Leaves have started changing colors, a briskness has creeped into the wind and the sun seems to be inching lower in the horizon by the day. Hot, lazy summer days recede into memory, even though remnants of those mini-donuts I ate at the State Fair seem to linger indefinitely. And although I acknowledge the passing of the seasons with a smidge of melancholy, it’s a fleeting feeling, because fall also ushers in something very important: Film festival season!
Yes, see you later, superheroes of marginal importance and hello, Serious Filmmaking. Two big North American film festivals, the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival, kick off the fall movie season – and both showcase the very best in world cinema. Getting buzz at either of these festivals can make or break a film and, as with many festivals, official selections are often looking for distributors so that they might eventually find their way to moviegoers like you and me.
People who say 2016 is the year when movies stopped mattering are clearly not paying attention to the abundance of vital filmmaking that earned ovations at both Telluride and Toronto. Here’s a recap of 12 top titles that catapulted to the front of the awards race last month — the films you’ll be talking about come Oscar time, the films you’ll want to see.
And, pretty exciting news: The top three of this list are actually set to screen in just a couple weeks at the Twin Cities Film Fest!
12 Must-See Winter Films That Just Took the Festival Circuit By Storm
Hands down, Moonlight, is the essential breakout film of Telluride and Toronto. It’s also one of the most buzzed about films of the year, period, garnering universal praise from both critics and festival attendees. Critics have expressed concern that by the time the general public has an opportunity to catch this film, they may be experiencing hype fatigue. However, despite this warning, the consensus is all the adulation is deserved.
Moonlight tells story of a young gay black man, Chiron, coming of age in Miami. The film unfolds in three parts, using three different actors (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland) to portray Chiron, exploring the concept of aging and how past choices reverberate throughout our lives. “Masterpiece,” “artfully intense” and “visually exquisite” are just some of the exaltations Moonlight has received. If you are going to watch one film on the festival circuit this year, Moonlight seems to be it — and Minnesota audiences will get their first glance when it screens as the official 2016 Closing Night Film on October 29.
No film festival season would be complete without some unabashed Oscar-bait — and this year, Lion is the Weinstein-produced carrot dangled in front of Academy voters. The set up: 5-year-old Saroo is separated from his family in India, is later adopted by an Australian couple who relocated to the continent, and is then reunited with his birth mother via Google Earth 25 years later. I know, you might already being crying.
Dev Patel, star of Toronto break-out film Slumdog Millionaire, which went on to win Best Picture, stars as the adult Saroo; Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara also feature heavily as Saroo’s mother and girlfriend, respectively. Lion is being lauded as a “classy crowdpleaser” and a strong directorial debut for Garth Davis, who’s most notably work has been on the television series Top of the Lake. The film screens at TCFF on Oct. 29.
The Eagle Huntress
Before Telluride or Toronto even kicked into gear, the Guardian was already singling out Sundance sensation The Eagle Huntress as one of the year’s top documentaries. It’s the remarkable true story of a 13-year-old girl from Mongolia, who dreams of becoming the first woman in history to follow in her community’s tradition of training her own eagle to hunt foxes and other game.
Featuring jaw-dropping cinematography from Simon Niblett and a rousing hero looking to shatter the glass ceiling, Ott Bell’s portrait is emotional, rousing and unforgettable. And even though Telluride and Toronto tend to favor world premieres, both festivals programmed Eagle Huntress; at Toronto, they celebrated the work’s Canadian premiere. Minneapolis audiences get their first chance to see the film as TCFF’s official 2016 Centerpiece on Oct. 24.
La La Land
A darling of both Telluride and Toronto, La La Land, director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his 2014 film Whiplash, is the throwback musical that 2016 didn’t know it needed.
Earnest in its approach to the genre, the film stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Mia and Sebastian, two creative Angelinos with small-time gigs and big-time dreams. This isn’t a Broadway adaptation or a revisionist meditation on the musical genre, it’s a honest-to-goodness musical more aligned with Singin’ in the Rain than Moulin Rouge or Dancer in the Dark. Cinephiles, take note, this movie is a delectable cinematic treat that looks to satisfy your film lust.
Manchester by the Sea
Manchester by the Sea is the third film directed by Kenneth Lonergan, whose previous films You Can Count on Me and Margaret were lauded for the dramatic heft. A character study of grief, hope and redemption, the film asks that quintessentially human question: Can you go home again?
