The fall film festival circuit is where the year’s buzziest and most awards-worthy films often premiere, in cities from Venice and Telluride to Toronto and New York. Then, after they show up at the big festivals, they often fan out to regional festivals across the country, ready for movie lovers all over the place to catch a sneak peek ahead of their official release dates.
Some of 2021’s biggest titles — Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, and a lot more that made headlines out of this year’s fall festival circuit — will be everywhere soon enough. But it’s also important to take a step back and note the smaller films that might not garner as much buzz, but pack a punch nonetheless.
This year I attended both the Toronto and New York film festivals and saw a huge selection of terrific movies from around the world. Below, I’ve listed 19 of those movies — independent productions, art-house gems, dramas, and comedies — that have flown further under the radar but are worth looking out for nonetheless. The stories they tell, and the ways they tell them, show just how vibrant cinema is as the movies come back to life.
Paul Verhoeven draws on the true story of a 17th-century nun for Benedetta, adapted from Judith C. Brown’s book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. It’s the story of a torrid affair between the devout Sister Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) and a new novice, Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), who escapes a dangerous and abusive home situation by joining the convent where Benedetta resides. But that’s a relatively small piece of the puzzle. Benedetta is far more interested in power both secular and ecclesiastical, and in the ways that miracles — both real and imagined — might be harnessed to serve, and gain, those powers. So while the film aims to shock (Verhoeven is the director who made Robocop and Starship Troopers, after all), it’s got something interesting to say, too.
How to watch it: Benedetta opens in theaters on December 3.
Terence Davies’s last film, A Quiet Passion, centered on the poet Emily Dickinson, painting her as a saint for uncertainty and depicting a bitter life; in Benediction, Davies turns to a different poet, Siegfried Sassoon (a terrific Jack Lowden). Benediction — which means “blessing” — spends most of its time on Sassoon’s passionate but thwarted relationships with several different men, after which he eventually married a woman. The whole story is framed by Sassoon’s late-in-life conversion to Catholicism, amid his soured marriage and his son’s derision. There is no happy-go-lucky ending here, only the sense that an ineffable longing we have, to know and be known, is so precious and rare that most of us never find its fulfillment here on earth. But the film’s title lays bare its aims: To offer words of blessing over a man who never quite found the love he craved and, yet, kept looking.
How to watch it: Benediction is awaiting US distribution.
An early contender for one of my favorite films of 2021, Bergman Island is a layered and lovely film about the tension between making art and living real life, and how the two feed one another. Vicky Krieps stars as Chris, a filmmaker who travels with her partner Tony (Tim Roth), a more commercially successful filmmaker, to Fårö island for a creative retreat. Fårö is where the great director Ingmar Bergman lived and made his later work. As the pair spend time on the island, they start to be drawn apart; then, Chris’s new film starts to take shape, and we start to understand how life experience filters into her work. Written and directed by Mia Hansen-Løve — and presumably based, in part, on her own experiences with former partner Olivier Assayas — Bergman Island is like a diamond that you can turn over and over, seeing the light refract through each facet in new ways.
How to watch it: Bergman Island opened in theaters on October 15.
Joaquin Phoenix stars in C’mon C’mon, the sensitive and huge-hearted new movie from Mike Mills (whose last film was 20th Century Women). Phoenix is Johnny, an artist interviewing young people around the US about the future: what they hope for, what they dream of, what they fear. But when his semi-estranged sister (Gaby Hoffman) suddenly has to attend to an emergency, he ends up caring for his precocious and eccentric 9-year-old nephew Jesse (Woody Norman), and both of them learn a lot from one another. The premise of C’mon C’mon could easily swing into way-too-precious territory, but Mills’s steady hand and feeling for story rhythms, along with Phoenix’s performance, keep the ship on course. The result is a warm and winsome meditation on the ties that bind us to one another.
How to watch it: C’mon C’mon opens in theaters on November 19.
Drive My Car
Ryusuke Hamaguchi directed and co-wrote the screenplay for Drive My Car, which is based on a Haruki Murakami short story. The film centers on Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theater director who returns home one day to find that his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a TV executive, has died. Then time jumps forward, and Kafuku is directing a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, with each actor performing in their own language. He decides to cast his wife’s lover, Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), in the main role. Through rehearsals and the relationships that develop during the project — including with Misaki (Toko Miura), the quiet young woman hired to drive him to and from the theater — Yūsuke starts to understand something that’s nearly ineffable about his past and his future. It’s a melancholy, meaningful film, occupied with friendships, old wounds, and the task of continuing to live.
How to watch it: Drive My Car will open in the US on November 24.
Ivan Grbovic’s globe-trotting film centers on Willy (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who used to work for a drug cartel in Mexico but ran afoul of his boss when he fell in love with the boss’s wife Marlena (Yoshira Escárrega). Willy fled to Canada; now he’s a migrant worker in rural Quebec. The family who owns the farm on which he’s working has their own set of family issues, and the gruff but kind employer grows less kind when he comes to believe one of his employees has hurt his teenage daughter. It’s a kind of domestic epic, a story of straining hope and being trapped, full of gorgeous vistas and heartbreak.
