(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything.)

When I looked at my top 10 list this year, something jumped out at me: half the movies I picked were documentaries. That may be in part a reality of supply in 2020 as many high-profile narrative films opted to delay … and delay … and delay their releases. Documentaries, which have enjoyed a renaissance over the past decade thanks to newfound demand on streaming platforms, were more than willing to help make up what was lost in both quantity and quality.

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How Short Films Are Changing

No story in the world of short-form content attracted as much attention (and derision) as the staggering collapse of Quibi, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman’s mobile video platform dedicated solely to “quick bites” of content. Don’t write the epitaph for shorts solely based on the demise of Quibi, however. As smartphones and internet speeds have better adapted to a video-based web, the ecosystem to exhibit and enjoy short films has only grown more expansive and exciting.

Over the past decade, there has been something of a renaissance for short film distribution online. Communities sprung up around curatorial sections like Vimeo’s staff picks and Short of the Week. Dedicated channels for short films like Field of Vision, Newness and Omeleto have built up large followings and racked up big view counts for their videos. Massive journalistic outfits such as The New York Times and The New Yorker invested heavily in short films, particularly documentaries, as part of their pivots beyond the written word. Feature-heavy streamers like Criterion Channel and Mubi also push their viewers towards shorts; even Netflix, which saw the short film categories as an easy path to Oscar glory, has gotten in on the game in a major way.

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French Exit Review

Azazel Jacobs’ previous film, The Lovers, establishes its overarching and consistent tone from the time the opening studio logo appears. A self-consciously melodramatic piece of score cues the audience to recognize Jacobs’ perspective. He humorously heightens the stakes for an otherwise mundane story of aging lovers and their affairs.

His follow-up feature, an adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s novel French Exit, contains no less vibrant an expression of Jacobs’ directorial stamp. Yet there’s something slipperier and tougher to pin down here, largely because the droll wit never seems to coalesce around a clear point of view. The result is a satire of New York’s upper crust that feels like it pulls punches, if only because it seems to have no clear direction as to where – and how – Jacobs wants them to land.

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For many, the fall conjures up images of pumpkin spice lattes, flannel shirts, or the return of football. For me, the one constant of the season in recent memory has been the New York Film Festival, which I’ve attended in some form since my final year of college in 2014. As the leaves change and the seasonal weather turns, the best of world cinema has beckoned film lovers indoors to the cinemas at Lincoln Center to stare in wonder at a screen inside a dark room.

Despite fears that the pandemic would break the streak, this year marks my seventh consecutive New York Film Festival – albeit one unlike any other before it. I’ll still be enjoying NYFF from the great indoors, though in 2020, that enclosed space will be my own apartment. This year, the fest is taking their programming digital (and nationwide, to boot) while also hosting select drive-in screenings across three boroughs of New York City. It’s as unconventional as it is improbable, a testament to how artistic institutions have seized this unprecedented moment as an opportunity for experimentation and reimagination.

But being America’s first major pandemic-era film festival was never assured. As festival director Eugene Hernandez told me, none of it was ever a guarantee. But NYFF beat the odds in the nation’s first hotspot, no less, and is currently underway online and across the city. How did the Film at Lincoln Center team pull it off? Hernandez walked me through the festival’s evolution and rebirth, which began even before the coronavirus wreaked havoc on the Big Apple.

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Night of the Kings Review

Champions of art love to pontificate about its importance, especially during times like a pandemic. But that rhetoric might ring a little hollow right now. However, it’s not an exaggeration to say that humans as a species are hardwired for storytelling. There’s science to back up the capability to narrativize our experience as necessity, not merely a luxury. As innate as our impulses for violence and destruction is our drive to create and narrate.

This becomes all too apparent for the young man dubbed Roman (Koné Bakary) in Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings. Within the film, he must become a Scheherazade of the modern carceral state, spinning an engrossing and open-ended yarn to secure his own survival. Lacôte captures something special about the very nature of oral storytelling with his nested narratives. Roman’s imaginative biography envelops and transforms the inmates around him, but the very act of telling the story out loud also changes himself.

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The Water Man Review

“Anything that basically is overtly celebrating darkness and to be perfectly honest, sanctioning it,” David Oyelowo told NPR in 2015, “that’s something I can’t personally do […] I know that films affect and shape culture, and I want to put stuff in the world that I feel is edifying as opposed to stuff that is detrimental.”

As Oyelowo steps behind the camera for his feature directorial debut, it’s helpful to keep the star’s words in mind. The Water Man is nothing if not a brand extension for his humane, compassionate touch. Even if it’s not a particularly distinguished charge out of the gate for him as a director, the film’s gentle and caring embrace of the audience still feels warm all the same.

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As far as ‘80s-set, sun-soaked European summer romances where a young gay man comes to understand his sexuality, Call Me By Your Name still reigns supreme. (A high bar, to be clear!) But if this extremely specific subgenre is to become a thing, François Ozon’s Summer of 85 is a worthy entry. While the film does struggle a bit with some jumbled tonality, the latest work from the famously prolific French filmmaker strikes a new and surprisingly stirring combination of steamy and sweet thanks to the love story at its core.

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Good Joe Bell Review

Towards the end of Good Joe Bell, Mark Wahlberg’s titular character takes a load off his feet from his cross-country walk to condemn homophobic bullying. He sits down at a police station underneath pictures of Barack Obama and Joe Biden hanging on the wall. This bit of art direction reveals what should have been obvious from the film’s overall comportment: this is a period piece.

America at large has experienced a dramatic shift in public attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community even since the Obama era. (Heck, during Joe Bell’s walk in 2013, the Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional!) While homophobia remains a present threat, particularly among young people in schools, to act like there’s not significant awareness of the issue is just at odds with reality. People largely know the bullying of gay youth is a problem. And, to be clear, even a single instance of it occurring is a stain on society. But the persistence of the threat exists not out of ignorance but out of malevolence and immaturity.

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Class conflict in cinema is nothing new. Though after Bong Joon-ho’s Best Picture-winning Parasite became a global phenomenon, there’s perhaps never been a more receptive audience for films depicting a breakdown of unsustainable social contracts. (The ever-growing chasm of worldwide economic inequality unfortunately does not hurt, either.)

Enter Mexican writer and director Michel Franco with New Order, a taut 88-minute dystopian drama about a country thrown into disarray amidst societal upheaval. Where Franco might lack Bong’s knack for clever plotting, he compensates with sharper knives in his class commentary. New Order presents a ruthlessly barbaric vision of social breakdown with melt-your-face-off intensity, one made all the more potent and difficult to shake given Franco’s stark realism about where platitudes like “eat the rich” would inevitably lead.

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Apples Review

No one needs to use the word “pandemic” in Christos Nikou’s Apples for the overarching mood of a world rankled by a mysterious, unexplainable illness to come through. Six months of living in coronavirus limbo has been enough to rewire the brain so thoroughly that a jarring, Children of Men-style dystopian opener is not necessary to communicate that nature has brought society to its knees. It’s just one of the many startling incongruities of Nikou’s feature debut that the film feels at once like it takes place in both the recent past and the painful present.

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