Best of the Fests 2020

From seventeenth-century werewolves to WWII gremlins to present-day nomads, the stripped-back, mostly virtual 2020 fall festivals still managed to bring the goods. Our team rounds up the very best titles we saw at TIFF, NYFF, the BFI London Film Festival and beyond.

LISTEN: Gemma Gracewood and Ella Kemp chew over their festival favorites in the latest episode of The Letterboxd Show.

Kudos to the teams at the Toronto, New York and BFI London Film Festivals for pulling excellent hybrid festivals together in extremely weird, not-at-all-ideal circumstances. From the always-excellent conversations (and Cameron Bailey’s always-excellent suits) to the hybrid options for viewing, we left feeling hope for our favorite art form.

We have been keeping track, over on our Twitter account, of the many film festivals going online, and it’s safe to say that virtual film festivals—and the wider accessibility they offer—have been a silver lining to this mostly awful year. Indeed, the 58th NYFF was one of Film at Lincoln Center’s most-attended festivals, with 70,000+ attendees in all 50 states and beyond. (We participated in a NYFF Industry Talk, along with MUBI and Rotten Tomatoes, about the future of online film conversation, moderated by Indiewire’s David Ehrlich.)

Attempting to replicate the extreme fatigue of the real thing, our festival team (Ella Kemp, Aaron Yap, Kambole Campbell, Jack Moulton and Gemma Gracewood and—helping us bridge the geo-locked divide—Canadian TIFF regular Jonathan White) disregarded international date lines and dove right in. We saw many films to love, but by consensus (and a poke around your Letterboxd reactions) these are the ones we’re still thinking about.


Lovers Rock

Directed by Steve McQueen, written by McQueen and Courttia Newland. The ‘Small Axe’ anthology will be released on a weekly rollout on Amazon Prime Video beginning November 20 with ‘Mangrove’, then ‘Lovers Rock’, ‘Red, White and Blue’, ‘Alex Wheatle’ and finally ‘Education’. Seen at: NYFF, BFI London Film Festival.

Lovers Rock, the first part of Steve McQueen’s ambitious, multi-part film project Small Axe, feels like a massive stylistic departure for the filmmaker, in a manner that completely transfixes and astounds. It’s no wonder that this one turned heads at multiple festivals, as it’s immediately warmer, more freewheeling and sensual than any other McQueen work. It’s defined by a hypnotic focus on sound and touch, represented in its earliest scenes with a tactile close-up of a heated comb working its way through hair, and later with its focus on hands wrapped around shoulders, moving across shirts and dresses, people joining together and/or colliding through song and dance. Despite being made for television, it’s astounding how little Lover’s Rock feels that way. Often impressionistic and unbound to the kind of urgency or efficiency that naturally comes with having to adhere to a time-slot, it simply rests in the moment. With the seismic protests being undertaken by Black people this year, Lovers Rock feels like more than welcome respite from a hateful populace—visually rich, gorgeously soundtracked Black joy and love. Also, man, those shirts are incredible. KC

Nomadland

Written and directed by Chloé Zhao. In US theaters December 4. Seen at: TIFF, NYFF, BFI London Film Festival.

“I am already convinced that Chloé Zhao deserves the whole world,” writes Jaime of Nomadland, the TIFF People’s Choice winner. Personal security is something we don’t think about on a daily basis. We have shelter, we can buy food, anything else is bonus. But what if those two basic tenets vanish? While the global financial crisis affected all in 2008, it affected retirees more. Supposedly secure retirement investments vanished; security no more. What do you do? Survive. Zhao’s adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction masterpiece Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century is a beacon of human spirit and survival. It may not be pretty, but it’s real. It’s not something to be embarrassed about, it’s something to be proud of. Those that let this happen to good, honest working people should be the ones embarrassed. JW

Minari

Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung. No release date announced. Seen at: Middleburg Film Festival.

