COVID has put the kibosh on much this year, but it can’t stop the capsule TIFF reviews. From the plague-ready, off-model edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, here’s my annual collection of mini-reviews.
The greatly cut-down slate included only slivers of the festival I’d program for myself in a regular year: four to five from international auteurs and a couple examples of global genre cinema. The missing items either are waiting in limbo as sales agents the world over hope that theatrical exhibition will return, or didn’t even get shot.
This list features more Canadian films and documentaries than I’d see at the fest (as opposed to catching them later.) Festivals tend toward the dour and downbeat but that was doubly true this time out. If we’re still trapped in our homes next year, I’ll likely be more vigilant about sorting through the slim pickings, supplementing our streaming experience with titles already available on other platforms.
That said, the overall hit rate was probably as strong as any other recent year. The average score on my numerical ratings would be higher, actually. It’s just that I saw the same festival everyone else did, starting with the film that garnered nearly universal acclaim, nabbed the People’s Choice Award, and will surely be part of the Oscars race—whatever the heck that will look like.
Films are listed in order of preference. Within categories that doesn’t mean much and entails a lot of apples-to-oranges comparisons. A festival near you, or not so near you but within your territory for geolocking purposes, may be virtually screening some of these soon.
Nomadland [US, Chloé Zhao, 5] When her town closes down in the wake of its gypsum mine’s closure, a self-reliant widow (Frances McDormand) moves into her van and joins the ranks of the nomad subculture, people who rove the US, taking whatever hard work they can get and living out of their vehicles. Rooted in social realist cinema, marked by a triad of transcendent qualities: poetic visual beauty, an indelible central performance and a deep love for the characters from the writer/director.
Another Round [Denmark, Thomas Vinterberg, 4.5] Burned out high school teacher (Mads Mikkelsen) embarks with three colleagues on an experiment to enhance their performance by maintaining a blood alcohol level of 0.5% throughout their days at work. Not only an original booze movie, but a big one, full of turns and ambiguities, and an utterly masterful performance from Mikkelsen.
City Hall [US, Frederick Wiseman, 4] The latest of Wiseman’s distinctive epic-length observational documentaries studies the quotidian, procedural and human moments of human life as seen through the processes of municipal government in Boston, as held together by the thoughtful charisma of Mayor Martin Walsh. Improbably absorbing as always, this institutional cross-section offers a beguiling vision of an oasis of good government in the USA.
True Mothers [Japan, Naomi Kawase, 4.5] Parents of a kindergartner react with dismay when a woman contacts them claiming to be his birth mother. Luminous, delicate drama of shifting perspectives.
Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds [US, Werner Herzog & Clive Oppenheimer] Documentary explores the science and mythology of meteor, from Chicxulub to ʻOumuamua. The intersection between scientific discovery and religious awe, central to all of Herzog’s beautiful and delightful nature docs, rises from subtext to text through the intercession of traditional elders, joyful researchers, and the Jesuit scholar of the Vatican’s heaven stone collection.
David Byrne’s American Utopia [US, Spike Lee, 4] Filmed version of the Broadway version of David Byrne’s recent tour features joyous choreography, simple but arresting stagecraft, and songs from his Talking Heads and solo eras. When you shoot a concert film featuring David Byrne, you have to bring it, and Lee does that ably, finding countlesss different ways to shoot within a proscenium.
The Father [UK, Florian Zeller, 4] Retired engineer (Anthony Hopkins) struggles to piece together the confusing reality of his living circumstances as his daughter (Olivia Colman) copes with his progressing dementia. Impeccably performed stage play adaptation puts the viewer inside the contradictory shifts of the protagonist’s subjective viewpoint.
Night of the Kings [Côte d'Ivoire/France , Philippe Lacôte, 4] When the red moon rises over MACA, the Ivory Coast’s toughest prison, its inmate boss appoints the new arrival as storyteller—a post that results in death if the tale ends before sundown. Prison drama with compelling narrative hook widens out to encompass ancient warfare, contemporary politics, and even a wizard duel.
Summer of 85 [France, Francois Ozon, 4] Love between two young men in a French beach town leads to a bizarre crime. Teen emotions run high in a sunlit melodrama of Eros and Thanatos.
Spring Blossom [France, Suzanne Lindon, 4] Bored with her classmates, an awkward 16 year old (played by the writer-director) pursues her attraction for a ruggedly handsome stage actor (Arnaud Valois.) Character drama sets aside the sexual aspect of this staple French cinema situation to focus on the emotion, periodically breaking from naturalism to have its characters express their feelings through dance.
