Does anybody give a good god damn about TIFF anymore, now that we’re on the precipice of Thanksgiving and Halloween is around the corner? Probably not. I should be doing a list of my top 31 horror films, but instead I’m going to tell you what I liked best at TIFF. Better late than never, that’s my blogging motto!
I saw around 25-30ish films, and most were pretty great. One or two weren’t my cup of tea, but I honestly didn’t sit through any clunkers. It’s either been a good year or I’ve gotten a lot better at choosing.
Here’s my top 10 in alphabetical order:
Almost Human (dir. Joe Begos, USA) – Full disclosure, I got to meet and hang out with the Almost Human crew (director, stars, moms, dads, everyone – and every last one of them was SO adorable) for pretty much the entire festival. They were the sweetest, most sincere dudes ever – passionate about movies, eager to make awesome films of their own, totally down to earth, 0% Hollywood-bullshit-y. Simply the best. So, it goes without saying that I would never give their film an unfavourable review, even if I didn’t like it. But, it just so happens that I saw and loved their film before meeting any of them, and I still loved it. It’s a great weird alien abduction slasher film and a truly amazing example of how you ABSOLUTELY CAN pull off a great film on a tiny budget. And it’s not found footage. Bless all their hearts.
Enemy (dir. Denis Villeneuve, Canada/Spain) – I preferred Villeneuve’s take on the doppelgänger film over Richard Ayoade’s highly stylized The Double. Jake Gyllenhaal does a pretty great job of playing two men – a history professor and a struggling d-list actor – whose lives intersect with strange and potentially disastrous results. There are hints in the film as to what’s really going on but Villeneuve really makes you work to find and interpret them. There are also hints of some kind of maximally perverse subplot that is never explored but might be fleshed out more in the Jose Saramago novel the film is based on, which I now can’t wait to read (just to add to the confusion, the novel is called The Double).
The F Word (dir. Michael Dowse, Canada/Ireland) – Dowse (Fubar, Goon, etc) has maybe just directed Canada’s best ever romantic comedy. It’s mainstream enough (Daniel Radcliffe is in it – I hear that guy is famous, but I haven’t seen the Harry Potter films) yet quirky/weird/actually-funny enough to work for both regular rom-com audiences and Michael Dowse fans. Magic! Best part: Adam Driver (I can’t get enough of him) and Canadian future-very-famous-actress Mackenzie Davis (who also starred in We Gotta Get Out of This Place) are great as the best friends / B-plot couple.
Night Moves (dir. Kelly Reichardt, USA) – I actually walked out of this feeling that it was Reichardt’s weakest film. It’s beautifully executed, subtle and intimate, like all her work, but as a fan of the “not a lot happens” element of her oeuvre, I thought this one was trying too hard to be a thriller, and the result was a good film that was marred by some clunky plot elements and an ill-fitting, almost laughably over the top ending.
Oculus (dir. Mike Flanagan, USA) – I love spooky supernatural thrillers and haunted house films. This one (about a haunted mirror) is really clever and really fun. Apparently the two actresses in it are famous-ish because one was on Battlestar Galactica and the other was on Dr. Who, but I am a loser who doesn’t follow the sci-fi television, so I had no idea. But whatever, Oculus doesn’t need famous people, because it’s got a really smart plot and lots of good spooky scares. Highly recommended for fans of films like Insidious.
R100 (dir. Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan) – What can you really say about this film that isn’t a spoiler, or an incomprehensible attempt to describe something that’s better left unexplained? It’s sort of about one Japanese man vs. an army of dominatrixes. And much like the director’s previous film, Symbol, it’s better “experienced” than “read about”.
The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (dirs. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Belgium/France/Luxemburg) – this Giallo-esque mindfuck of a film is so beautiful it makes you want to bang your head against the screen until you somehow mind-meld into this psychedelic ’70s art nouveau universe that the directors have created and just live there, in a space between the walls, in some kind of sexually ecstatic terror-dreamstate. Forever.
Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer, UK) – The only thing anyone seemed to be saying about Jonathan “Sexy Beast” Glazer’s latest before TIFF was “Scarlett Johansson naked”. And there definitely is a fair amount of that. However, it’s also one of the most bizarre, beautiful and elegant films I’ve seen in a long time. Gorgeous to look at (and I don’t mean ScarJo) and the soundtrack is haunting to the Nth degree. Also based on a book (by Michael Faber), which is now on my to-read list.
