It started with a trip to the press office to pick up your badge, now conveniently located in the far corner of your living room. On the way out, you run into some fellow critics and ask about what they’re excited to see, although one seems preoccupied with a bird right outside the window and the other is lazily grooming themselves before settling in for a feline nap. Then it’s off to the big opening night gala event, which is taking place past the mail table but just north of your kitchen — take your shoes off before stepping on the red carpet, please, it was just vacuumed this afternoon. And, if you’re lucky and the timing is right, you may be able to catch a midnight screening across town, a.k.a. right by your kid’s bedroom, assuming the neighbors aren’t hogging the wi-fi.
For many of us, it was not the usual opening-day rush of the Toronto International Film Festival, which kicked off on September 10th and found a way to make the show go on for movie lovers who don’t call the Canadian city home. Scaling down its signature cup-overfloweth approach to programming (50 features, down from its usual hundreds-plus lineup) and offering accredited media staggered 48-hour live links to most of its slate, the 2020 edition was a far better alternative to simply canceling the event outright. There is no genuine substitute to being there in the room(s) where it happens, when you can collectively watch film history unfold with a crowd laughing, crying, groaning and cheering all around you. As with real estate, so much of the typical TIFF experience relies on three things: location, location, location. (That, and hearing folks yell “argh!” every time the pre-screening anti-piracy notice plays.) And as with this year in general, any halfway decent compromise is considered a blessing rather than a curse. But if you were fortunate enough to get in to the virtual press multiplex, you still found reasons to rejoice, remote or not.
And the No. 1 cause of said hosannas? That would be Nomadland, writer-director Chloé Zhao’s follow-up to 2017’s The Rider and the sort of unsentimental, penetrating, highly nuanced look at American life on the fringes that comes along once a decade, if you’re lucky. A fictional story gleaned from author Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book on 21st century AARP-age migrants, this character study of a community focuses primarily on Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow ready to hit the road. Empire, the Nevada town where she and her late husband lived — stop and savor the symbolic import of the name for a second or two — is so gutted from the Great Recession that it’s retiring its zip code. After taking a seasonal job at a nearby Amazon depot, Fern’s motto is: Have van, will travel. She meets up with fellow wanderers in Arizona as part of an “R.T.R.” (Rubber Tramp Rendezvous), picking up tips about stealth parking, vehicle maintenance and maximizing your movable-dwelling space. Fern bonds with a number of other nomads, including a terminally ill woman named Swankie and a kind, ruggedly handsome man named Dave (David Straithairn). Then she gets back in the van and takes off to wherever the next RV park or next gig is. “I’m not homeless,” she tells a friend’s daughter. “Just houseless.”
A travelogue that treats its subjects with near-divine tenderness and zero didacticism, Nomadland is content to simply ride shotgun with its central character rather than push her into conflicts and resolutions; it’s a movie that drifts as happily as its hero. Fern stops, drops and works some place for a few weeks, or a month, or two, making friends and going about her business with a go-with-the-flow attitude. Cleaning toilets, flipping burgers, packing boxes for Jeff Bezos — it keeps the gas tank full. Then she, and we, move along. And taking a page out of Fern’s book, McDormand manages to strip everything down to bare essentials. Sharing the screen with a cast composed primarily of actual nomads (some of which showed up in Bruder’s book), she doesn’t act so much as react. Even when obstacles dot the path — an expensive repair, a sister in need of closure — her Fern endures, grins or grimaces, then deals with it. It’s hard to think of a recent performance by an American actor so attuned to being present, and completely submerged not in a Method-like constructs but in onscreen moments. There are points when you have to remind yourself that you’re watching a work of fiction, featuring a movie star.
It’d be a mistake, however, to think that this look at people with a need for constant mobility is just a triumph of extraordinary verisimilitude or borrowed-verité technique. The Beijing-born, London-and-L.A.–bred Zhao had already demonstrated a facility for standing back and letting things unfold in front of her cameras, as well as playing to her performers’ firsthand cultural/subcultural knowledge, in The Rider and her debut, 2015’s Songs My Brother Taught Me. She’s about to show folks what she can do with a huge budget, big stars and a blockbuster canvas when her addition to the MCU, The Eternals, drops in February. Her collaboration with McDormand, however, combined with an abundance of compassion and curiosity for human behavior, makes Nomadland feel like both a breakthrough and a level-up. It’s such a rich portrait of rootlessness as a way of life — how a big-picture social failure is somehow reframed by certain types into a pivot toward personal liberation. Yet the film never tries to upsell an economic downturn as an excuse for a makeover; it has too much respect for these real-life vagabonds and your intelligence.
