Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The best films of Toronto 2020

Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Toronto ends this year not with a check out, a wave through a taxi window, and a short flight home, but with the closing of a laptop. It was, as expected, a strange year at the festival of festivals, covered from apartments that had to dual-function as movie theaters. (At least we could be assured the best seat in the house.) Film festivals are, as we’ve noted before, cultural and social events on top of the access to new cinema they provide. By this time next year, perhaps all of… this will be different, and that cherished aspect of the experience will be restored. Because there is no simple substitution for the communal rush of a packed, receptive screening—that jolt of joy or fear or excitement that can pass through a whole auditorium like an electric current—or the debates in the lobby or over beers after the credits roll and the house lights come up.

Still, there were the movies. And though the lineup was neither as big nor as star- and auteur-studded as usual, Katie Rife and I saw plenty of worthwhile films over the last week—including a few we might have missed were we trudging by professional obligation to an awards contender here, a Hollywood attraction there. Some of these titles have release dates. Some will live in limbo while distributors wait for the movie industry to stutter back to life. But all should be marked on a calendar and looked for down the road. Because a film festival doesn’t end when it ends, so long as the films carry on. Maybe that’s especially true in a year when they were already in the digital ether. [A.A. Dowd]

1. Nomadland

Chloé Zhao’s drama about the migratory lives of older Americans, crisscrossing the Southern states in search of work and temporary community, entered Toronto with buzz at its back and left it the most acclaimed movie of the year. (It won the Golden Lion at Venice a few days into TIFF.) But though I suspect many will agree the film lives up to its hype—it’s too touching and empathetic not to strike a chord in a country weathering another economic disaster—it’s also the kind of lyrical meditation that wears its “importance” lightly, accumulating truths about the national character without shouting them from the rooftops. And in Frances McDormand, as a woman going mobile out of some combination of necessity and unarticulated restlessness, it finds the perfect embodiment of its spirit: tough, sensitive, inquisitive.

2. The Disciple

Another pretty major movie in a minor key. Its wunderkind filmmaker, Chaitanya Tamhane, made a name with his first feature, Court, about the legal system in India. Here, he applies his shrewd, withering insight to the relatable story of a young aspiring singer (Aditya Modak) bumping up constantly against the obstacles of making it as a classical musician, and maybe the limits of his own talent, too. There are tons of films that cheerlead for aspiring artists, encouraging them to chase their dreams at all costs. This one shows what that actually looks like, unsentimentally and with the driest of humor.


The information isn’t new, exactly, and the presentation is familiar (if elegant and engrossing). But Sam Pollard’s documentary about the surveillance campaign against Martin Luther King, Jr. is still a vital historical primer, beating back against our culture’s hero worship of the FBI and reminding modern audiences of just how much resistance—and threats to his life and reputation—King endured during the civil rights era. The parallels to how Black Lives Matter is vilified today are illuminating (and unspoken), but the film isn’t nonstop dispiriting; the wealth of footage of its subject is a gift, giving us a little more of the man behind the Great Man, as the movement he died for presses on.

4. David Byrne’s American Utopia

A worthy encore to the greatest concert film ever made. Byrne is more talkative (some would say more preachy) than he was during the Stop Making Sense days. But he remains a wizard of minimalist spectacle, staying true to his belief that a great show is one that creates a direct conduit between the people on stage and those in the audience, with as little interference between the two as possible. Spike Lee, capably filling the shoes (or comically oversized suit) of the late Jonathan Demme, finds the perfect coverage blueprint for Byrne’s Broadway set, giving us the proverbial best seat in the house by capturing the energy of a live show even as he offers angles no normal concertgoer could ever achieve. Look for it on HBO (and HBO Max) on October 17.

