TIFF 2018 – My 12th Year at the Festival

Every other year or so I book the week off to focus on the festival. This is one of those years. I had curated a shortlist of over 60 films , but not many were films I felt must be seen during TIFF so I had lots of flexibility for scheduling. I am one of those attendees that balances selections across all budgets, genres and countries.  Even though many of the films will release widely after TIFF, somehow it can be exciting to see the awards-worthy at TIFF. The ones I really had my heart set on seeing at TIFF aren’t coming to the festival. Those were Mary Queen of Scott’s, Bohemian Rhapsody and Suspiria.

Planning is so much easier now with Letterboxd for list making and TIFFR.com for scheduling. The folks at TIFFR partnered with TIFF this year as well so the websites are linked. TIFFR even has a feature to link your schedule to your calendar which is very sweet.

The highlights of my selections this year include 8 Female Directors,  5 Irish Filmmakers, 3 films set in Ireland, films from South Korea, China, Mexico, Germany, Sweden, Kenya, Scotland, Japan, France, Cuba, England, Canada and of course many from the United States.

My film list with brief reasons for the selections is as follows:

  1. Outlaw King – Scotland – Director David Mackenzie
  2. Kursk – Hubby loves submarine films and Alexandre Desplat composes
  3. Teen Spirit – Supporting Max, son of Anthony Minghella and it’s a programmer pick
  4. Aniara – Programmer pick – Swedish space film – I’m going in blind
  5. Out of Blue – Carol Morely, set in New Orleans, I love NOLA, starring Patricia Clarkson who is from there
  6. Beautiful Boy – This will win awards so I must see it on my home turf at TIFF, but I bought aisle seats in case I can’t make it through the film.
  7. Never Look Away – Florian Hencel von Donnersmarck of The Lives of Others
  8. Papi Chulo = Irish director John Butler of The Stag and Handsome Devil which I loved
  9. The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt’s book was hysterical, I’ve been waiting for this.
  10. Widows – Steve McQueen!!  and Girl Power!!!!
  11. Quincy – How often does Quincy Jones come to Toronto?
  12. A Star is Born – Taking my good friend to the premiere and she is so unbelievably excited it’s worth the bagillion dollar tickets.
  13. If Beale Street Could Talk – Barry Jenkins is amazing
  14. Where Hands Touch – I loved Amma Asante’s films Belle and A United Kingdom
  15. Giant Little Ones – It’s Canadian Eh.
  16. Destroyer – Karyn Kusama directs an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman
  17. High Life – Claire Denis directs Juliette Binoche & Robert Pattinson in space
  18. Shadow – Zhang Yimou of Hero – Set in Ancient China and looks beautiful
  19. Boy Erased – Joel Egerton’s second film and looks like an award winner
  20. The Elephant Queen – Documentary set in Kenya about elephants and I love elephants
  21. Roma – Alfonso Curan doing everything in a semi-autobiographical film
  22. Hold the Dark – Jeremy Saulnier makes smart horror films and it stars Jeffrey Wright who keeps me informed about US politics on Twitter
  23. First Man – It’s playing every day so there is no excuse not to see it
  24. Transit – Loved Christian Petzold’s film Phoenix and this seems to be a compliment to that film
  25. Float Like A Butterfly – Irish director Carmel Winters and a film about a wannabe girl boxer
  26. Black 47 – Irish director Lance Daly and a film about the Irish potato famine
  27. Shoplifters – Hirokazu Koreeda’s Palme D’or award winning film
  28. The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia – Programmer pick and sounded fun
  29. Wildlife – Paul Dano’s film
  30. Angelo – This story intrigued me
  31. Burning – Lee Chang-dong’s FIPRESCI prize winner
  32. The Dig – Brother directors Andy and Ryan Tohil, film set in Northern Ireland
  • I’m really looking forward to the week off and to be completely immersed in the festival.
  • 8 days and counting!
  • You Were Never Really Here

    Directed by Lynne Ramsay, Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Robers, Ekaterina Samsonov and John Doman

    Reminiscent of Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and yet so unique, this is a film that lingers with you long after you leave the theatre. The film begins with shocking and confusing images, we are not quite sure what is going on. Audience as voyeur, this not seeing everything clearly pulls you into the film craving clarity which you almost get as the film progresses, but not entirely. I love leaving a film still wonder what the… These are the films you see again and again, searching for new truths. And there are so many social messages here to absorb.

