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Monday, April 15, 2019

Atlanta Film Festival 2019: Features Overview

The 2019 Atlanta Film Festival showed 180+ feature films, short films, special presentations and creative media, and was one of the best lineups of films I've seen in my ten years of going to the fest. It's no wonder it was recently named the second best film festival in the country! Here's a rundown of all the feature films I saw this year.

The Farewell
dir. by Lulu Wang

When Billi's grandmother is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given only 3 months to live, the family decides its best not to tell her. Instead, they organize a fake wedding as an excuse for the whole family to spend time with her one last time. Awkwafina stars as Billi, finally getting first billing in a great role that allows her to stretch her dramatic and comedic muscles and proving that she belongs in more leading roles. Director Lulu Wang rides a fine line between familial melancholy and awkward comedy, and it works absolutely perfectly. This one is bound to make a splash, and is hopefully a career-maker for Wang and Awkwafina. Full Review Here.

dir. by Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson

This nature documentary follows one adolescent penguin (dubbed Steve) as he becomes a father for the first time in Antarctica. The footage is pretty incredible–it's hard to believe they were able to get so close and personal with the penguins and track the same one among thousands–and the sound work is very impressive. That said, this is a documentary for kids, with Ed Helms narrating and often even giving an anthropomorphized voice to the penguins. Despite its beauty, I prefer the Attenborough style to this Disney-ized one in which suddenly Steve's mate has eggs (nothing to see here, kids) and which ends with a Whitesnake song.

You Are Here: A Come From Away Story
dir. by Moze Mossanen

Just after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, all air traffic in the U.S. was shut down and thousands of planes were re-routed to land elsewhere. This film tells the story of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, where 30 planes with thousands of passengers were forced to land in its minuscule and unprepared airport. It's a story of unending kindness in the face of horrifying tragedy, how the whole town came together to provide shelter, food, and comfort during this incredibly difficult time. You'd be hard pressed to find a better subject for a documentary, and for the most part it lives up to its fantastic topic. While it loses focus in the last act, delving into a musical that was based on the same events, the bulk of the film is wonderful and makes up for the lackluster ending.

Speed of Life

dir. by Liz Manashil

In the middle of a couple having a fight, the man falls into a wormhole caused by the death of David Bowie. When he emerges, only seconds have passed for him, but for her it has been 24 years. The main draw here is the excellent casting: Ann Dowd and Allison Tolman play the older and younger versions of June respectively and work perfectly to give a sense of continuity between the two timelines. There are some really great ideas at work, exploring the difficulties of growing older and how tragedy affects us, and even some surprisingly interesting futurism (in 2040, anyone over 60 is required to live in government controlled senior homes, and Alexa-like devices annoy everyone and are constantly butting into the conversation). Unfortunately, there is a lot of wasted potential within the time travel conceit and the interesting future Manashil has created, and the ending doesn't feel satisfying given the excellent setup.

Summer Night

dir. by Joseph Cross

This feature directorial debut by actor Joseph Cross follows a group of friends through one summer night as relationships bloom and fall apart. Cross doesn't really hide that he's attempting to make a Richard Linklater film; he cast Ellar Coltrane from Boyhood in one of the leads and even recreates the axe baseball scene from Everybody Wants Some!! In some respects, it works–the ensemble cast is good and the camera work is very nice–but the writing is sorely lacking. The main two relationships involve a girl who just found out she's pregnant and her boyfriend who doesn't know how to handle it, and a boy who goes on a date with someone but is stuck on an old girlfriend. In both situations, the women's perspectives are often reduced to sitting around and crying or even admitting "I'm such a bitch." In the end, it feels a bit too "bros have to stick together" for my taste.

The Way You Look Tonight

dir. by John Cerrito

What if you found out that everyone you've matched with on an online dating service was the same person, just in a different body each time? That's the premise of this high concept romance which introduces the idea of the changeling, a being who changes bodies against their will each night. This film explores all kinds of ideas, from body image to self identity to homophobia in a smart way while managing to be a sweet romance. Full Review Here.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile
dir. by Joe Berlinger

Lately, the response to so many recent True Crime series has been, "How could they possibly not know?" This film, directed by the same man who recently did the nonfiction Ted Bundy series, Conversations with a Killer for Netflix, seeks to convincingly answer that question by showing almost none of the violence. Told mostly from the perspective of Bundy's girlfriend Liz (Lily Collins), you begin to see how Bundy (played excellently by Zac Efron) convinced those around him that it was all just a legal misunderstanding. It's an extremely unique approach to this kind of true story, and is chilling and fascinating in a way that few narrative true crime films achieve. Full Review Here.

