10 Best Things We Saw at Toronto International Film Festival 2020 - Rolling Stone
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10 Best Things We Saw at Toronto International Film Festival 2020

From a David Byrne concert movie directed by Spike Lee to an animated Irish fairy tale — the highlights of a very singular TIFF experience

10 Best Things We Saw at Toronto International Film Festival 2020

Apple TV+, Courtesy of TIFF (2)

We came, we saw, we conquered from our couches. Looking back the 45th Toronto International Film Festival as it wound down yesterday, it was sometimes easier to fixate on how different this year’s edition was compared to previous years. Different is, of course, putting it ridiculously mildly: For starters, there was no actual Toronto in our TIFF ’20 experience. The lineup was way more modest and the potential for A-list awards-lusting far, far more muted. What normally would have been a communal screening at the Bell Lightbox or the Winter Garden Theatre or the Ryerson was reduced to a laptop, a room on one’s own, and possibly a Slack exchange afterward. It was the best version of a major film festival one could hope for in the Year of Our Collective Misery, which adds a huge qualifier to the praise and is also the finest compliment you can give an event like this under the circumstances.

What made up for the festival’s compromises was, as always, the films. Even with the pared-down programming, it wasn’t hard to find 10 movies for a best-of-fest list, and as with every year, there were some wonderful left-field surprises. Here’s the cream we skimmed off the top of this year’s edition. Thank you, TIFF, for the movies. We look forward to telling you that in person in 2021.

American Utopia

Spike Lee captures David Byrne’s recent Broadway performance-art-cum-greatest-hits revue for posterity, and ends up delivering more than just a concert film. It’s the sort of joyous collaboration between a filmmaker and a musician that lifts up the form much the way Byrne and his gray-suited band of singers, dancers and instrumentalists lift up the audience’s (and your) spirits; Lee snakes his camera through the performers onstage, gives you perspectives ranging from the rafters to the back rows and enhances several numbers (notably their cover of Janelle Monae’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout”). And like the production, it’s a wonderful showcase for Byne’s outsider-artist optimism that, for two hours, makes you feel the title’s two words aren’t contradictory.

Ammonite

Ammonite

Francis Lee follows up his groundbreaking rural romance God’s Own Country with another love story, this time casting back to the mid 1800s as a scientist (Kate Winslet) and a young high-society woman (Saoirse Ronan) give in to their hearts’ desires along England’s rocky shores. Fossils fuel their passion, and the strict, oppressive social mores — not to mention a patriarchy and a rigid class system— seek to thwart it. Both actors deliver stunningly minimalist performances and an, er, maximalist rendering of the characters consummating their amour fou. By the end, you’re reminded that it takes a lot to laugh, it takes a carriage to cry. An absolutely vital addition to both the respective canons of swoonworthy, paleontology-heavy period pieces and same-sex heartbreakers.

City Hall

“I don’t think we do a good enough job of telling that story [of] what we actually do in the city … of tying it all together,” says Boston’s mayor Marty Walsh. That’s a job for legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman, who will rectify this connect-the-dots oversight over a four-and-a-half hour chronicle that covers roughly a year in the bureaucratic life of a major metropolis’ headquarters. Like virtually all of the 90 year-old filmmaker’s work, it’s a long, hard look at the inner life of an institution, as well as the city it serves: the war veterans, the well-off, the socially disenfranchised, the bluebloods, the blue-collar workers, the townies, the Ivory-Tower college professors, the stoic policemen and the screaming “Red Sooooxxxxxx” paradegoers. It’s an epic of civics and, like virtually all of Wiseman’s docs, a mural of everyday life that is so rich in detail and insight that even its extended running time feels too short.

The Disciple

Making good on the promise of his autopsy-of-a-judicial-system debut Court (2014), filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane returns with a look at young man (Aditya Modak) dedicated to playing and studying Indian classical music. What starts as a creative pursuit inherited from his father turns into an all-consuming obsession, and as the years pass, the idea that his passion may be greater than his talent starts to tear him up. It’s an intriguing, beautifully composed  character study that asks a number of key questions: What happens to an artist’s soul when they are incapable of becoming a master? Can you be a righteous defender of an art form and also a complete asshole? And at what point does protecting a cultural tradition start to cut off its life supply?

