What worked and what wowed the mostly virtual TIFF 2020 film fest

How do you mark the ceremonial closing of a film festival that was mainly digital — sweep the popcorn off your lap and close the tab? CBC journalists Eli Glasner and Jackson Weaver explore the digital delights and frustrations of TIFF 2020.

More streaming than screening, but Canada's largest film festival still had its share of movies and moments

Cars parked inside the Toronto International Film Festival's Visa Skyline Drive-In at CityView for the drive-in premiere of David Byrne's American Utopia on Sept. 10. It was one of the few events that wasn't online during this year's TIFF. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

How do you mark the ceremonial closing of a film festival that was mainly digital — sweep the popcorn off your lap and close the tab? 

As the 45th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival heads towards a conclusion it's been a very different experience that featured fewer films and a digital/physical approach. Drive-Ins and virtual video panels replaced the usual red carpets and cocktails. But the downsized festival allowed smaller films to shine and the buzz to build. 

Here's CBC's Eli Glasner and Jackson Weaver on how it felt and what's likely to be remembered. 

Streaming and screening: TIFF's online experience

A sample of what was available online as ticket buyers surfed the festival website. (Submitted by TIFF)

Eli Glasner: Instead of practically living and breathing the TIFF experience — a 10-day marathon of screenings, carpets and press conferences — my experience this year was mainly digital, viewing films on TIFF's slick and smooth viewing platform. Instead of being all-consuming, this year's TIFF was a quiet rumble in the background. Occasionally I'd dip in and check which films were getting traction on Twitter, or carve out a few hours to catch up on viewing. 

There's something to be said for the convenience of watching premieres from your couch (okay, or your bed) but what I missed were those moments of movie kismet — the random film you pick to fill a few hours that becomes your favourite, or the tip from a new friend in the rush line. Next year, perhaps. 

Jackson Weaver: I was only able get to five days of last year's TIFF — my first — but did manage to cram 20 movies into the experience. Whizzing between theatres to make show times and lining up around the block at midnight outside of Ryerson University is something that can't be replicated online. This year, I did have a couple days of movie marathons, but without that same communal energy, it was hard to stay excited about watching seven hours of films a day. 

Still, TIFF's streaming service worked wonders — no glitches, dropped streams or regional issues you might expect from the festival's first-ever online experience, and the 48-hour rental period made it much easier to fit everything I wanted to watch into my schedule.

Biggest buzz

A scene from One Night in Miami, Regina King's directorial debut. Following a premiere at the Venice International Film Festival — the first movie directed by a Black woman to appear there — it made splash at TIFF. (Submitted by TIFF)

Weaver: Regina King's One Night in Miami grabbed hold of audiences in a way that you'd think would be difficult with no one in the same room or even city to generate buzz. But the retelling of Kemp Powers's play of the same name — which is itself a retelling of history, putting legends Muhammed Ali, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X in a seedy hotel room to talk about the state of civil rights and the best way to fight for them — did just that. It's been called a tour de force and it's hard to disagree; powerful performances carry what is, effectively, a single conversation played out over an hour and 50 minutes.

The movie is indicative of this year's TIFF. With its trimmed down lineup — no Jojo Rabbits or Daniel Craig with a southern drawl to distract — raw emotion is what really resonated. Watching Ali (played by Canadian newcomer Eli Goree) grapple with the responsibility of being a young Black superstar in the mid 60s, while Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) debate over how to confront systemic racism all feels just as relevant then as it does today.

Glasner: A similar sense of timeliness is certainly what propelled the attention around Nomadland. While One Night in Miami features icons grappling with how best to channel their fame, Nomadland is about people who can't see a place for themselves in modern America. From the endless warehouses of Amazon to the sun-dappled mountain vistas, director Chloé Zhao created a film that speaks to our modern condition, following one woman's journey to find peace on the road. Blending real-life nomads with actors Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, Zhao captures an eerie sense of dislocation that seems very 2020. Frances McDormand already has two Oscars to her name. Her unvarnished performance as a woman who simply takes the time to listen could earn her another. 

