Film festival round-up: Highs and lows of the 2020 AFI Film Festival

UNSPECIFIED LOCATION - OCTOBER 17: In this screengrab, a title cards is seen at the AFI FEST Presented By Audi Screening of SOUND OF METAL at AFI FEST presented by Audi on October 17, 2020 in Various Cities. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images for AFI)
UNSPECIFIED LOCATION - OCTOBER 17: In this screengrab, a title cards is seen at the AFI FEST Presented By Audi Screening of SOUND OF METAL at AFI FEST presented by Audi on October 17, 2020 in Various Cities. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images for AFI) /

The American Film Institute’s annual AFI FEST came to a close last week after its first-ever virtual festival, so we’ve rounded up the highs, lows, and in-betweens of the event.

This year’s AFI FEST (like so many other film festivals this year) saw a significant shift in how it was run due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following in the footsteps of TIFF and The New York Film Festival, AFI went mostly virtual with their screenings, with a few select drive-in showings as well.

Despite this restructuring, the offerings at AFI were no less formidable than they’ve been in past years, and although not every film was a winner, AFI had a strong lineup of varied and entertaining films.

We were lucky enough to catch half a dozen films over the course of the week AFI FEST ran, so we’re rounding them up here with our highs, lows, and in-betweens.

High: Sound of Metal (dir. Darius Marder)

In a stunning directorial debut from Darius Marder, Sound of Metal stars Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Venom, Rogue One) as Ruben, a punk-metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing. The loss is devastating for Ruben, as it not only robs him of his ability to keep pursuing his drumming career, but it also puts a strain on the relationship he has with his longtime girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). Although he wants to keep drumming like nothing’s happened, Lou convinces Ruben to take time off and spend some time at a school for the deaf, where he meets Joe (Paul Raci), and begins to slowly accept his newfound loss of hearing.

The film revolves nearly entirely around Ahmed’s stunningly captivating performance – he brings a soulfulness to the role that completely immerses the viewer in Ruben’s plight. Though he can sometimes be a frustrating protagonist, we never lose empathy for Ruben, thanks to Marder’s impeccable direction and screenplay.

Ahmed is also aided by two strong supporting performances from Cooke and Raci, who both make the most of every moment of their screentime. Sound of Metal is a deeply personal and vulnerable character study that explores what it means to have something you’ve taken for granted all your life suddenly ripped away from you.

Low: Shadow in the Cloud (dir. Roseanne Liang)

One of the less successful (but strangely, still incredibly entertaining) films we caught at AFI Fest was Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud. Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, the film follows a female WWII pilot who struggles to fend off a mysterious creature that’s boarded her plane, saw

hile at the same time grappling with the plane’s leering male crewmembers, and attempting to ensure the safety of a mysterious package which she claims is a top-secret assignment crucial to the war effort.

Shadow in the Cloud suffers from some laughably terrible dialogue and tonal issues that ping-pong from horror to melodrama at a breakneck pace, but it’s one of those films that falls into the “so bad it’s good” category.

Moretz’s British accent is also hilariously terrible, and there are some moments of action that are so ludicrous it almost feels like they were made to be laughed at. While Liang’s film may not be as gripping or emotional moving as she intended it to be, Shadow in the Cloud is worth the watch in a ‘point-and-laugh’ kind of way.

In-Between: Wander Darkly (dir. Tara Miele)

A film we have more mixed feelings about is Tara Miele’s romantic drama Wander Darkly, which stars Diego Luna and Sienna Miller as a couple with a fraying relationship who find themselves in a mind-bending state between life and death after they get in a potentially fatal car accident.

Wander Darkly‘s strengths lie in its tight pacing, gripping premise, and ambitious concept – although at times it does feel a little bit like a soapy sort of thing you might find on TLC or Lifetime.

While the film had the potential to reach great heights, the script is stiff and trite, and there isn’t enough natural chemistry between Luna and Miller to smooth over the less forgiving portions of dialogue. It’s certainly not a bad film, but we can’t 100% give it our stamp of approval either – the writing just isn’t strong enough to elevate Wander Darkly to what it could (and should) have been.

High: Nine Days (dir. Edson Oda)

A stunning, conceptual, and emotionally taxing highlight of AFI Fest was Edson Oda’s Nine Days. Starring Winston Duke, the film follows a man (what kind of being he is, exactly, is unclear) as he interviews five unborn souls to determine which one will be given life on earth.

It’s a bizarre and incredibly unique concept for a film that is simultaneously existential and comforting. The universe Oda creates is one that feels so lived in while also unfamiliar, and the film’s razor-sharp script is impeccably brought to life by Duke, Benedict Wong, Bill Skarsgård, and Zazie Beetz.

It’s difficult to put in the words the kind of atmosphere Nine Days creates, but the feeling you’re left with after having seen the film is unlike anything else in recent memory. The cast doesn’t have a weak link to speak of, resulting in some incredibly emotional moments, the crown jewel being Winston Duke’s final monologue in the film’s last few minutes. Nine Days at once challenges and comforts its audience, an utterly perplexing and unique film that we urge you not to miss.

Low: Hopper/Welles (dir. Orson Welles)

A documentary showcasing a candid conversation between two titans of filmmaking (Dennis Hopper and Orson Welles), Hopper/Welles on paper sounds like a fascinating look into the inner workings of two incredibly influential filmmakers. The conversations are certainly punchy and entertaining – both men have their own unique sense of humor that shines through here. However, with a runtime over two hours, Hopper/Welles is far too long with far too little material to justify its length.

In all honestly, the film feels like a special feature on a DVD or like it should be intercut as part of a different documentary – not presented all at once for the audience to try and sit through and maintain interest. There’s only so much the film can do to hold its audience’s interest, and unfortunately for Hopper/Welles, the content just isn’t strong enough to make for a feature-length film.

In-Between: I’m Your Woman (dir. Julia Hart)

The crown jewel of this year’s AFI Fest was I’m Your Woman, a crime thriller from Amazon Prime Video that made its world premiere at the Fest. It stars Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Ms. Maisel) as a 70s housewife whose husband sudden disappearance sends her on a game of cat-and-mouse with his violent associates. It’s certainly sleek and stylish – and the first hour of the film is incredibly well-paced and tensed.

Everything from the costumes to the set decoration to the hair and make-up is spot on for the era, and Brosnahan gives a gripping performance that proves she has the range to move outside of a 50s comedienne. However, as great as the first hour is, the film loses itself around the halfway mark, and introduces major characters too late into the game, struggling to find its footing. Because the start is so strong we don’t want to entirely write it off, but we get the distinct feeling that if it was restructured a bit, I’m Your Woman could’ve been as great all the way through as its first act was.

Next. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is as potent as the original. dark

Did you catch any films at AFI Fest? What film are you most looking forward to seeing? Sound off in the comments below.