There are few things more annually depressing to me than the final days of The Toronto International Film Festival. For almost 15 years, TIFF has provided me with the unthinkable incentive to actually anticipate the end of summer. The only problem is once the TIFF festivities come to a close, so too does the coveted season, leaving only memories to hold onto as Toronto summer fades into the decaying sunshine, before the yearly cycle can start anew. Fortunately, TIFF 2013 has made for an abundance of top-shelf memories for future nostalgia.
In truth, I would say this year has provided one of the best film festivals of recent years. There are many features of TIFF that make it amongst the most beloved fests out there, but for me, one of the key ingredients that sets it apart is its increasing emphasis on extra-special presentations. An example in recent years might be the Elgin premiere of Guy Maddin’s hyper-silent film Brand Upon the Brain! back in ‘06, which, with the help of live voice over narration, symphony scoring, and foley sound effects, certainly burned its way into my brain with flying colors. Quite an accomplishment for a B&W.
This year saw no shortage of special events. Some were so shockingly special that they simply must dominate the upper crust of this top 5-highlight list of TIFF ’13 by default. To put that plainly, if Spike Jonze drops into town for a 90 minute conversation with Kelly Reichardt, any other ticket would have to be pretty damn special to compete. But besides these super-special presentations, what of course matters most are the films themselves. As always, TIFF ’13 also provided a stellar lineup of films from established talent and new voices alike. Some films were so good that waiting until a second screening seemed unbearable. Roger Ebert always described TIFF as an extremely special festival and one incomparable to the other majors. There are many reasons for this, from the receptive audiences to the very special presentations to the burgeoning talent. I’ve always liked to think it also had to do with the city itself. TIFF is founded on the all-are-welcome principles of a public festival, and as a result, it has the film-goers of Toronto to thank for the passionate energy that drove it to thrive. In return, TIFF has given this city a wealth of art and culture, and after 30 years, continues to provide in generous doses. Consider the following highlight list the top 5 examples of why Torontonians should feel grateful to call TIFF our own.
5. Generally Stellar Lineup of New Films
One of the most enjoyable days in August is when word finally drops of the directors and films that’ll be passing through Toronto each year. Somehow the list always seems to go on and on. This year TIFF saw the likes of Bruce MacDonald, Errol Morris, Mayazaki, David Gordon Green, Alfonso Cuarón, and many more legends of cinema. As in every year, towards the end of the week it seemed I’d seen so many quality films in such a tight amount of time, my head was gaining weight. Each of the films in the following copout sub-genre are deserving of an entire review, but for the purpose of this list, I’ll mention some of the few films that cinephiles can look forward to upon their impending releases within the next few months. There was Jarmusch’s curious take on the vampire film. In keeping with Jarmusch’s pre-occupation, it’s delightfully fitting that his point of his interest lies in the age-old lead vampire’s taste in music. Being centuries old, Jarmusch’s vampires, suavely portrayed by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, have seen great musicians pass through their lifetimes, from Mozart to Screamin’ Jay to Jack White. But what happens when the reclusive rock-god vampire loses his thirst for life while his thirst for blood simultaneously escalates. The story is a meditation on rock and roll mortality and one told with style and well-placed moments of golden humour. It’s a delight to report that Only Lovers Left Alive is another win for Jarmusch.
Following the loose sequel to Hard Core Logo, Bruce MacDonald’s new film The Husband offered further proof that MacDonald has never stopped being an exciting filmmaker. In The Husband, MacDonald still finds fresh ways to take chances, from the film’s challenging and untraditionally suspenseful content to his unflinching directorial approach. Another nice thing about his films is that they often take place in recognizable Canadian locales. Location-wise, even more than Scott Pilgrim, The Husband is perhaps the most Toronto-based-film I’ve ever seen. It even includes a shopping trip to our city’s beloved and sadly endangered Honest Ed’s.
