The 2020 Toronto International Film Festival came to a close on September 20. And while this year’s hybrid model was atypical, the fest itself featured a mostly impressive lineup. I outlined some of the more buzzed-about titles and under-the-radar picks in past buffalospree.com columns, but now that it’s all over, I’m sharing my grades for the thirty entries I caught virtually this year.
David Byrne’s American Utopia: A-
TIFF’s opening night selection was this Spike Lee-directed document of the former Talking Heads frontman’s Broadway show. It did not disappoint. Utopia might be the greatest concert film since Stop Making Sense — electrifying, funny, and genuinely moving.
Shiva Baby: A-
From my review for The Film Stage: “Shiva is a viewing experience that is at once hilarious, awkward, uncomfortable, and unforgettable. Writer-director Emma Seligman demonstrates that there is no greater dramatic minefield than that of the family get-together.”
Quo Vadis, Aida?: A-
Strong word-of-mouth caused me to watch Aida, a harrowing drama set during the Bosnian genocide. I am so glad I did. It was one of the festival’s most resonant selections.
No Ordinary Man: A-
TIFF’s documentary game was particularly strong in 2020, and No Ordinary Man ranks at the top. It is a breathtaking look at trans representation centered around the unforgettable story of late jazz musician Billy Tipton.
Zhao’s extraordinary Nomadland, a sadly current, ripped-from-the-headlines study of nomad life starring Frances McDormand, was an audience and critical favorite. It deserved the praise, and should fare well come awards time.
The Father: B+
The Father, a stunning exploration of dementia, features award-worthy turns from Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. Anyone who has watched as a loved one has faded away will find this a difficult but memorable watch.
Ben Sharrock’s warm-hearted yet somber portrait of a Syrian refugee in Scotland was, like Aida, a word-of-mouth sensation at the festival. The ending is particularly moving.
Another Round: B+
I caught the latest collaboration between director Thomas Vinterberg and star Mads Mikkelsen (following The Hunt) near the end of the fest, and it left me hoping for a re-watch very soon. It’s a sharp, very funny look at maturity, marriage, and heavy drinking.
New Order: B+
I find myself still wrestling with New Order, a morally complex, chaotic tale of rich-vs.-poor violence in Mexico. I found its sheer power to be almost overwhelming, and unquestionably involving. Yet I cannot argue with the concerns some critics have voiced regarding its view of Mexico’s indigenous people. I look forward to seeing this unsettling film from Michel Franco again, and having the chance to spend more time contemplating its message.
Wolfwalkers is the latest magical animated treat from the team behind The Secret of Kelis. It is set in seventeenth century Ireland, and features animation that can only be described as gorgeous.
Akilla’s Escape: B+
From my review for The Film Stage: “What it lacks in surprises, Akilla more than makes up for with visual flare, thematic energy, and a major performance from Saul Williams.”
Spring Blossom: B
From my review for The Film Stage: “Suzanne Lindon directed, wrote, and stars in this remarkably assured story of a 16-year-old Parisian who falls for an older man. Though Blossom is a bit slight at just 73 minutes and sometimes prone to posing too many questions, this TIFF entry heralds the arrival of a major international talent.”
One Night in Miami: B
While I was impressed with many elements of Regina King’s feature directorial debut, I was not quite as high on One Night as some of my colleagues. The first half hour was, to me, slow-moving and uninvolving. But once King brings together Malcom X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke together in a Miami hotel room, the film takes off. The final stretch is particularly wonderful.
The Ties: B
Like New Order, I hope to see this Italian drama about a dissolving marriage again at some point. I found it occasionally tiresome but also insightful, with a surprising conclusion that proved very effective.
Under the Open Sky: B
From my review for The Film Stage: “Writer-director Miwa Nishikawa’s film about a recently released former yakuza member is a rich character study that fumbles its landing but remains compelling.”
Filmmaker Christos Nikou has worked as an assistant director for Yorgos Lanthimos, and it shows; Apples is a tonal cousin of films like Dogtooth. It is a beguiling, not entirely satisfying account of an amnesia pandemic.
An important film that shines a light on the 1990 standoff between Quebec’s Mohawk communities and government, Beans is powerful when it focuses on this key moment in Canadian history, less so when stuck in coming-of-age drama mode.
Memory House: B
The hardest film to watch at TIFF may have been João Paulo Miranda Maria’s imaginative study of an indigenous man who suffers near-constant abuse. Viewers who can stick with it are well-rewarded.
Violation is an upsetting, altogether fascinating non-linear revenge thriller. Like Memory House, it is difficult to watch but pays off. Co-director Madeleine Sims-Fewer gave one of the festival’s finest performances.
Like a House on Fire: B-
Jesse Noah Klein’s story of a woman’s struggle to reconnect with her daughter is unremarkable but heartfelt. The rather rote story is saved by fine acting and a strong emotional pull.
The Best Is Yet to Come: B-
From my review for The Film Stage: “The timely, China-set investigative drama is compelling and important, to be sure. But there are numerous missteps that lessen the impact and slow down the dramatic energy.”
Good Joe Bell: B-
Many critics were unkind to Bell, and it’s not hard to see why. Mark Wahlberg is atypically cast as a father who walks across the country to raise awareness of the impact of bullying, while the script takes some wildly emotional sudden turns. But Wahlberg gives a fine performance, and even better is Reid Miller as a teenager facing homophobic bullies. It is certainly imperfect, but also a worthy exploration of a tough topic..
Cathy Brady’s film about two Irish sisters recovering from a tragedy is well-acted by leads Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noone, but never as fresh or inventive as it should be.
True Mothers: C+
Writer-director Naomi Kawase earned praise for her story of motherhood and adoption, but it never connected for me.
Night of the Kings: C
An African prison drama from Philippe Lacôte, Kings is unbearably intense. That intensity left me feeling exhausted, not exhilarated.
Concrete Cowboy: C
From my review for The Film Stage: “Cowboy is watchable, well-acted, and occasionally moving. It’s also overly predictable and never transcends the tropes of the standard coming-of-age drama.” It features an exceptional turn from Stranger Things star Caleb McLaughlin and sturdy support from Idris Elba.
Summer of 85: C
From my review for The Film Stage: “Summer of 85 is in-between the sublime and the absurd, drama and thriller, compelling and monotonous. It is utterly so-so, but it is also, undeniably, so-Ozon.” That’s a reference to Swimming Pool director François Ozon.
Pieces of a Woman: C-
Vanessa Kirby is extraordinary and award-worthy as a mother trying to recover from tragedy in the uncomfortably harrowing, manipulative Pieces of a Woman. The opening stretch is undeniably gripping, but the rest feels utterly hollow.
Shadow in the Cloud: C-
Chloë Grace Moretz energizes (but cannot save) this absurdly silly World War II thriller. It may have been more fun with an in-person Midnight Madness crowd.
Passion Simple: D+
Based on a French bestseller, this story of an obsessive affair was the most forgettable film I saw at TIFF, despite a game performance from star Laetitia Dosch.
In addition to the reviews linked above, I was happy to be one of the 127 critics to contribute to a post-festival survey for Indiewire and one of fifteen critics to contribute to a survey for a favorite site of mine, Seventh Row.
And … that’s that. While TIFF20 is in the books, watch for my post-festival feature in the November issue of Buffalo Spree. I’ll also soon be sharing some coverage of the 2020 New York Film Festival, as well. See you next year, Toronto! Hopefully, in person …