    This film is artful, dirty, smooth and shocking. I loved Johnny Greenwood’s incredible music, the sound editing, the incredibly raw and gorgeous cinematography that shows New York City exactly as it is so you can almost smell it, and last but not least Joaquin Phoenix who is an absolute force in this film. I am blown away by his ability to convey the physicality and emotional depth of this broken man.

    I need to see it again, and again…

    Mystic River (2003) – Clint Eastwood

    What happens to men when they are faced with the stuff of nightmares? In this film horrific events of the past loom heavy over horrific events in the present. Dennis Lehane’s original novel, Mystic River, was a gut-wrenching book to read. It’s any parent’s worst nightmare in pages, providing for a dramatic screenplay of epic proportions. Clint Eastwood’s film was nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes and more. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins delivered stellar oscar-winning performances in what I believe are still their best roles.

    This is a male dominated story. Sadly even with two strong female characters who were apparently friends, they don’t speak to each other. I am scratching my head now wondering if any of Clint Eastwood’s films pass the Bechdel test. But I digress, this is a movie focused on men coping with unimaginable circumstances.

    Both the book and the film broke my heart, and rewatching the film now some 15 years later brings back a lot of that original heartbreak. The story does, however, seem a tad coincidental and manipulative, but maybe that is because I can see it more clearly and critically now. Still, there are a number of key moments that have a profound effect on me. It’s in these moments where my heart gets pulled out of my chest, blood drains and I feel as though I am in the moment with these tortured souls. Few films are able to get me to that point. It’s Clint Eastwood’s gift.

    Warning: Spoilers after this point.

    The film begins in the past, maybe 25 years earlier, with three feisty boys playing street hockey somewhere in a working class Boston neighborhood. The game interrupts when the ball falls down the sewer. They get distracted, fantasize about stealing a car and just as they are writing their names in wet sidewalk cement a big car with a noisy muffler shows up. A man gets out and flashes them a gold police badge, asks if they think it’s ok to defame municipal property, calls them punks, and threatens to tell their parents. One of the boys, Dave, is ordered to get in the car. He does so obediently but apprehensively, and as a man sitting in the passenger seat leans over to him in the back seat, we get that sick feeling that these are not cops. The camera shoots from the perspective of the two boys still standing in the street as they watch the car with a messed up muffler drive down the middle of the median, taking their friend away. Weeks later, Dave escapes from his captors and returns home to his mom and while we don’t exactly know what happened to him, we know it wasn’t good.

    This is a story told from the three perspectives but predominantly focused on two, Dave and Jimmy. Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) grows up marries Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) and has a son Mikey. Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) owns a convenience store. He has an 18 year old daughter, Katie, from his first wife who died while he was serving time in prison for robbery. Now out of prison he is remarried to Annabelle and they have two younger daughters. Sean Devine is now a police officer whose wife, Lauren, has just walked out on him.

    We are introduced to grown up Dave walking with his son, telling him about the balls that fell down the gutter. When he sees the names still engraved in the sidewalk, his mood changes and tells his son Mikey that it’s time to get home before mom starts to worry. We first meet Jimmy sitting in the back of his store doing paperwork. His daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) drops in to give him a hug and a kiss, and lets him know she’s going out with fiends. “Later Daddy,” she says “Have fun” he says as she walks out. Then another “later” from her to which he ” later” back. Sean shows up surveying the scene of a car crash with his partner Whitey (Lawrence Fishbourne). As they are chatting it’s dropped that Sean’s wife just left him and he is waiting for her to call him to say why she left. This is the everyday backdrop we are given before another tragedy ensues.

