Under normal circumstances, the Fall festival season signals the beginning of the awards cycle in Hollywood. If you want to push your movie as an Oscar contender, then it benefits you to get it into one of the main film festivals of the season: Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York, or London. In the COVID-19 age, however, things are different. There are far fewer films to choose from, Telluride has been cancelled outright, and everyone else has gone digital for the time being. It’s a unique moment in pop culture history, to be sure, but it’s still one with many intriguing and exciting offerings sure to satisfy any movie lover or Academy member. With that in mind, here are the ten most anticipated films of the 2020 festival season.
Nomadland (Venice/New York/Toronto)
2020 was supposed to be a major year for director Chloe Zhao, who would be serving up audiences the ultimate double bill in the form of her tender indie drama Nomadland and the galaxy-busting Marvel epic Eternals. Alas, the latter has been delayed until next year but Nomadland now has pride of place as one of the crowning jewels of the fall season. The movie, which stars Frances McDormand as an older jobless woman who packs up her life and travels the country in a campervan looking for work, is headlining all three of the major festivals. Even in this bleak COVID-era period, Searchlight (under the rule of Disney) are pushing this film hard as their potential Oscar vehicle, and it’s not hard to see why.
Francis Lee made a huge splash with his beautiful romantic drama God’s Own Country and could do the same with Ammonite. Kate Winslet plays Mary Anning, a real-life fossil collector and pioneering paleontologist, who is tasked with looking after the grieving wife of a former colleague, only for their relationship to blossom into love. Much of the film’s early marketing has emphasized stylistic echoes with movies like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, with the trailer, as well as Winslet and co-star Saoirse Ronan, playing up its sexiness. Whatever the case, we know that audiences can seldom resist a buttoned-up historical drama with forbidden love and clandestine hand-holding.
The Father (Toronto)
Florian Zeller’s award-winning play The Father comes to the big screen with the writer himself making his directorial debut. In terms of good old-fashioned classic Oscar bait, this is the film that has awards season experts penciling in their early predictions, and it’s not hard to see why. Anthony Hopkins plays an elderly man with dementia while Olivia Colman stars as his carer daughter. The play, which many critics the world over deemed to be one of the best of the decade, is highly moving but also savagely funny, so if Zeller pulls off this English-language cinematic translation, The Father will be one to watch.
Another Round (Toronto)
There is no shortage of white male midlife crisis movies in the world, but Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s offering, Another Round, has a unique twist. Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen plays a disenfranchised teacher whose life has lost all meaning until his group of friends suggests a strange experiment: They should all try to maintain a certain level of drunkenness throughout their daily lives to achieve maximum happiness. Another Round was supposed to premiere at Cannes but will instead land in Toronto with a bang. Expect booze, laughs, and the uniquely tragic brand of melancholy that only Mads Mikkelsen can bring to life.
American Utopia (Toronto/New York)
The legendary David Byrne is no stranger to cinema. The Talking Heads concert documentary Stop Making Sense remains one of the true masterpieces of the genre. While his most recent Broadway show, American Utopia, was near-impossible to get tickets for during its run, director Spike Lee has done us all a favor by filming it for eternal preservation. Given how major a hit the live recording of Hamilton was on Disney+, American Utopia could lead to similar magic for the streaming service it calls home, HBO Max, after it opens at TIFF.
Concrete Cowboy (Toronto)
Idris Elba makes his comeback after Cats on a horse with Concrete Cowboy, the directorial debut of Ricky Staub. Elba will play the estranged father of a teenage boy, played by Caleb McLaughlin of Stranger Things fame, whose reunion is forged through a combined love of urban horseback riding. While the story is fictional, the riding club depicted in Concrete Cowboy - the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club - is very real and part of a proud tradition in Philadelphia's Black community.
One Night in Miami (Venice/Toronto)
There are a number of high-profile actors making their directorial debuts this festival season. Halle Berry cast herself as an MMA fighter trying to scrape her way back to the top in Bruised while Viggo Mortensen also headlines a talented cast in the family drama Falling. The most exciting movie of this bunch, however, is One Night in Miami, courtesy of this year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winner, Regina King. The historical drama imagines a meeting between four of the 1960s’ most iconic Black men: Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Malcolm X.
I Am Greta (Toronto)
In August 2018, a Swedish teenager called Greta Thunberg started a school strike to protest the world's inaction over the climate crisis. In the space of less than a year, she became the figurehead for an entire generation's global movement in the face of an environmental catastrophe and inspired absurd levels of hatred from climate change deniers as well as Donald Trump himself. I Am Greta promises an extensive documentation of her much-covered mission and a reminder of exactly what's at stake during this torrid period in human history.
On the Rocks (New York)
Sofia Coppola’s latest film is a dramedy about a woman (Rashida Jones) who fears her husband is cheating on her and enlists her playboy father (Bill Murray) to help investigate the situation. A new film from one of our era's most prominent female directors is always appreciated, and On the Rocks could be a particularly interesting addition to the festival season. Not only does it carry the indie prestige of lauded distributors A24, but it's the company's first cinematic collaboration with Apple, with whom they entered into a multi-year agreement to produce an array of original movies for their growing streaming platform. In a season where most streaming films are sitting out the festival cycle, On the Rocks could be a unique entity.
MLK/FBI (Toronto/New York)
Sam Pollard may be best known to some for his work as editor on various Spike Lee movies but he's also the director behind several startling documentaries, including Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me and Why We Hate. His latest effort leaps head-first into Martin Luther King Jr.'s many battles with the FBI, which mounted various surveillance and harassment campaigns against the civil rights leader. MLK/FBI promises a deep dive into the blackmail attempts leveled at King by J. Edgar Hoover's team, with the film utilizing a blend of archival footage and interviews with many of King's surviving peers.
Honorable Mention: The Human Voice (New York)
Short films seldom garner major attention at the fall festivals, but The Human Voice may prove to be an exception to that rule. How could any movie lover resist the combination of Pedro Almodóvar and Tilda Swinton? The Spanish Oscar-winning legend makes his English-language debut here, with Swinton taking on the lead in a reimagining of Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play of the same name.
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