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Nomadland, City Hall, Night of the Kings…The 20 best films at #TIFF2020

The 45th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) ploughed ahead this year albeit under socially distanced conditions from the 10th to 21st September. The programming team led by artistic director Cameron Bailey put forward a slimmed down program of 50 films with screenings pivoting mostly online on the newly launched Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox platform. This applied to press, industry and even audience members. Limited physical screenings were scheduled alongside the use of drive-in theaters.

From crowd pleasers and awards season bait to films helmed by first time auteurs, these are the films that left their mark. Ranked in ascending order.

  1. The Water Man (USA)

Beyond the picturesque cinematography, David Oyelowo’s The Water Man grapples existentially with how children navigate grief and similar emotions assumed to be more adult. But there is nothing exclusively grown up about loss and Oyelowo is attuned to this. He makes a solid argument for why children should not necessarily be shielded from some of the world’s tragic realities. Children perceive pain, they feel it as well and they possess more bandwidth for dealing than we tend to give them credit for.

  1. 180° Rule (Iran)

Thinking of this Iranian family drama as a poor man’s A Separation might appear unfair but there is a compelling case to be made for the influences that the film borrows from Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar winning classic. Director Farnoosh Samadi’s quiet-until-it-isn’t film comments on the controlling and restricting nature of Iranian society on the lives of women and children. Choosing incredulity over detailed character building, the film eventually strains for credibility.

  1. The Boy from Medellín (USA)

Superstar documentaries are always tricky considering many of the times audiences eventually sign up for vanity projects of their idols. The Boy from Medellín directed by acclaimed filmmaker Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, A Private War) in a surprise change of pace role barely escapes this trap. The Boy from Medellín is an intimate yet dense portrait of Latino superstar singer J Balvin as he navigates his entry into political activism. There is the customary concert scene for hardcore fans of J Balvin who in 2018 was the most streamed artiste on Spotify.

  1. The Inheritance (USA)

A Black Marxist (played by Eric Lockley) inherits a house from his grandmother. He moves in and coverts the structure to House of Ubuntu, a kind of commune for working-class African American adults looking to connect with African history and Black radical tradition. In some ways, the stubborn looseness of The Inheritance is the belated response to the white students of the 1967 Jean-Luc Godard film La Chinoise, that is obviously the forebearer of Ephraim Asili’s debut. There is some education to be found here but a lot of the thinking is far from radical.

  1. Concrete Cowboy (UK/USA)

A classic coming-of-age drama set within the very real backdrop of Philadelphia cowboy culture, Concrete Cowboy also shines a spotlight on an ancient but often overlooked American subculture. Produced by Lee Daniels and directed by Ricky Staub making his first feature, Concrete Cowboy is a sturdy enough crowd pleaser that stars Idris Elba, Jharrel Jerome. Staub’s film seems genuine enough though, boasting good intentions but with an on-the-nose approach. Black cowboys (and girls) may have been whitewashed out of the Hollywood canon in recent times, but Concrete Cowboy puts them right back.

  1. I am Greta (Sweden)

I am Greta may scrimp on some detail but the documentary directed by Nathan Grossman is an involving piece of cinema. One that services climate change activist and teenage icon, Greta Thunberg as well as her work and achievements in broad detail. Sleek yet intimate, the Hulu documentary recognizes Thunberg’s origin story from her climate hunger strikes in her native Stockholm. Director Nathan Grossman spent a greater part of two years trailing Thunberg and her family, ultimately painting an inspiring and powerful portrait of how citizens can make a world of difference.

  1. MLK/FBI (USA)

Sam Pollard directs this absorbing documentary about how the Federal Bureau of Investigation, under the extremely influential J. Edgar Hoover, positioned the entire institution as an antagonist of civil rights icon Martin Luther King. MLK/FBI looks closely but differently at the two subjects that make up the title. How the FBI operated at the time and why it spent enormous resources on trailing a private citizen. Using a portfolio of candid photographs and film footage, MLK/FBI also recreates King’s life at the time pointing out the ways he was affected by this intrusion of privacy.

  1. New Order (Mexico/France)

Brutal, dystopic- although that largely depends on how one receives recent global events- and utterly without hope, New Order is a disturbing vision of Mexico and the world we live in from the mind of Michel Franco. New Order’s eat the rich allegory is what Parasite would look like if Bong Joon-ho had been angrier, madder and more pessimistic about capitalism. Shot with sufficient stylistic flourishes, , New Order boasts rioting, kidnapping, militias, curfews, rape and extrajudicial murders. There are no heroes, only villains. It all seems so far-fetched yet utterly of this present time.

  1. Downstream to Kinshasa (Congo/Belgium/France)

Dieudo Hamadi’s Downstream to Kinshasa brings to light a near-forgotten tragedy. For six days in the year 2000, the Ugandan and Rwandan armies clashed in the Congolese town of Kisangani. The six-day war was part of a broader extended conflict over mineral deposits in the Congo DRC that claimed the lives of over a thousand people while maiming over three thousand more. Hamadi’s documentary follows some of the survivors of the tragedy as they rebuild their lives and fight to claim their compensation from the government.

  1. Pieces of a Woman (Canada/Hungary/USA)

Acquired by Netflix ahead of a late year release, this well-meaning drama by Kornél Mundruczó boasts a fantastic if unnerving opening 33 minutes near unbroken sequence as well as award worthy turns by Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn. But not much else. A pregnant couple played by Kirby and Shia LaBeouf go through a difficult labor with a new midwife only to have the worst possible outcome occur. In the months that follow, they each process their grief and anger, acting out in different dramatic and occasionally desperate ways. Sound familiar? It is.

