In keeping with the non-competitive nature of the New York Film Festival (NYFF) which ran from September 17 to October 11, 2020, we assemble an alphabetic ranking of some of the finest films that screened at the fest.
Dea Kulumbegashvili’s audacious debut, Beginning, shot in 1:33 aspect ratio is a meditative visual poem about breaking free of restrictions put in place by forces beyond any control. Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) is a woman looking to flee the patriarchal subjugation of the Jehovah’s Witness community where she lives with her minister husband (co-writer Rati Oneli.) Challenging and intriguing at the same time, Beginning’s dark introspection, striking long takes and lack of camera movement recall the work of slow cinema maestro Carlos Reygadas.
Song Fang’s The Calming, light on plot and heavy on visual technique manages to seduce with every frame. Her narrative is simple to the point of barely there and loosely autobiographical like. Fang surrogate Lin Tong (Qi Xi), a documentary filmmaker healing from a breakup moves between stunning locations in Japan, Hong Kong and China searching for meaning, or release.
Think America has been taking the piss of late? Try watching veteran Frederick Wiseman’s epic 4.5hours documentary on the inner working of Boston’s city hall and feel hope anew. Demanding but rewarding, City Hall is a sprawling and inclusive reflection of a city and administration- led by mayor Marty Walsh-doing the best to live up to democratic principles. Detailed, sober and endlessly inspiring despite the lengthy scenes and observational studies, City Hall is an urban progress report that considers a wide variety of government services and demonstrates democracy in action.
Malaysian auteur and indie legend Tsai Ming-Liang reunites with his muse Lee Kang-sheng for this gentle look at a man grasping at human connection however it presents. There isn’t much by way of plot that happens in Days. Unless you consider a sequence of 10 minutes long patience-testing shots of men in several states of loneliness exciting stuff.
Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple is both specific and universal and this duality gives it much of its power. The Disciple is the story of 24-year-old Sharad (Aditya Modak), a classical Indian musician of the raag tradition who devotes his every waking moment to the pursuit and purity of his art form. But it is also that of Sharad’s guru, Sindhubai (Dr Arun Dravid), a revered musician who never quite achieved popular success. Looming large in the lives of both men is Maai, a now-deceased legendary guru whose powerful music soundtracks The Disciple and gives it impetus.
Michelle Pfeiffer is about as luminous as only she can be in this absurdist comedy directed by Azazel Jacobs and adapted by Patrick DeWitt from his 2018 novel of the same name. A not-quite-wicked satire of New York’s upper crust, French Exit feels scattershot and directionless as it mashes several genres and styles into one slight whole. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But at least, Jacobs keeps punching.
The Human Voice
Pedro Almodóvar’s debut English language film is a 30-minute tour de force that is based on the Jean Cocteau play of the same title. The film showcases Almodóvar’s directorial trademarks: a terrific central performance- in this case by a fiery compulsorily watchable Tilda Swinton-bold colours and striking tonal shifts. Swinton’s shelter-in-place monologue charts the end of a romantic relationship, going from pity to anger and desperation.
I Carry You With Me
I Carry You With Me, the narrative feature-length debut of director Heidi Ewing, an Oscar nominee for the 2006 short film Jesus Camp, is an epic story of love discovered, lost and regained. A heartbreaking immigration chronicle, sweeping across two countries and spanning several decades. And a wondrous meditation on family and the places that we call home.
A Black Marxist (played by Eric Lockley) inherits a house from his grandmother. He moves in and coverts the structure to House of Ubuntu, a kind of commune for working-class African American adults looking to connect with African history and Black radical tradition. In some ways, the stubborn looseness of The Inheritance is the belated response to the white students of the 1967 Jean-Luc Godard film La Chinoise, that is obviously the forebearer of Ephraim Asili’s debut. There is some education to be found here but a lot of the thinking is far from radical.
