“Would you like to move to the orchestra?” a voice from the dark whispered.
I was at the Toronto International Film Festival and, moments earlier, had just realized that I was the only festivalgoer in the very capacious, very empty balcony. In normal years, this 2,000-seat theater, a festival mainstay, is packed with excitedly buzzing attendees. But normal is so very 2019 as are crowds. It felt awfully lonely up there with just me and some ushers, so I said Sure! and ran down to the orchestra, settling amid other attendees who, perhaps like me, were trying to feign a sense of togetherness — at a Covid-safe distance, of course.
One of the largest film happenings in the world, the Toronto festival celebrated its 46th anniversary this year and, more gloomily, its second year of putting on a show during the pandemic. On a number of levels, it was a success: Although scaled down from its preplague era, the festival, which ends Saturday, presented some 200 movies, in person and digitally, from across the world. There were premieres, panels and lots of mask-muffled “Have a great day!” from the staff. Benedict Cumberbatch — the star of Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” and Will Sharpe’s “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” — popped in via satellite for a chat.
It was much the same while being profoundly different. More than anything, as I attended movies in the festival’s eerily depopulated theaters — sitting in rooms that, per Canadian safety rules, couldn’t exceed 50 percent capacity — I was reminded that a film festival isn’t simply a series of back-to-back new movies. It’s also people, joined together, and ordinarily jammed together, as one under the cinematic groove. There is always vulgarity, of course, the red-carpet posing, the Oscar-race hustling, and I’ve watched plenty of profane monstrosities at Toronto, Sundance, et al. But even when the movies disappoint, I am always happy at a festival, watching alongside people as crazy about movies as I am.
There weren’t many people, but there was still a lot to like and to love in Toronto, including Cumberbatch flexing his muscles in the nude as a 1920s Montana cowboy in Campion’s magnificent “The Power of the Dog” and playing a rather more buttoned-up cat fancier in “Louis Wain.” A charming, poignant biographical account, that film portrays the life of a British artist who, starting in the late 19th century — with pen, vibrant ink and a fantastically wild imagination — helped teach the joys of cat worship to a dog-besotted Britain. The movie may make some gag, but I dug its tenderness and Wain’s work, which grew trippier the older and more mentally unstable he became.
For higher-profile selections like these, the fall festivals — Telluride and Venice recently ended — serve as a legitimizing launchpad for the fall season, a way to distinguish themselves from the hundreds of movies also vying for attention. Disney can scoop up spectators by the millions. Titles like “The Power of the Dog,” which falls under the fuzzy heading of art film yet is entirely accessible to those actually paying attention, need to seduce a smaller viewership, even if Campion has long been a revered auteur. They need festival audiences, critics included, on the front lines, particularly if a movie is headed toward next year’s Academy Awards. (“Dog” is more likely to go the Oscar distance than Wain’s cats.)
And, after months and months of streaming new movies in my living room, I was exceptionally happy to be at Toronto. I’ve attended the festival for years, largely because of the variegated bounty of its offerings, from the commercial to the avant-garde. When it was founded in 1976, it was called the Festival of Festivals, partly because it screened films that had played elsewhere. It was intended for the general public (Cannes is invitation-only), a mandate that helped give Toronto a democratic vibe. In the words of one of its founders, Bill Marshall, “There’s something for everyone, but not everything for everyone, but something.”
In the decades that followed, Toronto rebranded itself as the Toronto International Film Festival and opened a handsome complex called the Lightbox in a soulless area called the entertainment district, where construction crews always seem to be building glass-and-steel apartment complexes for young professionals with dogs. Even so, the event’s populist ethos continues, as does its hodgepodge programming. Here, as usual, you could catch movies that had played in Berlin, Cannes and Telluride and would soon make their way to New York and beyond. One of the best things about Toronto, though, is that it isn’t an auteur-driven festival or an Oscar-baiting one: It’s just a flood of movies — good, bad and indifferent.
There were teary melodramas, cryptic whatsits and period dramas like Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” which is as watchable as it is predictable. A story in black-and-white — visually and in its beats — the movie takes place in the title city in the 1960s, just as partisan violence descends on a cozy street where Catholic and Protestant families live alongside one another in dewy harmony. Centered on a cute tyke nestled in the bosom of a loving family whose members are mostly known commodities (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds play the grandparents), the movie is in the vein of John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory,” a far finer coming-of-age story set during World War II.
Among the other offerings were movies that belong to familiar subgenres that I call the Sad Single Women With Dying Plants Movie (“True Things”) and the ever-popular Damaged Woman Film, some more outré (this year’s risible Cannes Palmes d’Or winner, “Titane”) than others (“The Mad Women’s Ball”). And then there was Edgar Wright’s frenetic “Last Night in Soho,” which is a female-friendship movie of a kind and putative empowerment story about another sad woman (Thomasin McKenzie) and her glamorous sad doppelgänger (Anya Taylor-Joy). The two meet across time in a London crawling with mean girls and unspeakably predatory men.
As usual, the documentaries were often a sure bet. Although “Becoming Cousteau,” about the underwater French explorer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau, is a fairly standard biographical portrait, the director Liz Garbus manages to push the movie into deeper depths. Filled with beautiful archival images of pristine waters, the movie opens as a fairly straight great-man story only to evolve into a thoughtful examination of what Cousteau’s early adventures wrought, including his lucrative work-for-hire helping to find oil in the Persian Gulf. As development progressively destroyed the undersea world that he helped illuminate, Cousteau became a fervent environmentalist — too late but still laudable.
More formally audacious were two of my festival highlights: “Flee,” a Danish movie about an Afghan refugee, and “Hold Your Fire,” a jaw-dropper about a decades-old American hostage crisis. Directed by Stefan Forbes, “Hold Your Fire” looks back on a 1973 robbery in Brooklyn that went catastrophically wrong when its painfully young perpetrators were discovered midcrime. (Forbes also edited the wealth of archival material and shot the recent interviews with survivors and witnesses, like the psychologist Harvey Schlossberg, the definition of a mensch.) The incident quickly mushroomed into a televised spectacle and became a turning point in hostage negotiating; more than anything, it exhumes an instructive, bleakly relevant chapter in the city’s long racially fractious history.
“Flee,” directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, is a beautifully, at times expressionistically animated documentary — punctuated with shocks of unanimated newsreel-style imagery — about the filmmaker’s longtime friend, Amin (a pseudonym), a refugee from Afghanistan. The two met in high school and remained in touch, but it was only when Rasmussen started making this movie that he actually learned the real difficulties and intricacies of Amin’s story. “Flee” unwinds piecemeal as Amin — often lying on a couch, as if in a shrink’s office — recounts his harrowing travels, with a brother or alone, in a journey that, in some painful ways, is ongoing.
My favorite movie of this year’s festival, “The Tsugua Diaries,” doesn’t easily fit into any obvious genre category, which is one of its attractions. Like some other titles in this year’s festival, the movie was shot during the pandemic, but it is also very much about the pandemic. Or, rather, it’s about time and its passage as well as friendship and the deep, life-sustaining pleasures of being with other people. It was directed by Maureen Fazendeiro (she’s French) and Miguel Gomes (he’s Portuguese) who are a couple, and is both formally playful — its divided in chapters, each of which take the movie back in time — and unexpectedly moving. I wept buckets, and I can’t wait to see it again.
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