The 15 Best Movies of the Fall Film Festivals

15 Best Films of the Fall

Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. With those three film festivals, which unspool over the course of a little over a fortnight from late August till mid-September, the course of the year in cinema can be changed forever. Future Oscar nominees are revealed, career-defining performances are seen for the first time, and audiences take note of the movies they’re longing to see in the months ahead. That’s the tradition, anyway, though seldom have the fall festivals served up the cornucopia of riches they did in 2018, when “A Star Is Born” premiered within days of touch-the-stars Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man” at Venice, and best picture follow-ups “Widows” (from “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen) and “If Beale Street Could Talk” (by “Moonlight’s” Barry Jenkins) screened the same weekend in Toronto. Here, from a bounty of more than 300 new features, are the 15 films that most impressed Variety chief critics Owen Gleiberman and Peter Debruge.

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Courtesy of CBS Films
‘At Eternity’s Gate’ (Venice)

Julian Schnabel’s fluky and ravishing drama about the last days of Vincent van Gogh is a movie that channels the light — the evanescent glow of van Gogh’s painting and being — as if it were lightning in a bottle. Shot with a hand-held camera, and set during the time Van Gogh spent in the village of Arles in the south of France, where he at one point completed 75 paintings in 80 days, it’s a flowingly intuitive and celebratory biopic — a starburst sunflower of a movie. Yet it doesn’t pretend to be “definitive.” It’s a drama of moments, fragments, impressions. Willem Dafoe gives a performance of luminous intensity and ravaged power, playing van Gogh as a man literally in love with the world — with the transcendence of nature, which he considers holy. Dafoe hasn’t had a role since “The Last Temptation of Christ” that allows him to combine agony and ecstasy, devotion to a higher calling with…well, a messiah complex as grandly as this one. — OG

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Focus Features

‘Boy Erased’ (Telluride)

This engrossing and moving adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir, directed by Joel Edgerton, is a film that harvests solid middlebrow drama out of the psychological unreality, the vindictive inhumanity, and the sheer folly of gay “conversion” therapy. Yet the power of the movie is that it’s never smug about what it’s showing us. The central character, named Jared here (and played by Lucas Hedges), is 19 years old when his parents send him to a church-affiliated therapy program in their native Arkansas that’s like basic training fused with a 12-step cult of sexual repression. The program’s leader and lecturing guru, Victor Sykes (played by Edgerton), truly believes that homosexuality isn’t just a sin but a choice created by someone not having enough God inside them. And Jared, having grown up as the loving son of a conservative Baptist pastor, believes that too. The movie is about how the scales fall from his eyes, one cruel admonition and insanely intolerant ritual at a time. Hedges gives a searchingly vulnerable, wide-awake performance that recalls Timothy Hutton’s in “Ordinary People,” though you may wish his Jared came off as a little more Southern (in either accent or attitude) than he does. The movie isn’t perfect, but Edgerton stages it with a gliding emotional heft. He exposes the program’s hypocrisy layer by layer, and Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, as Jared’s parents, do a beautiful job of playing out the war between puritanism and acceptance, Christian orthodoxy and Christian love, that has become the red-state drama of gay liberation in America. — OG

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Mary Cybulski

‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ (Telluride)

Whether it’s watching Nicole Kidman sunburned and booze-soaked nearly beyond recognition in dark crime thriller “Destroyer” or Jamie Bell covered in white-power facial tattoos for neo-Nazi redemption story “Skin,” Toronto provided dozens of opportunities to watch actors we thought we had pegged completely transform and reinvent themselves on screen. Easily the most satisfying of these rediscoveries is Melissa McCarthy’s still-plenty-funny dramatic turn in “Diary of a Teenage Girl” director Marielle Heller’s second feature — a role that turns the typically ebullient comedian into a prickly black cloud of negativity and resentment. McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a struggling writer who discovers that it pays far better pretending to be dead. Based on Israel’s acerbic memoir about her foray into “crime writing” (she forged more than 400 letters on behalf of such literary luminaries as Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward), this amusing account of an unlikely con also impresses by featuring a lesbian lead character whose homosexuality is just one of the many facets of her personality — which could also be said for co-star Richard E. Grant, who’s a hoot as her best (and only) friend. — PD

