Monday, September 16, 2019

TIFF Recap

Nothing makes me feel older than TIFF every year – last year, I did four movies a day for three days, and it pretty much killed me – I was exhausted on the last day, and felt awful. This year, I flipped it – three movies a day for four days, and it worked wonderfully. I hit the wall right before my last film at the Festival – but still loved it. But it always reminds me that just 10 years ago, I was able to do to 4, sometimes even five films a day for a week or more with ease. It’s time to admit I’m getting older, and except my Festival limitations. I still love TIFF, so I’ll be back again next year.
As is my normal habit in my TIFF recap, I start with the worst film, end with by favorite, and then just kind of feel my way through the other 10 films. If you read my preview, you’ll notice three films flipped – one because they added a screening of a film I would have picked over Deerskin in the first place, and the other two because I correctly figured out after my first day that trying to stay in Toronto until midnight on my final day was a dumb idea – so unfortunately I missed Synonyms and The Painted Bird, but I got another one I didn’t think I could fit in. As always, I missed films I would have loved to see – notably Parasite, Jojo Rabbit and Marriage Story among others, but they’ll be out this fall anyway, so it gives me something to look forward to.
After years of my first screening of the fest being the best movie (it’s where I saw Anomalisa and Manchester by the Sea for example), my luck has run out – no year worse than this year, where the worst film I saw was my first – Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn. This Chinatown wannabe is basically a mess – trying to cram too many characters and too much plot into its 134-minute runtime. Norton’s attention grabbing performance as a P.I. with Tourette’s was a distraction more than anything else (he’s at his best when his Tourette’s is under control). To make matters worse, the usually great Dick Pope’s cinematography has a bright sheen to it that’s all wrong for a noir film. The film is never boring to be fair, and sometimes entertaining – but it’s a pretty major disappointment from Norton – someone I waited nearly 20 years for to follow-up his promising directorial debut – the sweetly funny Keeping the Faith.
A slightly better modern noir was Yi’nan Diao’s The Wild Goose Lake – his long awaited for follow-up to the prizewinning Black Coal, Thin Ice from 2014. I wasn’t as enthused by that film as others were, but I think it was better than this one – which starts out very promising in a story about a gangster who kills a cop – and then goes on the run to the crime riddled titled town – not to try and get away, but to find a way to get his estranged wife the reward money for turning him in, with the help of a prostitute. The film is at its best in its earlier scenes – which look amazing – but once the plot comes into focus, it loses something – partly because plot isn’t really Diao’s strong point. It comes together in the end – the climax is good – but I still think the ultra-stylish Diao needs a screenwriter who isn’t himself.
Still, that film works a lot better than Daniel Borgman’s Resin – which alongside Motherless Brooklyn is the only film I flat out didn’t like at TIFF this year. The film wouldn’t work on its own, but it works even less when compared to Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, to which is thematically similar. It is about a family of hermits, who live in isolated on a Danish island – which is isolated to begin with. Years before, they faked the death of their baby girl before Child Services could take her away from them. Now, she’s a young teenager, and starts to question the way they live. Everything comes to a head when she starts going to town, her very pregnant mother (who is so obese, she cannot leave her bed) is about to give birth, and the father’s mother shows up for the first time in years – and then the father basically turns into a serial killer. The film lacks any sort of psychological depth for any of its characters, and is sloppily plotted (the one major character from the small town – the woman who runs the bar, whose house the teenage girl keeps breaking into doesn’t do one thing that makes any logical sense), and goes very wrong in the end. It’s the type of film that makes you wonder why they programmed it to begin with – not because its horrible (it isn’t, it’s just not very good) – but because it’s hard to see how anyone could love it, and it’s not like anyone involved in the film would be a major draw.
