Best of the Fall Film Festivals 2022

Donkeys, puppets, conductors, oh my! Our globe-trotting festival squad brings you the highlights of the jam-packed fall season.

If you were at a film festival this fall, chances are you saw one of our crew on the ground, our microphone poking over the velvet rope to ask actors and filmmakers some of your most pressing questions. “I love Letterboxd,” Taylor Russell told us, not long after the one and only Cate Blanchett gave us a soundbite to end all soundbites. We even got the scoop from Aftersun daddy Paul Mescal on his four favorite films—he is a confirmed Blue Valentine fan, for the tortured romantics out there.

We snagged time for some in-depth conversations with the likes of Barry Keoghan, Park Chan-wook, Andrew Dominik, and the teams behind TÁR, Till and Aftersun (Paul Mescal, again? We are totally normal, people). On The Letterboxd Show we heard from directors Chandler Levack, Ti West and James Gray during their festival runs—as well as New York Film Festival’s assistant director of marketing, Jordan Raup.

We were there for spitgate. We saw Oscar prognosticators feverishly tallying the standing ovations of every film to see how it might impact their awards predictions. But most importantly, we saw the movies themselves.

That includes having some of our lucky correspondents catching The People’s Joker at TIFF before Warner Bros swooped in and put the red tape up, potentially ensuring that no one will ever see Vera Drew’s queer coming-of-age story. (#FreeThePeoplesJoker!)

Writer, director, and star Vera Drew as The People’s Joker.
Writer, director, and star Vera Drew as The People’s Joker.

With awards season quickly pulling into port, we asked our crew who were at Venice, London, Toronto, Austin, New York and Beyond to scour the Letterboxd reviews, jog their own memories, and highlight the best the season had to offer. Open your watchlists and prepare to add selections from Ella Kemp, Annie Lyons, Mia Vicino, Kambole Campbell, Brian Formo, Katie Rife, Leo Koziol, Isaac Feldberg, Rafa Sales Ross, Juan Barquin, Gemma Gracewood and John Forde.


All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Directed by Laura Poitras. In theaters November 23, from Neon. Seen at: Venice, TIFF, NYFF, BFI London Film Festival.

Photographer Nan Goldin has always embraced her cinematic sensibilities; documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras has already investigated the truth in injustice, inviting those in the wrong to come after her. It’s a match made in heaven: Poitras tells Goldin’s story through her eyes and more specifically through her experience as an activist fighting to take down the Sackler family. You might know them best as the billionaire architects of the opioid crisis in the US, the epidemic that lost Goldin so many of her friends and almost killed her, too.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is fascinated with what it means to live a life and hold on to it—through photos, through fighting. Jasmine Graham calls the film “an impactful documentary about the intersection of art and politics, showing that art is inherently political,” while Andrew Jupin states, “it makes you mad, it makes you cry… it makes you want to live.”

It’s pretty thrilling that a film with so much fire and ambition won over the festival masses and took home the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, where it premiered. So much of Poitras’ narrative is focused on the power art can have to change society, to save a life, to prove that all of this really did happen. “In a way it’s healing,” Alma writes of the film’s frank portrayal of the tragedies, “but it doesn’t let you forget about how the epidemic is literally never getting better.” The fight isn’t over. Films like this make up part of our armor. EK

The Banshees of Inisherin

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. In theaters now, from Searchlight Pictures. Seen at: Venice, TIFF, Fantastic Fest, BFI London Film Festival.

Some friendships are eroded by distance and time, a natural fading that leaves behind a fond memory. Others implode, some perceived unforgivable act paving the way for scorched earth. For Colm (Brendan Gleeson) and Pádraic (Colin Farrell), two longtime friends living on an isolated island off the west coast of Ireland, their schism seems to lie somewhere in the mundanely strange in-between: Simple Pádraic is just too boring for Colm to bear anymore. But in Martin McDonagh’s folk-tale-esque 1923 world of The Banshees of Inisherin, hurt and loneliness beget spite, and severed ties means the severing of other things, too.

