What have you seen that you liked?
So goes the question rippling through line-ups. Non-TIFF goers are perhaps stymied by the dizzying pace of screenings; the rest of us shrug it off. This is what we do. There are no bragging rights, just crazy ones. See what you can while it’s here and forgive the mess at the edges; the corporate trappings, questionable allowances for priority seats, a steady screeching fan crush stomping out any and all sensible paths to theatres. Ignore it as you sample the banquet table, eyes always on the prize: spectacular voyages and peeks at universal truths, all of it lending instructions for living, and wondrous creative inspiration.
Not bad for ten days.Yes, your eyes will pop, your mouth will drop. Pay attention. School has begun.
I know you like lists. Here is mine from a feast of global storytelling:
Scrumptious: films to love
Call be by your name:
The lights went down and off I went to Italy for a morning of pure bliss. This is sumptuous filmmaking, shot in Crema, Italy, by Italian director Luca Guadagnino, in an Italian, French and Brazilian co-production about a summer coming of age love story starring a beautiful actor you’re sure to see more of, Timothée Chalamet, and Arnie Hammer; both bring to life characters first found on the page in the much-loved novel by André Aciman (adapted for the screen by the genius James Ivory). Luckily for non-TIFF goers: you’ll get your own chance at this heady trip later this fall as it’s set for release late November.
The Shape of Water
This is the eyes-pop-mouth-drop film for sheer beauty and magic throughout. Phooey to one critic who sneered and dismissed it as a “surf and turf romance”. Not so. Sally Hawkins does fall for an aquatic creature but in Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro’s hands, the creature is spectacular, as is the cinematography, production design, all artful, all dazzling. I loved the story, the cast, the setting, and the soul. Everyone cheered at the end of this one, cheering for imagination—here, it’s strutting in extraordinary strokes, cheering for the Toronto Elgin theatre and other Toronto locations used by del Toro, who loves Toronto so much he lives here part-time. I was spellbound. This one opens in Toronto early December.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Hurrah for clever Toronto film audiences who picked this film as this year’s People’s Choice winner. I voted for all the films in my scrumptious list so don’t make me choose one winner but colour me happy to see this film anointed. Frances McDormand is Mildred, a mother who takes action against the police for failing to solve her daughter’s murder. When you see as many films as I do, you are grateful as hell for perfect balance: this one has it. British playwright Martin McDonagh has delivered a script with snap and zero waste. If all films could be this lively, I would be a happy fangirl. Somehow he sneaks in a very rich mix here and makes it look effortless;exploding a study of grief into an angry symphony. One flaw: two brief portraits of minor characters, both sketched as dimwit young women…unnecessary and worth a sigh from this old broad.
French cinematographer Emmanuel Gras travelled to the Congo for this remarkable documentary about one man’s struggle to provide for his family. We follow Kabwita as he makes charcoal in the Congolese countryside and then carries it on his bike for three agonizingly long days to sell it in the city. There is little here but the very looming present, in real time segments, and the result is mesmerizing. Here is the human condition in extraordinary measures. When the camera follows him into an intense prayer session, I was moved to tears. This is a film that will stay with me long after many others have faded.
Among my very purposeful film picks were debuts and this one is stunning. Greta Gerwig has co-written films before with her partner, Noah Baumbach, but here, she shepherds her own script with confidence and heart and somehow avoids cliché in a well-worn genre. It helps to have the wonderful Saoirse Ronan to play the rebellious teenager in the semi-autobiographical story set in Sacramento, with Laurie Metcalf delivering the second mother of the year performance (first is Frances McDormand, as mentioned earlier) and the talented playwright/actor Tracy Letts as the dad. Again, tone is king here. Gerwig nails it.
The Death of Stalin
I wanted this film, based on a graphic novel, to win the juried section of TIFF’s three year old Platform programming: it seem the three-member jury was seduced by dramatic fare (see below*). If comedy is done well, it looks easy. Scottish satirist Armando Ianucci has a huge fan base, thanks mostly to hilarious projects like VEEP ( he left after the fourth season) and In the Loop. This is his first time delving into history and his dive is as profane as ever, in a delicious black comedy that had everyone in my screening roaring. A superb cast of performers play the Soviet dignitaries who are panicking at the demise of their leader, Joseph Stalin, and so begins a race for the leadership. Thank goodness for wit, on full display here.
