Best of the Fall Fests 2021

As the Covid-era festival landscape shifts yet again, our Festiville team picks the best of the films that premiered at the major fall film festivals.

Well, then. As drastic as the film festival shift was from in-person 2019 to at-home 2020, so too do the pieces move from then to now, with a more complicated dynamic than ever. Last year, we soaked up endless hours of great films from the safety of our own homes (or the rare theater, where possible).

While some festivals opted for in-person-only events in 2021, others did their best to present at least some options for at-home viewers, though the access restrictions ruffled more feathers than the generous virtual festival offerings earlier in the pandemic.

Nevertheless, just like the many hard workers who put sweat and elbow grease into making sure this year’s fests went off as seamlessly as possible, we also stacked the deck with as many hands as necessary to offer a smorgasbord of coverage over at Festiville, our home base for all things fest. Some members of our all-star team of correspondents (Mitchell Beaupre, Kambole Campbell, Dominic Corry, Isaac Feldberg, George Fenwick, Brian Formo, Gemma Gracewood, Alicia Haddick, Ella Kemp, Leo Koziol, Jack Moulton, Jonathan White and Lise) hit the ground running, returning to in-person festivals for the first time in a year, while others remained at home to peruse the (somewhat more limited) digital options.

Whether in the flesh or through the ones and zeroes, our team took in—among other things—royals of the Shakespearean and real-life variety, young lads and lasses coming-of-age in Indonesia and Naples, and cowboys and cowgirls of all shapes and sizes. With the dust settled, we present our selection of the best that the 2021 fall fests had to offer, with, as always, some help from the Letterboxd members attending alongside us.


NARRATIVE FEATURES

Benediction

Written and directed by Terence Davies. Released in the USA, by Roadside Attractions, in Spring 2022. Seen at: TIFF, BFI London Film Festival.

In order to follow the thoroughly acclaimed and achingly beautiful Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, legendary British director Terence Davies’ latest film, Benediction, tackles the life of another queer poet from the following century, profiling the anti-war soldier Siegfried Sassoon as he copes with the repression of the era. Sassoon’s oeuvre, often narrated in the film by star Jack Lowden over archival footage, remains searing, simple and timeless. Shot with Covid protocols in place, the film’s technical limitations are often clear, with its sparsely populated period sets (spot the re-purposed extras) and crafty substitutions for war scenes. But this allows the film to stay laser-focused on the wit and humanity of its exceptional network of actors, particularly Lowden as Sassoon, who has the opportunity to boast his full movie-star potential.

Even through the somber and occasionally hopeless tone, the film is gut-bustingly hilarious at times. “Sassoon’s revolving door of lovers lend wit and plenty of acerbic bite to the solemn affair,” notes Ashton. “To that effect, sequences are often framed as tennis-like rallies, the dialogue’s lobs and volleys of jabs, insights, or pure soliloquy lend urgency to a rather meditative film.” Benediction is a splendid, soulful and steadily paced film that rewards patience, resulting in Davies’ most personal (it’s arguably his first explicitly gay text), and frankly finest, work since Distant Voices, Still Lives. JM

The Hand of God

Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Releasing in theaters, by Netflix, on November 24, followed by a streaming release on December 15. Seen at: Venice, BFI London Film Festival.

The culture you consume as a teenager can alter the fabric of your life forever—something Paolo Sorrentino knows all too well, and honors tenderly with his warm coming-of-ager, The Hand of God. Our young hero is Fabietto Schisa, a sensitive young man growing up in 1980s Naples who loves his parents almost as much as he loves Diego Maradona.

It’s a turbulent time, and the indomitable footballer was something of a mercurial man—so it’s only natural that the film, covering several years in Fabietto’s life, envelops you as it goes along. “Two hours felt like four hours, but I mean that in the best way possible,” writes Bruce Tetsuya, which Awais Irfan echoes. “A film that starts out sweet and simple and becomes something entirely more profound and masterful by the end,” they write, urging us, like this young man in one of the most beautiful places in the world during a pivotal time in his life, to “just let yourself go”. EK

The Harder They Fall

Directed by Jeymes Samuel, written by Samuel and Boaz Yakin. Streaming on Netflix now. Seen at: BFI London Film Festival.

