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What It's Like To Attend A Film Festival During The Pandemic


The pandemic has upended so much of life as we know it. The movie industry has not been spared. At first, movie releases were delayed. Movie theaters had to close. And then as we all got used to the idea that this virus will be with us for some time, film festivals have had to pivot, too. The Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF, is the latest to adapt. This year, it offered socially distanced in-person screenings, as well as virtual ones. Film critic Carla Renata and Linda Holmes, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, have had their eyes glued to the screens at home for this festival. And they both join me now.

Welcome, you two.

CARLA RENATA: Thank you.


KELLY: Let's get to what you both watched and what you both liked. One of the most talked about movies was "Nomadland," which I should explain it was directed by Chloe Zhao. It stars Frances McDormand, who's playing a woman who lives as a modern-day nomad. What did you both think about it? Carla, you first.

RENATA: I thought it was an excellent film. It's set for a release date later on down the line around Christmastime in December. But I think that this was Frances McDormand's career best performance to date. And I love that the fact that it was really apropos to what we're going through right now in terms of economic issues, unemployment, homelessness, and this film also talks about what it looks like and what your life looks like when you get displaced. What does love look like when you're in that situation? And who do you ultimately become? It was an excellent film. I enjoyed it very much.

KELLY: Linda, you agree?

HOLMES: Yeah. This was just - I mean, not only was this my favorite movie I saw at the festival, it was my favorite movie probably that I've seen in several years, to be honest. I - the thing is when you talk about the fact that it's about a woman who kind of loses everything in the Great Recession and, you know, winds up living out of her van, it's sort of both about difficulty, but also it respects what people who live this kind of nomad lifestyle like about it. It respects the opportunity to be out in the world. And I think for me, especially right now, this just, like, sweeping, gorgeous trip through the American West and the Great Plains states, I could watch this just for the pictures a million times.

KELLY: All right. Carla, one more to ask you about because I'm told you loved it, and this is "One Night In Miami" directed by Regina King, somebody who is best known for her acting. Why did you like it?

RENATA: You know, I loved this film because it showed Black men in a very different way than we're used to seeing them on screen. We saw four immensely popular, famous Black man - Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, Malcolm X, Cassius Clay. We saw them supporting each other. We saw them loving on each other. We saw them having conflict, but they were still able to have these conversations without the threat of being disbanded by the police. And it speaks to right now because we're dealing with the Black Lives Matter movement right now. And this film was set during a time that they were dealing with the civil rights movement. So there's a lot of parallels going on. And Regina King, for this to be her directorial debut, she knocked this out of the park.

KELLY: Now, Linda, you saw a couple of documentaries that you liked. I'm told "City Hall" and "40 Years a Prisoner." Tell me about those.

HOLMES: Yeah. "City Hall" is a - it's like a 4 1/2-hour documentary about Boston city government. And it's by Frederick Wiseman. He's a master documentarian. He's done a bunch of these really long examinations of institutions. And when you hear 4 1/2 hours or whatever, it makes you think like I could never watch a movie like that, but honestly...

KELLY: Yeah, I was stifling my (laughter) I was holding my tongue on not saying that...

HOLMES: Yeah, but here's the thing - but if you've binge watched a documentary series, which a lot of people have, then you understand perfectly what a watch like this is like. Nobody takes the time to sit in a place like that and listen to what people are saying and film it very straightforwardly. I mean, it is - obviously, yes, it's long and it's sort of slow in its deliberate way. But I learned so much, and I thought it was so interesting. "40 Years A Prisoner" is related to the long conflict in Philadelphia between the Philadelphia police and city government and MOVE, which was a group that the police insisted was, like, a radical cult. I really learned a lot about it as somebody who grew up near Philadelphia and heard a lot of this story in the 1970s and '80s. So I really, really - I got a lot out of that one as well. That's directed by Tommy Oliver.

KELLY: All right. Sounds like a lot of meaty stuff to look forward to, which brings me to my last question, which is how much uncertainty is there about when those of us watching at home are going to get to see any of this? I mean, is it still really an open question when we'll get to see these great films you both have gotten to watch - Carla?

RENATA: Well, you know, a lot of the studios, especially Amazon, Searchlight, Hulu, have moved their titles on to streaming services so that people at home can see the films. But, you know, with the pandemic being the way that it is, I think it would be better to err on the side of caution. I love movies, and there's nothing that can literally take the place of grabbing your popcorn and your snacks and going and sitting down in the dark and watching a film. That's what made me fall in love with movies in the first place. But, you know, we're in a very different time right now. So we got to kind of ebb and flow and shift and move with what the times dictate.

KELLY: Well, it sounds like a pleasure to remember and to look forward to again in future. That was film critic Carla Renata and NPR Pop Culture correspondent Linda Holmes. Thanks so much to both of you.

HOLMES: Thank you.

RENATA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.