Hollywood Reporter Critics' Picks: 20 Best Films From the Toronto and Venice Festivals

12:00 PM 9/19/2020

by David Rooney, Jordan Mintzer, Deborah Young, Stephen Dalton, Sheri Linden, and Boyd van Hoeij

Career highs from Frances McDormand and Kate Winslet, a new Spike Lee joint, Regina King's feature directorial debut and gems from Greece, Iran, Japan and Ivory Coast are among favorites.

Best of the Fall Fests
Courtesy Photos

'Sun Children, David Byrne's 'American Utopia,' 'Ammonite, 'Nomadland,' 'Apples'

  • '76 Days' (Toronto)

    Filmed at four hospitals in Wuhan, China, during the first months of the COVID-19 lockdown, this documentary from U.S.-based director Hao Wu and two reporters he's never met in person, Weixi Chen and a journalist-filmmaker who has chosen to go unnamed, puts viewers in the eye of the medical storm. An emotional-wringer group portrait, it doesn’t have time for talking heads or long-view commentary; 76 Days is a work of true direct cinema, and its specifics make it — to use an overused word — unprecedented. — SHERI LINDEN

  • 'Ammonite' (Toronto)

    Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan play emotionally isolated mid-19th century British women of different classes opening themselves up to passion in Francis Lee’s (God’s Own Country) exquisite, transfixingly quiet drama. This is the work of a filmmaker in full command of his voice, yielding remarkable performances — especially Winslet’s complex study of stoicism and desire, possibly the best turn of her career. — DAVID ROONEY

  • 'Apples' (Venice, Toronto)

    Debuting Greek director Christos Nikou creates an arresting account of one man’s efforts to reprogram himself in a society afflicted by viral amnesia. Somber and surreal, this is a haunting, meticulously crafted movie with a wonderful central performance by Aris Servetalis, who seems affectless but uncovers layers of feeling. — D.R.

  • 'City Hall' (Venice, Toronto)

    At a time when America seems to be tearing apart at the seams, there’s something deeply inspiring about the new doc from Frederick Wiseman, which chronicles municipal life in his hometown of Boston. Like the director’s 2015 In Jackson Heights, it’s a methodical, stirring paean to a place where folks from all backgrounds get together and make things happen. — JORDAN MINTZER

  • David Byrne's 'American Utopia' (Toronto)

    Spike Lee captures a performance from the smash Broadway run of this exhilarating hymn to community and connection from the former Talking Heads frontman and his troupe. Set to debut Oct. 17 on HBO and HBO Max where it should become a repeat-viewing staple — this is an immersive movie experience equal to its illustrious predecessor, Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Stop Making Sense. — D.R.

  • 'Dear Comrades' (Venice)

    Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky’s chilling Special Jury prize-winning drama revisits a 1962 Soviet massacre of striking factory workers that becomes the turning point in the life of a 40-year-old apparatchik (a gripping Julia Vysotskaya). The story may seem far from contemporary interests, but it has surprising resonance with today’s political struggles. — DEBORAH YOUNG

  • 'Honey Cigar' (Venice)

    Kamir Ainouz (half-sister of Invisible Life filmmaker Karim Ainouz) makes an auspicious directorial debut with this well-acted, intimate coming-of-ager about a young woman living between countries and cultures, adolescence and adulthood. Most of the film unspools in 1993 Paris and its suburbs, tracing the sentimental, sexual and formal education of 17-year-old Selma (played by Zoe Adjani, niece of French acting queen Isabelle Adjani), born in France to Algerian parents. Call Me By Your Name’s Amira Casar is a joy as the protagonist’s mother. — BOYD VAN HOEIJ

  • 'Hopper/Welles' (Venice)

    A conversation between Orson Welles and Dennis Hopper, filmed in 1970, has been digitally restored and shaped into a feature. What unfolds is a match of intellects, thrilling not just for its array of topics — religion, the Oedipal complex, revolution, what it means to be a filmmaker — but also for its unveiling after half a century gathering cobwebs in Welles’ celluloid archives. — S.L.

