TIFF 2016: In Review
Felicity Jones appears on the red carpet at TIFF for the premiere of “A Monster Calls”
Now that I’ve had a week to recuperate from the chaos of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), I can finally look back on it with something of a clear head. This has been my fourth year living in Toronto during the festival, my second year of properly participating, and my most action-packed festival experience yet.
In this 41st year, TIFF hosted nearly 400 films from diverse genres and countries, including a crop of Nigerian films as part of the City to City: Lagos programme. There were dozens of shorts and numerous feature categories from documentaries to horror films (Midnight Madness) and up-and-comers (Discovery) to industry heavyweights (Masters). And, of course, there were those much-buzzed about titles with their sights set on Oscar season (Gala Presentations).
TIFF’s reputation as a world-class festival brings prestige (and traffic) to the city. For these eleven days Toronto plays host to industry people and film critics, who join those of us who live in Toronto year-round. There are two types of locals during TIFF: those who avoid Toronto’s crowded downtown core, and those who flock to it for the chance to see the newest films before everyone else, to catch a glimpse of Hollywood’s brightest stars, or just to experience the buzz that is downtown Toronto in September (go Blue Jays!).
In the three years since my first TIFF, organizers have wisely chosen to shut down the area completely to traffic for the first week of the festival, creating a blocks-long “Festival Village” along a stretch of King Street and spills organically into the rest of the downtown area. Aside from some keenly placed food trucks, the village didn’t offer much in terms of things to see or do that aren’t normally there. But it was nice to be able to wander the area free of Toronto’s noisy, mind-numbing traffic.
With the world-class designation, however, comes a barrier to entry. Tickets are expensive and, in previous years, have often been difficult to get. A partnership with Ticketmaster this year made it easier and more convenient to obtain tickets. I would have lauded this move, but the fact that it was announced only as tickets went on sale, without the caveat that prices for high demand titles were inflated, made it feel dubious and dishonest.
In terms of the fan experience, too much preference is given to those with special, sponsor-approved credentials. Don’t bother trying to get an autograph from a star along the main red carpet area at Roy Thomson Hall. The best views are reserved for those with access to special sponsored viewing chambers that block the view of those standing nearby, and double barriers prevent talent from coming within arm’s length of the fans. The set up across the street at Princess of Wales allows for much better interaction between fans and celebrities.
Corporate politics aside, TIFF is really about the movies. One thing I noticed this year was how many films were showing despite release dates that either bumped up against or overlapped with the festival. At least when I saw “Beasts of No Nation” premiere last year, it was a full month ahead of its Netflix release date. This year’s opening film was Antoine Fuqua’s “The Magnificent Seven”, premiering a mere two weeks before its theatrical release. “Blair Witch” was still playing at TIFF the day before it opened in theatres. And the Canadian sci-fi flick ARQ made its way to Netflix during the film’s festival run.
I opted not to see many of the bigger films, knowing demand for tickets would be high and that they would be in wide release soon anyway, so most of the films I’m going to talk about are smaller titles more in need of promotion.
That said, the big winners with both critics and audiences were Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” (the People’s Choice Award winner) and Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival”, with praise also going to this year’s previous festival favorites: the Casey Affleck drama “Manchester by the Sea” (Sundance), German comedy “Toni Erdmann” (Cannes), and tender coming-of-age film “Moonlight” (Telluride). I didn’t see any of these, but I expect we’ll be hearing more about these films as 2016 winds down and we start to see critics’ top ten lists roll out.
A colleague of mine saw an impressive 10% of the films offered, and while I only saw a fraction of the TIFF slate, I left the festival tired and with much to think about. Through my job tangentially related to the Canadian film industry, I was able to see a handful of Canadian films, as well as a selection of my own choosing.
All films were chosen based on personal interest and availability. What follows is a list, in the order I saw them, of the eight films I saw during the festival, including my brief thoughts on each.
My full reviews are available here.
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to catch many of these films until next year, as the smaller films are still searching for distribution.
Until then, here’s a rundown of what I’ve seen at TIFF this year….
CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY
directed by: Matt Tyrnauer
Watching the first ever public screening of the documentary “Citizen Jane” in Jane Jacobs’ own Toronto neighborhood (in her own community theatre) lent extra credence to the film’s defense of her philosophy on urban preservation. The film elegantly yet accessibly delineates the opposing worldviews of Robert Moses and Jacobs. “Citizen Jane” is a highly political film in the sense that the personal is political. Those who live in and make up cities have a vested interest in the issues that affect them, issues that persist long past the time that Jacobs fought to keep cities serving their citizens rather than citizens serving cities. This is civic activism as superheroism, wrapped around a tight narrative and featuring a legitimate comic book supervillain in Moses. It’s as much a love letter to Jacobs’ ideals, activism, and urban vision as it is to Jacobs herself. While its reliance on archival footage sometimes hurts the film visually, it is at its best when showcasing the city itself, effectively using beautiful and often haunting urban cinematography throughout.
Release date: November 10, 2016 (New York, DOC NYC Festival); no release date set
A MONSTER CALLS
directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona
I’m a sucker for films that explore the idea of storytelling and the concept that words and stories have great power to create and to destroy, to rebuild and to rift. “A Monster Calls” is one of those films. In it, a monster comes in the night to young Connor O’Malley and tells him Connor will get three stories, true stories, in exchange for one: the truth of the nightmare Connor dreams. The truth is that Connor’s mother is dying of cancer. We can see that clearly, even if he can’t admit it. But the truth he must confront is even more surprising, complicated, and deeply human than that. Connor doesn’t want stories, he wants a miracle. But, as the monster reminds him, stories are all we have. We, like Connor’s mother, tell stories (fictions) to protect those we love. But it’s complicated. Connor quickly learns that there aren’t always heroes and villains, and real life doesn’t always make sense. A live action fable with an incredible visual language that renders various segments in different stunning animation styles, “A Monster Calls”, like the monster himself, is frightening and dangerous, because the truths it forces out are frightening and dangerous. This is my favourite film of 2016 so far. It was moved from an October release smack into Oscar season, so one can only hope it finds the audience it deserves. This could be a profoundly influential film for a generation of kids.
Release date: December 23, 2016 (limited); January 6, 2017 (wide)
directed by: Kevan Funk
Disguised as a hockey film but relatively unconcerned with the sport itself, “Hello Destroyer” is a slow-burning character study that explores how violence permeates not just the culture of hockey, but culture as a whole. Jared Abrahamson (TV’s “Fear the Walking Dead”) is remarkably naturalistic in the lead role; in fact, so are most of the performances thanks to the use of a mix of trained and non-actors. It is only Kurt Max Runte as the team’s coach whose performance feels like a performance. It’s notable, but only because everything around him feels so authentic, right down to the rural Canadian accents. Director Kevan Funk creates an oppressive atmosphere of tension and claustrophobia through the use of impeccable sound design, close-ups, and sustained shots, and skillfully subverts expectations by building tension and then deflating it. The film’s ending is haunting and rendered with surprising subtlety, implicating family, society, and Canadian identity in an ongoing cycle of violence.
Release date: October 1, 2016 (Vancouver, Vancouver International Film Festival); no release date set
directed by: Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Ungalaaq
In “Maliglutit”, Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk flips the script on the classic John Ford western, “The Searchers”, but not by taking filmic revenge on whites by making them the villains of the piece. In fact, Kunuk seems to give no thought to race here at all beyond accurately representing the culture of his own people. He said as much during the post-film Q&A: he makes movies to preserve his culture for future generations. Here, evil comes from within the group, as the gang who abducts and murders members of the protagonist’s family are other Inuits, shown in the beginning being cast out of one small community group for breaking the group’s customs. The film’s close-quarters shooting means every physical interaction, whether violent or tender, is necessarily intimate, especially when framed against the vastness of the cold north. Kunuk demonstrates some inspired filmmaking, especially during the lengthy chase sequence that makes up the last section of the film. But the first hour of the film suffers from such spare and languid pacing that it is difficult to connect to any of the characters or action.
