Member Survey: TIFF Best of the Fest

September 21, 2020

Nomadland TIFF

The people have spoken and our critics agree! Nomadland leads the TFCA member poll one day after scooping the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The film is arguably the Oscar frontrunner in this strange year, having received the Golden Lion at Venice the week before. (No film has previously won both the Golden Lion and TIFF People’s Choice Award.) Nomadland could follow the trajectory of previous TIFF favourites like 12 Years a Slave and Green Book by going all the way to the Best Picture Oscar.


The critics who responded to the TFCA survey praised director Chloé Zhao’s poetic fusion of fiction and non-fiction in this drama about nomadic seasonal workers, or “workampers,” starring Frances McDormand and the real-life figures who inspired the tale. Other favourites from the members included Spike Lee’s opening night joint David Byrne’s American Utopia, which gave TIFF one of its more energetically received kick-offs. Michelle Latimer’s Inconvenient Indian, which scored a one-two punch by winning the People’s Choice Award for Documentary and the Canada Goose Amplify Voices Canadian Feature Award, was among best of the fest. Also singled out as a “best of the fest” was one of TIFF’s Industry Selects titles: Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s controversial drama A Good Man starring Noémie Merlant as a transgender man. Audiences can catch American Utopia when it debuts on Crave in October, while Nomadland will open in December with Inconvenient Indian following in 2021. A Good Man is still seeking distribution.


Here are the TFCA members’ picks for the best film at TIFF 2o2o:


Linda Barnard: Nomadland – I’m still replaying bits of Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland in my head. And not just the memorable scene of Frances McDormand pooping in a bucket in her van. I’d gone into the film thinking this story of unhoused and busted Boomers traveling around American doing hardscrabble minimum wage gigs was a modern-day The Grapes of Wrath. Not so. Played primarily by the real-life people who are actually living their version of the American Dream they’re not on the road until better times arrive. This nomadic life is a lifestyle and a choice about wanting to live unencumbered and outside the margins. Beautifully shot (Zhao has a thing for magic hour cinematography), Nomadland says big things with a quiet voice.


Anne Brodie: Nomadland – Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland starring Frances McDormand will likely find both women highly placed come awards season, Zhao as the first Asian American woman ever to be nominated for Best Director and McDormand, certainly a strong Best Actress nominee for her work as a “houseless” wanderer in the American heartland. McDormand is a windburned loner relishing her days in nature, wandering the deserts, choosing not to be a part of society. McDormand lives a nomadic life in her “Vanguard” that she’s proudly personalized, working seasonally at an Amazon centre, willingly adrift from “society” and very much her own person. She doesn’t mind campfires with fellow nomads (real nomads playing themselves) and when a man (David Strathairn) falls for her, she momentarily loses her equilibrium. Nomadland is indescribably enveloping. You feel you are with her, putting up with her moods and enjoying her laughter, as rare as it is and her stillness. Perfection, joy, poetry, nature.  Stirred up major love at TIFF, mine included.


Marc Glassman: Inconvenient IndianMy entire focus was on docs this year. My top pick is the obvious one, Inconvenient Indian, Michelle Latimer’s incisive essay film which incorporates her thinking as well as Thomas King’s into an angry, if slightly hopeful, take on the state of indigeneity in North America today. Number two is the compelling cinema verité feature 76 Days, which shows what happened in hospitals in Wuhan, ground zero for COVID-19 in the winter of 2020. Number three is The New Corporation, which makes its bold case for being the “unfortunately necessary sequel” to the classic 2003 original, The Corporation.


Karen Gordon: Nomadland – That there is a deep well of compassion at the core of her new film will not be a surprise to anyone who saw Chloé Zhao’s previous film The Rider. Zhao’s adaptation of Nomadland, a non-fiction book about older itinerant Americans in the years after the 2008 economic meltdown mixes fact and fiction, and features non-pro actors alongside pros.  Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a widow who fell between the cracks when the one-industry town of Empire was shut down, and becomes part of a loose tribe of seniors living in their vans and traveling from location to location working at menial jobs. In spite of her star power, Nomadland has an indy feel, which contributes to its emotional strength. It’s another superb, Oscar bait performance from McDormand.  And Zhao, who wrote, directed and edited the film continues to prove she’s one of the best of the new crop of directors coming up from the world of American independent film.


