The 2021 Sundance Film Festival wrapped up last week after a series of virtual premieres and localized "satellite" screenings around the country. Now it's time to present our Best of the Fest list. I was able to catch a total of 44 films this year, watching online from home (to stay safe and sound). But I couldn't catch everything and missed a few films getting tons of good buzz (as is always the case). Nevertheless, I saw a great deal of outstanding, high quality features this year. I am presenting one big list of my 10 favorite films - a mix of docs and features. All of these below are worth watching, and I highly recommend seeking them out. I'm glad Sundance continues to program some of the best films all year, as well as more innovative, unique, challenging, experimental, and totally wild & crazy features from all around the world. Below are my favorites, the films that connected with me and have remained on my mind all the way through the festival.
In Tenet, Christopher Nolan's new mind-bending, time-traveling epic blockbuster, there is a scene early on where Clémence Poésy's character Barbara tells our hero, simply known as "The Protagonist": "Don't try to understand it. Feel it." It certainly feels like the mission statement for the film, Nolan's way of telling the audience you probably won't be able to comprehend everything you see in what's about to unfold, so just feel it. It makes sense for a filmmaker who often prefers sonic and tonal ambience over narrative clarity, and in the case of Tenet there's a distinct feeling he's acknowledging this with the hope you'll just go along for the ride. Except in the case of Tenet, unlike Nolan's other works, there's little to understand, or feel, this time.
The show must go on… That's the classic show business phrase that really is the best way to describe what's happening this week. "Meaning that regardless of what happens, whatever show has been planned still has to be staged for the waiting patrons." The 77th Venice Film Festival kicks off today in Italy. Even though every other festival, including Cannes and Telluride, has been cancelled this year, Venice must go on. Even Toronto, which will have some screenings in the city, has shifted almost entirely online instead. But here in Italy, they're trying the opposite. Is it all about ego? Who knows… The red carpet is now sheltered by a giant wall that provides "social distancing" for the celebrities, but it basically just turns the festival into a private no-fans, industry-only event. Which may be for the better anyway? But is definitely a sign that this is no ordinary year for film festivals. Yet there are films to show, and they're still premiering for these two weeks.
Even without Cannes this year, we Cannes still have our own festival anyway. Even without film festivals, we can still experience the excitement of cinema watching films at home. The 2020 Cannes Film Festival was supposed to take place from May 12th to May 23rd, and this would've been my 11th year attending. But the festival has "postponed", although it seems like it's cancelled for 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. They decided not to host a virtual festival and instead are considering some kind of online offering and/or a partnership with another festival in the fall. So what else is there to do during these 11 days in May? Watch more films anyway! I wouldn't want to be anywhere else besides in Cannes anyway, so in the spirit of the festival, I decided to host my own version at home and watched 15 extraordinary films over the last 11 days.
"The single biggest threat to man's continued dominance on the planet is the virus." A quote from Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg, Ph.D, that is shown at the beginning of Outbreak. In just a few months, followed by a few weeks of frantic decision making, the entire world has been upended by a virus. We still don't know when things will get back to "normal", or if they'll ever get back to normal, but for the time being everything is changing before our eyes and there's nothing we can do besides wait and see. Stay at home and stay safe. Ride out the storm and wait for sunny skies after it's all over. The biggest change affecting this website, and every reader, is that cinemas worldwide have shut their doors. Most countries have passed emergency laws requiring all entertainment venues, including all cinemas, to close down until further notice. Thankfully we have digital libraries at our fingertips, but I still miss the cinema. I wish I could still see films in theaters…
Willkommen in Berlin! The 70th Berlin Film Festival, also known as Berlinale, has kicked off this week in Berlin, Germany in the center of the city at Potsdamer Platz. This year's festival takes place a few weeks later than usual (instead of back-to-back with Sundance), so they can put some distance between the festival and the Academy Awards yet still sneak in before February ends. This is my seventh year in a row covering this festival, and now that I live in Berlin, it's my "hometown" festival that I get to attend while going home to my own apartment every evening. It's also a pivotal year for Berlinale - not only is it the 70th edition, it's the first festival with a brand new set of co-directors running things - Mariette Rissenbeek & Carlo Chatrian.
Bong Joon-ho's Parasite is virtually certain to win the Oscar for Best International Film, and it is not out of the running for Best Picture or Best Director, either. It unanimously won Palme d'Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, and critics has lauded it as the greatest film of an exceptionally strong year, and perhaps even one of the best of the decade. It has brought belated, much-deserved attention to South Korean Cinema. By any measure, it has been a success that has likely exceeded the wildest dreams of anyone associated with it. What, then, should be made of the existence of a black & white version set for a theatrical release this year?
"Only a Sith deals in absolutes." If you came here to find out what my take on this whole Scorsese vs Marvel debate is, unfortunately I'm not going to give provide a "take." This entire debate, and discussion, has gotten out of hand. Way out of hand… I get that in our current social climate we must take a side, and must make our voices heard, but it's all so extreme now. We have to choose one side or the other. We have to speak out in defense of one side, and in opposition to the other. Or, maybe we don't…? This is cinema we're talking about, after all; movies or film or motion pictures or whatever you want to call them. What matters most is that we continue to watch and support and love and spread the love for cinema, for movies, for films of all kinds - big and small. Not whether Marvel movies are or are not cinema, or whether Scorsese's opinion is right or wrong, or whether this filmmaker is an asshole or not, or whatever it might be. Just stop all of this madness. Let's move on. We're tearing the film world apart, and as a movie lover, I'm tired of watching this.
The sun shines brightly over the city as I arrive into San Sebastian, warming it up to a nice 86 degrees at the peak of the day. The summer may just about be over (according to the calendar), but here it still feels like it's far from done. Kicking off today is the San Sebastián Film Festival (known officially as the Festival de San Sebastián or Donostia Zinemaldia) now in its 67th year. The town of San Sebastian is located on the northern coast of Spain, in Basque Country, not too far from the French border and not too far from the city Bilboa. There's a stunning curved beach that runs through the center of town, crowded with many people enjoying the sand and waves while it's still warm. The festival's logo is a sea shell, of course, along with the top prize being the Golden Shell - which couldn't be more fitting. I'm just here to keep watching more films.
After being threatened by the Venice Film Festival to have my press badge removed because I refused to follow the nonsensical embargo rules, I decided to publish this letter. When you experience injustice, when you experience oppression in the world, you must speak up. While this is not that bad, I still fight. I expect many of my colleagues and other critics will disagree with me and refute my claims, which is of course their right. But throughout the 13+ years I have been running this website, I have often seen jealousy and fear manifest itself as control and dominance and this is another example. I was told that others "complained" about my tweets, and so I was forced to fall in line and do what they demanded. I resist. I refuse. It is time to change this rule at festivals. Once a film screens, we should be free to talk about it. My full letter below.
"Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?" I'm back! Back again in the groove, the film festival groove. This week kicks off the fall season with two major film festivals: the Venice Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival, both running over the weekend. I'm back in Venice for my third time in a row to celebrate the 76th edition of this iconic festival, happy to be here, ready to start watching, excited to see all the films they're showing. I can't wait to see James Gray's Ad Astra, which has been in the works for years and is my most anticipated. And then there's Todd Phillips' Joker (get ready), then there's Haifaa Al-Mansour's The Perfect Candidate, then there's Soderbergh's The Laundromat, then there's Baumbach's Marriage Story, then there's David Michod's The King. And there's all the other films I haven't mentioned yet, too.
With everyone complaining about films being so long these days (anything over two hours instantly becomes a discussion), why not go the opposite direction and just make a short film? Traveling to film festivals all over the world is a wonderful and exciting experience - not just because I hope to discover some gems (like Lara and The August Virgin) but because I get to watch all kinds of films. Big and small, good and bad. And inbetween all these screenings, there's plenty of time to think. To think about what you just saw, and how it could be better, or how perfect it is, how much you want others to see these films. Wrapping up my visit to the Karlovy Vary Film Festival this year, one thought that came to mind often (specifically about a few of the films) is: this would be better as a short film. So why not just make a short? It could be even better.