It has become a bit of a cliche at this point but it begs acknowledgment that this was a weird year for the Philadelphia Film Festival, which went virtual and drive-in for the first time. With most of the heavy-hitter movies moved to next year and other festivals either canceling or going virtual, the selection of films skewed towards more under the radar and eclectic. Sections were eliminated in lieu of separating films between drive-in and virtual-only, though there was some cross-over between them.
While it was nice to have a little flexibility to decide when to watch, I have to say I miss the actual festival experience itself. Not only are there fewer distractions in a theater, but some of the biggest pleasures are hearing the audience react as a collective. I also miss walking into something at random because it’s close to another movie on my schedule, and simply being able to process what I saw for an hour or so before jumping into the next one.
Despite all these apprehensions, I still managed to see plenty of films. Because of scheduling or lack of drive-in access, I missed out on “Nomadland,” “Ammonite” and “Minari,” as well as a few other potential masterpieces. The ten listed below are still pretty great, with a few that could be the best of the year. Many of them should be releasing in the coming weeks or sometime next year. All of them should be on your radar.
- Night of the Kings — Set in an Ivory Coast prison run by prisoners, this riveting ode to storytelling shot to the top of my list when I caught it towards the end of the festival. It’s simply a pleasure to watch, poetic and magical in equal measure, and I love how the story becomes a group performance of sorts. With name drops to “City of God” and a tone that feels like “Peter Pan” crossed with Tarsem Singh’s “The Fall,” it’s one that shouldn’t be missed.
- “Rose Plays Julie” — Christine Molloy and Joe Lawler’s slippery, uncategorizable film is provocative in the truest sense of the word, one that digs deeply into thorny moral and ethical dilemmas and comes out ambivalent. Starting off as a stalker thriller, it soon shifts between drama, revenge and tragedy, all shot through an icy glaze that lends an unsettling sheen to even the most mundane moments. It’s as much about intergenerational trauma as it is about the effects of sexual violence, and you won’t soon forget it.
- “Sound of Metal” — Other reviews have made comparisons to Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider,”, and they’re not inaccurate. Riz Ahmed is fantastic as a drummer who suddenly loses his hearing and checks into a sober program for deaf people when he threatens to relapse. Darius Marder’s debut features some of the best sound design of the year, creating unease and making fantastic use of silence; it deserves to be seen with the best speakers you can get.
- “MLK/FBI” — Timely, yes, but it likely always will be. In any case, a gripping and visually dynamic history of the FBI that manages to recontextualize the stories we’ve heard about MLK into something fresh. The film provides an important reminder that civil rights aren’t always popular, and the lengths the system will go to crush it.
- “Lapsis” — A gig economy satire wrapped around a pretty good mystery. I love the mood that this creates; it’s like a chiller version of “Sorry to Bother You.” This is not to say it’s not angry: Noah Hutton throws some superb jokes that feel close to home and interrogates the idea of the even playing field. But first and foremost it’s an actual narrative, compelling and entertaining as much as it is a dystopian call to action.
- “The Vigil” — A haunted house flick injected with Jewish culture and tradition that proves to be reinvigorating. Keith Thomas’ debut may go heavy on the jump scares but he orchestrates them with aplomb. Not only does he solve the problem of leaving the house, but, like fellow IFC Midnight film “The Babadook,” he expertly blends a real creepy monster with an exploration of grief and trauma. The result is unexpectedly moving, with a deep well of cultural specificity that elevates it from a simple scare generator.
- “New Order” — If the class warfare of “Parasite” brought everyone together, this one will push a lot of people away. From the foreboding opening of bodies piled up, Michel Franco doesn’t let up, offering a vision of Mexico falling under authoritarian rule following a lower-class uprising that spares no one. Uncompromisingly brutal, it’s a warning of what could happen if the downtrodden are ignored, toying with the viewer and burrowing under their skin.
- “The Boy Behind the Door” — Gnarly little thing this one is. A reverse “Home Alone” as directed by Wes Craven (“The People Under The Stairs”), it recaptures the feeling of the house sequences of the video game “Resident Evil 7” in the best way, with an added dose of realism both from the young actors and from the plot itself. The script keeps you off your feet, swerving every time you think you know where it will go and threading an emotional undercurrent through everything.
- “Come True” — What a strange, unique feature this is. Seemingly throwing 70’s sci-fi, 80’s horror and synthpop in a blender with a heavy dose of surreal dream sequences and set design that recalls a mix of the video games “Control,” “Death Stranding” and “Prey,” Anthony Scott Burns has created a fascinating sci-fi film about a teenage runaway taking part in a sleep study. The ending might put some people off, but it can’t diminish the spell he puts on you over the course.
- “White Lie” — I debated putting this or Pablo Larrain’s “Ema” in this spot, but I have a feeling that will be getting plenty of attention. Besides, this story of a woman faking a cancer diagnosis has a much tougher needle to thread, and while it doesn’t pull it off as well as something like “Uncut Gems,” lead actress Kacey Rohl makes a compelling presence. Meanwhile, co-directors Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas keep the pace moving, while Lev Lewis’ atonal score lends the proper amount of unsettling air.