Melancholy seeps into the edges of the gorgeous coastal backdrop. You can sense it in the confused and pained furor of Farrell’s equally gorgeous brows, in the distant crackles of the Irish Civil War, in the way Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (a brilliant Kerry Condon) can feel her own loneliness take hold as her good sense goes unheard. Not even a warm nuzzle from the most feckin’ adorable donkey (played by Jenny, this year’s pint-sized breakout star) can stave off the despondency for long. As Ian Curran notes, “the violent ricocheting of anger and shame within small communities can turn your life—and the lives of your neighbors and friends—into a battleground that lives on long after the memory of why has faded, and only myth and rumor remain.”

But to focus too much on the despair only tells one side of the story, as McDonagh brings his characteristically absurd existential humor, blending the comedic with the tragic in a way that feels, well, Irish. It’s a true delight to see Gleeson and Farrell reunite after In Bruges, another McDonagh look at a brutal, odd-pairing relationship, and the duo’s compelling chemistry enhances Colm’s rancorous resolution against Pádraic’s lost-puppy act. This is a riff on miserablist cinema that certainly doesn’t feel miserable to watch. Just ask Dylan McCoy, who shares peak viewing conditions: “Don’t think there’s any better watching experience for this than in a packed Irish cinema with a throuple of Irish grannies behind you, loving life.” AL

Bones and All

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, written by David Kajganich, from a novel by Camille DeAngelis. In theaters November 18, from United Artists. Seen at: Venice, Telluride, Fantastic Fest, BFI London Film Festival, AFI Fest.

Let’s cut to the chase: Bones and All is neither as gory nor as erotic as you’d expect from a cannibal romance. Much less one made by Luca Guadagnino, the same man who directed the sweat-soaked Call Me by Your Name and 2018’s blood-drenched Suspiria. His latest film skews much more coming-of-age drama than traditional horror, opting to mine dread from vulnerability, alienation, and the terrible fate of drifting through life unloved.

Of course, there’s still plenty of carnage: “Romantic, bloody, tragic—so full of love. Never has the sight of dried blood around the mouth felt so sensual,” raves Iana. Taylor Russell stars as Maren, an eighteen-year-old vagabond traveling through the badlands of 1980s America to find answers about her genetic disposition towards cannibalism. She meets an ensemble of eccentrics (Mark Rylance, Chloë Sevigny, Michael Stuhlbarg) along the way, but none as important as Lee (Timothée Chalamet). He’s a bisexual heart attack in pink hair-dye and ripped jeans. He wears a silly hat and dances to Kiss. And he also eats people.

Maren and Lee are the pinnacle of Midwestern emo, a power couple surging with the electricity of repressed pain and insatiable hunger. Invisible magnets pull them towards each other, apart, and back together again as they wander the country avoiding their own hang-ups. Ultimately, the young lovers’ struggle is rooted in their reticence to spill guts—both literally and figuratively. The only solution is to eat. To let each other in. Bones and all. MV

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson, written by del Toro, Patrick McHale, and Matthew Robbins, from a novel by Carlo Collodi. Streaming on Netflix from December 9. Seen at: BFI London Film Festival, AFI Fest.

Another new adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s famous series of adventure stories (the second release of such a film this year alone), Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio brings with it all the director’s wonderful stylistic and philosophical obsessions, as the name in the title suggests. Throwing out everything but the bones of Collodi’s story, del Toro uses Mussolini’s Italy as its backdrop, this version reveling in the monstrous. As with GdT’s recent Oscar-winner The Shape of Water, there’s a dash of classic monster movies during Pinocchio’s very creation.

