The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden and Ballets Russes) combines typical music-doc biography with an examination of the late Leonard’s Cohen’s most ubiquitous song, a topic covered extensively in Alan Light’s 2012 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah. For Xan Brooks of The Guardian this “steady, respectful documentary” tells the “story of the artist, but it shows us the life of the song.” And THR's Daniel Fienberg admires a film that “has a better grasp of the artist’s ineffable appeal than most, and a smarter approach.” Less enthusiastic, Screen Daily's Wendy Ide writes, “This is filmmaking which echoes Cohen’s music style – it’s contemplative, searching and stripped back, but it can also be somewhat navel gazing, ponderous and very slow.”
TV/Horror | South Korea | Directed by Sang-ho Yeon
An upcoming Netflix horror series (still undated in the U.S., but likely debuting in October) from Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho and his collaborator, illustrator Choi Kyu-seok, Hellbound is a live-action adaptation of the pair's digital comic The Hell (also released in print in English by Dark Horse as The Hellbound). Three episodes screened at TIFF, and while our usual panel of TV critics has yet to weigh in, other publications did. In a 3/5 review at horror site Bloody Disgusting, Joe Lipsett admits the series "has a pretty awesome hook" (which involves angels suddenly appearing to warn sinners that they were about to suffer a brutal death) but cautions that the "unfocused" series attempts to cover too many "hot button topics," and, "by filtering these issues through the lens of the detective and the attorney, the message becomes muddled." But at The Young Folks, Katey Stoetzel disagrees, writing, "Hitting at various social themes in such a short amount of time is a difficult task, but Yeon Sang-ho gets the most out of his actors and the story to give us a captivating deconstruction of society." In an 8.5/10 review, Film Threat's Alan Ng also has a more positive take, calling the series "engaging" and comparing it to The Walking Dead in being less concerned "about the violent demonic killings and more about the lives of those affected and the story’s broader religious and secular themes at a national level."
Thriller | Palestine/Egypt/Netherlands/Qatar | Directed by Hany Abu-Assad
A based-on-actual-events political thriller from Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad (who previously directed the Oscar-nominated Paradise Now), Huda's Salon finds a woman's seemingly innocuous visit to her hairdresser take a dangerous turn after an unexpected betrayal, leaving her in a compromised position and forced to spy on her own community for Israel's secret service. At The Film Stage, Dan Mecca is a fan, writing, "Huda’s Salon recalls Hollywood mysteries from the 1940s in both its brisk pace and disarmingly simple style, resulting in a sparse, intelligent thriller." But though IndieWire's Kate Erbland admires the thriller's "crackling first 10 minutes," she thinks it then takes "a less than satisfying turn," eventually concluding with an "over-thought ending that does little to reflect the precise stories and people it’s trying to chronicle." Taking the contrary view is Carlos Aguilar in his "A" review for The Playlist, finding Huda's Salon to be "expertly paced" and "strikingly bold in its dramatic construction, and adept at folding the macro issues into the lives of everyday residents of a tumultuous area of the world."
Drama | Italy/France/Germany | Directed by Michelangelo Frammartino
Artist and filmmaker Michelangelo Frammartino (Le Quattro Volte) received a Special Jury Award for this docu-fiction hybrid about speleologists exploring Europe’s deepest cave, the Bifurto Abyss in Calabria’s Pollino mountains. THR's Lovia Gyarke believes it’s a “masterful work of sound and sight” that "stands powerfully on its own, offering breathtaking images of rural Italy and a subtle interrogation of the slow creep of change and modernity.” And Lee Marshall of Screen Daily finds the film “even more impenetrable than the gloriously strange Le Quattro Volte,” with Frammartino “conjuring a film out of pure intuition, juxtaposing ideas and stories because he is as curious as we are about how (or if) they fit together.”
