MIFF 2020 Goes Digital and Brings the Cinema to our Homes

I think we can all agree that, so far, 2020 has been a whole thing.

One casualty of the coronavirus is going to the cinema, and as a movie festival is pretty heavily reliant on that, I was resigned to the fact that MIFF wouldn’t happen this year. However, MIFF wasn’t going to deprive us of new movies, shorts, and Q&As, and for 2020 they went fully digital with their festival.

What it lacked in community and cinema experience, it more than made up for it with the movies. I have chosen four of my favourites to write about below.

A big thanks to MIFF for adapting and changing to handle this crisis, and here’s to next year watching movies in the cinema together again.

MIFF 2020 Goes Digital and Brings the Cinema to our Homes
First Cow (2019) – source: A24

First Cow

The perfect quarantine movie. Ninety percent of First Cow takes place outdoors, sometimes in the busy world of the fort, but mostly in empty patches of a quiet world. Feeling a bit stressed out about the lockdowns and curfews? First Cow is a great movie to watch and drift away for a bit.

It’s the story of Cookie (Joe Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee), two nobodies in the American wilderness who find each other and become fast friends. When the governor of the local fort brings over a cow (so he can have milk in his tea), they hatch a plan to use the milk for their own ends by making and selling cakes to the trappers and hunters that populate their corner of the Earth.

First Cow is a movie about friendship and food. It is about food’s power to take us back to a home that is far away and how it unites us. The central friendship between Cookie and King-Lu is a thing built on, perhaps at first, mutual dependency as a way to survive harsh terrain that gradually becomes a very sweet depiction of two friends looking after each other and trying to find their way.

Sweet would be actually a very good description of this whole movie. Cookie is far too kind and pure for the world he finds himself in and it is compelling to watch him, surrounded by dirt and violence, simply find contentment in making cakes with his friend.

First Cow is a delightful movie that moves slowly but purposefully. It sucks you into its world, creating a strange little bubble away from the stresses and horrors of 2020 while also managing to make statements about the birth of America and the omnipresent class divide between the haves and have-nots.

Kelly Reichardt’s movie demands to be watched with friends and cake, preferably homemade. It is, as my mother would say, just lovely.


MIFF 2020 Goes Digital and Brings the Cinema to our Homes
Black Bear (2020) – source: Momentum Pictures

Black Bear

Aubrey Plaza does not get enough credit as a dramatic actress, and hopefully, Black Bear helps change that. The film, in which a movie director goes to stay with a squabbling couple out in the woods, is a real showcase of her range as she plays the deadpan comedian we know her as but also shows streaks of cruel darkness.

Black Bear itself is told in two parts. The first has Plaza’s director getting away from it all with a married couple who can’t seem to get through a simple conversation without it descending into a furious argument. Her presence exacerbates things until a night of drinking and debating explodes into a shouting match.

The second part recontextualises everything and gives Plaza a showcase to really sow her acting chops. I won’t go into details about this second part as its best to go into it blind and find your feet as you go, but Plaza is electrifying in it playing drunk and furious with such intensity it’s hypnotising.

This movie, for me, killed April Ludgate as my go-to Plaza reference and leaves me excited to see what future dramatic roles she has.

MIFF 2020 Goes Digital and Brings the Cinema to our Homes
State Funeral (2019) – source: Mubi

State Funeral

This one might not be for everyone. It was definitely one my housemates didn’t want to join me for. I guess my pitch that it was over two hours of un-narrated period footage of Stalin’s funeral wasn’t as gripping for them as it was for me.

The movie by Sergei Loznitsa presents remastered footage from all over the Soviet Union during the period around the state funeral of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin. The only narration of any kind comes from lengthy, florid eulogies that are being played to citizens from all over the USSR.

The most incredible aspect of this movie is the scale. So many people are gathered on screen at any given moment, and all are grief-stricken for the mass murderer whose wrath could have easily turned on them at any moment.

A time capsule of a strange moment in history, State Funeral is a glimpse into the world of a cult of personality that seems incredibly alien and scarily familiar at the same time.

MIFF 2020 Goes Digital and Brings the Cinema to our Homes
Rose Plays Julie (2019) – source: Desperate Optimists

Rose Plays Julie

In this movie from Joe Lawton and Christine Malloy, Rose (Ann Skelly) goes searching for her birth mother, finds actress Ellen (Orla Brady), and a shocking revelation about her biological father. To get close to him, she adopts the persona of Julie, a young actress doing research for a role.

Rose Play Julie is a slow-burn thriller about belonging and the banality of evil men. Skelly is a magnetic performer anchoring many scenes with stoicism and silence that is both suffocating and captivating. Brady is also excellent throughout but reaches an apex during a climactic speech with the camera never giving any relief as she confronts one of the worst moments of her life.

There is a sense of unnerving horror as the movie shows Rose’s veterinarian training in sometimes too much detail but also in her interactions with her unknowing biological father, played with snake-y charm by Aiden Gillen.

Rose Plays Julie is a cold movie full of dark emotion and lingering silences, but it finds light and warmth in those dark places and is led by two absolutely outstanding performances.

Conclusion – MIFF 2020

To keep with my usual MIFF experience, I tried to choose a wide range of movies to watch with varying tones, topics, representation, and genres. What was most enjoyable about this year’s festival was being able to share it with my housemates and wife who usually join me for a few movies but can never commit to the level of cinema madness I usually fall under during festival time.

Introducing people to movies that take them out of their comfort zone or challenge their views is what a film festival should be about and having MIFF at home this year made it a lot easier for me to achieve this. The highlights above were all fantastic experiences and wonderful to share with people who probably wouldn’t usually give them a second look.

Hopefully, probably, definitely, MIFF will be back in the city next year and I can get out there with a glass of wine in a packed cinema. And just maybe I’ll be able to bring some new MIFF devotees with me.

Were these films among your favorites from MIFF? Please let us know in the comments below!

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