Now back in the UK and recovering from festival overload, Film4 Channel Editor David Cox rounds up his experiences at the Toronto International Film Festival in one bumper blog…
Even with the benefit of a few days’ hindsight there’s no simple way to encapsulate the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which wrapped on Sunday 15th September. Other major international festivals – Cannes, Berlin, Venice – have high-profile competitions, ensuring that each day is dominated by the unveiling of the new entrants and giving those events a narrative-ready focus and structure. Toronto doesn’t really have that (there is a structure to the programme but it’s less overt); it has plenty of big, much-anticipated films claiming the majority of the media spotlight, but the fact that these titles continue to screen beyond their respective premieres means they enter the flow of the festival more smoothly. Stop to survey the festival landscape midway through its 11 days, once the majority of films have played at least once, and it feels remarkably even and democratic; any high-points you can see rising up from the programme are the good films, rather than those that have been pre-selected by the programmers or carefully marketed for special attention.
Sounds almost perfect, doesn’t it? Well, it is – once you reach that aforementioned midpoint. The downside is that for the first few days you’re faced with more than 300 films and a daunting navigational task. Everything looks interesting – the small films you don’t know sound intriguing, the new films by directors you love are essential, the big films you could probably see at home in a few weeks time are too tempting to resist. Putting together a screening schedule from the first Thursday through to the Monday is a constant process of prioritising – what you quite fancy, what you want to see, what you definitely can’t miss, what you can see later in the festival, what you can see at the London Film Festival in a month’s time. Run those categories through your head a few hundred times, add in daily word-of-mouth to keep you on your toes, and suddenly each choice you make takes on great significance; after all, you’re not just seeing one film – you’re also missing about six others.
Luckily, there’s so much to see at Toronto that you could probably go through the festival a few times, seeing completely different films on each occasion, and always have an equally rewarding experience. In the end I managed to strike a fairly healthy balance, ranging from high-profile bruisers (the Weinstein Co.’s Oscar-hungry acting extravaganza August: Osage County; Alfonso Cuaron’s spectacularly-staged space thriller Gravity) to the very opposite end of the spectrum (Manakamana, a series of passenger-portraits captured by a fixed-camera on a Tibetan chairlift; The Strange Little Cat, a beautifully choreographed and observed German film set almost entirely in a single kitchen).
Sandra Bullock in Gravity
As usual, Toronto served as a launching pad for the penultimate wave of end-of-year awards hopefuls (the final assault tends to come throughout November). Festival opener The Fifth Estate probably fancied itself as one of these, but this account of the rise of WikiLeaks and the machinations of Julian Assange (distractingly played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is so desperate to be a breathless thriller that it never stops to acquire any real gravity. Conversely, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners is a twisty mystery about kidnapped children that could have done with lightening its load, although the portentous tone and 150-minute running-time means it will probably be taken more seriously than it should. More convincing in every respect is Dallas Buyers Club, the story of avowedly heterosexual Texan rodeo star Ron Woodruff who, having contracted HIV in the mid-80s and being given 30 days to live, ends up taking on a pharmaceutical industry denying AIDS patients access to alternative medicine. Insouciant, angry and steering well clear of self-pity, the film’s tone is pretty much set by Matthew McConaughey in the lead role, although his performance is more than matched by Jared Leto as a Woodruff’s drag queen sidekick.
A major end-of-year Oscar prospect that seemed to land a little softer than expected, Jason Reitman’s Labor Day stars Kate Winslet as a single mother suffering from depression whose life, along with that of her devoted young son, is transformed when an escaped convict seeks refuge in her home. On the surface it may appear that the film doesn’t have the weight to stand up to supposedly more ‘important’ films when it comes to awards, but the beautiful layering of desire, discovery, transformation and actualisation gives this whole-hearted emotional story real tensile strength.
However, the film that emerged strongest from Toronto is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. The true story of Solomon Northup, a free man sold into slavery, is full of horror, heartbreak and righteous rage, with McQueen capturing all that strong feeling in a way that’s both delicate yet penetrating. Faced with a subject of such scope and import, McQueen has to work harder than ever to find a way to communicate with precision; that he manages to do so is testament to his formidable concentration and artistic imagination, coupled with performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch. The film won the festival’s Audience Award, surely only the first prize of many more to come. (Although 12 Years A Slave is a Film4 production, this assessment is purely objective.)
Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Although Toronto can sometimes feel like a huge muddle of movies that’s been left for the viewer to sort out (which it isn’t, of course), the programme does possess one defining daily feature by which it can be surely navigated. A dark star that shines only at midnight to guide weary festivalgoers to their final port of call, the Midnight Madness strand is quite simply the most fun, exciting and inspiring place to watch new horror, action and exploitation films. Housed at the Ryerson – a cavernous college hall turned into a cinema for the festival – Midnight Madness celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, with its dedicated programmer and host Colin Geddes delivering yet another monstrously entertaining 10-night line-up to the most vocal and energised audience I’ve ever been a part of (no-one does on-stage film intros like Geddes). Each night, at the end of the regular festival day, I tell myself I might be better off getting a decent night’s sleep, only to find myself inexorably drawn to the huge Midnight Madness queue that circles a city block and ultimately leads into a cinema full of pre-film beach ball fun, blasting music, black t-shirts and call-and-response insanity.
