20 Must-See Films at the 2020 Venice, Toronto, and New York Film Festivals

It’s an all-too-familiar refrain by now: this year’s festival season is going to look a little different than years past. While autumn at the movies still signals the arrival of a glut of hotly anticipated features, movies seemingly destined for awards glory, and first looks at films that have been chattered about for entire years, 2020 will always come with an asterisk.

And so does IndieWire’s annual look at some of the most exciting new films of the season, this year rolling out in one singular package, all the better to highlight a curated crop of the best films arriving at Venice, Toronto, and New York. With a reduced lineup this year — due to some films having to pause in the middle of production, and other finished features opting to wait until 2021 to get the usual festival bells and whistles — many festivals are showing significantly fewer titles, and many of the biggest titles will be screening at all three festivals.

Some festivals are not happening at all (including Telluride, which followed in Cannes’ footsteps and cancelled its physical edition but named the titles that would have made its ranks), while others are unfolding as carefully crafted live events (like Venice, poised to be the first major film event in months to do just that). Others, including TIFF and NYFF, are attempting to launch festivals that utilize major virtual platforms and safety-minded in-person screenings and events.

So, yes, this year’s festival season will look very different. One thing, however, remains the same: many thrilling new films to look forward to seeing (whenever, and however, that might be). As possible and safe, we will be covering the fall festivals, thanks to both international contributors and a cadre of U.S.-based staff who have become (perhaps too) comfortable with working from home. Ahead, IndieWire picks through the Venice (September 2 – 12), TIFF (September 10 – 20), and NYFF (September 17 – October 11) slates to highlight the best of the best.

“76 Days” (Toronto)

Co-directed by two China-based journalists (Weixi Chen and someone who remains anonymous for their safety) along with New York filmmaker Hao Wu (whose “People’s Republic of Desire” remains one of the best documentaries about the dystopian future of live-streaming), “76 Days” offers an uncensored, ground-level portrait of the COVID-19 outbreak from inside the heart of Wuhan.

Less attuned to the Chinese government’s response to the virus than it is to the outbreak’s devastating impact on the first people found themselves in its path, “76 Days” will introduce viewers to a pregnant woman who awaits the birth of her first child, a senile grandfather who can’t remember his way home, and so many others as they scramble for life amidst an unprecedented lockdown. There will be many documentaries about this ongoing epidemic, several of which will likely be released before an end to the crisis is even in sight, but few are poised to offer such a lucid and lingering view of the toll the virus has taken. —DE


"Ammonite"

“Ammonite”

See-Saw Films

“Ammonite” (Toronto)

That Francis Lee’s much-hyped romantic drama looks so much like Celine Sciamma’s lush “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” — all those windswept beaches, all those longing looks, all those almost handholds!! — is obvious, but what’s less clear is how all those similarities are actually a good thing. If two’s a trend, then we’re already deep into the next wave of aching period-set lesbian romances, and that’s a far better state of being than, oh, being deep into the next wave of things-go-boom, robots-yell-a-lot actioners that seem more likely to drive the box office bucks.

Starring Oscar winner Kate Winslet as famed British paleontologist Mary Anning (whose real-life sexuality has already been the subject of much debate, expect that to only heat up as the season winds on), the “God’s Own Country” filmmaker cast four-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan as Mary’s foil and eventual love interest, Charlotte Murchison. Like “Portrait,” the film imagines two seemingly different women thrown together by circumstance in a location that handily approximates the end of the world. What they discover goes beyond art or science, transforming into a forbidden obsession that has no place in their society (again: all those almost handholds).

The film’s first trailer and attendant press have played up its sexy side, while also indicating a true desire by Lee and his leading ladies to bring real intimacy to the big screen. That should always be in style. —KE

“City Hall” (Venice, Toronto, New York)

The indomitable Frederick Wiseman will next apply his singular lens to city bureaucracy — Boston’s, no less. “City Hall” follows the inner workings of the Boston government, from climate change action to racial justice to housing policy and homelessness. In his statement about the film, Wiseman takes a characteristically neutral approach to his unwieldy subject, emphasizing the interconnectedness of city life and the services a city government can provide. “The Boston city government is designed and strives to offer these services in a manner consistent with the Constitution and democratic norms,” he writes.

