Critics pick the best films of TIFF ’20 in this survey, from Nomadland to Another Round to Quo Vadis, Aida?. Keep up to date with our TIFF ’20 coverage.
We asked 15 film critics to tell us their five favourite films of TIFF ‘20. The most popular film, by quite some margin, was a big surprise: Jasmila Žbanic’s harrowing drama about the 1995 genocide in Bosnia, Quo Vadis, Aida?, which eight critics listed. Most polls on the festival, such as the IndieWire critics survey or TIFF’s own People’s Choice Award, crowned Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, a romantic film that focuses on the goodness of people and the joy of community. Quo Vadis, on the other hand, could never be called uplifting, but it seems the critics we surveyed couldn’t deny its sheer power. We loved it too.
Nomadland did come in second, with five mentions, and it was closely followed by One Night in Miami (Regina King), Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg), and Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman), which all got four. The films that racked up three mentions were David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee), True Mothers (Naomi Kawase), No Ordinary Man (Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt), Ammonite (Francis Lee), Inconvenient Indian (Michelle Latimer), and Limbo (Ben Sharrock).
In total, 41 different films were mentioned. 17 of those are directed or co-directed by women. 16 aren’t in the English language. Six are documentaries.
Sean Boelman (@bigtunaonfilm), Founder of disappointment media
1. David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee)
2. The Boy from Medellín (Matthew Heineman)
3. One Night in Miami (Regina King)
4. City Hall (Frederick Wiseman)
5. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)
Ricardo Gallegos (@wallyrgr), Editor in Chief of La Estatuilla
1. The Best is Yet to Come (Wang Jing): Director Wang Jing masterfully controls the pace of The Best is Yet to Come to effectively communicate a superb and inspiring tale of journalistic integrity. It may be hard to find optimism in these hateful times, but stories like these restore your faith and remind you that a pen and a good moral compass are enough to change the lives of millions.
2. Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Žbanic): We need testimonies of the horrors of war and intolerance. The past must not be forgotten and in this absolutely effective and harrowing film about the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, Jasmila Žbanic makes sure you won’t forget history.
3. Penguin Bloom (Glendyn Ivin): I adored this story of a broken family being cured by the love of a magpie. Director Glendyn Ivin captures the frailties of a family to create an endearing story of self-improvement that recalls the importance of loving and respecting animals. A film for lovers of life and nature.
4. The Truffle Hunters (Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw): The Truffle Hunters is an audiovisual feast and a love letter to the relationship between humans and dogs. A magnificent, comical, and endearing documentary that provides a window into a colorful way of life and a profession that is being replaced by the unbridled and selfish rush of youth.
5. Never Gonna Snow Again (Michal Englert, Malgorzata Szumowska): Never Gonna Snow Again challenges audiences without excess. It’s an adult fairy tale that uses magic realism to express its sociopolitical concerns. Another hypnotic home run from Polish cinema.
Alex Heeney (@bwestcineaste), Editor in Chief of Seventh Row
This will be my 18th year attending TIFF — more than half my life — and my favourite thing about the festival has always been the breadth of the selection of world cinema. This year’s severely reduced lineup (50ish features films compared to the usual 250ish) meant that every section was pared down. But I really felt that most when it came to the foreign films.
With just a handful of titles to choose from, it was that much harder to find the few hidden gems that spoke to you. Most years, there are at least a few films I absolutely love; this year, that list was much shorter, the finds fewer. Nevertheless, it was exciting to once again have my favourite film of the fest be from a Canadian filmmaker. I had a lot of quibbles with this year’s fest, but not with any of the films in my top five, all highly recommended.
1. Inconvenient Indian (Michelle Latimer): Latimer’s Inconvenient Indian is a thought-provoking and necessary doc because of its subject matter, but also a fascinating exploration of the form of nonfiction filmmaking itself. It’s vibrant, fun, harrowing, and a must-see. Also, it should be mandatory viewing for all Canadians.
