We bought in for the 2020 couch version. Put on our masks for a hybrid Festival 2021. When it came time for an entire, in-person TIFF festival, Peter and I sat down again with our coloured sticky notes and schedules as we have done for years. We filled them in with one anticipated title after another. Giddy and gleeful on opening night, we put on our glam (the geezer version) to join the crowds on Festival Street.
A family wedding mid-festival meant we had half the time to screen films. Here are my highlights:
Empire of Light
TIFF programme notes described it as “a love letter to the people who come together under the glow of the cinema.”
Consider us sold: for these two film nerds, perhaps our easiest pick this year.
We live in cynical times and this is a deeply UNcynical movie.Sam Mendes, at TIFF premiere, re his film Empire of Light
As Hilary, the always sensational Olivia Colman brings myriad shades to her portrayal of a front-of-the-house movie employee, who finds a kindred spirit in a new, much younger staff member, Stephen (Michael Ward). Their relationship within the beautiful Empire cinema house is the film’s core. Ward is simply spectacular; their chemistry is profound. The film is set in 1981 in a seaside town in the U.K. and is deeply personal for the 57-year-old Mendes, whose mother’s struggles with mental health inspired the story. Mendes, making his screenwriting debut here, told audiences at the Canadian premiere he wrote the screenplay in 2021, during the pandemic, specifically for Colman. She is among the talents in front and behind the camera: the film looks and sounds stunning. Look for it in theatres in early December.
Exiting the film, Peter and I found ourselves serendipitously with the rest of the cast, in the backstage exit tunnel, en route to the stage door. There, idling limousines and fans wait on the street post all the screenings. Shaking hands to congratulate director Sam Mendes (knighted in 2020) as he stood right before me was one possible move. If I had seen Roger Deakins, I would have hugged him for his exquisite cinematography. As I came around the corner, about to step out into the daylight, there, inches from my face, was the prodigiously talented Michael Ward. In what proved to be my 2022 TIFF moment, I could not help being anything but honest.
Your performance was spectacular. I want to see everything you do next.
Ward grasped both my hands.
Thank you. That means so much to me.
Autographs and selfies are for the crush outside. To meet the artist who moved you to tears following their performance is the stuff of life. Peter and I once hung out for an hour on the sidewalk outside a Broadway theatre to meet the stars of Kiss Me Kate. They eventually emerged. We shared how we once played their roles in another lifetime. Magic was ours that frozen February night.
The most fun we had at TIFF was for the world premiere of The Menu, and not because star Ralph Fiennes happened to sit across the aisle (we love your work, we whispered to him). Nor was it the food trucks waiting outside with themed food treats from the production company. Here finally, was ripe satire, pitched perfectly to horrific ends. The story of a young couple visiting a famous restaurant on a remote private island is aimed squarely at pretentious foodies. As the lavish tasting menu from celebrated chef Slowick (Fiennes) unfolds, so did the twists and turns of a plot meant to shock and humour audiences. No spoilers here except this: I will never enjoy a campfire S’mores treat again without referencing this film. The story comes from the genius mind of Mark Mylod, one of the producers of another wickedly black show, Succession, but the film belongs to Ralph Fiennes from start to finish. Give this guy an Oscar already! The Menu heads to theatres in late November.
The Banshees of Inisherin
More fun to be had in this fable from Oscar winner Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin is a master class of two of the screen’s finest, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, as two former best friends. The dark and often hilarious story surrounds a falling out between two friends as the 1922 Irish Civil War rages across the bay. As the guileless Pádriac, Farrell is instantly all of us confronted with heartbreak. As the friend who wants out, Gleeson explores ideas of legacy and his relationship to music that will speak to artists in every discipline. I will admit to a general bias for all things Irish and any project with Colin Farrell attached, so embracing every bit of this black comedy is hardly surprising. Witty and grim: signature cocktail ingredients for the dramatist McDonagh. The film also prompted a memory jolt to our fabulous family trip to the Aran islands; the film was shot on the largest of those beautiful islands, Inishmore. Special mention goes to Kerry Condon as Pádriac’s clever and loyal sister, Siobhan. I was cheering for her the most. Condon is one of Variety’s ten actors to watch in 2022. Look for the film in theatres in late October.
If The Menu was the most delicious fun I had at a TIFF screening this year, Bros was the rowdiest. Our audience laughed hard at comedian Billy Eichner’s gay rom-com. Eichner stars and co-wrote the screenplay with hit filmmaker Nicholas Stoller. We laughed too. It’s just sexy and funny enough to hold up to an overkill marketing message: “the first queer rom-com from a major studio.” If you love rom-coms, you’ll have a riot here. Investing in the two leads is easy, even if the sappy, overly mainstream soundtrack was a turn-off and lost opportunity; this film won’t change your mind if you are NOT a fan of the genre, and it remains to be seen whether Bros will have success bringing back audiences to theatres. (The film is now streaming) Festival premieres ending in long ovations and cheers are rarely barometers of a film’s success. “Papered” audiences are to blame: sponsors, family, friends, members of the film crew — Judd Apatow was the production company behind the film— and other biased constituencies will flavour a festival reception more often than not. They sure make for one helluva good party, though.