The Tomorrow Man
dir. by Noble Jones

John Lithgow plays Ed, a man obsessed with the inevitable end of the world, a doomsday prepper who never misses the chance to tell people who stupid they are for not seeing signs of the end. When he meets Ronnie (Blythe Danner), a hoarder, he begins to see what he's been missing out on in a romantic relationship and his family. While it has some cute and charming moments (and the ending is unexpectedly cool), it mostly feels like an empty senior citizen romance. Mostly, I was bothered by Danner's character, who is about as mousy and empty-headed as they come, especially when paired with the overpowering Lithgow character. This one didn't do much for me.

The Death of Dick Long
dir. by Daniel Scheinert

Like most of the reviews out for this film have pointed out, it's difficult to describe this one without spoiling the gut punch of a reveal that comes about halfway through. To keep it spoiler-free, the story begins with two friends in Alabama leaving their mysteriously mortally wounded friend at the doorsteps of a hospital, and the misadventures they go on to try to keep it a secret. This one plays out much like a Coen Bros. movie, with a sense of humor that made me laugh out loud consistently. It must be mentioned that the music in the film is hysterical and adds a lot of character–the soundtrack consists largely of Nickelback, P.O.D., and Disturbed, which really puts you in the headspace of those strange goofballs. This is about as dark a comedy as it gets, and it's as hilarious as it is disturbing. Highly recommended.

dir. by Orlando von Einsiedel

Documentarian Orlando von Einsiedel turns the camera at his own family as they walk scenic routes across the UK and discuss for the first time the suicide of his brother many years ago. This one is an emotionally difficult watch, but an important one; it shows the value of communication in the wake of tragedy and the healing power of nature, but the journey is rarely an easy one. My only real issue is that despite the beautiful locales, the film gets very repetitive visually since 80% of it is the camera looking at them from ahead as they walk. Most powerful and saddening in the movie, though, is the fact that every single person they meet along their walk has also been affected by suicide of a loved one, a reminder that the awareness that the film brings is absolutely critical.

dir. by Tonia Mishiali

In this character piece from Cyprus, Elpida (Stella Fyrogeni) has just been told by her doctor that she is entering menopause, and the effects are heightened by her abusive and disgusting husband. Elpida begins to have daydreams about having affairs with younger men and fighting back against her husband, and eventually begins to lose connection with reality. Pause is very well shot and edited, and the central performance by Fyrogeni is outstanding, showing a huge range with very little dialogue (she doesn't speak for the first 9 minutes of the film). While the film feels like it's building to something huge and maybe doesn't quite deliver, it is a poignant and understated portrait of an aging woman who finds herself stuck in a terrible relationship.

In Fabric
dir. by Peter Strickland

If you're familiar with Strickland's previous films, you know they are strange to say the least, and you'll either love them or hate them, and In Fabric is no exception. When a very odd department store has a post-Christmas sale, Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) buys a red dress but soon begins to believe it is cursed when strange and violent things begin to happen. The movie is ultra-stylized, playing a bit like an Italian Giallo complete with bright colors and a killer synth score by the band Cavern of Anti-Matter, and with delightfully ornate and ominous dialogue from the store clerk. My only issue is that it tells two episodic stories of the dress, which feels like either too many or not enough. If this one is your kind of weird (it definitely was mine!), then you'll find lots to love. Full Review Here.

Teen Spirit
dir. by Max Minghella

Actor Max Minghella's directorial debut is a surprisingly polished one. Teen Spirit takes a look at the young Violet (Elle Fanning) entering a reality game show singing competition, supported by ex-opera singer Vlad (Zlatko Buric). The singing sequences are very impressive, even more so knowing that Fanning did all her own singing in the film, and they're visually very fun. Aside from being an inspirational story of perseverance, there wasn't a whole lot thematically to latch onto, though. There are times when Fanning really shines, but I found myself a little frustrated that she continues to play the exact same shy, quiet type that we've seen before.

Greener Grass
dir. by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe

If you thought In Fabric was weird, you haven't seen Greener Grass yet. A little similar in look to something like Too Many Cooks, this pastel suburban satire is about the difficulties of a soccer mom whose world is falling apart. Here's the best way to describe it: the fact that every adult in the film has braces is the least strange thing about the movie. A man becomes obsessed with drinking his pool water, a woman pretends to be pregnant by putting a soccer ball under her dress, and a child transforms into a dog. The absurdist humor is consistent and hilarious, and best of all, there's always a feeling that it serves the greater purposes of satirizing the suburbs as a nightmarish hell. DeBoer and Luebbe write, direct, and star and are absolutely stellar. One of my favorite movies of the year! Full Review Here.

Them That Follow
dir. by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage

Mara (Alice Englert) lives in the Appalachian mountains with her father (Walton Goggins), a pastor at a small pentecostal church where believers test their faith by handling venomous snakes. Amidst this interesting backdrop, Mara struggles between her love for non-believer Augie (Thomas Mann) and the man her father has arranged for her to marry. While the love story didn't necessarily grab me, the film has a few incredibly tense scenes that are very well crafted, and the performances are strong all around. The cast, which includes recent Oscar winner Olivia Colman, is definitely the highlight here.

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