Not to overstate the obvious, but yes, it’s been a weird, horrible year as the pandemic not only upended our lives but the entire film and television industry. This year, that meant, so far, no SXSW, no Cannes, and no Telluride since the geniuses in the White House and their poor response meant the United States was hit the hardest (two of those three festivals being American, obviously).
That being said, three major festivals managed to survive this year, the Venice Film Festival, ongoing now, the New York Film Festival that starts near the end of September, and of course, the Toronto International Film Festival, largely because Canadian leadership was smart enough to close the border to the U.S. super spreaders months ago.
TIFF isn’t back to its full strength yet, U.S. critics aren’t even allowed in Canada and the majority of all film critics aside from some of those in Toronto will be experiencing the festival virtually. It’s a noble effort, frankly, and helps prevent the spread of COVID-19. While there are some public screenings with a limited capacity of audiences, TIFF will obviously be different this year. Of course, the programming is still solid, albeit, lacking in a lot of studio Oscar-fare that many of the major players are hoping to hold for 2021 when presumably, hopefully, things are back to “normal.”
It also, since these fall film festivals tend to be a good augur for the Oscars, bodes well for awards season, because gone are Netflix and all the studios that spend egregious amounts of money to get Academy voters to see and favor their films. With money out of that election, errrr, pardon, award ceremony, it could really level the playing field and make for a much more interesting awards season. Regardless, here’s the TIFF films to watch for presented alphabetically cause why not? TIFF runs September 10-19. – Rodrigo Perez
A passionate forbidden love story in the vein of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Francis Lee’s new film “Ammonite” is a cloudy, coastal romance that world cinema fans surely won’t want to miss. Starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan (that potential chemistry in that pairing alone screaming audience interest and possible awards buzz) as paleontologist Mary Anning – a groundbreaking researcher held back by the systemic sexism of various scientific societies – and Charlotte Murchison – a pioneering geologist overshadowed and often uncredited in her husband’s publications. As the women realize they share kindred feelings of dismissal and indignation, a fervent bond develops between the two. Lee’s follow up to “God’s Own Country” – a similar study in taboo lust and longing – the British director’s cinematic touch is not unlike the emotionally present verity of a filmmaker such as Mike Leigh (whom he worked with on “Topsy Turvey”), and his latest work looks to be another powerful meditation on vulnerability and mutual desire. – Andrew Bundy
After a booze infested birthday celebration, high school teacher Martin (Mads Mikkelson) is introduced to the absurd philosophical notion that human beings are not born with enough alcohol in their system (sounds logical). In the midst of a depressive rut, Martin’s indulgent night outs morph into an asinine experiment: attempt to stay drunk all day, all the time, maintaining a blood alcohol level of no lower than 0.05%. Initially, he finds himself rejuvenated with both his educational career and his home life, convinced that this newfound routine might be a remedy to his rote existence, helping mend relationships with both his wife and students. But, as Martin and his friends further spiral down a drunken rabbit hole, deep-seated issues rise to the surface. Mikkelson’s first collaboration with outstanding Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg since 2012’s “The Hunt” (no, not the recent piece of “satirical” garbage), “Another Round,” is a comically rowdy lampoon of middle-aged delinquency. – AB
Screening as a “work in progress,” at the festival, Halle Berry makes her directorial bow with “Bruised,” which also stars the Oscar-winning actress. Berry plays Jackie “Justice,” a former MMA fighter now juggling multiple jobs to get by, who is tempted into the world of underground fighting by her boyfriend, Desi (Adan Canto). Upon realizing that getting pummeled and pummeling others might be her only calling card in life, Justice’s fighting spirit is resurrected. But when the six-year-old son she abandoned suddenly becomes her responsibility again, Jackie must rectify her past and present as a pugilist and a parent. Sounding like it would make a great double feature with Karyn Kusama’s “Girlfight,” (starring the trailblazing Michelle Rodriguez) last year’s “Fighting With My Family” revealed that the industry has long had a blind spot for feminist sports flicks, and Berry’s movie could very well find similar success with strong word of mouth. – AB