Fans surrounded acclaimed filmmaker Christian Mungiu after screening his latest film set in the foothills of Transylvania. All wanted to know more from this brilliant artist who generously answered one question after another about his craft. If Peter were giving out awards, he would start here. His interest in Romanian New Wave put a star on our TIFF schedule. This is the most layered film I have seen this year, and the most urgent, exploring an actual event exposing prejudice and xenophobia in Romanian society. In the movie, a community comes apart after the local bakery hires Sri Lankan migrant workers. The ensuing racist indignation stokes prior fissures, all threatening to explode in what was the most memorable TIFF 2022 scene for me; a town hall meeting shot in one engrossing seventeen-minute take. The film premiered at Cannes earlier this year, where Mungiu is revered.
Chinese master Wang Xiaoshuai got my attention with his 2019 film So Long, My Son. Here, the auteur has done it again. Stuck in a Thai hotel during the early days of the pandemic lockdown, the director and a group of fellow artists decided to make a movie in and around their milieu. Sure, okay, and what did YOU do during a lockdown? In 14 days, the crew shot a story about a young Beijing woman who meets an older man in the hotel’s swimming pool. Artful and moody, Xiaoshuai’s masterful black-and-white take on isolation and entrapment may serve as a sobering marker of the global pandemic and the best case of artistic invention yet.
The Woman King
I love a good epic tale and Viola Davis. She leads the best cast of all my TIFF screenings this year as leader of the Agojie, an all-female military regiment protecting the African kingdom of Dahomey. Based on actual events, the film managed to rouse the sleepiest TIFFgoer (and a Twitter war). Hell, I wanted to stand and cheer. Davis is just so damn ferocious. Fans of violent battle scenes will be content, as will those craving intimate character studies: the film navigates both with beautiful, majestic results. Among director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s inspirations were Braveheart and Gladiator. I loved watching the powerhouse co-stars Lashana Lynch and Thuso Mbedu (the latter also one of 2022 Variety’s Actors to Watch). The film is now in theatres.
Director Oliver Hermanus had a powerhouse helper making this adaptation of Kurosawa’s 1952 Japanese classic, Ikiru. His screenplay comes from 2017 Nobel prize-winning writer Sir Kazuo Ishiguro and stars the mighty talent Bill Nighy as a bureaucrat facing his imminent mortality. This film is simply a thing of beauty. I want to see it again immediately to inhale the lush soundtrack, the elegant colours and lines in every shot, and the understated brilliance of Nighy’s performance. Nighy abandons his usual comic energy here for an entirely new texture.
I must have been very very good in a previous life. One of the most eminent writers in the world suggests that you might be good for a film and then agrees to write it with you in mind?! Then to meet Oliver who turned in something absolutely exquisite and powerful…Bill Nighy, star of Living, at the TIFF screening
Imperfect yet festival worthy
Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence turned down a splashier big-budget David O’Russell film to star in theatre director Lila Neugebauer’s feature film debut. Lawrence delivers a moving and restrained performance as a military engineer on leave from Afghanistan after suffering a brain injury. Cast as a mechanic who befriends her, co-star Brian Tyree Henry brings much-needed energy to every frame. Unfortunately, the film is a little too subdued in parts; however purposeful. This film is the first out of the gate of Lawrence’s production company, and I look forward to seeing what she produces next. Look for it in theatres and on Apple T.V. in November.
Glass Onion: a Knives Out Mystery
Bloated and missing the late Christopher Plummer—easily the best thing about the first instalment of Knives Out. Here, the plot surrounds tech billionaire (Ed Norton) offering an intriguing invitation to his spectacular private island. Director Rian Johnson again pleaded with the TIFF audience at the premiere to avoid spoilers before the film opens in theatres this November. Forget spoilers. The only thing I recall is the pure candy of cast and location. I’m a sucker for the Greek islands; I got hitched there eons ago. Glass Onion‘s production crew filmed in Spetses during the summer of 2021, where the cast, all present on stage for our screening, partied hard throughout the shoot. On-screen, it’s hard to feel much for either the characters or the mystery involved. Wait to see it on Netflix, who forked over millions for two more sequels after the boffo box office of the original. Johnson plans to make a string of these stand-alone mysteries.
I’ll keep making these as long as Daniel Craig can stand me.Director Rian Johnson
Director Darren Aronofsky is again the provocateur in this adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s play about a highly obese creative writing teacher. However, none of the film’s controversy will hurt its release later this fall. While the film is overly theatrical-—its origins transparent in every frame (Doorframes to be exact. Every actor seemed to halt there, which quickly became annoying)—Brendan Fraser, buried in a fat suit, manages a raw and shocking performance of a suicidal father. Look for his name on the Oscar ballot. The film will be in theatres in early December.