Get the Hell Out [Taiwan, I-Fan Wang, 4] Taiwan’s notoriously pugilistic parliament tips into arterial spray when the effluent of a controversial chemical plant triggers a zombie epidemic. Zombie comedy features an eye-searing palette and an onslaught of optical overlays, and is paced like a quarter kilo of crushed Adderall.
Preparations to Be Together For an Unknown Period of Time [Hungary, Lili Horvát, 4] Top neurologist questions the accuracy of her recollections when she moves back home from the US to Budapest for a romantic rendezvous, only to find that the object of her affections professes not to remember her. Quietly suspenseful drama of psychological uncertainty.
Shiva Baby [US, Emma Seligman, 4] The ambient social pressures of a post-funeral gathering skyrocket for a directionless college student (Rachel Sennott) when attendees include not only the expected ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon) but also the sex work client she’s caught feelings for. Knife-edge comedy of emotional suffocation uses a plucky suspense score for that extra frisson of social anxiety.
Under the Open Sky [Japan, Miwa Nishikawa, 4] Out of prison after a long sentence, an aging yakuza (Koji Yakusho) struggles with his volcanic temper as he attempts to go straight. Bittersweet drama anchored by a lead performance from Yakusho, a mainstay of contemporary Japanese cinema.
New Order [Mexico, Michel Franco, 4] A wedding thrown by a wealthy family during a growing insurrection suffers a murderous attack by protestors and the kidnapping of the bride. Wildly disturbing vision of political violence and degradation takes its time unreeling its allegorical purpose.
Limbo [UK, Ben Sharrock, 4] Syrian oud player grapples with guilt over family left behind as he cools his heels with other refugee claimants at a center in the bleak and isolated Outer Hebrides. Moments of deadpan humor and stark landscapes layer this exploration of displacement.
Violation [Canada, Madeleine Sims-Fewer & Dusty Mancinelli, 4] Woman (Madeleine Sims-Fewer) exacts meticulous revenge after her brother-in-law rapes her. Although this jarring, meditative drama includes gruesome imagery and horror-exploitation motifs, it’s closer in spirit to Michael Haneke than Dario Argento or Wes Craven.
Shadow in the Cloud [New Zealand, Roseanne Liang, 4] When an WWII RAF Flight Officer (Chloe Grace Moretz) boards a Samoa-bound cargo plane bearing a mysterious package, a monstrous gremlin on board is just one of the surprises. Enclosed space horror-action thriller tips an 80s-style hat to Carpenter and Cameron.
Beans [Canada, Tracey Deer, 4] As the 1990 Oka standoff envelops her Mohawk community, a shy tween achiever (Kiawentiio) decides to toughen up by ingratiating herself to the tough kids. Mixing the docudrama and coming-of-age structures offsets the inherent trickiness of both, but it wouldn’t work without an appealing and touching performance from its charismatic young lead.
Akilla’s Escape [Canada, Charles Officer, 4] Weed dealer hoping to leave the business (Saul Wiliiams) tries to recover his boss’ ripped-off cash and product without sacrificing a young gang member who reminds him of his younger self. Moody, laconic crime drama contextualized by the political history of Jamaican gangsterism.
Enemies of the State [US, Sonia Kennebeck] Documentary pulls apart a labyrinth of contradictory evidence around Matthew DeHart, an Indiana man who was framed for child pornography by the FBI as part of a Wikleaks espionage case, or created a story of secret files to shield himself either cooked up a Wikileaks-related espionage smokescreen to mask his sex crimes. Invites the viewer to join a filmmaking team as it goes ever deeper down a rabbit hole.
The Inconvenient Indian [Canada, Michelle Latimer, 4] Essay-format documentary examines the Indigenous struggle for sovereignty and cultural reclamation in North America, as hosted by novelist Thomas King and inspired by his nonfiction book of the same name. Makes its case through cinematic language, pushing the archival footage and talking heads format to the background.
Beginning [Georgia, Dea Kulumbegashvili, 4] Depressed wife of a pastor bears the brunt of a persecution campaign from a local man hostile to their minority Baptist faith. The camera acts as a pitiless eye in this harsh, austere drama of pervasive male oppression.
The Truffle Hunters [Italy, Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw, 4] An aging generation of Piedmontese truffle hunters carries on the search for the elusive delicacy, fearing the poison bait left for their beloved dogs by ruthless newcomers to the trade. A documentary balm for lovers of food and canines luxuriates in the presence of sumptuously photographed forest eccentrics and their very, very good dogs.