Documentary | USA | Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen
Opens in theaters November 5
The latest from RBG directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen is a portrait of another American icon: Julia Child. IndieWire's Kate Erbland finds it “tasty if somewhat thin,” and in his review for Variety, Guy Lodge claims it’s a “bright, cheerful, audience-friendly overview of Child’s life and legacy that steers fastidiously clear of any unexpected insight or information on a well-documented subject.” Slightly more positive, TheWrap's Alonso Duralde writes, “As personality-based docs go, it’s one that offers both a comprehensive examination of one person’s accomplishments and importance as well as some moments of reflection about its subjects human frailties and shortcomings.”
The Last Duel
Drama | USA/UK | Directed by Ridley Scott
Opens in theaters October 15
The first of two releases for director Ridley Scott this year (House of Gucci hits theaters November 24) is based on actual events from the 14th century. Written by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Nicole Holofcener, the script examines the incident that led to the last sanctioned duel in France from the perspective of Damon’s Jean de Carrouges, Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris, and Jodie Comer’s Marguerite, Carrouges’ wife. For Screen Daily's Fionnuala Halligan, the multi-perspective narrative is too repetitive, crushing the film “by the weight of its own armour.” But Ryan Leston of IGN sees “brilliant performances, brutal fights, and impactful social commentary.” In her review for The Playlist, Jessica Kiang is a little more even-handed, writing, “Let’s not overstate: ‘The Last Duel’ is no revolutionary text and exists primarily as an excuse for a bunch of charismatic stars to ride horses and snarl at each other by candlelight en route to a genuinely exciting dueling-douchebag climax.”
Last Night in Soho
Drama/Thriller/Horror | UK | Directed by Edgar Wright
Opens in theaters October 29
Co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917), Edgar Wright’s first narrative feature since 2017’s Baby Driver but second film of 2020 (following The Sparks Brothers) follows an aspiring present-day fashion designer (Thomasin McKenzie) who is transported to the 1960s, where she encounters a wannabe singer (The Queens Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy). Time's Stephanie Zacharek thinks the genre-blending film “soars at the beginning, only to crash in the end,” and Brad Wheeler of The Globe & Mail agrees, concluding, “Though visually sumptuous and a bunch of fun early on, Edgar Wright’s take on sixties and seventies horror eventually devolves into unsatisfying spoof.” But other critics found greater enjoyment in Soho. Believing Wright completes his mission, Neil Smith of Total Film claims it’s “a lot of thrilling, dazzling, sometimes frightening fun,” while Screen Daily's Wendy Ide deems it “a blast.”
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon
Fantasy/Thriller | USA | Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s third feature, following A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Bad Batch, stars Jeon Jong-seo (Burning) as Mona Lisa Lee, an escapee from a mental asylum who crashes with Bonnie Belle, a stripper played by Kate Hudson, while a cop (Craig Robinson) pursues her. In her review for IndieWire, Christina Newland finds it “pretty to look at it,” but “flimsy when held up to the light,” while Screen Daily's Wendy Ide thinks it “relishes its own trashiness. But the writing is not focused enough to make this much more than a cheap thrill.” For The Guardian's Xan Books, the film “offers street-food for the senses, served with lashings of hot sauce. It’s hardly nutritious but it tastes fine in the moment, wolfed down on the run.” More enthusiastic is Lovia Gyarkye of THR, who believes the film’s “hyper-saturated mood, hypnotic music and highly stylized cinematography ... will surely thrill the director’s existing fans and convert new ones.”
Official Competition (Competencia oficial)
Comedy/Drama | Spain/Argentina | Directed by Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn
This comedy from Argentinian directors Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn wonders what it would be like if an aging billionaire threw his money into a prestige film instead of a phallic rocket. Penélope Cruz plays the eccentric filmmaker tasked with making a film with rival actors played by Antonio Banderas and Oscar Martínez. “Controlled pacing, visual punchlines, and an insider knowledge of the varied pretensions within filmmaking make this a consistently amusing” film, according to The Playlist’s Sophie Monks Kaufman. Guy Lodge of Variety calls it a “droll, dippy insider comedy,” while THR's Lovia Gyarkye claims Competition is a “smart and biting story.”
