Symkus column: Redesigned Toronto Film Fest is a triumph

Ed Symkus
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David Byrne is front and center in "David Byrne's American Utopia."

Somehow, in the midst of a global pandemic, there was indeed a Toronto International Film Festival this year, running from Sept. 10-19. And yes, even though Americans aren’t currently allowed to cross the northern border, I attended. Well, not physically. I did TIFF 2020 virtually.

Canadian movie mavens got to see films in socially distanced theaters, at drive-in theaters, and digitally. Since all members of the press were told that due to COVID-19, we would not be invited to this edition (which would have been my 16th), we watched selections from the fest, courtesy of the internet and a very cool TIFF streaming platform, on TV and computer screens, in the comfort of our homes.

So, I didn’t get to stay at my favorite cheap Toronto hotel, The Rex - with a jazz-blues club on the street level - or eat at the Town Crier Pub - which has the best chicken under a brick in North America - or stand in long movie lines and chat with other film fans, or run back and forth to interviews between screenings, or hope that there would be some food left in the Media Lounge where we scurried to write and send stories.

Truth be told, I missed every moment of the madness that would have made up the 45th annual TIFF (and I haven’t even mentioned the late-night studio parties). But I also must admit that it was quite relaxing to watch movies and take part in virtual press conferences while still wearing my bathrobe.

There are usually about 300 films screened there, but this year it was down to about 50. That’s still a lot to watch, so I pared down my schedule to 15 titles that looked promising, and managed to see 10 of them. Of those that I caught, some will get theatrical and/or VOD release starting in a couple of weeks, others won’t open till the end of this year or the beginning of next, still others don’t yet have distribution.

Here are my capsule thoughts on the wide range of films I watched. They’re alphabetical.

“Concrete Cowboy” - Idris Elba stars in the father-son-relationship/coming of age-sorta based-on-fact story of horse stables and the characters in and around them smack in the middle of Philadelphia. A different kind of urban Western.

“David Byrne’s American Utopia” - Spike Lee puts his cameras in all the right places in his co-production with David Byrne of Byrne’s musical bombardment of a stage show. Exciting, entertaining, toe-tapping.

“Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds” - Werner Herzog offers up scientific, ethnocentric, and mythic stories of meteorites landing on our planet. Talky, informative, and - one more “ic” - eccentric.

“Good Joe Bell” - Mark Wahlberg superbly plays a macho, short-tempered dad who tries to comes to grips with his son’s homosexuality and the bullying the boy suffers. Engrossing but a bit manipulative.

“Nomadland” - Frances McDormand is Fern, a widowed woman who, for reasons she can’t comprehend, feels she must always be “on the road again.” A sad, heartwarming, hopeful, beautiful movie.

“One Night in Miami” - Based on the Kemp Powers play, and directed by Regina King, it’s a terrifically acted fantasy of what happened when Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X got together to talk about life (and politics and racism and Bob Dylan).

“Shadow in the Cloud” - A young woman infiltrates an American WWII military mission while on a confidential mission of her own. Their plane is attacked by numerous Japanese planes. A vicious creature makes its way onboard. Roll with the preposterousness! It was the most fun I had at TIFF.

“The Truffle Hunters” - And this was the second most fun: a poetic, funny, intriguing documentary about senior citizens (and their dogs) in Italy who search out and dig up the best mushrooms in the world.

“The Water Man” - A young boy deals with his mother’s illness by trying to track down a magical, mystical man in the deep woods who, legend says, can cure anything. A sappy, predictable movie with no teeth.

“The Way I See It” - A documentary about Pete Souza, the official White House photographer for President Barack Obama, who was granted total access, and shot amazing, intimate photos of the president at work and play. Essential viewing before the November election. Please vote!

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin are father and son in "Concrete Cowboy."