It’s almost TIFF time, so let’s look back to one year ago

Under-the-Skin-feat-Scarlett-Johansson

Tomorrow, the Toronto International Film Festival will hold its annual kick-off press conference, which sees the first announcement of some of its selections. This year’s crop, in particular, should be fascinating, as there has been much talk of premieres being true TIFF premieres, rather than films that already showed in Telluride or Venice. Does that mean a less-scintillating lineup? Hard to say. Hopefully it does not.

It is interesting, as well, to look back at the films announced at last year’s kick-off, which saw the tepidly-received “Fifth Estate” at the top of the bill. Of course, one of the other reveals, “12 Years a Slave,” earned a Best Picture Oscar months later.

Because I think it’s fascinating to look back at it now and see what I was oddly stoked about (“Labor Day”?), and what I was correct about (“12 Years,” “Under the Skin”), here is my post-announcement feature for BuffaloSpree.com from one year ago. (Note that I stuck with Spree style here, which italicizes titles.)

The Toronto International Film Festival is the only major fest I am able to attend each year, so it’s a bit like my Super Bowl. Covering TIFF for Buffalo Spree has been an amazing experience—here is my post-festival analysis from last year—and each year seems to bring new pleasures. In many ways, the festival is an indicator of all the hits (and misses) audiences in Buffalo and beyond can expect for the remainder of the year.

I’m always thrilled to hear the first batch of announcements, and Tuesday morning’s press conference certainly included some films I was hoping would hit TO. Some thoughts:

  • 12 Years a Slave skips Venice for Toronto: This is big. Steve McQueen’s Shame was my favorite film of TIFF 2011—and of 2011, period—so I’m personally thrilled. Skipping Venice and debuting in TO is a major coup for Cameron Bailey and his fellow TIFF organizers.
  • The full Midnight Madness line-up is coming on July 30: It is always fun to see what’s in store here. Last year, I did not make it to any of them. Funny, I recall DESPERATELY wanting to attend the Seven Psychopaths midnight screening. Glad I waited …
  • TIFF’s 2013 MVPs: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, and Mia Wasikowska all appear in multiple films. Cumberbatch is in three (!), most notably opening night film The Fifth Estate, in which he plays Julian Assange.
  • Under the Skin finally arrives: Jonathan Glazer’s (Sexy BeastBirth) Scarlett Johansson-starring quasi-sci-fi film has been in production for a lonnng time. Very exciting to see it here.
  • Lots of Cannes hits: The controversial Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest ColourLike Father Like Son, and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive were three of the most buzzed-about Cannes 2013 entries.
  • The return of Jason Reitman: The first movie I ever saw at TIFF was Reitman’s Juno, and Jared Mobarak and I had the privilege of shaking the director’s hand afterwards. (I’m sure he was thrilled.) Labor Day, starring Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet, seems like a perfect story for his typical blend of humor and drama.
  • Oscar buzz: August: Osage County, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Dallas Buyer’s Club, Rush, The Fifth Estate, and Gravity are already in the mix.
  • The return of hometown TIFF favorites: In addition to Reitman, Don McKellar and Atom Egoyan are back; the full Canadian lineup is coming soon.
  • Some films I did not even know were in production are screening here: I had no idea Jason Bateman was directing a film (Bad Words), that the late James Gandolfini was starring with Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Nicole Holofcener’s next project (Enough Said), or that Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to Meek’s Cutoff was finished (Night Moves).
  • Missing in action (so far): There is still lots of time for more announcements; TIFF maestro Cameron Bailey said the first batch only included about one-quarter of the complete lineup. But some I’m still hoping to see added are Spike Lee’s Oldboy, Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem (it is playing Venice), and Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. Also missing, so far, are three of the best-reviewed films at Cannes: the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Robert Redford in All Is Lost, and Alexander Payne‘s Nebraska.

TIFF Preview: Jonathan Glazer and Scarlet Johannson team up for “Under the Skin”

undertheskin_FOR ONLINE USE_small

Jonathan Glazer directed two of the most fascinating films of recent years: “Sexy Beast” and “Birth.” His new film, “Under the Skin,” will not be showing while I’m at TIFF, but  I could not be more intrigued — reviews have been fascinatingly mixed.

Scarlett Johannson stars as a voracious alien seductress who scours remote highways and backroads for human prey, in this sci-fi thriller from director Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”).

Fans of Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast” and “Birth” have been anticipating “Under the Skin” with a yearning usually reserved for superhero franchises. Based on Michel Faber’s acclaimed novel, the story’s premise is perfectly suited to a director known for compression, focus, and cool shocks.

On England’s lonely back roads, a beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson also appearing at the Festival in “Don Jon”) stalks unwitting men. Her identity and her motives unclear, she is simply, and quite literally, a sexual threat. Her eyes deadened but alert, she prowls night streets and deserted locales in a white van, seeking male victims. More could be said about the plot, but it’s best to allow “Under the Skin” to reveal itself. From its arresting first image — a pure, white pinpoint of light — it expands outward to become an increasingly absorbing mystery. It’s also a Rorschach test for everything one might fear about relations between men and women.

Johansson is sometimes cast for her physical sensuality, and Glazer makes ample use of that here. But the film is anything but lascivious. Having directed landmark music videos for Radiohead and Massive Attack, he was known as a supreme stylist even before his feature films. Here, he offers shades of Kubrick and Hitchcock in his depiction of sexuality, capturing a cool, predatory impulse rather than simple heat. For that matter, Under the Skin shows little interest in simply arousing the audience, be they enamored of Glazer, fantasy fiction, or Johansson. It proceeds at its own rhythm, accumulating one eerie detail on top of another, serving up sometimes baroque encounters between predator and prey, pushing inevitably towards its disturbing conclusion.

Text by Cameron Bailey; photo courtesy of TIFF