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creativity

TIFF 2019: The List

By September 17, 2019 Film, Performance

Are we getting better at choosing films or was this just a very good year? Here was the menu to choose from:

11 days. 245 features. 82 shorts. 6 series. 84 countries and regions. 51 first-time feature filmmakers.

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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 knell brought on by streaming services, surely it is this gorgeous gem by master magician Terence Malick who is back in top form after a series of ineffective films. Yes, this one 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 nevertheless challenge some filmgoers. Mostly 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 surely the entire year—it is all gasp-worthy— a majestic score, and a pair of actors who made me believe in their love story. I am still thinking about what is essentially the most heroic and urgent film I saw after screening forty festival films. It is not the only film dividing audiences at the festival but it is the most worthy. Look for it in theatres 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 final day of the festival. After the pedestrian choice of Green Book here last year, that 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, but he is aided by very strong performances of two youthful actors to watch, 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, just, 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 exactly the film’s intent: anti-hate. Waititi, who received a rapturous ovation at the screening I attended, told us all at the screening he made the film very pointedly, likening our current climate with 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, like many at TIFF, difficult to watch. Indeed, many didn’t, as the film experienced walkouts both here in Toronto and also at the Venice film festival where it premiered. The journey of an unnamed boy in Nazi-occupied Central Europe is mostly one of brutality but I’ve seen far more searing war imagery at TIFF in the past, including the excellent 2015 Hungarian film, Son of Saul . Hell, most of the 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 to come. I will never look at crows again the same way. Also making pivotal appearances in the narrative are two of my favourite actors: Harvey Keitel and Stellan Starsgard.

So Long, My Son

Another long film, another day I cannot drink my usual intake of water… 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, a story which also manages to work as a social commentary of the country’s one-child policy during the social and financial upheaval in the decades that followed the Cultural Revolution. Earlier this year, at the Berlin film festival, the film won the two main acting awards, 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” and I eagerly await the next installment.

Parasite

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 begin to 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 weeps in 2019). Tone is frequently telegraphed early on and still, you settle back to enjoy the unfolding of what you hope is a tale well told. When a tone shifts, it rarely does so seamlessly: most filmmakers are clumsy at best when they attempt such leaps. Not so South Korean master Bong Joon Ho. His feat here is so nimble 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, 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 titles. If the film does not tell the whole story, it certainly 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 excess that comes midway in the film-it’s not a perfect vehicle. This is a very American drama and 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 (first was The Meyrowitz Stories, which I loved ) and will have a limited theatrical release before it begins streaming 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 sharing one household….hmmm.

Proxima

Sometimes I feel there is a different festival out there when I read news about TIFF. It’s all parties and 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 wonderful, 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 a very good example of how many films 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 simply spectacular here and rises above some of the 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) and in the hands of another director, would be treacle. But this is the director who won a Cesar (the French Oscar) for writing the Turkish film Mustang, one of the best films of 2015 and they are beautifully directed.

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

Rocks

This was our first film screened and did it ever knock it out of the park. Indeed, 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, this gem 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; non-actors coming together as a year-long volunteer workshop that resulted in a script that sizzles. The diverse and gorgeous 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 fantastic film, another Platform contender at the festival. This film would have been my pick to win the Platform prize. Ahmed, who spent six months prior to the film’s shoot learning to play the drums and learn sign language, portrays a former addict and musician named Ruben who loses his hearing. He is utterly compelling to watch in this process and delivers a performance that is not as showy as other festival faves like Joaquin Phoenix , Adam Driver or Adam Sandler, but equally as potent. (Ahmed 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 sound design allowing viewers to feel as if they are inside Ruben’s head which sounds gimmicky but never is. I loved it from start to finish. At its heart, this is a film about profound loss and the search for identity and will reach many viewers because of it, and Ahmed’s performance. 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 students at a Belgian-run Catholic boarding school who navigate 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 truly cinematic, this film is the kind of essential world cinema that is the reason 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, mostly for its courage. LaBeouf himself plays a character based on his own 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 and 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, which is why I prefer cinema to anything on a small screen, no matter how much I love my famjams 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 just 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 but unlike Malick, the musings are on aging, time, and the strengths of relationships, including his marriage to fellow musician Patty Scialfa. In the hands of a lesser talent, this would have been a pretentious exercise but we’re talking Springsteen here. Mixed in with the music (recorded with an orchestra in Springsteen’s own barn) is wonderful archival footage including shots Springsteen took himself on his honeymoon thirty years ago. Some of the images are repetitive but Springsteen is never not watchable. Made with his longtime collaborator Thom Zimny, Western Stars was the final act in a trilogy of reflection that Springsteen began with 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 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. The crowd was rowdy and 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 pick your seat in the theatre carefully. 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 worthy TIFF films screened that just missed my 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. And what we went wrong with Just Mercy and Pain & Glory. And maybe the Friendly Greek will weigh in.

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