This year, of course, those rhythms have been dramatically thrown off. Although Cannes and Telluride decided to cancel in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, while Venice soldiered on, Toronto decided to go ahead with a hybrid. On Sept. 10, it launched an in-person festival for Canadian residents and an online program for everyone else. (Although viewership figures were not available, festival organizers said that drive-in screenings were consistently sold out.)
With awards-season players like Netflix, A24 and major distributors sitting out festivals, this TIFF lineup didn’t produce the kind of post-event buzz that can catapult a little-known Cinderella all the way to the Oscar ball. But the latest festival still managed to capture the zeitgeist, not only in a blessedly frictionless online delivery system, but also in films that reflected the current era in urgent and affecting ways.
By far the most of-the-moment selection this year was the world premiere of “76 Days,” a riveting documentary filmed during the shutdown in Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus first erupted. Directed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen and Anonymous — a reporter who gathered hospital footage at great personal risk — this astonishingly candid and deeply wrenching portrait of death, suffering and compassion is the first movie of its kind to emerge from China. The high stakes depicted in “76 Days” are mirrored by the making of the film itself: Due to that country’s extreme measures of controlling the narrative around the virus, press representatives asked that journalists refrain from prematurely revealing details in the film that could negatively impact its creative team.
If watching “76 Days” in a state of semi-isolation at home felt like art and reality colliding, other movies resonated in different ways. Toronto’s opening-night offering, the adroitly constructed Spike Lee documentary “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” was filmed during the eponymous Broadway show, which closed in February. (Byrne has announced plans for the show to return this fall.)
“Thank you for leaving your homes,” Byrne says after the first number, a greeting that took on added wistfulness at a time when American TIFF-goers were relegated to their couches. Although the show — a kinetic display of Byrne and Talking Heads’ cerebral pop songs and hyper-stylized choreography — didn’t explicitly address current events, a performance of Janelle Monáe’s anthem “Hell You Talmbout,” set to a percussive drumbeat provided by Byrne’s 11-person backing ensemble, presaged the racial reckoning that was to come.
Two of the festival’s most impressive films were just as alert to what Byrne might call life during wartime: In Chloé Zhao’s magnificent “Nomadland,” Frances McDormand delivers a flinty, funny, unforgettable performance as a woman who becomes a member of the itinerant working class, plying the asphalt seas in her cramped white van from seasonal job to seasonal job.
Based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book, “Nomadland” could easily have been a romanticized paean to life off the grid, or a despairing slice of downbeat realism. In the hands of Zhao and McDormand, it becomes something far more nuanced, expansive and poignant — as much a testament to indomitable resilience and self-sufficiency as it is an indictment of postindustrial capitalism at its most pitiless and destructive. (“Nomadland” arrived in Toronto after winning Venice’s top award, the Golden Lion, making it the closest thing to an Oscar favorite to emerge so far.)
Capitalism, in a far more grotesque form, lies at the heart of the cynical crime thriller “I Care a Lot” starring Rosamund Pike as a predatory legal guardian. Centered on an icy antiheroine reminiscent of Nicole Kidman in “To Die For” and Pike in “Gone Girl,” J Blakeson’s “I Care a Lot” strives for equally poisonous extremes, with uneven and ultimately outlandish results. Far more startlingly effective is “New Order,” a superbly crafted dystopian parable by Michel Franco. With a stunning sense of staging and pace, Franco begins the story at a swanky wedding in a posh Mexico City neighborhood, eventually taking his characters into the most terrifying depths of a society riven by class disparities, government corruption and amoral self-interest. Directed with admirable control and visual style, “New Order” recalls last year’s “Parasite,” which took similar aim at wealth inequality but with far less intellectual rigor and precision. Franco has made a film with just as much brio, and far more substantive ideas.
With luck, both “Nomadland” and “New Order” will be able to go the distance during the awards season to come (because of the pandemic, the Oscars ceremony has been delayed until April 25). And some other possible contenders emerged during Toronto, especially in the acting categories: McDormand should be a shoo-in for her seamless, vanity-free portrayal of someone who seems less like a fictional character than an extension of herself, especially as she plays off co-stars who are mostly nonprofessional actors and real-life nomads.
Lance Henriksen was similarly committed in his ferocious portrait of an elderly man in the midst of dementia in Viggo Mortensen’s “Falling.” And Eli Goree was a standout in the ensemble cast of “One Night in Miami,” Regina King’s adaptation of a play about a real-life encounter between Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali (known then as Cassius Clay), played by Goree with the legendary boxer’s signature swagger and wit.
Mortensen and King made impressive directorial debuts with “Falling” and “One Night in Miami,” as did David Oyelowo with “The Water Man,” a warmhearted, gracefully executed family movie that, along with “Penguin Bloom,” “Good Joe Bell” and others, marked a wholesome departure from the grittier movies that often dominate festival programs.
“Concrete Cowboy” presented a less involving but equally earnest example of the genre, a young-adult drama in which Idris Elba stars as a man who introduces his teenage son to the joys and responsibilities of horseback riding — in this case on the streets of Philadelphia, where Black horsemanship is a storied and rapidly disappearing cultural legacy. Like so many movies at Toronto this year, “Concrete Cowboy” invited the audience to examine lives that might seem to be on the margins, but that upon closer inspection define the very heartbeat of American life.