We Are the Best! (dir. Lukas Moodysson, Sweden) – This is an adorable coming of age (ish?) story about Bobo, Klara and Hedvig, three pre-teen girls in 1980s Sweden who sport intensely un-girly short haircuts, are into punk rock, start a band even though they can’t play any instruments (girls after my own heart, they are), do silly pre-teen girl things and get into trouble. It nails “being a girl” better than any film I’ve seen in recent memory. Definitely “being a girl of around 12 years of age” but really, “being a girl of any age” as well. Apparently the film is based on a loosely autobiographical graphic novel written by Coco Moodysson, the director’s wife. So, she clearly rules.
We Gotta Get Out of This Place (Simon & Zeke Hawkins, USA) – This thriller about three teens who get embroiled in a local gangster’s money laundering operation in a dead end small Texas town is really smartly written. The story is suspenseful, the performances are real (MVP award goes to Mark Pellegrino, who just murders his role, but other heavyweights like John Gries and newcomers like Mackenzie Davis totally hold their own), and the dialogue is snappy and the twists and turns are tight!
Award for “the film I am most conflicted about” goes to:
Bastards (dir. Claire Denis, France) – Did I love the new Claire Denis, or did I hate it? Ok, I didn’t hate it, but I felt like the second half did not quite deliver on the intricately-woven-thriller-mystery that the first half promised. It looks incredible, great score, performances by a stable of Denis regulars (and some newbies) are all fantastic (I especially love Vincent Lindon – in this, and always), it’s got all the intimacy that I love about her signature style. And yet, instead of finding the ending emotionally devastating (as I think I was supposed to?) I found it jarringly over the top and it took me completely out of the film. On the other hand, I haven’t really stopped thinking about it, so I guess that’s something?
Honourable mentions go to three films that I saw in Cannes but which would have ABSOLUTELY been in my Top Ten of TIFF otherwise:
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, USA) – if you liked Murder Party … well, then you have good taste in indie horror, but Saulnier’s second feature is nothing like it. It is, however, one of the best eye-for-an-eye revenge thrillers I’ve seen in a long time, and gorgeous to look at (the director has been working as a DOP for the past few years, and it shows). Bonus points for casting Macon Blair (Murder Party, Hellbenders) in the lead role. He knocks it so far out of the park it’s cray-zee.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (dir. Frank Pavich, USA) – What a perfect “what could have been” documentary about the history of cinema. Not only is the story of Jodorowsky’s (kind of insane but also inspired and bold and incredible) plans to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune in the ’70s (long before David Lynch got his hands on it) incredibly fascinating, it’s also really inspiring, in spite of the fact that it’s sort of, kind of a story about failure (because his Dune never got made). The original artwork, designs, concepts and storyboards that various artists (Moebius, Chris Foss, H.R. Giger) did is remarkable, and Jodo is so chock-full of charisma that I could listen to him for hours. It is a crime that TIFF did not also show the whimsically, tragically, beautifully weird La Danza de la Realidad, Jodo’s own new film.
Like Father Like Son (dir. Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Japan)- This charming, funny, sad and touching story about two families who discover their six year old sons were switched at birth is a perfect little sketch of what it means to be a man in modern day Japan. It might not be my favourite Kore-Eda, but it’s pretty darn wonderful.
I try to keep track of the nights by carving lines into the columns in the Ryerson lobby. The days run together, a blur of subtitles and Grolsch. At first, I missed eating off plates, but I’ve been working on an ointment – a sort of experimental salve – that I think will help me stop having to eat entirely, so that I don’t have to eat with my hands, huddled in a lineup with my fellow survivors.
The first recipe gave me a painful rash, but now the salve seems to be working. I’ve begun to simulate a sort of photosynthesis, absorbing energy from the light of the projector through my skin. I have to apply the paste to my hands and face each morning, and I know it looks strange, but I’m living about 80% off film screenings now and I am confident that I will survive this way until the end of the ordeal.
The Chinese food leftovers that fed me during the first 80 days have developed a fuzzy purple layer of mould, which I used as the starter for my paste. Others complain occasionally about missing their old lives, but I’ve adapted, and I am getting stronger.
On the opening day of TIFF 2013, I find myself reminiscing about my history with the festival, which I’ve been attending fairly regularly (with a few gap years here and there) since the mid ’90s.
The first time I was supposed to attend a TIFF screening, I was in my last year of high school and my friend Peter scored tickets to whatever Hal Hartley film was premiering that year. It was probably Flirt, because ’95-96 was my grade 13 year (or OAC, as we used to call it in the olden days of the Ontario Academic Credit system), and that’s when Flirt came out.
