TIFF 2016: Top Ten

19 Sep, 2016 Posted in: Toronto Editor Michael Leader runs through ten standouts from the Toronto International Film Festival…


The Oath

I’d already seen three of the four Film4-backed films screening in Toronto (including Free Fire, which picked up the Midnight Madness People’s Choice award) before the festival. The fourth, Baltasar Kormákur’s The Oath, was high on my most-anticipated list, and not just because I was interviewing the actor/director/writer/producer while out there. Kormákur is one of the most versatile directors working today – and after the starry adventure movie Everest, he’s returned to his native Iceland for a chilly, existential thriller that sits comfortably alongside his 2006 detective gem Jar City, and his recent TV serial Trapped, as the best the Nordic Noir genre has to offer.

My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea

Animated over the course of 5 years in Brooklyn, this feature debut from erstwhile graphic novelist Dash Shaw bears all the hallmarks of the artist’s distinct visual style – bold washes of colour leaking across the frame; intricate scribbles and paper collage; playful line art that takes inspiration from Hergé and Charles M Schulz. It certainly looks nothing like your typical animation, but Shaw’s offbeat storytelling voice – not to mention the literally distinctive voices of Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon and Maya Rudolph – brings to mind the esoteric tone of 90s animation. Best to think of this as Daria’s droller, disaster-movie cousin.

Heal The Living

Simply recounting the plot for this devastating French drama makes me choke up, so I’ll be brief. Katell Quillévéré’s powerful medical drama is essentially a procedural, deep-diving into a single heart transplant case. What would be a minor story thread in an episode of ER is here handled with incredible care, clarity and humanity, as Quillévéré foregoes the tension and twists of conventional drama to trace the invisible threads that unite an ensemble of characters via the miracle of modern medicine.

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

There’s a temptation to label this film as something of a B-Side itself, coming out while documentarian Errol Morris toils away on his upcoming Netflix series. But don’t underestimate this generous, quietly complex documentary about Morris’s friend, photographer Elsa Dorfman, whose large-format Polaroid pictures possess a unique, unadorned power. What starts as an entertaining introduction to the woman’s life, work and personality works up tremendous poignancy as Dorfman gently touches on her life-long friendship with poet Allen Ginsberg, the undimmed magic of portrait photography, and the insidious, institutional processes that threaten her reputation and legacy.


I was gutted to miss Julia Ducournau’s French cannibal horror (much-hyped by my colleague Catherine Bray) at Cannes – but I can’t think of a better place in the world to have seen it than at the Ryerson Theatre, in TIFF’s legendary Midnight Madness strand. The MM crowd are smart and savvy genre diehards, and they took to Raw perhaps too well – if you believe the stories that ambulances were called to the cinema to tend to passed-out cinemagoers. To some, that’s testament enough – you can judge for yourself when Raw plays at the London Film Festival in October.



Another must-see at the LFF, Alice Lowe’s directorial feature debut is a revenge-themed black comedy with a twist. Lowe stars as Ruth, a heavily-pregnant woman on a killing spree inspired by the voice of her unborn child. Darkly humorous, Prevenge jabs at the heart of the presumptuous and patronising culture that surrounds pregnancy. A cult classic in the making. Plus points for a strong supporting cast, featuring Jo Hartley, Kate Dickie and Kayvan Novak – and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Tom Meeten (who’s also appearing at the LFF, alongside Alice Lowe, in The Ghoul).

Blue Jay

One for fans of the Duplass brothers’ HBO series Togetherness, this black-and-white two-hander directed by seasoned cinematographer Alex Lehmann stars Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson as middle-aged friends meeting by chance after two decades. Your mileage may vary based on how much you like either of those actors, or the prospect of storytelling as a metaphorical onion – where character relationships, personalities and histories are slowly revealed, layer by layer, through dialogue. That’s precisely the sort of film I love – and after appreciating her supporting turns in Carol, 12 Years A Slave and Martha Marcy May Marlene, I’m now a paid-up member of the Sarah Paulson fan club.

