Peter Howell's Top 10 films at TIFF 2020
At a Toronto International Film Festival where almost everything changed, thanks to a virus that nobody invited to the party, there was one thing you could still count on: the films.
With in-person viewing options constrained, much of the fest moved online. TIFF programmers had to downsize their features lineup from the 245 full-length films of 2019 to just 61 this year.
This radical slashing nevertheless produced a slate of many gems, including at least three films I think will leave TIFF and go on to be nominated for Best Picture (among other prizes) at the 2021 Academy Awards: “Nomadland,” “The Father” and “One Night in Miami.”
TIFF 2020 ran from Sept. 10-19. Here are the 10 films among the many I saw that impressed me the most:
Bound for glory. Chloé Zhao (“The Rider”) dramatizes Jessica Bruder’s urgent reportage in a 2017 non-fiction book about rootless and van-residing Americans finding their inner Jack Kerouac as they search for gigs and cheap lodging. The result is an awards-season stunner. Frances McDormand’s wanderer Fern balances grief and resiliency. A role and story drawn from life, “Nomadland” feels like classic fiction. Winner of the People's Choice Award at TIFF 2020.
Anybody who has seen the toll dementia takes on the mind will recognize the majesty of Anthony Hopkins’ lead performance, sure to be remembered at awards time. He’s Anthony, a wealthy Londoner used to doing things his own way, much to the chagrin of his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman). Director/co-writer Florian Zeller, adapting his stage play, exhibits the psychodramatic rigour of Michael Haneke or Stanley Kubrick, but also compassion and real understanding of mental-health issues.
One Night in Miami
Oscar winner Regina King’s feature directing debut addresses racial truths, and woos more Academy love, with an ensemble triumph led by Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X. Set in February, 1964, it’s a potent “what if?” meeting of Black icons celebrating the championship win of boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), soon to be known as Muhammad Ali. Pop crooner Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) round out the quarrelsome quartet in a resonant film that finds the humanity inside the supermen.
Writer/director Michelle Latimer, a Toronto-based filmmaker of Algonquin, Métis and French heritage, takes Thomas King’s central thesis of white culpability for Indigenous suppression and conjures conscience-tweaking images of grace and power. Myth and fact jam: author/narrator King hops a Toronto taxi apparently driven by a coyote. The real journey, though, is required of viewers: Latimer demands action and not just “education.”
Mexico’s Michel Franco opens his dystopian thriller with a close-up of an abstract painting by Omar Rodriguez-Graham that depicts chaos and war that only death stops. Franco, an uncompromising filmmaker, maintains his bleak outlook through a nightmare drama of civil unrest: a rich vs. poor vs. military confrontation that splinters loyalties. Paying riveting testament to the madness of modern times, it dares us not to look away.
Francis Lee’s forbidden-love story in 1840s England is vital and austere, not unlike the fossilized sea creature that gives the film its title and poignant symbol. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan strike sparks, and Oscar speculation, as an unlikely pair: Winslet’s Mary, a paleontologist, toils alone on the Dorset coast while male scientists (who are the real fossils) steal credit for her discoveries. Into Mary’s world comes Charlotte (Ronan), a grieving wife. Their lives are about to radically change.
David Byrne’s American Utopia
Barefoot and brainy, this infectious, percussive and joyous meditation on life by ex-Talking Head frontman Byrne lets the cerebral become the physical. Spike Lee directs with customary vigour while 11 boisterous Byrne bandmates support songs old and new — including Talking Heads classics like “Life During Wartime” and “This Must Be the Place.” But it’s an inspired and timely cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” set to images of Black victims of police bullets, that really burns down the house.
I Am Greta
Inspiration in pigtails. Teen climate activist Greta Thunberg is super determined in her quest to stop global warming, but she’s not superhuman, as docmaker Nathan Grossman plainly shows. He began chronicling her climate fight at the beginning, when she was just 15 and staging a “school strike” outside the parliament of Sweden, her home county. Two years later, she’s challenging UN bureaucrats, Hollywood celebrities and too many do-nothing politicians. Greta fights burnout and loneliness, but she fights on. A remarkable young woman; a fascinating film snapshot.
The FBI and its driven boss J. Edgar Hoover spied on civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., for alleged communist ties and extramarital affairs. The vendetta is brought home in Sam Pollard’s masterful doc, which depressingly reminds us how little things have changed since the Cold War paranoia, government overreach and civil-rights struggles of a half-century ago. Pollard, a superb researcher, trawls declassified FBI documents to expose a campaign of hatred that former FBI director James Comey rightly calls “the darkest part of the bureau’s history.”
This drug-trade drama from Toronto’s Charles Officer cites works by Homer, Sun Tzu and James Baldwin, featuring a young thug who proclaims “I read.” It’s not your average crime story, in other words, although the arc of a youth seeking distance from destructive influences is all too familiar, in real life as in art. Terrific performances from poet/actor Saul Williams (“Slam”) as a dealer in need of redemption and Thamela Mpumlwana (who takes on two different roles) make this saga special.
(This story was originally published in the Toronto Star on Sept. 17, 2020)