Anybody else think “Concrete Cowboy” is most definitely a contender for the most epic title of the year? Starring the peerless Idris Elba (we can’t wait to see what sort of accent ammunition he brings to this one) as Harp, a quiet Philadelphia loner who spends most of his time tending to his stables, “Concrete Cowboy” explores “the rich but oft-forgotten legacy of Black cowboys.” Also starring Caleb McLaughlin (“Stranger Things”) as Harp’s perturbed teenage son, Cole, who has traveled 600 miles to live with his father after being expelled from school over a violent tussle. Harp puts his boy to work right away, and Cole soon finds himself reconnecting with a childhood friend “Smush” (Jharrel Jerome, “Moonlight,” “When They See Us”), who has turned to a life of running drugs in his old buddy’s absence. Based on the book, “Ghetto Cowboy” by author Greg Neri, director Ricky Staub’s film could make for a pulpy and compelling adaptation, one we’ve certainly got our eye on. – AB
“David Byrne’s American Utopia”
James Baldwin said, ‘I still believe that we can do with this country something that has not been done before. Spike Lee’s second feature this year following the bruising and visceral “Da Five Bloods” (RIP Chadwick Boseman), “David Bryne’s American Utopia” finds the New York filmmaker documenting the Talking Heads’ illustrious frontman’s 2019 Broadway show of the same name. While simply recording a theatrical performance might seem a tad basic or uncharacteristic for such an artistic renegade, the auteur’s vibrant and resourceful approach “unites the brain and the backside.” Teaming with a group of 11 artists from around the globe, ‘American Utopia’ incorporates a diverse array of musical performances and monologues into its dreamy vision, harmoniously addressing essential sociopolitical topics facing our country on the cusp election day in mindful and expressive ways. A concert film unlike any other, Lee’s “latest joint brings all this joyous stagecraft to the screen in a vital call to connect with one another, to protest injustice, and, above all, to celebrate life.” – AB
“Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds”
After being stuck inside for the majority of 2020, Werner Herzog‘s new documentary transports viewers outside their lonely quarantine confines, revitalizing mankind’s cosmic connection with the larger universe. Reteaming with Cambridge professor Clive Oppenheimer – who co-directed Herzog’s volcano documentary “Into the Inferno” – the pair’s latest expedition finds them traveling far and wide, searching for the answers to ancient questions about meteors while interviewing astronomy experts. Flipping the script when it comes to typical science-based talking head subjects – predominantly featuring female specialists from around the globe, as opposed to your prototypically awkward male lab coats – “Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds” isn’t purely about analyzing space dust particles through magnified telescopes, also touching upon indigenous mythologies, apocalyptic omens, and other unexplainable mysteries about humankind’s eons-old connection to the vacuum of space. Narrated by the prolific German filmmaker, Herzog and Oppenheimer seek nothing less than to find a connection between the solar system and your soul. – AB
“Good Joe Bell”
When Joe Bell’s teenage son Jadin (Reid Miller) commits suicide, Joe (Mark Walberg) begins a repentant walk across the country, speaking out against the perils of bullying to raise awareness of the ongoing torment still experienced by far too many. Aggression is no stranger to Joe, a man prone to shout at his family when things aren’t going his way. After realizing that his begrudging acceptance of his son’s sexuality may very well have only exacerbated his struggles, Joe puts himself on a path to speak out against such actions to anyone who will listen. Co-written by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, the Oscar-winning scribes of “Brokeback Mountain,” director Reinaldo Marcus Green‘s (“Monsters and Men”) latest is probably Wahlberg’s most mature acting role since replacing Ryan Gosling in Peter Jackson‘s “The Lovely Bones.” Also featuring Connie Britton and Gary Sinise, “Good Joe Bell” tells the story of a father learning to tell the whole world the true value of his son, even when it seemed too late. – AB