Minari is the medicine for these tough times. It’s a wonderful, wonderful, deeply personal, utterly serene and metaphysical portrait of America—freedom, faith, superstition, forces of nature, and ambition collide with the costs of intoxicating capitalist dreams, but not without a whole lot of heart. This is elegantly crafted, at once organic in its approach and always sweepingly cinematic. The film’s gentle sense of humor ensures that it never takes itself too seriously and allows the weight of its poetic images and juxtapositions to guide the narrative. The brilliant ensemble should grow to join Steven Yeun as household names (well, cinephile households). Youn Yuh-jung and Alan Kim are bright sparks as the latest classic duo of sassy grandma and precocious grandchild, but it’s Han Ye-ri—taking on the surrogate role of director Lee Isaac Chung’s mother—who provides an overlooked and tender sounding board for familial bonds in fraction. Minari is truly one of 2020’s most invaluable and essential pieces of art, living up to the hype built since Sundance. Korea came to the USA for the Oscars earlier this year, and if 2021 shows similar mercy, there’s a chance you’ll see this home-grown Asian-American picture mounting that stage in future. JM

Wolfwalkers

Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, written by Will Collins with Moore and Stewart. Recently released in UK theaters; coming to Apple TV+ December 11. Seen at: TIFF, BFI London Film Festival.

The much-anticipated Cartoon Saloon adventure Wolfwalkers was met with only joy around here. A fable about what happens when a colonizing force tries to tame a wild forest, set during Oliver Cromwell’s Siege of Kilkenny, Wolfwalkers builds to “one of the most sensational animated third acts I’ve seen in years,” according to Animatedantic. The film’s themes are embedded in every hand-drawn line and stroke. “It’s not sleek and seamless and modern,” writes Cow Shea. “This is transparently a true work of art where all the work of that art is part of the finished product.” Mebh and Robyn are animated action heroes for the ages, and you’ll hear a lot about ‘Wolfvision’ in the weeks to come—for very good reason. Werewolf films have, for years, tried different ways to put us inside the beast’s mind, but Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart followed their noses and it’s as thrilling as things get. GG

David Byrne’s American Utopia

Directed by Spike Lee. On HBO and HBO Max now. Seen at: TIFF, NYFF, BFI London Film Festival.

David Byrne’s American Utopia is well on track to join Jonathan Demme’s film of another Byrne stage outing, Stop Making Sense (1984), as one of the highest-rated anythings on Letterboxd. We’re still deciding whether this film is sublime because the stage show itself is sublime, or because Spike Lee has sublimely captured the whole joyous thing for us to inject into our eyeballs, time and again, for far less than the price of a Broadway ticket. Let’s be honest: it’s due to both, and more besides. It’s a blessing upon 2020, of that we are certain. As Clint writes, “The phrase ‘this is the film we need right now’ is such a creaky cliché, but there’s an ineffable feeling that, if David Byrne and Spike Lee can’t heal the world with grey suits, bare feet, and some of the most all-encompassing works of music ever written, no one can.” As my colleague says, “will rewatch to death”. GG

Shiva Baby

Written and directed by Emma Seligman. On the festival circuit. Seen at: TIFF, LFF.

A girl walks into a shiva and bumps into her sugar daddy. What sounds like a joke sets up 77 minutes of note-perfect comedy horror in Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, her feature debut adapted from her dissertation short of the same name. It’s funny, horrifying, excruciating and so painfully, accurately Jewish. Isaac Feldberg calls it “cruelly hilarious about everything smothering and inevitably miserable about Jewish family gatherings”, but Seligman’s sharp eye for comedy, her affection for her teen hero Danielle (Rachel Sennott, a bona fide star) just figuring her career out and owning her sexuality (Molly Gordon playing Danielle’s overachieving ex-girlfriend Maya is a highlight) cuts straight to the core, however you relate. Matt Neglia points out how Shiva Baby “captures the behaviors of its characters with the same level of dry wit and detail as the Coen Brothers would”. What a thrill for a young, smart, Jewish, bisexual woman to be setting the pace now. Keep an eye on Seligman’s bright, bright future. EK

Tove

Directed by Zaida Bergroth, written by Eeva Putro. Released in Finland; on the festival circuit elsewhere. Seen at: TIFF.