A Monster Calls

Based on Patrick Ness’s best-selling ‘low’ fantasy novel, about a troubled boy and his nightly visits from a wise, if fearsome, oak tree, A Monster Calls sees director JA Bayona returning to the gothic mould of his Guillermo del Toro-produced debut, the Spanish chiller The Orphanage, bringing with him a few of the tricks learned from Oscar-friendly disaster drama The Impossible. This is a new entry in that small canon of allegorical reality-meets-fantasy stories, joining the likes of My Neighbour Totoro, Coraline, and del Toro’s own Pan’s Labyrinth – although remarkably honed-in on working through one specific, complicated emotional conundrum. Props to Bayona and casting director supreme Shaheen Baig for discovering young Lewis MacDougall, whose versatile performance ably matches the heavyweights on screen (Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones) and carries the complex emotional drama in scenes with the CGI, Liam Neeson-voiced Monster.

The Limehouse Golem

A compelling, full-throated gothic murder-mystery adapted from Peter Ackroyd’s novel by screenwriter Jane Goldman, The Limehouse Golem is dripping with London lore – from raucous music halls to the grime of the Victorian East End. There’s a strong, contemporary feminist undercurrent running through the twisty-turny investigation, as Bill Nighy’s detective is led through a deeply patriarchal society in pursuit of the identity of the Limehouse Golem, as well as the evidence that will clear the name of a famed actress wrapped up in the case (Me And Earl And The Dying Girl’s Olivia Cooke). But, frankly, this is delightful dress-up – the sort of chilling page-turner that will play perfectly as the nights draw in.

Sand Storm

Elite Zexer’s Bedouin drama picked up awards in Sundance and Locarno, and was the last film I saw before returning to the UK. Sand Storm tells the story of a teenage girl and a love affair that puts her at odds with her mother, father and the traditions of her community. On the face of it, Sand Storm is not too dissimilar to 2015′s Turkish crowd-pleaser Mustang, but substitute the thrill of seeing young women rage against the boundaries imposed on them by the older, patriarchal generation with tougher social questions, and even tougher compromises. It might prevent Zexer’s film from capturing the international crowd – but the film is all the more powerful for it.

Baltasar Kormakur on The Oath

16 Sep, 2016 Productions Posted in: Festivals, Toronto

As his Film4-backed Icelandic thriller The Oath premieres in Toronto, director/writer/actor Baltasar Kormakur speaks with editor Michael Leader about making films in Hollywood, returning to Iceland, and the danger of tyranny.


After making a series of films in Hollywood – Contraband, 2 Guns and Everest being three of them – you’re now back in Iceland for The Oath. What brought you back?

It’s where I grew up. It’s where I feel most true. It’s the landscape, it’s the weather – it’s who I am. When you live on an island that’s full of volcanoes… We’re living on a planet that’s alive. We are constantly reminded of that. And I need to make films in other places, but it seems like I’m drawn back – the more opportunities I get, the more I want to come back. Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome!

Your first film as director, 101 Reykjavik, was a very spirited portrayal of Icelandic nightlife and drug culture – now, 16 years later, The Oath takes a darker look at that lifestyle. In that time, has Iceland changed, or have you changed?

I’ve changed probably more than Iceland. It’s not that I want to be a moraliser, saying that kids shouldn’t have fun, but it’s different. Iceland didn’t used to have this culture of criminals, at all. And they weren’t celebrated in the media they way they are now. You cannot turn a blind eye because you have a nice house, and you live in a nice neighbourhood. These problems occur in every home.

But I try in the film not to take sides. It’s almost the anti-American movie. If you take all these movies where fathers go and save their kids, and bring them home still a virgin – like Taken or something – if you think that’s what you can do, and you go into that criminal world, this might be the outcome. There’s only one shot fired, and the consequences of that one shot are so great. 2 Guns is the opposite of that. You can shoot and shoot and you never see the consequences of it. I’m interested in the consequences of violence.