Western | USA | Directed by Potsy Ponciroli
Opens in theaters October 1
In this western from writer-director Potsy Ponciroli, Tim Blake Nelson stars as a widower who must call on his past to defend his homestead from a posse led by Stephen Dorff. Among the critics who wanted more from the film, The Guardian's Xan Brooks calls it a “rootin’ tootin’ barrel of wild-west cliches,” and in her review for IndieWire, Christina Newland thinks the film “contains all the mechanisms for strong storytelling—but never digs past the superficial realm of old genre tropes.” But supporters include Robbie Collin of The Telegraph, who claims Henry is a “gratifyingly shrewd and sinewy western,” and TheWrap's Steve Pond, who believes Nelson’s performance is a “marvel of economy” in a “small, intimate Western, and a quietly moving one.”
Drama | Mexico/France/Sweden | Directed by Michel Franco
Michel Franco’s last film, New Order, divided critics. His follow-up, a reunion with his Chronic star Tim Roth, is set in Acapulco, where Roth spends his days drinking beer and ignoring all responsibilities. (After reading hundreds of film festival reviews, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea.) In his review for IndieWire, Nicholas Barber calls it a “liberating blend of mystery and existential deadpan comedy,” and Variety's Peter Debruge believes it’s the “high-minded director’s most successful film to date, conceptually speaking ... an intricate, unconventional puzzle.” For Chris Evangelista of Slashilm, “The genius of 'Sundown' is how little it tells us while keeping us glued to what we're seeing,” while The Guardian's Xan Brooks claims it’s “pitiless and pitch-perfect, an existential tour-de-force with shades of Camus’s The Outsider.”
Drama | USA/Canada/Hungary | Directed by Barry Levinson
The new film from Rain Man director Barry Levinson is (so far) his best-reviewed feature since 2012’s The Bay. Based on the true story of Harry Haft (Ben Foster in a universally praised performance), a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz by fighting fellow Jews in life-or-death matches to entertain SS officers, the film jumps between three timelines. The result, for IndieWire's David Ehrlich, is a "disjointed middleweight Holocaust movie about a disjointed heavyweight fighter,” that’s held together by Foster’s performance. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian finds Survivor to be “derivative” despite being “put together with craftsmanship and confidence,” and Screen Daily's Tim Grierson agrees there’s “no shortage of familiar elements,” but this “earnest, sometimes stolid biopic” is “hard to shake.” Lastly, Steve Pond of TheWrap applauds both the star and director: “It’s a haunted and haunting performance at the center of the most substantial movie that Levinson has made in years.”
Drama | UK | Directed by Harry Wootliff
Writer-director Harry Wootliff’s feature follow-up to 2018’s Only You stars Ruth Wilson as Kate, a woman whose life unravels when she gets in a destructive sexual relationship with a man played by Tom Burke (who had a similarly devastating impact in The Souvenir). This adaptation of the Deborah Kay Davies novel True Things About Me, co-written with playwright Molly Davies, divided critics. Writing for The Playlist, Sophie Monks Kaufman finds Kate to be a "bland heroine whose lack of distinguishing features makes it hard to give a damn as she goes through the motions of setting fire to her life.” Xan Brooks of The Guardian believes it’s "not a bad film, exactly. ... But it’s unambitious, sometimes clunky and doesn’t wrong-foot us once.” More positive about the film, IndieWire's David Ehrlich highlights how “Wootliff cuts away everything other than the raw nerves that are left exposed, creating a film more elemental than narrative.” And in her enthusiastic review at Screen Daily, Wendy Ide declares it an “intoxicating tale” in which Wootliff “expands her range to a dazzling degree.”