A film that better integrates some horror elements into a film that really isn’t a horror film is Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child – which isn’t the film his last film (the brilliant, incendiary Nocturama) – but is a fascinating film which combines horror and fantasy elements into a film about colonialism and cultural appropriation – flashing back and forth between 1960s Haiti – in a story of a man brought back to life to keep working, and a girls boarding school in modern day France – where his granddaughter attends, and joins a clique with four white girls. The film is haunting and strange – I’m not sure it ever really comes together in a convincing way, but its stuck with me much more than I thought it would. Unlike Resin, which I doubt if it will ever come to North American theatres outside of festivals, Zombi Child will likely be released at some point – and you should look for it.
A film that better combined a critique of colonialism and genre elements was the Brazilian film Bacurau from Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius director Kleber Mendonca Filho who co-directed with his regular production designer Juliano Dornelles. The film starts out as a portrait of an isolated Brazlian community, dealing with political corruption, and then turns into a kind of John Carpenter inspired version The Most Dangerous Game. The film is wildly entertaining, and also incredibly smart. It taps into the themes that Eli Roth thought he was tackling in the Hostel films – but in a way that actually makes sense, and gets those points across. A smart, entertaining, political genre film.
Bacurau won the Jury Prize at Cannes tied with another film I saw at TIFF – Ladj Ly’s debut film Les Miserables – which takes place in the same area of Paris where Victor Hugo wrote his infamous novel, and is thematically similar in a modern setting. The film follows a trio of cops interacting with the largely black or immigrant community – and what happens when they go too far while fighting off a group of children. The film is far from perfect – a subplot involving a lion cub is rather silly, and the chaos that ends the film feels more like it was reverse engineered rather than naturally occurring. Still, the film is viscerally exciting, and realizes just how deep the tensions go here. An imperfect film – but a wonderful debut for Ly.
Another festival prizewinner – this time the Venice Festival’s Silver Lion for Best Director – was About Endlessness another one of Roy Andersson’s drole comedies about the misery of existence. This one isn’t as large scaled as his last film – A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence - in any way. For one, the 73-minute runtime seems like a joke itself for a film called About Endlessness, and for another, his regular set pieces aren’t as large scaled as the biggest ones there. Here, everything is much smaller, much more everyday about the state of the world. The film is perfect for a festival environment – especially if, like me, you see it at the end of the day where Andersson’s little vignette’s work wonderfully well. If you’ve seen anything else by Andersson, you already know if you’ll like this or not – for me, it’s one of my favorites of his – the small scale works best for his meticulous style.
In the vein of you already know if you’ll like it or based on the director’s style, there was also Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life his first real return to a more narrative filmmaking since 2005’s The New World, but probably most thematically linked to his last WWII film The Thin Red Line – as the film is about how war really is the ultimate degradation of humanity and nature. Here, he tells the story of an Austrian farmer, who refuses to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler – and how his small community turns against him and his family, before he is finally brought into for trial. His stance doesn’t do anyone any good – he suffers, his family suffers, and no one outside his town even knows about it – but he cannot bring himself to do what he does not believe in. Malick uses his now trademark style, honed through To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song, but attaches a more concrete narrative than any of those films had. For some, this will be a return to form – for someone like me, who liked those three films (as well as Voyage of Time, which I also saw at TIFF – and I’m not sure ever really came out) it is still his best since The Tree of Life. Some will complain that Malick doesn’t show the true evil of the Nazis – no death camps, etc. – or that he makes his film too beautiful. Those are complaints not shared by me (do you honestly believe Malick expects you not to know the true evil of the Nazis – and the beauty underlines his themes). It isn’t quite among Malick’s very best films – this isn’t as good as Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World or The Tree of Life – but it’s close. I know it’s become fashionable to bash Malick – but you won’t find that coming from me. A masterful film.
Co-star Lucas Hedges referenced Malick when talking about the films of Trey Edward Shults – whose latest film Waves is his best yet. While I’m not entirely sold on Hedges’ point – I see where he’s coming from. Waves is basically split in two – the first half of the film is about the downfall of Tyler – played in a great performance by Kelvin Harrison Jr. – a high school wrestler, whose life unravels when he suffers a wrestling ending shoulder injury, and finds out his girlfriend (Alexa Demie) is pregnant. The film is overwhelming stylistically – loud and chaotic, and brilliantly shot, edited and sound designed – all leading up to tragedy. The second half focuses on Tyler’s sister Emily (a wonderful Taylor Russell) – who struggles with what her brother did, what is doing to her family, and at the same time finds first love with Lucas Hedges, who gets her through this difficult time in her life. This half is also emotionally overwhelming – and also tragic – but in a different way. The film is about guilt and redemption – love and forgiveness. It represents a major step forward for Shults – whose Krishna and It Comes at Night – were already quite good. One of the year’s best.