But at the same time, it’s a thriller. It’s about a man who’s built up the perfect life. He’s a heart surgeon, he has a beautiful wife, he has a beautiful home. But there are still some cracks, if you look deeply into it.


The character you play in the film, Finnur, tries to assert control over every aspect of his life. Power over his patients as a surgeon, power over his family, even power over his body with his intense exercise routine. You are the director, producer, co-writer and star of The Oath – is that theme of control relevant to you off-screen as well as on?

Yes, I might be directing with some big stars in America, and you’re like God and people do what you tell them, but then you come home and you can’t control your kids. You can’t control your private life.

As a producer, director, writer, owner of the company – and I built this all up – the danger of tyranny and that behaviour is everywhere. So what you have to do is let go of control. Part of that is to let the projects come to you, and not to force your style on it. I’ve heard directors talk about themselves in the third person, and it’s weird. The film will ask for what it needs – it doesn’t mean you don’t do the homework, but don’t over-prepare yourself.

It’s as simple as listening to your cast and crew. As soon as you listen to somebody, they’ll be empowered to tell you something again. And to be able to do that, you’ll need to have a lot of self esteem, so you can listen to people but then go and make your own decisions.

What did you learn from going to America and making films there? And what was the appeal?

When I did it I didn’t have a plan. I wanted to break out of Iceland, I was suffocating a little bit. I wanted a bigger market. Better financing, and stuff like that. And then you do two films like that – Contraband and 2 Guns – and then you start asking ‘what is the purpose of this? Is it only money?’

And that’s when I did Everest, which is a much more serious movie, and challenging on many levels, technical levels. And then I was offered a lot of franchises – $250 million movies. And I thought… How many steaks can you eat? It doesn’t really make that much sense to continue on a path that, yes, may make you a lot of money, but it’s not necessarily the life you were seeking. So I go home and make The Oath which is far more personal.

I’m the first Icelandic guy to have done this – so there is no path. Most of the Scandinavians before, they went there and came right back home after one or two films because they flopped. There are a lot of stories like that. On those terms, I’ve been successful – I’ve had box office hits, and each one has been bigger than the others – but where’s that going to lead me?

So what I did was, I went to Hollywood, brought some Hollywood money back, I built a studio in Iceland, and I’m now bringing Iceland to the world.

Midnight Madness opener Free Fire first of five Film4 films to screen at Toronto International Film Festival

08 Sep, 2016 Productions Posted in: Festivals, Toronto

Ben Wheatley’s high octane action thriller Free Fire kicks off the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness section tonight, the first of five Film4 backed films to screen at the festival:


World Premiere / Midnight Madness Opening Night

Massachusetts, late ‘70s. Justine (Brie Larson) has brokered a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two Irishmen (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley) and a gang led by Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Ord (Armie Hammer) who are selling them a stash of guns. But when shots are fired in the handover, a heart stopping game of survival ensues. Wheatley’s first US-set action picture is executive produced by Martin Scorsese.

Director Ben Wheatley

Cast Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor

Writers Amy Jump & Ben Wheatley, Producer Andrew Starke

Production Company Rook Films, Sales agent Protagonist Pictures



World Premiere / Special Presentation

Three generations of the Cutler family live as notorious outlaws in Britain’s richest countryside. They spend their time hunting, looting and tormenting the police. In the midst of it all, Chad (Michael Fassbender) finds himself torn between respect for his father (Brendan Gleeson) and a desire for a better life for his children. With the law cracking down on his clan, the decision might not be his to make… Music for the film is an original score from The Chemical Brothers.

Director Adam Smith

Cast Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson, Lyndsey Marshal, Rory Kinnear, Sean Harris, Killian Scott

Writer Alastair Siddons, Producers Andrea Calderwood, Gail Egan, Alastair Siddons

Production Company Potboiler Productions, Sales agent Protagonist Pictures


World Premiere / Special Presentation

Baltasar Kormákur plays the part of a father, who sets off on a mission to try to pull his daughter away from the world of drugs and petty crime, only to discover that danger can be found where you least expect it.

