So here then are the lucky CIFF 2020 ten, in convenient Ken and Robin Consume Media format:
Careless Crime (Iran, Shahram Mokri, 2020) Pill addict Faraj (Mohammad Sareban) gets drawn into a plot to burn down a movie theater which eerily recalls the Cinema Rex fire in 1978. Mokri lays down long, overlapping takes and arcs, slowly arcing tighter and tighter on multiple levels (including a film-within-a-film-within-a-film, at one point) around the inescapable haunting of Iran’s cinema past. A superb achievement on so many levels; the lighting and Ehsan Sedigh’s discordant score stand-outs among them. I desperately need to see it again in the kind of real theater space that Mokri turns into a fractal nexus.
Night of the Kings (Côte d’Ivoire/Canada/France/Senegal, Phillippe Lacôte, 2020) The newest inmate (Koné Bakary) in the “jungle” of the MACA prison gets tapped by its dying king to tell a story on the night of the red moon. Prison-gangster drama meets Arabian-night medievalism both narratively and visually in a rich and surprising film of narratology and survival.
Sleep (Germany, Michael Venus, 2020) Nightmare-plagued Marlene (Sandra Huller) collapses in a mountain resort hotel — the one in her dreams — and her daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) investigates. A strong, dogged performance by Kohlhof anchors this excellent psychological ghost thriller, which gets nearly everything right from a creepy empty hotel set to vibrantly strange supporting actors.
Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds (US, Werner Herzog & Clive Oppenheimer, 2020) Herzog follows enthusiastic geologist Oppenheimer on a tour of meteoritic science, art, and religion from Norway to Antarctica. Most interested in how humans make art and meaning out of the arbitrary falling rocks, Herzog sometimes strays a little bit into vorticism, cutting staccato between flashes of meaning and thought -- but how appropriate for a film about meteors.
Kubrick by Kubrick (France/Poland, Gregory Monro, 2020) Tape-recorded interviews of Kubrick by film critic Michael Ciment play under footage from most of his films. Monro attempts to gently subvert, or at least provide perspective on, the image of Kubrick as obsessive perfectionist; the result may not be a revelatory film study but it’s a very good Kubrick 102. If you’re ready for Kubrick 202, maybe tick this back down to Good.
Charlatan (Czechia/Ireland/Poland/Slovakia, Agnieszka Holland, 2020) Loose biopic of the Czech healer and herbalist Jan Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan; his son Josef Trojan plays young Jan) framed by his 1958 arrest and trial by the Communist government. Holland’s portrait of Mikolášek never goes where the audience expects, just as Trojan’s performance alienates and attracts in equal measure. Her refusal to put Mikolášek into a simple box (despite her monodimensional title) gives depth and realism while Martin Strba’s deliberately cinematic lensing expertly plays with history-film convention.
Undine (Germany/France, Christian Petzold, 2020) Undine (Paula Beer), an urban historian who may also be the titular vengeful water-spirit, gets dumped by her lover but meets-cute devoted diver Christoph (Franz Rogowski) before we find out for sure. Palpable love for Berlin drenches this somewhat uneven film that kicks into gear on the mystery but goes soppy in the romance, and doesn’t quite consummate either.
The Prophet and the Space Aliens (Israel/Austria, Yoav Shamir, 2020) Invited to receive a (bogus?) award from the Raëlian cult, documentarian Shamir takes Raël (nee Claude Vorilhon) up on his invitation to make a movie about them. Shamir plays it restrained and mostly fair, bending over backwards to not call Raël a con artist and depict the cultists on their own terms. The trouble is, when your subject is a former pop singer and race car aficionado who sees UFOs in 1974 and hears he’s the son of alien Yahweh and gets eager flower brides and oh by the way all religious leaders are still alive as sexy clones on another planet and claims to have cloned a baby in 2002 maybe restraint is not quite the best key for your movie.
Preparations to Be Together For an Unknown Period of Time (Hungary, Lili Horvát, 2020) Neurosurgeon Marta (Natasa Stork) impulsively returns to Budapest to reunite with her love-at-first sight Janos (Viktor Bodó) but he says he’s never met her before … Huge potentials for noir, romance, and horror loom in the premise but Horvát slowly lets the air out of all of them in 90 minutes. Stork’s tight performance deserves a better, tenser film; as it is she seems not so much a woman on the edge as one sensibly distant from a low-boiling distraction.
I’m Your Woman (US, Julia Hart, 2020) Wife of a professional crook, Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) must go on the lam when he disappears. Attempting to make a film of the female-occupied negative space around a 70s crime thriller, Hart instead produces something by turns inert and facile. With nothing to do, at length, Brosnahan slowly sinks under the thick patina of 70s production design. Her brief, predictable spurt of agency in the last act comes far too late.