Abraham Lincoln

Capsule Review Roundup for the 2023 Robin and Valerie International Film Festival

September 19th, 2023 | Robin

A Ken and Robin Consume Media Special Feature

For the second year in a row, my wife Valerie and I filled the spot in our hearts and schedules previously reserved for the Toronto International Film Festival with our own at-home selection of international, indie, and art house titles available on streaming. Programming to mimic what we remember as the golden age of TIFF, I picked films available on VOD and subscription platforms. Most of these should be available to you, although this varies by territory. Check for your location to see where you can find them. I’m in Canada and used Crave, The Criterion Channel, Kanopy, Mubi, Netflix, Prime, and rented from Amazon, Apple, and Google.

As I used to do with my TIFF capsules, I’ve listed these in rough order of preference. As I gave most of them a Recommended rating there’s not really much difference between them and I’d probably list them in a different order a month from now.—RDL

The Pinnacle

Return to Seoul [France, Davy Chou, 2022] Young French woman (Park Ji-min) initiates years of inner turmoil when, during an unexpected trip to Korea she ambivalently seeks her birth parents. Incisive writing and emotion-packed visuals brought into stunning focus by a searing, lucid lead performance from Park. And it’s her first movie role!


Broker [South Korea, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2022] An unlikely temporary family forms when a dry cleaner (Kang Song-ho) and his accomplice (Gang Dong-won) attempt to sell a young woman’s (Ji-eun Lee) baby, with a tough minded cop (Boona Dae) on their trail. Koreeda’s deft touch with emotion illuminates material that in lesser hands would easily slop over into manipulative sentimentality.

Cairo Conspiracy [Sweden/France/Finland/Denmark, Tarik Saleh, 2022] When the Sunni Grand Imam dies, an unworldly new student at Al-Azhar University becomes a pawn in the covert political struggle to choose his successor. Masterfully told political thriller with fresh mosque-and-state twists and turns.

Alcarràs [Spain, Carla Simón, 2022] Family of peach farmers face an uncertain future when their orchard, which they own only by an old verbal contract, is slated for replacement by a solar panel installation. Naturalistic ensemble drama portrays the 21st century version of the agrarian struggle, with a truthful look at familial conflicts.

The Real Thing [Japan, Kôji Fukada, 2020] Noncommittal toy salesman enmeshes himself in a troubled woman’s complicated life after preventing her stalled car from being hit by a train. Epic-length dissection of dysfunctional romance puts the co- In codependency.

Both Sides of the Blade [France, Claire Denis, 2022] Trouble returns to the apparently blissful lives of a radio journalist (Juliette Binoche) and an ex-con (Vincent Lindon) when his old associate (Grégoire Colin), also her ex-lover, resurfaces. Lacerating love triangle drama about people wedded to their lies and evasions.

The Kings of the World [Colombia, Laura Mora Ortega, 2022] Receiving notice that he has won legal title to a small restituted property, a Medellin street kid sets out with his buddies on a dangerous journey into the rural highlands. An immersive quest as unnerving as it is visually poetic, in a style that traces its descent from Terence Malick.

Master Gardener [US, Paul Schrader, 2023] Ordered by his exacting employer (Sigourney Weaver) to offer an apprenticeship to her prodigal grand-niece (Quintessa Swindell), a rigorous gardener (Joel Edgerton) steps onto a path that will reveal his former self. Taut character study as obsessively controlled as its protagonist, but I said Paul Schrader already.

By the Grace of God [France, François Ozon, 2019] When they discover years after their childhood abuse that the priest responsible is still in contact with children, a group of men in Lyon launch what becomes a multi-pronged process to seek justice and reform of the Catholic church. Ozon adopts a matter-of-fact docudrama style that embraces the literal and emotional complexities of an infuriating and all too familiar real story, here with the victims at its center.

Girlfriends and Girlfriends [Spain, Zaida Carmona, 2022] Aspiring filmmaker on the rebound (Zaida Carmona) triggers drama and partner-shifting in Barcelona’s lesbian culturati community. References to Rohmer go beyond stylistic reference to form a key story point in this kicky indie character comedy.

Stars at Noon [France, Claire Denis, 2022] Trapped and on the skids in COVID-era Nicaragua, a flailing journalist (Margaret Qualley) involves herself with a British businessman (Joe Alwyn) who turns out to be in worse trouble than she is. Denis reconfigures the international intrigue genre to her moody, elliptical style, with a sexual frankness no American director would dare attempt. Qualley burns the screen with a nervy, livewire portrayal of a woman in distress in a world without rescuers.