Director Baltasar Kormákur

Cast Baltasar Kormákur, Hera Hilmar, Gísli Örn Gardarsson, Margret Bjarnadottir

Writers Ólafur Egill Egilsson & Baltasar Kormákur

Producer Magnus Viðar Sigurðsson

Production Company RVK Studios, Sales agent XYZ Films


North American Premiere / Special Presentation

Star (Sasha Lane), a teenage girl from a troubled home runs away with a travelling sales crew that drives across the American mid-west selling magazine subscriptions door to door. Finding her feet in this gang of teenagers, one of whom is Jake (Shia LaBeouf), she soon gets into the group’s lifestyle of hard partying, law-bending and young love.

Writer / Director Andrea Arnold

Cast Shia LaBeouf, Sasha Lane, Riley Keough

Producers Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy, Thomas Benski, Lucas Ochoa

Production Companies Parts & Labor, Pulse Films, Sales agent Protagonist Pictures

** Jury Prize winner at 2016 Cannes Film Festival; A24will release in the US on 30th September and Focus Features release in the UK on 14th October **


Canadian Premiere / Special Presentation

When a young woman unexpectedly arrives at an older man’s workplace, looking for answers, the secrets of the past threaten to unravel his new life. Their confrontation will uncover buried memories and unspeakable desires. It will shake them both to the core.

Director Benedict Andrews

Cast Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed

Writer David Harrower, based on his own play BLACKBIRD

Producers Jean Doumanian, Patrick Daly, Maya Amsellem

Production Company & Sales agent WestEnd Films

TIFF: five favourites

28 Sep, 2015 Posted in: Festivals, Toronto

Elena Lazic reports from the Toronto International Film festival on her five favourites of the fest.

The Lobster

Yorgos Lanthimos’ success in realising the usually disastrous combination of farcical black comedy and romance proved to be my favourite film of the festival. Entertaining from beginning to end, The Lobster has its strange cake and eats it, balancing comedy and tragedy, violence and extreme tenderness, its tonal shifts never distracting from the central human plot, but always working in its service. Colin Farrell’s deadpan performance is endlessly watchable and makes his character’s outbursts of romantic feeling and ultimate sacrifice all the more moving in the end. With its intensely designed cinematography echoing the absurd and polarised structure of the film’s world, The Lobster felt to me the most wholly realised film at the festival.

Green Room

As the most violent and graphic film on my list – and possibly at the festival – it might seem strange to single out Green Room for the respect it has for its audience. The film does not waste time in lengthy exposition or explanation. Rather, entering the world of punk rock without being given any particulars proves part of the pleasure, as we spiral into a world of suddenly escalating violence. Although they appear in what is essentially a straightforward siege/slasher film, the lead characters (a rag-tag punk band) are presented as refreshingly intelligent; instantly and acutely aware of the dubious atmosphere of what turns out to be a neo-Nazi club, they prepare themselves for the worst quickly and efficiently.


Winner of the Grolsch People’s Choice Award for Midnight Madness – the festival’s absurdly fun strand of late night screenings – Hardcore is entirely shot with GoPro cameras from the perspective of a bionic man on the run, like a first person shooter video game with the boring bits ripped out. Operating in a fantastical world, the violence in the film is too extreme, too omnipresent and too choreographed to be painful to watch, instead proving intensely enjoyable in all its OTT glory. As in a video game, we admire all the cool and inventive ways contrived to eliminate enemies and we cheer on our hero, even as his face remains obscured to us, because we ‘are’ him.

The Iron Giant: Signature Edition

Initially released in 1999, this animated film is of my generation but somehow passed me by, and so proved a total revelation for me at TIFF. Brad Bird’s debut effortlessly achieves what recent ‘dark’ Pixar films are aiming for: lasting and genuine emotional impact. The difference with The Iron Giant is that I did not feel manipulated, as I did with Toy Story 3, or, to some extent, Inside Out, both films that seemed to purposefully, almost sadistically select a subject or a direction calculated in advance to crush your soul. The Iron Giant feels less clinical, starting from a place of genuine innocence in its tale of a lonely boy and his friendship with what might be a giant metallic killing machine.