Hirokazu Kore-Eda, whose film I Wish was among the most moving experiences of TIFF ’11, was back in Toronto with his new masterpiece, Like Father, Like Son. Like all of his work, the film is a beautifully shot and genuinely written experience. Nobody Knows, Kore-Eda’s fascination with childhood perspectives is again at play, only now that the director is himself a father, the focus is shifted to the nature of parenting and cycles of family history. It’s no wonder the film won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year. Of this batch of returning talents, many of whom have grown into Mavericks, perhaps the film that impressed me the most was David Gordon Green’s Joe. With Green’s recent foray into comedy, Joe is somewhat of a return to form for the director, who revisits more personally local territory. The performances by Nicolas Cage and youngster, Tye Sheridan – who’s been lucky enough to appear in films by several Maverick directors of late – were among the year’s best. Even more impressive than the seasoned actors, young and old, were the amateurs who Green and his casting director plucked from the streets. Like the great Neorealists Rossellini, De Sica or even Henzell, Green feels like one of the last directors working with ordinary faces to achieve utmost realism. How some of these townies were able to pull off the performances they did is nothing short of astounding. Joe will certainly be high up on my year-end top 10.
4. Live Music at The Elgin
As mentioned earlier, back in 2006, Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon The Brain! utilized The Elgin Theater in a remarkable way. BUTB! and its unique premiere, turned the silent film experience on its head, in an explosion of style befitting Maddin’s ability to morph ancient cinema into an intensely surreal and expressionistically personal trip. In 2013, the example of this type of larger than life Elgin experience came with Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors. As if screening Reggio’s first film in 11 years wasn’t enough, the film was accompanied by a live score performed by the TSO and written by Philip Glass, who was in attendance. And as if this wasn’t already too good to be true, the whole thing was presented by Steven Soderbergh, who also conducted a wonderful Q&A between Reggio, Glass, and, editor Jon Kane, after the film screened.
As for the film itself, I can honestly say this was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had watching a movie in a long time. If you’ve seen Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, you know what type of film to expect, at least insofar as what not to expect, such as narrative or things to do with pop-structure. Viewers would be best advised to open their minds as wide as possible when taking in this film. It is an experience that somehow demands your attention while using only 70 cuts. With a film clocking in at 87 minutes, that’s 74 seconds per image. And the images are indeed captivating. As Reggio says in the Q&A, the film acts as a sort of moment of clarity, a pause in the hustle and bustle of this modern rush-hour life. The film presents a collection of beautifully photographed faces of all ages staring at you with expressions which each viewer will interpret differently, depending on where his/her head happens to be at during the screening. For this reason, I suspect Visitors will make for substantial multiple viewings.
One thing uniting the viewer with the film itself is the act of spectatorship. “The film looks back at you!” Reggio said in the Q&A. Though you could also imagine hearing these words blurted out of a bug-eyed art school kid with wild hair, in the case of Visitors, the mad director achieved his vision with blazing colours – within the black and white format no less. Some of the plethora of faces staring back at the viewer weren’t even human, as was the case with the film’s Triska, a female lowland gorilla. After the final shot of the film faded out and the credits began, my 2013 TIFF compatriot turned to me with a look as satisfied as my own and, and said, “Man, that ape was staring at you with look as if to say, ‘y’all just passin’ through’.” As for Soderbergh’s comment, whose only affiliation with the film seems to be his awe of it: “If, 500 years ago, monks could sit at a bench and make a movie, this is what it would look like.”
3. Programmers like Colin Geddes
Every walk of cinematic life is represented by TIFF’s 19 Programmes, each of which offer lineups brimming with visionary films from across the earth. Film are selected with deep thought by TIFF’s programme curators. These unsung heroes of the festival, responsible for the content itself, are all worthy cinepheliac zealots in their own fields, and can be counted on by audiences with similar thematic persuasions for their keen eye. For my money, nobody is programming cooler films than Colin Geddes. Normally I go nuts for Midnight Madness, but this year life made the task of staying awake in a dark theater at 1am a saddening struggle. I fought my crammed schedule, undergoing ungodly long days, but it caught up with me each night.
