The day before the start of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), my LEGO-obsessed ten-year-old built me a mini version of a TIFF landmark, the giant orange letters stationed on King Street that read “tiff.” (Period included.) It was a meaningful creation, since, for the first time in my fourteen years covering the annual festival, I would not be crossing the border. In fact, I would be experiencing TIFF20 from my sofa.
After months of wondering how TIFF would manage to mount a festival in the year of COVID-19—and after the cancellation of Cannes and Telluride—a hybrid festival was announced. For members of the press (like yours truly), the festival would be digital only. And the many Americans, some from Buffalo, who attend each year were out of luck, since public screenings were geoblocked to Canada. After these details were settled, TIFF20 finally took place from September 10 to 20.
The process was, shall we say, not easy. And once the festival began, there were other issues. In a provocative piece for Seventh Row (seventh-row.com), a noteworthy film site, writer Alex Heeney analyzed “the shortcomings” of TIFF20: “TIFF has doubled down on what it’s always done, which now means offering a watered down version of the festival. Most years, TIFF has programmed upwards of 300 films, including shorts and features, while, this year, it limited its selection to just 50 features and just 5 short film programmes,” Heeney wrote. “In practice, accessing the festival this year has been even more challenging than past years, in what has proved one (avoidable) PR nightmare after another for the festival—from refusing access to the festival for marginalized critics, to sticking with the (in my opinion, misguided) Ontario recommendations for mask use in cinemas (not mandatory). (Both policies have since been reversed, at least somewhat, though not before TIFF was publicly embarrassed.)”
Having watched nearly thirty TIFF20 films and participating in the online, “Film Twitter” discourse surrounding the festival, I cannot disagree with many of those points. I was sad for my fellow critics who were unable to gain accreditation this year. I was also disappointed for the American moviegoers who travel to Toronto annually for a film fest experience like no other. And, if I’m being honest, I was sad for myself, since attending TIFF is one of my favorite annual experiences.
Yet, it would have been impossible to pull off a festival during a pandemic without a hitch. Cultural institutions are facing unprecedented challenges, and, for an organization that depends on thousands of paying attendees annually, the effects could have been catastrophic. Can film festivals recover? Can the act of moviegoing recover? These are legitimate, unanswerable questions.
What I can say is that TIFF20, while unlike any other in festival history, had its share of highlights. Yes, there were things that went wrong. But there were a whole lotta things that went right:
The digital screener platform was flawless. This “reimagined” version of the Toronto International Film Festival did include some in-person screenings for Canadian audiences, at venues like the TIFF Bell Lightbox and, uniquely, several drive-in locations. For most audience members (and all press), however, TIFF was experienced via a new digital platform. For this critic, it worked beautifully. The platform was easy to use, never took longer than a few seconds to load, and errors only occurred if a film was paused for hours. Every selection had a forty-eight-hour viewing window, and that made timing a little tricky. But the digital experience itself could not have been smoother.
The reunions and chats were thoughtful and resonant. One of the most noteworthy elements of TIFF is that it draws a banner collection of stars, which, in turn, draws lots of fans and photographers. Well, that was all out the window in 2020. Instead, festival organizers went with a nice mix of virtual reunions (including Lady Bird, Room, and, most excitingly, Full Metal Jacket) and conversations between folks like Denzel Washington and Barry Levinson, and Claire Denis and Barry Jenkins. They were compelling for both die-hard cinephiles and average movie fans. Plus, a number of TIFF Tribute Awards were presented to folks like Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mira Nair, and Chloe Zhao during an entertaining live-streamed ceremony.
And the films? Yes, there were some gems. While some distributors like A24 opted against bringing films to TIFF, and the number of entries fell by, oh, 200, the festival lineup was surprisingly strong. Opening night featured David Byrne’s American Utopia, a Spike Lee-directed documentary 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. The Father, a stunning exploration of dementia, featured award-worthy turns from Hopkins and Olivia Colman. Zhao’s extraordinary Nomadland, a timely study of nomad life starring Frances McDormand, was an audience and critical favorite. And the documentary No Ordinary Man was a breathtaking look at trans representation.
Powerful smaller films to watch for in the months to come include Wolfwalkers, a magical animation treat set in seventeenth century Ireland; New Order, a morally complex, astoundingly chaotic tale of rich-vs.-poor violence in Mexico; Limbo, a warm-hearted but somber portrait of a Syrian refugee in Scotland; Violation, an upsetting, fascinating non-linear revenge thriller; and a harrowing drama set during the Bosnian genocide called Quo Vadis, Aida?
So … what’s next? The real question, of course, is what any of this means for the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. The obvious answer: who knows? The only known, for me, is this: I went from experiencing TIFF at home to experiencing the 2020 New York Film Festival at home, as an accredited member of the press. Yes, more festival selections on my sofa, while petting my dog, after the kids are asleep. That opportunity may never come again. Even though it was impossible not to miss the energizing feeling of TIFF on-ground in Toronto, I feel thankful to have had the opportunity to watch, ponder, and talk TIFF from home. I can’t imagine 2021 will look like 2020. But whatever form it takes, I’ll be there.
Check out Christopher Schobert’s reviews of TIFF20 entries Akilla’s Escape, The Best Is Yet to Come, Under the Open Sky, Shiva Baby, Summer of 85, Concrete Cowboy, and Spring Blossom on thefilmstage.com.