The Father

For those of us who missed Florian Zeller’s screen adaptation of his own award-winning play when it premiered at Sundance, the chance to catch up with this gutting drama at TIFF before it starts its inevitable march through the awards-season gauntlet was a huge gift. An elderly man (Anthony Hopkins) is starting a slow descent into dementia, and must rely on his adult daughter (Olivia Colman) to take care of him. So far, so very movie-of-the-week. Except the audience is experiencing this familial crisis through the not-so-stable perspective of the man himself, which leads to a far more immersive take on what happens when your mind begins to break down. Every performance feels spot-on — the supporting cast also includes Imogen Potts, Olivia Williams, Mark Gatniss and Rufus Sewell — but it’s Hopkins’ show to steal. And once again, the British actor proves that he can still surprise you, anger you, break you in half and move you to tears.

MLK/FBI

Most people know that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not exactly beloved by J. Edgar Hoover, and that the FBI director kept detailed reports on the Civil Rights icon’s daily activities (and extramarital dalliances). Sam Pollard’s documentary dives into just how extensive the Feds’ fixation on the Nobel prizewinner was, and the result is both eye-opening and jaw-dropping. A longtime editor for Spike Lee, an American Masters veteran and one of the directors involved with the seminal Eyes on the Prize series, Pollard is an expert at weaving together archival footage to tell history’s story on a macro- and micro-level. This dual portrait of two men who helped shape the 20th century — and whose respective legacies of activism and abuse of government-sanctioned power still cast mile-long shadows on our current era — could not have arrived at a more pertinent moment.

'Nomadland'

Nomadland

The closest thing to a consensus critical hit at this year’s TIFF, Chloé Zhao’s tale of a middle-aged woman (Frances McDormand) embracing the life of a 21st-century migrant worker and a have-van-will-travel philosophy had just come off of winning the top prize at Venice when it made its North American premiere. It then nabbed the Audience Award in Toronto. These will not be the last accolades this film collects. A drama that’s as happy to drift along as much as its lead character, this fictional spin on the subject of Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book gives McDormand plenty of room to roam and takes a hard look at a country in late-Capitalist free-fall. Yet it somehow manages to be both wounding and healing at the same time, and refuses to treat these travelers as either victims or saints. They are just people trying to take things one day at a time, one mile at a time. An instant American classic.

'Notturno'

Notturno

Three years in the making, Gianfranco Rosi’s reportage on the conflicts raging in Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan and Lebanon isn’t a dispatch from the frontlines but from the periphery — notably, how the fighting affects the citizens caught in the crossfires and aftermaths. It’s a look at life during wartime that, in a unique move, emphasizes the life part more, which isn’t to say it soft-peddles the devastation wrought by all of the constant combat. The Fire at Sea filmmaker is simply turning his cameras on citizens trying to go about their routines as everything rages around these folks, in order to remind you that there are real people behind every headline of far-off suffering and strife.

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

The outta-left-field pleasant surprise of our TIFF ’20. A Hungarian neurosurgeon named Márta (Natasa Stork) leaves a residency in the U.S. to return to Budapest. She’s supposed to meet up with a fellow doctor (Viktor Bodó) she met at a conference; the two made the sort of immediate connection, Márta believes, that causes people to drop everything in the name of true love. Only he claims that the two of them have never met. What, exactly, is going on here? Lili Horvát’s second movie is part low-key stalker thriller and part woman-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown character study, anchored by Stork’s ever-shifting performance as the slightly unstable medical professional.

Wolfwalkers

From the good folks at Cartoon Saloon, the Kilkenny-based animation studio that brought you The Secret of the Kelis and The Breadwinner, comes this fairy tale about an English girl named Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) whose father (Sean Bean) has been hired to rid a Cromwell-era colonized county of its wolf population. When she encounters these lupine predators in the woods, however, Robyn discovers they’re led by a shapeshifter and her spunky, equally transformative daughter, Mebh (Eva Whittaker). A friendship develops, as does a predicament for Robyn when she discovers she too can enter a more animalistic state of being. An old-school animated feature that suggests folks may have more in common with their enemies then they think — a message that rings true whether you’re talking about the 17th century or right now.

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