TIFF Goes Virtual

Binge-watching the Toronto International Film Festival from home

Pandemic life has now reached Canada’s famed festival of festivals. The usually all-inviting, all-inclusive Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) opened the 45th edition last Thursday night and will run its mostly virtual event through September 19. Out-of-towners are not welcome at this year’s token physical activities, and the limited amounts of locals who do attend must socially distance at screenings with heavily reduced audiences. Fun.

So U.S. journalists like myself are sitting at home and streaming the Great White North’s cinemania through laptops. Slinging the films via Apple TV onto a flat-screen TV helps a bit, but the overall effect is not much different than binge-watching Netflix–or, more accurately, arthouse-heavy sites like Mubi and the Criterion Channel.

This year’s TIFF is not the usual gluttonous delight, with programmers paring down its notorious hefty girth from more than 300 films to a comparatively svelte 50 or so titles. Quality control? More like slim pickings, with many high-profile movies sitting out the corona-plagued calendar year (I’m looking at you, French Dispatch and Mank). Yet, thanks to TIFF’s diligent programmers, the cream still rises to the top.

“Thank you for leaving your homes”
From left, Daniel Freedman, Bobby Wooten III, Chris Giarmo, David Byrne (center), Tendayi Kuumba and Stéphane San Juan in “American Utopia.” Photo courtesy Matthew Murphy.

Spike Lee’s jubilant concert film American Utopia kicked off the TIFF proceedings, with what under normal circumstances would have been a victory lap for David Byrne’s touring-show-cum-Broadway-triumph. Now, it felt more like a bittersweet memento of the Before Times. “Thank you for coming,” Byrne says to his audience at the start of the show. “Thank you for leaving your homes.” If only.

Intoxicating is too mild a word for this giddy filmed performance, which blends together Talking Heads oldies and shiny new solo numbers all belted with Byrne’s deadpan on-the-spectrum verve. A multi-culti troupe of kinetic musicians, instruments strapped to their whirling-dervish bodies, makes his singular catalogue of WASP funk absolutely soar.

It’s initially a head-scratcher why Spike Lee, the race-centric rabblerouser from da Republic of Brooklyn, would connect with this art-rock Rhode Island School of Design aesthete. But by the time Byrne and his energized squad, grey-suited and barefoot, get around to Janelle Monáe’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” with its “say their names” incantation citing everyone from Emmett Till to George Floyd, it all makes sense.

A grindhouse version of Roma

Utopia is the right word for it, though: imagined perfection. And Byrne’s kumbaya activism all came crashing down as soon as TIFF started streaming Michel Franco’s bracing gut-punch New Order. Did I say gut-punch? More like a roundhouse kick in the face.

Over a taut, tight, white-knuckled 86 minutes, New Order imagines social upheaval between Mexico City’s moneyed elite and the increasingly resentful underclass foaming at the mouth to bite the hand that barely feeds. The film opens at a posh afternoon wedding party where walled gates keep rioters at bay. A former servant to the bride’s family stops by unexpectedly: his wife needs emergency medical care, made more acute by the riots filling up local hospitals. He needs money to save her; the wealthy clan dithers. And then rioters jump over the walls.

What follows is a series of narrative jolts, as looting spreads and dead bodies pile up in the streets. Just when someone seems safe, they end up in even more peril. The military takes control. A few renegade soldiers kidnap a slew of high-society scions, then rape, torture, and ransom them for millions. The poor continue to suffer, and the rich consolidate even more power. It’s like a grindhouse version of Roma, and it’s merciless. Brilliantly so.

McDormand on the road
Frances McDormand in ‘Nomadland,’ now screening as part of TIFF.

Need empathy? Try Nomadland. Already the toast of 2020, Chloé Zhao’s latest debuted on Friday at both TIFF as well as the Venice Film Festival. The next day, it promptly won the Golden Lion for Best Film and immediately sparked Oscar talk for its incandescent star, Frances McDormand, as well as its director, who if so would be the first Asian woman ever nominated.

They both deserve it. Adapting the book by Jessica Bruder, Zhao masterfully weaves a heart-crushing portrait of a widow named Fran (McDormand) whose Nevada mining town falls apart in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Homeless, or as she puts it, “houseless,” she takes to the highway in a van and starts her itinerant life.

Working alongside a cast of mostly non-professional actors, many of whom live a hand-to-mouth existence in campers themselves, an astonishingly assured McDormand is fully de-glammed: no makeup, no fancy hairdos or clothes, and literally shitting in a bucket. Her Fran personifies plucky resilience, insisting on and oddly thriving in a life of solitude even as her limited resources dwindle and her options narrow.

Nomadland is a film of small moments, a compassionate observation of a put-upon subculture that’s richly observed and all-too human. There’s romance, too, in the form of stalwart rugged man David Strathairn. But this portrait of society’s fringe denizens is about as unpredictable as the open road, which is the point. And the reward.

On the night of the blood moon
Scene from ‘Night of the Kings,’ directed by Philippe Lacôte.

Two other films showed this week how storytelling can especially lift up the downtrodden. Emmanuel Courcol’s The Big Hit, a French dramedy based on a true story, follows an out-of-work actor (Kad Merad) who runs theater workshops with prison inmates and decides to mount a production of Waiting for Godot. It’s a too-cute conceit, that inmates above all can identify with the confinement of Vladimir and Estragon’s existential longing. But it’s effective in its broad, touching strokes.

The real revelation, though, is Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings. This beguiling West African prison drama takes places at MACA, an Ivory Coast penitentiary where the inmates run the show. Literally: the cock of the walk is Blackbeard (Steven Tiencheu), an ailing chieftain sucking on an oxygen tank. One of his duties is to pick a storyteller on the night of the blood moon. And when that night comes, he chooses a new arrival (Koné Bakary) whom he christens Roman (which means “novel” in French).

And as Roman begins his tale, the film comes alive with re-enactments, flashbacks, power plays, and flights of mythic fancy—especially after Roman realizes that, if his story doesn’t last until sunrise, it means certain death. Night of the Kings toggles between gritty verisimilitude and dreamlike invocation, proving that a good film not only satisfies but challenges and subverts and disorients and inspires. Just like a good film festival, even under the worst conditions.

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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. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett 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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