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Highlights From a Surreal, Remote Toronto International Film Festival

The movies that stood out at this year’s TIFF—Spike Lee’s ‘American Utopia’ and Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’—were, unsurprisingly, movies that inadvertently capture the strange, dystopic world we currently live in

Ringer illustration

“Thank you for leaving your homes,” David Byrne tells the adoring crowd of New Yorkers who’ve showed up for his Broadway show American Utopia, a line that instantly transforms Spike Lee’s concert movie into a period piece. In a year when live music and theater-going are on the ropes, Lee’s film version of Byrne’s combination rock-show-slash-performance-art-hootenanny—shot in late 2019 and slated for broadcast this fall on HBO—vibrates with wistful nostalgia. As the opening night selection of a film festival whose attendees mostly experienced it via their laptops or living-room flatscreens, American Utopia is savvy, but also a bit sad. Its vibrant, winning showmanship can’t help but feel bittersweet.

Typically, the Toronto International Film Festival is a hive of industry and film-criticism activity; as a resident of the city who’s covered TIFF for the past 20 years, I’ve gotten used to late August and everything after as an epicenter of business, pleasure, and everything in between. Last year, I introduced my TIFF Ringer coverage by talking about how, nearly 50 years into its history, the organization was gambling—and mostly winning—on trying to be all things to all people: a corporately-backed, public-facing celebration bringing together arthouse, grindhouse, and experimental fare under the sign of pop cultural diversity, all while still showing allegiance to the mainstream. Since the ’90s, TIFF’s desire to act as a launching pad for the Oscars has affected its in-house programming and media perception in equal measure.

In a normal year, the question in a piece like this would be which Toronto premieres had the look of movies that could go the distance on the awards circuit, or maybe which ones flying under the radar were worth seeking out. In 2020, the more pressing concern, on the ground and online, was whether or not there would even be a TIFF, or whether there should be, and if so, what would it look like, and why.

I haven’t had to leave my house to cover TIFF this year, although I could if I wanted to: The festival is holding a series of in-person screenings at its downtown headquarters and at drive-ins located around the city. But because the festival’s entire program—with a couple of exceptions that I’ll get to in a moment—has been available to critics via a smoothly functional “digital cinema,” it felt best to stay inside. (A note: With the exception of Tenet, the only movie I’ve seen in public since February was a local drive-in screening of David Cronenberg’s seminal sex-and-car-wrecks thriller Crash, which also happens to be the best depiction ever of Toronto’s concrete overpasses and automotive culture; imagine watching Jaws in a dinghy in Martha’s Vineyard.)

To say that this overall setup has had its share of hiccups is an understatement. In the past few weeks, TIFF has come under fire on Twitter for problems ranging from its policy of geoblocking screenings to newly limited media accreditation to an edict—since reversed—that mask-wearing would be optional inside its theaters. In addition, the reduction in programming from over 200 movies to 50 has led to diminished excitement—and expectations—about the festival’s impact and artistic mandate. In 2019, TIFF hosted the coming-out party (complete with Kevin Garnett) for Uncut Gems and facilitated heated debates about Joker; this year, with distributors unsure what to do with their wares (even more so after the seeming catastrophe of Tenet’s theatrical release) and Netflix withholding potential heavy hitters like David Fincher’s Mank from the festival circuit altogether, it’s become that much harder to capture a collective public imagination that—in another understatement—has other things on its mind.

As distraction tools go, American Utopia will do nicely. A spiritual sequel to 1984’s epochal concert film Stop Making Sense—a masterpiece of collaborative music-and-moviemaking directed by Jonathan Demme when he was truly feeling himself—American Utopia finds ex-Talking Heads frontman Byrne in puckish, playful artiste mode, presiding over a troupe of identically suited singers and musicians whose choreographed moves and harmonies are captured by Lee with more cinematic dynamism than the recent film version of Hamilton. A comparison between the two productions is instructive: Where Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award–winning musical plays now as a relic of the Obama era, American Utopia, from its slyly ironic title on down, has been devised as a dispatch from Trumpland, with Byrne positioning himself as a figure of gentle, principled resistance. An alternate title could be Start Making Sense—walking onstage alone in the first sequence, Byrne tenderly cradles a replica of a human brain and marvels at the neurological miracle of conscious thought. “Here is an area that needs attention,” he sings, fingering the ersatz cerebellum. “Here is a connection with the other side.”

For those on the same side of Byrne’s intellectual playfulness and progressive politics, American Utopia will seem like it’s reaching out; for anybody else, its overt, unapologetic appeals to liberal tolerance—most explicitly on the single “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” with its message of inclusion and acceptance—will be just so much preaching to the choir. The matchup between Byrne and Lee is compelling insofar as they’re both masterful at inviting audiences to contemplate ideological issues. It’s telling that Lee forgoes the aggressive alienation effects of a movie like Da 5 Bloods in order to serve his star’s more benign vision. If American Utopia is a bit uneven and draggy toward the end, it’s because Lee’s direction, for all its skill, can’t artificially elevate the source material. It’s also telling that most of the best songs here are reprises from Stop Making Sense; write stuff as good as “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House” and you’ll never live it down, even if you’re a genius.

