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11 Must-See Films at the 2020 AFI FEST Film Festival

Like so many of this year's biggest events, the Los Angeles-based festival is going digital, with a variety of films and events primed to be streamed straight into your home.

AFI FEST

Like so many other festivals unspooling in recent months, this year’s AFI FEST has opted to roll out as a virtual event, all the better for film fans to catch the best the Los Angeles-based festival has to offer from just about anywhere. One of the last big festivals on the fall circuit, this year’s AFI FEST boasts a wide range of both films and events for everyone to enjoy.

The fest opens on Thursday night with the world premiere of Julia Hart’s “I’m Your Woman” and, over the course of the next week, will also play new films from filmmakers Errol Morris, Heidi Ewing, Mira Nair, Florian Zeller, Werner Herzog, and many more. This year’s complete AFI FEST program includes 124 titles (54 features, 3 episodic, 33 shorts, 19 Meet the Press Film Festival at AFI FEST shorts, and 15 AFI Conservatory Showcase shorts) of which 53 percent are directed by women, 39 percent are directed by BIPOC, and 17 percent are directed by LBGTQ+.

The virtual event is accessible via both film and event tickets and passes. Per event brass (and a very handy FAQ), “The festival is structured the same as our other festivals, with new films and events scheduled each day. Due to restrictions from film distributors and filmmakers, films, and events are available for a limited time and with limited capacity – and they can sell out.”

In other words, it’s like any other festival, just one that happens to take place in the safety of your own home. Here are 11 films you enjoy via the virtual delights of AFI FEST, including new premieres, festival favorites hitting their next big event, and much more.

“76 Days”

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. —DE

“I’m Your Woman”

Opening night at AFI FEST, rising director Julia Hart’s ’70s-inflected crime thriller puts a feminist twist on the abandoned mob wife trope. Hart’s fourth feature is already her second movie this year (she previously debuted Disney+’s winning YA drama “Stargirl”) and marks “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” Emmy-winner Rachel Brosnahan’s first lead film role — and could push her into the Oscar race.

After suburban housewife Jean’s thief husband Eddie (Bill Heck) suddenly takes off with help from his old friend Cal (Arinzé Kene), Jean finds herself running and gunning with a vulnerable child on her hip. And when Cal disappears too, Jean and his wife Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake) venture into Eddie’s criminal underworld. Hart wrote the script with her husband, producer Jordan Horowitz (“La La Land”). She launched her career by writing feminist Civil War drama “The Keeping Room,” starring Brit Marling, followed by two films co-written with Horowitz which she also directed, “Miss Stevens,” starring Lily Rabe and Timothée Chalamet, and “Fast Color,” starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw. —AT

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, and Jayme Lawson appear in Farewell Amor by Ekwa Msangi, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Bruce Francis Cole.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Farewell Amor”

Bruce Francis Cole

“Farewell Amor”

Tanzanian American filmmaker Ekwa Msangi makes her feature film debut with “Farewell Amor,” which follows an estranged Angolan immigrant family in Brooklyn, NY, as they struggle to overcome the emotional distance between them. Father Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) is trying to let go of a previous relationship, after he is joined in the U.S. by his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and teen daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), who are both struggling to adapt to life in a new country.

Eventually, they overcome personal and political hurdles, as they learn to rely on the muscle memory of Angolan dance to rediscover what they lost after being apart for a long time. The film, which debuted at Sundance in January, is a universal immigrant story, presenting the unique perspectives of three characters bound together by a shared history. It is an intimate and personal look at the kind of inter-generational story that has defined America from its very beginnings. —TO

“My Psychedelic Love Story”

Veteran Oscar winner Errol Morris enters the swinging ’60s via a remarkably alluring subject, one-time jetsetter and recent author Joanna Harcourt Smith (“Tripping the Bardo with Timothy Leary: My Psychedelic Love Story”), who fell in love with the LSD guru just before he was plunked in jail for drug possession. Morris has been ahead of the curve ever since he broke out with pet cemetery documentary “Gates of Heaven” in 1978. A decade later, “The Thin Blue Line” wowed critics but alienated the hidebound documentary community with its use of “reenactments” and a rousing Philip Glass score. Decades before Netflix created “Making a Murderer” and “The Keepers,” Morris’ film actually solved a murder mystery and freed an innocent Death Row convict in a Texas prison.