“While the events of this story are fictional… These. People. Existed.” This defiant introduction helps to set expectations for The Harder They Fall’s virtuosic energy, while acting as a statement of intent before it even starts. Despite the real-world racial makeup of cowboys in the American West, very few Hollywood Westerns have featured a non-white cast, yet these characters borrow their names from real cowboys of the era before being brought to life by talented actors like Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, LaKeith Stanfield and Regina King.

Drew Clark noted that the film “simultaneously subverts and embraces the Western genre”, and this respect for a Hollywood institution is on display as The Harder They Fall blazes through a high-intensity bloody revenge story. Rarely has a Netflix film, or a directorial debut, been so confident in what it is, and I can’t help but hope that this film “issues in a new and exciting era for the Western”, as Aomame333 proclaims. Especially if it brings us more rootin’ tootin’ movies like this. AH

Parallel Mothers

Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Releasing in theaters, by Sony Pictures Classics, on December 24. Seen at: Venice, NYFF.

“He’s done it again, boys”, writes Robert Daniels, and the man isn’t wrong. It can feel a bit old hat to praise the work of a master such as Pedro Almodóvar, but to take him for granted would be to lose sight of the fact that this is one of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers working today, and we’re grateful to have him still knocking it out of the park. His latest, Parallel Mothers, sees him re-team with his muse, Penélope Cruz, for a story of two single women, Janis (Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit), who meet in the hospital where they are both set to give birth. These two form a strong bond that unites them as they each traverse their own difficult journey through life, and through motherhood.

Sam is one of many to heap praise on one of Cruz’s best performances, which they describe as a “combination of vehemence and amiability [which] brings an unaltered and unique charisma to the screen that is both distinct and familiar”. Ema gives praise to the film’s themes, writing that Almodóvar “honors family and the past in such a beautiful way”, while Muriel offers up a warning for impending viewers: “If there’s one thing Almodóvar is gonna do (besides having a very red production design) [it’s to] make me rethink my whole relationship with my mother for god knows how long.” MB

The Power of the Dog

Written and directed by Jane Campion, from the book by Thomas Savage. In US theaters now, and streaming on Netflix from December 1. Seen at: Venice, Telluride, TIFF, NYFF, BFI London Film Festival.

There was never any doubt that a new Jane Campion joint would take our breath away, but The Power of the Dog is the kind of film that doesn’t let you exhale for quite some time after the credits have rolled. It’s a Western about broken masculinity, but it’s so much more than just one word or genre. Let Sara Clements explain: “The Power of the Dog is a Western, queer, Greek tragedy. Erotic in its gaze, it’s a fascinating study of masculinity and simmering desire.”

Benedict Cumberbatch leads proceedings as the gruff, cruel Phil Burbank, but supporting performances from real-life lovers Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons give the film some searing emotional depth, while Kodi Smit-McPhee steals the show as the enigmatic Peter Gordon. Crucially, this is also Campion’s first male protagonist—and what a debut it is. As Nora says: “Never forget that Jane Campion did not have a male main character in one of her films until her mid-60s and I think that’s iconic.” EK

Saloum

Written and directed by Jean Luc Herbulot. Awaiting distribution. Seen at: TIFF.

In Jean Luc Herbulot’s Senagelese genre-bender Saloum, a trio of mercenaries crash land in the mysterious titular region while on the run with a drug dealer and a bounty of gold. What they find there is more than they expect, and best to experience with as little prior knowledge as possible. This was certainly the case for Courtney, who found his interest piqued by the constant turns of the film, leading him to quote Django Unchained’s Calvin Candie: “Gentlemen, you had my curiosity, but now you have my attention.”

Highlighting the film’s cavalcade of influences across many arenas of cinematic splendor, Jake says the film “skillfully weaves from mercenary thriller to supernatural horror with a mixture of visual utilitarianism and opulence worthy of Carpenter”. Just don’t be like Andrew, who went to the bathroom for five minutes and came back not knowing what the hell was going on. You won’t want to miss a second of this one. MB

We chatted with Jean Luc Herbulot about growing up as a kid in Congo watching Miami Vice, and how he sought to forge something original out of his vast array of influences.

Scarborough

Directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson, written by Catherine Hernandez from her novel. Acquired for Canadian distribution by LevelFILM for an unspecified date, and awaiting international distribution. Seen at: TIFF.

