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TIFF 2023

By September 20, 2023 Film

There is never enough time to see everything. TIFF is always about choices. I was lucky with mine. I missed out on all the award winners but saw some gems before COVID-19 sent me home, missing out on the last three days.

Peter and I are well into our second decade of sharing this annual cinematic blitz. I have been coming to see films at this Festival since volunteering when it wasn’t called TIFF but the Festival of Festivals. That was a million years ago.

I did interviews during TIFF for a spell while working as an entertainment journalist for Global TV. Now, we are that couple who grin at each other when the lights go down…school is in session again, and we must suppress our giggles at our sheer delight that we are back.

Ignoring the chatter about prestige films skipping Toronto in favour of other festivals was hard. Is it all because of the actors and screenwriters’ strike? Or is Toronto becoming a less palatable city to visit?

TIFF used to be the jewel in the crown.

Toronto lost the ecosystem celebrities bring when they show up to pump their films. The parties and fashion branding were missing; many people who made those events shine needed work in this city.

The buzz in every corner… I missed that. Thousands of creatives in one corner of the city, making plans, collaborating, scheming, sharing. That was missing this year.

My heart aches for all the actors and all the writers. All the crews that are out of work. All the new work shut down. Projects scuttled.

Directors did come to share their stories, and that’s my jam.

  I was grateful that 70% of the Festival’s programme comes from independent and international producers. This year, TIFF programmers did their job once again with spectacular results, offering me glimpses into corners of the world I have never been to.

Favourite Films

Anatomy of a Fall 

The setup: a successful German writer is charged with murder after their son finds her French husband dead at their chalet in the Alps. Did he commit suicide? Did she push him out the window? The film is less a whodunnit than a provocative exploration of marriage, parenthood and the essence of truth and the collective gaze: all of us implicated in ambiguity. This is a must-see for anyone in a long-term relationship, as it will hit all sorts of buttons. French director Justine Triet co-wrote this legal thriller with her partner, writer/director Arthur Harari, but insists neither wrote along gender lines. Instead, they switched back and forth to ensure parity. As the lead, Sandra Hüller delivers the most commanding performance of the year. She is simply masterful. I could not take my eyes off her throughout this gripping story, all of it coming to a crescendo in a spectacular courtroom scene. While accepting the Palme d’Or in Cannes in May for this film, Triet caused controversy by expressing solidarity with protests over social reforms and creative diversity in France. I know only this: this talented artist made a fabulous film. Of all my screenings, this one tops my list.


Another puzzle film, another story about truth, and another stunning work of cinema by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. As the film begins, it focuses on a single mother attempting to solve the mystery of her son’s disturbing behaviour change. But wait…there is a second and third act, as the film starts again, then again, alternating perspectives as we learn more about this child and his world. There are no spoilers here, as the intricate parts are purposeful and necessary. I cried at the gorgeous scenes of childhood dynamics, just as I did when I saw Kore-eda’s Shoplifters which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2018. Also notable here was the spectacular soundtrack by legendary musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, who died earlier this year. When the film ended, the young man beside me had tears in his eyes. I did, too. We both sighed and shared a hug. There are no strangers in these moments. 

The Zone of Interest

 Tiff programmer Doroto Lech told our audience, “You are about to see the most important film of the year, if not the decade.

Can any film live up to such a headline?
This film pulls off a clever and supremely sobering conceptual trick. We are introduced to the family of Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Höss in their dream house right next to the camp… right over the fence. The film, adapted from Martin Amis’ 2014 novel, depicts their everyday bucolic life. Ordinary bourgeois people. Children go to school or play in the lush gardens; their mother (Sandra Hüller) opines about her blooms and finding her “paradise.” British director Jonathan Glazer shot this film with hidden static cameras. To assume a critical distance,  Glazer allowed no point-of-view shots. The characters move in and out of frame. They live in the shadow of the camp, but there is no confrontation with reality. Here before us is the ultimate banality of evil.

Glazer chose not to reenact any of the violence. 

People are already aware of those horrors. The images live in our heads“.
Instead, he used sound to interpret the world on the other side of the fence, effectively creating two films…the one you see and then the one you hear. This film’s soundtrack was more disturbing than any other screened this year. Apathy, complicity, disassociation: this is the conversation Glazer wants us to have. And so we shall. No other film will creep under your skin as slyly.

His Three Daughters

Anyone who has witnessed the death of a parent will connect with this intense drama about three estranged sisters who come together at their father’s bedside in his dying days. Carrie Coon is the control freak sister, Elizabeth Olsen is the anxious peacemaker, and Natasha Lyonne is the chain-smoking youngest, ready for a break after assuming the central caregiver role for the past year. What lifts this from an everyday maudlin trope is a beautiful script from writer/director Azazel Jacobs and formidable acting talent. All three actors deliver mesmerizing portraits. Jacobs also edited his film, and the result is an essential film about loss and that strange sense of time collapsing and elongating for those witnessing a loved one fade away. In 2019, I lost my beloved dad and then, within months, my dear father-in-law. The idea that siblings all play a role in inhabiting that sacred space rang authentic to me. 


Ru is one of three excellent Canadian films I saw at TIFF. The story was written by Kim Thúy, who fled with her family from Vietnam in 1975 to a refugee camp in Malaysia before landing in Quebec. I read her novel a decade ago, which won the Governor General Award and was pleased to see this beautiful adaptation from Quebecker Charles-Oliver Michaud. The entire experience of watching one long shot after another was akin to snuggling by the fire with a book and a blanket. The film is full of stunning visuals, a beautiful score and a tight cast handily delivering the story of forced migration with tremendous heart. In her first film role, the lead, Chloé Djandji, showed up at the film’s premiere to delight us all with stories about life on her first set. Her excitement was contagious. Thúy, the film’s producer, was also on hand at the premiere,  jumping up and down with elation.

I Don’t Know Who You Are

Brace yourselves. This was the advice given to us before watching this Toronto production about a musician desperately trying to pull together funds for HIV-preventive treatment after potential exposure from an assault. Toronto musician and poet Mark Clennon plays out the panic with a dazzling performance filling the screen in every shot, a star turn thrilling to behold. Director M. H. Murray studied film at York University, and this is his own harrowing life story, adapted first for a short film and now made into this stunning micro-budget first feature. Most of the film was shot in Clennon’s own Toronto apartment. I loved the warmth permeating much of this story, lifting it, in many moments, from hopelessness. The mix of it, the panic and the passion, never wanders from the underscore of urban strife. To those who believe a great film is made only with massive budgets, here is proof that artistry bursts from the tiniest cracks.

Screening this film also offered one of my TIFF warm fuzzies. In front of me was a whole row of the filmmaker’s family members, including a proud aunt who assured me I was about to see something wondrous. We connected, that aunt and I. She was bang on.

Days of Happiness
Another excellent Quebec offering, this one from Montreal writer/director Chloé Robichaud, is about a gifted conductor struggling to get control over her career. A compelling portrait of a young perfectionist as she works through a thorny emotional map with her family, and her lover comes alive with a note-perfect performance from Sophie Desmarais. What truly soars, though, is the musical backdrop. Montreal Métropolitain Orchestra principal conductor Yannick Nézet-Sequin acted as artistic consultant here, and the film’s orchestral sequences, filmed as three acts, are majestic to see and hear. Feel the Music sounds like a cheesy tagline. Here, it is the doorway to understanding and harmony.

Concrete Utopia

If you like disaster movies and black humour, this is your film. My Korean-Canadian seatmate assured me this director would knock my socks off. She and her seven sisters spent the pandemic having watch parties of Um Tae-hwa’s films. Representation matters. TIFF does this better than any festival in the world. After a massive earthquake, one single apartment stands in the city of Seoul. The residents band together to keep what they have to themselves and create their own Utopia. So begins the parable. Things quickly become messy and chaotic; lines are drawn, and foolish men fall. Much of this film is satirical and then melodramatic. The thriller pace makes for riveting stuff, as in any post-apocalyptic epic and here is a cast who made it all believable. The young couple, played by Park Seo-jun and Park Bo-young, are at the story’s heart. As the newly elected leader of the apartment tenants, actor Lee Byung-hun has the most work to do as loyalties shift and his own story comes into the fray. Expect this to be a monster hit.

Les Undesirables

Again, housing, or the lack thereof, is the focus as we move from Korea to France. Director Ladj Li’s incendiary follow-up to his acclaimed 2019 debut, Les Misérables is again set in a Parisian suburb, where the newly appointed mayor sets upon rehabilitating a working-class neighbourhood. A young community worker, played by newcomer Anta Dias, fights to keep her family and their friends in the home where they grew up. Now and then, a scene presents itself in the middle of many TIFF screenings that takes your breath away. The film around it may be imperfect, but this one scene is so potent it sticks with you through the rest of the Festival. And so it was here in this film, as the housing project is evacuated forcefully by local police, residents are ordered to leave with minutes to spare, and we are taken in and out of this frenzied space as hell soon breaks out.

This director grew up and lived in these suburbs and again serves up severe tension on his platter of social commentary. High marks for nailing the issue of our time. Less successful is the broad strokes of his villains. 


I love seeing films in the Discovery section and stumbling upon a talented new voice. Writer/director Farhad Delaram’s feature debut follows a filmmaker who has given up his work in despair over the political repression in Iran. Working now as an orthotist in a crumbling hospital, our protagonist Achilles meets a sedated political prisoner in the restricted psych ward and snaps out of his malaise to free her. This begins a journey around the country, all shot on location. Delaram worked on this film as the crackdown on protesters unfolded around him in real time, and he could not get his two lead actors’ visa clearance to attend the Festival.  Most of this film comes from his own experience of suffering to make the kind of art he wanted. This road movie has poetry in image and symbolism, and I am eager to see what this filmmaker does next.


Another thrilling ride comes from the doc team, who scooped an Oscar for Free Solo, this time on the ocean. The film is based on the real-life story of American long-distance swimmer Diane Nyad, as she resumes training at the age of sixty to realize a long-ago dream to become the first person to swim from Cuba to the US without a shark cage. Sixty-five-year-old Annette Bening inhabits this role ferociously…there is no scene where she becomes anything less than the arrogant, driven Diane. As her best friend and coach for this crazy caper across dangerous waters,  Jodie Foster matches her frame for frame. There is so much to root for here. Both of these fine actors, in their prime, gorgeous lined faces—so rare in Hollywood it’s almost shocking —making every scene sing. The whole time Jodie is on screen, I was smiling- why is she not in a million more movies? She is just So DAMN GOOD. Co-directors (real-life partners Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin ) are at the top of their game in their first narrative feature outing, zipping back and forth through archival material and current timelines. Actor Rhys Ifans is also terrific as the navigator with the guide boat. I loved it all and wanted to stand up and cheer, whether she made the swim or not. Cheer for the third act. I’ll be there soon. I need to remember the message. Never Give Up.

Hit Man

Let’s get this out of the way first: I love Richard Linklater movies… most of them. Boyhood slayed me. The Before trilogy inspired me. I was excited to see his latest, Hit Man, and delighted to find he didn’t disappoint. Finding comedy at TIFF is rare and always welcome. Linklater tucks the comedy into a simple sauce of film noir narrative. Hit Man stars Glen Powell, who co-wrote the script, as a professor by day and an undercover police operative at night. How he becomes a hitman is immaterial, but when he does, he begins a series of hilarious costumed setups that allow Powell to show off. The charismatic actor is at his career best when he connects with his co-star, Adria Arjona, a woman who needs her husband killed. The chemistry between them is fun to watch: here is the sexiest couple of the Festival. This film brought to mind one of those pop songs that you can’t figure out why has stuck with you all those years later. The hook is simple, straightforward, and smart. It’s never as easy to pull off as it goes down.

Frybread Face and Me

Billy Porter is a Navajo, Hopi, and Laguna Pueblo filmmaker known for documentaries. In his narrative feature debut, he brings some of those doc skills to a touching coming-of-age story that kept me smiling the whole time. Most of the cast had never acted before, and their naturalism never appeared hokey under Porter’s guidance. The plot was simple enough. Benny’s parents are divorcing, so he has to leave San Diego and head to rural northern Arizona to live with his Nahajo grandmother, who doesn’t speak English. There, he meets up with his cousin Dawn, otherwise known as Frybread Face. Their relationship is the apparent sweet spot of this lovely, gentle film, but the most potent scenes were between the beautiful grandmother and Benny, played by young new actor Keir Tallman. Cultural awakening may have been the thesis, but family is family anywhere. For all those who wonder if film festivals deserve the hoopla, this is the film that festivals are made for.

Arthur & Diana

Siblings Arthur & Diana are on a road trip from Berlin to Paris with Diana’s two-year-old son, Lupo. Bickering ensues, and various hijinks, including a run-in with the police, a beach party, and a detour through Italy. The action seems random, and plot points appear without much explanation. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, but there is a purposeful pulse to director Sara Summa’s Euro circus, down to the film’s colour grading. Shot on three cameras (Mini DV, Betacam and 16 mm), the result is a lovely nostalgic vibe. All of this was boosted by a wonderful score by Summa’s real-life partner, Ben Roessler. I fell for it all. This was Summa’s film school graduate project. And here’s the kicker. In the best use of auto-fiction I’ve seen in ages, Summa and her real-life brother play Arthur and Diana, a version of themselves. The toddler in the film is Summa’s real-life child who steals every scene. The cuteness should be annoying, but it never was. These people managed to be equally charming in the Q&A following the premiere, where Summa calmly answered questions about film technique as her now three-year-old son goofed around on stage. At one point, a baby cried off in the distance. ” sorry, that’s my three-month-old,” shrugged Summa without missing a beat. TIFF has worked hard to spotlight female directors; I see more of them yearly at this Festival. This was a leap in every direction. I am woman; hear me roar.

Dream Scenario

This was the wildest ride at TIFF this year (and no, I don’t do Midnight Madness where wild reigns… although Peter did for a long while). Nicolas Cage is a bland, tenured professor who suddenly discovers he appears in other people’s dreams… lots of people and lots of dreams. I won’t give much away as that is all you need to know other than what begins as a laugh-a-minute setup soon slides into absurd horror and a brilliant and handy guide to the hell of celebrity. Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli, a clear favourite among the hipster crowd, wrote and edited this clever film and told our audience he loved introducing the picture to us as the film was shot in Toronto.

I don’t know how many of you are accustomed to film festivals and how we see movies at festivals but let me just walk you through it. You are going to sit and watch the movie and you can react the way you want to react…everything is okay…Once the movie is over, we are going to see the credits and sit through them to pay respects as a lot of people here in Toronto worked on it…and then, after the the credits, you’ll do a standing O…that’s industry standard. I’d recommend ten minutes but each to their own. Then we’ll do a little Q & A.

Our audience roared and gave him what he wanted. Look for the film to be released by A24 in theatres on November 10th.

Good but flawed: the B List. See them on your couch.

Knox Goes Away

It’s fun and well-made… it’s always good to see Michael Keaton…but forgettable. 

Last Summer

A middle-aged lawyer has an affair with her teenage stepson. It so wants to be provocative. I just found it icky. And the sex was lame and non-believable.

Royal Hotel

Julia Garner is immensely watchable, yet the message is overkill. I just kept asking why these intelligent, capable women were so dumb. The men are all dicks. Which was evident from the get-go.

The Boy and The Heron 

Stunning animation, breathtaking, really. Too bad about the convoluted plotline. 

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TIFF 2022

By September 30, 2022 Film, Urban gadfly

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:

Festival Favourites

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 after all the screenings. Shaking hands to congratulate director Sam Mendes (knighted in 2020) as he stood 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 Menu

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. There are 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 the 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 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, threatening to explode in 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.

The Hotel

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 roused 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 (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, it is 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. It’s hard to feel much on-screen 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

The Whale

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.

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TIFF 2021: We’re back…I think.

By September 23, 2021 Film, Headlines

This year, TIFF was offering a choice.

A hybrid festival meant we could choose to be INSIDE A THEATRE!

Stay home (as in the 2020 version) for a digital package of screenings, some offered across Canada.

Throw in a few drive-ins; all looked hopeful. Dare we get excited? Drive-ins worked for TIFF last year, after all.

Do we even remember being excited?

Peter and I primarily chose to see the festival back in theatres. DUH! My couch at home and I are now estranged. We tried to work it out during the first 18 months of the pandemic but agreed to part amicably. TIFF brought us back together briefly. Couch closure eludes me.

So back to the theatres it was! Around here at Wit’s End, we are doubly vaccinated. Those who were not were barred entry to all screenings. Festival staff indicated several safety measures, including distanced seating inside theatres and washrooms. No food would be sold as mask removal to eat or drink during a screen would not be permitted.

Emotions threatened to erupt in the first screening (our first time going back inside a theatre!), but I resisted tears. See pandemic mood. Been there, done that.

The Friendly Greek and I grasped hands and squeezed tightly. TIFF has been our school since time immemorial. September new pencils. A new season. It’s all here in this space. Movies are for big screens and extensive sound systems.

Two vacancies between each seat meant I could stretch my achy knee and plunk a handbag on a chair instead of stuffing it under a seat. Ticketed seat numbers told us we didn’t have to hurry between films to find a good heart. Vaccine checks were without incident; nobody gave me cause for Covid anxiety as masks were routine. Indeed, few places are so carefully monitored.

Programmers again delivered. Again, I travelled around the globe from my seat, seeing unknown films. Again, I discovered new storytellers, many of them women. TIFF has worked hard to support female filmmakers in the past several years, and here is the evidence. Again, I heard from diverse directors sharing their creative journeys with audiences. TIFF also works hard to involve audiences; I was again happy to participate in post-screening Q and A’s. Maybe I could forget the pandemic…

Bliss was not mine all the time. I missed my peeps: the lineup chatter with film fans from all over the world. I missed turning to strangers-who-are-really-fellow film nerds and asking, “Seen anything good yet? For years, these encounters have lent me insight and offered instant community. Instead, we were a sea of masks. Indeed, TIFF 2021 in person was (mostly) muted; polite tea-time clapping instead of cheers and long-standing ovations. More than once, I wanted to scream at my fellow in-person risk-takers: YOU DO REALIZE WE ARE LUCKY AS HELL, RIGHT? TO HAVE CULTURE AT OUR DOORSTEP AGAIN? Directors repeatedly gush about the warmth of Toronto audiences; we are considered one of the friendliest markets in the world. Not this year. These 2021 filmgoers were mostly subdued, although being in a theatre full of people still registered. There was still laughter and still gasps, just less volume.

Has the pandemic masked our elation?

Also missing was the welcome chaos from all the international industry creatives filling our Toronto bars, hotels, restaurants and the downtown core. Even buyers stayed home. Walking the streets between theatres has never been duller, however thrilled we were to be out of the house. My head hurt trying to think of all the lost jobs filled to accommodate the thousands who usually travel here for this annual event.



The movies would then have to stand for themselves this year.

We did see a few of the TIFF films at home. With total respect to the hardworking TIFF staff, most of it, this virtual part, was snooze-worthy. We can and have been watching films at home all year round. Streaming has never been easier or more accessible. Making the festival experience at home anything like a festival is a fool’s errand, even with unique TIFF socks…and yes, of course, I own a pair. I can bring hoopla without too much effort to our domestic den, but bringing that festival vibe? Even my party magic has limits.

Is it worth trying? That’s an answer for the industry number crunchers. Cannes, Venice, Telluride: all these festivals went for in-person only, preserving the integrity of a film festival. Should TIFF do this? This writer knows only this: Immersive communal experiences sit precariously on the edge of doom. We need to fight to keep them.

My list of favourites follows, but first, a word on families:

Filmmakers return to themes; many of them involve families. Families with secrets. Families with dysfunction. This year, I saw many heartwrenching family stories. Most of them rang authentic, escaping the storyteller’s enemy: cliché. Not Belfast, this year’s People’s Choice award winner. In recalling his youth, Director Kenneth Branagh dumped a magnum of syrup over a profoundly dark chapter in Northern Ireland. From the beginning of this black-and-white fairy tale, Belfast was all gauzy sentiment. I groaned through parts of a script full of Irish blarney, even as I knew it would win the hearts of many filmgoers, weary of bleak headlines. I share that fatigue but need truth more. It wasn’t here, not in a story about a terrifying chapter for real Irish families. Belfast is Roma-lite. Still, I’m not immune to charm, even if Writ Large. Memory projects are often infused with this heady nostalgic glaze. Any film with Judi Dench is worth seeing. She joins a heavyweight cast, including a dimpled boy right out of Hollywood Casting 101.

My Faves:

The Power of the Dog

A fabulous slow burn of solid performances and stunning direction, The Power of the Dog is a revisionist western set on a Montana cattle ranch featuring 2021’s most menacing macho dude: Benedict Cumberbatch. To give away any of the taut storylines is a spoiler. Do not bother to guess what’s coming. The film unwinds one brilliant frame after another as Jane Campion’s craft deftly demonstrates what Branagh’s doesn’t: subtlety. The 67-year-old New Zealand director (the first woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes back in 1993 for The Piano) remains at the top of my list as to how best to use the film medium: the colours, the pace, the edits, the use of sound and silence—all here in perfect cohesion. Like many TIFF gems, this one belongs on the big screen.

A Hero

From another master dramatist, Asghar Farhadi comes a film set in Shiraz, Iran, about a prisoner out on a two-day pass who comes across a bag of gold coins he hopes to use to pay off the debt that landed him behind bars. The first scenes cue us: our protagonist climbs a seemingly unending long series of stairs alongside scaffolding. What follows is a compelling moral dilemma. Farhadi’s spectacular grasp of the family and community had me in awe. This artist’s work has tremendous grace, universal connection, and humanity, which has been honoured with the industry’s highest awards over the years. I found much to love in this film. There are no real villains. It touches on honour: how one gains and loses in life’s many compromises. It manages to be urgent and complex, seemingly without effort. The family here is so well-sketched they made me cry.

Mothering Sunday

I badly wanted to interrupt French director Eva Husson to congratulate her as she ate breakfast across from me in a downtown hotel. Her film, Mothering Sunday, swept me away. I have thought of it often since seeing it early in the festival. For those who haven’t read the Graham Swift novel of the same name, Odessa Young plays a maid, Jane, who works for Colin Firth and Oliva Colman, or rather their characters, the quietly despairing Nivens, who lost their sons in the First World War. On Mothering Sunday, Jane has a secret rendevous on her day off with her lover, Paul, son of the Nivens’ neighbours. Mothering Sunday traditionally was a day for domestic servants to take the day off to visit their families. What happens on that day in this film sets the course for Jane’s future life as a writer. This story is about grief and its heavy toll over time, yet it also highlights triumph and resilience. The film skirts back and forth through different times of Jane’s life as the class system around her collapses, creating a new space of creativity out of servitude. I loved every moment, watching it all like a dream.


Going to the Cinesphere, as I’ve done for many years, was a kick. Ditto the chance to see a film in IMAX, a Canadian invention, and yes, I was happy to be a patriot on this occasion. Imagine the anticipation in the house from readers of the most famous science fiction book ever. If buzz was missing on the streets, it was pouring out of pores in the seats here. If I could bottle it, I’d be rich. Then hotshot Canadian director Denis Villeneuve popped out to introduce his film, pointing to the screen. “We dreamed together about making this movie,” he said, “we dreamed about THAT” (pointing to the big screen). “That is the future of cinema right there.” He followed that up with a fist bump and, “VIVE LE CINEMA!” Ok, now here we have it, folks—an actual festival moment. We all went nuts. You can feel it, can’t you?

Villeneuve for PM. Where’s the ballot?

(Read his Variety Op-ed here)

Dune is stuffed with thrills of massive scope, sound, and sandworms—giant ones. We saw Part 1, and the ending is a deliberate set-up for Part 2. Franchise films are usually a turn-off for me, yet there is always a grandeur to Villeneuve’s vision. Wild, weird, and visually commanding…here is movie magic. His cast? Not as sound. I was sure I caught out Timothée Chamalet the Thespian instead of the young royal Paul Atreides at times: death for any actor. We need them in character for every single moment. Pacing, too, is off here and there. I might have shaved off some minutes, but that this guy is an auteur worth applauding is certain. Do not see Dune on a tiny screen. You’ll miss the symphony entirely.


Kudos to Indonesian director Kamila Andini for winning the TIFF Platform prize competition for her coming-of-age film, Yuni. Traditional expectations and freedom are explored here as our clever heroine evades multiple marriage proposals while trying to finish high school so she can go to college. I liked the film for avoiding Big Messaging, emphasizing intimacy and poetry to highlight the tragedy of robbed youth. In a year where actual headlines have provoked many fears about the fate of young girls and women under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, this film resonates as a powerful portrait of a contemporary crisis. It never once felt dishonest. Lead actor Arawinda Kirana is wonderful.

Unclenching The Fists

Regular readers will know that what remains for me, post-TIFF, are stand-out scenes rather than whole films. This film has one of them: a trio of siblings clinging to one another on a dance floor. I cannot get it out of my head. Yet another prize winner (the Cannes film festival Un Certain Regard Award July 2021), yet another talented female filmmaker, Russian rising neorealism star Kira Kovalenko directs a heartbreaking story, again a teenage girl trying to escape her current situation. Ada is damaged, thanks to a horrific incident involving a school siege, hostages, and carnage of children. All of that happens before the film begins but haunts the characters throughout. The location, an industrial town in the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, is central to the story as a bleak backdrop for this family in crisis. This is an intense film, but it’s on my list for going deep and raw: here is what oppression looks like. You can’t escape this one without caring deeply about all the characters.

I’m Your Man

Downton Abbey fans choked up when the creators killed off Dan Steven’s character way back when. Finally, they’ll get their fill (and then some) of the British actor, here playing a sexy cyborg created especially for a scientist charged with determining what rights these robots can and should have in society. The script comes from German director Maria Schrader, and it finally offered a film in our schedule with wit, romance, and surprise, including hearing Stevens speak German-who knew. Don’t believe me? Just watch the beginning of this trailer.


Monarchists will want to skip this outing. Ditto curious Hello magazine readers looking for a juicy royal biopic. It’s not here. Instead, Chilean director Pablo Larraín chose to open his film with a message on screen: A fable about a real-life tragedy. A reimagining then, not factual but a fable…and we’re off, watching Kristen Stewart pull off the performance of her career. The film follows Diana over three days of the Christmas holidays at Sandringham as she teeters close to a breakdown. No one watching this will escape without feeling claustrophobic, and that’s purposeful. I mentioned stand-out scenes I won’t forget earlier, and one in this film made me weep. Diana drives with her boys in a car, singing, “All I need is a miracle.” It comes at you all at once, which is the filmmaker’s great skill. Larraín’s direction is as precise as a palace place setting.

Night Raiders

It’s always exciting to witness the debut of a significant talent at TIFF. From Cree-Metis director Danis Goulet in her first feature film, a tense thriller set in a postwar future that follows a Cree mother who joins a resistance movement to save her daughter—children in the year 2043 are now the property of the State. I was on the edge of my seat through this. There are connective plot points to real-life horrors on Canadian soil, as many of us learned this year especially. I also loved the serious star turns from the two leads: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as Niska, the mom, and Brooklyn Letexier-Hart as her daughter. The film was shot in the Toronto area two years ago with a delayed release due to the pandemic.

Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11

He may have done so before, but it was the first time I’ve heard TIFF head Cameron Bailey warn audiences that what they were about to see may be triggering for some. We were at the Canadian premiere of a riveting emotional documentary on the morning of September 11th. Directed by David Belton and Bjorn Johnson, Memory Box features self-recorded eyewitness testimonies, all recorded mere months after the attacks on September 11th, 2001, in a small booth made out of plywood by artist Ruth Sergel. Twenty years later, the same witnesses gathered again in the same cubicle to share insights and reveal what it means to have survived. I had thought I had heard all the stories, but how could that be? These “testimonials” were profound and sobering enough that we skipped the next film on our schedule.

Sometimes a film is just that impactful.

Flawed but worthy:

The Forgiven

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain star as a bored wealthy couple heading to a lavish party in the middle of the desert in Morocco. En route, their car accidentally hits a local Morrocan teenager. What ensues splits off into two storylines that don’t connect tonally, but these two actors are both terrific to watch here, as are all the party guests, who are the kind you love to hate.

Are you Lonesome Tonight?

Another hit-and-run narrative, this time from Chinese director Wen Shipeo, here making his feature film debut. A repairman lives up against tragedy in this sultry thriller starring Taiwanese heartthrob Eddie Peng. He is tormented when he meets the man’s widow and considers telling her. I spent most of this film incredulous that this sophisticated, polished film was a debut.

All My Puny Sorrows

Beloved books adapted to films are often tricky as fans want faithful adherence, especially readers of Canadian author Miriam Toews. Her acclaimed 2014 bestseller deals with a family in severe crisis: the emotional core belongs to two sisters, damaged by their father’s suicide. I loved this book, as I do all of Toews’s work, and was hopeful Canadian director Michael McGowan’s adaptation would capture her brilliance. It does, and it doesn’t: the essence and heart of this story are certainly there, brought to life by a solid cast of Alison Pill, Sarah Gadon, Mare Winningham and Amybeth McNulty. Pill is powerful, and her performance was one of the highlights of TIFF 2021. She brought the magic of Miriam Toews’s funny-sad words back to me. (Gadon, however, was miscast to me, as fine an actor as she is). If the current zeitgeist is all about mental health, All My Puny Sorrows prefaced it years ago with the real thing: the book is fictional, but many elements come from Toews’s life. If you are not a reader, this film is a must. If you love to read, skip the movie and read the book instead. I’ll lend you my copy.

Dear Evan Hansen

The Tony Award-winning musical phenomenon is now adapted for the screen. One of the first productions to shoot during the pandemic, this adaptation suffers from overt staginess. There is also zero nuance. And, well, there’s the star, Ben Platt: is he too old now to play a teen? Who cares?! This guy can sing! At the premiere here in Toronto, a pair of young fans a few feet away from me, sporting Dear Evan Hansen ballcaps, sang along with every word. It makes my list because of that music. I was singing along too. You are not alone is a simple and compelling message to take away. We all need to hear it.

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TIFF 2020: Adapt or Die

By September 24, 2020 Film, Headlines

The fact that film festivals are continuing to happen; improving, adapting making it all happen; is very moving to me because in the press and in the popular culture what’s happening and becoming sadly common to see is that cinema is becoming marginalized, devalued, and categorized as some kind of comfort food. To celebrate its very existence then is all the more important and necessary. We can never remind people enough that this remarkable art form has always been and always will be much more than a diversion. Cinema at its best is a source of wonder and inspiration.

Martin Scorcese, opening introduction of 2020 TIFF Tribute Awards.

I’m with Scorcese: props are due for the team who brought us TIFF 2020. We were thankful for a slick digital package, but let’s call it what it was: a sustained binge. Signing up for TIFF, the pandemic version, meant letting go of the rush, the buzzy street chatter and the pulse of a few thousand new creatives crowding the corners and cafes. Let go of new nerds to nosh with in-between jammed screenings. Let go of sunlight on the scurry from one theatre to another. Let go of the tiniest moment when the theatre darkens; the shuffling ends; we are under a spell together, a collective hush.
Is there anything collective left anymore?

When it’s over, we might be sniffling wet tears in agreement at a devastating plot turn, outraged at a trippy ending to an otherwise wild ride, or jumping to our feet: TIFF audiences are notorious for their warmth—if they like you, you’ll hear it. This is again not the case in Life.

Let go of the cast and creative crew, barely containing their excitement, right there on the stage before you, listening to them unpack their process. Sharing in their wonder at this provocation, this thing of beauty and their particular collaboration created. Let go of the break from the banality of ordinary —my couch, my damn couch, is it not sick of me yet?—and embrace this new brave attempt at saving a spectacular Toronto event.

Some of this, you, who have been here before, know.
(Read Why TIFF?)

Adapt, we must. Adapt, we will. And say yes to a date with global storytellers. I can do that.

Come along with me for my favourite picks.

Top Picks


A date with Chloé Zhao is a welcome one.

I personally cannot think of a more deeply empathetic filmmaker than Chloé. She challenges me as a viewer by not allowing me any distance from her characters. Her work is so searingly honest that I can never objectify the lives that I am observing.

Colin Farrell, actor, introducing Ms. Zhao at the 2020 TIFF TRIBUTE AWARDS

I loved The Rider, an earlier work the 38-year-old Chinese-born filmmaker wrote and directed. Her latest, Nomadland, stars the familiar and fierce Frances McDormand as a mid-sixties widow negotiating entirely new terms of existence after the recession swallows up her company town. As she takes to the road through the American West, her new life living in a van is a hymn to self-sufficiency and solitude, even as it amplifies friendship, family and the holes they can and cannot fill. There are many reasons to cheer about this gem. Cheer I did, inside our car at a drive-in down at Toronto’s lakeshore, where honking was the (obnoxious) replacement for applause. Cheer for an unadorned middle-aged woman carrying a movie without the usual tropes. This, dear readers, is a rarity in the cinematic landscape, as uncreased faces threaten to erase any genuine concept of age on and offscreen. That Fern, our protagonist, is played by a two-time Oscar winner could have sunk the film with thespian weight…except that McDormand is too clever, too good at what she does. Her performance is layered and consistently engaging. Cheer for visual poetry without any treacle: sentiment is tightly monitored. Cheer for a character with life behind her—for once; coming-of-age fireworks are for someone else. Instead, her growth feels authentic and quiet, yet no less heroic. Cheer for Zhao’s use of real nomads playing themselves with all the charm and whimsy only real life can provide: each of their narratives offers insight and further commentary about the failure of the American dream. Ignore all the noise about awards. Nomadland won the annual TIFF People’s Choice award and is on track for many other accolades. Somehow, it transcends all that buzz and lands at something more profound. A global pandemic means everything familiar is gone. New rules, new roads. This movie was made for now. In a rare move, the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, TIFF, the New York Film Festival and a special edition of the Telluride Fest, all on the same day. Cheer for solidarity in unprecedented times.

The Father

Before the pandemic, for a spell, I ran a support group in my basement for peers challenged with a system that failed to meet the needs of the elderly, our elderly. We were small but mighty; solace and support were our only currency. Witnessing our parents’ diminishments alone was often unbearable. Grasping the reality is genuinely experiential: you don’t know it until you’re there. Then along comes a movie like The Father. I watched in disbelief, tears streaming, grateful that someone so capable was capturing this essential question with such accuracy: What do we do with the people we love when they lose their minds?

French playwright Florian Zeller picked up the Moliere award in 2014 for his play, Le Père, which played around the globe to great acclaim (including here in Toronto at the Coal Mine Theatre). It is now a film with two cinematic giants: Sir Anthony Hopkins, as a father struggling with dementia and Olivia Colman as his daughter entrusted with his care. Zeller adapted it himself (with help from co-writer Christopher Hampton) by using the set as a character in the film. That set, and how the filmmaker and crew tweaked it purposely daily, confused his cast and provided the necessary disorientation for viewers to understand the terrors of dementia. That it plays like a thriller is intentional: Zeller is after the very confusion of a diseased mind. He wants you to feel like Anthony does as he tries to place himself in his space. Is this my flat? Is it my daughter’s flat? Is it a room in long-term care? They all look the same. Or do they? Who are these people? Is this my son-in-law? Is this my daughter?

Tone and pacing are, like the film’s two spectacular lead actors, in fine form. The film may be sad but never tedious. Watching two of the industry’s finest actors giving their best work is a feast; this film includes one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the festival. Yet Hopkins says it may have been the most fun he’s had on any set, even a tiny studio in northwest London.

Working with brilliant actors makes it easy. I don’t play tennis, I’m not a sporty person but I guess it’s like playing tennis when you’re working with Olivia. Really easy.

Sir Anthony Hopkins

Expert, hardly, but I have a front-row seat with my mother, who has struggled with dementia for too long. A kind social worker told me my siblings and I are experiencing “ambiguous loss.” The Father is a superb iteration. I saw myself up there, Mom, too. Good cinema works as a mirror. One in four of us in Canada will develop dementia in our senior years. We are aging, yet our films and culture deliberately lean into youth. Only within a festival would this film get heavyweight traction.

Quo Vadis, Aida?

Serbian actor Jasna Đuričić won my vote for the best actor of TIFF 2020. Equal applause to her director, Jasmila Žbanić, as this was quickly the most impactful film screened among many hard hitters this year. Hard to watch, necessary to watch: these are the films festivals should herald; distributors heed. Based on actual events is often a worrying preface note when I see it scrawled across the screen in the opening credits of fictional films. Finding a way into complex historical chapters through personal stories is always tricky, as subtle grace notes and fully drawn characters are often lost. As Aida, a UN translator, Đuričić is ferocious. She carries the film with urgency in every frame as her character tries to save her family amidst bureaucratic chaos during the 1995 Bosnian genocide. I believed in her, was there with her in all her glorious dimensions, flashing her credentials in fury at the horrors unfolding. Urgent and harrowing, the history lesson is served beautifully through this intimate study of a woman straddling two worlds in wartime. Like Nomadland, here again is a rare glimpse of an older woman whose smarts and strength unfold without cliché, without cringe-worthy false notes. See it with the young adults in your life who are told repeatedly that they need to be resilient. Without context, resilience becomes meaningless. Aida is a way in, as all great art can be.

Another Round

This was a film I wanted to hate: a bunch of middle-aged white guys decide to experiment with booze under the guise of academic research. Except here is mesmerizing Mads Mikkelsen and his pal, director Thomas Vinterberg, reunited after their excellent Oscar-nominated film The Hunt. Here too, a sizzling cast and energetic direction and, dammit, you can’t help loving all of it. Humour is so rare at TIFF, and when it travels in the lane of pathos, it is even better. The insane experiments, the idea that you recognize yourself in all of these loveable idiots that you know already where it will go, doesn’t matter a hoot. It is all wound up with a memorable scene, one of the festival’s rare, uplifting and fabulous best. This is a winner for reasons beyond my household, where we enjoyed a daily cocktail..or three in the early months of the pandemic. This is tricky ground to play on with few easy answers, but in the prerecorded festival Q&A, Danish director Thomas Vinterbeg was clear about where he found inspiration: his own country.

We Danish drink a lot. But still, we talk about health and about a reasonable well-behaved life so there’s a gap between our behaviour and our wishful thinking of our behaviour.

Thomas Vinterberg, director, Another Round

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Rant of the Day: Oscar noms

By January 13, 2020 Film, Headlines, Performance

It really is hard to imagine something you can’t see.

Greta Gerwig, writer/director, Little Women

68% male. 84% white. That’s how these Oscar 2020 nominations went down; that is the group that nominates and votes. That is how films like The Farewell are ignored.

Diversity will only happen when that body of membership changes.

To become an Academy member, artists need professional credits.

To build credits, they need to find work. To find work, they need someone to give them a chance and look past gender, skin colour (and boob size) and see the human potential.

Change starts at the gate marked Enter Here.

Change is only possible when critical bodies stop echoing bad choices from one another, so unworthy, boring and utterly non-essential films cease receiving recognition, no matter how relentless a marketing campaign is. Yes, I’m looking at you, The Irishman.

We see and hear you, Old White Guys of the Academy. We get it. You don’t want to be forgotten. We will always have your stories. They are burned forever in our collective consciousness. Your 2020 choices reflect your panic. But you still have the chance to do the right thing. Vote for Parasite.

The future is here. You can open the gate or watch it being crashed by exciting new mediums and storytellers from every corner of the planet.

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I won’t miss you, 2019

By December 31, 2019 Art, Film, Life, Performance, Travel

2019, you were a dagger. My heart bleeds from your cuts. Though I saw your approach, I was not yet ready.

Are we ever?

My dad lived a long, happy life and left us on July 23rd.

My father-in-law was a few years younger, but his journey was long, which ended five days before Christmas.

It will be days, months, and years before I can fully adjust to life without them. We never get over loss; we add it to the tapestry.

Tilted; however, I am not. These men made my life rich. I am whom I loved and who loved me. If I stand tall tomorrow, it is their postures I inhabit.

Standing may be possible, but my gaze shifted in 2019. Apologies if you were ignored this year, given short shrift, the side-eye, or a sharp tongue. Some of my grace notes slipped. My gym routines faltered; with them, most of my projects. Abandoned, too, was a team I was proud to belong with whom I served meals to the hungry on frigid winter days. The only service I could muster was in my kitchen, where using my hands remained soothing. My sticky date pudding has never been better.

As always, solace, for me, is found in storytelling. I find answers in art, answers that are missing in people. The older I get, the less I can solve. Life remains ever mysterious. Arrogance is becoming less tolerable. I’m with Iris Dement. For fans of TV’s The Leftovers, maybe this resonates.

If you were somebody who made me laugh this year, you are dearer than ever. Suddenly, I was binging sitcoms formerly dismissed. What got me through? Schitt’s Creek. Younger. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. My mother, now a long-term care resident, loves the Hallmark channel. The bright palettes and simplistic storylines suit her, but I, too, found myself amused by the sheer audacity of all that cheesiness. Hell, I’d rather be amused right now than gutted. Baking shows, both the British original and all the iterations that followed, make me silly happy. Bakers want to give love. Period.

On the big screen, I found new things that moved me. Here is my list of films that impressed me somehow this year. This is a highly subjective list, as all lists are. I like all kinds of movies, and what moves, surprises, makes me laugh, cry, or ponder the mystery of life…well, it may not be yours. Have at it.

Little Women: Gorgeous, inventive, and worth your time, and I mean you, men of the earth. This is not just a women’s picture. Banish the ghetto of chick flicks forever.

Parasite: See my TIFF review.

A Hidden Life: See my TIFF review.

Apollo 11: A total kick for space nerds and everybody else too. In a fantastic documentary, spectacular footage and audio (never before captured onscreen). Best doc of the year.

Booksmart: Kudos to Olivia Wilde. Her directorial debut is a home run. I was right back in high school. Some things are indeed timeless, no matter how fresh or how current. Movies that make me laugh get high marks. Good comedies are rare.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood: Nice never gets old. I liked the 2018 documentary on Mister Rogers better (Won’t You Be My Neighbour?), but this one is also worthy.

The Farewell: Give the Oscar now to Awkwafina. This movie will elicit tears but don’t miss it. Lulu Wang, the real-life partner of director Barry Jenkins, directed them. This is a film with legs. If it wins awards, look for a slight shift to myopia in film financing. There is a world of storytellers outside the frame. Find them. Give them money. Let them fly.

L to R: “Jiang Yongbo, Aoi Mizuhara, Chen Han, Tzi Ma, Awkwafina, Li Xiang, Lu Hong, Zhao Shuzhen.” Courtesy of Big Beach.

Knives Out: see my TIFF review

Uncut Gems: see my TIFF review

Western Stars: see my TIFF review

Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins: If ever a film makes you want to stand and cheer, it’s this one from another hugely talented female director, Janice Engel—an utterly fascinating portrait of the famous brilliant Texan journalist.

Honey Boy: see my TIFF review

Rocketman: see my earlier review

The Two Popes: Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles won international acclaim for City of Gods. Here he is again with another beautiful film based on a play about two Popes attempting to find common ground. Sir Antony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, two of the industry’s finest, are spectacular here. As a television journalist, I interviewed Hopkins for a beautiful little film called Remains of the Day many years ago. He was gracious and thoughtful—a little Pope-like, miles away from his Hannibal Lector sneer. I have loved watching all his films ever since.

The Grizzlies: This gorgeous Canadian film deserves lots of eyeballs. While the script delivers a few clunkers, I fell hard for the cast, one of the strongest onscreen this year. The story surrounds a newly minted teacher who moves to a small Artic community and attempts to introduce lacrosse to his students. Both immensely watchable and heartwrenching, this is a film sneaking by most (if not all) of the sports film tropes right to the finish line.

Several films screened at TIFF last year were released in 2019. Of the titles I loved, these gems are now available in general release or on one of the streaming networks. Girl, Wild Rose, Maiden, Everybody Knows, What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire, The Wild Pear Tree. See my TIFF 2018 wrap for reviews of these titles. Try to see them all!

Two TIFF films I loved this year and should be on the list have yet to be released: The Sound of Metal (look for it soon on Amazon) and Rocks (2020). Look for more on both here. Both were also on my Best of TIFF list this year.

NEW ADD: The Lighthouse. Two men go mad inside a lighthouse. That’s the pitch, but if you’re looking for a masterpiece of cinematography, sound, production design, and performance, this is your film. Robert Eggers and his brother Max dived deep into their research to write this film, shot in Nova Scotia, and then director Robert pushed two movie stars (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattison) to the brink to pull off the stunner. What I loved most? This is not an arty show-offy kind of filmmaking. Nothing is there that doesn’t drive the narrative vision. There are hints of poetry and folklore. Film nerds will go nuts with the influences spotted here and there, not to mention the camera work. As for the mermaids in this film? Let’s say they are not made in Disney.

Best live theatre: The Brothers Size (Soulpepper)

My own favourite lived moments of 2019:
My London Top Ten,

Paris is all mise en scène,

No one gets to steal our joy

I am still searching for a film to see to end the dispute on the family couch. Here are some of my past Best of The Year lists.

Highs of 2018, Highs of 2017, Highs of 2016, Highs of 2015, Highs of 2014, Highs of 2013,Highs of 2012

For all my patient readers, I wish you joy and peace in 2020. Thanks for sticking with me.

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TIFF 2019: Quotables

By September 20, 2019 Film, Performance

Note: I hope you, fellow movie lovers, can see most of my picks in the next year or so as they appear in theatres or some cases, as indicated, on streaming services very soon.

What is it like to be at the festival itself? Here are a few moments from my fangirl seat this year.

Best off-screen moment: Opening night party…of two, at the Library Bar at the Royal York—where security detail stands in front of a hotel elevator and tells you, with a straight face just shy of a wink, Just another guest, in response to your question, Who is in that elevator?— with my swish TIFF date of decades who has been into movies in the same insane way I am, from way way back in the days we didn’t need to worry about comfortable walking shoes…clinking glasses and knowing this is the only cocktail (delicious!) we can drink for the next ten days if we are to stay awake for the creative behemoth to come.

Best TIFF ad: This year, every TIFF screening began with one of a series of short interviews of a few articulate filmgoers who have had positive encounters with TIFF volunteers over the years. These warm fuzzies were greeted with applause every time for the three thousand volunteers who make the festival what it is: a community. My peeps know how to show love…most of the time. Worst off-screen moment (s): Looking at a wall of hunched backs in front of me in the lineups, scrolling their phone screens instead of dishing on What have you seen that you liked so far?, standard currency to trade at TIFF; encountering too many episodes of rudeness on the streets to discount it as anything but a decline in civility—one TIFF-goer gave me the middle finger when I moved away to another seat after overhearing an angry exchange he was having with a stranger next to him. I just wanted to watch the movie, pal. Living in a big city all your life, you’re not shocked by much. Still, that middle finger tells me anger is on the rise. Thankfully, artists are working on translating it back to us so we can see ourselves for what we are becoming. Decency is still hip, no?

Best on-stage cast moment: Watching lives change as the exuberant Rocks cast, newcomers to show business, who expressed their devotion to one another and to British director Sarah Gavron and the entire creative team, who workshopped this fantastic film for a year with young people in the community to come up with context before coming up with a script.

I was working on a story for my sister (who is up there in the balcony tonight) to say to her, Thank you, for being stronger than you needed to be, for being so full of joy and love like so many young women, who have to be stronger than necessary, but beneath that is joy and laughter. Sometimes we don’t get to see all of that. These girls are magical and you can’t be in a room with them for five minutes without laughing so hard that you cry. These were the rights ones to contribute their own stories about sisterhood and womanhood because we’re all best friends now, so, for my sister up there and my sisters here in this cast, it was perfect.

British playwright Theresa Ikoko, co-writer of Rocks screenplay

Proof Torontonians don’t recognize greatness: The French screen legend Isabelle Huppert strolling on Richmond unnoticed by the downtown crowd. I’d know her anywhere but caught only her backside on camera. I never promised to be a paparazzi.

Some directors are arrogant, some humble, and others hilarious. Here are a few from this year’s fest:

I actually went to Bruce’s (Springsteen) home studio and set up an edit room right next to this music studio. He would be in the studio recording music and walk in and sit with me while I was editing and we had a constant dialogue, constant collaboration. I think it brought the film to a whole other level. I wouldn’t want to dream this up because the idea of hanging out with Bruce running back between rooms sounds too cool but it happened. It really happened.

Thom Zimny, director, Western Stars

As human beings, we are fucking complex. I hope this movie feels like it has empathy for everyone. What our culture is doing right now is just about good and evil. That’s what our internet culture is: this kid is evil and he’s a monster and so on and so on. We just need to understand complexity and empathy for everyone right now. More than ever.

Trey Edward Shults, director, Waves

I was amazed by how modern the book (David Copperfield) was in terms of the themes of friendship, love, social anxiety, riches and poverty…It instantly opened itself up to me as a film so I hope I’ve managed to capture the spirit of it and that it reaches out to you with contemporary connections today.

Armando Iannucci, director, The Personal History of David Copperfield

Water flows from top to bottom and that’s the tragic and sad element in this film. Water always flows from the rich to the poor. It never flows the other way.

Bong Joon-ho, director, Parasite

I want to thank you guys for showing up. This is the best audience in the world and so I shouldn’t have to say this but this movie is an old school whodunnit and it doesn’t open until Thanksgiving (American, November 27th) so don’t ruin it for your friends.

Rian Johnson, director, Knives Out

I loathe children. They’re the worst. It’s true what they say, “don’t work with children.” I’ve only done it for five films.

Taika Waititi, director, Jojo Rabbit

Movies and art can be complicated, and sometimes they’re meant to be and that’s a good thing. There are some people who watch this movie and think none of it happened, that he (the Joker) imagined the whole movie and that’s interesting thing too and I’m not saying this is our theory. You don’t want to define it for people. I hate as the director to define it for people.

Todd Phillips, director, Joker

Most actors at these audience Q&A sessions know this is part of the job and pirouette as expected. Most are thrilled to be here and are generous with sharing background information on the creative process. For the stars of A Hidden Life, the two talented leads were happy to spill what it was like to work with the famous recluse, filmmaker Terence Malick, who is renowned in the industry for using natural light in his past several films.

We were constantly on. No breaks. It was exhausting. There were no light changes. No shot changes. We were constantly on. This brought us closest to real life. We lived on the farm. I would go on the set and think, I have to change the hay again.…we lived it, we lived that life. I fell asleep once in the meadow and when I woke up the camera was on….that’s what it was like the whole time.

August Diehl, actor, A Hidden Life

What was most striking was the amount of freedom he (Malick) gave us, in every sense. In the sense of time; like we often had thirty minute takes…In the sense of place: those farms in the mountains were a playground for us. We could run about and the camera would just follow us. There were no cables. There was no lighting. There was so much space to be free that I could also contribute to the story. In the end, a lot of scenes you see are scenes we improvised and Terry was very welcoming to that. That was the most unusual thing and the most wonderful!

Valerie Pachner, actor, A Hidden Life

Best TIFF honesty
: The always sexy Antonio Banderas kissing his friend of four decades, Pedro Almodovar, on stage as the two reminisced about how Almodovar discovered Banderas and gave him his first film role in the cult film Labyrinths of Passion, a comedy about a nymphomania pop singer who falls in love with a gay Middle Eastern prince.

I got into movies with my balls.

Antonio Banderas, actor, Pain and Glory

That’s it from TIFF for me this year. See these movies, if possible, on a giant screen.

Nothing can replace the experience of sitting in a darkened theater, sharing an intimate film with a group of perfect strangers. In a theater, you’re vulnerable — you’re there, and it’s happening in front of you. It also gives you the opportunity to give things a chance. Some of my favourite movies, maybe you don’t know right away what you think. Then, when you come to it, you love it that much more. Because, in a way, you found it.

Noah Baumback, director, Marriage Story

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TIFF 2019: the B side

By September 19, 2019 Film, Performance

Earlier this week, you got my A list. Now the imperfect films (I’m picky) but still fascinating, depending on taste.

Toronto TIFF audiences are notoriously friendly. It is why so many filmmakers are eager to bring their work here; my TIFF crowds are (usually) my posse: when there is something to love, we’ll shower you with appreciation. Standing ovations are not a certainty elsewhere in Toronto. I’ve been to many spectacular live productions—opera, ballet, musical theatre, etc.—where tepid tapping of hands passes as praise. Creating art and sharing it with strangers takes courage. Come TIFF time; my peeps are out in full force.

I can’t believe how full this theatre is at 2:30 in the afternoon. That is what’s amazing about this festival. It’s just full of movie lovers and that’s not always the case with festivals, not always the case when you show movies. You really feel the enthusiasm from the crowd here. I’ve always wanted to show a movie here.

Todd Philips, director, Joker


The applause was there for Judy, a blandish film saved by a spectacular star performance. A lengthy standing ovation greeted Renée Zellweger as she came on stage following the Toronto premiere. Nobody there seemed to mind the script’s problems, nor should they have, for Zellweger’s spin on Judy Garland is fascinating, pure fun to watch, despite the tragic undertones of Garland’s real-life addictions. Directed by Rupert Goold and adapted from a stage musical “End of the Rainbow,” the film focuses on the final days of the troubled Hollywood legend’s life as she is coerced into a series of performances in London to revive her flagging career and earn enough money to provide a home for her children. Flashbacks of Garland’s early career and punishing schedule—thanks to an abusive studio system— are meant to illustrate where some of her troubles began but lack subtlety. (In fact, the pill-popping came earlier as Garland’s mother gave her daughter amphetamines before Garland had hit puberty). You’re craving performance; here is when the film kicks it up to eleven. Anyone who loved Judy Garland will want to see this film if only to sing along to all those glorious standards, delivered with brilliance by a now fifty-year-old Zellweger who has endured her career struggles. The vulnerability is there, as is the charisma, if not a note-perfect mimicry, but who would want that? There is only one Judy, after all. By the film’s end, I was stunned at how commanding this performance was as it elevated the movie into a rainbow for the ages.


While we’re still on performance, you’d have to be sleeping under a rock not to have heard the deafening chorus of admiration for Joaquin Phoenix’s magnetic performance in Joker. Distributed by Warner Brothers, this controversial film is a launch of what director Todd Phillips hopes will be a new label called DC Black, providing stand-alone films that offer different takes and character studies (read R-rated ) on comic book characters. Casting Joaquin was sure: he wrote the script with him in mind.

If you know Joaquin, and you know his work, Joaquin is an agent of chaos. He has chaos in him. You can act that probably but if you’t have to, there’s something to that.

Todd Philips, director, Joker, at the Toronto premiere

Me, I found his performance downright creepy. Yes, that is the point, the role, the text, grim as it is. My unease has nothing to do with Phoenix: the guy has skills-add him to the long list of actors willing to do wild physical transformations to win an Oscar inhabit the role. The plot: a failed comic becomes unhinged and wreaks violence, igniting a revolution. This is a film that you are not happy to have seen. I’m no prude- I can take dark, violent, and all (see yesterday’s post)… but show me some proof it matters. Prove it isn’t window dressing, in this case, a window with black curtains. I cannot recommend it without warning, despite the admirable production design and operatic sheen, despite the wow! of a tremendously gifted actor. If Phillips was after chaos, he certainly has thrown his hat into the ring, for that is what is sprayed, however cinematically, on the screen as a deranged supervillain incites followers… into chaos. Joker is an allegory for hell pretending to be a film: anything it tries to say about mental illness is overpowered by some of the darkest scenes offered at TIFF 2019. Todd Phillips, in my mind, is responsible already for questionable cultural influences-the guy created the Hangover trilogy, its very own kind of polemic. We are meant to think of this film as an arty origin story, and perhaps it will land there for some viewers. For me, this film landed at Why? And don’t shrug me off: It’s only a movie, Anne. Movies shape culture. I’m with Meryl Streep, who was feted here in Toronto at a TIFF fundraising gala:

When armed with material that’s compelling you have to ask yourself — does this help? Does this need to be in the world?

Meryl Streep


Here’s a movie with clear intent: highlight the global inequities resulting from the retail fashion industry. British director Michael Winterbottom delivers a script that covers a lot of ground and, like Joker, has, at its core, the same theme: Eat the Rich, except satire is the genre in his wheelhouse. Steve Coogan stars as Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie, King of the High Street, who has gathered family and other minions to help him celebrate his 60th birthday in lavish and ridiculous style on the island of Mykonos. Lots to like here, including some juicy bits from Coogan and no short order of fun watching the crazy party prep in disbelief. Yet the movie is not funny enough or serious enough with its knife until the closing credits arrive with a series of infographics which appear like those familiar After School Special this-is-what-you-need-to-know facts instead of background as intended. Still, I will see Coogan in anything. As a performer, he doesn’t disappoint here.

Knives Out

Knives Out is another Eat the Rich chapter, the subtext for most if not all, the offerings on the TIFF 2019 menu and the most fun film of the festival. I choose films for all sorts of reasons, and some of them include: If the Cast Includes Christopher Plummer. There is one delicious little moment among many in this funhouse murder mystery when the fabulous Canadian actor (he alone gets that moniker around here) mocks his age. It is so perfect it makes the whole film. Still, one may wonder why this film didn’t make the A side for me, which comes down to Daniel Craig. I loved him as Bond. Not so much as Benoit Blanc, who is hired to investigate the murder of a wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (played by Plummer), and that was the only real problem for me in an otherwise savvy showbiz splash. This film is the famous Hollywood sign in the hills, thanks to a star-studded cast who make up this despicable Thrombey family. The editing could be sharper (the film is too long). Still, total points for fun and plenty of snappy contemporary dialogue, delivered by a cast you love to hate. Chris Evans is having a riot here, and so will you watching him, Jamie Lee Curtis, and so on. Look for it in theatres in Canada on November 27th.

Martin Eden

This French/Italian historical romance won the Platform prize, and I’ve already told you which film I would have picked as the winner. Perhaps the jury was dazzled as I was for the first two-thirds of this film by its star, the uber-intense Luca Marinelli, who is in almost every scene. Italian director Pietro Marcello isn’t the first to adapt Jack London’s 1909 novel. This version, set in the 20th century, is the first to shift the action to Naples. The sprawling story of an uneducated sailor who meets an upper-class woman and decides to become a writer is given gorgeous context by Marcello’s use of archival footage. Still, a sudden jump in time in the film’s third act woke me from my reverie and sunk it for me: I didn’t buy the radical transformation, and all the political theory overwhelmed what was, until then, a compelling drama.

Wet Season

A modest and dedicated teacher named Ling and her unfaithful husband share a Singapore apartment with his ailing father as the monsoon season delivers a season of malcontent. This is the moody setting for a beautiful, forbidden romance drama from Singapore writer/director Anthony Chen. Ling wants a baby desperately and has been trying to conceive for eight years. At work, where she teaches Mandarin to teenage boys, she gets little relief until she forms a unique bond with one of her remedial students. This film was such a whisper you could have missed it easily amongst the other Platform splashes. Such is the restraint this talented director delivers as he pulls together all his narrative threads for a poignant finish. This is a film with great sensitivity towards all his characters. Still, he saves most of his focus on his lead character, a woman weighed down by responsibility, played by the amazing Yann Yann Yeo. A dose of humour in his narrative would move this otherwise excellent film into a brighter light.

Sorry We Missed You

83-year-old British filmmaker Ken Loach has so many awards attached to his name that you’d think he’d rest a little, but the famous social campaigner has yet another story to tell, another righteous fist to shake, and so we shall, for Loach is a master. In Sorry We Missed You, we meet a Newcastle family trying to live productive lives in the gig economy. The entire film is heartbreaking and so bloody authentic your first instinct is to reach out and hug the whole family in collapse. All of them are people to root for in a broken system recognizable to anyone with a pulse. This one almost made the A list, too, but I slumped in my seat at the ending, even if any other finale would not have been classic Loach. Great suspense and wonderfully touching performances will keep this onscreen family in my thoughts for some time.

My Zoe

From French actor/writer/ filmmaker Julie Delpy comes a sci-fi flick about a severe medical crisis that delivers a shocking second act I cannot tell you anything about without spoiling it all. This is Delpy’s seventh film and the first to jump ahead in an undefined future where laptops can fall, break on the ground, and bend back into shape. I liked this film mainly for the powerhouse that is the triple threat, Delpy, although I’m not sure I agreed with her directorial choice of not using any music in the film as a manipulative tool: the film needed it here and there for air. Delpy directs herself, acting here as a geneticist based in Berlin who shares custody of her beloved only daughter with an increasingly hostile ex-husband. What follows is a creepy build toward the film’s central moral questions about science and ethics. For pure provocation, this film gets an A.

Just Mercy

Michael B. Jordan does a lot of pensive glaring in this film based on civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s bestselling memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. I was bored in the first quarter by what looked like a pedestrian and preachy procedural about racial injustice in the legal system. Things change when the film moves to death row, where some solid performances anchored by Jamie Foxx give this film the needed fuel. Moving and essential is how it lands, and yes, it’s that kind of film where audience members clap at plot turns. Not sure if this will expand Jordan’s career resumé, but I loved Brie Larson in this as much as I did in director Destin Daniel Cretton’s earlier work, Short Term 12 (now on Netflix: a much better film if you haven’t seen yet). Just Mercy will be in Canadian theatres on Jan.17, 2020.

Pain and Glory

Antonio Banderas and Pedro Almodóvar appeared on stage as BFFs to introduce this film to us, and the crowd cheered before the movie even began. (Almodovar has fans. Plenty of them) So too, the critical love-in. But wait! As much as I wanted to love the Spanish auteur’s latest, I couldn’t get past all the self-indulgent self-therapy on hand as Banderas, playing the acclaimed director, explores his physical and spiritual pain. Banderas is as beautiful as ever, and I liked him very much in this, even as the vehicle around him falters. Still, there are some tender moments to relish, including an encounter with a former lover, and this writer loved the ideas Almodóvar is massaging in this self-portrait of an aging artist who suffers writer’s block. The gorgeous production design is also a reason to cheer: the film recreates the acclaimed director’s apartment, an explosion of rich colour. Pain and Glory will be in theatres here on October 18th.

