The best of TIFF 2020

This was a remarkably smooth TIFF, all things considered in this COVID-wracked era. So let’s take a moment to salute the organisers, who pulled out all the stops to make sure things went off relatively hitch-free.

As for the movies, well, I saw sixteen, and I really liked eight of them. Films not listed below include the intriguing Fauna (one truly amazing must-see sequence in a film that otherwise got lost in its own metatextual noodling), Nomadland (a wannabe-naturalistic but actually very mannered performance from Francis McDormand combined with a beautiful verité exploration of real modern American nomads, which only served to make McDormand’s acting look trite and phoney in comparison), City Hall (valuable as a document; soporific as a documentary), and Violation (two fabulous scenes in an over-directed deconstruction of female revenge narratives, whose fractured chronology took away more than it gave).

On to the good stuff. My top eight:

1. Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman)

A Jewish student in crisis, doing a little sex work on the side, joins her family at a wake – only to find her john is there too. Shiva Baby is great: warm, chaotic, neurotic, funny, tense & loving. All this plus Fred Melamed, aka… SY ABLEMAN?

This is a terrific debut feature from Emma Seligman, adapted from her 2018 short, and it’s incredible how well she orchestrates overlapping voices of rapid-fire dialogue, building up walls of sound and modulating their ebbs & flows while always retaining the comic rhythms.

2. Still Processing (Sophy Romvari)

I was wondering which film at TIFF would be the one to make me cry – turns out it’s a short. Sophy Romvari’s Still Processing is as delicate yet devastating a portrait of grief as you’re likely to see this or any other year.

The editing, sound design, and use of subtitling deliver such a powerful sense of fugues, panic, dissociation, numbness, and sudden tidal waves of grief. This is stunning work, raw and true, and delivered straight from the heart. A triumph.

3. Quo Vadis, Aïda (Jasmila Žbanić)

A robustly confrontational dramatisation of the UN’s utter failure to defend the Bosnians of Srebrenica, told through the eyes of a local translator trying to balance her work for the Blue Helmets with her need to protect her own family. Tight writing combines with controlled, unshowy direction to devastating effect.

4. Pieces of a Woman (Kornél Mundruczó)

The writing in Pieces of a Woman starts off strongly enough, then gradually drops off in quality until we are presented with an ending that frankly shouldn’t have survived a first draft. Why then is this film number four on my list? Two reasons: the bravura opening sequence, and Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn’s ability to absolutely sell the shit out of every line, of whatever quality. When they go toe to toe, they make it work – Kirby in particular gives the best performance of the festival.

5. Shadow In the Cloud (Roseanne Liang)

A great example of a genre romp that would play gangbusters in front of an amped-up horror festival audience. Shadow In the Cloud is enjoyably ludicrous, but makes the wise choice to play it absolutely straight. It’s a very loose adaptation of the old Twilight Zone yarn Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, which William Shatner in its TV incarnation and John Lithgow in the movie version (Chloë Grace Moretz is our window-gazer here). But it reinvigorates the tale by bringing it back to its roots in Roald Dahl’s WWII gremlin stories.

Shadow In The Cloud starts as a claustrophobic enclosed-space drama along the lines of the Ryan Reynolds feature Buried, before exploding into ever-increasing ridiculousness in its second half. Some people enjoyed one half more than the other, but I loved both – and more than any other feature at TIFF this one made me wish I was back in a cinema. Just for a moment, I could almost hear the howls and guffaws of a jubilant crowd who can’t quite believe where things are going.

Note: the script for Shadow In The Cloud originated with Max Landis, currently standing accused of sexual assault and rape by multiple women, but has apparently been re-engineered by director and co-writer Liang to stand as a pulpy but heartfelt rally cry against misogyny.

6. True Mothers (Naomi Kawase)

Pure melodrama, cross-cutting between a Japanese family’s difficulties in raising their young adopted son, and the story of how his birth mother came to give him up. Melodramas need to grab your emotions and walk them around like a pony, and to that extent they either work or they don’t, and this one does. Kawase’s background in documentary allows her to capture naturalistic behaviour in her characters; she deftly switches modes from family drama to crime thriller to loose semi-improvised character study as her needs require. A three-hanky number.

7. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)

I was trying to find the right word to describe the odd tone of this movie. It’s sort of sort of minor key winter-sun existential tragi-farce… eventually I realised the word I was looking for was “Danish.”

Perhaps it fails as a superficial portrait of alcoholism, but it at least partially succeeds as anti-manchild parable of the need to seek synthesis between responsibility and joy, as Vinterberg asks: are men ok? Mads Mikkelsen’s face remains a glorious symphony of leather and regret, and any movie that showcases his explosive jazz ballet skills has to have something going for it.

8. One Night in Miami (Regina King)

In its early scenes One Night In Miami feels quite flat and stagey (as you might expect from an adapted play), and full of on-the-nose exposition. But once we get to the meat of the thing, four guys arguing in a room, the actors bouncing off each other have so much energy that the piece just comes alive. This is very much an actor’s showcase – all are great, but Leslie Odom Jr as Sam Cooke and Eli Goree as Cassius Clay/Cassius X/Mohammed Ali are the standouts. Goree effectively conveys the uncertainty leaking through from underneath Clay’s bluster, via perfectly modulated hesitations and uneasy body language – bold choices for a figure usually perceived as ultra-confident. Even in his coda scene he manages to capture that hidden tension with just a look.

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