Five New York Film Festival 2020 Highlights

By Carlos Aguilar

One of the few positives to come out of the drastically changed festival landscape of 2020 is the expanded reach that these events, happening mostly online, can have. This year, the New York Film Festival used drive-in screenings to present its selection of international gems and awards hopefuls. But more importantly, it opened the NYFF doors wider than ever before, by making it possible for audiences to stream films and watch in-depth conversations from anywhere in the country.

The energy of an in-theater experience can’t be fully replicated from home, but given the circumstances, this virtual iteration kept the season alive and the good movies coming. Below are five standouts from a collection of NYFF titles that will remain relevant for months to come. 

The Truffle Hunters
In this delightful documentary, filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw follow several men in a small Italian town who search for truffles in the nearby forest—some as a pastime, and others as a major source of income. As we learn about the difficulty that finding the pricy delicacy entails, we also witness the bond between the hunters and their dogs (Birba is particularly special), as well as the cruel practices that have arisen out of greed and territorial disputes. Visually, the movie veers between exquisitely crafted tableaus and the immersive footage from a camera attached to one of the dogs. 

The Disciple
Director Chaitanya Tamhane (“Court”) contemplates disillusionment and failure in a leisurely paced character study about a young man, Sharad (Aditya Modak), devoted to learning the craft of singing traditional Indian music from a revered guru. Traced over several years—marked by changing technology—his unfruitful trajectory confronts him with the possibility that, regardless of his tireless efforts, he might never become the artist he thought he would. Tamhane questions Sharad’s triumph-obsessed mentality and his loyalty to heroes who are likely just as flawed as he is. 

“The Human Voice”
With his awe-inspiring brand of production design and a stellar performance by Tilda Swinton, Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar makes his English-language debut in delightful fashion. Loosely adapted from Jean Cocteau’s work of the same name, this 30-minute short film sees Swinton transition through a barrage of emotions while on the phone with an ex-romantic partner. Almodóvar doesn’t hide the theatricality of the piece and lets us see through the seams of the artifice without diverting focus from the acting. Airpods have never been so essential part to a narrative as they are here. 

Lovers Rock
One of the five installments in Steve McQueen’s film anthology Small Axe, this chapter is set amidst London’s West-Indian community in 1980. A party in full swing serves as a prime stage for uninhibited emotions to ignite new relationships and conflicts. McQueen harnesses music and dance with an intoxicating and transporting force in a story more concerned with the idea of a shared experience than with fleshing out individual characters. A communal, impromptu rendition of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” becomes an impassioned centerpiece that’ll leave you reeling. 

Intimately vast, not unlike her previous efforts, Chloé Zhao’s third feature continues her exploration of the American landscape through the eyes of wounded characters. Reiterating why she is considered one of the greatest actresses working today, Frances McDormand plays Fern, a woman finding comfort in the kindness of strangers while living on the open road. Based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction novel, Zhao’s latest is caught somewhere between grand spirituality and the beauty of the mundane. The film, which won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival before coming to NYFF, is sure to solidify her status as a major director beyond independent cinema. 

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