But despite having fun in making Pinocchio a little nightmarish, del Toro, co-director Mark Gustafson (animation director on Fantastic Mr. Fox) and co-writer Patrick McHale (Over the Garden Wall) wonder: is being a wooden boy really so monstrous? Pinocchio’s imperfections—one ear, nails protruding from his back, and the hole in his chest where a heart should be—all become celebrated, as the story is ultimately one of acceptance rather than conformity. This Pinocchio doesn’t pine for the body of a “real” boy, he only wants to be loved. The journey he takes to understand how to be loved carries the same macabre comic tone as McHale’s famous autumnal fable, with Pinocchio happily wandering the land of the dead, and conversing with chimeric creatures similar to those in Pan’s Labyrinth.

Along with some new thematic interests (“All rise for the anti-fascist Pinocchio,” writes Jay), tactile, practical craft takes precedence, as the director has passionately highlighted in the run-up to the film’s release, foregrounding the craftspeople (including Laika’s former head of puppets, Georgina Hayns), righteously preaching animation’s breadth and emotional power, and the unique pleasures of stop-motion as a medium.

That passion is prominent in Pinocchio—not just in its puppets, but also in its gorgeous painted backdrops rather than the CG environments of Laika’s works (or the hideous CG of Zemeckis’s adaptation), as it insists on hand craft at every turn, dedicated to in-camera effects work and updates of traditional techniques. Not to sell short its other, simpler pleasures too—as Alice puts it, “Every fairy tale should feature a singing and narrating Ewan McGregor.” Truer words, etc. KC

How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Directed by Daniel Goldhaber, written by Goldhaber, Ariela Barer, and Jordan Sjol, from a novel by Andreas Malm. Acquired by Neon. Seen at: TIFF.

Daniel Goldhaber’s adaptation of Andreas Malms 2021 nonfiction property damage proposal, How to Blow up a Pipeline is a rarity within the fall film festival circuit. It is an independent feature without an award-starved star that completely blew the lid off TIFF.

Goldhaber turned Malm’s text into a heist thriller that feels like an eco-punk version of Ocean’s Eleven. The structure of the film revolves around a team of climate change activists that have come together to attack a pipeline that runs through rural Texas, while flashbacks serve to provide a little extra tension around one couple whose motivations remain murky and untrustworthy throughout the runtime. It’s exciting, tense, and decidedly ramshackle and unpolished—which is perfect for a film that centers on activists who are learning how to make explosives and how to work with each other, on the fly.

This is Goldhaber’s second feature, after the Blumhouse-stamped sex-worker thriller, Cam, and potent urgency is mixed with a precise anxiety that echoes the excitement of watching the Safdie brothers’ Good Time for the first time. Right down to the ethereal electronic score from Gavin Brivik. As Corey puts it, “Maybe the most outright exciting film of the festival, taking the ideas in Andreas Malm’s manifesto and demonstrating them in the form of a deliriously tense and provocative heist thriller; probably the film I’m most excited for people to actually see on release.”

The cast is certainly making Letterboxd members stand to attention, or for Juan, “How to blow up my pipeline? More like how to blow up my [redacted] because hot damn this is the hottest cast and I am radicalized now.” It’s an exciting ensemble of recognizable young upstarts: Sasha Lane (American Honey), Forrest Goodluck (The Revenant), Jayme Lawson (Till), Kristene Froseth (Sharp Stick), Jake Weary (It Follows), Lukas Gage (Angelyne), Marcus Scribner (Farewell Amor) and Ariela Barer (who co-wrote and co-produced the film).

How to Blow Up a Pipeline was picked up by NEON after a few buzzy screenings at Toronto and will likely hit theaters in 2023. Goldhaber’s film possesses much verve and swagger; it’s DIY of the highest order, and a needed reminder that timely narratives can pack a punch, too. Fringe filmmaking empathizing with fringe characters, and everyone involved is about to blow up. BF

I Like Movies

Written and directed by Chandler Levack. Awaiting distribution. Seen at: TIFF.

I Like Movies is a film made by and for people who use Letterboxd. Its page on Letterboxd includes “reviews” from its writer-director and its producer, both of them personal pleas for readers to check out their micro-budget project at TIFF 2022. Thankfully, the movie more than lives up to those earnest entreaties, delivering a sweet, but not too sweet, coming-of-age dramedy that strikes a tricky balance between fuzzy nostalgia and clear-eyed realism.

