‘Nomadland’ and ‘Ammonite’ are early standouts at the first Toronto Film Festival of the pandemic era


Cinematic trend-spotting is a fond and familiar practice for journalists covering international film festivals — the more weirdly specific the trend, the better.

For instance: Isn’t it strange that we saw two movies today featuring extreme acts of animal cruelty? And three yesterday that revolved around a zombie apocalypse? Whoa, why is Tilda Swinton in everything this year? (That one isn’t a complaint, mind you, just a question.) Forgive us, but we just can’t help ourselves: It’s a convenient way of organizing our thoughts on deadline and placing different films in conversation with one another. It also imposes an arbitrary, potentially misleading narrative on an experience that, even at its most carefully programmed, is destined and perhaps even designed to frustrate your sense of order.

That would seem especially true of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, one of the first major film events of the COVID-19 pandemic era. Making sense of this year’s significantly overhauled edition promises to be a challenge for any journalist who, like me, is covering the festival from afar, specifically from the confines of their living room. Admittedly, the program is much smaller and theoretically more manageable this year: There are only 50 new features, compared with the usual 300-plus that makes Toronto one of the world’s biggest, most diverse and inexhaustible cinematic showcases. And those of us diving into the lineup remotely — courtesy of the spiffy TIFF Digital Cinema Pro platform — will at least be spared the trouble of waiting in lines, dashing between theaters and subsisting on a concessions-based diet.


That’s a relief, to be sure. It’s also a bummer. Some of the great pleasures of festival-going — the thrill of nabbing one of the last seats at a hot-ticket screening, the charge that pulses through an audience that has just made a thrilling cinematic discovery — are pleasurable because of the presence, and proximity, of other people. Some of these are friends and colleagues. Many more of them are just strangers in the dark, helpless movie junkies brought together by the promise of the new and the glow of an enormous screen.

One thing’s for sure at this year’s TIFF, even if nothing else is: There will be movies, which means there will be trends — or, if not trends, then at least commonalities worth pointing out. Even still, I didn’t expect one to surface on my very first day of screenings, when I watched two of the festival’s most hotly anticipated titles, Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” and Francis Lee’s “Ammonite,” practically back to back.

But perhaps I should have. Both “Nomadland,” a modern-day American road movie, and “Ammonite,” a 19th century English romance, are at least partially drawn from real-life figures and events. Both center on women who have chosen, for very different reasons, to dwell at a remove from mainstream society. If nothing else, the fact that they are played by Frances McDormand and Kate Winslet, respectively, should have indicated that some excellent acting was in order. The twinned scenes of alfresco urination, however, were by no means a given.

“Nomadland,” which Searchlight Pictures plans to release Dec. 4, goes so far as to feature an amusingly detailed sequence in which Suanne Carlson, one of the nomads of the title, educates her fellow travelers on the practical considerations of relieving yourself outdoors. These are the kinds of things you have to consider, after all, when you’ve decided to permanently embrace the thrill of the open road — or, as the case may be, the beauty of the RV park at dusk. We take in that beauty through the eyes of Fern (McDormand), a widow in her 60s who saw her small, economically depressed Nevada town and her entire way of life suddenly collapse — and decided that, rather than pick up the pieces, she would forge a new way of life altogether.

And so she packs up her white van and heads out across the U.S., with no particular direction or destination in mind. She forsakes material comforts, takes work wherever she can find it (from cleaning toilets to boxing goods at an Amazon fulfillment center) and cuts herself off from friends and family members. At the same time, Fern is the opposite of alone. As her travels take her from a Nebraska beet field to the stunningly beautiful Badlands National Park, she encounters a remarkable community of fellow travelers and true believers, many of whom have hit the road for similar reasons: grief, despair, lost homes, lost jobs and a sense of time and meaning slipping away.

At least one of Fern’s fellow nomads is, like her, played by a professional actor (David Strathairn, a lovable bumbler). Most of them, however, are real wanderers playing lightly fictionalized versions of themselves. These include Linda May and Swankie, two women whom Fern bonds with early on, who were both featured in Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.” Zhao, always good at on-the-margins portraiture, draws on that book and its tales of people who describe themselves as houseless but not homeless and who embrace their new lives out of both necessity and an insatiable, countercultural lust for adventure.