The Florida Project
Sean Baker turned the cinematic world upside down with his film Tangerine, shot entirely on an iPhone. His follow-up is shot in regular 35 mm but again, Baker is set to stir things up with this absolutely absorbing story of a ragtag group living on the fringe in a motel on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida. The motel is run by Bobby, played wonderfully here by Willem Dafoe, who tolerates these kids just enough to keep them safe. I was set to hate this movie for the kids in the film have trash mouths and bratty is the behaviour code here, sure to grate on my nerves. Or so I thought. Sneakily, the film won me over. Dammit, those kids are engaging. Think Little Rascals with a contemporary spin and you’re halfway there. Poignant and packing a shimmering heart in ice cream colours, Baker’s film has done a very nifty trick here, capturing the world of childhood wonder in the midst of sober surroundings. The two young actors stole the stage at the screening I attended. More on that tomorrow.
Another habit of my TIFF picks (years in the making) are choosing titles in the Masters section. Sure, there’s the chance the Master has nobody left but sycophants who won’t tell him his latest effort is sour: we’ve seen this many a time. Get too good (or too rich) at your game and nobody tells you the truth anymore. More often than not, choosing a film from a cinematic giant means you’re in for a juicy ride. This film is from Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver, Raging Bill, The Last Temptation of Christ, to name just a few) and it is so engrossing I need to see it again, just to hear the bon mots from Schrader’s script. Ethan Hawke is brilliant as a priest suffering a crisis, one both unnerving and powerful. There are themes here that would be dangerous in the hands of a lesser talent. In Schrader’s hands, they underscore this thriller that might just be mistaken for a masterpiece.
The Other Side of Hope
From Finnish master, writer/director Aki Kaurismäki a fantastic story about a Syrian stowaway who escapes into Finland and begins to work in a restaurant run by a sour middle-aged businessman. In his first performance as an actor, Sherwan Haji begged us to not judge him harshly when he appeared at our screening to introduce the film. Hardly. His was a face (and performance ) easy to love. This film made my list because of the parade of fantastic faces cast and the overall genius tone: droll, deadpan, deadly. Can you make a comedy about the refugee crisis? Yup.
Very good: films not quite perfect but admirable and eminently watchable
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Weird and wonderful, this dark tale surrounds a strange teenager who has wormed his way into a family’s life. No spoilers here — if you saw The Lobster or Dogtooth, you’ll understand the twisted world you find yourself wandering around in, courtesy of Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos. Here things could be merely sinister but you’ll laugh too, maybe nervously, and hold your breath right to the end. Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell lead the cast but the star of this show is Irish actor Barry Keoghan (last seen in Dunkirk), who has thrown down a masterful performance. Keep your eye on this actor. He’s fascinating to watch. Is it a horror film? That would be far too easy. Lanthimos doesn’t fit into a box other than he is the guy everyone wants to work with right now. The film will be released in Canada November 17th.
Still on the subject of Irish actors, TIFF Rising Star Jessie Buckley may be known in the UK for her musical theatre chops but during TIFF she was mesmerizing filmgoers with her performance in Beast as the misfit Moll who falls for a man who may or may not be a serial killer. British director Michael Pearce has his own killer eye for visual detail and sets the tone at tense from beginning to end. This was another gem in the juried Platform series of films: all twelve films were picked for their strong authorial visions from mid-career talents, and most of them deserved that spot. I loved Beast as much it terrified me.
If you saw his heart
Another Platform film (check) another debut (check), another female director (check, check, check)-would I go wrong with this pick?
Like Greta Gerwig, French film director Joan Chemla, who took part in the Toronto Talent Lab, stunned me with her first feature, a story she adapted from the Cuban book, Boarding Home, a series of portraits about the disenfranchised in a rundown hotel. In this film, Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal acts as her hero, a gypsy thief with a heart of gold, haunted by his past. Lots of brooding atmosphere and worthy production design made up for some of the weaker parts but Chemla is most certainly a star to watch.
Still in Platform territory comes a film from one of the Arab world’s best known directors, Nabil Ayouch, starring his gorgeous wife, Maryam Touzani in her first acting role. Razzia follows five narratives about Casablanca, weaving in and out of each over a forty year period. l loved this ambitious film, which was just chosen as Morocco’s candidate in the foreign language category of the 2018 Academy Awards. It falters on some of the storylines, but everyone on screen is captivating as hell.
What will people say
Equally captivating is newcomer Maria Mozhdah in this autobiographical film about female oppression from Iram Haq, a Norwegian-Pakistani actress and director. Mozhdah plays Nisha, a contemporary first generation teenager confronting her Pakistani-born parents’s traditional values. This film is perhaps the saddest film I saw at TIFF for it might as well have been a documentary, rather than a fictional piece, as it explores intimately the unravelling of a family caught between two worlds. a family like many here and across the globe. I cried at this one too. It made me miss my daughters terribly (empty nester, can’t help it) but you don’t need a daughter to feel gut-punched.