Lovers Rock is the first entry in Steve McQueen’s interrelated Small Axe series of films which he made for the BBC. A novella-sized feature, Lovers Rock is a vibrant, urban dancehall party that unfolds over a single evening in 1980. A cinematic rarity, the film’s stunning simplicity features young people of first- and second-generation West Indian background, dancing for hours to the sounds of lover’s rock, soul and reggae. You will have Janet Kay’s Silly Games on repeat after this.
From Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, Mangrove tells the true story of Frank Critchlow (Shaun Parkes), a Trinidadian man whose Notting Hill restaurant became a meeting place for other West Indians in the sixties. Through the courtroom trial of Critchlow and a motley crew of people arrested during a protest, “Mangrove” pulls back the curtain on how deeply corrupt the British justice system is regarding the treatment of its Black population.
Sam Pollard directs this absorbing documentary about how the Federal Bureau of Investigation, under the extremely influential J. Edgar Hoover, positioned the entire institution as an antagonist of civil rights icon Martin Luther King. MLK/FBI looks closely but differently at the two subjects that make up the title. How the FBI operated at the time and why it spent enormous resources on trailing a private citizen. Using a portfolio of candid photographs and film footage, MLK/FBI also recreates King’s life at the time pointing out the ways he was affected by this intrusion of privacy.
Night of the Kings
Phillipe Lacôte blends age-old local customs with a thoroughly modern style in this stunning shot of magical realism set in a maximum-security prison in the Ivorian capital. Visually stunning and grounded in the oral griot traditions of Western Africa, Lacôte’s vision- think Lord of the Flies meets West Indies- considers the universal power of storytelling as well as queries who has the right to tell certain stories. Night of the Kings also speaks to contemporary times, using the supernatural as a guide to commenting on Ivorian- and African- political problems.
Shot over the course of three years along the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon, Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno (Nocturne) is a nighttime ramble through a region of the world rocked by catastrophe and violence. With spellbinding visual compositions, Rosi pays attention to the plight of those who have been living through the rise of ISIS as well as the experiences of ordinary people who witnesses the atrocities of war.
Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, Chloé Zhao’s visually stunning triumph is a masterful and inspiring documentary and fictional hybrid that houses a powerhouse performance by two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand. Gorgeous and sensitive, Nomadland finds poetry in the story of its average but formidable heroine. Alternately dreamlike, Zhao captures the breathtaking beauty of the American landscape as well as the rugged complexities of the lives that people these places.
The first film from The Living and the Dead Ensemble—a collaboration among artists and performers from Haiti, France, and the United Kingdom- is directed by artist Louis Henderson and curator Olivier Marboeuf. Ouvertures revisits the life of Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture through a group of young actors who translate, rehearse, and debate their Creole production of Édouard Glissant’s play Monsieur Toussaint.
Red, White and Blue
Another Small Axe entry, Red, White and Blue is a richly evocative and politically charged depiction of institutional racism in 80’s United Kingdom. John Boyega is terrific in the role of real-life figure Leroy Logan, a member of the London Metropolitan Police Force who experienced firsthand the organisation’s fundamental racism while seeking to change attitudes from within.
In her fifth feature, Mexican filmmaker Yulene Olaizola offers a gripping adventure and contemplative rumination on the brutality and splendour of nature. Set in the 1920s in the deep thickets of a Mayan tropical rainforest along the Rio Hondo, Tragic Jungle follows Agnes (Indira Andrewin), a young woman trying desperately to escape with her sister from the white British landowner she doesn’t want to marry.
The Truffle Hunters
This engaging documentary immerses the viewer in the forests of Northern Italy, where dogs, accompanied by their elderly human owners, seek the precious white Alba truffle. A depiction of both a ritualistic, outmoded way of life and the wild economic disparity of a situation that can lead to acts of greed and cruelty, The Truffle Hunters is revelatory, earthy, and altogether humane.
The Woman who Ran
Divided into three casually threaded yet distinct sections, Hong Sansoo’s delightful The Woman who Ran follows a woman as she travels without her husband for the first time in years, visiting a succession of friends: two on purpose, one by chance. Minimal interactions carry surprising weight, and Sansoo employs subtle and sly narrative repetition to evoke a world of circular motion.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.