All the best movies we saw at New York Film Festival, ranked (including 'French Exit')

By Brian Truitt

Start spreading the news: New York Film Festival is finally here. Virtually.

Like Toronto International Film Festival, NYFF decided to turn into a mostly online affair this year because of COVID-19. But you don't have to show up to Lincoln Center to get tickets: Film fans can go online to rent movies from the impressive, globetrotting 2020 slate including Sofia Coppola's "On the Rocks" (featuring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones); the documentary "Hopper/Welles," which features a wide-ranging conversation with Hollywood legends Dennis Hopper and Orson Welles; and the first three films in the five-part "Small Axe" anthology directed by Steve McQueen ("12 Years a Slave") that tells stories set in London's West Indian community from the late 1960s to the early '80s.

After a successful Toronto fest, we're heading to New York – which in 2020 means switching couches – to round up and rank the best efforts we watch:

'I'm really done':Steve McQueen on dedicating 'Lovers Rock' to George Floyd at NY Film Festival

'On the Rocks':Is too much Bill Murray, bona fide national treasure, a good thing?

17. 'Fauna'
The quirky and slightly absurdist little Mexican comedy sneakily weaves in shades of criminal fiction and violence as part of populist imagination. Estranged siblings Luisa (Luisa Pardo) and Gabino (Gabino Rodríguez) return home to visit their parents alongside Luisa's fellow actor and hapless boyfriend Paco (Francisco Barreiro), a bit player on a popular narco TV show. Their many awkward interactions give way to a meta noir detective story with all the actors playing different roles that subtly hints at the town's shady underbelly.

16. 'The Calming'
Director Song Fang's film is definitely a case of a spot-on movie title. It's quite the calming experience following Chinese documentary filmmaker Lin (Qi Xi) who, after a breakup, bounces between Beijing, Tokyo and Hong Kong, rides a train through snowy landscapes, looks out over Asian metropolises at night and meanders on quiet forest hikes. In addition to the experiential aspect to "Calming," Lin also reconnects with friends, cares for her parents and spends many moments alone, dealing with what ails her as well. It's a contemplative film ultimately about finding creative inspiration again. 

15. 'The Inheritance'
Director Ephraim Asili’s timely experimental film is part documentary and part fictional narrative interspersing a lesson on Black culture with a historical plight for racial and social justice. In the film peppered with footage of first Black congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, as well as images of Black icons John Coltrane and Muhammad Ali, a young man (Eric Lockley) inherits his grandmother’s Philadelphia house and creates a Black socialist collective with his girlfriend (Nozipho Mclean). Asili creates a tapestry of their story interspersed with the story of the MOVE liberation group and the tragic bombing of their Philly house in 1985 that took 11 lives and destroyed 61 homes.

14. 'The Monopoly of Violence'
Those who followed the cable-news footage of the civil unrest in our country following George Floyd's death will see an eerie reflection in this arresting French documentary chronicling the violent skirmishes in late 2018 between national police and the gilets jaunes (aka yellow vests) movement that called for economic justice in Paris. Amid brutal and haunting footage, academics debate the philosophy of legitimized power and should the state hold it, while police and victims alike discuss their sides of a conflict that claimed hands and eyes and changed lives forever.

13. 'Hopper/Welles'
It's a fascinating sight to watch couple of old Hollywood legends jaw at each for two-plus hours. In 1970, "Citizen Kane" icon Orson Welles met up with Dennis Hopper to chat for his movie "The Other Side of the Wind," coming after Hopper had released his directorial debut "Easy Rider." Welles is never seen but his signature voice is felt as the two discuss everything from who they make movies for to the politics of the day. Welles gets rather combative with Hooper and tries to pin down his position – the younger filmmaker will only say he falls somewhere between Marxism and John Wayne – in a movie tailor-made for hardcore cinephiles.

12. 'Gunda'
Not since "Babe" has a movie's porcine star been this magnetic. With no talking and a soundtrack of nature and animal noises, documentary director Viktor Kossakovsky turns a camera on a steadfast mother pig and her growing piglets in an enrapturing black-and-white showcase of farm life executive produced by Joaquin Phoenix. While not exactly a commercial for veganism, you might rethink your meal options after seeing a curious and exceedingly watchable one-legged chicken, a couple of old stately cows and a tight-knit clan of pigs whose lives are way more captivthan we might think.

11. 'On the Rocks'
Murray and Jones make for an enjoyable buddy team in Coppola's adventurous dramedy. New York working mom Laura (Jones) wonders, after some strange behavior and constant work trips, if her busy husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is cheating on her. Laura's playboy dad Felix (Murray) convinces her they need to tail him, which leads them on a romp from Soho to Mexico to catch him in the act. While the film leans formulaic, it's a joy watching Murray be Murray — over the top and criminally charming — with a little extra added depth playing a father who's overprotective to a fault. 

10. 'The Disciple'
Chaitanya Tamhane's decades-spanning drama charts one man's life of artistic expression filled with the mesmerizing sounds of Indian classical music. Sharad (real-life Hindustani classical singer Aditya Modak) is a Mumbai vocalist who grew up adoring Khayal music with his father and strives to be a pure purveyor of it as an adult: He's considered "boring" though the style makes its way into more mainstream places like an Indian "American Idol"-type show. Sharad faithfully follows the masters who've come before him – including his guru (Arun Dravid), whom Sharad cares for later in life – yet begins to wonder if the utter devotion is worth it in the long run.