If there was a film swoony enough to fill the Portrait of a Lady on Fire-sized hole in your heart this year, it’s Zaida Bergroth’s Tove, a bewitching biopic of Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson, creator of the beloved Moomin cartoon characters. Set in Helsinki during and post-World War II, the film orbits around her boho world, flitting between her creative struggles as a painter and deep sexual awakening with married theater director Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen). As Lillian says, “Lesbians and Moomins is such a huge fucking mood I never wanted it to end.” Alma Pöysti shines effortlessly in the lead role. “The film happens on her fantastic face,” writes Hannu. Seth agrees: “a captivating first-class drama about a world-renowned talent in search of her own identity, love and freedom.” A cozy fall-season perfection. AY

Shadow in the Cloud

Co-written and directed by Roseanne Liang. Slated for a summer 2021 release. Seen at: TIFF, AFI Fest.

A proud addition to the “she did that!” canon, the single downside of Roseanne Liang’s genre-perfect, “deliciously fearless” Midnight Madness winner Shadow in the Cloud is that there was no Midnight Madness to experience it at—but thanks to a juicy sale out of TIFF, we can look forward to a premiere next summer. Chloë Grace Moretz is Maude Garrett, a WWII pilot assigned to transport a highly classified package over the Pacific. The all-male crew of the B-17 Flying Fortress banishes her to the lower ball turret, where they harass, gaslight and leer over her—and that is nowhere near the worst part of this bonkers, non-stop hell flight, which Moretz carries like the future action hero she must now become, if the movie goddesses are listening. GG

Pieces of a Woman

Directed by Kornél Mundruczó, written by Kata Wéber. Coming soon to Netflix. Seen at: TIFF, NYFF.

You will be hearing a lot about Vanessa Kirby in the months to come. Pieces of a Woman is an arresting, often taxing watch, but few actors have delivered a performance as utterly overwhelming as Kirby portraying Martha, a grieving mother processing the loss of her baby. The filmmaking team (Mundruczo and Weber share a “film by” credit) zoom in on deep, jagged pain, and tease out some of the most affecting moments put to screen this year. Jack calls the film “an intensely intimate depiction of mental and marital deterioration caused by tragedy” and nods to master Howard Shore’s “subtle yet potent” score. It’s poetry in motion, with stunning turns from Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Sarah Snook and Benny Safdie also. But proceed with caution: “this film will destroy you”, Alisha Tabilin warns. EK

Underplayed

Directed by Stacey Lee. On the festival circuit. Seen at: TIFF. (Also recommended in our music movies round-up.)

Women-in-the-workplace movies aren’t usually this banging. Stacey Lee’s documentary Underplayed focuses on one corner of the still wildly sexist music industry—the dance-music scene—and lays out both the facts and feelings regarding why women still, always, deserve better. A number of key names guide the story—Rezz, Alison Wonderland, Nervo, TokiMonsta—giving the viewer a taste of what we’re missing out on while booking the same old men, over and over. And it’s not just because of the stats or the injustices that this is a must-watch: in times of limited social interaction and when the feeling of an adrenaline-fuelled crowd feels like a foggy memory, Lee captures some truly electric moments of these women thriving, captivating thousands of music lovers at once. “Buy yourself good speakers and turn them up because this movie is fun and it deserves it,” writes Matt Brown, and he’s absolutely correct. Underplayed is essential and exciting. The most entertaining education of the year. EK

Another Round

Directed by Thomas Vinterburg, written by Vinterburg and Tobias Lindholm. Awaiting new UK date due to lockdown. In US cinemas soon. Seen at: TIFF, LFF.