    Throughout the film, there are parallel scenes where the film cuts back and forth between simultaneous events. It’s a cool technique, manipulative in that is serves to build tension as the scenes progress. We, the audience, are in two places at once and we know things that other characters don’t. An example of this is when the present day tragedy is revealed. While Jimmy and his family are at the church celebrating one of his younger daughter’s first communion, Jimmy is obviously concerned throughout the ceremony, turning to the door watching for Katie who still hasn’t shown up. At this same moment, Sean and Whitey arrive at a crime scene, a young woman is missing. Celeste is at home with the TV on in the background, the reporter announces a crime had been committed the night before and a woman is missing. The film toggles back and forth between these events until they merge when Jimmy comes out of the church after the ceremony, hears the sirens and follows the commotion to see what’s going on. Because of the build-up we are emotionally engaged and highly vulnerable. Jimmy notices that the crime scene is centring around Katie’s car. He tries to push through “that’s my daughter’s car”. And when the cops find Katie’s body, Jimmy has managed to catch up them with the help of his two goons the Savage brothers. He desperately tries to push through the large group of police officers who are blocking the scene. We know but he doesn’t, putting us in this privileged position with the anticipation of the heartbreak ahead. He yells out “is that my daughter in there!?” over and over again, sounding more helpless each time until he eventually falls apart into the crowd of police officers. The camera shots from up above and it’s one of the most heartbreaking scenes. I originally thought Sean Penn was so great, but watching it now, I can see that the careful editing and sequencing of the simultaneous scenes that preceded this moment, along with the camera work, amplified the impact of his performance.

    Another one of my favourite parts of the film is the porch scene. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins deliver the sense of this heartbreak so subtly and beautifully, it’s difficult to watch but I feel better for it. It’s shortly after Jimmy has identified his daughter’s body. Family and close friends are at his house bringing food andexpressing their condolences. He’s stealing some time alone on his porch when Dave emerges from a door to have a smoke. “How you doin?” “How you doin?” they ask each other. “What happened to your hand?” Jimmy asks Dave. “Got it caught in a door jam helping a buddy move a couch,” Dave answers, but he seems uneasy. Jimmy talks about all the food that people have brought over that will go to waste. Then he recalls how he was more afraid of his little daughter than being in prison. He remembers when he first got out of prison, when it was just he and Katie, sitting in the kitchen like they were the only people on earth and “I can’t even cry for her” he says. He repeats this as he’s crying saying he can’t cry for her – Dave says “Jimmy – you’re crying for her now”. “19 fuckin years old,” Jimmy says. Dave asks if he wants him to leave him alone but he says “no just sit here with me if that is ok.” This sequence is so sad and beautiful at the same time.

    Another heartbreaking moment is when we realize how alone Dave is. Dave is not a guy anyone understands completely. Not even Celeste really knows her husband. He has demons and struggles with processing what is going on in his mind. He tells his son a made up bedtime story about “the boy who escaped from wolves”, which is obviously his way of processing the traumatic events of his childhood. We’d hope that Celeste would support him knowing what he has been through, but she lets doubt overtake her. She tells Jimmy about the night Katie was murdered, that Dave came back at 3 am covered in blood, that he told her he got mugged and bashed the guys head on the pavement but that there was nothing in the paper. Jimmy asks her “Do you think Dave killed my Katie?” Celeste nods her head. At this point, my heart aches for Dave, he is among the wolves again.

    Clint uses the parallel scenes again to pull us into the heartbreaking irony of the brutal finale. As the scenes cut back and forth, Sean and Whitey uncover the truth and we are forced to witness Dave’s reluctant surrender to a crime he did not commit. Again we know things that others don’t and this time knowing the truth is almost unbreable. This is not an easy part of the film to watch. Cleaverly cut, we are one step ahead of the characters and its like a runaway train that we know will crash.

    My one real issue with the film is that it should have ended after Sean stops by to tell Jimmy, who is slumped over the curb of the street with a bottle, that they caught the killers, that they also found the body of a pedophile and they want to speak to Dave about it. Sean says “When was the last time you saw Dave?” and Jimmy says “Dave Boyle? It was 25 years ago…going up that street in the back of that car. Thanks for finding my daughters killer if only you’d been a little faster.” And Sean says “Are you going to send Celeste Boyle $500 a month too? ” And there’s more to this great scene. Then Jimmy stumbles up the street just as the car did 25 years earlier. There is closure in this scene. Its a perfect end. Sure they could have panned the sidewalk and the Mystic River to the credits. But the parade ending that follows seems unnecessary to me.