Casey Affleck has received universal praise for his portrayal of Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor who returns to his working class Massachusetts hometown to take care of his teenage nephew after the death of his brother. His return home is fraught with grief, not only because of his brother’s passing, but because with coming home, he must confront a painful past he thought was long buried. Expect an “emotionally overwhelming” experience with Manchester by the Sea, including “one of the best written – and performed – sequences I’ve ever seen on film.” Bring your tissues.
Amy Adams had a great year at Toronto: She stars not only in Nocturnal Animals, but also in Arrival, which is being called a new sci-fi classic. Arrival examines the classic aliens-come-to-earth scenario from the perspective of a linguistics professor (Adams) who’s been given the task of cracking the code of the newly-arrived aliens’ language. She also needs to do this before China and Russia declare war on the aliens, throwing Earth into chaos. No pressure, right?
Arrival isn’t afraid about tackling hard science, but the film reportedly does it with emotional resonance not often found in the sci-fi genre. It’s as much about communicating with extraterrestrial life as it is communicating with each other.
Toni Erdmann was a hit in Cannes earlier the year and made its US debut at Telluride, where it was a festival favorite. It’s always refreshing to see a comedy receive accolades on the festival circuit, which is often overcrowded with serious, auteur films about serious, important subjects.
Toni Erdmann takes a long (almost three hours) stroll through a father-daughter relationship. Daughter Ines is a straight-laced thirty-something rising up the corporate ladder and her father, Winifred, is a free-spirited semi-retired piano teacher who seeks to reconnect with his only daughter after the death of his one close companion: His dog. Germany has already submitted Toni Erdmann for its official entry for 2017’s Best Foreign Language Oscar.
Kristen Stewart is proving herself to be a formidable actress with her acclaimed independent film performances. She was the first American actress to win a Cesar (French Oscar) for her role in Clouds of Sils Maria, and she is teaming up again with director Olivier Assayas for Personal Shopper. Stewart’s performance in the film is being called a career best, playing a spiritual medium-cum-personal shopper spending her days buying items for the rich and her nights looking for the ghost of her dead brother. Described as capturing the “isual dread of nothingness,” the film examines life, death and loss with spine-tingling ambiguity.
Natalie Portman is Jackie Kennedy in the days and weeks following her husband’s assassination, in Jackie, the English language debut of Chilean director Pablo Larrain. Portman’s portrayal of Kennedy has many buzzing that she is a shoe-in for Oscar contention this year.
Praise for this film comes from its stray from standard biopic fare into an artfully intimate and poetic study of an icon whose identity so ingrained in the public psyche. In addition to Jackie, Larrain’s biopic Neruda, an equally idiosyncratic take on the life of famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, has been officially submitted by Chile for 2017’s Best Foreign Language Oscar.
Legendary fashion designer Tom Ford returns to film with Nocturnal Animals, a stylish, detailed and gritty neo-noir piece that you expect (and want) from Ford. Amy Adams stars as Susan, a successful art dealer coping with anxiety about the current state of her life highly-curated, yet emotionally empty life.
Susan receives a disturbing book manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) and it’s then that the film cuts between Susan’s present-day life, the story from the manuscript and her failed marriage from almost 20 year ago, a marriage in which her choices have haunted her for decades. Ford’s gorgeous and meticulous dedication to detail seems to be the main appeal of Nocturnal Animals, the film arriving as a sumptuous feast for the eyes.
Sensationalist (and I mean that in the best way) director Paul Verhoeven is back with Elle, a rape-revenge fantasy film that has been called, “complex, compassionate, often corrosively funny.” Isabelle Huppert plays a Parisian video game executive whose sexual assault echoes through her life and sparks another mysterious violent episode. Elle’s popularity at Cannes earlier this year caused controversy due to Verhoeven’s deeply black-comedic take on sexual violence. But despite audience’s reaction to some of the problematic aspects of the film, the film’s performances, Huppert’s in particular, have been noted as “marvelous.”
Andrea Arnold’s American Honey follows a band of young traveling magazine salespeople who party their way across the country looking for good times — and profits. Shia LaBeouf, who has dramatically reinvented his career from Hollywood darling to art world outlier, is featured as the sales group’s ringleader, who offers Star (played by Sasha Lane), a bored Midwest teen, a way out of her stationery small town life in joining him and his hedonistic band of petty thieves. American Honey’s rawness has been compared to works by Gus Van Zant and Harmony Korine, and praise for the film focuses on its willingness to focus on overlooked aspects of American culture.
Want more info about the top titles from the festival circuit about to appear at this month’s Twin Cities Film Fest (Oct. 19-29)? Get personalized picks, and an early heads up, from Artistic Director Steve Snyder at firstname.lastname@example.org.