Taking place in Burlington, Ontario circa 2003, the film marks the passage of time mostly through the rotating titles of films on the suburban marquees and new-release walls that make up Lawrence Kweller’s (Isaiah Lehtinen) world. (Letterboxd members clearly appreciate its many movie references, shouting out Lawrence’s Steel Magnolias poster and love of Todd Solondz in reviews.) Lawrence is a high school senior with no special talents, an average intellect, and nonexistent social skills. He does know a lot about movies, however, which gives him an unearned sense of superiority over his peers.

Like a loving but firm parent, writer-director Chandler Levack wants the best for Lawrence. But she doesn’t coddle him, either. This is a film about learning to be happy with what you have, a humbling lesson that nearly everyone has to learn at some point but is rarely dramatized on screen. But while Levack wisely allows her strong screenplay to carry the film, Lehtinen is what really makes it shine. It’s a self-assured, intuitive performance that’s annoying when it needs to be, and vulnerable when we least expect it. “I never wanted to punch someone in the face more! It was incredible,” Veniott writes, a succinct (and accurate) summation of this film’s vibe. KR

The Inspection

Written and directed by Elegance Bratton. In theaters November 18, from A24. Seen at: TIFF, NYFF, BFI London Film Festival.

In his debut feature The Inspection, filmmaker Elegance Bratton tells the true-to-life story of escaping homeless destitution to become a Marine—all while being queer in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military era. Multi-talented Jeremy Pope plays the lead role, delivering a hard-hitting and heavy performance, shouldering the weight of this intense story. His journey in the military is not an easy one, and as he rises to shine in the light of his mother’s eyes (a fierce Gabrielle Union), be warned—The Inspection has a sting in its tail, brutal in its honesty and truth.

Reviews from the film’s festival screenings have been all over the map on Letterboxd, perhaps reflecting the clash of queer and military life that often finds no fans on either side. No matter where you fall, you’re almost certain to take a shine to the performances, with Pope and Union in particular getting much praise. Joe Reid writes that “Jeremy Pope is great. Here’s hoping Gabrielle Union follows the ‘Bring It On alum playing mom of a queer kid’ train to a supporting-actress nomination.” Daniel Bayer concurs, saying, “Jeremy Pope delivers in spades, striking a perfect balance between strength and vulnerability. He’s a star.”

Brutal and visceral, I was locked into The Inspection from start to finish. Highly recommended, but a tough watch at the same time. With an A24 release soon, audiences will have the chance to determine for themselves on what side of the debate they fall. LK

Master Gardener

Written and directed by Paul Schrader. Acquired by Magnolia Pictures. Seen at: Venice, NYFF.

Paul Schrader is still working. This, in and of itself, would be no small feat for any filmmaker in their mid 70s, even without the extenuating circumstances of a global pandemic. But when Schrader was hospitalized with Covid-related pneumonia and breathing difficulties shortly after the world premiere of Master Gardener in Venice, it served as a sobering reminder of both his colossal impact on the American independent cinema and the risks required of him to continue making movies today, more than 40 years after the release of Taxi Driver.

This bears noting in light of Master Gardener, a film about steady, patient labor being rewarded with an eventual profusion of vivid, utopian beauty. Set on a Southern plantation where a head horticulturist (Joel Edgerton) privately atones for past sins by tending to the estate’s lavish gardens, the film blooms gradually, unfurling as the plantation’s imperious owner (Sigourney Weaver) and her troubled grand-niece (Quintessa Swindell) challenge and entrance him to unearth what he’s long kept buried.

More hopeful and quietly humorous than First Reformed and The Card Counter, Master Gardener is in many ways classic Schrader: a meditation on lived guilt, violent redemption, and the spiritually cleansing force of human connection. But in the decades-long work of revealing himself to audiences, through ideas and images that recur as motifs in his oeuvre, Schrader has also made it possible to catch vibrant variations on his established themes. It is this practice, and Master Gardener’s turn toward the light—in which facing the past might not require annihilative violence and could instead offer absolution, a second chance—that most clarifies the film’s tender beauty and cumulative power.