Release date: no release date set
CEUX QUI FONT LES RÉVOLUTIONS À MOITIÉ N’ONT FAIT QUE SE CREUSER UN TOMBEAU (THOSE WHO MAKE REVOLUTIONS HALFWAY ONLY DIG THEIR OWN GRAVES)
directed by: Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie
I was intrigued by both the title and the premise of this Québécois film, described in the TIFF schedule as a “stunning fusion of fiction and documentary about a radical leftist cell seeking to sow mayhem in Montréal as a prelude to overthrowing the government.” To be fair, “Those Who Make Revolutions Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves” has interesting elements. Several of the dramatic sequences are quite well shot and acted, especially those that serve to develop the characters. There are nuanced dramatic scenes and moments of inspired humour. And “Revolutions” seeks to ask probing questions about what it means to have ideals and how committed to those ideals one is willing to be in the face of broader social conventions. But this three-hour bloated mess of a film spends most of its run-time tackling these questions with all the blind ambition and self-indulgence of a bad student film. From split-screens, direct address to the camera, archival footage, large overlaid text, over-use of quotes from leftist thinkers and philosophers, an overture and intermission, and the most unintentionally hilarious overwrought sex scene since “Watchmen”, there’s nothing this film doesn’t include. Half the time it feels as though “Revolutions”could be a satire mocking the privileged idealism of its characters were it not so reservedly sympathetic to them. Every effort to be bold and edgy is undermined by the sheer lack of restraint. The jury chose this film as the best Canadian film of the festival, but I chose it as the biggest, most indulgent turd.
Release date: no release date set
BELOW HER MOUTH
directed by: April Mullen
More “The L Word” than “Blue Is the Warmest Color”, local production “Below Her Mouth” is a stylish, sexy, and painfully romantic portrait of discovering an inconvenient love. It’s daring in terms of its full-on commitment to the female gaze, even if there doesn’t seem to be much going on thematically. I was in awe of the gorgeous visual style and art-design throughout. It’s clear director April Mullen and her crew had intimate knowledge of Toronto, resulting in a film that captures that magic rush of discovering secret pockets of the city where it feels like anything can happen. The acting is a bit stilted, but I think it actually lends to the awkwardness of a new relationship. The lead actresses have physical chemistry and the movie wisely relies on that and keeps their conversations to a minimum. It’s not that they’re bad, but one half of the pair (Erika Linder, the one who looks just like Kristen Stewart) is a model making her feature acting debut, and many of her lines are muffled by an attempt to hide her Swedish accent.
Release date: no release date set.
directed by: Katherine Dieckmann
“Strange Weather” follows Darcy Baylor (Holly Hunter), a grieving single mother who learns some information that changes her perspective on her only son’s death and leads her on a road trip to find the truth. The film’s stakes are so small they would be almost laughable were they not so personal. But Hunter is magnificent at conveying the character’s desperation. Despite some harrowing scenes, the film has lightness and warmth that serve the characters. Dieckmann really subtly rolls out just enough back-story to let you follow the narrative and piece things together, but she unfortunately undercuts that subtlety with too much exposition. It’s minor, but distracts from the nuance of the characters, especially when the actors are doing such great work. Hunter, who is in nearly every scene in the film, is probably going to be nominated for an Oscar if the film is distributed. But Carrie Coon and Kim Coates are both fantastic as well as Darcy’s best friend and ex-lover, respectively. Scenes between Coon and Hunter prove the tragedy of how infrequently those actresses are cast in leading roles. Dieckmann talked about how difficult it is (“next to impossible”) to finance films about middle-aged women. “Strange Weather” deserves distribution not just because it’s a strong film, but because we see so relatively few stories like this.
Release date: no release date set
THE BAD BATCH
directed by: Ana Lily Amirpour
“The Bad Batch”, Ana Lily Amirpour’s follow-up to “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night”, is one of those films so bursting with style and character it’s easy to forgive the minor narrative clunkiness. Set in a future United States in which a section of desert has been designated for “The Bad Batch” of society’s undesirables, Arlen, a girl of unknown (to the audience) past is set adrift by Texas law enforcement to fend for herself against a clan of cannibals. “The Bad Batch” is essentially a western. But there’s a lot going on here, from dismemberment of the heroine pretty much from the outset to a father’s quest to find a missing child to a Burning Man-esque haven called Comfort. What might not be conveyed from the premise alone is just how uniquely funny and infused with life and style Amirpour’s film is. Her visual eye is acute and her wit is tuned to get a laugh out of minor details. There is visual cohesion even in a world as chaotic as this one, where it feels like everything but the kitchen sink was included. Narrative flaws are too minor to really frustrate, and too surrounded by weird fun and a compelling yarn.
Release date: no release date set.
Chicago readers can check out some much buzzed-about TIFF titles at the Chicago International Film Festival next month. They will be showing “Moonlight”, “Arrival”, “Lion”, and “La La Land” along with a couple horror titles that come highly recommended by my colleagues: “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” and “Raw”, which apparently was so shocking an ambulance was called when a viewer passed out.