Good timing, bad escalators, and stunning cinema
La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling
Photo credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez, WireImage, Getty, for_TIFF
When it comes to the film festival experience, timing is everything. The Toronto International Film Festival is no exception. In some years, TIFF’s September time slot is a good thing, since it falls squarely at the start of the fall awards season. However, the festival takes place after the increasingly important fests in Venice and Telluride, and before the prestigious New York Film Festival. That can lead to years like 2014, when a controversial screening policy led to prime slots for a number of high-profile disappointments—The Judge, Rosewater, St. Vincent, The Equalizer.
That was then. In 2016 (and last year, for that matter), TIFF was better than ever. The lineup for the eleven-day festival of nearly 300 features included several masterpieces, numerous very good films, and very few all-out disasters. It’s possible—if not likely—that this year’s Oscar winners in the Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress categories all played the festival. (I’m talking about La La Land, Damien Chazelle, Casey Affleck, Natalie Portman, Michael Shannon, and Michelle Williams. And yes, it is ridiculously early to make such predictions.) Some of these premiered elsewhere, but their response at TIFF cemented their status as awards frontrunners.
Before the Flood producer Leonardo DiCaprio
photo by George Pimentel, WireImage, Getty
Paterson star Adam Driver
PHoto by Mike Windle, WireImage, Getty
For all of these films and many, many others, timing is paramount. And whether you are a paying member of the public or an accredited film critic, your overall success rate as a TIFF attendee is seemingly dependent on random chance. Take my first day at TIFF16. Heavy traffic on the QEW meant my longtime festival compatriot Jared Mobarak and I arrived a little after 9 a.m. on the fest’s opening day. That also meant I was too late to see one of my most eagerly awaited selections, Sundance Film Festival hit Manchester by the Sea. I was severely bummed, especially since I was waiting in another line as the 9 a.m. screening attendees exited and I overheard their rapturous talk. Yet three days later came a festival miracle: an added press and industry screening scheduled at 9 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Cinema 5. Unsure about the size of the theater (and nervous about the number of panting press folk likely interested in attending), I arrived more than an hour early and found a short line. I also discovered the theater only had forty-five seats, and by 8:15 the queue was epic. Happily, I got one of those seats and was able to experience director Kenneth Lonergan’s emotionally overwhelming, surprisingly subtle Manchester. (Timing!) The story of a sad sack tasked with serving as his nephew’s guardian after the death of his brother features career-best work from the aforementioned Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. It’s a legit tear-jerker.
So, yes, good timing for yours truly. This was not the only instance of early arrival guaranteeing me a seat for something special. That was also the case for the press screening of Moonlight, a wondrous coming-of-age drama that follows a young African-American male through three complex stages of his life; the press screening of designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, a stylish Hitchcockian gem starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, and a revelatory Michael Shannon; and for the first public screening of American Honey, an almost indescribably exhilarating teenage road movie from Wuthering Heights director Andrea Arnold.
With a family and day job waiting at home, my TIFF experience is generally short (four days this year), and so my selections are dependent on what the powers that be choose to schedule while I’m in attendance. Therefore, I was unable to catch a few of 2016’s biggest festival hits, including La La Land, the sure-to-be-an-awards-favorite musical from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle that stars the delightful Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. And, of course, a number of biggies that were screening during my four days just couldn’t be wedged into my schedule. (I suppose that’s a mix of good and bad timing.) But in addition to the films I’ve already mentioned, I was able to see fabulously meandering German comedy Toni Erdmann; Paul Verhoeven’s provocative Elle (starring Isabelle Huppert); the clever and surprisingly witty sci-fi drama Arrival (with Amy Adams); the morally complex Una, featuring Rooney Mara’s best performance yet; and the divisive Personal Shopper, a Kristen Stewart-starring ghost story that I found brilliant.
The Birth of a Nation, starring Nate Parker
All in all, I watched twenty-six films in total before or during my tenth TIFF. (Nine of these were prefest screeners; seventeen were screenings during my four days in Toronto.) Twelve of these twenty-six were very, very good. Six were so-so. (Surprisingly, Nate Parker’s Sundance winner The Birth of a Nation falls here; it’s adequate at best, and that’s without even considering the horrific rape allegations rising from Parker’s past.) Six were unexceptional. (One of these was Terrence Malick’s years-in-the-making Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, a gorgeous bore from a filmmaker whose recent decline is worrisome.) Two were really, really bad. Those numbers are quite strong.
But how’s this for bad timing? One of the stories of the festival (seriously) was the broken escalators at the Scotiabank Theatre Toronto, and, while the bitching was a bit much, it was easy to see why folks were so annoyed. This is one epic set of stairs, and it’s almost comical to ponder the up escalator (and later the down) breaking during the eleven days the world industry descends upon this theater. Couldn’t this have happened, say, twelve days later? Oh well.
Jackie, starring Natalie Portman
At its best, TIFF and any film festival serves as a launching pad for future success, a showcase for bold new art, and a place for cinephiles, critics, and celebs to congregate and share the magic of cinema. All of that happened at the North American premiere of Jackie on September 11. I was able to get a ticket from the press office for that first screening—yep, good timing—and had high expectations. The director, after all, is Pablo Larraín, the prolific Spanish filmmaker responsible for No, The Club, and another TIFF16 entry, Pablo Neruda biopic Neruda. And starring is Natalie Portman, a spot-on choice looks-wise. Even with my prefilm excitement, my expectations were exceeded. The story of the week following the JFK assassination from the perspective of Jackie Kennedy, Jackie was TIFF16’s finest film. It upends the traditional historical drama with bold storytelling, note-perfect performances, and a smart, probing script.
With films like this one highlighting the lineup, it was odd to read this quote about the 2016 festival, from industry bible Variety: “‘Most of the films were terrible,’ one distribution executive griped. ‘I can’t wait to get home.’” Ha. For me, TIFF16 was a series of masterpieces and a reminder that despite rumors to the contrary, film is not dead. It’s alive and well for eleven days in September and beyond. With Jackie, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Nocturnal Animals, and many other greats set to open in Buffalo shortly, your timing is very, very good.