Fortunately, of the midnights I was able to catch, I was at my most alert for Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno. Throughout his career, Roth has contributed to the cult horror genre with love and insight. He takes horror tropes from the genre’s rich history, such as his pleasure in featuring the victims as privileged and entitled. His career-making premiere of Cabin Fever in ‘02 took a crew of American Apparel teens, dragging them through an ironic hell with a flesh-eating virus – not a good look. Then, back in ’05, Roth returned with his status-cementing Euro-nightmare, Hostel. As a little nod to the obnoxiousness of rich Americans cruising Europe, Roth himself makes a cameo appearance at an everything-goes bar, taking a slapstick splash of bongwater in his mouth like a jerk. That particular screening was an odd night for MM as it was held in the Varsity 8 as a one-off. It’s kind of funny that Roth holds the MM record for being the only directors I can think of to screen at 3 separate MM venues. But I digress.
In The Green Inferno, we have a batch of left-wing radical college students, who feel strongly about the issues without necessarily knowing the facts. They venture out on an anthropological journey to right international wrongs but get lost instead in a nefarious green jungle which they know nothing about. As most cult-horror fans knew to anticipate entering the theater, think Cannibal Holocaust meets The O.C. or maybe Saved By The Bell: The College Years. Or, if movies called Cannibal Holocaust are below your taste, think Fitzcarraldo and The Burden of Dreams meets, well, a movie called Cannibal Holocaust. In the Q&A it was revealed that the tribe who acted in The Green Inferno was first shown Cannibal Holocaust as a performance guide. Apparently, none of the hundreds of tribesmen knew what a movie was going into the screening. Now all they know of cinema is a movie called Cannibal Holocaust… and they loved it. How’s that for anthropology?!
Since the midnight hours proved difficult for me, it was my extreme pleasure to get my rocks off during the day with Colin’s older-sister Programme: Vanguard. Colin is only one voice in Vanguard team who showcase a variety of films. It’s here where the fests’ hidden gems are buried and I only wish I could have seen them all. Most regrettably, I was very sad to miss The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears – a Vanguard selection that looked just off the wall. Colin himself noted in an introduction for another film that Strange Colour was very close to being on the MM lineup. Despite that fail, I did manage to catch a few key titles in programme. One was the insidiously curious Borgman, a bizarre tale of class distinctions from the Netherlands, via one very gradual home invasion.
I also took my hat off to Blue Ruin, a very smart and original take on the revenge film. Given the modern film market, Blue Ruin’s creative team assumed they were making a VOD film. Instead they were shocked to receive an invitation to the Cannes Film Festival where a movie of such quality belongs. The director wrote the film for his good friend to play lead. Their mutual trust paid off in spades as the performance and direction were surprisingly excellent. PROXY is one of the best films I saw at TIFF this year. I suppose it’s a thriller but it’s one that exists on its own shocking terms. PROXY is a mystery unlike any other. It embodies everything I love about seeing films among TIFF audiences. The story surrounds two new mothers and the dangerous personality quirk that unites them . Joe Swanberg also appears in the cast with an impressively moving performance. But the real star, of this movie, chock full of talent, are the writer and director. You cannot guess where PROXY is going so you’d be best advised to not even try. PROXY is 10 steps ahead of the viewer at every turn. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to look at the stranger next to you and ask, “are you getting this?”
Some films were so good that the wait until a second screening seemed unbearable. This is especially true of the madcap hitchhiker cartoon, Asphalt Watches. I knew I was going to see this film the second I saw the stills. Unable to make heads or tails of the images on the website, I grabbed a ticket immediately. At first, the crude-by-design animation and surreal, bizarre dialogue was overwhelming to digest. The audience was laughing but you could tell most people there hadn’t the slightest notion why. Gradually, this Dali-esque road trip bromance, reveals itself to be richer and richer with each passing scene. The film is a genius interpretation of the filmmakers own 8-day hitchhiking trip to Toronto, told by portraying the ordinary people who picked up the two hitcher/artisan, as represented by their animated qualities. The trip, which only lasted 8 days, took almost 8 years to complete. This type of dedication always makes for favourite movies. It dares to ask the tough questions like “What do children want?” the film’s answer: “GARBAGE!!” Asphalt Watches would win best first Canadian feature. I consider that a victory for independent filmmaking. Especially since the audience reception at the small Scotiabank theater, though mostly positive, saw a plethora of ’how do I respond to this film’ reactions? I must say these uncomfortable responses only enhanced the experience. Given that audibly mixed response of that screening, I can’t help but wonder how it would’ve played at MM. It is my feeling that Asphalt Watches would’ve killed at The Ryerson.