“Let me know when the Discourse starts on this one so I can throw my phone into the Adriatic,” snarks Bilge Ebiri from the film’s Venice world premiere, awarding it four stars. New York Film Festival responses were largely enthusiastic about this “film of collapsing contrasts: white and Black, young and old, chaos and order, love and hate,” as Brian writes. “In a lesser artist’s hands, such juxtapositions would seem banal, but Schrader makes them almost sublime.” IF

Saint Omer

Directed by Alice Diop, written by Diop, Amrita David, Zoé Galeron, and Marie N’Diaye. In theaters January 13, from Super. Seen at: Venice, TIFF, NYFF, BFI London Film Festival, AFI Fest.

As a lauded documentarian, it feels natural that director Alice Diop looked to the truth for inspiration for her first feature film, Saint Omer. Based on the real-life case of Fabienne Kabou, a French-Senegalese woman convicted of murdering her infant daughter by leaving her to drown on a cold beach shore, the film takes part almost entirely inside a courtroom where two women sit on hard, wooden benches. In the defendant box is Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga), the fictional Kabou; in the public gallery is Rama (Kayije Kagame), a university professor attending the trial out of a mix of guttural curiosity and research for an upcoming book.

Aided by Diop’s inclination to let the camera linger, inviting the viewer into a harrowing state of passive pondering, Saint Omer builds a searing examination of the hypocritical nature of morality. Under the heavy weight of the judge’s gavel stands not only a woman, but unyielding societal constructs built to force women into conformity, a bleak box that favors little but desperation. And desperation, here, is an eerily silent state of utter displacement—cultural, familial, personal. Embodying this labyrinthine notion, Malanga finds brilliance in stillness, crafting a bone-chilling performance that anchors the film in gripping tangibility.

“It challenges all notions of understanding—both subjective and objective, and of the difference between judgment and justice and leaves you with no answers but your own feelings,” Mikey Brzezinksi neatly encapsulates. The sentiment is echoed by Chaim Kindergelt, who labels Saint Omer a “stirring experimentation in the machinations of subjectivity, a rigorous orchestration of colonial affects entwined with matriarchal relations.” RSR

Sanctuary

Directed by Zachary Wigon, written by Micah Bloomberg. Acquired by Super. Seen at: TIFF.

Sanctuary, at first, seems like any old two-hander or chamber drama, in this case following the heir to a hotel empire (Christopher Abbott) as he attempts to end his relationship with the dominatrix (Margaret Qualley) who has given him both the pleasure and experience he needs to manage his life. But over its tight, 96-minute runtime, Zachary Wigon’s film rather rivetingly faces off two of our greatest contemporary performers in a game of love and war, in roles that could have easily been defined by the meekness and dominance that the film kicks off with. Notes Jason, “They’re both acting on multiple levels, from the roleplaying opening to the various exaggerated and threatening versions of themselves they take on to try and gain the upper hand.”

It’s like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without any unwilling victims beyond our protagonists; just two human beings oscillating wildly between loving and loathing. The allure of their match-up isn’t just in the push-and-pull of their conversations—as it’s almost always clear who is in control in Micah Bloomberg’s script, despite making for riveting foreplay—but of the giddy eroticism that goes beyond dialogue and into the very frame itself. The hotel suite setting comes alive with such visual verve, with unique camera angles and movements, making the space feel both claustrophobic and expansive. Jeffrey points out Wigon’s dynamic directing, saying that “despite its single location and blistering tête-à-tête, Sanctuary resists its stage-play trappings. Zachary Wigon mixes the perfect ingredients for this volatile little cocktail, and it all feels like a real movie rather than a locked-down adaptation.”

