From select theatrical releases to VOD and virtual cinema offerings, this season promises to be different in many ways. One thing that hasn't changed: a wide selection of the best 2020 has to offer.
By Kate Erbland, Eric Kohn, Anne Thompson, Zack Sharf, Christian Blauvelt, Ryan Lattanzio, Tambay Obenson, Bill Desowitz, Jude Dry, David Ehrlich, Chris O'Falt, Chris Lindahl
“The Truffle Hunters” (December 25, select theaters)
Luca Guadagnino produces this surprise hit out of the Sundance Film Festival, which also made the cut in the Cannes 2020 selection. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw track the complex rituals of aging men and their truffle-hunting dogs as the roam the forests of Northern Italy in search of the rare white Alba truffles, for which high-end restaurants will pay a pretty penny. The industry takes on a sacred town for this fascinating ensemble of characters who enjoy a routine cut off from many of society’s more complicated demands.
At the same time, they can’t escape many of the uglier aspects of modern times: Climate change endangers the future of their profession, while the demands of capitalism lead to corruption and fierce competition among their ranks. The filmmakers capture these phenomenon with a blend of lyrical imagery, flashes of deadpan comedy, and a fairy tale setting that brings a whole new layer to the notion of farm to table. Following last year’s “Honeyland,” Dweck and Kershaw’s movie provides another poetic window into solitary lives where resource-gathering isn’t just a job; it’s a fragile way of life that only the cameras can help explain. —EK
“The Climb” (November 13, select theaters)
The delightful comedic discovery of Cannes 2019 and one of the few recent films to play across the festival circuit from there — it was also a hit at TIFF, Sundance, and SXSW — is a brilliant reinvention of the buddy movie. Director Michael Covino and co-writer Kyle Marvin play biker pals whose lifelong friendship falls apart and comes back together again over the course of several combustible years and surreal circumstances. Long takes and unexpected music cues abound in this cinematic package of comedic delights, which suggests “Step Brothers” by way of Pierre Etaix. Originally slated to open back in March, the movie was moved to the summer before coming to rest in the fall; fortunately, its appeal is timeless: Covino and Marvin are exactly the sort of innovative storytellers with the sort of vision to shake up the American comedy, and audiences will benefit from this howl of a movie no matter when they get a chance to see it. —EK
“Sound of Metal” (November 20, select theaters; December 4, streaming on Amazon Prime Video)
Riz Ahmed is the sort of frantic screen actor who always looks like he might jut out of the frame, and in “Sound of Metal,” he’s trapped. As Ruben, the heavy-metal drummer going deaf at the center of the mesmerizing debut from writer-director Darius Marder, Ahmed conveys the complex frustrations of losing touch with the world around him no matter how much he fights to hold onto it. This devastating conundrum relies on the best use of sound design in recent memory, as Marder immerses viewers within the confines of Ruben’s deteriorating relationship to the world around him, and he sorts through the wreckage to construct a new one. Ahmed’s brilliant performance coasts on a complex soundscape that resonates even in total silence. —EK
“Hillbilly Elegy” (November 24, streaming on Netflix)
Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy” stars long-overdue Oscar winners Amy Adams and Glenn Close in an adaptation of J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” The rest of the cast features Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, and Owen Asztalos. The project is Howard’s return to dramatic filmmaking after helming the “Star Wars” tentpole “Solo.”Netflix’s official synopsis for “Hillbilly Elegy” reads: “J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), a former Marine from southern Ohio and current Yale Law student, is on the verge of landing his dream job when a family crisis forces him to return to the home he’s tried to forget. J.D. must navigate the complex dynamics of his Appalachian family, including his volatile relationship with his mother Bev (Adams), who’s struggling with addiction. Fueled by memories of his grandmother Mamaw (Close), the resilient and whip-smart woman who raised him, J.D. comes to embrace his family’s indelible imprint on his own personal journey.” —ZS
“Happiest Season” (November 25, select theaters)
Actress-turned-filmmaker Clea DuVall announced herself as a formidable force with her directorial debut “The Intervention,” a highly entertaining and poignant contemporary riff on “The Big Chill.” While “The Intervention” starred beloved indie film regulars like Melanie Lynskey and Natasha Lyonne, DuVall’s second film attracted even bigger names. Excitingly, “Happiest Season” sees Kristen Stewart starring in her first gay comedy, a subset of queer films that are too few and far between. The movie revolves around a woman’s plan to propose to her girlfriend at a family holiday party, which is upended when she realizes her girlfriend hasn’t yet come out to her conservative parents. The premise has shades of “The Intervention,” which bodes well for fans of the tightly constructed comedy. More queer comedies, please. —JD
“Nomadland” (December 4, select theaters)
Fall festival season hasn’t even started, and we already know which film seems poised to be its biggest darling: Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” already slated to play at Telluride (via a special Los Angeles-area drive-in event), TIFF, NYFF, and Venice. Based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” Zhao’s latest stars two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand as a woman who packs her van and sets off on the road to explore a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad following the economic collapse of her company town in rural Nevada.