But the movie is also a further refinement of Zhao’s techniques, of the rough-hewn yet strikingly seamless weave of fiction and nonfiction that she achieved with her 2015 debut, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” and came close to perfecting in 2017’s “The Rider.” And it’s a refinement for its star, who slips into this role in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen her do onscreen. That’s not to say McDormand vanishes, exactly; actors with as distinctive and commanding a presence as hers rarely do. But without suppressing her natural instincts as a performer — including a gift for spitfire comedy that occasionally rears its head — she whispers rather than declaims and illuminates more from within than without. It’s one of her greatest performances.

McDormand was last at TIFF in 2017 with the small-town comic thriller “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which won the festival’s People’s Choice Award and put her on the red-carpeted path to her second Oscar. Awards campaigns, which often launch at Toronto and other fall events, are more of a question mark this year. That’s partly because of the motion picture academy’s decision to postpone the Oscars until April; it’s also because of the festivals themselves, with their truncated programs, diminished buzz and an atmosphere that can be described as less than celebratory.

It’s fun if fruitless to speculate about what these events might have looked like under normal circumstances, but it seems safe to say that “Nomadland” would have been in the thick of it. It’s clearly the fall season’s most in-demand title: Before its Toronto screening, it premiered in competition at the concurrent Venice International Film Festival, and it will next be seen at the New York Film Festival, where it has the prestigious centerpiece gala slot. “Nomadland” was also scheduled to play over Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, before that Colorado event decided to cancel its 2020 edition due to COVID-19 concerns.


Speaking of cancellations: The tempestuous romantic drama “Ammonite” was selected to premiere earlier this summer at Cannes, before the pandemic similarly forced that grande dame of international film festivals to sit out this year. In a coronavirus-free state of affairs, in other words, Lee’s film might be relatively old news by now, which is not to say that it would have been forgotten. Set to open in theaters Nov. 13 through Neon, it strikingly confirms the talent Lee demonstrated in his 2017 debut feature, “God’s Own Country.” And like that film, it spins an ardent tale of forbidden love set against a wind-battered English landscape.

We are in Lyme Regis, a small town on the rocky West Dorset coast, where the paleontologist Mary Anning (Winslet), excavates and catalogs the preserved remains of extinct mollusks called ammonites. Fully devoted to this physically arduous work, Mary loves her fossils but regards most people with an incurious glare, including the eager young men who come to visit and exploit her knowledge. One of them brings along — and then abandons — his sickly wife, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan, revealing her luminosity in layers), leaving Mary to play the exasperated caretaker. But as Charlotte’s spirits improve, so do Mary’s. Reluctance turns to rapture, buried longings come flooding to the surface, and those ammonites, with their telltale swirly-shell patterns, become a metaphor for the vertigo of desire.

Like Céline Sciamma’s recent “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Ammonite” is a passionate love story nourished by the salty sea air and the blissful absence of men; it’s also a sharp reflection on how the artistic, scientific and intellectual contributions of women have been systematically written out of history. And like “God’s Own Country,” it fully embraces the wild, rustic carnality of its setting, quietly doing away with the sexual coyness and the punitive spirit that have often attended Hollywood’s flirtations with gay romance. (It also features two actors from Lee’s debut: Alec Secareanu makes a charming village doctor, and Gemma Jones plays Mary’s scowling, sickly mother.)

Ronan and Winslet are beautifully matched, and their characters’ initially combative dynamic makes their eventual surrender all the more moving. But this is very much Anning’s story, even if its account of Anning’s life and loves is highly speculative, and it’s Winslet — in her most complex and fully realized star turn since Todd Haynes’ great 2011 miniseries, “Mildred Pierce” — who holds you like a rock in her palm from start to finish. True lovers, her performance suggests, are not kept apart by bigotry alone. They can also be defeated by the human urge to self-isolate, to reject the emotional risk that love demands.

That’s a curious thing to ponder at a festival where many of us are watching from a greater distance than we’d like, and where the communal pleasures of moviegoing have been painfully if necessarily disrupted. There is reassurance, and necessity, in being apart for now. But as movies like “Nomadland” and “Ammonite” remind us, there is consolation in the prospect of reunion. These are portraits of retreat and solitude that leave you feeling more connected to the people around you, not less.