Film/TIFF turns forty
Photos courtesy of TIFF
“We’ve been coming to TIFF for all forty years,” says the husband of a truly lovely couple at the 2015 Toronto International Film festival. “It’s changed, for sure. Remember? The Uptown, the Cumberland …” I nod and smile, not admitting that those venues were long gone by 2007, when I started attending the annual September extravaganza. The wife talks of having vouchers the first few years, with no movie titles on the tickets, and lining up for hours to gain entry. While there is clear nostalgia for the days when the likes of Henry Winkler were considered the festival’s top celebrity guests, they are not critical of the eleven-day, nearly 300-feature TIFF of today.
You don’t have to be a four-decade attendee to see that the Toronto International Film Festival has evolved dramatically. It’s changed since last year, for example, in ways both interesting and odd. The 2014 festival was, memorably, the installment that saw TIFF brass allow only films making their world or North American premieres to screen during the first four days. This was a calculated response to the increased prominence of the earlier fall festivals in Venice and Telluride, both of which have stolen some of Toronto’s Oscar-tastemaker thunder in recent years. For attendees and media, this meant that TIFF’s opening weekend did not feature some of the year’s biggest films. However, the approach was softened for 2015, likely a response to the bad press and film critic grumbling the move received.
Fast forward to the opening weekend of TIFF15 and it’s clear early-festival madness is back, in a big way. The several-blocks-long area of live performances and tables known as Festival Street is hopping, public lines for the films are long, and even two solid days of hard rain don’t seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm.
Nor should it. Minus a couple notable films missing in action—specifically, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs and Todd Haynes’s Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara—the lineup for 2015 is stacked with high-profile winners. Many have previously played spring’s Cannes Film Festival or debuted days before in Venice or Telluride, but their presence is wonderful news. And, of course, TIFF has some world premieres of its own, including Ridley Scott’s big-budget sci-fi epic The Martian, starring Matt Damon. I skip the latter, Johnny Depp’s Black Mass, and the drug cartel drama Sicario since I know the trio are soon making their way to screens in Western New York. Scheduling concerns mean I can’t see the Catholic Church child-abuse story Spotlight, Brie Larsen in Room, or Jake Gyllenhaal in Demolition.
Still, there are real gems among the fifteen films I see during my three-day visit, as well as among the dozen screeners viewed before and after TIFF15’s opening weekend. László Nemes’s Cannes hit Son of Saul (opening in late 2015/early 2016) is an emotional stunner about a concentration camp inmate’s attempts to give a young boy (who may or may not be his son) a traditional Jewish burial. Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa (likely due for release this year) is a hilarious and moving stop-motion comedy that equals the power of his Synecdoche, New York. Hitchcock/Truffaut, about the famously insightful book that director Francois Truffaut authored after interviewing Alfred Hitchcock, is a cinephile must. Scary “New England folk tale” The Witch proves why it was one of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival’s most buzzed entries. And Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster is a strangely moving, wildly funny bit of quasi-sci-fi featuring a career-best performance from Colin Farrell. Set in a time when singles must find a partner or be turned into animals (!), the film features TIFF’s most memorable love story.
More highs: Fifties-set immigration drama Brooklyn cements its status as a) a sure-fire Oscar nominee and b) a film that is nearly impossible to dislike, so strong is star Saoirse Ronan’s performance and so heartfelt its message of finding a new home on the other side of the world. Canadian writer-director Andrew Cividino’s three-teens-and-one-hot-summer drama Sleeping Giant is a startling debut. A number of less high-profile international entries, including Homesick, Magallanes, Girls Lost, Keeper, and London Road (Tom Hardy sings!) are smart and interesting. Plus, Tom Hooper’s flawed The Danish Girl features strong performances from Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne. (Oddly, the film seems to focus less on Redmayne’s Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of sexual reassignment surgery, than on her former wife, Vikander’s Gerda Wegener.) And the rather overblown Youth is a swirling visual powerhouse with awards-worthy work from Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Jane Fonda.
It seems each year there is at least one moment when I’m reminded of not just why I love TIFF, but why I love movies. At TIFF15, it’s the world-premiere screening of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, a J. G. Ballard adaptation the Kill List director introduced to the packed Visa Screening Room house as follows: “It’s a big building, there’s lots of sex, violence, swear words, adult content, dancing, and it’s J. G. Ballard.” Starring Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans, and Jeremy Irons, the Kubrick- and ABBA-infused film is a compelling stew of sex, violence, and class warfare, all set in a strange apartment building in 1970s Britain. About ten minutes in, I say to myself how exhilarating it feels to adore a movie this much. That’s a glorious feeling. Whenever the film is set for American release, it’s a must-see.
High-Rise is screened as part of TIFF’s new Platform program, a new juried section featuring twelve fascinating films from unique filmmakers. Unlike the TV-focused Primetime program—I understand there is amazing television around the world, but I come to TIFF to get away from TV—Platform feels fresh and thrilling. If it can unleash something like High-Rise on the world, clearly the Toronto International Film Festival is a healthy forty.
Christopher Schobert guest-edited Spree’s April 2015 film issue. He is a film critic for the Buffalo News and frequent contributor to a number of online outlets. He blogs at FilmSwoon.com.