Hit the Road [Iran, Panah Panahi, 2021] Irritable father, worried mother, pensive college age son and his irrepressible brat brother drive from Tehran into the country on a mission of initially undisclosed purpose. Comic interplay adds vibrant humanity to a beautifully shot, naturalistic family drama with subtle political undertones.

The Exiles [US, Kent Mackenzie, 1961] Native American residents of L.A.’s Bunker Hill neighborhood blow off steam as the pregnant wife of one partier waits and frets. Early slice-of-life indie drama presents a frank, sympathetic portrait of a community, and incidentally provides a time capsule of a now demolished neighborhood.

The Balcony Movie [Poland, Pawel Lozinski, 2021] Over the course of a year, a documentarian conducts interviews with passersby from his apartment balcony, coaxing them to reveal their lives and worldviews. Simple premise yields a rich portrait of humanity.

We Are Little Zombies [Japan, 2019, Makato Nagahisa] Emotionally numbed 13 year old orphans form a punk band. Surreal journey of dissociation told through an arsenal of surreal technical events, many drawing on 8 bit video games.

The Five Devils [France, Léa Mysius, 2022] Uncanny powers awaken in an observant 8 year old (Sally Dramé) when the release of her father’s sister (Swala Emati) from psychiatric confinement upsets her beloved mom (Adèle Exarchopoulos.) Creates an absorbing union of opposites by presenting Stephen King-esque subject matter in an assured French art cinema style.

The Artifice Girl [US, Franklin Ritch, 2022] Law enforcement officials discover that a withdrawn computer scientist has developed a lifelike AI to entrap child predators—or is the revelation her idea? Taut dramatic SF thinkpiece structured as a three-act play.

Tori and Lokita [France, Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, 2022] A teen girl and a younger boy, African migrants who have adopted each other as siblings, survive in Belgium by taking part in the drug trade. Nail-biting social realist gut punch.

I Like Movies [Canada, Chandler Levack, 2022] High school senior and aspiring filmmaker who masks his mental health issues with insufferable arrogance gets a shot of reality when he takes a job at a video store. Observational dramedy regards its protagonist with a rueful sympathy that cuts through the usual phony nostalgia of the coming-of-age genre.

The Novelist’s Film [South Korea, Hong Sang-soo, 2022] A day of mostly chance encounters with past acquaintances leads an acclaimed novelist (Lee Hye-yeong) to try her hand at filmmaking. A strong entry in the prolific director’s career-long exploration of social awkwardness, metatextuality, and the revelatory permission granted by alcohol—in this case, makgeolli.

The Eternal Daughter [UK, Joanna Hogg, 2022] Filmmaker (Tilda Swinton) takes her mother (Tilda Swinton) to an imposing Victorian inn hoping her recollections of the place will trigger material for a screenplay. Playful gothic imagery frames an intimate chamber drama of memory and loss, with a pair of touching, observant performances from Swinton.

You Won’t Be Alone [Australia/UK/Serbia, Goran Stolevski, 2022] in 19th century Macedonia, a girl doomed to a fate as a blood-drinking hag called a Wolf-Eateress assumes the forms of her victims in an attempt to live among mortals. Lyrical shakycam folk horror tone poem.

Masquerade [France, Nicolas Bedos, 2022] Kept man (Pierre Niney) of a wealthy actress (Isabelle Adjani) falls for a gold digger (Marine Vacth) and helps her snare her next target. Con artist drama of love, money and jealousy, shot with sumptuous old school glamor on the Riviera.

Thunivu [India, H. Vinoth, 2023] A sardonic ultra-badass mastermind (Ahith Kumar) takes over a bank robbery already in progress. Outlandish action paced at the speed of Adderall-laced Mountain Dew shifts into an anti-corruption message, with dance numbers to keep the exposition lively.

The Crime Is Mine [France, François Ozon, 2023] As a career move. a struggling actress (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) connives with her lawyer roommate (Rebecca Marder) to confess to a murder she didn’t commit. Frothy homage to fast-talking 30s murder comedies creates a clever dilemma for the characters and gives Isabelle Huppert a broad role to hilariously chew on.

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes [Japan, Junta Yamaguchi, 2020] A coffee shop owner and his pals look for ways to capitalize on the fact that TV monitors in the cafe and his apartment upstairs are connected on a two minute time delay. Fun, fast-moving micro-budget time travel comedy shot on a phone in a single take.

Outrage Coda [Japan, Takeshi Kitano, 2017] A murder committed by a dimwitted  mid-level yakuza on Jeju Island Korea brings the dangerous gangster Otomo (Beat Takeshi) back to Japan to unleash a final eruption of violent reprisal. After the nihilistic contempt of the first two installments, Kitano lets some of the elegiac wryness of his earlier crime films creep back into the trilogy’s conclusion.