Australian director Warwick Thornton won accolades and prize for his 2009 debut, Samson and Delilah, and here he’s at it again: this won the $25,000 Platform prize in a race of excellent films. Guess the jury loved brooding westerns: this one set in the 1920’s in the outback of Northern Territory, Australia and centres around an Aboriginal who kills a white station owner in self-defence. My favourite thing about this fugitive narrative was the young kid, newcomer Tremayne Trevorn Doolan, who holds his own in a cast of heavyweight Aussie familiar faces including Sam Neill and Bryan Brown. While others were stronger in Platform section, I liked the film a lot; certainly nobody can argue the continued relevance or lyricism.
American indie darling Dee Rees brought together one of the best ensembles at TIFF for this 1940’s epic about two farming Missisippi families trying to cope during the war. The story overlap wasn’t always a success (the combat scenes were weak) but Rees has huge chops: this sprawling story was gripping and utterly relevant. Hard to watch as is all bold cinema, and some powerful performances across the board. After it premiered at Sundance to raves, Netflix picked it up: it will begin streaming November 17th.
Our People Will Be Healed
This film was the most hopeful film I saw during the entire ten days. I admit I was completely starstruck by the master documentarian behind the lens who wowed us all after the screening. At 85, Alanis Obamsawin is crackling with energy, style, and the ever fierce compassion that has driven all of her work with the National Film Board. This latest film, her 50th, is a celebration of a school in Manitoba, a school indigenous people across Canada hope can be a model in decolonization. Norway House is a joyful place of learning and community projects celebrating Cree culture. Obamsawin’s keen eye for children and their infectious energy is something I won’t forget anytime soon.
C’est La Vie!
Pure French pastry, a fluffy farce about a fussy Parisian wedding planner who tries to corral his event planning team for a massive wedding set in an 18th-century chateau. This film will cause you to develop a tickle, then a giggle, then a roar. These kind of confections in the American mainstream are often woefully predictable. In the hands of the directing pair, Olivier Nakache & Éric Toledano, who made the beloved 2012 hit The Intouchables, it is just right.
Imperfect but still listworthy:
A follow-up to the brilliant Amour, this from master Austrian director Michael Haneke is not as fully realized as that earlier gem but is still fascinating in part because of his ever provocative poke (much of it dealing with technology) at the mess of contemporary family life. It helps to have the ever dazzling Isabelle Huppert on screen as the matriarch but equally capable was the rest of the French cast.
Ben Stiller suffers a midlife crisis in a film that is more polemic than a real cinematic narrative, produced in part by Plan B, Brad Pitt’s company. Still, Stiller is fantastic as the dad taking his son to see colleges and who can’t relate to his pondering, often portrayed here in hilarious light from writer/director Mike White. This is the tell part of show, don’t tell, but go along with it. You might recognize yourself. This is first world problem kind of film, the only one I saw at TIFF. For that, I’m glad.
The latest film, another Platform contender, from Swedish director Lisa Landseth brings together her muse, Alicia Vikander, onscreen once again for their third collaboration, this time set in a beautiful forest where the dying go to attend to their last wishes before being put to death by choice. Vikander plays one of two sad sisters (Eva Green) attempting to reconcile their past in this surreal setting. Rounding out the cast are Charles Dance and Charlotte Rampling, both lending some more dazzle to a sometimes sappy story. Still, I think Vikander and Green are huge talents. Nice to see stories by women for women.
Another in the Masters programme: Russian auteur Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan was one of my faves from TIFF a few years back. He follows it up with another dark tale about the grim turn a bad marriage can take and the child left behind. The only reason this isn’t up higher on my list is for a relentless middle act which dragged the film down. Still, that this guy makes every image poetic is clear. The film is stunning to look at, and as bleak and beautiful as Bergman. It is for these kinds of films I attend TIFF.
Ana, mon amour
From Romanian director Colin Peter Netzer, a rocky relationship is put to the test by mental illness, explored through time shifts and lots of sex, much of it implicit. To quote my TIFF partner, if it’s on a computer in a dark room, it’s porn. If it’s on a TIFF big screen, it’s art. There is always sex at TIFF. Here it comes thanks to two fearless performers in a portrait of a truly toxic union. By the end, I was exhausted. But for awhile, I was mesmerized by these talented actors as they delved into the roots of trauma.
I love Meg Wolitzer’s novels. So it was an easy pick to see this adaptation from Swedish director Björn Runge, especially one starring Glen Close and Jonathan Pryce, as a husband and wife dealing with the news of his Nobel prize for literature. It should be a thrill but there’s a mystery lurking that unfolds with Close at the centre. This movie needed more zip. Still, the mystery and good performances keep the film moving and Close delivers yet another riveting performance, a reason alone to see the film. Somebody please give this woman an Oscar sometime soon.
That’s it for films worth reviewing. The rest of my picks were meh and at least one was downright infuriating…if I had brought a tomato, it would have been pitched at the screen. More to come.