It gets harder on this body every year, it being the annual cinematic circus this writer calls school. My knees ache and sleeping…what is that exactly? Dreams are chaotic at best. Reeses Peanut Butter Cups are not a food group.
Still, when the circus comes to town, I’m all in. For those uninitiated, TIFF is a feast for creatives, hungrily navigating a vast international menu of strange and wonderful offerings.
(Only nine here in this list. Tomorrow, I will bring you more on a bunch of very good films with flaws. This elite group are here because they allowed me to travel and forget where I was. And they made me believe. Out of 36 films screened, these are the gems that stood out)
A masterpiece of time and space, Roma is Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón’s valentine to his childhood nanny at the time of his parents’ divorce. Earlier this month it won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. Toronto audiences too were wowed as it was the third runner up in the People’s Choice awards. (I didn’t see the winner, Green Book) Forget all that. Why I loved it was the spectacular breadth of it all; one tableaux after another of extraordinary detail of life for the indigenous worker who was the heart of an upper-middle class family in the wealthy district of Roma in Mexico City. Cuarón spent months researching the 1970’s era and the recreations are epic and intimate in equal measure. The film spans political and social events but never losing the central through line of Cleo, played by first time actor Yalitza Aparicio. None of the cast had a script. Cuaron shot the film himself and the film feels at once deeply personal, at every turn, a tribute to the women that shaped him. Roma is a gradual build (the film is long but utterly immersive thanks to phenomenal sound design) and one deserving a place at every theatre around the world. A big theatre that is, not the living room variety. Netflix has this one*
Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda is highly skilled at capturing human behaviour without the usual shiny tricks lesser talents cannot escape from. Here, he is at his best, with a beautiful film about a made-up family of thieves that will linger in your heart for days after you meet them. There are a lot of heartbreaking films at TIFF every year. Shoplifters is the least manipulative I’ve seen and wins my praise for its generous treatment of each character. Critics at Cannes anointed this one with the Palme D’Or earlier this year. Canadians will have a chance to catch this when it opens in selected cities including Toronto on December 7th.
If the parent figures in Shoplifters don’t steal your heart, surely the beautiful father/daughter relationship in the Belgian drama Girl will slay you as it did for me. Selected as the Belgian entry for Best Foreign film for the next Oscars, Girl is about Lara, a fifteen-year-old transgender ballerina featuring a knock out performance by Victor Polster as Lara and Arieh Worthalter as her father. Expect great attention to be paid to specifics in this film; ignore them all. Lara is the adolescent in all of us, seeking, and not always finding answers as quickly as your soul demands. This was one of many astonishing debut features at TIFF and I loved it, among many reasons, for the beautiful ballet sequences and the space between dialogue: what was not said spoke volumes. Three cheers for restraint. Look out for director Lukas Dhont.
If Beale Street Could Talk
I loved every minute of Oscar winner Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his miraculous Moonlight. In this drama, he shows his reverence for writer James Baldwin, whose 1974 novel about a wrongly convicted young lover here gets nothing short of glorious adaptation. The production design in this film is dreamy. Mostly, I fell for the faces, the family (the whole cast is terrific) and surely the most earnest couple on the planet: Tish and Fonny are a new classic. Pure gold.
Often I’m asked why I don’t just wait for films to come out, given the massive cultural shift known as surfing through streaming networks. The TIFF screening of Wild Rose in Toronto is one good reason. Witnessing the international premiere of an actor whose career is about to explode thanks to the most sizzling performance of the festival was pure magic. Irish actor Jessie Buckley is already well known in the UK (War & Peace on the BBC, and the talent show I’ll Do Anything) and was named a rising star at TIFF last year where she starred in Beast (one of my 2017 picks). But in this film, as sure a crowd pleaser as any in the festival, Buckley is Rose-Lynn, a Glasgow convict dreaming of singing in Nashville. We were all with her that night, and her gutsy performance bursting out of the screen. Also in this musical genre at TIFF was another knock out star turn by Elle Fanning (yes, she can sing, and how!) in Teen Spirit, actor Max Minghella’s debut feature as a director, and a very good one at that. Both Wild Rose and Teen Spirit are little films up against the Goliath that will be A Star is Born when all hit theatres. (I didn’t see the latter but plan to when it opens here October 5th.*****) Wild Rose will come to theatres in North America next May.
It’s hard to be surprised anymore when I’m watching movies. I try to erase former etchings for each new screening but the clichés scream their way in every time. If your taste runs into disturbing fairytales, this one has some darker shading. Border got me. The Swedish mystery film by Ali Abbasi wins the most unforgettable storyline featuring a strange looking heroine, Tina, who was born with a weird scar on her tailbone and an unusual ability to sniff out sleaze balls. As a border agent, she can sense fear, guilt, and shame. I can’t tell you much more without spoilers but mostly, I knew I was in for a crazy ride when the director introduced the film by promising us all a refund at the end if we didn’t like it. No one says that if they’re not confident. For fans of the weird and creepy, this one delivers but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Old lovers (real life couple Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz) with unfinished history reunite for a wedding in the Spanish countryside. Secrets and mystery lurk, brought to head by a disturbing event. It all swirls in a sumptuous melodramatic
soap opera soup, deliciously stirred by Oscar winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. Barden and Cruz are the reason the film makes my list; without them, it would be ordinary, no matter how beautifully shot, no matter how assured the direction. These two are simply gorgeous together and there is a wedding scene in this film that is simply irresistible.
This is the type of quietly intense film that often gets overlooked by showier titles, but with two powerhouse actors as principal cast, actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut had no chance of getting lost. Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal are a housewife and golf pro in crisis in 196o’s Montana. Watching his parents every move with deepening despair is their son, Joe, played by Australian Ed Oxenbould, who is the best thing about this film. Dano is a director to watch. What he achieves here is a highly composed essay with perfect balance. Look for Oscar to come calling for Oxenbould, and also for Mulligan, outstanding once again.
Attention all high school teachers and girls camp leaders: this is that inspiring documentary of awesome adventure that will remind all the younger generation that gee whiz, there were some trailblazers that came before them. I shed a tear at the end of this hard-to-resist story of barrier breaking sailors who were the first women to sail the prestigious Whitbread Round the World Race. The film, directed by UK doc director Alex Holmes, offers thrills of all kinds: from archival footage of the actual race to talking head reminicences of this feisty crew, led by the heroine of the hour, Tracy Edwards. If you’re a sailor, you’ll be impressed plenty. If you’re not a sailor, you’ll be dumbfounded. Courage is underrated. These women spell it out in bold.
Will you, readers, have access to these? Yes, and no. Some of the titles screened already have hefty distribution deals with release dates in theatres this fall. Others generated heated bidding wars midway through the ten day run and you may or may not see them in wide release until next year. Others will show up on TIFF headquarters, the Bell Lightbox, where some of the festival hits are screened throughout the year. My favourite film of the festival, Roma, is distributed by Netflix.
*For more on that, read Roma is Netflix’s Most Compelling Big Screen Argument Yet (Atlantic)
For more on how I endure, a post from 2012: WHY TIFF
Next in this space : the Also-Rans: films I liked even for their flaws.
****POSTSCRIPT Since posting this blog, I have now seen A Star is Born. Yes, yes, yes. More to come. But that it belongs here, on this list, a resounding yes.