Anne, at 13,000 Feet

The only Canadian contender for the Platform prize, this story from indie filmmaker Kazik Radwanski surrounds a Toronto daycare employee in crisis. This is captured by extreme close-ups of Stratford-born writer/actor Deragh Campbell (one of TIFF’s 2015 rising stars). I found the style both exhilarating and irritating at once, even as I loved her nuanced performance as a woman (who isn’t always likeable) with heartbreaking vulnerability. Radwanski spent two years shooting this project about how people fit and don’t fit into a modern society, which he wrote specifically for the actor. At the film’s premiere, he thanked the Toronto daycare featured in the movie, which served as authentic inspiration: his mother worked there for forty years, and he went there as a child. The children in this film are delicious. The film won an Honourable Mention from the Platform jury.


This was a buzzy film throughout my ten-day run around festival theatres, with added screenings fuelling chatter that it would scoop the People’s Choice award (see my earlier post about who won). Waves has that kind of flashy DNA. Like many contemporary Netflix shows, it is highly sensory, with music to every edit; chic camera work; gorgeous cast; young love drenched in tragedy… I wanted to love it. No doubt, talent is on display in this drama of an upper-middle-class family whose son, Tyler, cracks under pressure (no spoilers here) while his sister Emily copes with the fallout. The film is split purposely into two acts with vastly different energies between them. Smack in the centre is a gorgeous scene-—one of the festival’s standouts— between brother and sister (Kelvin Harrison Jr and Taylor Russell), a moment of love, empathy and connection that captures the film’s heart. Still, I found it too long; its message was far too snap. Complexity is missing despite the appearance of layers. Waves opens here in Canada on November 1st.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

I came across this linear tablet device recently. It was called a book. If you’re able to binge-watch thirteen hours of something, you can read 900 pages of Dickens.

Armando Iannucci, director, The Personal History of David Copperfield

I felt a little cheated by Armando Iannucci, a director known for creating delicious, biting satires (Veep, The Thick of It, The Death of Stalin) and expected to find another sharp-edged poke here. Instead, I discovered a much more humane offering featuring an excellent multi-ethnic cast performing various characters from Dicken’s famous semi-autobiographical novel. Once I settled in, I enjoyed the gentler comedic touch and rich performances led by a capable Dev Patel as Copperfield. Hugh Laurie (delusional Mr. Dick) and Tilda Swinton (Aunt Betsey) are incredibly outstanding in lending buoyancy to a film that struggles at times with balance, if not the compassionate undertone. Hard not to love that. Hard not to love the excellent source material. Hard not to see Iannucci’s master plan here, as he told us all when introducing the cast to us at the Toronto premiere, “This story was written before Brexit was invented.” This colourful film defies genre and pierces the notion of period piece stuffiness. Amidst a sea of despair, this film was a honey balm. Dickens himself would have approved. Look for the movie in theatres here in early 2020.

“Whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well; that whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely …in great aims and in small, I have always been thoroughly in earnest.”

David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

Tomorrow in this space: A wrap-my final TIFf notes.

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TIFF 2019: The List

By September 17, 2019 Film, Performance

Are we improving in choosing films, or was this an excellent year? Here is the menu we chose from: in 11 days, 245 feature films and 82 shorts. From 84 countries and regions. 51 first-time feature filmmakers

We walked out of two films, were bored by four others, and enthralled by so many more stories: this is September, and this is my school, after all. In ten days, we caught a whiff of the world’s woes, as told by superb storytellers. Capitalism isn’t working, say many of these artists. Suffering is universal and often endured in quiet devastation. So too, are family demons. We can clone humans, but we still can’t fix marriages. And we are in danger of forgetting our history.

Here were the stand-outs for me this year:

A Hidden Life

If ever a film waved a flag for cinema to resist the death toll brought on by streaming services, indeed it is this gorgeous gem by master magician Terence Malick, back in top form after a series of ineffective films. This is a long film, but so was World War Two. Malick, working here with a true story of a conscientious objector, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, has created a stunning religious poem — I’ve been going to TIFF for almost thirty years, and this is the first time I’ve spotted nuns in the audience. Utterly majestic, with an urgent message for contemporary culture, A Hidden Life will challenge some filmgoers. Primarily Malick is working with faith and the struggle to keep it in a time of great evil. This filmgoer fell in love at the start. Top marks for the best-looking film of the festival and indeed the entire year—it is all gasp-worthy— a majestic score and a pair of actors who made me believe in their love story. After screening forty festival films, I am still thinking about what is essentially the most heroic and urgent film I saw. It is not the only film dividing audiences at the festival but the most worthy. Look for it in theatres in mid-December.

Jojo Rabbit

We are still in World War Two territory but this time, an abrupt turn in tone, with the zany dark satire of Jojo Rabbit. Despite dividing audiences and critics alike, (I met several in lineups who disliked it intensely), this film still managed to scoop the People’s Choice award on the festival’s final day, after the pedestrian choice of Green Book here last year, which comes as welcome news. New Zealand’s Taika Waititi, acting here as the writer, director as well as onscreen star, plays an idiotic version of Adolph Hitler, who is also an imaginary friend of a lonely German boy nicknamed Jojo Rabbit by bullies in his Hitler Youth camp. Sam Rockwell is in this film which immediately makes it worth looking at for this fangirl. Still, he is aided by solid performances of two youthful actors, Roman Griffth and Thomasin McKenzie (last seen in the excellent 2018 film, Leave No Trace). Jojo Rabbit attempts to balance sweet and silly, horror and comedy. The mocking works, if not as sharp as a recent stellar TIFF satire, Death of Stalin (2017). How anxious about the film’s reception are the folks behind this film? Check out the poster above, which spells out precisely the film’s intent: anti-hate. Waititi, who received a rapturous ovation at the screening I attended, told us that he pointedly made the film, likening our current climate to 1933.

We are in danger, again, of apathy.

Taika Waititi, director, Jojo Rabbit

The Painted Bird

Long and harrowing, this black-and-white film, another set in World War Two, was written, directed and produced by Czech Václev Marhoul, who adapted it from Jerzy Kosinski’s novel of the same name. Chosen as the Czech Republic’s entry for the 2020 Academy Awards, this was difficult to watch, like many at TIFF. Indeed, many didn’t, as the film experienced walkouts here in Toronto and at the Venice film festival, where it premiered. The journey of an unnamed boy in Nazi-occupied Central Europe is primarily one of brutality. Still, I’ve seen far more searing war imagery at TIFF in the past, including the excellent 2015 Hungarian film Son of Saul. Most films made in the last twenty years are far more violent. (Did people walk out at the Joker screenings? Nope. Should they? Check back tomorrow). Indeed, what unfolds here is an absorbing film with a stunning performance by a newcomer, Petr Kotlar, whose face will linger with me for months. I will never look at crows again the same way. Two of my favourite actors, Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgard, also make pivotal appearances in the narrative.

So Long, My Son

Another long film, I cannot drink my usual water intake another day… Yet oh so worth it, for here is the story of how a married Chinese couple and their friends deal with the death of their only son. This story also reflects on the country’s one-child policy during the social and financial upheaval in the decades following the Cultural Revolution. Earlier this year, the film won two prominent acting awards at the Berlin film festival, with Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei winning the Silver Bear for Best Actor and Actress, respectively. Both are a reason alone to watch the film. Although the mixed timelines confused me, I fell in love with the group of actors who played out this excellent study of grief and guilt. The film is epic (spanning three decades) and deeply human. Director Wang Xiaoshuai told us at the film’s festival screening that this is the first in his “Homeland Trilogy,” I eagerly await the next installment.


This wins my vote for best of the fest, if not by as large a margin as Roma was for me last year. When you see many films at once, you receive unwanted telegrams when watching, which is less about arrogance as it is purely experiential. Your inner checklist goes off: okay, here we are in a coming-of-age terrain, or perhaps a dry comedy (sadly, very rare at TIFF. The world only wept in 2019). The tone is frequently telegraphed early on, and still, you settle back to enjoy the unfolding of what you hope is a well-told tale. When a tone shifts, it rarely does so seamlessly: most filmmakers are clumsy when attempting such leaps. Not so South Korean master Bong Joon Ho. His feat here is so elegant you are stunned at what comes, changing expectations and affections as the master weaves a class war parable about an impoverished Seoul family who becomes entangled with the nouveau riche. Thrilling and unexpected, Parasite is as perfect and dark as they come. Parasite impressed the Cannes jury enough to win the top prize earlier this year. Expect marketers here to push it into Best Pic categories where it belongs rather than the foreign film slot. Parasite opens in Canada on October 25th.

Marriage Story

Sometimes a film slips onto my list despite unwieldy bits because of a grander whole. Such is the case with Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, which does not act out its title: here we are entering the end rather than the beginning, and the story itself is just that. But let’s not quibble with labels. If the film does not tell the whole story, it dwells on fissures between an avant-garde theatre director and his actor wife, performed with great spirit by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. It’s hard not to feel for these two as they fall into the hole of horrific legal wrangling, and that’s the power of Baumbach’s writing and direction: this is an intimate film for adults, and no, unlike some TIFF fare, that is not a cue for wild sex on screen: the intimacy is in the shared dissolving. There are some terrific featured turns here by Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta, but this film belongs to Driver, whose character appears to lose more, whether that’s intentional or just my read. Driver is more than capable of delivering the big shiny moments which make up for some of the floppy excesses that come midway in the film-it’s hardly-a-perfect vehicle. This is a very American drama; the critics are in a collective gush. Expect to see this make a splash come awards season. This is the second Netflix original film directed by Baumbach (the first was The Meyerowitz Stories, which I loved ) and will have a limited theatrical release before it begins streaming in early December. Baumbach’s current partner is writer/director/ actor Greta Gerwig, whose star-studded upcoming adaptation of Little Women is expected in theatres Christmas Day. Two massive talents are sharing one household….hmmm.


Sometimes I feel there is a different festival when I read news about TIFF. It’s all parties, stars, and sightings, and then there’s me, sitting in the dark, clutching my husband’s hand because there, right there on the big screen, is my life in a moment nobody understood. Until now. French auteur Alice Winocour’s fantastic, if flawed new film evoked the most tears for me of all the TIFF offerings this year. Eva Green plays an astronaut preparing for space travel while her young daughter stays home. Shot in real places where astronauts are training in Europe, Russian and Kazakhstan, this film was an excellent example of how many movies are made with multiple international parties. Viewers will geek out at all the phenomenal space stuff as much as the exploration of the universal parental conflict. Eva Green is spectacular here and rises above some improbable plot turns. Her scenes with her daughter are deeply affecting (don’t watch them if you’re like me, with babies now grown and flown)—in the hands of another director, it would be sentimentality. But this is the director who won a Cesar (the French Oscar) for writing the Turkish film Mustang, one of the best films in 2015.

