Like most years, the Philadelphia Film Festival was held at the end of October. Unlike most years, the festival did not take place in theaters, due to coronavirus keeping the city of Philadelphia’s movie theaters closed.
In lieu of theatrical screeners, the Philadelphia Film Society went with a two-pronged approach: They held a series of drive-in screeners, at PFS’ makeshift venue PFS Drive-in at the Navy Yard, and also offered an online streaming platform.
The drive-in experience was a bit limited, between the small screens and the location that was directly in the flight path of Philadelphia International Airport. The streaming platform, however, was fantastic – remarkably easy to use, and even with Roku and Apple TV apps, so watching the festival offerings was as easy as scrolling through Netflix.
They held a series of drive-in screeners, at PFS’ makeshift venue PFS Drive-in at the Navy Yard
The festival also ended November 2, giving everyone watching something – anything – to concentrate on in the 9 days leading up to the presidential election. The online portal expired at midnight on November 3, but I’ve got a feeling not many people were watching that night.
Some thoughts, here, on some of the fest’s most notable films. Release schedules remain in flux, with the COVID uncertainty and all, but I’ll list how to see them, if such information is available.
A delightfully old-fashioned, Douglas Silk-style romance, featured a pair of leads with very different ties to the city of Philadelphia: Tessa Thompson, who co-starred in the two Creed films, and Nnamdi Ashomugha, who had a brief, disappointing tenure as a defensive back for the Eagles, and retired to a career as a movie producer and actor. Directed by Eugene Ashe and gorgeously shot by Declan Quinn, this one is headed to Amazon Prime in December.
Pink Skies Ahead
A fun ’90s-set film with a fun ’90s-set soundtrack, Pink Skies Ahead is directed by Kelly Oxford, whose blog I used to read back in the day, and is based on her original story. This comedy-drama stars Jessica Barden as a directionless young woman in 1998 California who comes to terms with her diagnosis of anxiety disorder.
40 Years a Prisoner
This one wins the award for timeliness. Debuting at the festival just days after a police-involved shooting in Philadelphia, this documentary tells the story of the 1979 showdown between the Philadelphia police and the radical back-to-nature group MOVE. No, this isn’t the MOVE bombing — that happened in 1985 — but rather the incident that preceded. Like the recent Time, 40 Years a Prisoner deals with the documentary subject’s decades-long quest to get their relative released from prison, but beyond that it’s a highly entertaining exploration of 1970s Philadelphia. Directed by Tommy Oliver, it heads to HBO in December.
Like the last 20 minutes of Goodfellas, only if Henry Hill had been faking cancer. This Canadian thriller, directed by Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas, is about Katie (Kacey Rohl), a college student who’s pretending to have cancer in order to scam money. The way she piles scams on top of scams recalls Uncut Gems, although I couldn’t stop feeling sorry for her sweet, trusting girlfriend (Amber Anderson).
This documentary is just what it sounds like – a historical examination of the many years that the Federal Bureau of Investigation harassed Martin Luther King. Directed by Sam Pollard, the film assembles a fine amount of historical footage, while letting us know more documentation will be declassified in a few years. If nothing else, MLK/FBI is going to make you even angrier at that annual tweet from the FBI about Martin Luther King Day. The film will be released in January for Martin Luther King Day.
Lee Isaac Chung’s drama is a beautiful and often heartbreaking immigration story, about a Korean family that tries to make a go of it in rural Arkansas. Steven Yeun, from The Walking Dead, plays the lead role, but the MVP of the movie is Alan Kim, as the son of the family.
Lawrence Michael Levine’s thriller stars Aubrey Plaza, in a career-best performance. She’s first introduced as an actress-turned-filmmaker, spending a weekend at a country house with a couple (Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon). Then, the film flips back on itself and becomes something completely different. This one might take multiple viewings to appreciate, and it’s going to lead to angry Reddit threads from those seeking to “solve” it, but Lawrence Michael Levine’s film is one of the more purely enjoyable films of the fest.
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart
If you’re like me and you’ve always appreciated the Bee Gees’ music but don’t know a great deal about their backstory, this is for you. Directed by longtime producer Frank Marshall, the film traces the band’s entire story, from their early rock days to their disco era, while also going into a tangent of just how screwed-up that whole Disco Demolition Night thing was. There’s also much attention paid to the many tragedies that affected the Gibb boys, with Barry the only one still living. This will show on HBO on December 12.
Speaking of major rock acts of the ’70s who might be unknown to anyone under 40, this documentary goes through the life and career of Frank Zappa. Directed by Alex Winter – yes, Bill from Bill & Ted – who has emerged as a prolific documentarian, Zappa is made up of fantastic footage of Zappa himself, both in concert and on talk shows, where he became a vocal activist in the later years of his life. These days, we could really use a Frank Zappa.
Sound of Metal
Possibly the festival’s most intense film, director Darius Marder’s film is about Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a rock drummer and recovering addict who is gradually losing his hearing. Hoping to salvage his life and sobriety, and his relationship with girlfriend/bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke), Ruben goes through hell. This film not only sports two fine performances, but does absolutely amazing things with sound design. Sound of Metal hits Amazon Prime in early December.
Speaking of Olivia Cooke, she continues to redeem herself after Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. Another one with resonance in 2020, Little Fish envisions a world in which a virus is spreading around the world, which leads those who catch it to develop Alzheimer’s-like symptoms. Directed by Chad Hartigan (Morris From America), the film’s love story, between Cooke and Jack O’Connell, is likely to remind many of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Little Fish comes out in February from IFC.
Enemies of the State
Here’s a wild, extremely twisty documentary, that’s likely to appeal to anyone who loves ambiguity. Directed by Sonia Kennebeck, it’s a film about Matt DeHart, a Snowden type who leaked documents alleging major wrongdoing by CIA. However, DeHart was accused in Canada of possessing child pornography, spending many years in prison. Is DeHart innocent? Is he guilty? Are the things he alleges – including CIA responsibility for the 2001 anthrax attacks – true? The film lays out the cases for both sides of all of these.
No Ordinary Man
This compelling documentary, from directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, is about Billy Tipton, a musician and bandleader in the mid-20th century who sparked a tabloid sensation in 1989 when he died and was revealed to be a transgender man. There’s no existing video footage of Tipton, and very little of his music, so the film fills much of its running time with interviews by other trans male performers, some of whom are seen “auditioning” for the part of Tipton. We also hear from Tipton’s adopted son, who had no idea about the truth of his father’s gender identity until his death.
Some Kind of Heaven
You’ve heard a lot about The Villages, the massive retirement community in Florida that occasionally hosted rallies (or counter-rallies) for Donald Trump. Here’s a documentary, directed by Lance Oppenheim, about life inside the Villages, focusing on a few different specific residents. One of them, Dennis, is a Dirty John-like con man, seeking to avoid arrest warrants by finding a woman to shack up with. The film does a great job capturing what a surreal place The Villages must be.
Certainly the best movie I’ve ever seen about a woman in love with an amusement park ride. Zoé Wittock’s debut film stars Noémie Merlant, from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as a young woman who falls for the titular tilt-a-whirl, and yes, the film plays it completely straight. If you can get past the strangeness of the premise, it’s very charming.