9. 'The Truffle Hunters'
Whether you love culinary fungus or very good dogs, there's plenty of both in a deep-dive documentary about old men and their canines who sniff out rare and valuable white Alba truffles in Northern Italy. The movie looks at the territorial rivalry between hunters and the economic disparity between them and the sellers who get top dollar from high-end foodies for their treasured discoveries. Serious undercurrents aside, "Truffle Hunters" digs into the lives of eccentric elderly dudes who make truffles their life's work - even faced with utter cruelty from rivals - and their furry partners. And thanks to some nifty camera ingenuity, you even get a dog's eye view of their beguiling profession. 

8. 'French Exit'
As an icy, sardonic widow with a talking black cat, Michelle Pfeiffer is a wicked delight in the surreal comedy written and directed by Azazel Jacobs. Manhattan socialite Frances Price (Pfeiffer) has squandered her fortune, and when she becomes insolvent, she and her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), a young man with some arrested-development issues, take off to Paris. Frances is a nasty piece of work who begins to warm up under bizarre circumstances and rethinks her life surrounded by a growing bunch of weirdos, including a fortune teller (Danielle Macdonald), an aggressively friendly expat (Valerie Mahaffey) and feline pal Small Frank (voiced by the great Tracy Letts).

7. 'All In: The Fight for Democracy'
You won't find a more persuasive and urgent vehicle to get people voting in the 2020 election than this well-done and informative documentary that goes to some dark places in American history yet also leans hopeful. The film chronicles voter suppression tactics and the disenfranchisement of people of color and women – from the earliest days of the country until now – and lifts the voices of those who've fought against it. "All In" also focuses on Abrams, a Democrat who ran for Georgia governor in 2018 and has her own stories to tell about the importance of voting rights.

6. 'Time'
Director Garrett Bradley's striking black-and-white documentary looks at mass incarceration of the poor and people of color but it's more effective as the tale of a Black family led by a steely matriarch. For two decades, Louisiana businesswoman Fox Rich has fought to free her husband, who is serving a 60-year sentence in Angola for a robbery they pulled when they were struggling store owners. Their story is presented in present day as Fox waits to hear if he'll be let go and through revealing home videos she made of their six boys, chronicling major life moments for her beloved.

5. 'The Human Voice'
Acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar's first English-language film is a dramatic doozy – and only a half-hour long. That's plenty of time, however, for Tilda Swinton to shine in a fiery, emotion-packed one-woman monologue "loosely based" on the 1930 Jean Cocteau play. Swinton plays an unnamed woman who's just gotten out of a four-year relationship with her partner and is not taking things well. After taking an ax to her ex's suit in her apartment (which is actually a stage set in a warehouse), she takes a call from her former beloved, expressing various levels of fear, humility, anguish and rage. And in Swinton's hands, it's a masterclass.

4. 'Lovers Rock'
The only fictional tale in McQueen's series, the 1980-set slice-of-life narrative centers on a house party at a time when Black people weren't welcome at white London nightclubs. Martha (newcomer Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) sneaks out of her house and goes to this reggae-fueled shindig where she meets the flirtatious Frankyn (Micheal Ward) in a night filled with love, revelry, racial tensions and hard feelings. McQueen brilliantly stages the party as an evolving organism, from women doing sharp karate moves to "Kung Fu Fighting" early in the evening to men dancing wildly as the night wears on, and a parade of tunes throughout lend the movie its joyous heartbeat.

3. 'Red, White and Blue'
The recent "Star Wars" movies put him on the map and "Detroit" showcased his dramatic chops, but John Boyega's starring role in McQueen's "Small Axe" entry is a breakthrough in terms of his all-around acting prowess. In the early 1980s, Leroy Logan (Boyega) is a London forensic scientist who wants to join the police force following an episode where white cops brutally beat Leroy's father Kenneth (Steve Toussaint). Smart and athletic, Leroy aims to change a racist system from within but once on the beat, he encounters prejudice from fellow officers, other Blacks in his community call him a traitor, and even his dad has a hard time coming to grips with his son's decision. 

2. 'Night of the Kings'
Director Philippe Lacôte pays tribute to the oral tradition of the tale-spinning West African griots with an absorbing drama set at an isolated Ivory Coast prison ruled by inmates. Koné Bakary stars as a quiet pickpocket who's tapped by jail boss Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) to be the chosen storyteller (and given the nickname "Roman") on the occasion of a red moon. Initially a deer in headlights, his confidence grows as Roman tells of a rebel outlaw, his blind father and a magical war between a queen and her brother, while betrayal and a struggle for power occur over a long night. And like all the best stories, "Night of the Kings" keeps you enraptured till the end.

1. 'Mangrove'
The first of McQueen's "Small Axe" films is a timely and impassioned tribute to the importance of Black community. In the late 1960s, Trinidad-born Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) is the owner of the Mangrove Restaurant, a haven for intellectuals and foodies in the Notting Hill section of London raided constantly by cops. A demonstration by British Black Panthers Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) leads to confrontation and arrests. In showing the 1970 trial of the Mangrove Nine, McQueen pits unconscionable prejudice vs. unbreakable resistance. The drama features great performances from Parkes and Wright, who unleashes a stunning, Oscar-ready portrayal of a woman fighting to free her people.

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