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

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.


“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


“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

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© Toronto Film Mag I 2020