The Virtual TIFF Previews the Virtual Oscars

Big woke awards contenders and Midnight Madness close out Toronto

Now that the virtual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is over, we virtually have a sense of what might compete for the 2020 Oscars. Nomadland remains the front-runner in this year’s anemic list of contenders, especially since it won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at TIFF over the weekend—after winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival the week before.

The beer-sponsored accolade, not a seasonal populist lager but a strangely prescient audience prize, reflects Torontonians’ uncanny ability to anticipate Oscar bait. Past winners: Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, Green Book. Now add to the list Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s heartfelt portrait of the heartland as seen through the eyes of a destitute widow (Frances McDormand). Get ready to root for a road-warrior odyssey through America’s economic desolation.

One Night in Miami
TIFF
‘One Night in Miami,’ directed by Regina King, is sure to be an Oscar contender.

Another likely Best Picture nominee, in this year of BLM activism, is One Night in Miami, a film with such pitch-perfect sociopolitical timing that its relevance on the awards circuit is a lock. The directing debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King, One Night in Miami is a fraught, fervent, fictionalized account of an actual evening in 1964 that brought together Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke.

The film’s main topics: how can these individuals carve out their place in history without being someone else’s servant? How can they claim their own destiny in a world where white men shape the narrative and control the levers of power? And how can each of them be true to themselves without seeming to betray their own race? Those marquee biopic names are enough of a draw for some fun speculation about what-if? conversations. But watching them struggle with each other about how to navigate their respective paths is quickly sobering, then increasingly searing.

MLK/FBI

Another chronicle of the Civil Rights era that popped up at TIFF, this time vastly more fact-based forensic but no less harrowing, was the documentary MLK/FBI. Sam Pollard’s investigation of the investigators lays out the bare-knuckled tactics and undeniable racism that defined J. Edgar Hoover’s reign over his all-too-obliging army of T-Men. “The most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation,” they growled in uncovered internal documents.

Easily-scandalized and uninformed viewers will be shocked, shocked! to learn the unseemly and previously-documented fact that MLK was a philanderer. But the real jaw-dropper is how much the FBI wanted to exploit what they called his “non-monogamous private life” in order to “humiliate and weaken” him. Even worse: the letters of harassment they sent, made to look like they came from a member of his community, that encouraged him to commit suicide.

The Monopoly of Violence
The Monopoly of Violence

State-sanctioned pain gets a thoroughly Gallic review in David Dufresne’s The Monopoly of Violence, a riveting analysis of how the unchecked duties of the government can unleash abhorrent brutality among its people. Getting its title from social theorist Max Weber’s 1919 insight that “The state claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force,” The Monopoly of Violence explores how institutions like the police can so easily violate the Rousseauian social contract that enables civilized countries to work.

Dufresne deftly interweaves smartphone videos taken during the Gillets Jaunes protests in 2018 and 2019 with methodical analyses from a dozen historians, sociologists, philosophers, and union leaders. Even more fascinating are testimonials from the people in the protest videos—citroyens who are wearing eye patches because they lost their eyes, describing how colleagues lost their hands because of explosive devices. “Democracy isn’t consensus,” one scholar explains. “It’s de-sensus.” Protests are a facet of freedom, not a threat to it.

The Ghost of Cannes
‘The Summer of ’85’.

But TIFF wasn’t all just trenchant studies of civil injustice. Canadians are Woke, but they also love their auteurs. And the ghost of Cannes definitely hung over the festival, as a clutch of cineaste titles that would have debuted in the south of France finally surfaced here. Since that festival was cancelled, Cannes released a list of its “official selections,” laying claim to its favorite filmmakers and anointing new ones as well.

Among them is François Ozon’s tragic gay romance Summer of ’85, a breezy, swoony coming-of-age love story with a fatal twist—imagine Patricia Highsmith rewriting Call Me By Your Name. It’s the kind of coy thriller where characters say things like “You’ll be the death of me.” But the Calais-set story of amour fou ends with bittersweet reflection, not alarming revelation. It kisses more than it bites.

Mads Mikkelsen decides life is better when he’s drunk in Another Round, Cannes vet Thomas Vinterberg’s dramedy about four high-school teachers responding to their midlife crises by staying soused. Invoking real-life psychologist Finn Skårderud, they posit that people are born with a blood alcohol deficit that requires correction. The remedy: keep yourself tipsy during work hours, and watch as you become more relaxed, more courageous, more creative, and, as the liquor increases, more of a liability to everyone around you. A mischievous parable about self-acceptance, Another Round stumbles with a blatantly obvious cautionary message (don’t overindulge!) that keeps its themes fundamentally superficial.

Budding filmmaker Suzanne Lindon brought her debut Spring Blossom, a slight romance, dotted with musical flights of fancy, about a 16-year-old girl who has the hots for a 35-year-old man. Both of them are bored, and confide as much to each other. Kind of refreshing, if a bit on the nose, to see French characters literally use the word “ennui” to describe themselves. Without the Cannes imprimatur, Spring Blossom might have been a minor discovery lost in the shuffle. But now it’s one to watch, especially since Lindon, who wrote, directed, and stars in the film, is only 20.

Midnight Madness

Enough with the high-minded art, already! TIFF is also notorious for its genre selections, unfurled at the thousand-seat Ryerson Auditorium during its nightly Midnight Madness sidebar. This year, with only a few offerings, the madness was muted. But they still provided a few cheap thrills.

Kicking off with a movie called Get the Hell Out seemed like a smart bet, what with the promise of a broad political satire turning into a martial-arts-tinged zombie apocalypse. But the Taiwanese horror lark came off like a coked-fueled collection of skewed angles, cartoonish freeze-frames, and geysers of blood mingling with buckets of vomit. It delivered baseline satisfaction, but not much else.

Another promising entry was Violation, a high-minded Canadian rape-revenge thriller with echoes of Lars von Trier and Catherine Breillat. But the film quickly fell short of its lofty aspirations, delivering instead a semi-coherent and fully unconvincing art-house snore that leans on time-shift editing to make its simplistic story seem nuanced. That said, it does get points for showing a full erection, a gushing jugular, and what looks to be actual puking.

Delivering all the thrills, though, was Shadow in the Cloud, an instantly preposterous feminist WWII ass-kicker starring Chloë Grace Moretz as a mysterious Royal Air Force pilot with an unconvincing British accent and a strange leather box that no one must open. She gets a ride from New Zealand to Samoa on an American bomber stuffed with a squad of leering, wolf-whistle misogynists. They put her down in the gunnery hatch. And then a gremlin appears. Wait, what?

Physics-defying, disbelief-suspending antics follow that make this monster movie veer wildly from profoundly silly to hilariously thrilling. Plus, Moretz whoops serious butt in every direction, machine-gunning Japanese fighter planes with aplomb while besting a batlike creature that has fangs studding his tongue. How does it all end? With breastfeeding. Take that, chauvinist pigs!

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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