It’s hard to think of a better city to represent a snapshot of American governance than Boston, and Wiseman is the undisputed auteur of American institutions. With the most important election of our lifetime approaching, it’s the perfect time for art to help illuminate what government can actually do for people. —JD

“Concrete Cowboy” (Toronto)

Did somebody say Idris Elba on a horse? The veteran actor will saddle up for a Philadelphia-set Western, where he’ll play opposite “Stranger Things” favorite Caleb McLoughlin. The pair star as an estranged father and son who become reunited, connecting over the world of urban horseback riding. The feature debut of Philadelphia native Ricky Staub, “Concrete Cowboy” is based on the novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” by G Neri. The story is fictional, but the riding club depicted is not — the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club is part of a long tradition of urban horseback riding in Philadelphia’s Black community. The stacked cast also includes Jharrel Jerome (“When They See Us”), Lorraine Toussaint (“Selma”), comedian Byron Bowers, and Method Man. —JD


"American Utopia"

“American Utopia”

HBO

“David Byrne’s American Utopia” (Toronto)

After the success of “Springsteen on Broadway” on Netflix and “Hamilton” on Disney+, it seems like streaming might become a kind of forever home for Broadway productions after their theatrical runs — you know, the way it’s supposed to work for movies. But with the lights turned off on the Great White Way for at least the rest of the year due to a deadly pandemic (you may have heard about it), certain shows might be coming home ahead of schedule. In the case of “American Utopia,” it can’t arrive on HBO Max soon enough.

A euphoric revue of the best songs that David Byrne has ever written during his long career as a solo artist and frontman of Talking Heads (“Psycho Killer,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Road to Nowhere,” etc.), the Broadway show was a shot in the arm before people realized how badly we could need one. And lucky for us, Spike Lee was there to capture it on camera, and with a visceral immediacy that promises to let all of us share the best seat in the house. Whether “Stop Making Sense” is burned into your brain or you only know Byrne as the white-haired guy who cut that one album with St. Vincent, “American Utopia” is sure to be the brightest, warmest, danciest ray of light you’ll find on a screen this fall. —DE

“The Disciple” (Venice, Toronto, New York)

The first Indian film in Venice competition in decades (and among the first in the NYFF main slate), Chaitanya Tamhane’s second feature is loaded with potential. The filmmaker’s sophomore effort follows “Court,” a gripping and austere look at his country’s broken justice system. Here, he turns to the story of a classical musical vocalist who faces personal hurdles as the modern world threatens the future of his profession.

That concept holds plenty of appeal on its own, but “The Disciple” is especially promising because its filmmaker has established himself as a rigid formalist whose use of cinematic language can take any number of immersive and surprising directions. Needless to say, it’s no surprise that avowed “Court” fan Alfonso Cuaron has signed on to the project as an executive producer. Tamhane is already a world-class director, and “The Disciple” reportedly has such delicate shot composition and editing that anyone who values the art form is likely to be impressed with the director’s ability to juggle its strengths. In a strange year for festival buzz with fewer flashier English-language titles, this cinephile treat has a good shot at standing out. Bring it on. —EK

“French Exit” (New York)

Adapted from Patrick DeWitt’s absurdist novel of the same name and borrowing its title from an expression for leaving a party announced (a Gallic variation on the “Irish goodbye”), “French Exit” has rather fittingly been slated to end the most low-key New York Film Festival this town has ever seen. And it’s a New York story to the core, as this sharp and unsparing comedy-esque affair follows the misadventures of one Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), a suddenly penniless widow sells everything she owns and sails to Paris with her son (Lucas Hedges) and their talking cat (Tracy Letts, duh). Friendships, reconciliations, and spiritual possessions ensue, a shrewd jumble of arch familial nonsense that director Azazel Jacobs (“The Lovers,” “Terri”) should be able to navigate as well as anyone. —DE

“I Carry You with Me” (New York)

Prolific documentarian Heidi Ewing makes her solo directorial narrative debut with a bittersweet gay romance seen through the eyes of one aspiring chef’s decision to cross the border from Mexico to the United States. The drama received warm reviews out of its Sundance premiere, where it bowed earlier this year in the genre-bending and forward-looking NEXT section. Ewing wrote the screenplay with Alan Page Arriaga, and the duo tackles this American Dream story through the fertile soil of food ethnography.