Zhao’s simultaneously aching and healing drama has been one of the few consensus points for critics around TIFF ’20 — it arrived on the heels of winning the Golden Lion at Venice — and arguably the one film that’s made good on the festival’s unofficial promise to be a showcase for potential Gold Derby-ish chatter. Though this year’s edition was a little short on big roll-out-the-red-carpet titles for obvious reasons, you could still sift through a few left-field contenders featuring famous faces in front of and behind the camera. There was One Night in Miami…, the adaptation of Kemp Powers’ play that doubled as Regina King’s directorial debut and imagined what happened in 1964 when the newly crowned heavyweight champ Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) hung out with Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.); the good news is that this will turn a lot more folks on to Goree’s ability to command a screen. There was Good Joe Bell, an account of a real-life dad (Mark Wahlberg) walking from Oregon to New York to spread an anti-bullying message that manages to lose you, win you back and then lose you again too many times to count. And there was Falling, director-star Viggo Mortensen’s tale of a elderly homophobic crank (Lance Henriksen, killing it) in his winter years, his grown gay son (Mortensen) taking care of him and, well, you can guess the rest. (Bruised, Halle Berry’s MMA-fighter story, premiered as a work-in-progress at the fest but didn’t screen for critics. Netflix has picked it up.)
The runner-up most likely to grace year-end lists from this category is Ammonite, Francis Lee’s gorgeously naturalistic romance between spinsterish paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and high-society wife Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) in 19th century England. The former scours the southern coastline for petrified remains, in the name of science; the latter is more or less dumped on Anning by her husband, who asks her to look after his sickly spouse while she takes the waters. Fossils fuel a forbidden love, which is destined to bump up against any number of era-appropriate tsk-tsking and Anning’s inherent misanthropy.
It’s tempting to compare Lee’s rigorous costume drama about a rigged class system and buttoned-up lust to another recent period piece about sapphic desire on the salty-aired shores — call it Portrait of a Lady on Simmer — but such reductive thinking risks giving what really is a singular work short shrift. Also, the “simmer” descriptive doesn’t quite fit once you get to what can only be described as a thoroughly committed example of onscreen carnal knowledge. We take it for granted that both Winslet and Ronan are top-tier actors, yet you will still find yourself bowled over by what they’re doing here with silence, furtive glances, tamped-down emotions. Nor can you accuse Lee of burying the lede here regarding how a patriarchal social structure both implicitly and explicitly calls all the shots for them. Ammonite literally opens with a woman working and the muddy boots of a man walking right through her toiling so he can steal credit from a different female’s findings. How that shot is mirrored during the movie’s parting moments is, frankly, ingenious. And as with Lee’s equally swoonworthy God’s Own Country, there’s a concentration on the sheer physicality of labor that manages to be nearly as sensual as the sex scenes. Break open the hard exterior of those craggy rocks, Anning suggests, and you may find an invaluable treasure inside. You don’t need to be a scientist to figure out the layers of meaning there.
Lastly, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the festival’s opening night selection, a magic trick in which a concert movie was somehow transformed into a salve. American Utopia, David Byrne’s greatest-hits revue-cum-performance art piece, ran on Broadway from November 2019 until February 2020. If you didn’t manage to catch it live, don’t worry: Spike Lee has your back. And like Jonathan Demme, he’s treated the opportunity of working with the former Talking Heads frontman in the spirit of artistic collaboration as opposed to simply press-play documentation. Opening up the show by placing his roving cameras up, down, sideways, inches away from the performers and seemingly everywhere but the Hudson Theater’s restrooms, Lee is as much a part of this production as the singer, the gray-suited musicians onstage or the visual slideshow happening all around them. (The way he enhances Byrne and Co.’s cover of Janelle Monae “Hell You Talmbout” turns the show’s already wallop-packing take into a gut punch.) The fact that he still keeps the intimacy of the original is a testament to his skills and the solidity of its creator’s high-concept stage presentation.
This would be a top-five concert film regardless of whether it played the festival or not, and when this eventually hits HBO Max in October, you’ll see for yourself what a flat-out masterpiece it is. But seeing Byrne and his multicultural crew spill into the audience during a raucous, marching-band take on “Burning Down the House,” and seeing such a giddy example of community at a moment when so many of us would normally be experiencing the exact same thing with our fellow filmgoers, was enough to make the tears flow. This wasn’t the TIFF anyone asked for, but god love the programmers, this was the TIFF they could give us and that was enough. You prayed that somewhere out there, another festival patron was miraculously watching the exact same scene at the exact same moment, miles apart and still somehow connected by the flickering light of our laptops.