How do you hold on to a moment?
It was a line of dialogue coming at the end of my opening night film, Toni Erdmann, a line like many that grabbed me from my seat and told me to pay attention. Toni Erdmann wowed the critics at Cannes but that wasn’t the only reason to choose that film among the 32 titles I would screen during TIFF: a comedy coming from German cinema is a curiosity, and it was written and directed by a woman who formed her own production company while still at university. Maren Ade told all of us gathered and giddy there on opening night about the two years it took to write her script, “a bit like digging a hole and coming up at some point.” This hole-dweller cheered at the end of the story of a prankster father trying to crack his corporate strategist’s daughter’s armour. There on screen was everything I love about great cinema: a narrative I couldn’t anticipate, rich characters that ripen as the film does, crackerjack writing, revelatory details about contemporary life—the film is quietly brilliant on the realities women face in the workplace—and two of the best scenes this year in film, scenes provoking from me, and everyone else in the theatre, head back, knee-slapping, roaring eruptions of LAUGHTER. Spoiler I’m not but I’m in a generous mood so here’s a hint: nude parties. And yes, this frequent event host is inspired.
Ok then, so we’re off having some fun at the movies now. And those moments? To answer that question above, the answer maybe came from French director Olivier Assayas, sharing profundities once again in his generous and erudite manner after wowing audiences once again with his latest film, Personal Shopper.
Movies stay with us in our subconscious years after we’ve seen them.
Yes, and so do ghosts, as his muse Kristen Stewart discovers in his spooky thriller that again had me guessing as the story of a personal shopper trying to communicate with her dead twin brother unspooled.
This puzzle box experience was to be repeated throughout the ten days as this year’s TIFF for me looked to be the year of the pivot: movies that offered endings and plot turns I didn’t fully grasp, nor see coming. Among the surprise endings were big budget stunners like Arrival and La La Land, and quieter films like the beautiful Two Lovers and a Bear from Montreal’s Kim Nyugen. This lovely gem reminded me again of the stamps on my cinematic passport thanks to many years at this festival: here I traveled from my seat to the Arctic and some gorgeous snowy sequences that fill out the last half of the film.
Other recurring themes in my TIFF experience this year?
Grim poverty tales like the heartbreaking I, Daniel Blake, and immersive Ma’ Rosa, or the hard-scrabbled ragtag posse in American Honey, a road movie that swerves off in indulgent splashes but won me over for sheer heart and bold filmmaking.
Fractured parent/child relationship studies, the best of them all is aforementioned Toni Erdmann but also affecting was the adaption of Carol Shield’s novel, Unless, with the always A-game Catherine Keener as the mom of a troubled daughter who has taken to living on the streets of Toronto, and Graduation from Romanian director Christian Mingiu about a doctor who crosses moral boundaries to help his daughter. Less successful were two literary adaptations: Julieta, a wonky adaptation of three Alice Munro stories from Piedro Almodovar, and American Pastoral, from Philip Roth’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel with Ewan MacGregor in the director’s chair and in the starring role where he should have remained.
Readers, I know you’re impatient (just give us the list and be done with it).
Manchester by the Sea
Kyle Chandler spoke for us all the premiere when he turned to the uber-talented writer/director Kenneth Lonergan and said he had yet to figure out how he mastered it, this searing portrait of suffering with notes of grace that will rock everyone who sees it. Applause was rapturous and much of it was for Casey Affleck, here in a performance that will be hailed for years as a master study of How to Be an Actor.
Voyage of Time
The last 45 minutes of this film are astounding. Just breathtaking work. I saw the 90-minute version with Cate Blanchett’s narration. Also at the festival was a shorter version in Imax with Brad Pitt’s voice. I wish Terrence Malick had left it without any narration as it’s the only thing I hated about the film. Whatever version you can see, I urge you to try and watch this gorgeous documentary.
When I grow up, I want to be in a Tom Ford movie. He makes everyone and every thing look gorgeous. This is a stunning film to watch, even as the narrative turns gruesome. Minimalist canvasses, bleak storylines…the festival was dotted with them so I was ready for the full cinematic glory of the style master Tom Ford’s sophomore film about a LA art gallery owner shaken by the arrival of a manuscript written by her first husband. I don’ t know how you spend an average week but Tom Ford opened this film in Venice, flew to New York for Fashion Week to unveil his new see-now, buy-now collection, then came to Toronto for TIFF. And manages to look pretty swish. As for his cast? Shiny.
This film caught me at go with a stunning soundtrack, and entry points into a story I thought I already knew. Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín’s vivid portrait benefits greatly from the always radiant Natalie Portman. Truly creative storytelling here as we are taken into the origins of the Camelot legend. As the filmmaker told us at TIFF, “I wanted to be at that round table.” You and me both, pal.
La La Land
This film won the People’s Choice award. It almost wins a rave from me too but for a few missteps in tone. Still, I’m plenty charmed by some beautifully buoyant scenes that will have you cheering too, and heaps of sparkling chemistry between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Among the best scenes at TIFF are a gorgeous singing audition by Emma Stone that will knock you flat.
My favourite ending of all the movies at TIFF, and the most beautiful boy on screen. Two good reasons to watch an absorbing narrative about finding your family. The film suffers by a weighty middle act but it soars nevertheless. I refuse to show the trailer here as the Weinstein brothers don’t need me to help them but hats off to Aussie director Garth Davis in his debut turn as feature film director. This is what you call a debut.
2 Lovers and a Bear
See above. Fans of Tatiana Maslany will want to see her in this love story that won me over even as it chilled me to the bone along the way.
Gorgeous filmmaking drenched with wonder, smarts, and plenty of nuance. I loved Amy Adams in this as much as the idea behind the film: language first. Of course.
I, Daniel Blake
This film broke my heart and will resonant the longest for one scene especially that arrives mid-point in the film. A single mother breaks down in a food bank and tears open a tin can. Sounds simple. Not by a mile. This film won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. They’re no dummies. It is more a polemic than a film. But everyone in the world should see it.
Where TIFF can improve:
- Why open this internationally recognized festival with a splashy reboot? Surely a film festival with this many eyeballs could showcase a smaller film in need of a boost? Why not start each screening with animated or live action shorts? Instead film fans were subjected to repeat viewings of sponsorship ads that provoked catcalls and howls in almost every screening? Surely a sponsor making more than a billion a year can come up with something more creative than rerun ads? How do you spell LOST OPPORTUNITY?!?
- Why don’t directors come to every screening? Much of the festival experience is about access. For the red carpet screamers, it’s about access to the A-listers. For the wannabe players, it’s proximity to the power brokers. For lifetime students of the art form, it’s about hearing from the storytellers. Tickets are expensive. The full experience should include a director introduction for every screening, not just the high-priced premium affairs. I know the answer already but I don’t like it: they’ve moved on to their next project, they’ve flown back, etc. You make a film and deliver it to a captured audience. This is your baby. I promise to be there when I make mine.