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Yorgos Lanthimos

‘The Favourite’ (Venice)

Even if the cinema of Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”) has never been your cup of art poison, he has now found an ideal vehicle for his darkly mocking formal severity. “The Favourite” is a ruthlessly executed, outrageously entertaining entry in the genre of savage misanthropic baroque costume drama. Set in the court of Queen Anne during the early 1700s, with jaunty dollops of classical music playing in ironic counterpart to all the chicanery, it’s like “Barry Lyndon” meets “Dangerous Liaisons” meets “All About Eve.” The film is basically a duel of elegant backstabbing that plays out between two cousins, portrayed with exquisitely contrasting styles of devious finesse by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. Olivia Colman is Anne, the neurotic monarch caught between the two women’s manipulations. (She’s the most soulful character in a movie that says that too much soul, in a world as pitiless as this one, is something you can’t afford to have.) Lanthimos invites us to smack our lips at all the corruption, but the movie also recognizes that the cousins are using their talons to survive — to find a place in a society that does them little favor. They’re like Jane Austen characters for whom ambition has been heightened into killer instinct. “The Favourite” is a sick-joke morality play, yet there’s a place in the universe for this sort of Masterpiece Theatre of Doom cutthroat classicism. — OG

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Courtesy of Universal

‘First Man’ (Venice)

In Damien Chazelle’s turbulently spectacular drama about Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his journey to the moon, there’s nothing tranquil about the experience of space travel; it’s like being trapped in some ominous purgatory of industrial dread. “First Man” is a docudrama in the most thrilling sense of the word. The movie is immersive in its glitchy, hurtling, melting-metal authenticity, yet it’s also a haunting experience. It captures how the space program of the 1960s was about tearing a hole in the fabric of what’s possible. Chazelle knows the saga of NASA has been told before (very memorably in “The Right Stuff”), so his audacious strategy is to restrict the movie, with a focus that’s nearly obsessive, to the point-of-view of the astronauts. He orchestrates an enthrallingly original mood of adventure drenched in anxiety, and Gosling plays Armstrong as a stoic but troubled figure who becomes a tersely triumphant warrior in orbit. — OG

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Patti Perret

‘Green Book’ (Toronto)

Once a name synonymous with gross-out humor, “There’s Something About Mary” co-director Peter Farrelly delivers a feel-good movie about overcoming racism in 1962 — one that could land him and his two leading men smack in the middle of this year’s Oscar race. In this incredible true-life road movie — think “Driving Miss Daisy” in reverse, or the nerve-wracking away-game scenes from Jackie Robinson biopic “42” — when respected African-American pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) decides to book a concert tour through the Jim Crow South, the first thing he does is hire a streetwise white driver, Tony Lips (Viggo Mortensen), to double as his bodyguard and all-around fixer. Tony’s got more than his share of prejudices to overcome as well, but spending six weeks with a black man offers him a chance to redeem himself in ways that are both hilarious and poignant. The two central performances are terrific here, and half the reason to see the movie: Ali is dignified and elegant as an oh-so-proper character with virtually zero overlap with the drug dealer he played in “Moonlight,” while Mortensen gained 30 pounds and a thick Italian accent to play the meathead with a change of heart. — PD

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‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ (Toronto)

Barry Jenkins, in his first film since the Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” adapts a James Baldwin novel set in the early ’70s in a style that might be described as quietly momentous. It’s lush and heightened filmmaking, yet it’s anything but fantasy, since the tale that Jenkins tells is one of shocking social oppression that reverberates down through the decades. Early on, he draws us into a relationship that’s both romantic and traumatic, as 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne), who lives with her family in Harlem, gets swept up into a love affair with the cool, courtly Fonny (Stephan James), a budding sculptor who’s testing the waters of the post-Civil Rights era by moving from Harlem down to the Village. The connection between the two characters is suffused with aching sensuality and hope — until Fonny gets hauled off to jail on a false rape charge. Then Tish learns that she’s pregnant. The movie begins to gather an implosive dramatic force, as we realize that Jenkins is telling a story of African-American lives in which cataclysmic injustice looms not just as a possibility but as the essence of everyday normality. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a movie about its time, but it’s also a movie about today — about the upheaval of knowing that life, in an instant, could be tamped down so cruelly. As the trial looms, will Tish and Fonny’s family succeed in freeing him from prison? Jenkins uses their crusade to sketch in an entire community, achieving a humanistic suspense that’s never separable from the film’s moral urgency. — OG