I’m not sure Cory Finley’s sophomore film, following the wonderful Thoroughbreds, Bad Education is a step forward for him – it isn’t as stylistically daring, or challenging as that film. Still, when a film is this entertaining, sharply written and acted, it’s hard to complain. The film would make an excellent double bill with Alexander Payne’s Election. This film focuses on a school superintendent (Hugh Jackman, arguably better than he has ever been) and his assistant (Allison Janney, having a blast doing a Long Island accent) caught in the nation’s largest ever school board embezzling scandal in history – exposed by one enterprising high school reporter for the school paper. The film is wickedly funny – and with the college admission scandal ongoing, it has become more timely than ever. The whole cast is wonderful – none more so than Jackman, who plays off his image a little bit, and goes all out. This one doesn’t have distribution yet – but it will get it – so keep a look out, probably next year, for this audience pleaser.
In some ways, Scott Z. Burns’ The Report feels like a throwback to the would-be prestige dramas from last decade (remember Rendition? Lions for Lambs?) at the height of the Iraq war that audiences didn’t want to see then. There are a few differences though – for one The Report is much better than those films, and for another, the passage of time is part of the narrative. It is about Daniel Johns (a great Adam Driver) who worked for years for the Senate Intelligence Committee looking into the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (aka torture) methods in the wake of 9/11- and finds almost nothing but pushback from the agency, and even the Obama White House, who wants to move on. This is a film about smart people doing their work – no personal life drama, etc. – just Driver and his team investigating, intercut with some flashbacks of what happened, and his meetings with Senator Dianne Feinstein (a good Annette Bening) and his explains with mounting anger what happened, why, and why none of it works or made any difference what so ever in the war on terror. The film may feel like a series of large data dumps – but Driver sells them all, and the film is more intense and anger inducing than it probably sounds. I don’t know if Americans want to see this any more than they wanted to see these things a decade ago – but they should.
Which brings us to the best film I saw at TIFF this year – the Safdie brothers anxiety inducing Uncut Gems – featuring the best ever Adam Sandler performance, and an almost overwhelming style that pushes forward with chaotic, propulsive energy, perhaps even more than their last film – the masterpiece Good Time. Here, Sandler plays a New York diamond dealer, deep in debt to everyone he knows, who over the course of a few days tries to dig himself out. It involves a massive Ethiopian black opal, the Celtics Kevin Garnett and his crew (including a wonderful LaKeith Stanfield), his wife (Idina Menzel), his mistress (Julia Fox), and various thugs, loan sharks, etc. – who are all tiring of his schemes. The film lets you knows exactly what it’s going to be in the opening moments – the chaotic sound design makes the film feel like a mixture of Cassavetes and Altman, with voices coming from all over the place, and the pulsating score rippling through your body. And each passing scene simply ups the ante more and more and more – the film felt like was trying to give me a heart attack, which is precisely what they are going for. It’s also a reminder that while Sandler often completely lacks ambition – making cheap, easy movies as an excuse to hang out with friends, or film in tropical locales for a few months – when he wants to me, he can be absolutely brilliant. This film will be divisive – it is so overwhelming stylistically that it will turn some people off – but for me, it confirmed the Safdies brilliance, and was another masterwork from the brothers.
And so that’s it for me for another TIFF. Every year, I wonder if I’ll go again – if it’s worth the money and the hassle – and every year, while I’m there, I enjoy every minute even as it leaves me exhausted. And every year, I decide, that yes, for at least one more year, I’ll be heading to TIFF again next year.

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