In so many ways, 2020 has been a lost year, including the absence of greatness at the movies. True, home streaming platforms have been pumping plenty of content into our living rooms; but, for me, it has been a carousel of mundanity—more platitudinal than inspirational. Quite frankly, I wasn’t expecting much of anything remotely resembling a cinematic thrill this year.
But in the past week and a half, I have found revelation, incitement and, yes, a bit of sobering inspiration in an impressive batch of films showcased in the at-a-distance 2020 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Lest I bury the lede here, the first bit of news that you’ll need to know is that a film titled Nomadland, an unlikely blend of tenderness and provocation, is poised to be the most-talked-about film of the year and will most certainly guarantee a third Best Actress Oscar for its star, Frances McDormand. Nomadland isn’t slated to hit North American cinemas until December, so I’ll have plenty more to say about it in the coming weeks. That said, you’ll need to be among the first that this gentle ember of a tale will most certainly set ablaze a fiery discussion about the contemporary American experience more than any other film in recent memory. Almost a parable, Nomadland triggered memories of a handful of other cinema classics about economic disconnection: The Bicycle Thief, Mondays in the Sun and even The Grapes of Wrath.
I’ve also screened One Night in Miami, the feature directorial debut of Oscar/Emmy-winning actress Regina King. And while the film’s screenplay is earthbound by its source material—a rather leaden 2013 play by the same name—the performances of a quartet of young actors portraying none other than Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke are heaven-sent. Again, expect plenty of Oscar buzz here, particularly for the performances.
Of a more immediate nature, the new documentary The Way I See It is now on the big screen (currently playing at The Flicks); and you’ll want to pack a facemask for a trip to the cinema right now, because I can’t wait for you to see it. Given the film’s subject matter—Pete Souza, official White House photographer for both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama—there was every reason to expect The Way I See It to be time well spent; but about 10 minutes into the film, I literally heard myself whispering, “Wow This movie is great… really great.”
While the very nature of Souza’s work granted him a fair amount of anonymity, his top-secret clearance and unfettered access to Reagan and Obama was jaw-dropping. From bearing witness to scores of history-making, life-or-death decisions (that only a Commander in Chief can make), to some of the most heart-tugging moments imaginable, Souza documented it all: the political and personal sides of two men who one might think had next to nothing in common. With one exception: dignity.
But, as you may have learned in the past several months, Souza became (at first) a reluctant critic of the Trump administration. But that reluctance wore away as the unprecedented actions of the Trump White House continued to build. Souza’s must-follow Instagram account has been chronicling how, in his words “the current administration is destroying the legacy of empathy, honor, and hope” that Souza had previously witnessed during his 13 years at the White House, during Republican and Democratic presidencies. Featuring more than 400 of his photos, The Way I See It is an emotional and stirring reminder of America’s original pledge of a government for and by the people. Simply put, the United States is rapidly approaching what may be the most important election of recent times—perhaps ever.
“This film pays tribute to Pete Souza’s enormous contribution to American history,” said documentarian extraordinaire Dawn Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble, Gideon’s Army) just prior to her film’s TIFF premiere. “And this film can also serve as a reminder to people that there is such a thing as good government, run with empathy and thoughtfulness.”
Indeed, the film is ultimately non-partisan.
“I want to remind people of what a normal presidency is like, what a normal person in the presidency is like,” said the soft-spoken Souza. “It’s not a partisan thing. It’s about the dignity of the office. With both Reagan and Obama, whether you agreed or disagreed with their policies, they were both decent human beings who upheld the dignity of the office.”