Author Catherine Hernandez has adapted her own book, Scarborough, for this film about multicultural lives in the down-at-heel, poverty-stricken corner of Toronto. Ably directed by Rich Williamson and Shasha Nakhai, the film was a breakout hometown hit at TIFF, winning runner-up in the much-coveted Audience Award, as well as the Shawn Mendes Foundation Changemaker Award. One of the Changemaker Award jurors, Charles, took to Letterboxd to praise the film’s “super-well-built characters that eloquently build up and support main events.”

As Letterboxd’s Indigenous editor, I was particularly impressed with the Native casting (Cherish Violet Blood should get plenty of awards love), along with its inclusion of Indigenous culture in a way that felt true, rather than tokenistic. Each of the three lead child actors breaks your heart, something Ashton touches on in describing how “all the performers here, young and old, are revelatory, the kind of casting magic that doesn’t come around often”. Those performances help you invest in the characters, something which Reanesh clearly did: “I’m still reeling from a lot of the sadder points of this film but admittedly there’s also this thread through it all that kept me on edge. Immediately falling in love with almost all of the main characters, I just desperately wanted to know that each of them would be okay.” LK

Spencer

Directed by Pablo Larraín, written by Steven Knight. In theaters now, from NEON. Seen at: Venice, Telluride, TIFF, BFI London Film Festival.

From the waters of Venice to the mountains of Telluride and the urban streets of Toronto, Kristen Stewart has devoured the spotlight for her positively electric performance as Princess Diana. Much like Larraín’s Jackie, Spencer is not a biopic, but a picture of a famous woman’s state of mind during three tumultuous days. In this instance, it’s the pressure of a Christmas weekend with the royal family when a known affair has been had by her husband, but regal appearances are expected nonetheless.

The film juxtaposes tender moments with her sons against the gothic elements of an immense estate with coldness (and a watching eye) in its every wing. As Robert Daniels astutely summarizes, “Spencer is an act of psychological horror, a kind of ghost story, and a survivalist picture carried by an uncannily immersive Kristen Stewart, in the best performance of her career.” BF

Sundown

Directed and written by Michel Franco. Releasing by Bleecker Street in 2022. Seen at: Venice, TIFF, BFI London Film Festival.

In addition to becoming a more interesting actor as he gets older, Tim Roth is also becoming more inscrutable. He’s a completely natural presence in everything he does, but you can almost never discern exactly what his characters are thinking. That ambiguity is exploited beautifully in Michel Franco’s dark and sunkissed Sundown, a film that defies genre classification, but contains elements of mystery, family drama and neo-noir.

Roth stars as a wealthy Englishman vacationing with his family in Acapulco when a crisis suddenly cuts the holiday short. Pretending to have lost his passport upon arriving at the airport, he sends the rest of the family ahead and vows to join them back in London shortly. He then checks back into a cheaper hotel, and sets about casually absconding from his life. “Tim Roth’s mouth never moves in this movie and he gives my favorite performance of the year” raves Daniel Azbel. “Absolute sociopath energy on display by Tim Roth” concurs Jaeden N, while Jordan King describes the film as “the sort of film you imagine Haneke would daydream on a beach someplace nice”. He’s not wrong. DC

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Written and directed by Joel Coen, from the play by William Shakespeare. Releasing in theaters, by A24, on December 25, followed by a streaming release on AppleTV+ on January 14. Seen at: NYFF, BFI London Film Festival.

Shakespeare is cool again! This serene and sparsely staged interpretation of one of William Shakespeare’s most iconic plays serves as the first directorial effort for Joel Coen without his brother Ethan, and the result is a unique take on Macbeth that has earned immense praise on the fall festival circuit.

Everyone knows the story, but The Tragedy of Macbeth delivers it in a way that feels unlike anything we’ve seen before, both visually and in its brooding tone. Of particular note for many was the unique, imposing set design and performances from Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. As Matt Neglia notes, “Denzel Washington commands the screen with explosive anger and tormented weight while Frances McDormand stuns as his cunning equal.”

The story of Macbeth has always been one of guilt, and Coen masterfully portrays this through moody black-and-white cinematography, and a cramped 4:3 aspect ratio that often keeps the focus of the film on just their turmoil and strife. As they say, something wicked this way comes. AH

“They take big swings and make bold choices” —⁠Ella Kemp covered The Tragedy of Macbeth’s London Film Festival premiere for Festiville.

Yuni

Directed by Kamila Andini, written by Kamila Andini and Prima Rusdi. Releasing in theaters on December 9 in Indonesia, and awaiting international distribution. Seen at: TIFF.

