The 45th annual Atlanta Film Festival wrapped up last weekend, following 11 days of narrative features, documentaries, panel discussions and a host of other celebrations of cinema. While it was impossible to see everything, I attended virtually and got an early look at some movies that are sure to spark conversation later this year when awards season gears up. (Yes, the Oscars just happened, but the cycle never ends.) Here are four that stood out for me.

“Nine Days”

Rated R for language. Opens Summer 2021.

Writer-director Edson Oda’s deeply moving existential drama wasn’t just my favorite film of the festival — it’s the best of 2021 so far. The incredible Winston Duke (who most viewers will know from “Black Panther” and “Us”) plays Will, an enigmatic recluse who spends his time watching several televisions, each broadcasting a different person going about his or her daily life.

When one of the screens goes blank, Will’s job soon becomes clear. He’s tasked with interviewing several unborn souls (played by Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgard and Tony Hale, among others) to see which would be best suited for a new life on Earth. As the candidates are eliminated one-by-one and Will engages in conversations that challenge his preconceived biases, he’s forced to reexamine his own past.

I’ll do a full review closer to the film’s release later this year, so for now I’ll simply say that “Nine Days” was a profound viewing experience. It’s allegorical and full of dream logic that makes no sense, but it feels right at the same time. Each character, brilliantly portrayed by a host of terrific performers, represents a different kind of personality — all with a legitimate argument for why they should exist. Oda’s feature debut is a staggering achievement that should mark the beginning of a wonderful career.

Grade: A

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl

Who Decided to Go for It”

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some strong language including a sexual reference, and suggestive material. Opens June 18.

In this powerful and entertaining documentary, the incredible Rita Moreno takes viewers through her 70-plus year career, telling stories about her time as a singer, dancer, actress, activist, wife, mother, and grandmother that are funny, heartwarming, tragic and infuriating in equal measure. In that time, she has battled impossible odds and an industry rife with racism and misogyny to become one of only a handful of EGOTs — people who’ve won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.

In addition to Moreno’s fearless interviews, director Mariem Perez Riera also speaks with her longtime friends and colleagues, including Hector Elizondo, Gloria Estefan, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado, Norman Lear and Lin-Manuel Miranda. (The latter two also serve as executive producers.)

Grade: A-


Not rated. Currently seeking distribution.

This ambitious examination of Jimmy Carter’s presidency won the Atlanta Film Festival’s award for Best Documentary Feature and, although I have some issues with it, I can understand why. Jim and Will Pattiz craft a passionate argument that the general consensus about Carter’s time in office is incorrect. Although his policies were controversial at the time — so unpopular that they doomed his chance at a second term and ushered in Reagan era — they seem downright prophetic in hindsight.

While the doc’s heart is in the right place, it doesn’t even pretend to be objective. As such, viewers’ opinions of “Carterland” will likely depend on their political preferences. Regardless, even with a running time of more than two hours, the Pattiz brothers ultimately try to do too much. That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it doesn’t allow the film time to develop a strong take on one issue before moving on to the next one.

Through archival footage and interviews with experts, the filmmakers address virtually every issue and emergency Carter attempted to tackle over the course of four years. That includes addressing climate change, civil rights, gender equality, conservation efforts and Mideast peace talks, while also trying to navigate major crises like fuel shortages, Americans taken hostage in Iran and relinquishing control of the Panama Canal.

Any one of those topics could serve as the foundation for its own documentary, so trying to fully examine all of them makes the film seem simultaneously rushed and overlong. Still, despite its flaws, “Carterland” is worth watching to see a leader with integrity attempt to do what he genuinely believes is the right thing, even if it’s not a politically expedient decision.

Grade: B-


Rated R for language. Now playing in select theaters.

I reviewed this poignant comedic drama last week in advance of its theatrical release, so I won’t repeat myself too much. However, writer-director Ben Sharrock’s intimate story about a group of refugees stuck on a remote Scottish island while they wait to hear if they’ve been granted asylum is deserving of a bigger audience.

As Omar, a young Syrian musician torn between protecting his family and establishing a new life for himself, Amir El-Masry delivers a subdued performance that still speaks volumes. Vikash Bhai is also strong as Farhad, Omar’s friend and a much-welcome source of comic relief.

Grade: B+

Twitter: @IAmJoshSewell