Futuristic and reflective, AnOther’s picks of this year’s digital festival span Dior Saddle bag-toting grifters and hunted mythical creatures
A recent Instagram post from the documentary filmmaker Matt Wolf summed up the current state of attending prestige film festivals globally very well: “I’m alone in a virtual Chinese restaurant at a Dutch documentary film festival,” he wrote, captioning a screenshot of his avatar enjoying “dumplings” and “karaoke” at an empty table. Surreal attempts to replicate physical festival mingling aside, the transferral of festivals like Utah’s Sundance to the digital space has ushered in a new democratisation of these events, allowing fans everywhere to spot the films most likely to have an impact on culture for themselves. This year, the best storytelling showcased a cinematic landscape both self-reflective and radically future-bound: revealing alternate viewpoints on the past, and bringing to life alternate possibilities for the future, felt like a thread. Below are some of AnOther’s ones to watch.
What if your dream was to sing and you had the talent to prove it, but your loved ones could never hear your voice? This is the premise of Siân Heder’s Coda, which tells the story of Ruby, the only hearing person in her deaf family (CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults). When their family’s way of life comes under threat, she has to decide between the promise of a possible future as a singer and a vital role in her family’s fishing business. While some of these tensions are tied up a little too neatly by the end, this film was a weepy, feel-good watch for lockdown evenings – and one of the biggest successes of the festival to date, winning four prizes and landing a record-smashing $25 million deal from Apple Studios.
In 1971, Björn Andrésen was plucked out of nowhere to become the worldwide pinnacle of young male beauty, a sentiment most comparably applied to someone like Timothée Chalamet today. But when Andrésen, aged 16, starred in Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Death In Venice, he became cast in a mould of obsessed-over beauty that he would never be able to escape; the story, concerning an older man’s powerful obsession with a young boy, mirrored Andrésen’s actual life in dangerous ways. Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s affecting documentary, which jumps between times and places in the former star’s life, shows how little has changed in how young people are treated in the glare of appearances-obsessed celebrity culture.
Summer of Soul ( … Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Many of the festival’s best moments came from unearthed treasures as much as original filmmaking, a form which Summer of Soul takes and transforms into something that feels like a cultural reset. The documentary reveals how, in 1969 – the same summer as the much-mythologised Woodstock – a music festival took place 100 miles away that was an epic milestone in Black cultural experience and history. The brainchild of Questlove, the film took home two big awards and features electrifying moments from legendary musicians like Stevie Wonder, Sly & The Family Stone and Nina Simone.
A wild, exhausting ride from start to finish, the world of Dash Snow’s Cryptozoo is somewhere between Jurassic Park and Bojack Horseman. In the animated tale, the mythical folk creatures humans have always told stories about (unicorns, hydras, krakens, “flying rocks”) actually exist, either hunted down to be traded on the black market or “saved” by activists who want to keep them in a “Cryptozoo” to be conserved and for the public to learn about them. Set at the time of the countercultural movement in the 60s, this reviewer craved a more considered edit of the various ingredients of Snow’s frenetic vision, but the inventiveness of the world it conjures is nonetheless worth a watch.
In Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing – based on the Harlem Renaissance novella by Nella Larsen – two African American women are able to “pass” as white, but they each live on opposite sides of the colour line in 1929 New York. The film marks the on-screen partnership of rising star Tessa Thompson and former AnOther cover star Ruth Negga, who play former school friends whose lives intersect once again. For Hall, whose opera singer mother was biracial with African American and Dutch ancestry, and whose grandfather was also biracial, the story has a personal bearing on the complex relationship she could see those family members always had with their own identity. The timely conversations Passing may provoke may prove as fascinating as watching the film itself when it comes to Netflix screens this year.
For fans of Bo Burham’s Eighth Grade and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt’s documentary – which won the pair the US Documentary Emerging Filmmaker award – spends a long, hot summer with three teenage girls in a Texas military town where the potential for violence always seems to exist under the surface. Though it features plenty of warm-pink sunsets, and scenes of girls looking out of open car windows set to triumphant-sounding music, the most affecting moments are those which simply observe the girls as they sit around at house parties with dull, immature boys. In those environments, it’s clear just how much the boys are in control, and how much the girls, over the course of the summer just as over the course of a single evening, will have to strive to claim theirs back.
El Planeta (lead image)
There’s a scene in El Planeta – the directorial debut of influential Argentinian-American artist Amalia Ulman – that features quite possibly the most profoundly accurate send-up of the machinations of fashion industry types ever committed to celluloid. It takes place over a dodgy Skype connection, and when you see this film – which you should – you’ll know. Continuing the thread from the ingenius Instagram “con” that made her name as an artist, Ulman targets a different kind of fakery with her directorial debut, as inspired by a real mother-daughter pair in Spain who scammed shops, restaurants and other businesses in their home city out of thousands of euros worth of goods, despite being penniless themselves. The resulting film, in which Ulman plays an out-of-work fashion stylist-student-influencer across from her real-life mum (Ale Ulman), is hilarious, sharply-observed and, ultimately, strangely moving.