Between this and The Heart Machine, it’s clear Wigon has a certain fascination with unconventional relationships that challenge our perceptions of normalcy, and how desperate people are to conform to those very notions. His commitment to exploring that territory, as well as taking sadistic delight in watching two people tear each other apart and build each other up, is precisely why Sanctuary works so well, and why it ends up being one of the best unconventional romantic comedies in years. JB

TÁR

Written and directed by Todd Field. In theaters now, from Focus Features. Seen at: Venice, Telluride, NYFF.

It’s been a long time since I have needed to spend a solid 72 hours unpacking a film in great detail, but after a second screening of TÁR I did just that with several friends over the course of a weekend. Just when we thought we’d exhausted all possible angles, someone would pipe up: “Hey what do you think it meant when she…” and off we’d go again, filling in knowledge gaps with Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Art of Conducting’, Simon Rattle’s thoughts on the “great fake profession”, Michael Tilson Thomas’s documentary on Gustav Mahler, photos of MTT and Bernstein together over the years.

Todd Field places the unraveling of fictional composer and conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) in both the elite symphonic landscape and the present cultural context (TÁR takes place in late 2022; New Yorker Festival season). Not that you need to know it’s the real Adam Gopnik interviewing her at the start, or who the initials “MTT” refer to when Tár sneers at her alarm clock radio as it wakes her with one of Tilson’s recordings. But it’s an extremely satisfying state to be left in as an audience member, wanting to know more about everything both made-up and real in Todd Field’s twisty new version of a well-worn tale, the public fall from grace.

There are no diminishing returns here. Once you emerge, blinking, overwhelmed by Cate Blanchett’s tour-de-force performance as the title character, and begin to piece together finer details—an email, a casual line of dialogue, a handbag, a lunch order, a prime number—it’s like belatedly hearing the other instruments in a symphony in which Lydia Tár has played all the solos. They were there the whole time, we just had to listen for them.

And Letterboxd members are certainly listening, as TÁR has recently cracked our Official Top 250 of All Time. And then there’s this, from Madeline Burg, which I can only hear in Tár’s voice: “Bradley Cooper you better pack up your little Bernstein biopic baby.” GG

Women Talking

Written and directed by Sarah Polley, from a novel by Miriam Toews. In theaters December 2, from United Artists. Seen at: Telluride, TIFF, NYFF, BFI London Film Festival, AFI Fest.

As the opening credits rolled on Sarah Polley’s remarkable new film at the BFI London Film Festival, a male cineaste behind me kept talking, loudly, in the darkness. “It’s Women Talking,” someone hissed. “That means you should stop.” The Mennonite women in Polley’s film, which is adapted from Miriam Toews’ novel, have a similar dilemma, faced with the impossible choice between forgiving their rapists or being expelled from the community. “How would you feel if, in your entire life,” one character asks, “it never mattered what you thought?”

Polley wisely chooses not to depict the rape scenes, leaving men almost entirely off screen. Instead she gives the movie, fully, to her extraordinary ensemble cast—Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy and the great Frances McDormand. Each woman is given time to register every nuance of fear, doubt and simmering rage, lit gloriously by DOP Luc Montpellier and with a soulful score by Hildur Guðnadóttir (who also scored TÁR).

With its desaturated color palette and Andrew Wyeth visuals, it could be the nineteenth century or the Great Depression—until an unexpected music cue pulls us, disturbingly, closer to our own times. Polley describes the film as a “fable”, though in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned, it’s as terrifyingly prescient as The Handmaid’s Tale. “This movie snuck [up] on me and slowly destroyed me in the best emotional way,” CitizenDeKrane writes. Despite the grim subject matter, the film also offers humor and hope, as Rooney Mara’s Ona quietly steers the women towards the dream of a better world. “Hope for the unknown is good,” she counsels. “It’s better than hatred of the familiar.”

Polley follows Ona’s lead, taking her audience into thrillingly unfamiliar territory. If Maria Schrader’s She Said gives the #MeToo movement its creation story, Women Talking surpasses it in imaginative scope, creating what Zoë Rose Bryant calls “a radical act of female reinvention.” The future is female, people. JF

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