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What it’s like at the Toronto film festival when you’re not actually in Toronto

Frances McDormand in "Nomadland."
Frances McDormand in "Nomadland."Searchlight Pictures via AP

Can you even call it a film festival when there are no festivities?

I’m attending the Toronto International Film Festival, as I do every year, and looking out the window at palm trees shimmering in humid 90-degree heat. How’s that possible? Because I’m actually in Florida checking in on my in-laws while digitally streaming the TIFF 2020 offerings from a retirement-village condo. The experience is less than optimal, to say the least, and it’s hardly “real” — I miss the milling crowds on King Street in front of the Bell Lightbox, the huge screens at the Princess of Wales Theatre and Roy Thomson Hall, even the endless escalators at the Scotiabank multiplex at the corner of Richmond and John — but the festival, which ends Sept. 19, has downsized appropriately for the COVID-19 era.


The usual slate of around 200-plus films has been shrunk to 50. Physical screenings have been minimal and socially distanced, patronized largely by local Torontonians. There are red carpet events and panels with actors and filmmakers, but they’ve all been held virtually. The Canadian public can buy tickets to digital screenings, but “distributor concerns” — fears of piracy and the desire to maintain control over PR — are blocking international audiences, except for accredited press, who can access most titles in rolling 48-hour streaming windows.

And, to be honest, the TIFF Digital Cinema Pro VOD platform on which I’ve been watching the movies is an end-user’s dream: glitch-free and high-quality even when I’ve hooked my laptop up to my father-in-law’s 65-inch TV screen. It’s not the best way to festival hop and certainly not the best way to watch a movie, but it’s the only way right now, and when the movies are as good as this year’s finest, it’s worth bending one’s purist tendencies.

My two favorites have been “Nomadland” and One Night in Miami, each a triumph for a woman filmmaker. “Miami” is the first movie to be directed by actress Regina King (Oscar winner for 2018 TIFF highlight “If Beale Street Could Talk”), and it reimagines the steamy February evening in 1964 when Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship. In the aftermath of the fight, Clay (played by Eli Goree) holes up in a hotel room with Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), who has just about convinced the boxer to join the Nation of Islam and become Muhammad Ali. Joining them are soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., of “Hamilton”) and NFL superstar Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), who’s just beginning to dabble in movie stardom.


Regina King, director of "One Night in Miami."
Regina King, director of "One Night in Miami."Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Clay and Cooke want to party; Malcolm wants a sober discussion on race and the power of Black stardom; Brown keeps his own counsel. Adapted by Kemp Powers from his 2013 play, “One Night in Miami” is undeniably talky, but the talk is fierce, funny, and absolutely relevant to then and now, and the acting is off the charts. The movie comes down to a philosophic showdown between Malcolm X, who’s already about to break with the Nation, and Cooke, who has written his civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” but hasn’t worked up the nerve to record it. Both Ben-Adir and Odom Jr. are mesmerizing to watch, but for all that, my eye kept being drawn to Hodge’s Brown, who says little but when he says it says the most.


King opens up the stage play with skill and flair: The boxing sequences are electric, and there’s an early scene involving Brown and one of his Georgia hometown admirers (Beau Bridges) that ends with a devastating left hook. As a filmmaker, she’s the real deal.

So is Chloe Zhao, who follows up her 2017 breakthrough, “The Rider,” with “Nomadland,” featuring a weathered and wonderful Frances McDormand. The actress plays Fern, a widow whose mining town has disappeared off the map and who hits the road in a beat-up camper van, encountering like-minded free spirits and castaways from the American dream across a breathtakingly photographed Western landscape. The film is rhapsodic and humane — genuinely curious about the nomad life and the people who live it (many of them playing themselves) and ultimately respectful toward its central character, a woman who just can’t stay. McDormand lets us see Fern as both a proud individualist and a lost soul, and “Nomadland” at times struck me as a long-delayed answer film to the Jack Nicholson classic “Five Easy Pieces” (1970). You’ll be hearing more about this one.

David Byrne, foreground, in a scene from "David Byrne's American Utopia."
David Byrne, foreground, in a scene from "David Byrne's American Utopia."Associated Press

Other virtual TIFF highlights: David Byrne’s American Utopia,” in which director Spike Lee captures the former Talking Head’s 2019 Broadway show with inventive humor and unstoppable drive — it’s bound for HBO but I look forward to seeing it on a double bill someday with “Stop Making Sense” (1984). New Order,” a frightening slice of dystopia from Mexico’s Michel Franco, envisions a civic breakdown (and subsequent army crackdown) that hits unnervingly close to home. Pieces of a Womanfeatures a harrowing performance from Vanessa Kirby (the first Princess Margaret in “The Crown”) and a monumental 30-minute single-take sequence of a home birth that threatens to turn disastrous; after that, it’s cooked-up melodramatics, a scene with Ellen Burstyn that almost makes a silk purse out of a sow’s-ear monologue, and “Boston” settings that are patently Montreal, down to the signs in French at the airport.


Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby in "Pieces of a Woman."
Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby in "Pieces of a Woman."Venice Film Festival via AP

I liked Gaza Mon Amour,” from the raffish twin brother Palestinian filmmakers Arab and Tarzan Nasser, a deadpan satire about a Gaza fisherman (Salim Dau) whose net pulls up an ancient statue of Apollo that is notably, uh, aroused. The film’s useful as well for reminding US viewers that Hiam Abbass, the current Mrs. Logan Roy on HBO’s “Succession,” is one of the treasures of world cinema. Inconvenient Indianis a freewheeling and furious documentary adaptation of Thomas King’s invaluable 2012 history of indigenous people in North America; it’ll play on Canadian TV but let’s hope it gets seen in the United States. And Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby was the sort of black comedy bonbon you hope to stumble across at a film festival: a worst-case farce in which an aimless college student (comedian-actress Rachel Sennott) gets dragged to a Jewish wake by her parents and runs into both her high school girlfriend (Molly Gordon) and the married man (Danny DeFerrari) who’s her sugar daddy. Polly Draper and Fred Melamed play her parents; would you look at the punim on this movie? The offerings at TIFF 2020 may be virtual but what matters is that the pleasures are real.