Lift Like a Girl [Egypt, Mayye Zayed, 4] From ages 13 to 18, under the tutelage of a volcanic, motormouth coach, with a rubble-strewn lot on a busy Alexandria street, weightlifter Zebiba trains to be a champion. Fly-on-the-wall documentary inhabits a hardscrabble community powered by loving verbal abuse.
The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel [Canada, Joel Bakan & Jennifer Abbott, 4] Polemical documentary deploys narration, stock footage and talking heads (some appearing via lockdown video conference) to survey corporate capitalism and the struggle against it from Reaganomics to COVID and the George Floyd protests. Comprehensive primer for the prospective young progressives includes a call to continued electoral action.
40 Years a Prisoner [US, Tommy Oliver, 4] Documentary recounts the 1978 standoff between members of radical Black back-to-nature organization MOVE and Philadelphia police through the efforts of the son of two of the group members to secure their parole. A strong emotional hook greatly assists in telling a tenaciously complicated story.
Pieces of a Woman [US, Kornél Mundruczó, 3.5] Grief tears a couple (Vanessa KIrby, Shia LaBeouf) apart after the death of their baby in childbirth, abetted by the insistence of her domineering mother (Ellen Burstyn) that they pursue legal action against their midwife (Molly Parker.) Wrenching drama marked by deep performances and key long take scenes. An otherwise masterful script reaches for the conventional when it hits its climax.
Wildfire [UK/Ireland, Cathy Brady, 3.5] After going missing for a year, a bipolar woman (Nika McGuigan) drops in on her sister (Nora-Jane Noone), opening the wounds of shared tragedy. Raw, unsubtle family drama against the backdrop of Northern Irish politics as Brexit threatens a fragile peace.
Fauna [Mexico/Canada, Nicolás Pereda, 3.5] Narratives nest within narratives when an actor visits his girlfriend’s family in a sleepy small town. Comic misunderstandings, naturalistic locations and twisting meta-story may remind seasoned festival-goers of the works of Hong Sang-soo, with Coronas instead of soju.
The Water Man [US, David Oyelowo, 3.5] Imaginative kid (Lonnie Chavis) heads into the Northwestern forest in search of a legendary immortal, thinking he holds the secret to curing his mom (Rosario Dawson) of leukemia. One of the more successful of a recent wave of films that put a somber sin on 80s kids adventure, thanks to a well-constructed script and Oyelowo’s sure control of tone.
The Way I See It [US, Dawn Porter, 3.5] Documentary profile of Obama-era Official White House photographer traces his arc from work for the Reagan administration to anti-Trump social media firebrand. Whether American viewers consider this slickly fashioned film heartfelt or sentimental will depend on party registration. It’s certainly explicitly designed to fire up Ds to get out there to de-elect the current president.
Bandar Band [Iran/Germany, Manijeh Hekmat, 3] A pregnant singer, her husband and their guitarist try to get their van through a floodstruck region to attend a contest gig in Tehran. Neorealist drama where the obstacles in the characters’ path are literal.
Penguin Bloom [Australia, Glendyn Ivin, 3] A former surfer left paralyzed from the chest down by a freak accident reluctantly bonds with a magpie chick named Penguin, which one of her young sons has rescued. Sun-dappled animal-related family drama about the depression and anger that can accompany a life-changing injury.
Falling [US, Viggo Mortensen, 3] Pathologically forbearing airline pilot (Mortensen) attempts to find a new situation for his lifelong miserable prick of a father (Lance Henriksen) as his dementia worsens. With one character incapable of change and another not needing to change, almost all of the scenes repeat the same dynamic.
Gaza Mon Amor [Palestine/France, Tarzan & Arab Nasser, 3] Middle-aged fisherman discovers a Greek statue and courts a wary dress shop clerk. Deliberately paced dramedy of life under oppression.
Concrete Cowboy [US, Ricky Staub, 3] After yet another expulsion from school, a troubled teen (Caleb McLaughlin) gets dumped for the summer with his father (Idris Elba), who belongs to Philadelphia’s threatened culture of inner city horse owners. A rich social milieu is the star of the show in this affirming drama, which could do with a stronger drive to activate its protagonist.
I Care a Lot [UK, J Blakeson, 3] Corrupt legal guardian (Rosamund Pike) who slaps unsuspecting seniors into care facilities to bleed them dry triggers a cat-and-mouse game when her latest prey (Dianne Wiest) turns out to be the mother of a wealthy gangster (Peter Dinklage.) Engaging thriller— until it betrays the contract it has established with the audience.
Memory House [Brazil, João Paulo Miranda Maria, 1] Racist harassment from German co-workers drives dairy worker to vengeance. Blunts the political anger of its subject matter with enervating pacing.