With “My Psychedelic Love Story,” the mystery is why Leary abruptly agreed to cooperate with the FBI and was released from prison. Smith, who was accused by the likes of Alan Ginsberg of being a femme fatale Mata Hari, offers some answers, unreliable narrator though she may be. Using the multi-camera interview technique he pioneered on Netflix series “Wormwood,” Morris probes his charming subject, who shares colorful name-dropping tales of hobnobbing with the Rolling Stones and other counterculture stars. A great escape into an exotic past, the movie is packed with entertaining visuals, from animated tarot cards to movie clips, from Marlene Dietrich’s “The Blue Angel” to “Goldfinger.” Alas, Smith is no longer with us. Morris announced her recent death on Twitter on October 13. —AT

“Pink Skies Ahead”

Best-selling author and newly-minted filmmaker Kelly Oxford’s life has always been unorthodox — the former college dropout first drew attention from her disarmingly honest blogs, before making her way to Hollywood to work in TV and film alongside finding the time to pen two winning semi-auto-biographical books — which makes it sort of perfect for the cinematic treatment. That’s exactly what Oxford did for her directorial debut, which she also wrote from her own experience.

The film follows an Oxford surrogate (Jessica Barden) who struggles with an anxiety disorder after dropping out of college. Oxford’s debut attracted a litany of rising talent, from Barden to co-stars Rosa Salazar, Odeya Rush, Lewis Pullman, and Devon Bostick, in addition to some mega-watt big names like Michael McKean, Marcia Gay Harden, Henry Winkler, and Mary J. Blige. The film was originally set to bow at SXSW in March, and now finally makes it debut during the first weekend of Oxford’s own adopted hometown’s marquee festival. —KE

“The Reagans”

Documentarian Matt Tyranauer has profiled everyone from Valentino to Scotty Bowers, but it’s his last feature-length undertaking — “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” — that suggests he’s the ideal fit for this for this four-part Showtime series, which revisits another ‘80s political figure whose outsized influence shaped American society throughout the decade. There may be no better moment to explore how Hollywood star Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy pivoted to politics and eventually stormed the White House, hiding behind the mystique of their celebrity while informing the future of the Republican Party for decades to come. The first president to actually utter the words “Make America Great Again” was a lot harder to read on the surface than the next guy, and while many Americans may think they have the Reagans figured out, the darker side of their story — from dirty campaigns to misinformation — remains untold.

“The Reagans” arrives as America confronts their legacy in a whole new light. AFI FEST presents the first half of the miniseries with a blend of bountiful archival footage and recent interviews. It’s a mythology overdue for further investigation, both to improve this country’s understanding of its history and to ensure it doesn’t keep making the same mistakes with its leadership. —EK

“Shadow in the Cloud”

TIFF

“Shadow in the Cloud”

Built around enough wild concepts that it sounds a bit like a Hollywood pitch meeting gone seriously off the rails — it’s a creature feature! set on a World War II B-17! filled with misogynist soldiers! and the star is a badass woman! the soundtrack is synth-heavy! — the craziest part about Roseanne Liang’s nutso “Shadow in the Cloud” is that she very nearly pulls the whole thing off. Bolstered by a go-for-broke performance by star Chloë Grace Moretz and an energy that never relents (even in the face of things like “logic” and “physics” and “common sense”), “Shadow in the Cloud” is the most bonkers mash-up of monster movie and World War II drama since, well, at least this year. (The sub-genre is fertile, to put it mildly.)