“Nomadland” is Zhao’s third directorial feature release following “Songs My Brother Taught Me” and “The Rider,” the latter of which won the Gotham Award for Best Feature and landed multiple nominations at the Indie Spirit Awards. Zhao is making her blockbuster debut with Marvel’s “Eternals,” and while that film was initially expected to be the filmmaker’s big 2020 release (it is now set to bow in 2021), the unexpected alternate sounds like a special treat of its own kind. —KE
“Mank” (December 4, streaming on Netflix)
David Fincher’s first feature film since the 2014 theatrical release of “Gone Girl” is a long-in-the-works passion project for the filmmaker as his father, Jack, wrote the screenplay before passing away in April 2003. The story centers on Herman J. Mankiewicz, the Oscar-winning co-writer of “Citizen Kane,” as he overcomes personal and professional battles to finish the script for Orson Welles’ iconic drama. “The Souvenir” breakout Tom Burke stars as Welles, The cast also includes Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst, Tom Pelphrey as Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and Lily Collins as Mank’s secretary Rita Alexander.
As usual, Fincher has assembled an all-star craft team to bring “Mank” to life. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the director’s longtime composers and Oscar winners for “The Social Network,” are providing the film’s original score. To keep with the film’s period setting, Reznor and Ross relied only on instruments that would be available at the time, which means fans shouldn’t expect a synth-oriented score. Shooting the film is cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, who first worked with Fincher as a gaffer on “Gone Girl” before serving as DP on several episodes of “Mindhunter” Season 2. “Mank” is shot in black-and-white to look and feel like a 1930s movie. —ZS
“Black Bear” (December 4, select theaters and VOD)
The basics: set in the kind of glamorous mountain mansion that never seems like anyone’s actual home, we’re first introduced to flinty filmmaker Allison (Aubrey Plaza), who is visiting the makeshift artist retreat on the recommendation of a pal. It’s run by — and owned by and lived in — flirty Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant partner Blair (Sarah Gadon), who are amusingly ill suited for any kind of professional endeavor (and also, maybe each other). From the start, the trio makes for an engaging set-up, as battle lines and alliances are drawn and re-plotted over the course of one off-kilter day and a particularly boozy night.
Filmmaker Lawrence Michael Levine is gifted with three wonderfully game performers in Abbott, Plaza, and Gadon, who are already impressive, but then Levine throws in a narrative and structural twist that allows them to even further expand. To say much more about the script-flipping that happens halfway through the film would be to rob audiences of a real pleasure, but it’s a story-expanding trick that allows the film, its big ideas, and its performers to dig even deeper. —KE
“Death on the Nile” (December 18, select theaters)
Kenneth Branagh’s first foray into the rich world of Agatha Christie murder mysteries, the 2017 surprise hit “Murder on the Orient Express,” boasted a starry cast of big names, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Lucy Boynton, and Daisy Ridley, so it’s no surprise that his imminent sequel is just as star-studded.
Branagh returns as both director and star of “Death on the Nile,” slipping back into the famed mustache that makes his hairy Belgian detective Hercule Poirot so hard to miss. He’ll be joined by a motley assortment of potential murderers, including Tom Bateman (who reprises the role of Bouc from “Murder on the Orient Express”), Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Rose Leslie, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders, and Letitia Wright. For fans of both superhero films, awards-worthy dramas, and “Absolutely Fabulous,” this is a cast for everyone. —KE
“The Father” (December 18, select theaters)
Unchanged: Debuting at Sundance and hitting the fall festival circuit is well-reviewed “The Father,” which French playwright-turned-director Florian Zeller adapted from his popular stage play (“La Pere”), which has in turn been staged in multiple languages and countries. Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins (“The Silence of the Lambs”) plays an imperious old man who tussles with his working daughter (“The Favourite” Oscar-winner Olivia Colman) as he struggles to keep track of his changing surroundings. These two actors are bound to score Oscar attention for going toe-to-toe in this intense father-daughter two-hander. —AT
“Coming to America 2” (December 18, streaming on Amazon Prime Video)
It’s been 32 years since Eddie Murphy played Prince Akeem Joffer (and three other roles to booth) in the John Landis comedy smash that grossed eight times its budget: $288 million worldwide. That’s pure gold. And with that in mind, it’s kind of shocking that a sequel, which of course had to be called “Coming 2 America,” hadn’t been made long before now. Despite the long hiatus, everyone except Landis is returning, including Murphy, who’s still just the crown prince of Zamunda, James Earl Jones (the king), Shari Headley, Arsenio Hall, and John Amos.
In fact, even the original writers, David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein, are credited on the script. They started developing this sequel in 2017, and it appears as if it will present a realistic passage of time since the original film: plenty of time has passed for more dramas to unfold. As the development progressed, those writers were joined by “Black-ish” creator and overall TV comedy impresario Kenya Barris to fully bring these characters into 2020. Craig Brewer, Murphy’s director on “Dolemite Is My Name,” is handling directing duties on this one. Get ready to bow to the king once again. —CB
“Wonder Woman 1984” (December 25, theaters)
Without the pandemic, we would have started sampling this DC superhero tentpole on June 5. Director Patty Jenkins reunites with Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, and Connie Nielsen on this follow-up standalone to the 2017 DC blockbuster “Wonder Woman” ($820 million worldwide), returning the Princess Warrior Diana to another time (the ’80s Cold War between America and the Soviet Union), with a look back at the intervening years.