2. True Mothers (Naomi Kawase): I’ve been keeping up with most of Kawase’s films since I caught the premiere of Still the Water at Cannes back in 2014. While I’ve always found things to admire about her films, I’d yet to find one that completely connected for me. True Mothers changed that. It’s a film about giving and not giving birth, raising a child and not being able to raise a child, and all the shame and trauma (and joy) that comes with motherhood. It’s the rare film about adoption that looks at it from both sides: the parent giving up the baby, and the parents who raise the baby.
3. Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Žbanic): Orla Smith insisted I watch this film, and I’m so glad I did, though it’s a nail-biting, terrifying experience because it depicts a key moment in the Bosnian war and Bosniak genocide. At once a character study and the story of how bureaucracy can facilitate atrocities, how poor communication and on-the-ground knowledge can interfere with saving lives. I left with the overwhelming feeling of how did the UN — and the rest of the world — allow this to happen? And how can we make sure it never happens again?
4. Bandar Band (Manijeh Hekmat): This small, taut docu-fiction film took me onto the flooded streets of Iran in 2019 to see the sheer amount of damage that was done and the human cost of it. I love that Hekmat’s film keeps the tragedy just outside the bus windows, but always present; by not hammering home the point, it somehow becomes more affecting. And what an important document of the destruction wrought by climate change, something that is sadly only going to get worse and worse.
5. Ammonite (Francis Lee): What a tactile, sensual, aural experience Francis Lee’s Ammonitis! You want to reach into the screen to touch the fabrics, smell the sea air, feel the wind against your back. And miraculously, Lee persuades you half the time that you really have. The supporting characters are so rich that I’d easily watch a spinoff film about any of them, though special mention to James McArdle who is the bumbling embodiment of well-meaning but clueless male privilege. At the centre of it all is Kate Winslet, barely speaking, but revealing so much about her character, Mary Anning, through what she doesn’t say, how she moves, how she reacts, who she looks at or doesn’t look at.
Brandon Jones (@sirjonesiest), contributor at LRM Online
1. One Night in Miami (Regina King)
2. Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart)
3. Lift Like a Girl (Mayye Zayed)
4. Get the Hell Out (I-Fan Wang)
Beatrice Loayza (@bealoayza), freelance writer
Fauna (Nicolás Pereda)
The Inheritance (Ephraim Asili)
Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)
Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (Lili Horvát)
Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Žbanic)
Katrina Peralta (@claire_foy), Staff Writer at Sine Liwanag
This year’s Toronto International Film Festival offers a smaller selection of films this year due to the pandemic but that didn’t stop them from delivering an amazing lineup. It’s been a blessing getting accredited for the first time in such trying times.
Ammonite (Francis Lee): Yes, the lesbian period movie of the year is one of my favourites. There’s always a place in my heart for such films. It’s hard to not compare it to last year’s lesbian period drama but Ammonite is its own film. Francis Lee’s signature of sensuality is all over this film. He isn’t afraid to show the lust between Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan give such internalized performances of the two women, the yearning between them is so strong.
Nomadland (Chloé Zhao): The hottest title in the festival circuit and deservingly so. Chloé Zhao’s third feature is filled with so much soul it resonates a lot with its viewers. This could’ve gone the course of poverty porn like most films dealing with the hardships of the working class, but it never did. It’s beautifully shot and acted with a masterful performance from Frances McDormand and the rest of its cast of nonprofessional actors who are actually living the nomad life. Also, a beautiful score by Ludovico Einaudi.
Pieces of a Woman (Kornél Mundruczó): The first thirty minutes of this film made it to my top list. It’s so intimate and heartbreaking, and even though the following acts lack what the prologue had, the performances carried it through. Don’t be surprised if Vanessa Kirby wins Best Actress in 2021 because the material she was given was used to its extent and exhibit Kirby’s prowess.
Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Žbanic): I was lucky enough to get tickets to the in person screening at the Lightbox for this emotionally heavy film by Jasmila Žbanic. It really hits you at the right spots and Žbanic made the film with such care that it never glorified the violence of the war it dramatized. Jasna Ðuricic gave one of the best performances of the year as the titular character who is a UN translator. She’s so masterful at conveying emotions both in English and Bosnian. This film deserves to be seen by all. It reminds us of a brutal loss of lives in Srebrenica during a senseless war in recent memory.
Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman): An amazing debut feature from Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby is the most entertaining film I’ve seen at the festival. The way Seligman captures the anxiety inducing family gatherings is universal that even me, a ‘shiksa’, can relate to her film. With Rachel Sennott as her lead and a funny ensemble cast, Shiva Baby is a stressful and fun film that has the ability to become an instant classic.
C.J. Prince (@cj_prin), freelance writer
I have sympathy for the people working behind the scenes at TIFF, who likely went through hell over these past several months to rebuild the entire festival experience from the ground up. I don’t have much sympathy for TIFF as a business and institution. Over the past decade or so, the festival made clear decisions that have all come back to bite them in 2020: their growing dependance on corporate sponsorships, their inching away from curation and toward a tastefully segregated market, their rebranding as a launch pad for the Oscar race, and their self-congratulatory proclamations of being on the right side of social progress, just to name a few. The pandemic threw these elements of the festival into chaos or wiped them out entirely, leaving behind an exposed bottom line and a giant mess to clean up.
TIFF is a yearly experience I always look forward to, but after this year I see the festival at a loss both literally and financially. Every criticism thrown their way this year was deserved, and I hope they’ll learn something from this and not just celebrate what they (barely) pulled off.
1. The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane)
2. Fauna (Nicolás Pereda)
3. Saint-Narcisse (Bruce La Bruce)
4. David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee)
5. True Mothers (Naomi Kawase)
Rafaela Sales Ross (@rafiews), freelance writer
1. Limbo (Ben Sharrock)
2. Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer)
3. Shadow in the Cloud (Roseanne Liang)
4. The Boy from Medellín (Matthew Heineman)
5. 180° Rule (Farnoosh Samadi)
Gilby Santos (@GilbyVM), freelance writer
1. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)
2. One Night in Miami (Regina King)
3. Concrete Cowboy (Ricky Staub)
4. New Order (Michel Franco)
5. Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman)
Christopher Schobert (@FilmSwoon), contributor at The Film Stage
New Order does not belong on a “favorites” list, and I’m still wrestling with my response to it — but I cannot deny its sheer power.
1. David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee)
2. Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman)
3. Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Žbanic)
4. No Ordinary Man (Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt)
5. Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)
Marshall Shaffer (@media_marshall), freelance writer at /Film and The Playlist
Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg): A boozy blast of a midlife crisis movie that provides a sober yet satisfying look at the effects of alcohol.
The Father (Florian Zeller): Dementia has rarely been more thoughtfully, less sensationally portrayed as it is here.
I Care A Lot (J Blakeson): Rosamund Pike returns to the delicious heights of her Gone Girl performance, and it was like mainlining cinematic thrill.
Limbo (Ben Sharrock): A humorous, humanistic look at the refugee experience featuring a star-making turn by Amir El-Masry.
Nomadland (Chloé Zhao): A unique lens on the American experience with a hearty helping of two things we’ve missed during the pandemic — finding community with strangers and connection to the larger land.
Orla Smith (@orlamango), Executive Editor of Seventh Row
My favourite films at TIFF are usually the small discoveries rather than the headline titles. Unfortunately, reducing the lineup down to 50 features didn’t mean a distilling of quality, but rather a culling of a lot of those discovery films that the festival might have taken a chance on in an expanded lineup. So there were fewer films I fell for this year… but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some gems. In particular, the short film selection was exceptionally strong. Here are five(ish) brilliant films from the lineup.