Drama | USA | Directed by Steve Pink
In a departure from Hot Tub Time Machine and Hot Tub Time Machine 2, Steve Pink directs this intimate drama about Walker (Taylor Gray) and Albee (Amber Midthunder), a young couple on the brink of divorce after eight years of marriage. THR's Angie Hann concedes that “not everything about the film clicks ... but it can’t be faulted for lack of feeling,” with Midthunder owning the better second half of the film. Screen Rant critic Mae Abdulbaki agrees that “The Wheel’s second half is where it truly finds its balance, unraveling, changing, and tearing into the dynamics with an emotionally-charged energy that sets up a beautifully crafted and heartfelt final scene between Albee and Walker that feels earned.”
Note that Netflix's The Starling (which opened in theaters yesterday and has thus received additional reviews) was met with abysmal reviews following its TIFF debut last week. Also possibly belonging in this category is the just-released The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which wasn't bad, per se, but which did receive a fairly tepid response from reviewers following its TIFF screening.
All My Puny Sorrows
Drama | Canada | Directed by Michael McGowan
A strong cast can’t quite breathe life into Still Mine director Michael McGowan’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’ award-winning novel. Alison Pill plays Yoli, a struggling mother and novelist who must attend to her older sister, Elf (Sarah Gadon), a concert pianist who has recently attempted suicide and is determined to try again. Screen Rant's Mae Abdulbaki finds the film “lackluster when exploring the characters and their history with mental illness” despite the “layered performances.” THR critic Angie Han is similarly unimpressed, claiming “McGowan’s unadorned direction ... does little to bridge the gap between the film’s messy truths and its polished prose.” But in his B- review for The Playlist, Jason Bailey is a little more positive: “All My Puny Sorrows is that old standby, the indie drama of family trauma, where snowfalls and characters fill frames artfully, and ghosts of the pasts return to haunt the present.”
Thriller | Italy/France | Directed by Damiano D'Innocenzo and Fabio D'Innocenzo
Brothers Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo won the Best Screenplay Award at the 2020 Venice International Film Festival for their sophomore effort Bad Tales. But their latest, a tale of a middle-aged dentist’s crumbling life in a small city south of Rome did not even merit the critical split decision afforded their previous effort. In his review for Variety, Guy Lodge cautions that Latina “shows little advancement in the brothers’ storytelling instincts, while underlining their knack for surly mood-building and elegantly sinister imagery,” comparing the film to a “Ferrari spinning its wheels.” Even harsher, IndieWire's Kristen Lopez believes the plot is “riddled with clichéd and ill-defined characters,” resulting in “90-minutes of blatant boredom.” And THR critic David Rooney laments, “For all its high style and aestheticized visuals, this is a work of self-conscious posturing with nothing to say.”
Horror | UK | Directed by Ruth Paxton
Ruth Paxton's debut feature finds a widowed single mother (Sienna Guillory) forced to cope with a new crisis at home: Her teenage daughter (Jessica Alexander) has stopped eating and believes herself to be a vessel for a higher power in a world that is about to suffer a great cataclysm. Is it the onset of mental illness—or, given that her daughter isn't actually losing weight—could it somehow be true? Unfortunately, the psychological thriller didn't make a positive impression on many critics at its TIFF debut. THR's John DeFore admires Paxton's direction but warns, "Justin Bull’s screenplay comes up short, failing to adequately capture the depth of its teen’s encounter with the abyss ... and to integrate it into the more comprehensible domestic tensions that serve as the plotless film’s only framework." At IndieWire, Kate Erbland similarly fault's Bull's script, lamenting that his "nonsensical" and unsatisfying ending "dilutes much of the creepy power that has come before." But a few critics who have a more positive view have been comparing Paxton's film to the recent Saint Maud; one of those, Screen's Allan Hunter, admires Banquet's "thoughtful, slow-burn nature," and the "committed performances," which contribute to "a provocative, rigorously composed film."