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Courtesy of A24

‘mid90s’ (Toronto)

In the first film directed by Jonah Hill, Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old L.A. kid with hair bigger than his head and a gaze of sloe-eyed innocence, escapes his abusive home by hooking up with four slovenly, zoned-out skate punks he has nothing in common with. To say that the skateboarders don’t articulate their feelings would be understating it. They’re navel-gazing wastrels who live in their own heads. They don’t connect — they just exist. So what’s Stevie doing with them? Not much besides hanging out, being pleased that he’s allowed to hang out, and finding someone to model aside from his nasty messed-up brother (Lucas Hedges, as a hip-hop head case so dead in the eyes he makes Eminem look like a mensch). You can hear an echo of Hill’s wit in some of the film’s existential stoner absurdism, and the actors playing the skate punks have an abrasively winning found-object quality. Yet there’s also a touch of romanticism in Hill’s memories of what it was like to cruise down an L.A. boulevard on a skateboard as if nothing else mattered. The film is a slice of street life made of seemingly random moments, but what they add up to, in their way, is an adventure. — OG

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Venice Film Festival

‘Non Fiction’ (Venice)

There’s a lot of talk (which means a lot of subtitles to read) in French director Olivier Assayas’ latest, although the movie offers a veritable feast to those who appreciate movies that give you plenty to chew on. In Paris, the word “intellectual” is used practically as a put-down, but it certainly applies to the handful of smarty-pants characters on offer here, all of whom play some kind of role in the French literary world. There’s Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), the author whose novels are thinly veiled accounts of his amorous pursuits; his editor (Guillaume Canet), who is having an affair of his own with the sexy millennial (Christa Théret) responsible for pushing the publishing house into the digital age; and the editor’s wife, actress Selena (Juliette Binoche), who likes the idea of being immortalized in Leonard’s latest book. Modeled on the twisty, fast-moving tradition of farce, minus the broad humor, this sophisticated comedy carves out room for debates about how everything from Twitter to e-books are changing our lives, functioning almost like a time capsule for our precise technological moment. Assayas’ old-school decision to shoot on Kodak film at a time when people are increasingly watching on devices makes a statement of its own. — PD

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Aviron Pictures

‘A Private War’ (Toronto)

Leave it to Oscar-nominated documentary helmer Matthew Heineman, whose nonfiction work has put him on the front lines of the Mexican drug trade (“Cartel Land”) and the Syrian civil war (“City of Ghosts”), to do justice to the kind of hot spots that war reporter Marie Colvin dared to cover. Featuring a career-best performance from Rosamund Pike to rival Jessica Chastain’s turn as the fearless heroine of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the film capitalizes on the fact that Colvin would go where Western forces wouldn’t dare — whether it’s straight into the heart of the Arab Spring when Libya rose up against Gadaffi or risking everything to demonstrate that women and children, not terrorists, were the primary victims of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s air raids on his own citizens in Homs — to bring audiences a rare picture of conflicts and atrocities the average American chooses to overlook. Heineman and screenwriter Arash Amel don’t shy away from Colvin’s flaws, but instead confront head-on the PTSD she faced from her time in the field, where she lost first her eye and eventually her life. — PD

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Courtesy of Netflix

‘Roma’ (Venice)

This fall will demonstrate just how well Netflix is positioned to support a movie like Alfonso Cuarón’s latest, an intimate family saga given epic treatment by virtue of its stunning 65mm black-and-white cinematography. It’s hard to imagine home viewers getting nearly the same impact from the experience as festival audiences did, not only visually, but also in terms of the level of engagement it demands. This is a return to slower-paced art cinema by the “Gravity” director, who expects us to put in the effort, gradually establishing what could be seen as Mexico’s answer to “The Rules of the Game” in its view of class differences on the brink of a turbulent political event. With usual DP Emmanuel Lubezki indisposed, Cuarón lensed the movie himself, composing richly detailed tableaux through which he invites audiences to explore the background — a visual metaphor for the way he approaches the narrative as well, revealing this middle-class early-’70s family (inspired by his own, à la “Amarcord”) through the eyes of their servant (Yalitza Aparicio), who doesn’t say much. It’s not often that films privilege such a character’s point of view, particularly when the material is so personal — but such is Cuarón’s tribute to the nanny who raised him. — PD