1. Point and Line to Plane (Sofia Bohdanowicz): A short film, but just as good if not better than any of the features I saw. Bohdanowicz is a wonderful filmmaker and this might be my favourite of her work that I’ve seen. It’s a deeply personal, experimental, moving film about grief. The ending left me breathless.
2. Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Žbanic): My favourite film of the festival was this harrowing look at complicity set at the time of the Bosnian genocide in 1995. For one, it’s a great film about language translation, a particular fascination of mine. But it’s also a perfect antidote to my least favourite film of the festival, the bloodthirsty and cruel New Order. While that film portrayed mass murder for the sake of gawking at violence, Quo Vadis, Aida? is far more interesting in observing and judging the people who hold the power rather than depicting the spectacle of their violence.
3. Ammonite (Francis Lee): Many were lukewarm on Francis Lee’s latest, which kind of baffles me. Perhaps the understated nature of this character study and love story, and the literal cold weather of the beaches it’s set on, was misinterpreted as ‘chilly’ storytelling? This is a film with little dialogue, where character growth is told mostly through glances and touch. It’s utterly transporting, and Kate Winslet has never been better, which is saying something. I saw many films at TIFF that were clogged full of exposition, so it was a joy to watch a film where the characters are allowed to just be.
4. No Ordinary Man (Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt) & Inconvenient Indian (Michelle Latimer): Is this cheating? Definitely. But I couldn’t not include both of these brilliant creative nonfiction documentaries. And I do think they make an interesting double bill. No Ordinary Man excavates the life story of trans jazz musician Billy Tipton; Inconvenient Indian ambitiously tackles a centuries of Indigenous representation in media. Both films are about a marginalised community reclaiming their own stories, and they do so in ways I’ve never seen before.
5. Limbo (Ben Sharrock): The hilarious opening scene of Limbo immediately sold me on this odd, unique story about a Syrian asylum seeker stuck in limbo on a remote Scottish island. Borrowing stylistically from Yorgos Lanthimos and Aki Kaurismäki, director Ben Sharrock shoots Scotland like it’s a strange, alien world, at times inflected with surreal horror. This isn’t just a cold technical exercise though. Sharrock’s visual style forces us to share in protagonist Omar’s alienation, so we feel closer to him, aided by a moving performance by Amir El-Masry.
Kristal Sotomayor (@KristalSotomayr), Co-founder of ¡Presente! Media
These films all bring a new perspective on the history and legacy of specific communities and give us a wider look at the world around us.
76 Days (Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous)
Beans (Tracey Deer)
No Ordinary Man (Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt)
Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)
One Night In Miami (Regina King)
LV Taylor (@LVTaylor_esq), Founder of Musings of a Streaming Junkie
Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg): Not just an ode to alcohol but a reminder to celebrate life and live in the moment.
A Good Man (Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar): A touching and sincere film about motherhood.
Night of the Kings (Philippe Lacôte): Storytelling in its finest form.
Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Žbanic): Based on true events, this is a devastating look at a mother trying desperately to save her family.
True Mothers (Naomi Kawase): A beautiful yet heartbreaking story of motherhood in all its forms.
Oralia Torres (@oraleia), contributor at Cinescopia
Inconvenient Indian (Michelle Latimer): An extraordinary surprise, with a dynamic narrative and so many urgent things to deal with.
Memory House (João Paulo Miranda Maria): A brilliant and painful exploration of identity, racial tensions and the enduring colonization of Brazil, with an aching and beautiful performance from Antonio Pitanga. Its visuals and symbols are both unique and universal.
Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Žbanic): Heartbreaking and devastating. That final sequence is haunting.
Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman): Tense, hilarious, and extraordinary.
Summer of 85 (François Ozon): A wonderful and endearing coming of age film that deals with love and death, with a wonderful narrative and many surprises.