Breakout films

The film Beans was inspired by the childhood experiences of Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer during the Oka crisis. (Submitted by Sebastien Raymond)

Glasner: Chalk it up to personal preference, but the films that broke through for me were all linked by the same thread of empathy. Perhaps it's the nature of the disconnected lives we're currently living, but many of this year's crop highlight the power of shifting your perspective. There's no better example than Beans. From Mohawk director Tracey Deer, the film explores the Oka crisis from the eyes of a young teen trapped between borders and barricades with her family. 

Similarly, the documentary 76 Days takes us behind the headlines of the COVID-19 lockdown in Wuhan, China, and inside one hospital where staff become the surrogate families for isolated patients. The beads of perspiration on nurses' PPE goggles and the buzzing bin of abandoned phones are two images that will stick with me. 

In terms of a much-needed break from our current COVID reality, the animated fable Wolfwalkers was a balm for the soul. It's a tale of forest and furry magic with a wonderfully wild art style. 

Weaver: That note of empathy was present in many of the breakouts at TIFF, along with understated but devastating performances. The Canadian film Violation, a gut-wrenching rape-revenge story, subverts the genre's tropes to instead focus on the deep emotional trauma of the victim, and how challenging and ultimately damaging revenge itself can be. Japanese feature Under the Open Sky takes a look at a former Yakuza gangster as he leaves prison and attempts to rebuild his life. It's a comic and often tragic look at compassion and the limits of empathy. Then there's Limbo, the tragicomic story of asylum seekers in Scotland, and the tension between star oud player Omar and his family back in Syria. That most of all encapsulates what was able to shine this year, as so much of Limbo is quiet, slow and somewhat glum. That doesn't detract from a moving plot, and hasn't stopped it from picking up glowing reviews. 

That 2020 moment

WATCH | Writer Kemp Powers on the message behind One Night in Miami:

Writer Kemp Powers on the message behind One Night in Miami

3 years ago
Duration 0:51
Kemp Powers, who wrote the script of both the film One Night in Miami and the play upon which it was based, describes one of the movie's key moments, and what it means to him.

Weaver: Zoom press conferences often leave something to be desired, but One Night in Miami's was well worth it. Kemp Powers, writer for both the film's script and the play upon which it was based, didn't hold back when he talked about what both are supposed to represent. He spoke of the "banality" of hate and racism, how it can be expressed in subtle ways that live inside the collective memory of Black Americans, "that can chip away at your soul, and it can chip away over years."

Conversely, Kingsley Ben-Adir had his own moment when he was asked what line of dialogue was the most vitally important for today.

"Black people are being murdered in the street every day," he said, reciting a line given by his character Malcolm X in the film. 

For more than a few seconds, no one else on the panel spoke.

Glasner: It speaks to the power of this year's films that they were able to transcend the limitations of however they were viewed. TIFF did open this year with an actual, physical screening, albeit a drive-in on a parking lot at Ontario Place. 

The opening film of TIFF was American Utopia, an optimistic ode to humanity starring the frontman of the Talking Heads, David Byrne. 

Directed by Spike Lee with dozens of cameras, American Utopia captures the Broadway show featuring Byrne with a 12-piece ensemble performing reworked versions of his songs on stage. For opening night, Toronto-born percussionist Jacqueline Acevedo, who is featured in the film, returned home from NYC to share messages of love and inspiration. To which the audience responded with a joyful honking of horns. 

WATCH | TIFF's greatest challenge yet:

TIFF has faced many difficulties in its 45 years, but this year is its greatest challenge yet

3 years ago
Duration 3:37
We speak with festival co-head and artistic director Cameron Bailey on running the festival in a pandemic and during a time of reckoning for racial justice.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now