(CNN)The Toronto International Film Festival, of seemingly endless sprawl, had its wings clipped this year. Instead of the thousands of titles bulging at the program’s seams, there was a svelte 50 or so. Blame the pandemic. Release schedules have been rejigged, some films will wait for 2021; Netflix bolted when award bodies overhauled qualification rules. Still, Toronto’s trim selection brought focus to proceedings, and we should respect the films that made the leap knowing they would land on unstable ground.
It was a statement of intent that Toronto happened at all. Other festivals likes Cannes was canned; Telluride followed suit. Venice and Toronto have fought the good fight and New York and London are to come, but as a launchpad they don’t have the same spring this year. The hype machine relies on the pageantry of the red carpet as much as the pressed flesh of industry figures and the under-slept, over-caffeinated opinions of journalists. It helps to have everyone in the same place.
Instead, press screenings at Toronto took place on a virtual portal, while public screenings were limited, online and in theaters. The stars logged in via Zoom. It was never going to compare, but the system held together and brought new cultural vistas to living rooms around the world. As the arts plot their fightback against the economic realities of Covid-19, that feels important.
So, in this oddest of odd years, what does it mean for the films that stepped out amid the pandemic? The traditional trajectory for many — autumn festival blitz, release by year end and kick on to the awards race — has become an even greater marathon with the delay of the Oscars until April
(that might be optimistic). It could be a long time before some of these films see anything like a normal release. Some could end up lost in the lag time between now and the pandemic’s end. On the other hand, a less cluttered program left more space for films to take a deeper gulp of the rarefied air that is autumn festival exposure. Success now could still translate into little gold men in the spring.
In any case, perhaps this autumn there will be a little less peeking over the horizon and a little more looking at what’s at our feet. And what we have are some very fine films. Here’s CNN’s festival highlights.
“One Night in Miami”
Sometimes a movie feels made for the moment, and Regina King’s “One Night In Miami” is one of them. Her take on Kemp Power’s hit play brings together Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali) for a fictionalized chamber piece set on the night Clay beat Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. Heavyweight performances from Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, Eli Goree and Leslie Odom Jr. lift us out of the modest motel setting and into a place where language and ideas take the fore — where Black America and its future can be vibrantly debated, if not decided on.
These four voices from the past reach into the present, speaking with unsettling familiarity. “Our people are literally dying in the streets every day,” says X; it’s language we’ve heard in news reports all summer. As a clarion call, a vehicle for stellar acting and an assured directorial debut from Oscar-winner King, “One Night In Miami” ticks a lot of boxes.
Arriving with similar urgency, Sam Pollard’s documentary draws on recent disclosures about the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. to paint a damning picture of fear and prejudice backed up by institutional might. For anyone who has followed the declassification of documents there may be little you didn’t already know before, but Pollard artfully stitches together a compelling bank of evidence, from the informants in King Jr.’s orbit to phone taps to an infamous letter from the FBI
. Adding further context, we’re also shown the role popular culture had in glorifying the FBI, Pollard drawing a line between TV and film and the public support J Edgar Hoover and the bureau had while all this was going on.
“I think this entire episode represents the darkest part of the bureau’s history,” says interviewee James Comey. On evidence, one would be hard pushed to disagree.
This film’s Golden Lion at Venice last week was thoroughly earned. Chloe Zhao’s exquisite work of docufiction drops Frances McDormand into the little-known culture of American baby boomers taking on a nomadic lifestyle. Their reasons are many: financial ruin, disillusionment, personal loss. McDormand’s character Fern is all of the above, losing her husband as well as her town — Empire, Nevada — when US Gypsum shuttered in 2011.
Roving around the Badlands all the way to the West Coast in her converted van, the landscapes are stunning, the living austere and the camaraderie warm. While Fern is fictional, most of the cast are real people, and it’s in this liminal space that interactions are at their most powerful. McDormand, operating like a benign Sacha Baron Cohen, coaxes out truths from a uniquely American reality, offering friendship and compassion in return.
“I’m not homeless, I’m houseless,” Fern says, “not the same thing.” Zhao and McDormand’s creation is a singular work, beautifully crafted, the likes of which we’ve never quite seen before.
“Pieces of a Woman”
Critics have been divided by Kornél Mundruczó’s melodrama, but what cannot be denied is the powerhouse turn given by its lead Vanessa Kirby (“The Crown”). The Hungarian director begins with an extended 30-minute sequence in which Kirby’s Martha and husband Sean (Shia LaBoeuf) live through a homebirth gone tragically wrong. What begins playful and loving becomes fraught and utterly heart-rending; as honest a portrayal of unspeakable loss as one can imagine.
It’s an experience the couple and the film never recover from — so strong is its opening salvo, whatever follows was always going to be a step down in the dramatic stakes. Yet Martha’s quiet resolve and grief combined is deftly played by Kirby, carrying “Pieces of a Woman” through to a satisfying conclusion. It’s already an award-winning performance, clinching her the Volpi Cup for best actress at Venice. More gongs may follow.