  1. Shiva Baby (USA)

A light-footed comedy from first-time feature writer/director Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby blends claustrophobic Jewish humor with awkward family tensions to deliver the story of a young student Danielle (Rachel Sennott) and occasional sex worker whose private and professional lives collide when she attends a family shiva (a Jewish funeral service.) Seligman’s film revels in the head-spinning tensions of suddenly having to juggle these different versions of self when Danielle’s sugar daddy shows up at the shiva and it turns out he has some ties with her parents.

  1. True Mothers (Japan)

Adapted from a novel by mystery writer Mizuki Tsujimura, True Mothers, the latest by Japanese auteur, Naomi Kawase is a compelling and sensitive saga that follows the wealthy adoptive parents of a five-year-old kid as they are confronted with the possibility that the troubled birth mother wants her baby back. An elegant, absorbing piece of storytelling, True Mothers is unwavering in its compassion and refusal to judge its players as Kawase does a fine job of conveying empathy while managing to stay free of sentimentality.

  1. 40 Years a Prisoner (USA)

In 1978, a raid on the revolutionary group MOVE’s commune in Philadelphia ended with the death of a police officer. As a result, nine MOVE activists, all Black, received maximum sentences of between 30 and 100 years in prison. Young married couple Debbie Africa and Mike Africa, expecting a child at the time, were among those convicted. Born in prison, their son Mike Africa Jr, would spend all of his life fighting for the release of his parents. Tommy Oliver’s documentary is a fascinating and emotional chronicle of Mike Africa Jr.’s efforts. It is also a study of systemic racism along the decades.

  1. Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina/ Austria/ Romania/Netherlands/ Germany/ Poland/ France /Norway/Turkey)

In Quo Vadis, Aida?, director Jasmila Žbanić considers herself a witness to war. She faces head on the 1995 tragedy in which Serbian troops sent 8,372 Bosniak men and boys to their deaths in a horrific chapter of history now known as the Srebrenica genocide. Her film, Quo Vadis Aida? dramatizes these events in the form of a knuckle biting thriller starring Jasna Ðuričić as the titular Aida, a United Nations translator employing all of her survival and maternal instincts  to save her family from certain doom. The film also works as a peep into the madness of war and indictment of the uselessness of diplomatic forces even at the highest levels.

  1. One Night in Miami (USA)

Oscar winning actress Regina King makes her directing debut with this intense and stagey, yet genteel piece of cinematic activism that is constructed from the 2013 play of the same title by Kemp Powers (who also adapts the screenplay). One Night in Miami takes a tantalizing premise from the pages of history and fills it with ideas on what might or could have been. Some of it is wishful thinking, but King zeroes in firmly- perhaps too strongly- on the conflicts of being young, gifted and black in ‘60s America, drawing out contemporary relevancies along the way.

  1. Night of the Kings (France/Côte d’Ivoire/Canada/Senegal)

Phillipe Lacôte blends age-old local customs with a thoroughly modern style in this stunning shot of magical realism set in a maximum security prison in the Ivorian capital. Visually stunning and grounded in the oral griot traditions of Western Africa, Lacôte’s vision- think Lord of the Flies meets West Indies- considers the universal power of story telling as well as queries who has the right to tell certain stories. Night of the Kings also speaks to contemporary times, using the supernatural as a guide to commenting on Ivorian- and African- political problems.

  1. Another Round (Denmark)

Thomas Vinterberg’s latest is an energetic rumination on the masculine midlife crisis. Anchored by a fantastic Mads Mikkelsen performance that is both euphoric and sad, sometimes at the same time, Another Round is both tragedy and comedy, but mostly comedy. Mikkelsen leads a group of four dour middle-aged high school teachers who find new release when drunken binges put much needed excitement into their lives. Another Round does not quite commit to any definite solution but by God, the conclusion is wonderfully cathartic.

  1. City Hall (USA)

Think America has been taking the piss of late? Try watching veteran Frederick Wiseman’s epic 4.5hours documentary on the inner working of Boston’s city hall and feel hope anew. Demanding but rewarding, City Hall is a sprawling and inclusive reflection of a city and administration- led by mayor Marty Walsh-doing the best to live up to democratic principles. Detailed, sober and endlessly inspiring despite the lengthy scenes and observational studies, City Hall is an urban progress report that considers a wide variety of government services- from infrastructure to veterinary services- and demonstrates democracy in action.

  1. The Disciple (India)

Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple is both specific and universal and this duality gives it much of its power. The Disciple is the story of 24-year-old Sharad (Aditya Modak) a classical Indian musician of the raag tradition who devotes his every waking moment to the pursuit and purity of his art form. But it is also that of Sharad’s guru, Sindhubai (Dr. Arun Dravid), a revered musician who never quite achieved popular success. Looming large in the lives of both men is Maai, a now deceased legendary guru whose powerful music soundtracks The Disciple and gives it impetus. Using these three characters, Tamhane’s film struggles with the complex, and sometimes contradictory nature of the relationship between disciple and guru.

  1. Nomadland (USA)

Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, Chloé Zhao’s visually stunning triumph is a masterful and inspired documentary and fictional hybrid that houses a powerhouse performance by two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand. Gorgeous and sensitive, Nomadland finds poetry in the story of its average but formidable heroine. Alternately dreamlike, Zhao captures the breathtaking beauty of the American landscape as well as the rugged complexities of the lives that people these places.

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