Arab Blues [France/Tunisia, Manele Labidi, 2019] Parisian psychoanalyst (Golshifteh Farahani) moves back to her childhood home in Tunis to open a practice, finding surprising demand for treatment and resistance from family and a handsome but rule-bound police officer. Comic drama takes on the clash between secular and Islamic worldviews with the subversive weapon of charm.

Flux Gourmet [UK, Peter Strickland, 2022] Internal tensions come to a head for a sonic-culinary performance art group when they accept a residency at a strange institute run by a demanding benefactor (Gwendoline Christie.) Surreal, horror-inflected black comedy of digestive anxiety might be Strickland’s most fully developed look at the destructive power of art.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline [US, Daniel Goldhaber, 2023] Young radical environmentalists come together to perform the titular act of oil industry sabotage. Tense political thriller draws on the reliable cinematic power of showing people executing complicated practical tasks under pressure.

I’m Your Man [Germany, Maria Schrader, 2021] Cuneiformist from the Pergamon museum (Maren Eggert) agrees to test a lifelike robot (Dan Stevens) calibrated to be her perfect life partner. Engagingly acted dramedy eschews the catastrophes typical of AI movies for a grounded, ambiguous look at emotional consequences.

The Braves [France, Anaïs Volpé, 2021] Struggling actress is cast as understudy to her best friend, who has been hiding her cancer diagnosis. Drama of friendship and loss handles inherently melodramatic material in an imagistic, naturalistic way.

Piggy [Spain, Carlota Pereda, 2022] Fat teen conceals what she’s seen when classmates who torment her over her weight are taken by a serial killer. Slasher horror builds wrenching identification with its protagonist as it centers themes of bullying and body shame.

Hatching [Finland, Hanna Bergholm, 2022] Preteen gymnast with perfectionist influencer mother finds an egg that hatches a strange creature which acts on her sublimated desires. Satirical horror with standout production design probes the gooey depths of girl rage.

Hal [US, Amy Scott, 2018] Documentary profiles Hal Ashby, the combative, instinct-driven director of seminal American New Wave films including Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Coming Home and Shampoo. Moving portrait of an uncompromising artist who fought the system when it was weak enough to sometimes lose.

The Good Boss [Spain, Fernando León de Aranoa, 2021] Paternalistic factory owner (Javier Bardem) over-involves himself in the lives of his employees. Bardem alternately schemes and squirms in this droll, progressively acidic workplace satire.

The Gasoline Thieves [Mexico, Edgar Nito, 2019] Naive rural middle schooler joins a gang of fuel thieves. Unflinching social realist crime drama reveals an unexpected and deadly illicit trade.

Inspector Ike [US, Graham Mason, 2020] Perennial understudy (Matt Barats) enacts a clever scheme to knock off the lead in an avant garde theater company, not reckoning on the detecting powers of Inspector Ike (Ikechukwu Ufomadu), who solves a case every week and supplies a recipe to boot. Indie-scaled parody of the seventies NBC Mystery Movie keeps the deadpan jokes flowing.

Accident Man: Hitman’s Holiday [UK, George Kirby & Harry Kirby, 2022] Assassin Mike Fallon (Scott Adkins) suffers a role reversal when he must protect a useless mafia failson from the world’s top killers. Skillfully staged martial arts sequel is funnier, faster, better looking and weirder than the original.

Leonor Will Never Die [Philippines, Martika Ramirez Escobar, 2022] After being hit on the head by a falling TV, a retired film director discovers that she is trapped in her unfinished screenplay for a violent action film. Metatexual fantasy about the eternal struggle between art and reality.

Project Wolf Hunting [South Korea, Hongsun Kim, 2022] Extradited criminals staging a hyper-violent takeover of their transport ship discover that something on board is even more dangerous than they are. Extreme action horror reconfigures an underutilized classic monster.


Swan Song [US, Todd Stephens, 2021] Retired hairdresser (Udo Kier) departs his care home for a journey to downtown Sandusky OH to tend to his former best client (Linda Evans) at her funeral. Generous indie dramedy celebrates gay elders and the iconic stature of its lead actor.

Monster Seafood Wars [Japan, Minoru Kawasaki, 2020] Rivalries between young task force members complicate the battle against gigantic—yet enticingly delicious—squid, octopus and crab monsters. Goofy quasi-mockumentary features suitably ridiculous people-in-suits style kaiju.

Not Recommended

Once Upon a Time In Ukraine [Ukraine, Roman Perfilyev, 2020] Trained in the art of the sword by a Ukrainian samurai, the nationalist poet Taras Shevchenko fights to rescue his love from a brutal landowner and his ninja allies. Tongue-in-cheek action film fitfully fulfills its premise. A gratuitous element of sexual sadism compounds its tonal problems.

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