This superb British indie has captured hearts at Toronto after being named in Cannes’ official selection earlier this year. Set on a remote Scottish island, Ben Sharrock’s dramedy shares many of the same themes as “Nomadland” — displacement, loss, isolation, the rugged outdoors — but operates under higher stakes, in that no one involved chose to be where they are.
We follow Omar (Amir El-Masry), a Syrian asylum seeker living in windswept purgatory as he waits for his case to be processed. He wanders the island carrying his oud and the weight of the world on his shoulders, fielding calls from his parents in Turkey who beg him to return. But he’s determined, finding companionship with Afghan and diehard Freddie Mercury fan Farhad (Vikash Bhai) and West African brothers Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), all united in their mission to live in the UK. Some applications succeed, others tragically don’t. Meanwhile, “cultural awareness” classes must be attended, to the embarrassment of everyone involved.
Still waters run deep in El-Masry’s understated performance as the situation presses in on Omar through cinematographer Nick Cooke’s 4:3 compositions. This is quiet, beautiful storytelling that finds levity in unexpected places.
“I Care a Lot”
You know a thriller is dark when it begins with the rampant exploitation of the elderly, but what fun “I Care A Lot” is. J Blakeson’s film wastes no time in setting course for the moral abyss, and at the wheel is Rosamund Pike, reprising the ice queen ruthlessness last exhibited in David Fincher’s “Gone Girl.” Pike plays Marla Grayson, a professional legal guardian who scopes out targets to lock away in care homes and funnel their assets into her company’s pockets. She’s a leech of the highest order and proud, because frankly, she’s good at it. But when a new client (Dianne Wiest) proves difficult due to her unlikely and violent connections, Grayson decides attack is the best form of defense.
From there the film evolves into an entirely different prospect, continually switching gears. Salty and sour and spiked with real venom, there’s few people — if any — to root for, but it’s fun to watch everyone duke it out. “Trust me, there’s no such thing as good people,” Grayson quips in the opening voiceover. Yeah, no kidding.
Christos Nikou’s drama about an amnesia pandemic inhabits the same absurd, disquieting world as Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Favourite”) — which makes sense when you learn Nikou was once his assistant director. However, this striking debut, centering on a man cut adrift and working to regain a sense of self — the good, the bad, the painful — sets itself apart with its tenderness. That’s thanks largely to its lead Aris Servetalis and the sympathetic eye of Nikou, who announces himself as a major new voice in the Greek New Wave. One hopes for even greater things to come.
Tracey Deer’s coming of age movie is not like other coming of age movies, because Mohawk girl Tekehentahkhwa has to live through experiences most young people never will. Set amid the 1990 Oka Crisis, a land dispute between Mohawks and authorities over plans for a development on sacred burial grounds in Quebec, Canada, the story is inspired by events from the director’s own childhood. Deer finds a conduit in newcomer Kiawentiio, whose Tekehentahkhwa (Beans to her friends) is navigating the familiar perils of youth amid a blockade and armed stand-off. As tensions escalate, even a child isn’t exempt from the abuse leveled by an increasingly rabid public — and in a holdover from her documentary past, Deer adds archive footage to back up the vitriol in the script.
History tells us this story has a happy ending, but Deer never lets the audience feel complacent, and the film earns its victory lap. And as a light in the darkness, Kiawentiio’s guileless performance is a breakthrough sure to attract further attention.
Michael Franco’s latest film won’t be for everyone. Deeply cynical, bordering on nihilistic, the Mexican provocateur’s incendiary revolution drama has a lot to say and says it in an unrelentingly grim way. However, it’s certainly not dull.
After a frenetic opening in a hospital removing its patients, we move to a bourgeois wedding. Sirens blare in the distance as guests sip champagne, feeling safe in their fortified surroundings. The revolution will not be recognized, and certainly not one by proletariat upstarts daubing Mexico City in garish green paint. But to paraphrase Mike Tyson, everybody has a plan until they get a gun in the face.
The bride Marianne (Naián González Norvind) is kidnapped and her family and house staff do everything to get her back as militia and military create a war zone of the city. One act of violence follows another, as power plays reduce characters to pawns in a game of chess they never asked to play (even if their lifestyle may have set the board).
Franco seems to be working under the thesis that civil unrest, rather than inspiring a better world, is something that can be exploited to consolidate power. The film’s prescience is as eerie as its conclusions are disturbing.
If you could live life constantly tipsy, would it be an improvement? That’s the question at the heart of Thomas Vinterberg’s boozy Danish comedy about four middle aged schoolteachers who conduct an experiment on themselves to shake off the ennui. Spurred on by history head Martin (Mads Mikkelsen, reprising his relationship with Vinterberg), they aim for a blood alcohol level of 0.05% and take it from there. Things get messy of course, in both professional and personal lives, but like the good scholars they are, they’re at least taking notes.
Mikkelsen exposes a vulnerable side a million miles from his suave (and perhaps career-defining) turn as Hannibal Lecter, and support cast Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe and Magnus Millang all provide ample ballast to the story. It would be too simple to label “Another Round” as just another midlife crisis comedy. There’s a lot of soul — and soul-searching — beneath the laughs.
The Toronto International Film Festival is wrapping up, but the awards race has only just begun. Let the marathon begin.