American Utopia’s greatest virtue is its open-heartedness, which is also, interestingly enough, its greatest flaw: While Byrne and Co. can be forgiven for not anticipating or integrating the precise psychic torment of COVID-19 into their guided tour of contemporary fears and anxieties, there’s a cloying sense that the show—and the film—is an attempt to put a happy face on an anguished moment. This is also a sticking point with TIFF’s consensus critical hit Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s much-anticipated—and mostly impressive—follow-up to the acclaimed millennial Western The Rider, a mix of verité frontier mythology that marked the emergence of a beguiling new filmmaking talent. In The Rider, Zhao profiled a self-styled, 21st-century cowboy struggling, literally and figuratively, to get back in the saddle after a debilitating accident; the film was a work of fiction cast with real people (including taciturn star Brady Jandreau), serving simultaneously as a snapshot of the modern rodeo circuit and a model of a collaborative artistic process in which the storyteller takes her cues from her subjects.

Nomadland is also filled with non-actors—a charismatic gallery of itinerant Americans crisscrossing the Midwest in mobile homes, picking up seasonal work at resorts and warehouses before moving on to the next outpost. There’s material here for a rich, probing documentary about the relationship between rugged individualism and the comforts of community, as well as a critique of the social and economic conditions that lead—or force—people to get on the road. Zhao’s journalistic curiosity and facility for location shooting (the lunar landscapes here are mostly in Nevada) are genuine strengths in this context. But there’s another major figure in Nomadland whose presence supersedes Zhao’s skillfully self-effacing direction: Frances McDormand, whose 60ish widow Fern gets foregrounded to the point that the movie feels like a star vehicle.

To clarify, this is not a bad thing: McDormand might be the best American actress of her era—and potentially on her way to a third Academy Award for her sterling work here. Shuffling purposefully on a bum knee through Zhao’s gorgeous widescreen frames, Fern is a perpetual motion machine whose combination of gregarious friendliness and unorthodox awkwardness registers as real and lived-in; her desire to go it alone after the death of her husband (and the vaporization of their savings) evinces a strong will even while she struggles with the obscure, day-to-day logistics of living out of a van. But as good as McDormand is, she’s also too iconic to ever disappear into the role, and while her recognizability doesn’t keep Nomadland from hittings its marks as an absorbing realist drama, it’s hard to fully reconcile her presence with the people she bounces off of in a series of ambling vignettes. That goes double for David Strathairn, an excellent actor whose casting as a potential love interest additionally compromises the believability of the proceedings.

The bigger issue with Nomadland might be how benign it is. In her admirable attempt to rebut Trump-era stereotypes about American life and character, she ends up draining away some of the tension and live-wire emotion that could have made the movie extraordinary. At its heart, Nomadland is a road movie, but too many scenes feel stuck in neutral—subtle and delicate to the point of paralysis. It may not be necessary to compare an ascendant auteur like Zhao to a master like Kelly Reichardt, but even with its contemporary dateline, Nomadland lacks the urgency—and effective, hectoring despair—of First Cow, which looks more and more like a fraught year’s most significant American film.

I would have liked to include thoughts on a few other titles that should join Nomadland on the short list of TIFF entries that could gain traction in whatever ends up comprising 2020’s Oscar race, but the festival did not make them available to critics. Whether the exclusion of Francis Lee’s starry same-sex romance Ammonite (starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan) or Halle Berry’s directorial debut Bruised from the digital cinema was done at the behest of distributors or as an extra caution against piracy is hard to say for sure, but the movies’ absence ends up propagating a feeling of imbalance in which some entries—i.e., ones with big stars and actual box office prospects—are deemed more valuable than the exemplars of national, ethnic, and stylistic diversity being showcased further on down the virtual bill.

With this in mind—and noting in passing that neither of the two biggish-ticket movies by actors-turned-directors, Viggo Mortensen’s semi-autobiographical Falling and Regina King’s fact-based drama One Night in Miami, are strong enough to write about at length—I’ll end by praising a movie that’s not necessarily coming to a cinema (or streaming site) near you anytime soon, but which represents the sense of discovery that’s kept me coming back to TIFF for half of my life. Shot in Budapest by the emerging Hungarian writer-director Lili Horvat, the ominously monikered Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time initially evokes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Arriving for a bridge-side rendezvous with a lover she’d met in the United States, Márta (the mesmerizing Natasa Stork) is bewildered and disturbed to learn that he doesn’t remember her. The man doesn’t seem to be lying, and as he speaks, Márta’s relationship to reality splinters on impact; as he hurries off to work, she faints dead away.

One way to look at Horvat’s bizarre and challenging feature is as a story that unfolds in the dazed, semiconscious aftermath of Márta’s swoon. Plenty of movies get described as “dreamlike,” but Preparations has an uncanny, subconscious logic to it—a menacing, immersive sensation of drift from scene to scene and mystery to mystery. The vagaries of the human brain are on display: to Byrne’s Hamlet pose in American Utopia, we can add scenes of exposed craniums, gorily clinical operating-room footage that doubles down on the theme of inner worlds being exposed. Márta and her not-boyfriend János (Viktor Bodó) are both doctors specializing in brain surgery, and the characters’ mutual expertise in the synaptic functions of others is juxtaposed against their uncertainty in each others’ presence; a scene in which Márta stalks János down the street (shades of Vertigo) before their physical movements inexplicably sync together transfers their disorientation onto the audience. There are movies that are confusing because their makers don’t know what they’re doing, and ones that are confusing because they do—Preparations belongs proudly in the second category. Long after my memories of this socially-distanced, WiFi-dependent TIFF have evaporated, Horvat’s exquisite enigmas will still be on my mind.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.