2. In Conversation
The In Conversation series has always been my favorite feature of TIFF. Over the years it has taken on many incarnations from the early Dialogues: Talking With Pictures program, where I’ve seen Kevin Smith introduce Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. One of my longtime favourite things to do while killing time in bookstores is pursuing TIFF programme books from the 90s and gawk at nights I’d have killed to attend. One such example from the mid-90s was when Gena Rowlands introduced the perfect A Woman Under the Influence. The first time I flipped to that page I felt a familiar feeling of being robbed. Around 15 years after that screening, to Toronto’s extreme good fortune, The TIFF Bell Lightbox opened, making TIFF-style programming a yearlong event. In doing so, what was Dialogues became ‘In Conversation’ – a format which scrapped the ‘influence-driven screening approach, and turned it into a broader in-conversation-with style that didn’t lose discussion time to the film screenings themselves. When the Lightbox began hosting retrospective screenings with year-round guests, I was shocked at my good fortune when TIFF held a similar screening during the recent Cassavettes retrospective in the off season. That Rowlands was to appear as a special guest was nothing short of a TIFF blessing.
This year provided me with one of my all-time favorite In Conversations to date. After years of seeing favourite directors come through Toronto, one of my all time heroes, Spike Jonze, has never premiered a film at TIFF. While that can still be said, at least in 2013, Jonze stopped by TIFF’s In Conversation With program to discuss his not-quite-ready to premiere film Her, which stars Joaquin Phoenix and is set for release this winter. What was so especially cool about In Conversation With Jonze was that it was conducted by Kelly Reichardt, whose Night Moves, was among my favorite films to screen at TIFF – and one followed by an amusingly weak Q&A spun into gold by Reichardt, Eisenberg, and Fanning. Reichardt is a down to earth director out of Portland. I’m a fan big fan of all her minimalist films. I especially enjoyed attending a screening of Wendy and Lucy – a favorite of TIFF ’08.
Reichardt and Spike were almost equally bare-bones in the best way possible. The two friends laughed with each other through their mutual uncertainty of how to conduct the event. Clips from Her were screened. And might I say, in this day and age, with so much weight bestowed on the medium of Television (to think it was once a format where actors went to die), it’s refreshing to anticipate a film as much as I do Her – (Her and Inside Llewyn Davis – my hype for these films reminds me of a time when the release of a new and exciting film seemed to mean exponentially more to people). Under ordinary circumstances I’d never spoil as much of Her for myself as I had to, but what I saw just makes me want to see the damn thing even more. Sure enough, there is a new Spike film around the corner. By the looks of things, if you still have a DVD (Blu-Ray) shelf on your wall, in due time, Her will soon be amongst the most beloved films in your collection. As for this presentation’s audience Q&A, a nice example was when a typical question that began with “Er, in this stage of your ‘hic’ career-“ was answered with Reichardt’s telling Spike, “Hey, I think that guy just called you old…”
1. Jason Reitman’s Live Read Series
TIFF favorite, Jason Reitman first brought his live read series to Toronto last year with a live reading of the American Beauty screenplay. There’s only one reason I wasn’t in the house for that American Beauty reading – and I should add that AB is a film dear to TIFF’s heart, as it won the audience award upon its premiere in ’99 – was because I didn’t know about it. That my sound cocky or something, but had that screening not been kept a secret, there is simply no way I would’ve missed it. This year they cut Toronto cinephiles some slack and made it an official ticket in the 13 lineup. I further applaud TIFF for not allowing it to be selectable in the advance purchase window, offering it only in the general public onsale. It is only right for a presentation this special to be offered in a lottery scenario. Sadly it is too often the case that TIFF’s hottest tickets are the ones swept up by those with patron-circle privileges (not that rewards for donors or gold visa members aren’t a necessary bolt in the machinery) before the general audience has a shot. Money doesn’t always deserve the right to the highest quality of ‘entertainment’.