    Despite the botched ending, I still think this is one of Clint Eastwood’s best.

    Triumph of the Will

    Directed by Leni Riefenstahl

    Filmed in 1934, Triumph of the Will is a grand and artful film, while very much a terrifying spectacle. Considered by most to be a propaganda film capturing the grandeur of the Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, serving to support recruitment and unite Germany under the Nazi regime. Initially the film was very well received, winning international awards in Paris and at the Biennale in addition to the National Film Prize in Germany.

    Hitler requested that Leni Riefenstahl film the rally after being impressed by her debut film Blue Light (1932). Triumph of the Will was entirely financed by the Nazi party, a production which included the use of 30 plus cameras and a crew of 120. It is rumoured that Riefenstahl was involved in the planning of the rally to ensure it was staged perfectly for filming but she has firmly denied this claim, insisting she merely filmed around the rally, that this was true Cinéma vérité. She did edit the film herself, and so certainly had a hand in controlling the final product.

    There is little doubt that the resulting film served to enhance the emotional connection to a united Germany, to showcase the strength of the German armed forces and to glorify Hitler. From the opening scene as Hitler arrives through the heavens (like a God) to Nuremberg via plane, to the parades, to the prolific speeches from Hitler and his fellow party members atop the grand monuments overlooking the thousands to proud soldiers, to the joyous youth camp games, the film captures the rapture and prowess of a unified and seemingly invincible Germany.

    The film is very repetitive at times, with lengthy scenes of obedient synchronized soldiers marching in unison with Nazi flags to Wagneresque music. It is haunting to see it now, the thousands of men marching, filmed at perspectives that served to enhance their numbers and obedience. It’s like they have all been programmed. Residents of Nuremberg hanging out of their windows feverishly waving flags at Hitler and his procession. You cannot count the number of Nazi flags in a given scene, from the ones in the soldiers’ hands to those decorating the landscape and monuments. The grandness of the receptions, the cathedral of lights, the hand held torches, the expanse of humanity, all captured in artistic glory. Its eerie to see now.

    There is no doubt that Leni Riefenstahl is up there in the list of most talented female filmmakers of all time. Triumph of the Will, despite early praise, was soon followed by condemnation and criticism from the international community and did likely hurt a career that otherwise would have flourished given her talents. I watched an interview where she took the interviewer to her library of scrapbooks where she kept clippings from articles, good and bad. To her documenting both good memories as well bad memories was important. I wonder how she reconciled the film herself…

    She completed her last film, Underwater Impressions, at the age of 100. She was an avid diver and shot many of the scenes herself, yes diving at 100. Well into her 90s, she was still learning new filmmaking techniques, keeping up with technology . She lived until 102.

    2018 Oscar Nomination Snubs

    Only a few nominations for so many outstanding achievements in film, and given film appreciation is so subjective, the politics and money influencing voting, some of our favourites are always left out.  For me, the nominations this year are fairly predictable, and while there were some well deserved nominations for people who still suffer as minorities in the business (hopefully the tides are changing for good), a few things bug me a little.  That said, I struggle with who to bump off the nomination list for some of the misses, so perhaps the voting was close.  For the purposes of this light hearted rant I will not always choose who to replace.  I live in a world where everyone is a winner.

    The most obvious slight in my mind is Martin McDonagh not being nominated for Best Director. There are a few other directors in this category where the film has far fewer nominations so I am trying to understand what does into being “Best Director”. At the risk of sounding sarcastic, I guess the academy feels Three Billboards directed itself?

    Of all of the films of 2017, Call Me by Your Name is the most adored by those who have seen it.  Last night I went to a screening and most of us there were seeing it for the second or third time. I do love this film. Missing from the nominations are Luca Guadagnino for Best Director, a Cinematography nomination, and Best Supporting Actor nominations for the incredible Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg.