How to watch it: Drunken Birds is awaiting US distribution.
It’s rare to see animation as the main medium in a documentary, but Flee uses it to great effect. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen interviews his friend, Amin, who endured years of horror after fleeing Afghanistan with his family in the 1990s following the Taliban takeover. Flashbacks to Amin’s experiences are mixed in with his current uncertainties surrounding his relationship with his partner, Kasper, who desperately wants to buy a house, get married, and settle down. The effect of his past is a strong one, showing how even after finding safety and relative stability, Amin’s previous experiences will never stop reaching their long fingers into his present. Flee is heartbreaking and moving, and hard to forget.
How to watch it: Flee will open in theaters on December 3.
Listening to Kenny G
Listening to Kenny G is a documentary about the smooth-jazz sax crooner that sets out to ask a few barely answerable questions: Why do people love Kenny G? Why do people hate him? And what do their responses to him say about taste, preference, and art? In films like Hail Satan? (about the Satanic Temple) and The Pain of Others (about women who believe they have Morgellons disease), director Penny Lane has consistently refused to walk the easy route. There are no pat answers in her movies, and Listening to Kenny G is no exception. The sax player himself is the film’s main interviewee, but he’s flanked by music critics who point out all his shortcomings. What right do they have to tell someone who walked down the aisle to a Kenny G song that they’re wrong? That’s the question Listening to Kenny G raises and doesn’t try to answer outright. Instead, it focuses on a vital secondary question: Is there a dividing line between “I like this” and “This is good”? And should we care?
How to watch it: Listening to Kenny G will premiere on HBO and start streaming on HBO Max on December 3.
The Lost Daughter
Maggie Gyllenhaal directed and wrote The Last Daughter, based on an Elena Ferrante novel, and it’s an extraordinary directorial debut. Olivia Colman plays Leda, a middle-aged professor of comparative literature who’s on a working holiday in Greece. There, she meets Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother who dearly loves her daughter but finds the demands of parenthood are driving her to distraction. As Nina and Leda spend time together, their story starts to twine with Leda’s past (in which she’s played by Jessie Buckley), a time when caring for her own young daughters pushed her to her limits. The Last Daughter is a marvelously complex story, expertly crafted, with the freedom, loneliness, and claustrophobia of the main characters aptly evoked by the cinematography. Its splendid performances and keen sense of ambiguity feel so true to life that you might feel your heart catch in your throat.
How to watch it: The Lost Daughter will open in limited theaters on December 17 and begin streaming on Netflix on December 31.
A surreal drama from the celebrated director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Memoria stars Tilda Swinton as Jessica, a woman visiting her sister in Bogotá, Colombia. One night, she is awakened in the dark by the deafening sound of a bang. Yet nobody else seems to have heard it. What’s going on? It’s never totally clear, but solving a mystery isn’t the point of Memoria. Instead, it’s a slow, odd, hypnotic journey in which Jessica looks for answers, digs into life itself, and comes face to face with what it means to actually be a human inhabiting this planet. The film is strange and engrossing, and if you feel like you’ve slipped into another dimension watching it, then you’ve watched it well.
How to watch it: As distributed by Neon, Memoria will open on December 26 at New York City’s IFC Center, then travel throughout the United States, playing exclusively on one screen at one theater at a time. Keep an eye on Neon’s website for details.
Rebecca Hall wrote and directed this adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, which is about two childhood friends who encounter one another again in adulthood. Irene (Tessa Thompson), who goes by Reeny, lives with her doctor husband (André Holland) and their children in a stately Harlem house. Claire (Ruth Negga) is married to a racist businessman (Alexander Skarsgård), who has no idea that his wife is not white. The film feels almost dreamlike, evoking a world in which the lines that separate friendship from desire, love from hate, and white from Black are more permeable than you might expect — a world a lot like today’s.
How to watch it: Passing will open in limited theaters, then begin streaming on Netflix on November 10.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire director Céline Sciamma returns with a much smaller-scale but no less affecting film. Young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), whose beloved grandmother has just passed away, is helping her parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) clean out the now-empty home where her mother grew up. Nelly is close to both of her parents, but is especially concerned about her mother. She longs to have one more day to spend with her grandmother. One day, in the woods, she meets a girl named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), and the two forge a friendship that might be the fulfillment of her fears and wishes. Petite Maman is a pithy, gemlike film, clocking in at only 72 minutes and as pristine and poignant a reflection on the bonds that tie us to one another across time and generations as one can imagine.
How to watch it: Petite Maman was acquired by Neon and is awaiting a US release date.