That said, the Live Read series was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in my entire life. It didn’t hurt that the screenplay was one of my nearest and dearest films, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. The film, conceived by a 17-year-old PTA and shot when he was only 26, is one of the reasons I love movies. As Jason Reitman himself said upon first taking the Ryerson stage to introduce his insane cast, that when he first saw the film at a mall test screening (probably around early ‘97 when he was 20), the film “blew his fucking mind”. When it finally came out on video in early ‘98, I remember walking 45 minutes to Videoflicks at 13-years-old. Like Reitman, it blew my fucking mind in ways I couldn’t begin to digest or understand. And yet on many levels I understood the film as a lesson in empathy and humanity, and one of the great PTA themes, forgiveness (even in the context of “adult”-entertainment). Whatever it was I just saw, I knew it meant a lot to me, as it did to a great many wide-eyed, mind-blown youngsters.
One of the very special treats of Reitman’s Live Read is being able to see a collective favorite movie read by an alternate cast, who are themselves great fans of the material – and on professional levels probably wish they were affiliated or at least included in Anderson’s Mercury Theater. So on the one hand you’re rejoicing alongside celebrities as collective fans of the material. On the other, Live Read offers the rare experience to see what these words might’ve sounded like had casting decisions gone in other directions, or perhaps if it were filmed in another decade. The cast of Reitman’s Live Read was stacked. There was Josh Brolin as Jack Horner, Olivia Wilde as Amber, Jesse Eisenberg as Dirk and other appearances by the likes of Jason Sudeikis, Scott Thompson, Dane Cook, and perhaps most tickling, Dakota Fanning as Roller Girl. The cast did an admirable job in delivering the heaven-sent lines, seeming to enjoy the writing just as much as the audience, for the most part. Olivia Wilde – to her credit, did a powerful reading as Dirk Diggler’s mom in the “I’m a gonna be a big shining star, you’ll see” suburban runaway scene, brought tears to the eye – though that was in large part due to Eisenberg as Dirk and PTA having simply written a perfect scene, which in the film contains the finest performance of Mark Wahlburg’s career.
Alongside the brilliant minds of, Spike Jonze, Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Payne, the early years of PTA represent a bygone era when film, like in the late 60s/early 70s, felt new and exciting. It was an onslaught of voices that demonstrated the places cinema could go if only allowed in the right hands. Every once in awhile a window of time opens up in which groundbreaking art is able to sneak into the limelight. It only takes the wisdom of a few to push the world into the next level. This specific generation of cinematic voices of the ‘90’s-early-00’s is the reason I am passionate about film. Like most modern film-lovers, I was hooked-in as a kid by the blockbuster, but once I mentally came of age, I became aware of ways expressionistic filmmakers were pushing the medium into a holy realm of the visceral cinematic experience. I became aware of themes far older than myself and the ability of others to package them into powerful 2-hour massages.
Boogie Nights was such a movie to me and even simply hearing the words read – action and all – was enough to pull me into the world of PTA. I picture a kid in his early 20s typing away at a computer, on fire with passion, empathy, and profound ability. Visions like Anderson’s are the reason for this top-5 list. Films like Boogie Nights, which had its premiere at TIFF, spell out the joy of film festivals like the one Toronto is fortunate enough to host annually. Ever since my own first mind blowing TIFF experience – Sweet & Lowdown at Roy Thomson Hall back in ’99 – the festival has offered me early glimpses into an exciting future.
Fifteen years have now passed since my first TIFF screening in ‘98. First time directors of that year are now considered Mavericks… But, enough mourning the passage of time. Yes, TIFF is gone for this year. So is summer. But if you need help getting through the change of season, see you at the Lightbox.