Seventh Row’s editors pick the best films of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), from Ammonite to Inconvenient Indian. Keep up to date with our TIFF ’20 coverage.
TIFF 2020 was a mixed bag. We kicked off our coverage with Alex Heeney’s essay on how this year’s unprecedented, mostly virtual festival was run, and that article says it best: while there were upsides, like the flexible schedule that home viewing allows, there were also major downsides, like reduced access for press and audiences, and a reduced lineup. In theory, cutting the lineup down from its usual 200-300 to a neat 50 could have been a distilling of quality. But this year highlighted more than ever how the best films at TIFF are often the ones that the programmers take risks on, which didn’t make it this year. As a result, the selection was more generic, with fewer exciting discoveries and a whole lot more mediocrity.
But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t great films — all 16 we’ve chosen in this list are exciting and deserve an audience. Finding the best of TIFF ‘20 involved looking outside of the main lineup of feature films and paying attention to the short films, which were particularly exceptional this year, particularly the Canadian shorts. That’s reflected in our list. We’ve also included a title (Magnus von Horn’s Sweat) from the TIFF Industry Selects programme, which are features outside of the official lineup of 50 that the festival showed to press but didn’t screen to the public (Alex’s piece goes into more depth about what Industry Selects is and why it’s ill-advised).
One exciting trend at this year’s festival was brilliant documentaries that are more in the realm of creative nonfiction. Four such films (Still Processing, No Ordinary Man, Point and Line to Plane, Inconvenient Indian) appear in our list, one of them even at number one. And it’s worth noting that all four of those titles are Canadian!
This year is also unofficially ‘The Year of Michelle Latimer’. The writer-director brought two projects to TIFF (Inconvenient Indian and the first two episodes of CBC TV show Trickster), both of which we loved so much that they made it into our top three. What’s more, she won two awards at the end of the festival: the TIFF 2020 People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary and the Canada Goose Amplify Voices Award for Best Canadian Feature.
16. Beans (Tracey Deer)
Tracey Deer’s feature debut, Beans, is a prime example of how a deeply flawed film can still be incredibly moving and powerful. Despite being weighed down by stilted dialogue and editing, often underdeveloped characters, and traumatic subplots that are raised and dropped far too quickly, I can’t stop thinking about Beans. Set during the Oka crisis, it’s the story of 12-year-old Beans (Kiawentiio) as she realises the sheer amount of hate directed at Indigenous people by settlers, and how angry that makes her — at herself, the world, her family… continue reading our review of Beans
15. 180° Rule (Farnoosh Samadi)
It’s best to go into 180° Rule rule blind, because it’s a film designed to shock and provoke. The film follows schoolteacher Sara (Sahar Dolatshani), who lives in Tehran with her husband and young child. When her husband forbids her from attending a family wedding in the countryside, because he’s going on a work trip that weekend and won’t be able to accompany her, Sara goes to the wedding anyway, taking her child with her. This choice leads to a series of escalating consequences that force the audience, in an uncomfortable way, to confront the horror of being a woman in a society that doesn’t respect your agency. I was excited for Farnoosh Samadi’s directorial debut after loving a short she co-wrote this year, Exam. 180° Rule didn’t disappoint, either in its formal excellence or its bold storytelling. Orla Smith
14. 4 North A (Jordan Canning, Howie Shia)
With beautiful animation, Jordan Canning and Howie Shia’s 4 North A captures the mournful atmosphere of a hospital and the vivid emotions that come with losing a loved one. There’s almost no dialogue in the film, but the sound design speaks to the main character’s grief. We watch her sit by her dying father’s bedside and explore the hospital, as we hear the beep of machines, tap of footsteps, and occasional weeping of mourners echoes through the otherwise silent corridors. The film comes alive when the protagonist recalls beautiful childhood memories of fishing with her father, and the animation style becomes looser, shifting to a vibrant blue-and-green colour palette. The short succeeds in capturing both the gut punches of sadness and the heavy mundane day-to-day reality of grief. OS
13. Every Day’s Like This (Lev Lewis)