  • 'Limbo' (Toronto)

    No man is an island in this comic drama about a group of refugees stranded in a remote Scottish town. Building on the promise of his debut, Pikadero (2016), writer-director Ben Sharrock displays a winning flair for observational detail and minor-key mirth in his warmhearted second feature, whose deadpan tone invites comparison to Aki Kaurismaki or Jim Jarmusch. — STEPHEN DALTON

  • 'Monday' (Toronto)

    Sebastian Stan and Denise Gough, both intense and committed, star as young-ish Americans in love and living for the weekend in Athens in Argyris Papadimitropoulos' anti-rom-com. There will be viewers who recoil from these characters’ wild, exhibitionistic carnality and druggy hedonism. But many who’ve been in a relationship like this — the kind that starts to feel like a codependent bipolar disorder trapped on a rollercoaster — will relate to the film’s sensual, funny and above all honest look at amour fou. — LESLIE FELPERIN

  • 'My Tender Matador' (Venice)

    An aging drag queen (Chilean acting great Alfredo Castro) and a young radical (Leonardo Ortizgris) become unlikely bedfellows in mid-80s Santiago in Rodrigo Sepulveda’s very fine adaptation of the Pedro Lemebel novel. Some of the political and historical context — the story unfolds in the lead-up to the 1986 attempt on the life of Pinochet by the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front — has been eschewed in order to concentrate on the smaller, more moving chronicle of two outsiders who find themselves thrown together almost by accident. — B.V.H.

  • 'Never Gonna Snow Again' (Venice)

    In Malgorzata Szumowska’s film, co-directed with Michal Englert, emptiness and longing afflict residents of a wealthy gated community in Poland until a mysterious visitor (played with delicious ambiguity by Alec Utgoff) arrives, offering massages with his healing hands. The result is hypnotic — a work that pushes the envelope technically and thematically. — D.Y.

  • 'Night of the Kings' (Venice, Toronto)

    In the second feature from Ivorian filmmaker Philippe Lacote, an Abidjan prisoner is forced to invent a story that lasts until sunrise or face the consequences — like a modern-day Scheherazade. It’s a captivating, vivid hybrid of fairy tale and realism, enjoyable even for those without any knowledge of the country’s politics and history. — B.V.H.

  • 'Nomadland' (Venice, Toronto)

    In her Golden Lion winner, Chloé Zhao (The Rider) guides Frances McDormand to a remarkable performance of melancholy gravitas as a widow from a collapsed Nevada mining town who finds new life on the road. The star is so rigorously unmannered she’s indistinguishable from the real-life nomads with whom she shares the screen in this haunting, shatteringly eloquent character study. — D.R.

  • 'One Night in Miami' (Venice, Toronto)

    Regina King makes a stirring, confident feature directing debut in this adaptation of Kemp Powers’ 2013 play about a fictional 1964 hotel room gathering between friends Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). The towering turn that centers the strong quartet is British actor Ben-Adir’s quietly impassioned Malcolm. — D.R.

  • 'Quo Vadis, Aida' (Venice, Toronto)

    Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic’s harrowing, heartbreaking drama plunges the viewer into the horror of ethnic cleansing during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Seen through the eyes of a UN interpreter (Jasna Djuricic, mesmerizing), the film’s events unfold in 1995 in Srebrenica, where the Bosnian Serb army murdered more than 7,000 civilians and raped the town’s women. — D.Y.

  • 'Sun Children' (Venice)

    Iranian director Majid Majidi’s visually stunning and emotionally gripping film tells the story of street boys hired by a local crime boss to dig for a treasure. Centering on a clever, courageous 12-year-old protagonist (Roohollah Zamani), it succeeds both as entertainment and as a forceful condemnation of child labor and the inaccessibility of education for the poor. — D.Y.

  • 'Topside' (Venice)

    In this striking, sensitive debut from Celine Held and Logan George, a 5-yearold girl (Zhaila Farmer) and her troubled mother (Held) are forced from their home in an abandoned New York subway tunnel. The exceptional Farmer inhabits the center of this maelstrom with a preternatural, deeply affecting watchfulness. — S.L.

  • 'Wife of a Spy' (Venice)

    Winner of the fest’s best director prize, Kiyoshi Kurosawa delivers an absorbing, smartly paced period thriller in which a young Japanese wife on the eve of World War II discovers her businessman husband is intent on revealing Japan’s secrets to the Americans. What ensues is a tense and intriguing marital battle. — D.Y.

  • 'Wolfwalkers' (Toronto)

    This final installment in Tomm Moore’s animated Irish folklore trilogy — following 2009’s The Secret of Kells and 2014’s Song of the Sea — is a visually dazzling, richly imaginative, emotionally resonant production that taps into contemporary concerns while being true to its distant origins. Set against the 17th century backdrop of Oliver Cromwell’s colonization of Ireland, the film finds magic in the bleakness while tenderly weaving together themes of belonging, female empowerment, environmental preservation and religious persecution. — MICHAEL RECHTSHAFFEN