Barry Hertz: Nomadland – Not homeless, but “houseless,” the tough and sturdy widow Fern is introduced in the new drama Nomadland as someone in pure survival mode. In her small camper van, nicknamed Vanguard, Fern travels the American West, moving from one seasonal gig to another: Amazon warehouse worker during the holidays, camp-ground janitor in the summer, turnip picker in the spring. She’s at once a victim of 2012-era American capitalism, but also someone who cannot simply stay still. She wants, and needs, the power of having “nothing in our way.” In writer-director-editor-producer Chloé Zhao’s searing new film, Frances McDormand plays Fern with a quiet ferocity, ultimately delivering a gut-punch of a performance. Zhao, who shot the film in near-secret mode with a largely amateur supporting cast while prepping her big Marvel movie debut Eternals (see if you catch her one quick joke about her new Avengers bosses here) presents a portrait of America that is devastating and freeing, bursting with sorrow and empathy. It is as fine a movie as 2020 has delivered so far. Bonus: David Strathairn, in a very Strathairn-y role.


Peter Howell: Nomadland – I’m going with Nomadland for best film at TIFF 2020, just as the People’s Choice Award did. Writer/director Chloé Zhao achieved alchemy: She took Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, an excellent work of journalism about mobile workers in the gig economy, and transformed it into golden and ennobling drama starring Frances McDormand and David Strathairn.


Brian D. Johnson: Nomadland – I saw three films I loved and one I liked. Nomadland sails high above the field. It’s gratifying to see a film rouse such strong consensus. Chloé Zhao’s feat of writing and direction is so deft it’s invisible. I fell under its spell before before I knew it, and stayed there through the closing credits. That a film this quiet and slow can be so gripping is uncanny. Frances McDormand’s exquisitely understated performance inverts the incendiary bravado that won her the Oscar in Three Billboards. And Nomadland is the right film at the right time: while it’s not set in the pandemic, as a homeless vision of a dislocated American Dream, it resonates with it.  Also loved David Byrne’s American Utopia. As Spike Lee delivers the stage show from every angle,  Byrne fuses a rationalist essay about empathy to the volcanic exuberance of sharply choreographed, insanely happy band. It was also a treat to see Werner Herzog dancing in his element with Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds. And I liked most pieces of Pieces of a Woman, even if Kornéi Mundruczó’s long single takes push Vanessa’s Kirby’s virtuoso performance into a register that’s as theatrical as McDormand’s is discreet.


Chris Knight: David Byrne’s American Utopia – Spike Lee turns his cameras on former Talking Heads front man David Byrne, who turned his 2018 studio album American Utopia into a raucous Broadway show, equal parts philosophy and toe-tapping musical numbers. Pure ecstasy! 5 stars out of 5 (Coming to HBO and Crave in October.)


Pat Mullen: Nomadland – Toronto audiences seem to have a thing for Frances McDormand, awarding her film Oscar-frontrunner status after crowning Three Billboards “best of the fest” three years ago. The films, and her performances, couldn’t be more different. Where Billboards used a politically incorrect punch to the face to capture the zeitgeist (ish), Chloé Zhao’s hybrid drama crafts a quietly respectful portrait of America in crisis by honouring the heartache of those hit hardest. This tale of iterant workers navigating the wasteland of the American dream could be the movie of the year. The collective buzz and excitement generated by Nomadland last Friday night gave a brief moment in which this year’s festival nearly felt like a regular TIFF. (Honourable mentions: Summer of 85 and Inconvenient Indian)


Andrew Parker: Nomadland – Zhao’s trademark blurring of the lines between fiction and reality (as seen in equally notable efforts Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider) reaches perfection here, elevating her adaptation of Jessica Brooder’s non-fiction book into an unshakable, visceral experience. (Honourable mentions: Beans, City Hall)


Gilbert Seah: A Good Man – Of the 44 films I have viewed, the best of the lot comes from France in the Industry Selects section, a film called A Good Man, directed by Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar and co-written by her and Christian Sonderegger. What makes this film stand out is its originality and execution. The film is stunningly shot in the surroundings of Normandy where the sea is always in view. Just as one would think LGBT films have run out of new issues, out comes one that will both surprise and shock. The least said or known about the film the better – the synopsis is just given in 2 lines: Aude and Benjamin have been in love for six years. Because Aude suffers deeply from not being able to have a child, Benjamin decides he will carry the pregnancy. The question is how a husband can carry a child. This turn of events only occurs at the film’s half-way mark. The big revelation is that Benjamin is transgender and can still bear a child having not fully transitioned.  A bigger revelation that I only found out after watching the film is that the good-looking actor who plays Benjamin, with a trim beard, is Noémie Merlant from Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Mention-Schaar’s moving film covers prejudice, love, passion and purpose. It also puts a new meaning to the labels of wife, husband, father and mother.  A Good Man was not one of the films sold on the list of TIFF announcements, but I would buy it without any hesitation if I worked for a distribution company.


Norm Wilner: Nomadland – I’m all in on Nomadland. The movie of the festival, maybe even the movie of the year — a thoughtful meditation on the death of the American dream, wrapped around what might be the best performance of Frances McDormand’s entire career.