Becoming Led Zeppelin
Documentary/Music | UK/USA | Directed by Bernard MacMahon
Bernard MacMahon’s documentary on the formation and rise of Led Zeppelin is an “overlong but essential, joyous portrait,” of the classic rock band, according to John DeFore of THR. In Variety, Owen Gleiberman agrees that Becoming is “full of essential stuff,” but he finds it “not fully satisfying.” The Playlist critic Marshall Shaffer offers an even harsher assessment, deeming the doc a "veritable echo chamber of self-aggrandizement.” But TheWrap's Steve Pond is more even-handed, concluding, “If you’re a diehard fan, you’ll probably glory in what the film delivers and wish there were more of it; if you’re not, you may find yourself power-chorded into submission.”
Animation | Canada/France/Belgium | Directed by Éric Warin and Tahir Rana
This animated feature by Tahir Rana and Éric Warin (Leap!) chronicles the life of German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon who was murdered in Auschwitz at the age of 26, leaving behind what many consider a masterpiece—and maybe the world's first graphic novel: Life? or Theater?. Unfortunately, critics feel the film’s animation doesn’t match Salomon’s skill. “It’s a handsome film, but a conventional one, rather missing the opportunity of allowing Salomon’s thrilling uninhibited style to inform the film’s aesthetic,” according to Wendy Ide of Screen Daily. In his review for IndieWire, Christian Blauvelt is much harsher: “Any expectation that Salomon’s profound story might be depicted in grown-up, searching animation that’s still all too rare, is quickly dashed.”
Horror | UK/USA | Directed by Rob Savage
Rob Savage's Blumhouse-produced follow-up to last year's well-reviewed Shudder exclusive Host is also set during the pandemic and similarly unfolds entirely on a digital screen—in this case, the protagonist's phone. She's a live-streaming L.A. indie rocker (real-life musican Annie Hardy of Giant Drag, playing a version of herself) who tires of her life during quarantine and heads to London, where her selfish and obnoxious behavior (calibrated to attract an online audience) doesn't endear her to the locals. A series of events (including some of the supernatural variety) eventually leave her on the run through the English countryside. But critics were less fond of Savage's second quarantine effort. At The Wrap, William Bibbiani cautions that you may not want to spend 77 minutes trapped with "an unlikable human being," especially when the film "actually doesn’t seem to have much of a point to make." IGN's Kristy Puchko similarly deems the film "shallow, ugly, and cruel," and Slashfilm's Chris Evangelista agrees that it is "downright painful to watch," but IndieWire critic Jude Dry finds much to like, calling Dashcam "insanely fun" and "horror at its most inventive."
Dear Evan Hansen
Musical/Drama | USA | Directed by Stephen Chbosky
Opens in theaters September 24
"It's this year's Cats!" is not something you want to print on your movie poster—but it does seem to represent the consensus following TIFF's opening night screening. It turns out that having a now-27-year-old Ben Platt (despite his mellifluous voice) reprise his role as a high-schooler might be the straw that broke Evan Hansen’s arm, distracting from what made this stage musical a Tony-winning hit. But for many critics the casting is just one of many problems in this adaptation by The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wonder director Stephen Chbosky. For The Guardian's Adrian Horton, the “attempt to make Platt seem younger somehow renders him both older and inhuman – an act of near-sabotage so distracting it basically renders the movie unrecoverable.” And writing for RogerEbert.com, Robert Daniels claims it’s a “total misfire,” an “emotionally manipulative, overlong dirge composed of cloying songs, lackluster vocal performances, and even worse writing.” In her review for IndieWire, Tina Hassannia blames “Chbosky’s poor directorial choices” for the film’s failures, but THR's Michael Rechtshaffen is a little more forgiving thanks to the “film’s many fine points.” But even he, in the end, admits that the film “often falls short of the intended, emotionally uplifting mark.”
