Tyler recaps his experience at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
The feeling of film festival, especially a large one that features red carpet premieres, is an often imbalanced mixture of high-energy chaos and downtempo disaffection. Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), being the largest of the early fall festivals and a proven attractor of Oscar-level buzzworthy movies, contains this feeling in spades: A sometimes whiplash-inducing mixture of “Oh my god is that Julia Roberts?!” to “Yeah I mean I just kinda wished High Life would’ve told me a little more what was going on” shoved into several movie theaters over an eleven day span.
TIFF is more than a little exhausting; Toronto is such a massive city, and the festival such a garguantan event, that screenings are separated by miles of city blocks, most of which are blissfully unaware that film’s biggest fest is happening right across the street. The theaters not specifically crafted for movie watching, like Elgin, Winter Garden, Roy Thomson and the Princess of Wales, though beautiful, can induce a series of very real neck and back pains when inahbited for more than a few days straight. It’s no wonder movie critics of professional stature get exhausted by the trials of festival life.
Yet the exhaustion proves worthwhile for the most part, due to the overwhelming emotional weight of the movies shown at the fest. Because TIFF aspires to be on the level of Sundance and Cannes (more often than not succeeding), the slate typically eschews comedy and more b-movie genre fare, instead opting for affecting drama (Ben Is Back, If Beale Street Could Talk), excoriating documentary (Errol Morris’ American Dharma), A24 and Annapurna-level genre fare (High Life, Sisters Brothers), or foreign films (Ash is Purest White, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Shoplifters). This can leave the three- and four-film-a-day-goer in a state of emotional exhaustion over the course of a few days, let alone the life of the festival. Perhaps there’s a reason the back half of the fest traditionally features the “Onset of the Olds,” or non-traditional, older locals looking to grab tickets to movies in their retired years. It’s all a bit too taxing for movie fans over the whole enterprise.
Yet for the price of waiting in lines, overpriced water, red carpet chaos, emotional drain and overall exhaustion, film festivals like TIFF provide a window into the kind of access national movie theaters have yet to figure out, and seem to refuse to put much stock in at all. TIFF feels thoroughly modern in this way — the slate heavily featured releases that already owned distribution on Netflix, making the fest sometimes feel like little more than a picture window into a more accessible moviegoing culture that lies just beyond our horizon.
But for someone on their own in the theater, ping-ponging across downtown Toronto and skimming past Michael Shannon as he asks for a cigarette just to see Claire Denis introduce her movie in front of a massive screen and gush about her editor… the experience is as close to the pinnacle of film watching as humanly possible. Because in those pregnant moments after the curtain closes on a film like Burning a feeling falls upon everyone in the audience that you are among a community of film lovers, here to appreciate the craft of filmic storytelling in its most honest and try-hard form.
TIFF may not be the greatest festival on Earth, but it achieves a rare feat of being a festival for the masses looking for an autograph, the beleagured superfans of foreign film, the movie critic eager to make his check on capsule reviews, and the studio executive looking for an easy audience to send raves back to his boss. TIFF is, in essence, the film industry, smashed into a concentrated lightbox for nearly a fortnight. It’s wonderful. I’m tired.
[Note: I missed screenings of Cold War, The Death & Life of John F. Donovan, First Man, Shoplifters, Sunset, and Widows. Believe me, I’m sad about it too.]
The Bad Stuff
23. Maya (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
A French journalist, dealing with PTSD after surviving a kidnapping, goes on vacation to India’s Goa state to renovate his rich family’s summer home. In between light-as-a-sledgehammer diatribes about Indian gentrification, said journalist finds time to romance and sleep with his godfather’s seventeen-year-old daughter. If that’s not enough to repulse you, the movie is stultifyingly boring about all of its twists and turns.
22. The Kindergarten Teacher (dir. Sara Colangelo)
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the titular character, a disaffected and beleaguered teacher doing poorly in her creative poetry night class. Yet when she discovers that a five-year-old in her class is a poetry savant (he will, at random times, start pacing a room reciting evocative, short koans), she sees the opportunity to both exploit, then kidnap, the talent of others. Gyllenhaal’s character is a monster of terrifying proportions, yet the movie actually presents her as relatable, as her rants about the vicious, unrelenting lack of creativity in the outside world are empathized with and given extensive time. Boringly shot, it was perhaps the most misguided movie of the festival.
21. Ben is Back (dir. Ben Hedges)
Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, and Courtney B. Vance deal with addictive behavior in upper middle-class America with a damning lack of subtlety, nuance or understanding of addictive behavior and its causes. Perhaps the writers’ experience informs the troubling empathy with Roberts’ Williams Sonoma-come-enabler character, or Hedges’ manic depressiveness. Yet the finale of the movie leaves open the question as to whether the writers were at all interested in talking about addiction and its aftereffects, or if Ben Is Back was just meant to be a Oscar-baiting (they wish) two-hander for its leads.
20. The Wedding Guest (dir. Michael Winterbottom)
Mark this as perhaps the most disappointing of my festival. Michael Winterbottom has long been a favorite director of mine (his The Trip trilogy is my favorite satire of the modern tourism-porn industry, and Tristram Shandy is a knockout), yet he brings none of the zeal and charm of his earlier work to this, a generic Bourne or Taken rip-off with Dev Patel in India. Every beat is an exercise in “this is what I think should happen, but they’ll twist it,” and then watching in stunted disppointment as the twist never comes. India’s Goa region did not have a good festival.
19. Wildlife (dir. Paul Dano)
Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan had the fascinating, entirely original and not completely played idea that maybe the 1950s weren’t the greatest era of all time, actually. Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan give the work their best. Frequently the film also feels like Dano directing an autobiography, as the perspective of generational malaise and the burgeoining feminist movement is seen through the eyes of a young child. Yet Dano can’t find anything particularly interesting to say about his time or setting, and the movie wastes a beautiful landscape and a terrific cast.
18. Destroyer (dir. Karyn Kusama)
Karyn Kusama consistently works down. She is, by far, one of the best directors in the business, bringing a level of richly textured realism to proceedings that, every single time, don’t match her talent or drive to be excellent. The story is something out of a later-season The Shield episode, the stunt casting and secondary characters are little more than caricatures, and Nicole Kidman is overacting to compensate for some… noticeable… plastic surgery. Another disappointment from a director that deserves so, so much better.