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Clay Enos

‘A Star Is Born’ (Venice)

It’s that thing we yearn for but so rarely get to see: a transcendent Hollywood movie. The fourth remake of the “Star Is Born” saga has a look and vibe all its own, built around the uncanny flow of feeling that develops between its two stars: Bradley Cooper, who plays Jackson Maine, a hard-drinking, bad-ol’-boy redneck rock ‘n’ roller who has lost the lust for what he’s doing, and Lady Gaga, in her fetchingly accomplished movie-star debut, as Ally, an ingenuous singer-songwriter who becomes his lover and stage partner before rocketing into the new pop stratosphere. She takes off as he slowly crashes (that’s the soapy tragic “Star Is Born” concept), but Cooper, who directed the film, gets right onto the high wire, staging scenes that take their time and play out with a shaggy intimacy. The new “Star Is Born” is a total emotional knockout, but it’s also the most authentic drama of the rock ‘n’ roll world since “Almost Famous.” That’s one reason it gets you to believe, at every step, in the complicated rapture of the story it’s telling. — OG

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Venice Film Festival

‘Vox Lux’ (Venice)

Think you could be too jaded to flip for the good, old-fashioned emotional thrill of “A Star Is Born”? Well, picture an alternative, more sinister version, one that may as well have been written by Ayn Rand, in which a Katy Perry-like singer rages against the machine in private — ranting about “their knowledge of our commitment to the lowest common denominator” — while churning out the kind of pop music where people don’t have “to the think too hard.” Writer-director Brady Corbet’s bold, cynical commentary on the state of 21st-century celebrity culture starts with a shock, as a goody-goody teen from Staten Island barely survives a school shooting before being rocketed to national attention when her tribute song goes viral. Corbet then skips forward 18 years, substituting a glammed-out Natalie Portman, who goes big, delivering a heavily accented, showboating performance that veers well into camp territory, as a fresh tragedy reveals just how much the character’s values have changed. What would her relatively demure 13-year-old self (Raffey Cassidy) think of what she’s become? No matter: The show must go on, and so it does in a climactic closing concert that outdoes even Portman’s “Black Swan” finale in sheer showmanship. — PD

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Merrick Morton

‘Widows’ (Toronto)

At film festivals, you get so accustomed to watching heavy and/or challenging movies that you can almost forget how satisfying it is to sit down to a well-made, thoroughly engaging crowd-pleaser, like this ultra-slick genre movie from “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen, who demonstrates a much different skill set this time around. Mapping everything out in cool, slightly detached widescreen compositions, the helmer — who got his start making art videos for museums — crafts a gripping brain-teaser about three women (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki) forced to plan a risky heist after their husbands go up in smoke midway through a big score. That’s not to say “Widows” isn’t socially engaged; it’s just, this time, McQueen (and “Gone Girl” screenwriter Gillian Flynn) weaves a rich commentary about race, class, and gender into the very fabric of the story, revealing how much harder women must fight to get things done in a system where crime and corruption make things unfair for everybody. — PD

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‘Wild Rose’ (Toronto)

Jessie Buckley, in a star-making performance, plays Rose-Lynn, a talented but troubled young woman from Glasgow who is fixated on going to Nashville to become a country singer. When she gets up on stage at a local pub and lets loose, time melts away (we’re in the zone of incandescent tradition that is country), and so does every trace of her Scottishness. She becomes country, and her gift is transporting. Yet she’s also a spectacular screw-up. “Wild Rose” seduces us into thinking it’s going to be a cheeky inspirational fairy tale, but the neat trick of the movie is that it seems to grow up and find its glimmer of soul right along with its eager, selfish heroine. It’s a happy-sad drama that lifts you up and sweeps you along, touching you down in a puddle of well-earned tears. — OG