Every Day’s Like This takes a close look at the process of grieving before your loved one has died. We never see the dying matriarch: she remains inside her bedroom, too sick from cancer to care for herself, as family members and a nurse pass in and out. The camera watches the door from the other end of the corridor so it looks like an ominous place to approach. Writer-director Lev Lewis is more interested in observing her husband (Daniel Kash), son (Francis Melling), and daughter (Kacey Rohl), who look and sound perpetually tired as they shop for groceries, make dinner, and hash out the details of the matriarch’s assisted suicide. The way Rohl nonchalantly delivers the line, “You alright with mum dying on Valentine’s Day, dad?” tells you everything you need to know about how long this family has been living with the heavy weight of grief, or pre-grief. Lewis gives us a window into one bleak, chilly winter’s evening of many evenings like it, in which family life goes on as normal, only sapped of the joy that spending time with your loved ones typically brings. OS
12. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)
Another Round, or as my friend, fellow film critic Andrew Pope, calls it “Thomas Vinterberg’s Are Men OK?.” The answer this film gives is, very firmly, no. The four main characters, all school teachers, play out what they call a ‘social experiment’ — maintain a constant 0.05% blood-alcohol content and see if it improves their lives — which is really a very thinly veiled cry for help. Vinterberg’s film is funny and even contains some slapstick bits, like Mads Mikkelsen walking straight into a wall. But it’s also a deeply empathetic portrait of masculinity in crisis and how alcohol, while sometimes joyous, can become an unhealthy outlet for depression and pain. And what’s more, Mikkelsen gives a top form performance featuring everything from gentle crying to jazz ballet. OS
11. Still Processing (Sophy Romvari)
In Sophy Romvari’s personal documentary, Still Processing, she holds memories in her hands. After a long negotiation with her parents over her desire to make a film reflecting on her two older brothers’ deaths, her father presents her with a box of photos, videos, and film negatives. We watch as, for the first time, she takes them out. In black and white photographs taken by her father, we see children at rest and play. In one photo, a young Sophy is captured in closeup, looking directly into the camera. It’s a confrontational image, and given the film’s subject, it’s hard not to read melancholy in her expression. The photos capture an almost foreboding doom. They capture fleeting expressions that are transformed by events that follow… continue reading our interview with Romvari
10. 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. He presents vast, deserted landscapes in a locked down, 4:3 frame, like a window into a cold and empty world, accompanied by the sound of harsh, swirling winds. The baffling opening scene alone, in which two condescending instructors perform a stilted dance in order to teach the refugees ‘Cultural Assimilation 101’, drops you right into a world that’s equal parts amusing and confusing. 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. OS
9. Sweat (Magnus von Horn)
Few films have portrayed social media influencer culture as accurately and empathetically as Sweat. The easiest trap to fall into is characterising an influencer as shallow just because the content that they post is shallow; von Horn avoids this at every turn. Played beautifully by Magdalena Kolesnik, fitness influencer Sylwia Zajac feels three-dimensional, a woman who’s in over her head and desperate for intimacy amidst the alienation of online fame. She’s well meaning, and she’s also a very capable business owner — because as Sweat makes clear, being an influencer means being the head of your own mini-business. But just like so many of us, her lifestyle has become reliant on social media to a damaging extent… continue reading our review of Sweat
8. Bandar Band (Manijeh Hekmat)
In March 2019, 26 of Iran’s 31 provinces were flooded from excessive downpour. In April, The New York Times reported, “‘Iran is under water,’ said Sayed Hashem, regional director of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. ‘The scale of this crisis means that more help is needed.’” This tragic event, which left thousands of people without their homes and entire cities under water, is the backdrop of director Manijeh Hekmat’s often lighthearted film, Bandar Band… continue reading our review of Bandar Band
7. True Mothers (Naomi Kawase)
It’s a shame that Naomi Kawase’s features have a tendency to vanish from English-speaking countries as soon as they make their festival run, because she’s a uniquely thoughtful, sensitive filmmaker. True Mothers is perhaps my favourite of her films I’ve seen (Still the Water, Sweet Bean, and Vision) because of how smartly it deals with what it means to be a mother, and sadly, the sheer amount of shame that is associated with it… continue reading our review of True Mothers
6. No Ordinary Man (Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt)
In Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s hands, No Ordinary Man is no ordinary biographical documentary. They go way beyond the standard archival footage and talking head interview approach to tell trans jazz musician Billy Tipton’s story. Joynt explained that “understanding that there was no moving image footage of Tipton was both a restriction and an opportunity for us to immediately start thinking creatively beyond the bounds of reenactment and other ways that biopics tend to be created.” The film features photos and audio recordings of Tipton, as well as his music, and his life story is told through the words of talking-head experts, most of whom are trans. But another huge part of the film are “auditions” where the filmmakers invite a whole host of diverse transmasculine actors to act out and then dissect scripted scenes from Tipton’s life… continue reading our interview with Chin-Yee and Joynt
5. Ammonite (Francis Lee)
In Ammonite, writer-director Franics Lee transports us back to 1800s Lyme, where pioneering paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) spent her life finding, cleaning, and selling fossils. It’s hard, physical labour, where she’s constantly getting covered in mud, but as a working class woman, she was without the luxury of a change of clothes — something we’re made constantly aware of. From the loud crash of the sea on the rocky, windy beach where Mary does her excavations, to the warm crackle of the precious fire indoors, Lee (who is obsessed with sound) makes you feel like you can taste the salty air, feel the chill, and want to reach out and touch Mary’s one sturdy dress. The costumes by Michael O’Connor are so rich in texture you can almost feel them… continue reading our review of Ammonite
4. Point and Line to Plane (Sofia Bohdanowicz)
In Sofia Bohdanowicz’s newest film, Point and Line to Plane, the screen fills with details from the paintings of artist and medium Hilma af Klint. The shapes are geometric; the lines organic but drawn from sources beyond ordinary perception. In voiceover, Deragh Campbell, as Audrey — a fictional stand-in for both the actress and director Sofia Bohdanowicz — recalls memories of her friend, Jack: a freckle, his soft hands, and the way he’d nod his head. Jack has recently died. In these abstract forms and movements, we are lulled into a state of mourning. The power of emotion renders space malleable, and Audrey seems to cross borders and time in a haze… continue reading our interview with Bohdanowicz
3. Trickster (Michelle Latimer)
Michelle Latimer’s Trickster is unlike any television show you’ve seen, and not just because it features an all-Indigenous cast. Adapted from the novel Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson, the first two episodes of the six-episode first season (which has already been renewed for a second season) screened at TIFF, and I was immediately hooked. It’s a coming-of-age story about Jared (Joel Oulette), a sixteen-year old who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, picking up the financial slack for his parents while dealing with the usual teenage challenges.
The twist here is that it’s as much the story of Jared’s mother, Maggie (Crystle Lightning), who is wise beyond her years when it comes to the fantasy elements of the story, which are based on Indigenous folklore. Yet Maggie is often helpless when it comes to the basics of living in the settler world, like earning a living. The miniseries format allows Latimer to focus not just on the complex plot that drives the story, but on the many small moments between characters that reveal love, trauma, and history. Three of the series leads were on our list of the most exciting emerging actors at TIFF, and all three of them are among the best performances at TIFF, too. Alex Heeney
2. Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Žbanic)
Quo Vadis, Aida? is a harrowing retelling of the genocide of the people of Srebrenica that grapples with the complicity of those who were ‘just doing their job.’ Although the film is brutal and disturbing, it refrains from showing us the most violent acts of the genocide, like the rapes and beheadings. Even when the mass genocidal slaughter occurs at the end of the film, Žbanic shows us the guns firing but not the bodies hitting the floor. She’s interested in who holds the power, not the spectacle of their violence… continue reading our review of Quo Vadis, Aida?
1. Inconvenient Indian (Michelle Latimer)
Latimer’s thought-provoking documentary Inconvenient Indian, which picked up awards for documentary and Canadian cinema at TIFF, opens with an Indigenous man, his body covered in polka dots, on horseback in the middle of a vast field. Suddenly, he spots the Toronto skyline in the distance. It’s one of many reminders in the film that colonialism never ended, that Indigenous people still exist and live today, and that our stories about both have been so controlled by settlers as to often obscure this reality. Inconvenient Indian is an interrogation of the stories told about Indigenous people — who authored them, who controlled them, what their legacy is — and how that impacts Indigenous lives today… continue reading our interview with Latimer