5. New Order

Michel Franco’s take-no-prisoners class-warfare thriller offers a dystopian vision of what might happen if Mexico (or any other country with a vast chasm separating its haves from its haves not) keeps ignoring its wealth disparity. Far from some inspirational call to arms, the film plays cruel, provocative games with viewer identification, unfolding as it does from the perspective of a rich family under siege and depicting the revolutionary forces as a horror-movie threat, inflicting harsh, pitiless violence on the thoughtlessly privileged. Lots of filmmakers have emulated the audience antagonism of Michael Haneke, but Franco is among the few nearly as capable of getting under our skin.

Shiva Baby
Shiva Baby
Photo: TIFF

No surprises here: my best of the fest was also Nomadland, a film that I suspect we’ll be talking about up until, and even after, its scheduled theatrical release on December 4. (If that actually happens, of course.) Beyond the gala presentations, however, Dowd and I pursued a deliberate strategy of exploring opposite areas of the TIFF lineup, in order to write about as wide of a range of films as possible. As a result, aside from that consensus pick, our top fives for the fest are completely different. Dowd’s already knee-deep in the New York Film Festival, and I just came off of a month of virtual festival coverage myself, so we’ll compare notes later. For now, consider the baton passed. [Katie Rife]

1. Nomadland

With our systems seemingly finding new ways to fail us every single day, many Americans are facing a future not unlike that of the wise, road-weary characters in Nomadland. There’s an angry film to be made about the circumstances that have forced elders into nomadic lifestyles traveling from temp job to temp job to make up for the inadequate rewards of a lifetime paying into Social Security. But that is not the film director Chloé Zhao set out to make. Instead, Zhao uses this scenario as the backdrop for a sensitive, elegiac meditation of what makes a life worthwhile, communicated through a character study of Frances McDormand’s Fern, a hardworking woman abandoned by the corporation where she spent most of her adult life.

2. Shiva Baby

Expanding on her 2018 short film of the same name (which also played at TIFF), writer-director Emma Seligman announces herself as a filmmaker to watch with the confident Shiva Baby. Basically the Uncut Gems of running into your sugar daddy at a funeral service where your ex-girlfriend is also in attendance, Shiva Baby takes the messiness of post-adolescent ennui and spins it into a tightly choreographed, impressively suspenseful comedy of sexual manners that lives at the intersection of a dance number, a chase sequence, and a bottle episode. Who died? Does it matter?

3. Another Round

Like Nomadland, Thomas Vinterberg’s new film, Another Round, deals with a subject that’s at high risk for melodrama and miserablism: Booze. Specifically, functional alcoholism, as Mads Mikkelsen and a trio of similarly fatigued middle-aged friends decide to try maintaining a 0.5% BAC at all times as a shortcut to renewed joie de vivre. As one might expect, this scheme is the definition of a “slippery slope.” But Vinterberg considers the different facets of humanity’s relationship with the bottle, both comic and tragic, with a measured thoughtfulness that makes this more than a simple teetotal lecture.

4. One Night In Miami...

Calling a film “edutainment” may sound like a backhanded compliment, but in the case of Regina King’s feature-film directorial debut (she’s helmed quite a bit of TV), it’s a sincere one. King’s take on Kemp Powers’ play, about the night real-life friends Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) spent hanging out at a motel in Miami, Florida, is a poised and engaging bit of historical drama, driven by dialogue that weaves together larger cultural forces with individual personalities. It’s a snapshot of a moment in history, one that seems designed to spark dialogue on what’s changed—and what hasn’t—since 1964. The fact that the Best Supporting Actor race for next year’s Oscars just got even more competitive is a bonus.

5. Violation

The A.V. Club recently ran a Q&A piece on great films that you never want to see again, and Violation is an instant classic of that particular genre. Co-writers and directors Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli specialize in transgressive, confrontational filmmaking, and Violation is a movie that should both provoke and give pause to viewers versed in the tropes and themes of rape-revenge horror. Morality is both straightforward and continually compromised, catharsis comes at a horrifying price, and a victim’s darkest fantasies are both accommodated and interrogated. Violation’s unblinking brutality can be difficult to sit through. But it’s also difficult to forget.