Even in a pandemic, film festival buzz can drive sales: This year’s fall season has included high-profile buys from Netflix (for Halle Berry’s Toronto-premiering “Bruised” and Venice winner “Pieces of a Woman”) and Solstice Studios (the Mark Wahlberg tearjerker “Good Joe Bell”), as well as intriguing moves from Neon (sleeper hit “The Night of Kings”) and IFC (Sam Pollard’s searing documentary “MLK/FBI”). Yet in the midst of this slimmed-down, mostly-virtual year, many of the smaller titles that generated strong responses continue to drift around the marketplace in search of homes. And yes, it’s never been harder to buy movies than in a year when the very future of distribution is an open question. But as companies continue to search for quality product, these cinematic highlights are worthy of consideration. Here are nine premieres from Venice and TIFF that ought to get out there. Distributors, take note.
On January 23, 2020 — nine months and a million lifetimes ago — the city of Wuhan, China, was placed under lockdown in an effort to choke out the coronavirus that had already made the densely populated capital of Hubei Province synonymous with of the worst pandemic in more than a century. During the 76 days that elapsed until the lockdown was lifted, Weixi Chen and an anonymous co-worker embedded themselves in the frontlines of history, as their footage was guided and edited by “The People’s Republic of Desire” filmmaker Hao Wu in New York.
Discretely shot across four Wuhan hospitals without government approval, and premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival just a few months later, this fly-in-the-trenches look inside the outbreak is scattered and structureless in a way that can make it seem as if it’s simply taking notes for the history books of the future. But if “76 Days” is more valuable as a time capsule than it is as a piece of cinéma vérité, it still puts a human face on an epochal horror that some people have refused to acknowledge even as it rages around them. It offers a bracingly immediate view from the vanguard of history — at the trauma and disequilibrium of being ambushed by a crisis dire enough to define its century — and the world needs to have that burned into the collective unconscious as soon as possible. The irony of releasing this into unsafe theaters precludes that route, but “76 Days” would be an ideal pick-up for a nimble streamer in search of something that will cut through the noise and get ahead of the many other COVID-19 documentaries that are sure to follow. —DE
Sales Contact: CAA
Rumors have abounded for years that Idris Elba is next in line to play James Bond, and while that remains to be seen, at least films like Ricky Staub’s fact-based drama “Concrete Cowboy” continue to make it clear that the actor has star power to spare, no matter the genre. Chronicling the fraught father-son relationship between Elba’s Harp and Caleb McLaughlin’s Cole (with the “Stranger Things” actor handily proving he has the chops to go beyond the confines of Netflix’s ensemble sci-fi series), “Concrete Cowboy” also digs into the fascinating real-life culture of Philadelphia-area cowboys. You read that right, as Staub drew inspiration for his feature debut from the world of urban horseback riding that has long existed in North Philadelphia (and, as the film tells us, in other cities around the country, from Houston to Compton). Alongside Elba and McLaughlin, a cadre of real-life riders also appear as loose versions of themselves, and the result is an insightful blend of fact and fiction, both of which deserve to be experienced by a wider audience. —KE
Sales Contact: Endeavor
“I Care a Lot”
“I Care a Lot,” a pulpy social thriller that might be better suited for midnight movie positioning, is at its most purely enjoyable when it’s leaning right into just how very, very bad people can be. And star Rosamund Pike hasn’t been this good at being bad since “Gone Girl.” “There’s no such thing as good people,” Marla Grayson (Pike) sneers during the opening credits of J Blakeson’s icy thriller, as she introduces the closest thing she has to a personal ethos. Clearly the product of some self-reinvention — Marla makes mention once of being poor, and damn if she will ever feel impoverished again — Marla’s life is glossy, slick, and deeply unwell. That’s exactly how she likes it.
A professional, court-appointed legal guardian, Marla makes her bones “caring” for old folks who have nobody else to do it (or, in the case of Macon Blair’s desperate son, no one that Marla and her cronies think is suitable for the gig). When Marla and her partner Fran pick up new client Jennifer Peterson (the matchless Dianne Wiest), Blakeson shows us exactly what the pair are capable of, which is nothing short of horrifying. With a slight twist in either direction, “I Care a Lot” could be a horror film or a wrenching drama, but Blakeson’s dark humor keeps it feeling, even in its worst moments, hugely entertaining. Mostly, though, it’s a showcase for Pike, who makes a meal out of her role (and that’s to say nothing of the strong supporting turns from Peter Dinklage and Chris Messina, who also vibe to the film’s wacky, mean wavelength). —KE
Sales Contact: CAA
“In Between Dying”
“Enigmatic” doesn’t begin to describe Hilal Baydarov’s “In Between Dying,” a koan-like story that follows a day in the life — or the life in a day — of a young man searching the empty Azerbaijan countryside for love (specifically that of his wife and child, whose faces he’s never seen), and bringing death with him wherever he goes. Or is he searching the winding roads and shallow valleys of his homeland for death, and bringing love to all of the strangers he encounters along the way? Such broadly philosophical questions saturate the still and expectant atmosphere of Baydarov’s seventh film in the last two years.
