This year, the Toronto International Film Festival celebrates it’s fortieth birthday. It has become the largest, and most pre-eminent, festival in the Americas. Where Sundance has carved out an identity as home of the independent(and largely North American) filmmaker, and both New York and Tribeca field impressive line-ups, it is to Toronto that the industry looks for the serious business of buying and selling films and showcasing the leading Oscar contenders each year. Toronto is second only to Cannes as a professional marketplace and between the two, it’s possible to cover pretty much all the key international titles emerging in any one year. The official programme showcases close to 300 films drawn from 73 countries. What I’m getting at here is it is a behemoth of the festival circuit. The choice on offer can be bewildering but richly rewarding too.
Arriving late on the opening night, Thursday 10th, I managed to sort out my accreditation and get something to eat before trying to get some sleep (my body clock telling me it was 3AM UK time!).
The festival started in earnest with my first screening at 8.30AM the following morning. Atom Egoyan, one of the most established and revered filmmakers in Canada, is showing his latest feature, Remember, a kind of Nazi Holocaust Death Wish revenge film starring Christopher Plummer (in an excellent performance) as an ageing camp survivor faced with impending death and suffering dementia which has all but wiped out his short term memory,attempting to search for and kill the Nazi commandant who murdered his family during the Holocaust. Its undoubtedly an intriguing premise, and I heard one festival-goer describe it as being like Christopher Nolan’s Memento crossed with Schindler’s List. If that degree of flippancy sits a little uneasily with you alongside such a weighty and horrendous piece of history, then you have the measure of this unsettling piece of entertainment. I love many Egoyan films, but creating an at times far fetched fictional thriller out of such historically profound suffering left me feeling very uneasy indeed.
Thankfully, Hong Sangsoo’s Right Now, Wrong Then came up next for me, hot off winning the Golden Leopard at the recent Locarno Film Festival, and provided another of Hong’s trademark puzzle narratives centred around the relationships between men and women, and more accurately a male film director and young female student. It’s a familiar conceit for Hong (and I’m hoping many of you will be familiar with his work after the ICO toured both the man himself, and 12 of his films around the UK a few years back) but, as ever,its all in the detail as a wry exploration of masculinity and hubris unfolds from multiple perspectives. A must see at this years London Film Festival if you can make the trip.
If Hong delivered a bitter sweet melancholy that frequently tickled my funny bone, then Michael Moore took his trademark wide-eyed-politically-naive-American abroad schtick into laugh-out-loud and jaw-dropping cringe with his acerbic, but ultimately optimistic Where to Invade Next. I am confident it will eventually get UK distribution, although at the time it had no US or UK distributor and had been funded out of Michael Moore’s own pocket. The film posits Moore as an American invading countries around the world in order to steal their best ideas in fields like education and welfare and take them back to the USA. Even if it is, as ever, rather partisan and doesn’t deal in subtlety,it manages to be very funny and very serious at the same time, which is a rare feat Moore appears to accomplish with ease. It should be box office gold for the indie exhibition sector when it eventually makes its way to a UK release.
Let Them Come was one of those films which just happened to work out timetable-wise for me at the festival, and even though I had heard nothing about it whatsoever, it was one of the strongest films I saw at TIFF. With a somewhat similar story to Timbuktu, this Algerian film focused on a middle-class government clerk and his family as they try to maintain a sense of normalcy under the impending shadow of radical Islamic fundamentalism. As the clerk tries to ignore what is happening all around him and lead a decent life, violence and ignorance rule the day and soon he finds himself and his family desperately trying to survive against an implacable and totally alien mindset which pits neighbour against neighbour. It’s riveting, tense and deeply humanist in its approach to a now familiar narrative of War on Terror. I saw three films this festival which involved drone warfare and Islamic Fundamentalism and, despite their larger budgets and starrier casts, none of them had anything like the gut-wrenching power of this small Algerian film.
Next up for me was Mustang, a film which everyone seems to love (including at least two other ICO staff and Europa Cinemas who awarded it a prize in Cannes). I was no exception and found myself completely beguiled by this tale of a dominating Turkish father and his attempts to keep his daughters pure and untainted by the outside world until he can marry them off in respectable fashion. The film is a more accessible and female focused version of films like Dogtooth or indeed the recent doc The Wolfpack, looking at how a petty father figure all but destroys his own family through his inability to trust in his own children’s ability to navigate the world around them. As a political metaphor its powerful and presumably why we see this story being played out time and time again from around the world (Room at TIFF is another variant, as is Miss Violence, Bad Boy Bubby and even The Virgin Suicides to some extent). It’s a lively, idiosyncratic, wry and heartfelt film which should prove a substantial arthouse hit when it eventually gets a UK theatrical release later in the year.
Its been over 10 years since Lucile Hadihalilovic gave us the truly singular and disturbing Innocence. Like that stunning feature debut, Evolution, her sophomore feature, is an at once breathtakingly beautifully constructed piece of art cinema, and a disturbing exploration of a hermetically sealed and sexually perverse world. On a mysterious Island (well Lanzarote actually) a community of boys live with their mothers (or so it seems) and participate in a series of medical experiments. When one boy shows a little too much curiosity bad things happen This was perhaps the most anticipated film of the festival for me and while it didn’t quite deliver as I had hoped, it absolutely is like nothing else in cinema and for that alone deserves to be seen. But I suspect its audience is compact to say the least It might help orientate people to know that Hadihalilovic is Gaspar Noes partner and they clearly share a love of challenging cinema, which is a plus in my book, but certainly not to everyones taste.
After Evolution I started in on a run of the big hitters gearing up for the Awards season and all jostling for critical buzz Next up Eye in the Sky, Anomalisa, Black Mass, High Rise, Sunset Song, Room, The Danish Girl and a whole lot more…