I wanted to work with Eva Green because I think she is something like a space person-she’s not really on earth, but I also wanted an actress who could be both a warrior and a mother as I wanted to show a super heroine who is also a mother which is rarely shown on cinema as if those two states were incompatible.

Alice Winocour, director, Proxima


This was our first film screened, and I worried it might spoil me for the rest of the festival. Directed by British director/producer Sarah Gavron, one of many female filmmakers in this year’s festival, Rocks tells the story of a London teen who finds herself alone in caring for her younger brother as her depressive mother abandons them both. The remarkable fact? This cast was unknown: almost all newcomers and non-actors came together as a year-long volunteer workshop resulting in a sizzling script. The diverse cast sparkles: their joy on stage at the film’s premiere was contagious. This film was one of ten (including Proxima) vying for the Platform prize, a juried cash award initiated by TIFF head Cameron Bailey five years ago. I thought it would win. I’m waiting on news for a Canadian release date. One of my pleasures of the festival was running into a member of TIFF’s Next Wave committee, who told me this was their top pick. Smartypants teens. Thank goodness for them all.

The Sound of Metal

British actor Riz Ahmed is the star of this terrific film, another Platform contender at the festival: it would have been my pick to win the Platform prize. Ahmed spent six months before the film’s shoot learning to play the drums AND become proficient at sign language. He is Ruben, a former addict and musician who loses his hearing in the beginning scenes. Ahmed delivers a performance that is not as showy as other festival faves like Joaquin Phoenix, Adam Driver or Adam Sandler, but equally potent. ( The actor is also a rapper and a graduate of Oxford). Director Darius Marder hired many of the other cast from the deaf community. The film’s true innovation is one of advanced sound design, allowing viewers to feel as if they are inside Ruben’s head. It sounds gimmicky, but it never is. I loved it from start to finish. This film is about profound loss and the search for identity and will reach many viewers. Ahmed’s performance leads the best onscreen this year. Amazon bought the film, so expect to see it streaming this fall.

Our Lady of the Nile

Based on the French language novel of the same name, this film by Afghan director Atiq Rahimi is set in Rwanda in 1973, twenty years before the genocide. The plot surrounds a group of Belgian-run Catholic boarding school students navigating growing racial tensions and brutal violence. What could have been a mere history lesson is instead a gripping tale thanks to powerful performances from a fantastic ensemble cast of young Rwandan actors, many of whom are acting for the first time. Like Rocks, this is a coming-of-age story but one with real foreshadowing of the horror of mass slaughter to come. Lush and genuinely cinematic, this film is the kind of essential world cinema that is why I go to TIFF.

Honey Boy

Honey Boy debuted at Sundance earlier this year and was written by actor Shia LaBeouf as part of his rehab program. I was surprised by this film and loved it for its courage. LaBeouf plays a character based on his father, while ever-busy actor-of-the-moment Lucas Hedges shares the role of the tortured son with actor Otis Lort: both are excellent. LaBeouf, however, is the reason to watch—his performance as an ex-rodeo clown felon is fascinating, given what we all know of his real-life challenges. Acclaimed documentarian Alma Har’el directs what could be just another fictionalized therapy session, but this one lands with tremendous heart and authenticity. This is one of two films I screened at TIFF about child actors (the other was Judy). Both reaffirm what I’ve always believed about kids and showbiz: rarely does it work out to be anything less than messy.

Western Stars

A friend asked me if seeing a film within the TIFF lineup rather than any time during the year makes a difference in how much I love or hate it: a fair question. A work of art on the floor in a jumble at a flea market looks much different when framed on the wall of a sexy art gallery or in a billionaire’s modern loft. Where and when you see a film matters, and where you come from directly affects your ability to absorb what you are about to see. Immersion is not the same as punctuated observations, so I prefer cinema to anything on a small screen, no matter how much I love my fam jams on the couch. I love live theatre too-the immediacy of it is also fully immersive. At TIFF, I may see four films in a row, and perhaps that fourth film suffers if it is a slow burn rather than a fast-paced thriller. Alternatively, a film soars because you’re so damn grateful for grace notes after all the pain screened, however artful. Western Stars has lots of them. Like A Hidden Life, Bruce Springsteen’s concert film is a deeply personal meditation. However, unlike Malick, the musings are on aging, time, and the strengths of relationships, including his marriage to fellow musician Patty Scialfa. This would have been a pretentious exercise in the hands of a lesser talent, but we’re talking Springsteen here. Mixed in with the music (recorded with an orchestra in Springsteen’s barn) is terrific archival footage, including shots Springsteen took himself on his honeymoon thirty years ago. Some of the images are repetitive, but Springsteen is always watchable. Made with his longtime collaborator Thom Zimny, Western Stars was the final act in a trilogy of reflections that Springsteen began by writing his memoir, Born to Run (one of my favourite books of 2016). Then came the Broadway show (and Netflix special), and now this film is about his latest album, his 19th. Incredibly, the musician is about to turn 70! I loved the experience this festival afforded me: sitting in the last remaining double-decker theatre in the world, The Elgin/Winter Garden in Toronto, and watching this beautiful film from one of our most enduring artists aging with incredible grace. Not the first time I’ve felt lucky.

Uncut Gems

This was my final film of the festival. I found myself in a rowdy crowd wound up for something clever. Adam Sandler delivered. Gone was the goofy actor and, in his place, a brand new antihero for the ages: jewelry dealer and compulsive gambler Howard Ratner, having a panic attack that lasts the entire duration of the film. Next to Parasite, this was the closest edge-of-seat ride of all my screenings. At the helm: acclaimed filmmaking brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, who move Sandler around New York City with such a heady mix of energy that I held my breath most of the film; that is when I wasn’t laughing… or cringing. This is the very definition of gritty, and it won’t be everyone’s jam: this is one film you must carefully pick your seat in the theatre. Mine, sadly, was in the front row. Whatever you do, don’t sit too close. The basic plot: Sandler’s character gets hold of a rare Ethiopian black opal and shows it to NBA superstar Kevin Garnett: yes, the dude plays himself. Garnett becomes obsessed with the stone, but Sandler needs to auction it to pay off debts to the Jewish Mafia. That’s all I can spill without spoiler alerts. If you love basketball, there’s a good chance you’ll love this movie. There are some other familiar names onscreen, including Idina Menzel playing the disappointed wife, Canadian pop star The Weeknd, also playing himself, and Sorry to Bother You star Lakeith Stanfield in a much better role than he has in another splashy festival film, Knives Out. Uncut Gems will be in theatres this December.

Tomorrow in this space: My thoughts on more intriguing TIFF films screened that just missed my A list: Joker, Judy, Waves, Anne at 13,000 Feet, Knives Out, Martin Eden, Greed, The Personal History of David Copperfield, Sorry to Miss You, Wet Season. I will also spill what we went wrong with Just Mercy and Pain & Glory. And maybe the Friendly Greek will weigh in.

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Rocketman, the first half

By June 4, 2019 Film, Performance

We took up most of the row in the cinema. Nine pals who remembered when Rock was young, hoping for the biggest kick we ever got…Okay, I’ll stop now with the Bernie Taupin lyrics, except lawdy mama; what happened to the second half?

Rocketman is a great ride. It’s a better ride than the current incarnation of Aladdin, now beating Rocketman at the box office. Don’t you dare come at me for going to see Aladdin either: it has a magic carpet and 🎵 A Whole New World 🎵and that’s enough for me (and my young pals who joined me when I asked, Will you take your Auntie Anne to the movies?)

Rocketman begins with a full list of confessions. Elton John listing all of his addictions and we’re off, watching little Elton Sad Boy become big Elton Star Boy through a trippy set of brilliant musical sequences. At some point, little Elton (known as Reggie then) and Big Elton meet one another in this musical mirage and Little Sad Boy asks Big Star Boy for a hug. Right there, we are in the zeitgeist proper, and nobody can quibble with therapy and all of its attendant hopeful outcomes. Nor can we fault the soft lens on a long friendship: Elton John’s celebrated partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin is the film’s heart. These two talents worked separately. How they collaborated is one of the film’s more accurate and intriguing threads. The star blessed this film, signing on as executive producer, and his evident pride in that rare showbiz jewel of a union shines brighter than anything else here. Except for the music. Oh yes, the music. We didn’t break into full-out karaoke, although tempted I was at points. This was our early tweendom’s soundtrack, so B-B-Benny me back, baby.

Parts of the film are utterly generic. We have seen these rock narratives before and know of their properties. What makes this one beat are dizzying music sequences with their own aesthetic ( and conveniently muddled timelines- songs are presented to fit the film, not the reality). The guy who punches life into every one of them is Welsh actor Taron Egerton. Here he is, showing off his pipes at a recent Aids Foundation auction.

The twenty-nine-year-old joins actor Jamie Bell, who is also a dancer (remember Billy Elliot?), and Richard Madden as a trio of stellar talent; reason enough to go. Madden is hot hot hot these days as rumours continue that he is the clear favourite to follow Daniel Craig as James Bond. I loved him in the British Bodyguard series, and Game of Thrones fans know him as Rob Stark.

If you’re like me, you might wonder at the sudden end of the film. I promise no spoilers, but there’s a chunk of life history smushed at the film’s conclusion into a few photos and information graphics, all equal in the redemptive narrative possibility to the wild tale preceding it. This musician has raised $450 million for AIDs research, after all. It’s a minor quibble, but this fan wanted to see more of that real-life second chapter’s potency. And for all the whiners dissing jukebox musicals, there is this: music as we know it will never be like this again. It will continue to morph and produce wondrous sounds as it has, but we are now in a time of ephemeral shapeshifting: never has it been harder for artists to reach this kind of international success. The best moment in this film is one of gorgeous levitation. I won’t spoil it for you, but this moment captures the giddiness of hearing magic. I dare you not to smile. Or cry. Eventually, this kind of film and this well-trodden genre will die out, but the music? It lingers on, and we will all sing until we have lost our voices. Look for me this summer, roaring around town, belting out Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters in one never-ending loop.

🎵 And I thank the Lord there’s people out there like you. 🎵

And finding more excuses to wear floppy hats. Wore them then. Still wearing them now, without the spitting gap.

What is your favourite Elton John song?

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