This year, my Midnight highlight was Oculus, a cleverly-constructed story of a haunted mirror that drives people to violent murder and suicide. Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites are siblings who concoct an elaborate plan to destroy the 17th-century ‘Lasser glass’ ten years after it possessed their parents, only to find that the only-superficially inanimate antique is quite capable of defending itself. Director Mike Flanagan fully delivers on the promise of his 2011 debut Absentia, combining past and present in the same physical and narrative space while never sacrificing the clarity that helps make his tale so effective.
Also keeping the Midnight masses wide awake was Eli Roth, whose new film The Green Inferno is a homage to the sub-genre of Italian cannibal films. Roth was here last year with a film he produced – Aftershock – and Green Inferno follows a similar game plan, starting slow before piling on the gory shocks. An aborted environmental protest leaves a group of student radicals stranded in the Peruvian jungle at the mercy of natives whose way of life they were trying to preserve, the basis for an ‘Americans abroad’ satire that’s not a million miles from Roth’s own Hostel films. It’s a formula that still works a treat here, especially with the added bonus of the Amazonian locations, a committed cast drawn from a local tribe and some seriously intense shock set pieces.
Elsewhere, the Midnight Madness crowd gave a warm welcome to a number of other genre luminaries – returning hero Hitoshi Matsumoto (Big Man Japan) was treated like a rock star when he introduced his perverse S&M comedy-fantasy R100, while Alex de la Iglesia (Witching & Bitching), Lucky McKee (All Cheerleaders Die) and Sion Sono (who won the section’s Audience Award with Why Don’t You Play In Hell?) all kept the Ryerson rocking until well past 2am. All in all, this was a 25th birthday celebrated in satisfyingly rude and rousing style.
All the above barely scratches the surface of what I saw in Toronto, which itself is only a fraction of what was actually on show. Thankfully, a number of leading titles had already screened in Cannes (Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Colour; Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive; Jia Zhangke’s A Touch Of Sin; Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Like Father, Like Son) and I’d been lucky enough to see some of the many Film4 titles prior to the festival (Under The Skin; The Selfish Giant; Le Week-End; The Double), so there was plenty of time to explore the rest of the TIFF programme.
James Franco in Palo Alto
These days it seems that no international film festival is complete without the presence of James Franco in some form or another. At Toronto, he was on-screen in Palo Alto (which was also based on his book of short stories) and behind-the-camera as director on the Cormac McCarthy adaptation Child Of God. Palo Alto is a beautiful and unhysterical study of confused, troubled and sexually curious young teenagers from first-time director Gina Coppola (Francis’s granddaughter) – not having read Franco’s stories I can’t vouch for the skill of the adaptation, but what’s on-screen is sensitively observed by Coppola and exquisitely played by a young cast including Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff and, best of all, Val Kilmer’s son Jack. Franco’s own Child of God, his second feature is a bracing and vivid drama about a lost soul-turned-hillbilly necrophiliac (astonishingly played by newcomer Tim Haze, with worrying enthusiasm) roaming free in America’s rural South. The film feels natural and immediate, perfectly attuned to its character troubled state-of-mind; there’s something of early Werner Herzog in Franco’s approach that makes me eager to see what he’ll do next.
At the this point I’m at a loss to find fancy ways to bring a disparate bunch of films together so I’ll finish with a quick spin through some personal highlights. Club Sandwich is another droll, minimalist study of boredom and quiet yearning from Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke – it’s always amazing to see how much the director of Duck Season and Lake Tahoe can get out of so little. All Is By My Side is a Jimi Hendrix biopic that although light on his music (due to wrangling with the Hendrix estate) is heavy on charm and piquant dramatic moments, mainly thanks to a relaxed performance from OutKast’s Andre Benjamin.
All Is By My Side
The Stag is a winning Irish comedy about a stag weekend in the Irish countryside, firmly anchored by the wonderful Andrew Scott and then launched into the comic stratosphere by Peter McDonald as a force-of-nature known as The Machine. And, finally, two from Taiwan – a haunting, slow-motion mystery about demonic possession Soul and, perhaps best of all, the return-to-form of Tsai Ming-liang with the miraculous Stray Dogs, a moving story of urban dispossession in which the director extends his famous fixed long-takes almost to breaking-point, in the process going deeper than ever into the realm of pure feeling than ever before. If this is truly going to be Tsai’s final film, as he himself claims, then he’s going out on a high as one of the unassailable greats of contemporary world cinema.
So, that was Toronto 2013 – and I didn’t even get round to mentioning strong new films from some of my favourite directors (oh, ok then – Night Moves, by Kelly Reichardt; Enough Said, by Nicole Holofcener; Joe, by David Gordon Green; We Are The Best!, by Lukas Moodysson; The Wind Rises, by Hayao Miyazaki). And to let you off the hook if you couldn’t be bothered to read all the above, I’ll finish with a Top 12 list.
TORONTO TOP 12 (excluding Cannes and Film4 titles)
Child Of God (James Franco)
Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallee)
Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)
Manakamana (Stephanie Spray, Pancho Valez)
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
Oculus (Mike Flanagan)
Palo Alto (Gia Coppola)
R100 (Hitoshi Matsumoto)
Soul (Chung Mong-Hong)
The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears (Helene Cattet, Bruno Forzani)
The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zurcher)
Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang)