Is there ever a time you can’t muster a high? When you scoff at such a list; mind blank and steeped in bleak forecasts?
Are you screaming YES?
This was a year maybe a high might be hard to find.
A year to confront aging. A unknown father rushes in moments before a school holiday concert and mouthes “sorry” to his annoyed wife. As he brushed past me (proud aunt in the front row) to take his seat down the row, I found myself breathless-he was so very very young, this tardy father. Suddenly I was seized with panic. I was that wife, when? Yesterday, wasn’t it? We were the parents with little ones in concerts we never missed. Now I’m…what? Old?
NEVER. Have you seen me do my ab exercises? MOVE ON, NOW.
I was silly and stern and strong this year. Sad and deliriously happy. Woeful and wonderstruck both. Age is my friend after all, even if nobody gave me Time for Christmas. Hint for Santa: I only want TIME and you can bring it without wrapping as our blue bin is full.
A funny thing happened on this adventure in adulthood: there’s always a high. We go high when they go low, says Michelle Obama.
What makes me high? (My lawyer has advised me to refrain from the truth when crossing the border). Here is the secret: stories.
Here are some stories on page, stage and screen that shone for me in 2018 and maybe a few from my own story. Read More
If someone gave you the opportunity to recreate your childhood home as an exact replica, then fill it with actors cast with likenesses much like your family, how would you move those actors through space? If you’re Alfonso Cuarón, you do it by keeping one thesis front and centre: focus on the women who shaped you. What this decorated director has been able to do with his latest project, Roma (due for Netflix streaming this week), is so masterful that it belongs in a category of rare achievement. Looking back on the many movies screened in 2018, I can’t say any film stayed with me as much as this one— it features the most epic scene of the year but no spoilers here. It sent me home from the theatre to peer deeply at our own culture, where women like the nanny, Cleo, dot households across North America. As portrayed beautifully in the film by Yalitza Aparicio (a real-life preschool teacher and novice actor), Cleo is the heart of a family in turmoil, providing constancy and continuity in a mad world.
Cuaron(speaking to those of us lucky to see this film on a big screen at TIFF earlier this past September), told us he spent many hours interviewing his childhood nanny as part of his research so that he would get it right. Along the way, as we move with his protagonist performing her many daily domestic duties; bestowing love on a family of four children, Cuaron paints stunning scenes of intricate detail and avoids nothing; political events are part of this tapestry while never overwhelming it. The camera sweeps and we receive in a slow build of absolute immersion.
What is most startling about Roma is what is missing: there are no recognizable stars, no overblown budgets, no heavy-handed arrows pointing us to facile conclusions, nor is this narrative laden with syrupy nostalgia-tinged speeches or soundtracks. Memory is a most excellent tour guide here as an observer of universal truths about social class. Indeed, Cleo’s role in the household, like millions of others, brings to mind an award-winning Atlantic essay from years ago, an essay that, at the time, reworked for me the very idea of feminism, and gave new urgency to my personal sense of identity. In her cover story, How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement, Caitlin Flanagan wrote:
The precise intersection of many women’s most passionate impulses—their profound, almost physical love for their children and their ardent wish to make something of themselves beyond their own doorstep—is the exact spot where nannies show up for work each day.
Cuarón’s work here may capture a year of his life back in the early ’70s but this is surely the year’s most relevant film, just as it is miles ahead artistically of anything else released this year. Roma will both awaken your spirit and break your heart as great works of art can do.
Note: This pristine gorgeous work is hardly usual fare for Netflix and I fear some of the deliberate pacing will lose swaths of viewers who can pause a film at their leisure. Yet how else to ensure the film be seen in the most democratic fashion? This month, Netflix confirmed that Roma will be released in more than 600 theatres internationally at the same time as the December 14th launch on Netflix. It is also winning awards: this week, the Toronto Film Critics Association voted Roma best movie of the year. It has also been named the best film of 2018 by critics’ groups in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Roma could make history as the first Netflix film to be up for best picture when the Oscar nominations are announced on 22 January.
My Scrumptious Films list from TIFF 2018
He’s having a moment, Freddie Mercury is. Playing currently in theatres is a wonky bio-pic of Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody. For those of us leaning into nostalgia, the film serves as a glorious reminder of stadium anthems and communal moments that don’t exist anymore. Performance pieces make the film imminently watchable, but let’s be frank for Freddie, shall we? It was all about him.
Every year, I listen to filmmakers introduce their films, and dish their art at Q and A sessions, and am reminded: these artists are all infused with hope. The very act of making their film, from whatever corner of the planet they inhabit, is one of crazy mother f—–g courage. Remember what that looks like? Every year I am inspired, just in time, as every student should be at the start of September.
Here are a few of my takeaways from TIFF 2018:
Stay in touch with your college roommates
The most compelling on stage moments this year came from the cool intellect of writer/director Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk) who talked in detail about his relationship with language, the novelist James Baldwin, and his spectacular creative shorthand with his old roommate, cinematographer James Paxton, who has shot every short and feature Jenkins has made. The result: stunning filmic portraits.
“James and I went to film school together. I’ve known him since I was 20. We were actually roommates. We were those cats who talked shit about the other students who weren’t watching, we were the inner nerds, film school nerds kind of thing; we have this language. James is actually white but he’s become celebrated, because we’ve been working together for so long and most of the stories I tell feature black actors, he has developed an eye and sensitivity to the way—especially the history of emotion in black skin is a very complicated history— and he and I have worked over the years to go against the grain and present black skin and black faces on screen.”
I asked Jenkins what his life is like as a filmmaker after winning the Oscar for Moonlight.
“People return my phone calls now. They reply to my emails now. That’s the biggest thing. But I work with all my friends. My producers are people I went to film school with, my editors are from my film school, my cinematographer etc, so those people have seen me at the lowest level, and seen me being really ridiculous and will tell me You’re being a bit extra right now, you may have won the Oscar but you’re still the same dude. I feel like opportunities are much more readily available. However, I wrote this film in 2013 at the same time I wrote Moonlight so there was no pressure, it was already set in motion. I do whatever I can to get out of the headspace of somebody who has won the Oscar.”
Jenkins is at work on another literary adaptation. His next project is to write and direct a one hour drama series adapted from Colon Whitehead’s bestseller, The Underground Railroad, currently in development at Amazon.
When making a film means survival…
Edge of the Knife was the first film to be told in Haida dialects, languages that less than twenty people on the planet still speak fluently. The film, set in Haida Gwai in the 1800’s, follows the classic story, shot with beautiful cinematography, of the Wildman (from Haida legend) who haunts the land. In making their film, co-directors Gwaii Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown achieved the colossal: preserving a culture. The world premiere for this film was easily the most moving of all the events at this festival as the cast and crew spoke passionately about their film collective, one vastly different from the usual hierarchal film sets. The most wonderful element of the film, for me, was the attention paid to the grandmothers, the nonnies who shone through the screen. An audience member wanted to know what it was like working on the set.
“I’ll speak briefly and pass it off to others because I don’t know what it’s like to be on any other film set. Working with my nonnies, I thought I was the boss but we all know who is really the boss in those situations.”
-Gwaii Edenshaw, co-director, Edge of the Knife
When titles fit…
“I’m always thinking about people hundreds of years from now; what will they say of us? They will say, I think, “These people were living at the time of the fall of the American empire.”
-Denys Arcand, director
When dumb questions are permitted…
Looking back at the film right now, is there any scene you would have done better, says one audience member at The Hummingbird Project premiere (as the rest of us mutter, geez)
“If you’re a sane actor, the answer would be all of it. I haven’t watched myself in a movie in ten years for that reason. I can’t look. I’m so mortified by it. The only analogy I can possibly give you with regards to judging myself is when you go on a vacation and you take, like, 100 photos and then you look at the photos and you think, I’ll send maybe two of them to people, as I hate the way my neck looks in the other 98. That’s the way I feel about movie acting. To answer your question, I wish I could do better always. “
-Jesse Eisenberg, star of The Hummingbird Project
When they won’t stop asking female performers about being mothers…and the actor in question handles it with grace.
Carey Mulligan is one of the standouts this year in actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife.
“I’m more tired now and have less time to indulge in lots of research. The bar has been set so much higher with what I do want to do because I don’t want to be away from my children so when the opportunity to work with someone like Paul and make a film like this and get a role that’s this rich, detailed, complex, and truthful that is now the barometer for everything I do now. I want it to be as as good an experience as this, with as good a director, as good a script.”
-Carey Mulligan, star of Wildlife
When there’s no pretty faces in your film…
The Swedish fantasy film, Border, written and directed by Ali Abbasi, features two unusual looking characters inspired, in part, by Nordic folklore.
“The film has different ambitions. At the core of it what I found important and subversive about the project was that every time you see people in movies they tend to be perfect. You see a CSI episode and the lab assistant is beautiful with perfectly symmetrical features. I’m not super beautiful and perfect and I know a lot of people that aren’t, in fact the majority of us, right? Every time you see a person who is fat or ugly or whatever they tend to be villains or some kind of comic relief. Here we have a chance to actually take characters and give them an arena where they can experience an emotional life, one that you can engage with. Hopefully, if we’ve done our job right, the movie, somewhere in its course, you, the viewer, will start to see the the beauty in them as well. That kind of experience, I would love for everyone else to have, to look at The Other and see how they feel and not just look back and observe them.”
-Ali Abbassi, writer/director, Border
When you’re 27 and “a miserable lawyer, and you have a script burning inside you but you’re living the life expected of you and you don’t want to take a risk and be estranged from family and community and be seen as implicity rejecting everything that was offered to you” …
One of my favourites at this year’s TIFF, Wild Rose was written by Glasgow-born Nicole Taylor, among the more inspiring female screenwriters heard from at this year’s festival. On stage at the world premiere of her latest creation, Taylor (former lawyer, now successful screenwriter) spoke passionately about what she hopes are universal themes.
“I feel so many people, almost everyone, has had a relationship with their home town where they feel they can’t be themselves there, they’re not allowed to be themselves, and of course you want to leave, but if you leave you take yourself with you. If you ever want to be an authentic, coherent person, especially if you ever want to sing a song, or write a screenplay, you’re going to have to find, no matter how far you get from your home town, you’re going to have to find some way of integrating who you are and where you came from to where you’re trying to get to. I suppose in the broadest, most self-indulgent sense, this film for me was making my piece with Glasgow.”
-Nicole Taylor, screenwriter, Wild Rose
When there really is a wizard behind the curtain…
One dazzling event was surely the premiere of Quincy, a documentary about the long career of the prolific musician Quincy Jones, mined from 2000 hours of archival footage and 800 hours verité footage. The film is pure inspiration. Jones, now 85, whip smart ever still, joined the directors, which include his daughter, on stage after the film screened. Asked if there were any surprises to discover from making this doc after growing up with her dad, co-director Rashida Jones:
“I think it was the consistency of this pattern that he pushed himself to the limit every day to the point of, sometimes a heath crisis, or a nervous breakdown or whatever it was, and then every single time managed to survive, reset, recalibrate and make a decision to live his life a different way. He’s done it over and over again. You’ve had a lot of lives, Dad.”
-Rashida Jones, co-director, Quincy
“Don’t stop until you get enough”*
When the food nazi is sleeping on the job…
There I was, waiting for the film to start in my seat, munching happily on my green apple, one of the delights discovered in a treats bag given to me by one of my cherished TIFF buds, who handed it over outside in the lineup as if it was the normal thing ever instead of the thing that likely saved you that day. (That and the scarf you bought in two seconds from downtown Winners when you realized the weather had changed while you were inside the theatre: just another typical day in Canada).
“You there, yes you, there’s no food or drink in the theatre!”
Mr. I’m in Charge admonished, pointing at me with everything but a spotlight, me there in my seat, with my mouth full of apple. Clearly, the chocolate chip cookies in said snack bag called for stealth.
Stealth was on holiday for a screening another day at the Princess of Wales theatre, which surely has not seen pyjama clad patrons in those velvet seats very often. In a crowded house, nobody cares what you wear but what you eat? Perhaps I should have guessed their backpacks had some treats as a trio plunked down beside me. As appetizers, a pickle jar passed between them for the first half, before an entreé of odorous sandwiches, followed by dessert of peanut butter from those tiny samples given at diners, licked one finger at time, all relished with a soundtrack running parallel to the one on the big screen in front of me. Cursing is free in your head.
Kindred spirits are everywhere if you’re looking in the right place:
When the lights are down, and we’re bombarded with sponsor messages ( Hey L’Oreal, yes I am worth it, but your models sure don’t look like me, or anyone else I know) , volunteers let the RUSH line in and there is a scramble to fill any empty seats. Done properly by a highly capable volunteer quad, the rest of the theatre doesn’t even notice. Done poorly, and the volunteer flashlights and whispering into the first minutes of the film becomes an annoyance. Still, I had to smile in recognition at one last minute elderly fan wearing rad sunglasses who arrived in the darkened theatre after all of us were seated. On her head, a Tilley hat, and no, she didn’t remove her sunglasses as she realized the one seat remaining was smack in the middle of the second row down in the front.
“Can you please get up so I can just climb over and get to that seat?,”
The ask was a bold one, as she pointed to the seat holders in front of her. Request granted. Over she hopped nimbly; up went her arms in triumph. Yes, we all cheered. It was that kind of day, that kind of audience. These are my peeps.
*Yes, you were paying attention. That is the line of Michael Jackson’s hit, produced by Quincy Jones. Turn up your volume.
For more reading: from last year,
My Quotables from 2017
There is the test.
If my Scrumptious list are films that made me feel something, this one is the group (in no particular order) of almost-rans. Within each of these hide films that want to be great. The effort is so there. What remains at the end is something memorable. Many are already critical darlings. They won’t make my Best of 2018 list but they might just make yours. All are worth your time.
Worth it for the film’s final stretch (which lasts about 20 minutes long) as the voyage to the moon is simply thrilling to behold, and for those of us old enough to remember, a wondrous memory of the way it was. This part of the film was shot on Imax so see it on an Imax screen if you can. If ever a film belonged there, it’s this one. My quibble is with the focus on Armstrong. I get it—he’s the guy, it was updated by Oscar winner Damien Chazelle on a book about Armstrong after all—but he just wasn’t charismatic. He may have been brilliant (and haunted by a personal tragedy) but his reticence lends restraint that doesn’t belong there, even with Ryan Gosling as his avatar. As for the ridiculous flap over the flag, just add it to the stinking pile.
The Hummingbird Project
Quebec’s Kim Nyugen directs this caper movie with confidence and style, and the script is as snappy as the cast. Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård are cousins who share a dream to build a fibre-optic cable straight between Kansas and New Jersey. Salma Hayek is their former boss trying to stop them from their billionaire quest. Michael Mando is fantastic here as well as the contractor hired to help these dreamers. Hugely entertaining (just wait for it…Skarsgård’s dance down a hotel floor aisle); the film’s only weakness? I didn’t care enough for the actual quest itself. This is one for the Sat night at home on the couch, though. I loved Nyugen’s previous films more, including the fantastic War Witch.
Touch Me Not
This Romanian drama is more research project, then cinema, or says Adina Pintilie, who won the top prize at the Berlin Film festival for this, her first feature film! An exploration of intimacy, Touch Me Not is also a daring study of the inner self. I liked much of it and hated other parts, specifically the scenes in erotic clubs that didn’t work with the rest of the piece. What did work: the narrative around Laura, a repressed middle-aged woman attempting to lose her inhibitions was deeply moving. This film is the kind of work festivals should show as they push boundaries and change the very context of film itself. I wasn’t troubled by all the nudity or the sex, but it was all a little precious for my liking.
This documentary only slipped from my Scrumptious list due to length, and still I just wanted more, but not more of the incredible trajectory; more of the man himself, Quncy Jones, a giant, just a beautiful man. His daughter Rashida acts as a dutiful archivist here in writing and directing this documentary of a workaholic legend. See it now on Netflix. Turn up the volume and invite some friends in for wine and a fantastic musical trip through time.
Go see this for Viola Davis. She’s just hot hot hot hot here in a very sharp thriller directed (and co-written) by Oscar winner Steve McQueen. The British director can do no wrong. But for the gangster sheen, I might have slipped this up a notch. I just get tired of guns, even if they’re touted by badass women. And I have a bias here: I’m longing to see Liam Neeson in something other than the tough guy he’s been playing of late. The movie opens with Leeson and Davis in bed together and never stops from there. PS:Colin Farrell fans, yes he’s here too. It is sure to be a commercial hit.
Over in my column of checks, female director is high on the list so it was an easy yes to seeing French writer/director Claire Denis’ first film shot in English. A head trip like no other, High Life is, on paper anyway, about a group of convicts aboard an intergalactic prison ship with a twisted scientist intent on saving the human race. That would be Juliette Binoche, who has some fun here in a sex chamber on board. The whole thing is trippy enough to satisfy sci fi cinephiles other than this one, who saw it late one night as my fourth film of the day, and struggled to keep awake. Robert Pattison and a baby on board may cause a few hearts to flutter, but the real strength here is in filmmaking which is eerie and utterly hypnotic. Go see it if you like your films doused in despair: these travellers are headed for oblivion.
The Wild Pear Tree
Ignore the beautiful girl in the photo above: she’s in the film for one scene. Ditto the other women in this three hour Turkish epic (Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s follow-up to Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep) their characters are minor players written in to serve the through line about an aspiring author and his complicated relationship with his father. Chopping characters is nothing new but this one is three hours and there is no way you can convince me that there wasn’t room to develop the women’s roles. Sigh. It’s a pattern throughout film history and just one of the reasons for the huge rally held at TIFF this year during the festival. I digress: everything else about this film is wonderful.
Another family portrait, this one from Kazakh auteur Emir Baigazin, who is known for his stunning cinematic compositions. The story: five brothers living in isolation on a dusty farm. The isolation is deliberate: their father, severe and unrelenting, wants them cut off from outside influences. Enter flashy cousin from the city who brings with him a smart tablet. I won’t spoil it but what happens next is unfolded in a series of highly disciplined scenes that drove me a little nuts at times, even as I admired the aesthetic. This is the final in a trilogy by the acclaimed director, and the young cast of brothers were outstanding.
Another mystery about an aspiring writer, and one beguiling enough to keep me awake for 148 minutes, Burning is a South Korean drama adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, favourite writer of at least one member of my household. Like the Wild Pear Tree, this film won my favour for its haunting qualities but lost me in the end for rendering the interesting female characters ultimately invisible. This is the story of a young writer obsessed with a woman who appears to have chosen a wealthy man who may or may not be a dangerous arsonist. Steve Yuen, You Ah-in, and Jeon Jong-seo round out the principal cast who handle the thriller aspects of this film with aplomb. What remains here for me is still the beautiful direction that had Cannes audiences raving.
The Fall of the American Empire
Denys Arcand got my attention in 1986 with The Decline of The American Empire and he’s back with his playful self here, continuing his focus on societal ills. This final in his trilogy is a crime caper about a Quebecois philosopher who drives a courier truck (when he’s not helping the homeless at a soup kitchen) who then interrupts a major robbery. There’s a love interest (of course) played here by Montreal’s Maripeier Morin (Tv host and star of the reality show Hockey Wives). Best thing about this film is Rémy Girard as a reformed money hustler, and Arcand’s script, which had my TIFF audience howling with laughter, despite the far-fetched plot lines. My beef: a sub-plot with gangsters that almost derails the social conscience of the film.
Dublin writer/director John Butler has created a beautiful essay about loneliness but what spoke to me was gorgeous Matt Bomer’s raw performance; one I won’t forget easily. Bomer plays a heartbroken gay weatherman who suffers a breakdown on the job. Recovering at home involves painting his deck and for that, he hires a Mexican migrant day worker, and forms an unlikely friendship. It’s a tiny slip of a film, almost too tiny to register, but it should. I wished for some of the other characters to have developed more, but have nothing but praise for Bomer here as you will too.
Every year along come films from actors who have become directors -and this year I saw three of them, all finely crafted and commendable, if not yet masterly. (Wildlife, directed by Paul Dano:very good, Teen Spirit, directed by Max Minghella, also good). Boy Erased is directed by Australian actor Joel Edgerton, who also acts in the principal cast. Lucas Hedges plays the son of a Baptist minister who is pressured into a gay conversion therapy program where he clashes with the head therapist played by Edgerton. I liked this film enough, although it felt like a Sunday movie of the week, although one I hope receives a wide audience given the crucial message of the film. Second only to a few documentaries I screened, this was easily the most disturbing subject matter of this year’s festival. What I will remember is Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as the parents; Kidman shines so brightly here. I also saw her in Destroyer which I’m sure you’ll hear lots about but it did nothing for me —just another damaged cop film and she, as blasphemous as this is to report, isn’t as great as the gushing reviews suggest. But here, in this film, Kidman is tops.
Yet another film with lots of buzz is this weeper. Addiction was another thematic thread this year in theatres. Let’s just call this film for what it is, shall we? Oscar bait. Steve Carrell made me cry. His performance? Surely among the best of the festival, best of the year at that. There’s not a parent anywhere who won’t see themselves in him. Timothée Chalamet is equally strong as the young addict but dammit, that guy is beautiful indeed and never once did his head of curls lose their gloss. I found it hard to believe in his downfall physically despite some fine acting chops. The whole piece lacked edge. But again, see it for the performances. Based on two bestseller memoirs written by real life father and son, David and Nic Sheff.
Time to confess: I’ll see anything with Guillaume Canet. Yes, yes, I know he has a beautiful girlfriend (Marianne Cotillard) but the guy does it all: acts, writes, directs, and makes it all look effortlessly cool. French director Oliver Assayas has assembled some other talents beside Canet for his latest, a screwball comedy, Non-Fiction. Canet is Alain, a successful Parisian publisher grappling with the looming digital shadow threatening to take over the industry. Married to an actress played by Juliette Binoche, Alain begins an affair with a digital expert..and well, I won’t spoil it but this film isn’t about plot points anyway. It’s very chatty and oh so French and somehow feels like a sparkling dinner party with your wittiest friends. This is the film, all meta, where little happens but dialogue. And oh, what dialogue! I wanted to scribble away in the darkness, such was the brilliance of Assayas’ script. Warning: If you don’t like conversation films, you should skip this. It slipped from Scrumptious for me because I threw my hands up: bring me more plot please.
British-Libyan filmmaker Naziha Arebi made her debut at TIFF in her first feature length documentary which tracks a group of female soccer players struggling for acceptance in Libyan society. There was much to love here, especially the young women themselves who will inspire all viewers, athletes or not. Arebi began filming in 2011 after the Libyan revolution, and the film spans five years following three main characters who became activists to encourage the younger generation. I loved their passion, and Arebi’s cinematography style, clearly one to watch in the future.
What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire?
The most urgent film of the festival surely should be seen by everyone. Italian director Roberto Minervini tackles ingrained racism in four parallel threats in this gripping examination; some work better than others. I saw many films this year about boys (I’m still waiting for the deluge about girls. HELLO WORLD?) but the pair in this film broke my heart. Ronaldo King and his brother Titus are the most memorable characters of TIFF for me. I wish to know their future. I hope and pray for their future.
The Friendly Greek and I ran into TIFF head Piers Handling at the St. Lawrence market late summer and were happy for the occasion to shake his hand with thanks: this is his last year at the helm and we TIFF fans know what he’s done for the city, for film, for all those young aspiring filmmakers seeking a platform. The amount of talent this guy has unveiled here in festival theatres is astounding. Anyway, Handling offered up his personal festival picks and we greedily snapped them up. Had to laugh though: these wizards likely have nuggets for every TIFF fan they meet. Handling suggested Cold War and off we went. Impressive yes. Director Pawel Pawilikowski won Best Director at Cannes last May for this film, an epic love story set against the background of the Cold War. So much to admire here: the music, the gorgeous black and white cinematography, the performance of lead actor Joanna Kulig. But I didn’t really like either of the lovers. One doesn’t need to like a character to embrace a film. But lovers? To buy into a big messy love affair, I needed to feel something. See it and tell me differently. Love to hear your thoughts. The critics are all over this one. Gasp.
More reading: from four years ago: TIFF: A field guide
Tomorrow: Quotables: the moments.
Note: People’s Choice winner, Green Book, opens in Toronto on November 21st.
It gets harder on this body every year, it being the annual cinematic circus this writer calls school. My knees ache and sleeping…what is that exactly? Dreams are chaotic at best. Reeses Peanut Butter Cups are not a food group.
Still, when the circus comes to town, I’m all in. For those uninitiated, TIFF is a feast for creatives, hungrily navigating a vast international menu of strange and wonderful offerings.
(Only nine here in this list. Tomorrow, I will bring you more on a bunch of very good films with flaws. This elite group are here because they allowed me to travel and forget where I was. And they made me believe. Out of 36 films screened, these are the gems that stood out)
A masterpiece of time and space, Roma is Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón’s valentine to his childhood nanny at the time of his parents’ divorce. Earlier this month it won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. Toronto audiences too were wowed as it was the third runner up in the People’s Choice awards. (I didn’t see the winner, Green Book) Forget all that. Why I loved it was the spectacular breadth of it all; one tableaux after another of extraordinary detail of life for the indigenous worker who was the heart of an upper-middle class family in the wealthy district of Roma in Mexico City. Cuarón spent months researching the 1970’s era and the recreations are epic and intimate in equal measure. The film spans political and social events but never losing the central through line of Cleo, played by first time actor Yalitza Aparicio. None of the cast had a script. Cuaron shot the film himself and the film feels at once deeply personal, at every turn, a tribute to the women that shaped him. Roma is a gradual build (the film is long but utterly immersive thanks to phenomenal sound design) and one deserving a place at every theatre around the world. A big theatre that is, not the living room variety. Netflix has this one*
Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda is highly skilled at capturing human behaviour without the usual shiny tricks lesser talents cannot escape from. Here, he is at his best, with a beautiful film about a made-up family of thieves that will linger in your heart for days after you meet them. There are a lot of heartbreaking films at TIFF every year. Shoplifters is the least manipulative I’ve seen and wins my praise for its generous treatment of each character. Critics at Cannes anointed this one with the Palme D’Or earlier this year. Canadians will have a chance to catch this when it opens in selected cities including Toronto on December 7th.