The film was shot by rising Mexican cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez, who has racked up more than two dozen films to his name since 2010. The film was originally meant to be a vérité portrait of this epic love story, but over years of interviews, Ewing realized she had the makings of a powerful narrative. While the hybrid elements may not make for the smoothest transition, the experimental nature makes this an exciting debut. —JD


"Mainstream"

“Mainstream”

American Zoetrope

“Mainstream” (Venice)

Combining the gauziness of her aunt Sofia’s films with a nuance and sensitivity all her own, Gia Coppola did the family name proud with her 2014 debut “Palo Alto,” which holds up as one of this century’s best movies about being young in America. Coppola’s long-awaited second feature finds her reteaming with key collaborators (like musician Dev Hynes and cinematographer Autumn Durald) for a major swing for the fences: An original film that marries the snowballing narcissism of Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” with the ubiquitous self-love of the social media era.

Maya Hawke, in her first leading role, stars as a grieving bartender whose rant against the content-ification of the world goes viral after she meets a man named Link (Andrew Garfield). Alas, the two strangers — along with a third character played by “Palo Alto” alum Nat Wolff — can only enjoy their fame for so long before they find themselves in the crosshairs of Jason Schwartzman’s corporate villain. We can’t wait to see what the “Mainstream” looks like through Coppola’s eyes. —DE

“Miss Marx” (Venice)

Over the course of two decades behind the camera, Italian filmmaker Susanna Nicchiarelli has made complicated women her signature, moving from off-kilter coming-of-age tales like “Cosmonaut” to her beloved biopic “Nico, 1988.” Her next project appears to be a culmination of her cinematic obsessions: a fact-based drama about the life of Karl Marx’s whipsmart daughter Eleanor Marx that isn’t beholden to traditional biopic trappings. When the film’s rights sold at last year’ Cannes, Screen reported that Nicchiarelli would rely on “the insertion of period photographs and footage, the ironic use of contemporary music, and a minimalist aesthetic for clothing and furnishing” to subvert the usual genre trappings.

No matter her method of telling the story, the Romola Garai-starring film has plenty of real-life drama to pull from. Eleanor was a socialist activist with her own big ideas about how the world (and the government) should work. Despite her formidable intellect, her personal life was fraught, and she was often at the mercy of her cruel long-time partner Edward Aveling (played by Patrick Kennedy). Niccharelli has been a longtime favorite of Venice, and seems poised to take the next step in the international arena. —KE

“MLK/FBI” (Toronto, New York)

Sam Pollard is best known as an editor on some of Spike Lee’s most treasured films, from “Mo’ Better Blues” to “Bamboozled,” but he’s also crafted a substantial filmography of his own with historical documentaries such as “Slavery By Another Name” and “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me.” He adds to that substantial oeuvre with this very timely look back on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights battles and how they lead to relentless surveillance and harassment efforts by J. Edgar Hoover’s intelligence agency. It’s no secret that Hoover’s team did everything in their power to besmirch King’s name, including wiretapping efforts that revealed his extramarital affairs and blackmail attempts that failed to dampen King’s impact.

The movie promises an engaging blend of archival footage and contemporary interviews with some of King’s surviving peers certain to resurrect conversations about ruthless efforts by the U.S. government to diminish the impact of Black progress in America. Released to the world in the wake of George Floyd protests, the subject is certain to find a receptive audience eager to dissect just how much King’s story remains relevant and inspiring to this day. —EK

“New Order” (Venice, Toronto)

Mexican director Michel Franco’s unrelenting, tightly bottled dramas have ranged from Haneke-level horrific and effective (the cautionary after-school-special-gone-wrong “After Lucia”) to stiff and dull even despite a major star (“Chronic” with Tim Roth as an end-of-life caretaker). Returning to his native roots, Franco takes on the dystopian drama with what Venice Film Festival director Alberto Barbara calls “Franco’s most ambitious and darkest film yet,” “New Order.”

An extremely tense first teaser suggests something is very wrong here, as a wedding is interrupted by foreboding-looking, and most certainly unwelcome, gun-toting guests. “New Order” is told through the eyes of the bride and the servants working for, and evidently also against, her affluent family amid a collapsing political system. —RL


"One Night in Miami"

“One Night in Miami”

Amazon

“One Night in Miami” (Venice, Toronto)

Somehow, Oscar-winning actress Regina King finds the time. Lauded on screens both big and small, King has also spent the past seven years building up an enviable assortment of directing credits, including episodes of “Animal Kingdom,” “Insecure,” and “This Is Us,” among others, and now makes the jump to feature filmmaking with a banger of debut, which has already been picked up by Amazon in advance of its festival premieres.

“One Night in Miami” doesn’t just have an enviable cast in front of the camera (including Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Michael Imperioli, and Beau Bridges), but she’s picked them to lead a story about some of the biggest names to ever grace this Earth. Set on February 25, 1964 in the aftermath of Cassius Clay (Goree) defeating Sonny Liston for the title of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion at the Miami Beach Convention Center, the film unspools to follow Clay and his closest friends — activist Malcolm X (Ben-Adir), singer Sam Cooke (Odom), and football star Jim Brown (Hodge) — as they celebrate the momentous evening. Talk about a meeting of the minds, and with King guiding her cast through a story that sounds too fantastic to believe and too important to forget, it promises to be one of the most thrilling films of the season. —KE

“Pieces of a Woman” (Venice, Toronto)

Thrice a Cannes Palme d’Or contender for his films “Jupiter’s Moon,” “White God,” and “Delta,” Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó returns with the English-language “Pieces of a Woman.” And oh what a cast! Shia LaBeouf, returning to screens just a few weeks after his miscalculated turn in David Ayer’s “The Tax Collector,” and Vanessa Kirby star as lovers who meet across a sharp class divide (she’s an executive and he’s a construction worker). But they soon find themselves navigating extreme loss after the death of their first child after complications with a midwife, played by Molly Parker. Ellen Burstyn co-stars as Kirby’s mother in this intense movie reminiscent of 1970s American dramas. Collaborating once again with screenwriter Kata Wéber, Mundruczó worked in North America for the first time with this film. —RL

“Saint Narcisse” (Venice)

Canadian New Queer Cinema iconoclast Bruce LaBruce has been turning out sexy, unsettling features and photography for three decades, reveling in the underbellies of every sexual subculture under the sun, from amputee fetishism and BDSM, to zombie sexuality and gerontophilia. His latest movie is no differently subversive or more shocking, exploring the twin fetishism that’s become an icky staple of gay pornography.

Closing out the Venice Days program, the 1972-set “Saint-Narcisse” follows a 22-year-old with a fetish for…himself. Upon discovering he has a twin brother, Dominic embarks on a strange odyssey of sexual depravity, revenge, and redemption, especially once he learns his mother didn’t actually die in childbirth. Newcomer Felix-Antoine Duval plays the undeniably hunky twins. —RL

“Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams” (Venice)

Luca Guadagnino applies his lush lens to the life of legendary Italian shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo. The filmmaker’s first documentary was written by the fashion journalist Dana Thomas, and charts Ferragamo’s life from learning shoemaking as a young child to landing in Hollywood as a shoe designer on films like “The Thief of Baghdad” and stars like Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. The film is narrated by “Call Me by Your Name” star Michael Stuhlbarg, and includes interviews with, among other luminaries, no less than Martin Scorsese. This towering figure of Italian fashion gets the star treatment from one of Italy’s premier filmmakers, and the results are sure to be dripping with style. —JD