The Club

Nuanced films about tough subjects are to be cherished and admired, as they are so rare in contemporary cinema, and The Club is one of them. Dealing with the issue of hushed-up child abuse in the Catholic Church, the contemporary setting of the film is instrumental in effectively questioning the on-going responsibility and complicity of the Church in these crimes. The film’s accusations extend beyond individual priests to deliver a more structural and damning verdict, serving to highlight how ancient institutional principles of secrecy and protection are untenable in our modern world.

TIFF: five favourites

28 Sep, 2015 Posted in: Festivals, Toronto

Manuela Lazic reports from the Toronto International Film Festival on five favourites from the fest.

The Witch

What if the sorceresses and deadly spells in which people believed so fervently in the 17th century had been real? The Witch takes this premise and explores how belief systems operate, demonstrating that in fact, no one, whether in 1630s New England or 2015 Toronto, can comprehend the existence of true, absolute evil, even when presented with empirical evidence. Even the parents of the cursed family at the film’s centre eventually blame a supernatural being; they cannot imagine it being simply an external figure – it must be someone within the family. The Witch distinguishes itself by its reliance on human psychology rather than graphic horror to intrigue and terrify.

How Heavy This Hammer

Depression is a tough subject to tackle onscreen: even the best-intentioned filmmakers risk oversimplifying or exploiting it in order to manipulate an audience. With How Heavy This Hammer, writer-director Kazir Radwanski avoids this by keeping the origin of his main character Erwin’s dissatisfaction opaque. Erwin’s increasingly jaded attitude marks his descent into isolation, as even the quick gratification of video games loses its appeal. His rudeness and passive aggression towards his blameless family is off-putting, yet Radwanski nevertheless succeeds in creating unexpected empathy for this difficult character.


Holidays can become boring. When you run out of silly games to play, you may have to raise the stakes to keep everyone entertained. This is how a gang of male friends cruising along the Greek coast in Chevalier comes to compete for the title of ‘best man.’ Every interaction becomes an act and a test, with notes taken and a mysterious rating system implemented. Director Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg) also shows each participant in more intimate moments where doubts surface, revealing the difficulty of maintaining ideals of masculinity which no one can actually define. As they grow increasingly determined to win the competition, these complex characters concoct ever more absurd exercises, which prove dryly amusing but also surprisingly moving in their audacity and courage.


Francois Truffaut was the ultimate cinephile. Like many French New Wave directors he paid tribute to the filmmakers he admired (arguably with greater deference than his contemporaries), both in his writing for the Cahiers du Cinema and in his own directorial oeuvre. This trait is nowhere more evident than in his interview series with Alfred Hitchcock, which transformed a then out-of-fashion English director into the ‘Master of Suspense’ in the public imagination. In Hitchcock/Truffaut, film writer Kent Jones goes beyond illustrating the influence of the master on his admirer as presented in the book, by adding interviews with contemporary directors. Jones finds wild and varied connections between different film artists, from David Fincher to Wes Anderson to Arnaud Desplechin, connecting their common experiences of learning from the original interviews, in order to better underline the unparalleled importance of both the two men and their meeting itself.

In Jackson Heights

I have never set foot in Jackson Heights, and yet watching Frederick Wiseman’s exploration of the New York City neighbourhood, I felt as though I were standing on its streets, entering its various religious and political centres, and listening to its residents from all nationalities. Once again, Wiseman immerses himself in cultures – without disturbing or judging them – by filming their public appearances. Humanity shines through as he focuses on certain characters and demonstrates his unparalleled ability to communicate the formal reality of people and places. The radiant images and elegant sound mix effectively delineate the multiple facets of this exceptionally diverse community, and the people and places prove perfect subjects for Wiseman’s empathetic worldview. This is a film full of optimism and light, despite the multiple struggles it presents.