If the parent figures in Shoplifters don’t steal your heart, surely the beautiful father/daughter relationship in the Belgian drama Girl will slay you as it did for me. Selected as the Belgian entry for Best Foreign film for the next Oscars, Girl is about Lara, a fifteen-year-old transgender ballerina featuring a knock out performance by Victor Polster as Lara and Arieh Worthalter as her father. Expect great attention to be paid to specifics in this film; ignore them all. Lara is the adolescent in all of us, seeking, and not always finding answers as quickly as your soul demands. This was one of many astonishing debut features at TIFF and I loved it, among many reasons, for the beautiful ballet sequences and the space between dialogue: what was not said spoke volumes. Three cheers for restraint. Look out for director Lukas Dhont.
If Beale Street Could Talk
I loved every minute of Oscar winner Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his miraculous Moonlight. In this drama, he shows his reverence for writer James Baldwin, whose 1974 novel about a wrongly convicted young lover here gets nothing short of glorious adaptation. The production design in this film is dreamy. Mostly, I fell for the faces, the family (the whole cast is terrific) and surely the most earnest couple on the planet: Tish and Fonny are a new classic. Pure gold.
Often I’m asked why I don’t just wait for films to come out, given the massive cultural shift known as surfing through streaming networks. The TIFF screening of Wild Rose in Toronto is one good reason. Witnessing the international premiere of an actor whose career is about to explode thanks to the most sizzling performance of the festival was pure magic. Irish actor Jessie Buckley is already well known in the UK (War & Peace on the BBC, and the talent show I’ll Do Anything) and was named a rising star at TIFF last year where she starred in Beast (one of my 2017 picks). But in this film, as sure a crowd pleaser as any in the festival, Buckley is Rose-Lynn, a Glasgow convict dreaming of singing in Nashville. We were all with her that night, and her gutsy performance bursting out of the screen. Also in this musical genre at TIFF was another knock out star turn by Elle Fanning (yes, she can sing, and how!) in Teen Spirit, actor Max Minghella’s debut feature as a director, and a very good one at that. Both Wild Rose and Teen Spirit are little films up against the Goliath that will be A Star is Born when all hit theatres. (I didn’t see the latter but plan to when it opens here October 5th.*****) Wild Rose will come to theatres in North America next May.
It’s hard to be surprised anymore when I’m watching movies. I try to erase former etchings for each new screening but the clichés scream their way in every time. If your taste runs into disturbing fairytales, this one has some darker shading. Border got me. The Swedish mystery film by Ali Abbasi wins the most unforgettable storyline featuring a strange looking heroine, Tina, who was born with a weird scar on her tailbone and an unusual ability to sniff out sleaze balls. As a border agent, she can sense fear, guilt, and shame. I can’t tell you much more without spoilers but mostly, I knew I was in for a crazy ride when the director introduced the film by promising us all a refund at the end if we didn’t like it. No one says that if they’re not confident. For fans of the weird and creepy, this one delivers but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Old lovers (real life couple Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz) with unfinished history reunite for a wedding in the Spanish countryside. Secrets and mystery lurk, brought to head by a disturbing event. It all swirls in a sumptuous melodramatic
soap opera soup, deliciously stirred by Oscar winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. Barden and Cruz are the reason the film makes my list; without them, it would be ordinary, no matter how beautifully shot, no matter how assured the direction. These two are simply gorgeous together and there is a wedding scene in this film that is simply irresistible.
This is the type of quietly intense film that often gets overlooked by showier titles, but with two powerhouse actors as principal cast, actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut had no chance of getting lost. Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal are a housewife and golf pro in crisis in 196o’s Montana. Watching his parents every move with deepening despair is their son, Joe, played by Australian Ed Oxenbould, who is the best thing about this film. Dano is a director to watch. What he achieves here is a highly composed essay with perfect balance. Look for Oscar to come calling for Oxenbould, and also for Mulligan, outstanding once again.
Attention all high school teachers and girls camp leaders: this is that inspiring documentary of awesome adventure that will remind all the younger generation that gee whiz, there were some trailblazers that came before them. I shed a tear at the end of this hard-to-resist story of barrier breaking sailors who were the first women to sail the prestigious Whitbread Round the World Race. The film, directed by UK doc director Alex Holmes, offers thrills of all kinds: from archival footage of the actual race to talking head reminicences of this feisty crew, led by the heroine of the hour, Tracy Edwards. If you’re a sailor, you’ll be impressed plenty. If you’re not a sailor, you’ll be dumbfounded. Courage is underrated. These women spell it out in bold.
