It was the first weekend of November 2019 that the fifth annual Independent Film Festival Boston’s Fall Focus wrapped up with a sold-out screening of Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the tear-jerking ending of which prompted one of the most cathartic eruptions of mass blubbering I’ve ever been present for at the Brattle Theatre. We all probably would have cried even harder if we’d known it would be the last public IFFBoston event for the next 23 months. Program director Nancy Campbell and executive director Brian Tamm tried to keep the torch burning last fall and this past spring with characteristically well-curated virtual festivals for home viewing, but this week’s Fall Focus (running Oct. 20-24) is a welcome return to the organization’s original mission: gathering the community together to share the experience of seeing exciting and original movies with one another in the area’s historic independent venues. And as always, they’ve put together a wildly diverse and enticing lineup of 11 films featuring everything from porn stars to Princess Diana, complete with memories of the Emerald Isle and imaginary Parisian magazines.
Things will look a little different this year, thanks to a few common-sense precautions. The Brattle is selling tickets at 50% capacity, with reserved seating arranged to maintain social distancing. A Cambridge city ordinance requires face masks to be worn indoors when not actively eating or drinking, and the theater will be asking for proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test at the door. (Obviously, everyone has their own comfort level, but there have been a few obstreperous voices in the critical community profanely objecting to the return of in-person film festivals this fall. Personally, I have to wonder if not now, when will it be okay with them for masked, vaccinated adults to gather responsibly? Where’s the endpoint to these arguments?) What I’m excited for, maybe even more than the movies, is reuniting with the IFFBoston community, making new festival friends and reconnecting with fellow film lovers I’ve dearly missed over these past two years. Campbell emailed to say, “We are so looking forward to seeing our loyal supporters after all this time.”
The Fall Focus kicks off on Wednesday night, Oct. 20, with Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” the most elaborately designed dollhouse yet from this sometimes maddeningly singular filmmaker. Paying tribute to a fictional magazine modeled on “The New Yorker,” the movie takes the structure of a typical issue, cycling through three short stories and an obituary at the end, providing plenty of space for Anderson stock company members Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Tilda Swinton, plus room for newcomers like Timothée Chalamet and Jeffrey Wright, the latter playing a James Baldwin stand-in to droll comic effect. A marvel of geometric precision that looks even less live-action than the director’s animated efforts, it’s the most Wes Anderson-iest of Wes Anderson movies. Take that as either a recommendation or a warning.
A lot rougher around the edges is Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket,” in which the director of “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project” follows a washed-up adult film actor (played by former MTV personality Simon Rex) who returns to his Texas hometown and immediately starts trying to hustle his way back to Hollywood. It’s a lewd and loosey-goosey farce, in keeping with this filmmaker’s interest in marginalized people not as martyrs or symbols but as scamps he accepts on their own difficult terms. On the classier side, we’ve got indie movie royalty Kristen Stewart crossing the pond to play Diana, Princess of Wales in “Spencer.” Director Pablo Larraín turned the White House into the Overlook Hotel in his daringly artsy 2016 “Jackie,” so I can’t wait to see what he does with Buckingham Palace.
Kenneth Branagh has had such a strange career behind the camera, from Shakespeare to “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” His last directorial effort was an adaptation of “Artemis Fowl” that went straight to Disney+, but he just won the Audience Award from the Toronto Film Festival (predictor of Best Picture winners “Green Book” and “Nomadland”) for “Belfast,” a splashy, black-and-white reminiscence of his childhood in Northern Ireland that’s being heralded as the feel-good movie on this year’s festival circuit. Of a presumably less nostalgic bent is “Happening,” writer-director Audrey Diwan’s adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel about the risks run by a promising young student seeking an illegal abortion in 1963 France. (I can’t imagine why this story would have any relevance in America today.) Diwan won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, perhaps as the jury’s way of apologizing for when they gave it to “Joker.”
Speaking of atonement, Joaquin Phoenix returns to indies with “C’mon C’mon,” starring as an emotionally constipated radio host stuck babysitting his precocious nephew on a road trip to New Orleans in the latest family comedy from “Beginners” and “20th Century Women” director Mike Mills. (It’s the second of the festival’s films shot in black and white. I like this trend.) The great Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier is back with “The Worst Person in the World,” the third chapter of a loose coming-of-middle age trilogy he’s crafted with regular co-writer Eskil Vogt and star Anders Danielsen Lie, following his rapturous 2006 debut “Reprise” and 2012 IFFBoston alum “Oslo, August 31st.”
Saturday, Oct. 23, starts with a rare chance to see Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s English language debut, “Memoria.” The latest trance film from the Thai avant garde legend stars Tilda Swinton (of course) and has been the subject of controversy thanks to distributor NEON’s unique release plan. A theatrical-only affair, they swear the movie will never be released on streaming or home video and have instead pledged to tour it across the country one city, one cinema at a time over the next several years. I think this is the best idea I’ve heard in ages, especially since Weerasethakul’s films already kind of feel more like museum installations. What a shrewd way to make an uncommercial venture into an event, and I’m all for anything that restores a sense of occasion to moviegoing.
The late show gets pretty wild Saturday night with “Joy Ride,” comedian-filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait’s curiously moving chronicle of a recent club tour he took down South with Boston standup favorite Dana Gould, where the two took time to hash out their old backstage beef from decades ago after almost getting themselves killed in a car accident. Goldthwait’s been a longtime friend of the festival ever since IFFBoston was one of the few brave enough to screen his sicko, Robin Williams-starring “World’s Greatest Dad” back in 2009, and it’s been a pleasure to watch his directorial career develop over the years. He and Gould will be in attendance for the “Joy Ride” screening, and if you’ve ever been to a Goldthwait Q&A you know what you’re in for. (Everyone else, fasten your seat belts.)
It’s been so long since the “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” screening I mentioned earlier that Céline Sciamma has already made another movie. “Petite Maman” is a beautiful miniature (it runs barely 72 minutes) about two 8-year-old girls living in the French countryside. One’s mother is sick and the other’s has gone away, and together these two negotiate their abandonment anxieties through imaginative play and what just might be a metaphysical miracle, but Sciamma is too savvy a filmmaker to tell us for sure. This is one of those little movies that does every small thing so right it feels much bigger than the sum of its short scenes.
There’s more maternal drama to be found in the closing night film, Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers.” Penélope Cruz and newcomer Milena Smit star as single moms sharing a hospital room during their pregnancies, only to find their lives intertwined by events both easily predictable and deliciously outlandish. It’s another of the director’s bawdy soap operas but this time with a bold, historical bent, tying the telenovela twists into lessons of the Spanish Civil War in a gutsy gambit that by all rights shouldn’t work, but plays like gangbusters. The perfect note on which to end a festival, the film’s stunning final scene is not just a celebration of a people’s perseverance but also a haunting reminder of just how fragile our communities can be.
IFFBoston’s Fall Focus film series runs Oct. 20-24 at the Brattle Theatre.