‘Sound of Metal,’ ‘Collective’ and five other films not to miss at AFI Fest
Like most film festivals this year, AFI Fest has met the COVID-19 pandemic with an all-virtual program of screenings, panels and conversations. I’ve seen but a handful of the 54 features screening this week (from Oct. 15-22) and look forward to seeing many more, but here are seven personal favorites you shouldn’t miss, listed in alphabetical order:
A deadly 2015 nightclub fire in Romania is just the beginning of the tragedy chronicled in Alexander Nanau’s documentary, which becomes a dogged, despairing investigation into how a healthcare system can be rendered ineffectual by corrupt, incompetent leadership. First screened at festivals in fall 2019, it could hardly be more searingly relevant in this year of global pandemic. (Selected to represent Romania in the Oscar race for best international feature film, it’s set for a Nov. 20 theatrical and on-demand release through Magnolia Pictures.)
Well received at Sundance earlier this year, writer-director Ekwa Msangi’s gently moving debut feature tells the story of an Angolan immigrant who brings his wife and teenage daughter to live with him in Brooklyn after many years apart. The challenges that follow their reunion are explored with a deft, sympathetic hand, and with a trio of deeply inhabited lead performances from Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson. (IFC Films plans a Dec. 11 release.)
After spending three years shooting along the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, the acclaimed Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi (“Fire at Sea,” “Sacro GRA”) emerged with this characteristically observant and artful series of portraits of lives affected by the fight against ISIS. In this fraught context, his daring use of silences and ellipses, and his avoidance of overt commentary and other documentary conventions, yields something singularly strange and affecting: a dispatch from a war zone that haunts, troubles and illuminates. (A selection of the recent Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals, it’s currently awaiting a U.S. distributor.)
As with many other film festivals, this year’s AFI Fest has been faced with the daunting task of transforming into a virtual event. Organizers had one distinct advantage -- they had done it before.
“One Night in Miami”
In this flashback to 1964, Muhammad Ali (then still Cassius Clay), Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke come together for a tense, emotionally and politically charged conversation about the complexities of Black celebrity, identity and resistance in Regina King’s finely tuned directing debut. Adapted by Kemp Powers from his own stage play, and terrifically acted by Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adair, Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Jr., it’s an audience picture through and through — and an ideal choice for the festival’s centerpiece drive-in screening. (Amazon Studios will release the film Dec. 25 in selected theaters and Jan. 15 on Amazon Prime Video.)
“Sound of Metal”
A movie that intertwines narratives of disability, addiction and recovery might sound like a recipe for well-meaning disaster. But the tears are honestly earned in Darius Marder’s beautifully considered drama, starring a never-better Riz Ahmed as a rock drummer who suddenly loses his hearing and checks himself into a community retreat for the deaf. The sound design is both evocative and empathetic, but the strength of the movie is that it recognizes healing as a matter less of the body than of the spirit. (Amazon Studios will release the film Nov. 20 in selected theaters and Dec. 4 on Amazon Prime Video.)
“There Is No Evil”
The Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof won the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival for this beautifully composed anthology of four stories, each one a mystery and a stealth morality play framed around the issue of the death penalty. That might sound schematic, and sometimes it is, but every tale breathes: For a movie about the gravity of death, it also pulses with humor, romance and life. Like his countryman and fellow dissident Jafar Panahi, Rasoulof has turned filmmaking into an act of resistance: He shot this movie in secret and was recently sentenced to a year in prison for making “propaganda against the system.” (Kino Lorber will release the film in early 2021.)
This family-friendly riff on lycanthropy legend from the endlessly imaginative Irish animator Tomm Moore (“The Secret of Kells,” “Song of the Sea”), teaming this time with co-director Ross Stewart, is his most captivating and visually unbridled work. It’s also a sharp 17th century political parable, a tender story of father-daughter (and mother-daughter) love and a mosaic that feels both ancient and modern, assembled from images that positively revel in their hand-drawn majesty. (It’ll be released theatrically Nov. 13 through GKIDS and on Apple TV+ Dec. 11.)
AFI Fest 2020
When: Oct. 15-22
Tickets: $8 for regular screenings; $15 for special screenings; $100 for film pass ($75 for AFI members); $140 for film pass and summit ($105 for AFI members)
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