I don’t really remember what film it was, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because I never made it to the screening. I got caught shoplifting instead. I was stealing Gravol, and I can’t even begin to tell you the nightmare chain reaction that began when my parents were called by store security and started to fear that maybe my friends and I were getting high off over-the-counter anti nausea meds. We weren’t (I’m not even sure it’s possible). We were just doing the completely idiotic things that teenage girls do, which apparently often involves shoplifting. Now that I’m an adult, I’ve compared this experience with those of my female friends, and apparently almost all of them have some history with stealing, even if it was just penny candies when they were eight years old. I don’t know what that’s about but it sounds like a fascinating research paper waiting to be written.
Anyway, back to TIFF. I was far more heartbroken to have missed a Hal Hartley film that day than to have so embarrassingly ended my short lived career as a thief.
To backtrack a little: When I was 16, I came home one day and turned the TV on, as I almost always did after school. I watched a lot of TV in those days. We were still fairly fresh immigrants, and my parents worked long hours at multiple jobs. It was lonely and quiet at the apartment when they weren’t there, so I watched old sitcoms in syndication (Welcome Back Kotter and Cheers, most especially), reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and an endless parade of movies on the Movie Network, or whatever the still relatively new “all movies” channel was called back then.
On that day, 16 year old me sat down and started watching a film that had begun a few minutes before. I didn’t miss much, plot-wise. But I did miss the title, so I had no idea what the film was. Remember, this was pre-Google. It was even pre- there being a channel on the TV that listed what was playing. I had no way of finding out what this film was unless by some miracle one of my friends had also seen it at the same time. Spoiler alert: they didn’t, and it took me a damn year to find out what the film was.
I was completely mesmerized by the steely-eyed, trench-coat wearing, grenade toting male lead, the beautifully written dialogue and the strangely flat delivery that all the actors seemed committed to. I wasn’t a completely ignorant 16 year old. I’d been to the Cinematheque, I’d seen “art films”. They were usually foreign, and almost always a few decades old. But I had never seen a contemporary film – clearly American, too – that didn’t fit the mainstream Hollywood mould. And even though I was listening to bands like Pavement and Beat Happening, it never really occurred to me that “American indie” was a term that could apply to film too.
I was completely obsessed with this film. I memorized lines from it and recited them to other people in the hopes that they’d recognize them and tell me what it was. I checked the movie channel regularly, hoping to catch it again. Like I said, it took about a year. The film was Trust by Hal Hartley (this is the scene that made me fall in love). You can argue with me all you want that Simple Men or Surviving Desire is better, but for me, Trust will always be The One. It literally (and I do not mean figuratively) changed my life.
I still get weak in the knees when I see Martin Donovan’s face, and I can still recite lines from the film.
But back to TIFF. In 1995, I was heartbroken that my incredibly stupid decision to steal a drug I wasn’t even interested in taking prevented me from seeing one of his films on the big screen. I graduated from high school, never shoplifted again, and started attending TIFF on my own. I loved the whole process – yes, even getting up at 3am in order to line up to hand in my tickets. I bought tickets in advance but I especially savoured my time in rush lines, where I would meet other movie buffs, swap stories, and take (often fantastic) recommendations on what to see. One of my favourite rush line experiences goes back to – you guessed it – Hal Hartley. It was 1998, and my friend Eddy and I were hellbent on seeing Book of Life. Hartley had premiered Henry Fool the previous year, and was still on a pretty hot streak of great movies. I was out of my mind excited. We arrived four hours early in the rush line at the Cumberland. We sat in that cold alley next to the cinema and waited as other people were let into earlier films until we were at the front of the line. Even in 2013, four hours is excessive. In 1998, it was downright insane.
About three hours before the feature was scheduled to screen, another couple got in line behind us. “What film are you here for?” they asked, clearly puzzled. Turns out, they were also Hartley mega-fans who thought that arriving in the rush line three hours early would assure at they’d be first in line.
We spent our time in the line chatting like old friends, and of course, all four of us got in. We sat in the first or maybe second row, close enough that I had to crane my neck, anyway. Book of Life isn’t my favourite Hartley film but it’s pretty good, and that experience was totally fantastic.
Not that I’m a jaded oldster with a fancypants industry pass to TIFF, I really miss those early days, in the lineups with the actual fans. These days, I contribute to Hal Hartley’s films on Kickstarter and don’t get to see them on the big screen, and that breaks my heart a little bit as well. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make here. Attending TIFF while I was in university was as valuable to me as the formal education I was getting. It changed the course of my life.
What was my point? Oh yeah: don’t fucking shoplift. Do go to TIFF.