    I get shutting films out of Best Picture noms where all they are is special effects, but Blade Runner 2049 was a tremendous acheivement with an amazing story and some excellent performances from Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. I can forego the acting nominations as there was  fierce competition in the categories, but in my opinion Blade Runner 2049 was worthy of Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay nominations.  The Post???   Seriously?????   There was room for Blade Runner 2049.

    I quietly hoped that if the list of Best Directors was to include a woman, Ruby Dees would be recognized for her incredible and tragic portrait of racial struggle in the muddy south.  Also Jason Mitchell’s stellar performance was overlooked in the Best Actor category.  I haven’t seen Denzel’s performance yet so I am not sure who I would bump to make room for Jason just yet.

    Has no one seen First They Killed My Father? It should have been a lock for Cinematography and potentially Adapted Screenplay but sadly it is one of the best forgotten films of the year. I think it got caught in a gap between Foreign and the main category.

    I, Tonya did get Actress (Margot Robbie), Supporting Actress (Alison Janney) and Editing nominations, but arguably missed a well deserved Best Picture nomination….as well as potentially Costume Design.  Come on, those outfits were the bomb!

    Before we start giving Meryl Streep 1000th nomination for being MERYL STREEP, should we not look to recognize amazing performances of up and coming actresses like Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes? As Frances McDormand said at the SAG awards, these young ladies need doorstops too.

    Phantom Thread released late in the game and may have missed out as a result. I also think it was promoted oddly so not enough people are going to see it.  I believe it could easily have picked up Hair and Make-Up given there are currently only three in the category, but the most adacious oversight is Vicky Krieps in the Best Actress category. There is no reason to nominate Meryl Streep when you have Vicky (or Emma Stone) to choose from.

    And what the heck Academy??? Isn’t Brett Morgan’s Jane the Documentary darling? I haven’t seen it but I have heard enough to question its omission!

    My list of snubs might grow as I absorb the nominations and remember what I saw this past year.  As always, I remind myself that the Oscars are “just for fun” and well the subjectivity, politics, and of course the money… This year I think there is something for everyone to cheer for.  And it is up to us to treasure our favourite films over time, and over time the stuff that bugs us will wear off and the true gems will shine.

    2018 Oscar Snublist


    Phantom Thread (2017) Paul Thomas Anderson

    I really loved this film. I do love clothes and fashion, so I may be biased about this one. I am sure you have judged by the trailers that this is not your garden variety love story. With P.T. Anderson you should be prepared to experience something different, something peculiar. The film started out with an excruciating bit of music, but I think it may have been a tease. Johnny Greenwood’s last soundtrack for THERE WILL BE BLOOD was unbearable for some. This soundtrack was beautiful and melodic for the most part, save for those first few seconds.

    The performances in this film are brilliant in this absolutely gorgeous film. The script is impeccable and delivered by a masterclass of actors. You will be wanting to recall many of the lines, I promise you. You cannot imagine any one else in the role of Reynolds Woodcock and I really hope this isn’t Daniel Day Lewis’s last film. Leslie Manville steals the show as Reynolds Woodcock’s sister Cyril, or “Old So and So” as Reynolds refers to her. Others need actual words to convey what Manville can get across with her amazingly expressive face. Vicky Krieps is wonderful and a match for Daniel Day Lewis’s brilliance.

    While its not my absolute favourite film of the year, I think it is now in the top 5. All three, Daniel Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps and Leslie Manville are worthy of academy awards for this one, as is the music, the screenplay, cinematography, costumes, hair and make-up and set design. Given all of that, I think it is worthy of Best Picture and Director nominations. Let’s see what Tuesday brings.

    Happy End

    Directed by Michael Haneke, Starring Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz and Toby Jones

    Happy End? Unhappy End? I don’t think these people know the difference. This is a horribly blasé snapshot of the lives of privileged, miserable people. At times the story is told from a distance and you are left trying to guess what the hell is going on, and other times you are closer than you’d like to be to these terribly unlikeable characters and what they are up to. The story also skips over big chunks of what would seem important to most people with any kind of soul, like the death of a pivotal character, but no, we jump right over it like it didn’t matter.

    Are the performances excellent, sure, but the film itself is too distant and the characters too cold for me to care about any of it much. Maybe that was what Haneke was after.