Unchanged: The cast is joined in the $175-million sequel by Kristen Wiig (as archeologist Barbara Ann Minerva/Cheetah) and “The Mandalorian” star Pedro Pascal in a bigger-than-life villain role, sans mask. Like Chris Nolan’s “Tenet,” Warners has promised to stick to theatrical (RealD 3D, Dolby Cinema, IMAX, and IMAX 3D) for this big-screen extravaganza. And judging from Gadot’s weepy response to the first cut, expect Jenkins to not only deliver action, romance, and comedy, but some tender emotions as well. “Nothing is born from lies,” states Wonder Woman. “And greatness is not what you think.” —AT
“Soul” (December 25, streaming on Disney+)
Pete Docter, Pixar’s director-turned chief creative officer, follows up his Oscar-winning “Inside Out” with “Soul,” going from the world of the mind to the metaphysics of individual identity. What’s more, the jazz-flavored “Soul” marks the studio’s first Black-led feature. It’s about Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a New York middle-school band teacher, who gets the ultimate gig playing piano at the top jazz club, only to fall into a manhole and journey to The Great Before, a fantastical place where new souls are formed before birth. There he encounters precocious soul 22 (Tina Fey), who rejects the appeal of the human experience. But they team up so Gardner can return to Earth and complete his journey.
Aside from the aesthetic contrast between the naturalism of New York and the translucence of The Great Before, Pixar, as with the Oscar-winning “Coco,” brought greater cultural authenticity to “Soul” with an inside/outside Black outreach initiative. Screenwriter Kemp Powers (“One Night in Miami,” “Star Trek: Discovery”) was hired to help shape Gardner’s character, but then was promoted to co-director. The predominantly Black cast also includes the voice work of Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Ahmir Questlove Thompson, and Daveed Diggs. Musician Jon Batiste composed the jazz score for the New York portion, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed the ethereal score for The Great Before. —BD
“News of the World” (December 25, select theaters)
Directing Oscar nominee Paul Greengrass (“United 93”) and writing nominee Luke Davies (“Lion”) adapted the 2016 Paulette Jiles novel set in the post-Civil War era, “News of the World,” about widower Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a loner who travels through Texas giving live readings to paying audiences of recent world news. He takes a dangerous job to deliver, over treacherous terrain, a young orphan (German actress Helena Zengel) to her relatives; her parents were killed by Kiowa raiders, who raised the girl as their own until she was rescued by the the U.S. Army. Hanks reunites with his ”Captain Phillips” director; in 2020, Hanks not only nabbed his first Oscar nomination since “Cast Away” for playing Fred Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” but also survived COVID-19. —AT
“One Night in Miami” (December 25, select theaters)
On a warm February 1964 night in Miami, self-professed “The Greatest” (a distinction that’s still hard to argue with, even so many decades on) Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston to capture his first World Heavyweight Championship. A 7-to-1 underdog, Ali’s win was hardly expected, but it also somehow felt preordained, a necessary step towards his domination of the sport and then the world. Malcolm X, a close friend of Ali’s and his spiritual guide who would lead him to the Nation of Islam soon after the win, was there. So was soul singer Sam Cooke and NFL superstar Jim Brown.
And when it was all over, when Ali became the greatest, the four close friends celebrated the win together at a local Miami hotel. What transpired on that evening — an evening that, yes, really did happen — belongs to both history and its central foursome, but is now vividly imagined in a film that crackles with all the hopes and fears and dreams and possibilities of both the men it tracks and the blossoming filmmaking talent behind the camera. While first-time feature director Regina King is not attempting to offer a precise historical transcription of whatever happened that fateful night, what “One Night in Miami” provides is something richer: an emotionally accurate telling, one that always endeavors to find the real people underneath the famous gloss. —KE
“Connected” (TBD 2020, select theaters)
“Connected” brings together Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller and first-time director Mike Rianda (“Gravity Falls”) in a very offbeat, animated family road trip comedy. It pits nature-loving dad, Rick (Danny McBride), with nerdy, college-bound daughter, Katie (Abbi Jacobson of “Broad City”), as they try to stop a robot uprising.
With the help of Lord and Miller, Rianda was determined to push animation in new and exciting ways. Taking “Spider-Verse” further, they played with translating the concept art into the hand-made visual style they were looking for in CG. The Sony Imageworks team levered the new “Spider-Verse” tools to juxtapose painterly/watercolor elements in the messy “human world” with the clean, calculated perfection of the “robot world.” Additionally, they cleverly used 2D pop-up animation for Katie’s POV (internally called “Katie Vision”). —BD
As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.