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
Drama | UK | Directed by Will Sharpe
According to Variety's Peter Debruge, this is a “strange and unexpectedly affecting portrait” of the troubled, eccentric late 19th-and early-20th-century artist Louis Wain by director Will Sharpe. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Wain, and Claire Foy portrays his wife Emily Richardson. They "play beautifully together; the chemistry is palpable,” writes Stephen Farber for THR, adding that the film’s “enchanting visual style also helps to compensate for some self-indulgence in the screenplay by Sharpe and Simon Stephenson.” Less enthusiastic but more representative of the consensus is The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, who claims it’s a “sentimental biopic that buries you in a fusillade of quirks and tics and flicks, an overegged pudding of a film.”
Horror/Thriller | USA | Directed by David Gordon Green
Opens in theaters and streams on Peacock beginning October 15
David Gordon Green’s sequel to 2018’s Halloween (itself a sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 original) failed to garner the positive reviews afforded the previous film (a box office hit) in this planned trilogy, resulting in a last-minute change to a day-and-date release in theaters and on Peacock. Picking up minutes after Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) leave Michael Myers caged and burning in Laurie’s basement, “this latest installment is like a latex ghoul mask so stretched and shapeless it no longer fits,” with Green increasing “the violence and gore at the expense of actual scares or even a modicum of suspense,” writes THR's David Rooney. Jessica Kiang of The Playlist agrees, claiming it “doubles the body count of the previous installment while roughly halving its IQ.” And Variety critic Owen Gleiberman is surprised that “Green more or less abandons the previous film’s enjoyable retro flavor.” Among the film’s defenders is Total Film’s Leila Latif, who believes “Green delivers a smart, sturdy second chapter. Low consequence, perhaps, but still highly entertaining.”
Thriller | Canada | Directed by Phillip Noyce
Director Philip Noyce (Dead Calm, Salt) tries (and fails) to turn a school shooting, a cellphone, and the acting chops of Naomi Watts into a gripping thriller. The fault seems to reside chiefly with the script by Chris Sparling (Buried). That screenplay “isn’t quite ingenious enough to find ways to involve [Watts] in the drama,” according to The Guardian's Benjamin Lee, and Jared Mobarak of The Film Stage believes “Sparling’s foundation proves too flimsy” even though “Noyce and Watts try their best to ramp up tension.” IndieWire's Kristen Lopez is even harsher, calling Lakewood a “maudlin, truly terrible thriller that relies far too heavily on manipulation and narrative revision to deliver a “message” that we don’t need to be spelled out for us.” But the film does have its defenders, including Allan Hunter of Screen Daily, who writes, “Lakewood is one of those films where your head wants to dismiss it as cheesy B-movie nonsense whilst your heart is racing along and you feel every jolt of the emotional rollercoaster. Perhaps that qualifies it as a guilty pleasure.”
Drama/Comedy/Horror | UK | Directed by Camille Griffin
In writer-director Camille Griffin’s debut feature, a toxic gas cloud is consuming the world, and Nell (Keira Knightley), Simon (Matthew Goode), and their son Art (Roman Griffin Davis, the director’s son and Jojo Rabbit star receiving praise from several critics) are welcoming friends and family (Annabelle Wallis, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Lily-Rose Depp, Lucy Punch, and Sope Dirisu) for one last Christmas dinner. Screen Daily's Tim Grierson believes the film’s “ideas and ambitions prove more compelling than the story itself,” and Alonso Duralde of TheWrap writes, “While Griffin finds comedy in mundane details ... the people here are all underwritten, even as these talented performers provide as much inner life as they can.” In her review for The Playlist, Marya E. Gates admits the “tonal shifts are a bit shaky, but her strong cast holds the film together with their chemistry and deft delivery of Griffin’s incisive dialogue.” Acquired by RLJE Films just prior to its TIFF premiere, the film will receive a simultaneous theatrical and streaming release (on AMC+) on a yet-to-be determined date in December.
All images on this page courtesy of TIFF and La Biennale di Venezia.