    The Disaster Artist

    Directed by James Franco, starring James Franco, Dave Franco, Arie Graynor, Seth Rogan and Alison Brie

    If you were going to tackle bringing The Disaster Artist to life on screen you would need to be a match for Tommy Wiseau particularly as it pertains to ambition and fearlessness. James Franco is about the most fearless and ambitious figure in film I can think of at the moment. And the more I see his work, the more talented I think he is. And the guy is an energizer bunny. If you look at his repertoire of work lately, it’s never ending. I am not sure when he actually sleeps. Last spring I had the privilege of seeing him at work in my own neighborhood filming Stephen King’s 11/22/63. And now in HBO’s The Deuce he’s playing two people at the same time!! I digress, this is about The Disaster Artist. But the point is, James Franco is not a man who sees limits and neither is Tommy Wiseau. You don’t need talent to have vision, and can’t let people tell you what you can and cannot do if you want to achieve your dreams.

    If you’ve seen clips of Wiseau’s cult classic, The Room, you know that Tommy is not the best actor or director. You have heard the film is off its rocker. And you probably had little desire to sit through it. But after seeing The Disaster Artist, I think you might change your mind.

    The Disaster Artist is a great film. It’s a heartfelt re-enactment of Tommy Wiseau’s ridiculous and hopeful creative journey. James Franco captures the essence of this outrageous individual, his kindness and his uncompromising spirit, as he takes his crew of fellow filmmakers on this ridiculous amateur filmmaker’s journey.

    Tommy Wiseau is an enigma. He has an unusual European accent, yet he claims to come from Louisiana. He drives a Mercedes and has homes in San Francisco and LA. With a seemingly unlimited source of funds (that we are not supposed to ask about) he spent $6 million of his own money to make The Room. Yes money can buy just about anything, but this story is not about that.

    We are fortunate that his good friend and collaborator Greg Sestero wrote the book, The Disaster Artist, on which this film is based.

    I encourage you to see it. You might think differently about listening to your heart and following your ambitions.

    The Shape of Water

    Directed by Guillermo Del Toro, starring Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg

    It’s hard to adequately describe Guillermo Del Toro’s latest triumph, the epic fairytale that is The Shape of Water. It’s incredibly beautiful and yet slightly horrifying. The Grimm Brothers would absolutely approve and I absolutely loved it.

    This is not just a Beauty and the Beast story with a Creature From the Black Lagoon twist, it is an allegory for a number of the social and political challenges we are currently facing. But I will let you see it for yourself and take in your own perspective rather than spoil it with mine.

    I thought the production design was exquisite. The visual effects are flawless. It really felt like the early 60s, but with a magical liquid aura about it. New and old film tricks bring life to Del Toro’s imaginings. He really does love monsters.

    Sally Hawkins demonstrates again that she is one of our generation’s most talented actresses. She’s a front runner for best actress without really speaking, which is quite an achievement. Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg are also perfectly cast in this Cold War fantasy. I heard someone say that Guillermo selected the actors for this film because of their eyes, and they all have wonderfully expressive eyes.

    It’s romantic, it’s shocking, it’s visually stunning, socially and politically significant, and all while being absolutely magical. It is not surprising that it won the Golden Lion in Venice. I cannot wait to see it again.

    Salt of the Earth

    Directed by Herbert Biberman

    The only blacklisted film in US history, it was written, directed and produced by blacklisted Hollywood progressives. It’s a film based on the true events of the Empire Zinc Company strike of 1951, when Mexican-American zinc miners union of New Mexico’s Zinctown set out on strike for safer and fairer working conditions, conditions comparable to that of their Anglo-American co-workers. After much support from activists, the film was added to Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1992 due to its cultural and historical significance in depicting the events of the strike.

    It’s a story of racial and economic discrimination, it’s a story of a women’s social movement. When the workers are prevented from picketing due to a court order, their wives hatch a plan to step in to picket in their place. It’s hard to believe that this inspiring film was made 63 years ago. So relevant even today.

    Many of the actors were actual miners and their families, bringing additional sincerity to the film. Definitely a film worth seeing.

    “The union is our leader, we shall not be moved!”