It’s inevitable that critics will bring up how different the film festival experience has become in 2020. For the first three months of the year, we had our usual long lines, early packed screenings, and late night writing sessions in crowded shared rentals at festivals like Sundance or True/False. Now, everything’s changed, and naturally, so have events like the Toronto International Film Festival. Today, we’re mostly in our own homes, unable to run into colleagues and crash spur-of-the-moment parties, trade movie recommendations in line, or catch a last minute screening by happy accident. In my case, some things remained unchanged. I still stayed up late to watch one more movie, crammed in as much work as possible in between films, and relied heavily on takeout meals and protein bars. I even found a place in Brooklyn that delivered poutine, a cherished tradition I would usually share with friends in Toronto.
While I miss the rowdy midnight crowds, gathering with colleagues after a screening, and getting dressed up for premieres, I’d rather watch new movies apart than not at all. We can still collectively get excited for films like One Night in Miami and Nomadland, look forward to the day when more audiences can see these movies and for a time, escape the confines of our usual setting for a story in Mexico City, ancient Ireland, dance-filled concerts or something as familiar yet distant as a family gathering.
My TIFF 2020 began on a quiet note with Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple, a methodical study of a man dedicated to the dying artform of classical Indian music. I’m sure a few of us could relate to his zealous devotion and existential crisis as it becomes more apparent that his beloved medium and the people he looked up to slip further into obscurity. Next up was Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, which also won the festival’s People’s Choice Award over the weekend. Nomadland follows a solitary woman (Frances McDormand, in an unforgettable performance) trying to make ends meet and hold on to her personal freedom. It’s a road movie like few others, unafraid to dramatize the less pleasant realities of mobile living, but as it so emphatically and empathetically shows, Nomadland respects the choices the characters make with their lives.
Taking viewers back to the 1960s, Regina King’s tremendous feature debut One Night in Miami gathers together some of the most famous Black voices of the day –– Cassius Clay (before he announced his name change to Muhammad Ali), Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown –– and follows them through their conversations about Blackness, fame, activism and faith. Every one of the main performances from Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr. and Aldis Hodge are top-notch, bringing Kemp Powers’ play to life with a sense of immediacy for present-day protests and conversations around inclusion and representation.
Speaking of representation, this year’s TIFF line-up closed in on the elusive gender parity benchmark with around 46% of the program directed or co-directed by women. Following Zhao and King’s movies, I watched Emma Seligman’s hilarious feature debut Shiva Baby, which follows a bisexual young Jewish woman through one of the most mortifying experiences of a family gathering, and Mayye Zayed’s uncompromising documentary Lift Like a Girl, which takes viewers to Egypt, following one tough weightlifting coach as he motivates his up-and-coming athletes to the championships. Later in the festival, I caught Violation, the uneasy horror movie send-up of the rape-revenge thriller by Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli, Cathy Brady’s unapologetic and politically tinged drama of two Irish sisters Wildfire, and Stacey Lee’s data-driven but optimistic overview of the electronic music scene, Underplayed. These movies were sometimes empowering, sometimes heartbreaking, and sometimes the most uncomfortable to watch for very different reasons. But collectively they offered a rich variety of stories and were some of my favorite discoveries of the festival.
Now that my sleep schedule has long been forgotten and I’ve embraced the frenzied 48-hour window for movies on the TIFF press site, I continued to ramp-up my binge. François Ozon’s bittersweet romantic drama Summer of ‘85 wasn’t originally on my to-watch list, but I gave it a try and ended up loving its picturesque look at young love (adapted from Aidan Chambers’s novel, Dance on My Grave). Then, there was Michel Franco’s New Order, a brutal look at a future where the military manipulates both the haves and the have-nots. I needed a balm after that movie and found some comfort in character-driven documentaries like The Boy from Medellín, Matthew Heineman’s profile of reggaeton superstar J. Balvin in the politically charged week leading up to his homecoming concert, and Nathan Grossman’s I am Greta, a candid look at driven climate activist Greta Thunberg as she captures the world’s attention.
Just before the film expired on the site, I got up earlier to stream Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s latest charming effort, Wolfwalkers. Set in 17th century Ireland, Wolfwalkers follows the unlikely friendship between an English girl who wants to be a hunter and an Irish girl with supernatural abilities to communicate with wolves (among many other talents). Like their previous works The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers is another dazzling animated adventure that blends a heartfelt story with magic and a keen eye for design. It’s unlike any other movie I’ll likely see this year, and I can’t wait to watch it again.
That evening (or was it the next?), I cleared my schedule for Frederick Wiseman’s absorbing and expansive 4.5 hour documentary, City Hall. Cross-cutting between Boston’s city hall and its numerous meetings and public events, Wiseman’s meditative film works its way through the many services the mayor’s office oversees, like homeless shelters, senior care, diversity initiatives, and a public hearing for a marijuana dispensary. Beyond following a series of meetings, the film also ventures out into the neighborhoods, both those featured on tourist postcards and those known only to locals, all leading back to a beating heart at city hall which connects them all.
Alternating between watching movies at my desk, on the couch and in bed, I readied myself for the final stretch starting with David Oyelowo’s The Water Man, a Steven Spielberg-like adventure movie following two teens in search of a mythical legend. João Paulo Miranda Maria’s debut feature The Memory House was a mythical journey of a different kind, one that took viewers through the aching heart of Brazil’s colonialist history. I thought Thomas Vinterberg’s spectacular drama Another Round would be the end of a TIFF like none other, but Mads Mikkelsen’s incredible dance sequence reminded me that I still had access to Spike Lee’s David Byrne’s American Utopia. Making it through the rush of movies and work truly felt like a celebration, now complete with a concert film. Byrne’s greeting to the audience, “Thank you for leaving your home,” felt a little different when I was watching his show on the stairs of my loft bed, but it felt no less warm or inviting. If this is the way festivals have to work to survive, I’d rather have them to look forward to than not to have them at all.