What Liang and Moretz inject into it, however, is a feminist-leaning freshness that does feel original, even in such a crowded field. Audiences willing and able to lean into its special brand of wacky horror will likely enjoy it best (once you accept the possibility of flying gremlins, it’s easy to imagine that the rest will go down smoothly too), but Liang also keeps a steady tension running throughout its slim 83 minute running time that should appeal to even hardened horror and action fans. —KE

“There Is No Evil”

Iranian auteur Mohammad Rasolouf’s epic anthology film won the Golden Bear at Berlinale earlier this year, but now’s the time for American audiences to embrace it. Rasolouf’s films have often dealt with the everyday challenges of dealing with Iran’s despotic regime, but “There Is No Evil” expands that approach into an astonishing quartet of stories, each of which take unexpected turns that result in an overall unclassifiable narrative experience.

From an executioner who deals with bland domestic issues to a nervous military man who escapes his violent duty, the movie explores how Iranian society imposes harrowing expectations on the people forced to enlist, but never accounts for the human factor. Rasolouf responds by magnifying just that. It’s a movie that asks, “What would you do?” by way of implication, then lets a series of hypotheticals take that journey. By turns thrilling, tragic, and hopeful, “There Is No Evil” is the crowning achievement from a filmmaker whose work only gets more consequential with time. —EK

“Tragic Jungle”

Like a hot, hazy, afternoon fever dream, Yulene Olaizola’s 1920s-era colonial allegory “Tragic Jungle” teems with the humidity of the Mayan rainforest, and thrums with the comings and goings of its people and creatures. After a Belizean woman, Agnes (Indira Andrewin), tries to evade her white British captors after a harrowing river journey, her adventure deep into the jungle yields strange encounters with its inhabitants, all of whom are haunted by a mythical spirit bent on vengeance on those who’ve ravaged the land.

Set along the Central American Hondo River, “Tragic Jungle” is an immersive experience that, thanks to sultry images by cinematographer Sofia Oggioni, makes the viewer as much a stranger in a strange land as its wandering and determined-to-survive protagonist. —RL

“Wander Darkly”

Since her stellar turn in 2019’s underseen “American Woman,” Sienna Miller has been quietly mounting a renaissance as an ambitious actor deserving of more than the put-upon wife roles she was handed in films like “American Sniper” and “Foxcatcher.” Tara Miele’s darkly surreal romance “Wander Darkly” offers another showcase for Miller as a woman haunted by trauma after a violent accident involving her partner Mateo (Diego Luna) that throws the pair down a rabbit hole best left unspoiled. Parallel realities emerge and timelines distort as Miller’s Adrienne becomes haunted by death on every corner of a metaphysical journey, all buoyed by Miller and Luna’s chemistry. The film takes ambitious leaps that will alienate as many viewers as it entrances. —RL

Wolfwalkers

“Wolfwalkers”

Apple

“Wolfwalkers”

With “Wolfwalkers” — the last installment of Cartoon Saloon’s informal trilogy of films about Irish folklore — the Irish animation studio behind “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea” has finally realized its full potential. Far and away the best animated feature of the year so far (even though “Soul” looms on the horizon), this heartfelt tale of love and loss is the most visually enchanting feature its studio has made thus far, as well as the most poignant. Set in the same county of Kilkenny where Cartoon Saloon would set up shop almost 400 years later, this 17th century saga winds the clock back to the year 1650, when English general Oliver Cromwell was invading Ireland on a mission to “tame” the natives and annihilate the Catholic Church. That mission doesn’t sit well with the widower (Sean Bean) tasked with hunting the local wolf population, nor his plucky young daughter, who magically becomes a part of it.

And so begins a hand-drawn epic that captures the power of “Princess Mononoke,” and makes it a bit more palatable for a younger crowd. Heartfelt and gorgeously animated, “Wolfwakers” finds new beauty in ancient traditions; it’s a film that fights back against the temptation to surrender what little magic this world still has left, and fulfills Cartoon Saloon’s promise along the way. —DE

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