Will you, readers, have access to these? Yes, and no. Some of the titles screened already have hefty distribution deals with release dates in theatres this fall. Others generated heated bidding wars midway through the ten day run and you may or may not see them in wide release until next year. Others will show up on TIFF headquarters, the Bell Lightbox, where some of the festival hits are screened throughout the year. My favourite film of the festival, Roma, is distributed by Netflix.
*For more on that, read Roma is Netflix’s Most Compelling Big Screen Argument Yet (Atlantic)
For more on how I endure, a post from 2012: WHY TIFF
Next in this space : the Also-Rans: films I liked even for their flaws.
****POSTSCRIPT Since posting this blog, I have now seen A Star is Born. Yes, yes, yes. More to come. But that it belongs here, on this list, a resounding yes.
As Summer offers up her breezy welcome, I salute the Spring that was, the Spring that sprung me loose, for a time, among olive groves. Did I manage to catch enough? Moments, not olives. Here follows a few that sustained me before the days became long and sunny:
Watching the sweet new documentary about Mister Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbour with my guy, both our faces stained with tears, all of us there in that theatre suddenly children again, we agreed we were the lucky ones who grew up with this gentle spirit leader, even if the experience was again peering at the snowglobe: the world will never be like this again. Go see this film, out now in theatres, my favourite from Hot Docs 2018. .
Fun Home. What a theatrical masterpiece, featuring three actors playing a character at different stages of her life; the production we saw received rapturous applause. Mine was mostly for Sara Farb for her solo, I’m changing my major to Joan. Who doesn’t remember that first thrill of amazing sex, no matter what your orientation? Here’s the Toronto cast:
Other theatrical highs for me this past spring include the exuberant cast of Wavestage’s Beauty and the Beast. I’ve rarely seen that show done with such joy, helped along with the mad skills of a young choreographer who juggles gorgeous wedding photography on the side. More reason than ever to admire these hustling millennials. Yup. I said millennials. They are more than a trend colour.
Every social gathering is now lined with small screen binging currency. What have you seen? What are you watching? My answer this spring is The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Yes, it is marvellous, and reason enough, along with Mozart in the Jungle, to keep an eye on Prime. Both are antidotes to The Handmaid’s Tale. Yes, I’m watching that too and who could not as it is beautiful execution at every turn, even as it is harrowing.
To rid myself of too much angst, I go to a handful of NHL hockey games every season. Let’s leave stats and scores for the whiz kids like my nephew John but here’s a confession: it’s mostly about the collective experience for me. Are there any left? Where hollering and whooping with the rest of the crazies is better than…just better? We may be shouting Go Leafs Go but here’s a handy translation: Fuck Gloom. We’re for Glory. World Cup mania is about to hit. I’m ready.
Driving my youngest kid home after her university year wraps up and she has to say goodbye so of course there’s tears, and me maintaining control of the wheel on the 401 when there is a sudden cry in the car: she’s looking at her phone as an email just came in from her school with her marks. And her smile is as wide as the road ahead. I turn up the radio and we’re rocking all the way home now.
Hearing my father express his enduring love for our mother on their 61st anniversary with this simple grace note, when I wake up in the night and reach over, she’s there, warm beside me.
Two months later, they were together at University of Toronto, where Mom showed off her medal received, along with other classmates, for their 65th reunion from Victoria College. I sat beside Mom as she smiled at her two old chums across from her, all of them singing their school song there in Burwash Hall, and she told me she didn’t want to leave quite yet; there was strawberry shortcake after all. Memory isn’t like my ten year old dog, Lucy; she our faithful door butler/surest secret keeper. Memory flirts ferociously, flutter here, flutter there, where did I put my keys? I don’t know how to find my way there anymore… But old friends and school songs and holding hands like college coeds? That’s the there there.When my young nephew Henry came over to muck about with our dollhouse, his current set-up for the miniatures that inhabit our children’s library were configured as a band surrounded by fans. He was hearing music in his head when he set this up. Imagination just needs a door.
Then came Greece. Leaving for a spell is easy when you have people. Not rows of uniformed help. Rather, friends. A certain kind of friend who says yes when asked if she can be your surrogate caregiver while you are away. You know there’s work to be done and people in need, and without a back-up, your absence would produce challenges too hard to bear. So you ask. Her response, I would be honoured. Every day I was gone, she was here, quietly offering up intuitive leadership with efficiency of which I can only dream. My siblings cleared a way for me to travel. My friend Eva made it easy for my soul to fly.
Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.
-Mary Oliver, To Begin With, the Sweet Grass