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Film Fest 919 2020 Edition: Ammonite, Nomadland, One Night in Miami, and More

In a year when many film festivals have only been held virtually, the North Carolina Triangle's Film Fest 919 pulled off the impossible and held a live film festival at three separate venues in Chapel Hill, NC: the Silverspot Cinema, the Lumina Theater's outdoor venue, known as the Green, and the newly built Drive-in at Carraway Village. Although the first weekend of the festival has come and gone, the festival lasts through October 31, and there are still two weekends to go. Listed below are my thoughts about some of the films that are part of this year's festival. 

Frances Lee's Ammonite (Historical Romance)

Lee's sophomore feature film is a period drama/love story about a relationship that forms between real-life paleontologist Mary Anning and geologist Charlotte Murchison. Although the story's historical accuracy has been called into question, the film stars Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, two well-liked and accomplished actresses. Winslet in particular pulls off a feat in acting by transforming into the dowdy and somewhat grumpy Mary. While the story is likely to generate Oscar buzz, it's too similar to Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which is definitely the stronger story. Viewers who want something similar to Portrait, may appreciate having something similar so soon. The film shows two women who defy society's expectations, both in their work and the way they feel about each other. 

Ekwa Msangi's Farewell Amor (Drama)

Farewell is Msangi's feature-length directorial debut. After a 17-year separation, an Angolan man is joined in America by his wife and teenage daughter. This was my favorite film from the festival. It depicts the all-too real experiences of families who face separation, only to have to learn to share living space together again. The husband and wife feel like strangers, and the daughter has never known her father. The story is told from all three perspectives. We root for the family to become one again yet we understand why that proves difficult. On top of that, the film celebrates the joy of dancing and the way it can help communicate words too difficult to say. All three characters do outstanding work in their roles.

Buy tickets to Farewell Amor

Phyllida Lloyd's Herself (Drama)

In this female-centered drama, Sandra, the mother of two girls, gathers the courage to escape her abusive husband. Although she works multiple jobs and does her best to survive, she becomes inspired to build her own house from a YouTube video. She gathers a hearty crew and together, they unite forces to do the impossible. This heartwarming movie was classier than a Lifetime movie but had the same feel. Clare Dunne, who co-wrote the screenplay, also stars. While I appreciated this story, and the recurring theme about Sandra's birthmark being a sign of strength (the birthmark shown is Dunne's real birthmark and not a makeup job), this story seemed eerily similar to Cara Brookins' real life story, as told in her memoir Rise, and no one is talking about that.

Buy tickets to Herself 

Michel Franco's New Order (Dystopian)

In this bleak dystopian thriller, the high-society wedding of Marianne, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, is interrupted by unexpected visitors, intent on balancing the scales of wealth and not ashamed to use violence to get their way. Meanwhile, Marianne has left the safety of her family's bunker to deliver money to a former house servant, who needs funds for an emergency surgery. When Marianne is captured, she is held hostage, along with other upper-class citizens and used as a pawn in a powerplay no one fully understands. The dynamics of class warfare are on full display in this violent and visceral film. Green paint is the symbol of the poor's wrath, and viewers may never be able to look at its hue again without getting shivers. 

Philippe Lacôte's Night of the Kings (Fantasy/Drama)

A inmate, newly arrived at the MACA prison in Abidjan, Ivory Coast is appointed as the prison's Roman, a court-appointed storyteller, who must tell stories on the rising of the red moon to survive the night, like a type of Scheherazade. The Roman enters into his role tentatively and allowing for audience participation is a must for these inmates, who involve themselves in the story with improvisational movements and call-and-response chants. Meanwhile the reigning boss of the prison must secede his power as his body begins to shut down. This immersive and sensory film speaks to the power of stories, especially for the voiceless and marginalized in society. Here, in this prison, where the damned live shut off from the rest of the world, stories are survival -- stories are life. The themes are timeless but the cultural context is decidedly West African.

Buy tickets to Night of the Kings

Chloé Zhao's Nomadland (Drama)

Loosely based on Jessica Bruder's non-fiction book by the same name, Nomadland tells the story of Fern, a woman who leaves the stationary life to become a modern day nomad, living out of her renovated van. Fern moves about, working temporary jobs and finding community with other like-minded people. As we observe her conversations and interactions with others, we learn the pluses and minuses of life outside the margins. Many of the actors are real people whom Bruder met during her research. Like other memoir/travelogues adapted to screen before (Sean Penn's Into the Wild and Jean-Marc Vallee's Wild), Nomadland is a slice of America few get to see.

Buy tickets to Nomadland 

Regina King's One Night in Miami (Historical Drama)

Regina King's film directorial debut is a fictional rendering of a meeting that takes place in a hotel room between Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown at a pivotal moment in all four lives. Although the 1960s setting of One Night in Miami comes across loud and clear in the clothing, decor, and dialogue, the themes and conversations we observe are just as relevant today. The tightly-scripted screenplay by Kemp Power (who wrote the stage play the movie is based on), gives all four main characters room to reveal their character's external and internal motivation as the night wears on. Lance Reddick does admirable work as Brother Kareem the bodyguard, also.

Buy tickets to One Night in Miami 

George Gallo's The Comeback Trail (Crime/Comedy)

Viewers anxious for a comedy may appreciate this joyful love letter to movies and moviemaking, starring Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones, Emile Hirsch, and Zach Braff. Movie producer Max Barber owes money to the mob and has no prospects for paying it back before he is killed. But after a freak accident on set earns a rival producer settlement money, Max gets an idea: pretend to make a movie starring a washed-out and suicidal actor. Max plans to stage an "accidental death" and collect the check, but things don't go as he planned. It's part farce, part black comedy, and 100% genius. Even though the ending is telegraphed a mile away, the love of movies is on full display. Try if you like: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Be Kind Rewind.

Buy tickets to The Comeback Trail

Alan Ball's Uncle Frank (Family Drama)

Beth Bledsoe leaves her rural South Carolina home to go to college in New York, where her favorite Uncle lives, the mysterious Uncle Frank, who has always been the family oddball. There, Beth learns a secret Frank has told no one from home, he's gay and has lived with his partner Walid for ten years. When Uncle Frank's father/Beth's grandfather dies, the three make the long trip home to be at the funeral. This southern-flavored drama has themes of family, religion, identity, and coming of age/coming to terms. Try if you like: The Family Stone, Home for the Holidays.

Buy tickets to Uncle Frank 

Christian Petzold's Undine (Magical Realism/Fantasy)

Christian Petzold's Undine is a German language fairy-flavored psychological love story. Mesmerizing underwater imagery and the architecture of Berlin create a strong sense of place. Undine is abandoned by her lover and feels compelled to kill him for his choice, but when she meets Christoph, Undine dares to dream of love with someone else. But will the gods be satisfied or is Undine fated to destroy every man she loves? Co-stars Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski sell their tragic love story.

Buy tickets to Undine 

Although all of the films are worth catching, my don't-miss list is The Comeback Trail, Farewell Amor, Night of the Kings, Nomadland, One Night in Miami, and Undine

Other movies available that I haven't seen:
Lupin III
Fatman/Good Samaritan
Rocky Horror Picture Show