“Summer of 85” (Toronto)

“Call Me by Your” what now? François Ozon’s new film “Summer of 85” looks to be the gay summer-of-love story to end them all. The queer romance, set in 1985, boasts a killer soundtrack including The Cure and Bananarama, gorgeous cinematography, a coastal setting, striped T-shirts, and, of course, a beautiful cast, led by French cinema favorites Félix Lefebvre, Benjamin Voisin, Philippine Velge, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, Melvil Poupaud, and Isabelle Nanty. Set against the glistening backdrop of seaside Normandy, the film tracks the friendship-turned-romance between two teenage boys, whose relationship is complicated by the arrival of another new friend. It’s based on the novel by Aidan Chambers. —RL

“Tragic Jungle” (Venice, New York)

Lauded Mexican filmmaker Yulene Olaizola’s latest feature boasts the kind of synopsis that only gets more intriguing and hard to fathom with each subsequent word. And if it sounds unpredictable on paper, we can’t wait to see how that looks on film. Per said official synopsis, the film is set in “1920, on the border between Mexico and Belize. Deep in the Mayan jungle, a lawless territory where myths abound, a group of Mexican gum workers cross paths with Agnes, a mysterious young Belizean woman. Her presence incites tension among the men, arousing their fantasies and desires. Filled with new vigor, they face their destiny, without knowing that they have woken up Xtabay, a legendary being that lurks in the heart of the jungle.”

We were already sold long before the introduction of Xtabay, but that might be the film’s best trick (or, at least, a clever way to obscure what’s really going on here), as other official materials hint that we already know Xtabay, long before he (or she?) makes himself plain. Early casting calls hinted at a film filled with “mysterious fatalities” and deep roots in local mythology, a thrilling combination ripe for examination. —KE


“Nomadland”

Searchlight Pictures

“Nomadland” (Venice, Toronto, New York)

In 2017, Chloe Zhao’s poetic cowboy drama “The Rider” become the surprise festival hit that kept hitting, as the industry chased after a filmmaker with a keen eye for rooting complex characters in an authentic milieu. It remains to be seen how well that sensibility will manifest in Marvel’s “Eternals,” but in the meantime, she’s squeezed in another project that looks very much on brand. “Nomadland” stars the ever-reliable Frances McDormand as a woman roaming the American West in a frayed RV, drifting through a series of odd encounters and befriending another loner (David Strathairn) who may or may be the answer to her troubles. Zhao’s patient, slow-burn ability to capture the complex isolation of the American landscape is well-established, and seems poised to mesh nicely with such dependable acting talent.

An Oscar hopeful from Fox Searchlight, “Nomadland” is also one of the few fall titles traveling the holy trifecta of Venice, TIFF, and NYFF (it was also poised to play at the now-canceled Telluride, alas). In a normal year, this understated movie might be a hidden gem in the noisy assemblage of red carpet events, but may actually benefit from being one of the hotter tickets this time around, a festival movie that could break out in whatever form the festivals allow it to happen. —EK

“Notturno” (Venice, Toronto, New York)

Gianfranco Rosi’s Oscar-nominated “Fire at Sea” was a mesmerizing window into the migrant crisis that captured its tragic ramifications in intimate detail. For his latest, he embedded himself in another perilous environment where lives are on the line on a regular basis — the battlegrounds of the Middle East. Rosi apparently spent two years gathering footage on the borders between Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Lebanon, amplifying the experiences of people just looking to survive another day. His subjects range from lonely fishermen to children, but don’t expect some kind of talking-head tribute.

Rosi’s cinematic approach to the non-fiction form assures that “Notturno” will deliver a hyper-immersion into a haunting environment all too often understood in terms of narrow-minded Western headlines. Another awards hopeful with real potential to break out, it stands a good shot at rejuvenating conversations about the nature of conflicts across the Middle East and just how often innocent lives are caught in the crosshairs. It’s also bound to put the global pandemic in the wider context it deserves: Many people are fearing for lives today, but for the subjects of “Notturno,” that experience is nothing new. —EK

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