Normally at this time of year we’d be headed into another season of heavily marketed prestige films catapulting themselves into theaters after triumphant film festival premieres. But nothing is normal in 2020. The major fall festivals, which often launch movies toward the Oscars, largely shifted to drive-in and virtual formats. And movie theaters are still closed in the important markets of New York and Los Angeles, while studios’ splashiest titles continue to have their release dates delayed.
Yet even in this weird moment, I was able to “attend” a few festivals from my couch and to see the debuts of stellar films from around the world. Many of those films still will be released this fall and winter, in theaters and virtual cinemas, at drive-ins, or on digital streaming services. So here are a dozen of my favorite fiction films from 2020’s fall festival circuit (and one that snuck in from last year) that you won’t want to miss.
I cannot overstate my love for Another Round, a movie about four middle-aged Danish men who are much more miserable than they’re willing to admit to themselves or one another. One night, though, a cordial birthday dinner turns into a weeping confessional, and from thence into a rager, and they realize, with the ancients, that in vino veritas. The men decide to embark on an experiment, reasoning that the human body is naturally 0.05 percent deficient in alcohol and that they can test whether maintaining a low buzz all day will enable them to live a better life. Obviously, things escalate from there.
This sounds like a sophomoric and possibly horrible premise for a film, but instead director Thomas Vinterberg has made a truly wonderful movie about trying to come to grips with life, anchored by terrific performances from Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang, and Lars Ranthe. It’s funny, and gutting, and great.
How to watch it: Another Round was acquired by Samuel Goldwyn Films. It is awaiting a release date.
Mike (director and co-writer Michael Angelo Covino) and Kyle (co-writer Kyle Marvin) are two longtime friends who see their friendship fracture when Mike tells Kyle that he slept with Kyle’s fiancée. But that’s not the end of The Climb, a very funny story of a long-enduring friendship. The film occasionally slides into flights of fancy, even magical realism, while feeling very true to the kinds of twists and turns real friendships can take. It’s a triumphant feature debut for Covino and Marvin, and at Cannes in 2019 it was awarded the “Coup de Coeur” (essentially “blow to the heart”) by the Un Certain Regard jury.
How to watch it: The Climb premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019 and was initially scheduled for release in the spring of 2020. It is now scheduled for limited theatrical release on November 13.
The Human Voice
Directed by Pedro Almodovar, The Human Voice is really a short film — a 30-minute adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s play of the same name. Tilda Swinton doesn’t just star in the film; she is the film. She plays a woman who’s going through a breakup and slowly disintegrating before our eyes, progressing from resignation to despair to nonchalance to outright aggression. She wanders around an apartment set that’s built on a soundstage, which only serves to emphasize both the performativity and privacy of grief during the end of a relationship. Mostly, though, it’s just really fun to watch Swinton rage.
How to watch it: The Human Voice was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics. It is awaiting a release date.
A standout at Sundance earlier this year, Minari is the story of Korean immigrants Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) who move their two small children (Noel Kate Cho and Alan S. Kim) from California to Arkansas so that Jacob can pursue his dream of farming. But Jacob and Monica’s marriage is on the rocks, a circumstance that doesn’t improve as they’ve hoped when Monica’s mother (Yuh Jung Youn) comes to stay with them. Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung (Munyurangabo, Lucky Life) and set in the 1980s, Minari feels deeply personal. It’s both a family drama through the eyes of a Korean American boy and a moving tale of love and loss in the American heartland, exquisitely told.
How to watch it: Minari premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020 and is currently playing at festivals in a virtual format. A24 will release the film in the coming months.
Night of the Kings
A prisoner named Roman (Koné Bakary) in Côte d’Ivoire’s largest prison finds himself tasked with a terrifying challenge: He must tell a story to the other prisoners all night — one so engaging that they will stay absorbed in it until the sun comes up — or he will lose his life. Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings clearly plays homage to One Thousand and One Nights, weaving a tale in which a powerful older inmate named Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) runs the prison with the tacit approval of the guards, and appoints Roman to a powerful post: The prison’s official storyteller. The film is fantastical, an elaborate story that contains its own elaborate story, and it weaves magic into what feels a bit like madness.
How to watch it: Night of the Kings premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2020, then played at the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. It is currently awaiting distribution.
Unmoored from home by choice or economic necessity, an increasing number of retirement-aged Americans are crisscrossing the country, living in vans and RVs and following patterns of seasonal work. Based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book, Nomadland melds fiction and reality to tell their story. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a woman who leaves her small town in Nevada after the death of her husband and finds herself part of the nomad community — most of whom, in the movie, are played by themselves. Director Chloe Zhao (who made 2017’s The Rider and the upcoming Marvel film Eternals) crafts an aching reminder of the loneliness and loss many older Americans face in a country that has no place for them. And she does it against a backdrop of rolling hills and wide open plains almost too beautiful for words.
How to watch it: Nomadland premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2020, then played at the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. It is scheduled to open in theaters on December 4.
On the Rocks
Sofia Coppola returns with a deceptively frothy comedy about Laura (Rashida Jones), who starts to suspect her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is cheating on her. When Laura tells her affectionate, philandering, and impulsive father (Bill Murray) about it, he insists they follow Dean in an attempt to catch him. On the Rocks is light on its feet, but it’s not lightweight; it becomes clear that Laura’s relationship with her father — who left her mother for a series of younger women when Laura was still a child — is part of what’s fueling her worries about Dean. And she’s also feeling unmoored from her sense of self now that she’s a parent and the wife of a man who works all the time. On the Rocks is energetic and Murray is in top form, so it remains fun, but there’s something serious to chew on underneath, too.
How to watch it: On the Rocks premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2020. It opened in limited theatrical release on October 2 and will begin streaming on Apple TV+ on October 23.
One Night in Miami
One of the most buzzed-about films out of the Toronto International Film Festival was One Night in Miami, a triumphant directorial debut for Regina King (Watchmen). Kemp Powers adapted the screenplay from his own stage play, which imagines a single night in 1964. Muhammad Ali — still going by Cassius Clay at the time (and played by Eli Goree in the film) — had defeated Sonny Liston and become Heavyweight Champion of the World. To celebrate, he gathered in a motel with NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). And, at least in this version of events, the men also argued about the challenges they faced as Black athletes, performers, and leaders in a rapidly changing America: the pressure to cater to white audiences; colorism; police violence; and religious identity. One Night in Miami sidesteps the trap of stage-iness that films adapted from plays can fall into, and it boasts four equally spectacular performances from its leads — truly a testament to King’s skill as a director.
How to watch it: One Night in Miami premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2020, then played at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will open in limited theaters on December 25 and begin streaming on Amazon Prime Video on January 15, 2021.
Quo Vadis, Aida?
It can be difficult to translate some of humanity’s most horrifying moments onto the big screen without flattening what happened, trying too hard to convince the audience to care, or turning people into object lessons. But Quo Vadis, Aida? does the job with stunning deftness, telling the story of what happened on July 11, 1995, when the Bosnian Serb army murdered more than 7,000 civilians, mostly men, and raped women in the town of Srebrenica. Director Jasmila Zbanic grounds the tale in a strong perspective, centering the film on Aida (Jasna Djuricic), a translator working with the UN who struggles to find her own family and save them, if she can. It’s harrowing, to be sure, but it’s absolutely vital — a study of intense evil in our time and a reminder that the past never leaves us, even when the violence fades.
How to watch it: Quo Vadis, Aida? premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2020, then played at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is awaiting distribution.
The Water Man
Actor David Oyelowo’s directorial debut feels like an old-fashioned family film from a bygone era — and that’s what makes it great. Oyelowo and Rosario Dawson play the parents of Gunner (Lonnie Chavis), an artistically inclined kid who’s carrying around a lot of anxiety; his dad has recently returned from a tour of duty abroad, and his mom has cancer. He wants to find a cure. One day, with his new friend Jo (Amiah Miller), he takes off into the forest in search of a figure called the Water Man who will have what his mother needs to get better. His father must go find them. Produced by Oprah Winfrey and also starring Maria Bello and Alfred Molina, The Water Man is a film about grief, both for father and son, but filtered through a story of imagination, fear, and courage.
How to watch it: The Water Man premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2020. It is awaiting distribution.
The Whaler Boy
The Whaler Boy was one of my favorite discoveries at TIFF — a deceptively small film about a teenager named Leshka (Vladimir Onokhov) in the remote Russian village of Chuktoka, just across the Bering Strait from Alaska. He hunts whales with the other men in the village and hangs out with his one friend, but there’s not much else to do, and they’re largely cut off from the world except, as it turns out, through the internet. The men have become interested in cam girls, who represent sex and desire and, even more, a world far away. Leshka’s interest evolves into obsession with one particular girl, who cams from Detroit, and he starts to believe they have a special relationship — and that takes him on a startling journey. Director Philipp Yuryev managed to blend just enough fantasy into his realism to keep you guessing, and the result is an unforgettable and often surprising film about coming of age and the ways dreams lead us astray.
How to watch it: The Whaler Boy premiered at the Venice Film Festival, then played at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is awaiting distribution.
Wolfwalkers is a gorgeously animated Irish folk tale, created by the artists behind The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. It’s the story of a little English girl named Robyn Goodfellowe, who travels with her father, a hunter, to Ireland. His task is to aid in wiping out the wolves, which the Lord Protector of the village decrees must be destroyed lest they menace the villagers any further. But one day, she befriends another girl, Mebh, who lives in the woods and transforms into a wolf at night. Mebh is a wolfwalker. And through their friendship, Robyn’s view of the world, and her role in it, changes drastically. It’s a beautiful, rich story with plenty for the whole family to discuss.
How to watch it: Wolfwalkers will be released on Apple TV+ this fall.