The winner of TIFF’s Platform Prize this year, and Indonesia’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the upcoming Academy Awards, Yuni follows the titular character (Arawinda Kirana, in a stunning breakout performance) as she maneuvers through the last year of secondary school, determined to pursue her education while resisting the marriages that keep being arranged for her.

Kamila Andini’s coming-of-age film follows many of the familiar tropes of its genre, yet it feels fresh thanks to not only its unique cultural specificity, but more importantly the aching humanity with which it infuses its characters and the world around them. The further you go on this journey with Yuni, the more textured and lived-in her world feels, and the emotions shine through as a result.

Touches like the main character’s obsession with the color purple help to distinguish it as a specific story being told with universal elements that should break through to anyone, anywhere. Sara Clements declares the film “a tough watch but also essential”, while Bintang praises Andini as “a master in crafting a story that manages to peruse women’s interior lives and their inevitable loss”. MB


DOCUMENTARY FEATURES

The Rescue

Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. Released in cinemas in October; a streaming date is yet to be announced. Seen at: Telluride, DOC NYC.

From the directors of Free Solo, another stunning story of human determination and life-or-death decision-making. “First and foremost a riveting, immersive, stomach-in-your-throat documentary about the youth soccer team who were trapped deep within a flooded cave in Northern Thailand during the summer of 2018,” notes David Erhlich, while also calling to attention the bittersweet irony of how we quickly rally around intimate rescues like this, while remaining immovable on larger, longer, more complex rescue missions.

Creatively, writes Jason, “reenactments and animation serve the story well as tension mounts”, while Sunil notes that another limitation works to the filmmakers’ advantage: “Because Netflix owns the rights to the children’s stories, the film’s forced to focus completely on the perspective of the divers, but although it would have been nice to get some indication of what it was like in the cave from them, that limited point of view actually ends up enhancing the film because we’re just as in-the-dark as our heroes. And oh boy, what heroes.” JM

Julia

Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. In select cinemas now. Seen at: TIFF.

Hard as it is to believe there was still more to know about the world’s favorite post-50s celebrity cook, Julie Cohen and Betsy West found unseen archival footage and weaved it lovingly together with “a concentrated dose of food porn” (Maddie Chateau).

The Letterboxd takes say everything we think. “Did not expect one of the most moving scenes of 2021 to be Julia Child taking a pan off its hanger,” writes Tim. “The real surprise here was how unexpectedly funny Julia (and the correspondence between Julia and Paul) is,” Niraj notes. “They really showed the deviously playful and hilarious side of Julia that was so core to her personality, and used that humor to great effect in keeping the story fun.” JM

Attica

Directed by Stanley Nelson. Streaming on Showtime. Seen at: TIFF.

Stanley Nelson works with substantial archival records and surviving participants to tell the gripping, upsetting story of America’s largest prison uprising, some 50 years ago. “Attica is a gut-wrenching examination of the uprising at Attica Prison and the massacre committed by law enforcement,” writes Karl. “I don’t normally give trigger warnings but the last half hour of this is horrific. It’s hell on earth. It reminded me of footage I’ve seen from the concentration camps from World War II. Yet this happened here in the supposed land of the free.”

“It’s my doc of the year so far in a good year for docs,” writes Josh Murray, adding that “it would be nice if the reporting and editing here got some awards love.” JM


This trio of documentaries joins our earlier non-fiction selections as our picks of the year. To recap, starting at Sundance, we saw the extraordinary Flee, the transcendent Faya Dayi, the meditative Taming the Garden, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, Theo Anthony’s All Light, Everywhere and Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers.

At this year’s Berlinale, we applauded The Last Forest and Genderation; out of SXSW, we noticed Introducing, Selma Blair and Kier-La Janisse’s impeccable folk-horror doc Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched; and at Tribeca we loved All These Sons and The Legend of the Underground. Plus, a festival-less doc that went straight to Discovery: the underseen but low-key brilliant Attack of the Murder Hornets.

These documentaries and more deserve awards love, but we all know which way the non-fiction prize train is likely heading: straight down Questlove Street. Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised) was our top pick out of Sundance. Although Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee is a deservedly close second, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson’s film is currently the highest-rated documentary on our Awards Season 2021–2022 list—and, as the winner of the Sundance Grand Jury and Audience doc awards, and all six of its Critics Choice nominations (including Best doc feature), the one to beat.

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