But for all of its elusiveness, “In Between Dying” is a film that wants to be found. It’s opaque, to be sure — it opens with a poem written by a six-year-old about a teacher looking for a lost class of students in a hallway with 1,000 doors, and Baydarov never so much as knocks on any of them — but not in a way that feels impenetrable or forbidding. Prologue aside, this mesmeric trip is more accessible than any of the Andrei Tarkovsky masterpieces that inspired Baydarov’s transcendental vision, and a hell of a lot shorter than the Nuri Bilge Ceylan movies evoked by the slow path it wends through its gray landscapes. There may not be a lot of money here, but “In Between Dying” will catch on fast if it finds an audience that can vibe with its wavelength. At a time when Eastern European cinema is perilously underrepresented on this side of the world, a boutique distributor would be smart to put its name on such a memorable and beguiling import, especially if Baydarov continues along his current trajectory to become a major — and prolific — force on the world stage over the next few years. —DE
Sales Contact: Pluto Films
In recent years, the plights of migrants have yielded many grim cinematic portraits, from “Mediterranea” to “Fire at Sea.” Given that track record, writer/director Ben Sharrock’s “Limbo” provides a welcome alternative. In this quirky, deadpan portrait of a Syrian refugee trapped in an asylum center in the remote Scottish island chain of the Outer Hebrides, the backdrop often provides the punchline to an ironic joke. Omar (Amir El-Masry), a young Syrian refugee intent on pursuing his musician dreams, gazes out at the vast, empty landscapes with a constant befuddled look that always says: That’s it?
Yet “Limbo” doesn’t have fun at Omar’s expense. Sharrock’s charming and insightful second feature justifies its title by using the droll backdrop to explore how the young man comes to terms with his nomadic status. Guided by El-Masry’s tender, understated performance and a tone that hovers between playful and sincere, “Limbo” manages to turn its downbeat scenario into a sweet and touching rumination on the quest to belong in an empty world. That’s a lesson we could all use right now. —EK
Sales Contact: Protagonist Pictures
In Michel Franco’s “New Order,” we get the world we deserve. The Mexican director’s dystopian demolition of society as we know it serves up wall-to-wall bleakness and horror, with no soul, hope, or redemption, nada, as the one-percent is feasted upon by the fed-up. In pummeling you with endless pain right up until the final harrowing smash-cut to black, Franco, working on his most ambitious canvas yet, makes Michael Haneke look like “Sesame Street.” What begins as a posh wedding packed with enough intrigue to fill a movie all its own is totally obliterated by an ultra-violent uprising of the lower classes that engulfs everything in carnage and chaos. The breakdown of the social order becomes dizzying to behold, and its politics even more scattered. While it’s not entirely certain what Franco wants to say, no matter: it’s clear he is mad as hell, and has thrown all his rage onscreen with impeccable craft. —RL
Sales Contact: ICM Partners
“No Ordinary Man”
Thanks to a growing concern with positive transgender representation, the trans cinema canon — meaning one driven by trans filmmakers — is slowly and steadily growing. Onscreen and behind the camera, trans women have been leading the charge while trans male representation lags behind. In Chase Joynt and Aisling Chin-Yee’s inventive riff on the biographical documentary, the life of trans jazz musician Billy Tipton is transformed into an exploration of trans-masculine identity. In addition to informative talking head interviews with trans scholars, such as Susan Stryker and C. Riley Norton, the film uses audition footage of trans actors vying for the role of Billy Tipton. “Ben Is Back” actor Marquise Vilson emerges as the indisputable star of the film; both for his sensitive analysis of Billy’s emotional life and stellar performance in the fictional narrative film. Like “Disclosure” did earlier this year, “No Ordinary Man” excavates an important chapter of trans history while writing the next chapter. —JD
Sales Contact: Radiant Films
“Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time”
One of the early films to bow at TIFF, Lili Horvát’s “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” has only grown in this writer’s estimation since publishing IndieWire’s review. Had Jesse and Celine actually met six months after the events of “Before Sunrise” as planned, had they gone horribly wrong to the point where one of the parties couldn’t even remember the other, and had they both been neurosurgeons, it might look something like this cool-headed Hungarian oddity. With the gloomy echoes of Krzysztof Kieślowski, Horvát follows a neurosurgeon named Márta around Budapest — not unlike how Hitchcock chased Kim Novak in “Vertigo” — who’s convinced a perfect stranger is a man she met abroad and had plans to meet up with back in her home city. The mouthful of a title belies the filmmaker’s stark approach to complex material in this haunting cinematic puzzle. —RL
Sales Agent: National Film Institute World Sales
“Quo Vadis, Aida?”
In her riveting fifth feature, Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Žbanić renders with horrifying humanity a day in the life of a United Nations translator working throughout the Srebrenica massacre. By anchoring the film around one woman, a mother and wife trying desperately to secure safety for her husband and sons, Žbanić weaves a nightmarish scenario into an evocative ode to the resilience of the human spirit. As Aida (Jasna Ðuričić) bounces between translating important negotiations, medical interventions, and invasive searches, she darts off to ferry her family to various tenuous hiding spots. A survivor of the war herself, Žbanić brings a graceful urgency to the horrific events the film dramatizes, slowly turning the screws with gut-wrenching precision rather than indulging in exploitative violence. She clearly understands the unimaginable toll living through such trauma can take, and is an expert in the craft of translating it cinematically. —JD
Sales Contact: Indie Sales