Now in its 39th year, the 2020 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival (September 24th – October 7th, 2020) has had to restructure operations this year, as every film festival has due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but remains a bright, eclectic and engaging celebration of cinema from around the world.
Among the five largest film festivals in North America, VIFF promises to have something intriguing and exciting for everyone from genre fans to arthouse enthusiasts, animation fiends, short film aficionadas, documentary dreamers, and so much more.
The 2020 edition of VIFF is pared down considerably owing to the pandemic but still offers over 100 feature films, most of which can be streamed from anywhere in British Columbia, while also showcasing a carefully curated in-cinema program at the Vancouver Film Centre.
While choosing between all the films can be intimidating, at least from the periphery, and with such diverse and dynamic offerings to choose from, knowing what to prioritize can be a big job unto itself. So once again, please allow Taste of Cinema to suggest our 15 top selections for can’t miss sensational cinema at VIFF 2020. Let’s do this!
15. The Truffle Hunters (directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Shaw, Italy/USA/Greece)
This charming documentary from Micheal Dweck and Gregory Kershaw unspools in Northern Italy where a handful of spirited senior citizens hunt for the highly coveted, exceedingly rare and rather expensive white Alba truffle. How expensive? To the tune of $200 per ounce. How rare? Well, the white truffle cannot be cultivated, only grows under the ground, and according to the eponymous truffle hunters themselves, can only be located using their specially trained sniffer dogs.
These eccentric old codgers and their canine companions, allowing Dweck and Kershaw unprecedented access to their mysterious undertaking makes for essential nonfiction viewing, and artful viewing at that. Described by the Hollywood Reporter as “striking for its visual poetry and the painterly quality of its images” this insightful and often absurdist story promises to be a delectable cinematic treat worth savouring.
14. The Father (directed by Florian Zeller, UK/France)
Floria Zeller makes his feature length directorial debut with The Father, which he adapted from his own stage play and, by all reports, it looks to be custom fit for its legendary star, Anthony Hopkins. On the surface it may seem that Hopkins is riffing on trite chestnuts as a wiley, independent old coot staring down dementia in his twilight years (don’t worry, I threw up in my mouth a little reading those words, too), but there’s more to Zeller’s designs.
Also starring Olivia Colman as Hopkins’s dutiful daughter and Imogen Poots as the primary caregiver under her employ, this promises to be an insightful and moving character piece that’s likely to generate buzz for the cast come awards season.
13. Last and First Men (directed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, Iceland)
Last and First Men is the ambitious and sadly posthumous release from Icelandic composer Jóhan Jóhannsson (he passed away in 2018). Adapted from the 1930 novel “Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future” by Olaf Stapledon and set some two billion years into the future.
Jóhannsson’s parting gesture, sadly both directorial debut and adieu, has drawn comparisons to Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky, promising an arthouse sci-fi experience that will be as challenging and creative as it is mind-expanding and moving. A headtrip of a movie captured in black and white, narrated by Tilda Swinton, and presented like some kind of immersive monolithic artifact from the future irrevocably connected to mankind’s past. In a word: wow!
12. Dancing Mary (directed by SABU, Japan)
Prolific Japanese genre director/writer/actor SABU is at it again with his latest cinematic offering that is sure to please his fans and jumpstart new ones. A cursory glance over on Dancing Mary’s website tells one all they need to know going into this promising, high-concept freakout: “Dancing Mary is a ghost film that defies the expectations. It has the lightness of a new wave road movie, but also rubs against multiple genres, like horror, social critique, jidai-geki, yakuza, fantasy and romance.” Sold!
11. Violation (directed by Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli, Canada)
This nerve-jangling revenge picture, set in the deceptively pastoral Quebec Laurentians, is one of the most explosive genre film directorial debuts in some time. The writing and directing team of Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer (who also leads the exceptional cast) cut their teeth making several memorable and menacing short films now make a feature length debut that will have the viewer crawling out of the theater afterwards (or their living room as most people will be enjoying VIFF online this year, obviously).
Essentially a chronologically skewered tale of two couples on a weekend getaway that goes wretchedly, horribly wrong, Violation is an elegantly filmed and disturbingly savage feminist revenge film that actually IS feminist. If you’ve got the stomach for this sort of thing then mark our words, Violation is essential viewing.
10. Sanzaru (directed by Xia Magnus, USA)
While paying homage and taking many visual cues from 1970s horror films and the gloomy Gothic sensibilities of Henry James’s dark classic “The Turn of the Screw” Sanzura, promises to be more than just your typical creaky old haunted house yarn. The first feature from Xia Magnus, this Texas-set chiller begins as Filipina caregiver Evelyn (Aina Dumalo) moves into the large country estate of Dena Regan (Jayne Taini) and here, in the perfect eerie setting, do her troubles begin.
Already garnering promising notices from the festival circuit, Sanzaru has been praised for its Hitchcockian trappings, and with story elements that suggest parallels to recent genre breakouts like Hereditary and Relic, it could just be that Sanzaru will be providing your next injection of nightmare fuel.
9. The Curse of Willow Song (directed by Karen Lam, Canada)
Wonderful character actress Valerie Tian is front and unmistakably center as the titular character in writer-director Karen Lam’s latest daring dark fantasy, The Curse of Willow Song. Inspired by eerie ghost stories, subversive manga comic books, and personal testimonies from female inmates, Lam offers up an edgy supernatural thriller with ample social commentary and true-life terrors to make her tale all the more alarming and admissible.
Willow (Tian) has just got out of the big house after serving time for arson, and finds herself on the rough streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Soon her world is repopulated by people from her past, old terrible temptations, misgivings and misunderstanding, not to mention her, you know, latent psychokinetic powers.