Indelible, gutting, and hopeful, Procession is a documentary unlike anything you’ve seen before. The filmmakers, led by director Robert Greene, reached out to six men in the Kansas City, Missouri, area who were abused as boys by Catholic priests and clergy. Rather than proceeding as an exposé, Procession is a collaborative project in healing, as each of the six men creates and films traumatic memories in a drama therapy-informed quest to … well, what, exactly? That’s what they’re exploring: the meaning of healing, the ways we perform to cope and to crack ourselves open, and the possibilities, such as they are, for redemption. It’s a must-see.
How to watch it: Procession will open in limited theaters on November 12 and start streaming on Netflix on November 19.
The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s first film since 2009’s Bright Star is The Power of the Dog, which is set, despite its New Zealand shooting location, in the American West. For most of its runtime, The Power of the Dog is confined to the big ranch that Phil and George (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) own and operate. George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and brings her there, along with her waifish teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil despises both of the ranch’s new residents. But people’s exteriors rarely match what they’re capable of inside. The film will keep you guessing as it morphs from a Western to a romance to something deliciously dark, a melodrama with an eerie bite and sweeping, craggy vistas.
How to watch it: The Power of the Dog will open in limited theaters on November 17 and start streaming on Netflix on December 1.
The Souvenir Part II
The Souvenir Part II picks up right where 2019’s The Souvenir left off. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is reeling from the overdose death of her boyfriend (Tom Burke), and she decides, somehow, to process what happened through her thesis film. Meanwhile, her mother (Tilda Swinton) tries to help her get through the grief. The Souvenir Part II (based on writer and director Joanna Hogg’s own memories) is kind of a movie about making The Souvenir. But it’s also about the sly and surprising ways that art can help us cope, understand, and heal from what life throws our way. The film is Hogg’s gentle tribute to her younger, sometimes more foolish self, and it’s very funny, too. (Be sure to watch The Souvenir before you see it; it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime and available to digitally rent on other platforms.)
How to watch it: The Souvenir Part II will open in theaters on October 29.
The Velvet Underground
Todd Haynes directs a highly satisfying documentary about the legendary Velvet Underground, the rock band that formed in New York City in 1964 and came to embody an important moment in the history of rock. (Plus, they rock.) Haynes is no conventional director, and while he takes a fairly standard approach to the story — beginning with Lou Reed’s childhood on Long Island and moving forward from there — he weaves together more of a tapestry than a clunky paint-by-numbers documentary. The Velvet Underground is as much about the culture of 1960s New York City, dominated by Andy Warhol’s in-crowd and the work they made at his Factory, as the band itself. That’s to the film’s benefit. Using the screen as a window and collaging together images and footage with audio from interviews, Haynes evokes a mood and an era; he reminds audiences that some success comes from talent and hard work, and some of it just comes from being in the right place at the right time.
How to watch it: The Velvet Underground will open in limited theaters and begin streaming on Apple TV+ on October 15.
The Worst Person in the World
One of this year’s breakout festival favorites is The Worst Person in the World, about four years in the life of 20-something Julie (Renate Reinsve). Like many young people, she realizes in university that she doesn’t want to be a neuroscientist; she wants to be an artist. So she blows up her life and starts over, winding up in a relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie). That’s just the beginning. The Worst Person in the World tells Julie’s story in 12 chapters with a prologue and an epilogue — she is the main character in her own story, one that she’s writing as she’s living it. It’s a film about navigating life as a millennial, trying to figure out what love is like, what work is for, and whether you’re following your heart or whether you’re just, well, the worst person in the world.
How to watch it: The Worst Person in the World was acquired by Neon and is awaiting a US release date.
Unclenching the Fists
Unclenching the Fists is the story of Ada (Milana Aguzarova), a teenage girl from a small village in the outer reaches of Russia’s Caucasus region. She lives with her incredibly controlling father and her younger brother, who is so dependent on her that he calls her “mom.” Having suffered a horrifying accident in childhood, she needs surgery before she can leave home, but her father refuses to take her to get the necessary medical care, unwilling to let her out of his grasp. At the same time, she is also being pursued by a somewhat repulsive young man from the same village, but he’s the only boy who’s ever showed interest. When her older brother returns home from his job in a nearby city, the dynamic at home begins to shift. Ada is trapped, sometimes literally, by the men all around her, and Unclenching the Fists (which won director Kira Kovalenko a top prize at the Cannes film festival) is the tale of a young woman struggling to break free.
How to watch it: Unclenching the Fists was acquired by Mubi and is awaiting a US release date.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
A haunting, funny, tightly written meditation on loneliness and connection, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is set up as a triptych. In the first story, one woman (Hyunri) tells her friend (Kotone Furukawa) about the man one of them recently met on a date; she doesn’t realize her friend is hiding a secret. In the second story, a young woman (Katsuki Mori) agrees to set a trap for her professor (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) at the behest of her boyfriend, but it doesn’t go as planned. And in the third story, a woman (Fusako Urabe) returns to her hometown for her high school reunion and meets with an old love, only to discover all is not as it seems. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi crafts each one as a sensitive and surprising tale, and the result is a film that asks how luck and fantasy operate in the love we preserve and the love we throw away.
How to watch it: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy opened in the US on October 15.