Another Round reunites filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg with his muse Mads Mikkelsen, in a lads-on-tour buddy movie, except the lads are four middle-aged high-school teachers, and the tour features a very casual, very constant level of intoxication each man commits to in the name of a social experiment. What could possibly go wrong, you ask? Plenty, naturally—but Vinterberg marries the slapstick moments of bumbling drunks falling over themselves with more mature, poignant scenes that question just how far you can or should go to feel that little bit more alive. There’s a lot to love here, but if we’re being very precise, it’s “rock-solid proof that Mads Mikkelsen is one of our greatest actors,” says Karen Han. Come for the wise, contemplative study of youth and spontaneity, stay for rock-solid proof that Mads Mikkelsen is also, somehow, one of our greatest contemporary dancers. EK

One Night in Miami

Directed by Regina King, adapted by Kemp Powers from his own stage play. In select US theaters December 25, coming to Amazon Prime Video January 15, 2021. Seen at: TIFF, NYFF.

Ladies and gentleman, Regina King has arrived. The actor wastes nothing in her feature directorial debut, bringing to the screen Kemp Powers’ vivid stage play of the same name with a heavyweight cast of greats. Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Jr. are Malcolm X, Cassius Clay (before he took the name Muhammad Ali), Jim Brown and Sam Cooke respectively, as the four men celebrate Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston in February 1964, during One Night in Miami. Rachel Wagner notes how “they all feel like friends and have chemistry, but each with a unique perspective”. This chemistry comes from King’s perfect alchemy of mood, design and structure; she lets her men speak, but her voice is never lost. “Queen King never wavers on her vision until every bit of flesh is torn off each man,” Ben notes, admiring a film that shines for all its famous faces, but stands the test of time for its rich, piercing empathy for every other one waiting in the shadows. EK

Supernova

Written and directed by Harry Macqueen. Awaiting UK and Ireland release due to lockdown; in select US theaters January 29, 2021. Seen at: BFI London Film Festival.

Colin Firth at his very best, Stanley Tucci losing his grip on himself, the luscious Lake District and endless cozy, delicious, warm knitwear. Supernova is every bit as beautiful as it sounds, but also packs a major punch when it comes to mapping a lifelong love story, and the cost of loyalty and pride when you’re fighting against pain nobody can control. As Sam and Tusker, devoted to one another for decades, come to terms with Tusker’s diagnosis of early on-set dementia, there is as much care and sadness as is to be expected, but it still feels brand new and cuts deep. Every good love story is its own. Director Harry Macqueen and his two shining stars understand this better than anyone. EK

French Exit

Directed by Azazel Jacobs, written by Patrick DeWitt. Scheduled for US release January 21, 2021. Seen at NYFF.

Armed with acerbic wit and sharpened claws, Michelle Pfeiffer delivers a vulnerable close-to-career-best performance in French Exit as a mother free-falling from wealth and reconciling with her son, an expertly cold Lucas Hedges. What appears to be formal and dry (“rich white-people stuff”, blegh) is actually wonderfully weird and surprisingly spiritual. There’s a divisive scene at the half-way point that instantly unroots the movie from any grounding we assumed it had established. In any other film, it would open up an entire world of possibilities, but French Exit decidedly treats it as matter-of-fact in order to focus on the emotional journey. It’s the decisive moment—you’re on its wavelength, or you’re overboard—and the rewards for staying aboard are plentiful. Patrick DeWitt’s adaptation of his own novel is in good hands with director Azazel Jacobs. JM

Still Processing

Directed by Sophy Romvari. On the festival circuit. Seen at: TIFF.

A final, honorable mention for Sophy Romvari’s Still Processing, the highest-rated short film out of TIFF, and an excavation of grief like no other. “You’ve got to watch this one twice,” writes Martyn. “First viewing to just weep every two to three minutes. Second viewing to really appreciate how great it is.”

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