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NYFF 2020 Highlights | Making Film Fests Look Good Amid A Pandemic

I know we’re all tired of hearing it but what a strange year it has been. We’ve all felt the impact; individuals, businesses, bank accounts and, of course, the world of film festivals. 2020 has been relentless on the festival circuit causing numerous festivals earlier in the year to cancel their event and slate of films, as happened with Cannes and SXSW. As if this wasn’t painful enough for cinephiles, much of the selection of films expected to release this year began vanishing from the calendar and finding a new home next year while some persisted, opting instead to test the shaky waters that have been the latter months of the year. Week to week the landscape of releases changes, making it challenging for the industry as a whole.

As difficult as it’s been, New York Film Festival (NYFF), along with TIFF and some others, decided to stick it out and proceed with the festival come hell or highwater. This, of course, did not come without a cost as the selection of films seemed ever thinning and the outcome of the fetival was up in the air considering the state of the world and the restrictions because of it.

This is NYFF’s 58th year but, in many ways, I imagine this feels like the first. Nothing is the same. Not the number of films nor the format. The paggentry of the red carpet and the opportunity to rub elbows with people of import, or even just like minded people, was out the window as well. NYFF58 will, for many, be defined by zoom meetings, sweatpants, pony tails, no shoes and NO SHAVE! Honestly, this iteration of the fest could be its own thing. NYFFComfy-Cozy. Next year we’d go back to 58 if the world is back to normal, if not its NYFFCC2. Probably a bit late but…

All things considered this year’s festival has been handled surprisingly well, making it clear it’s being run by experience. Communication has been effective, meetings and press conferences well planned, and the film selection diverse and interesting. No one will walk away saying they didn’t miss the traditional format but, considering the world is falling apart, no one will say it was anywhere near a dud. Quite the opposite because, apart from the lack of app that would have made screening easier, everything came together to bring us what we’ve been craving: new visuals stories worth storming the socials over.

It is undeniable that there is an incredible selection of films this year despite the challenges. Films from all over the world in one place for our streaming pleasure. Something for everyone just about everywhere. I want to highlight a few that stood out among the rest for us here at MRF but stand assured we will be bringing you more reviews and feedback as the festival runs its course.

Lovers Rock

Amarah-Jae St. Aubin & Michael Ward in Lovers Rock

Among one of the most discussed films early on, Steve McQueens second entry into the Small Axe anthology film series depicts a night in the life of oppressed Caribbean immigrants trying to enjoy each others company away from the fears of their everyday lives. Witnessing the happenings of a house party is unique from the outside, especially for those who have never experienced one themselves.

What this film lacks in narrative storytelling it makes up for in imagery and theme. Depicting the beauty of black skin, the eclectic sense of the music and personalities highlighted, and the ingenuity of people desperate to escape their situations. What it does best of all, within the more intimate moments above all, is depict the islanders in a light that the fairer skinned population was never able see them in– As human beings… with all the complexities, emotions, passions, and frustrations we all have.

Nomadland

Frances McDormand in Nomadland

Chloe Zhao‘s latest project is one that has already and will continue to promote conversations moving forward. A beautiful depiction of a side of America we rarely see, the film stars Frances McDormand as Fern. A baby boomer living a nomadic lifestyle and struggling with stability after losing her husband and her town, Empire, Nevada.

Using her as a guide, Zhao allows us to explore a world unknown to most. A world of poverty, loss, minimalism, and freedom we have never quite experienced like this before. Much like Chef’s Table did for me and docs, Nomadland has done for me and “in-the-life-of” tales. One to catch if you get the opportunity to.

Night of the Kings

Bakary Kone in Night of the Kings

A film sent to us from the Ivory Coast, Night of the Kings is a gorgeous piece of cinema that tells the tale of of a young man arriving at a prison run by its inmates who is chosen as “Roman”, the storyteller. Borrowing elements of Arabian Nights, he must tell a story to the entirety of the inmates throughout the night. As with most things, there’s more than meets the eye to this request.

Our director, Phillipe Lacote, paints a beautiful picture of of tradition and of the human inability to accept one’s end. The film truly grips you from the first frame and doesn’t let go ’till the last. Recently acquired by NEON, you can expect to see the film making an appearance in select theaters sometime in the near future. A definite contender in the International Feature category at the Oscars this coming year.

The Monopoly of Violence

The Monopoly of Violence

Easily one of the more difficult and powerful viewings of the fest. I can’t say I didn’t know what I was walking into because I did. TMV is a doc where a number of French citizens bravely choose to confront their views on the use of violent police force and how it pertains to social order. They do so by watching very real footage of police force in protests that took place in France between 2018-2020. Often, the footage features the subjects of the doc. Often, the person they discuss the issues with is in opposition of their beliefs. Often… the footage brought them to tears as it will to many viewers at home.

David Dufresne is our director. One thing that stood out about this doc is that, though we are constantly hearing voiceovers of people discussing what we are seeing, we very solemnly see them. We don’t get those typical interview style shots you tend to see in documentaries. Those come in moments that must be seen and experienced so when they come they draw you in and you can’t help but pay attention.

Mangrove

Rochenda Sandall in Mangrove

This is the second film from Steve McQueen‘s Small Axe series to be featured at NYFF. It is a powerful film about oppression, injustice, and the will to fight for your human rights to community & life free of persecution. Relevant: it feels like it was written to be a commentary on the current social climate of America, but guess what. It doesn’t take place in the US! It tells the true story of The Mangrove 9, a group of West Indie immigrants living in the heart of Notting Hill who are arrested for protesting the abuse and oppression the Metropolitan Police subjected them to for years.

The Mangrove restaurant serves as the center of our story. The most important “character”, I would argue. Through this restaurant and the community who calls it home, McQueen is able to depict love, unity and compassion all while showing us his passion for this group of people he clearly cares for. Not only Steve McQueen’s best film to date but one of the best films of the year hands down.

MLK/FBI

Martin Luther King Jr. in MLK/FIB

Another timely release adding to the world’s current climate, MLK/FBI is a documentary from director Sam Pollard that depicts the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. as they attempted to gather information and damning evidence that would bring about the fall of MLK and Civil Right’s movement along with him. As James Comey, one of those interviewed in the doc, would put it “I think this entire episode represents the darkest part of the bureau’s history.”

An engaging documentary that explains much about the history of the FBI and of some of their less savory practices throughout the years. One of the years best docs.

There’s still much to come from the slate at this year’s New York Film Festival but I wanted to do a mid-point update. Make sure to check back in so you can stay up to date with all the happenings at the festival as we approach its climax!

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By Raul Navedo

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