Film festival wars, episode I: TIFF strikes back [from the November 2014 Buffalo Spree]

tiff - clouds of sils maria tiff festival street

I have written a Toronto International Film Festival piece for Buffalo Spree’s November issue for the last seven years, and it is always a joy to write. This year, sadly, my piece did not get posted on the Spree website, instead running only in the November 2014 print issue. So here is my TIFF14 feature, in full.

A random attendee of September’s 2014 Toronto International Film Festival might have taken a stroll down “Festival Street,” a new several-blocks-long area of food trucks, live performances, tables, and assorted cinephile delights, including Bill Murray masks and the twin girls from The Shining, and wondered how anyone besides those stuck in their car could see this year’sTIFF as anything but a resounding success. (The first Friday of the festival, in fact, was decalred “Bill Murray Day,” and featured screenings of three of his classics as well as the premiere of his latest, St. Vincent.) Festival Street closed down a significant stretch of King Street, royally messing up traffic, but for those wandering in front of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the vibe was utterly vibrant. So in many ways, that random festival attendee is correct. After all, festival venues were full, stars could be spotted in abundance, and there was even a hockey documentary, for goodness sake’s.

But behind-the-scenes, there was drama, drama, drama. TIFF takes place shortly after two of the world’s major film fests, in Venice and Telluride. In recent years, the latter fest has increasingly drawn the eyes of cine-media and the adoration of filmmakers. It has also premiered some major films (Gravity, 12 Years a Slave), just days before they were set to screen in Toronto. TIFF took action, allowing only films making their world or North American premieres to screen during the first four days of the festival. This meant that the festival’s prime timeframe did not feature some of this year’s biggest films—among them Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, Reese Witherspoon in Wild, Steve Carrel and Channing Tatum inFoxcatcher, and the Jon Stewart-directed Rosewater.

Despite the party-like atmosphere on Festival Street, then, among the assembled press corps there was some heavy grumbling. Due to the obligations of real life, I am only able to attend on the festival’s first Friday through Sunday, meaning many of the most high-profile entries unspooled long after I hit the QEW. A bummer? Certainly.

That was behind the scenes and beyond the screens, of course. When it comes to the actual movies, whether a world premiere or not, there was plenty to savor. There was Nightcrawler, a whip-smart media satire starring a creepily unhinged Jack Gyllenhaal. (And, it was a world premiere!) Several Cannes Film Festival favorites crossed the pond and blew minds, including Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, featuring awards-worthy work from Juliette Binoche and (especially) Kristen Stewart, as well as Russian tragedy Leviathan. Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, and Adam Driver was as well-received as his last TIFF entry, Frances Ha, and was smartly picked up for distribution by A24.The Duke of Burgundy was the surprise of the festival, an exquisite and darkly humorous story of sadomasochism and butterfly experts. (Seriously.) Eden told of the early days of groundbreaking, early-90s French techno, even featuring actors playing Daft Punk, sans robot masks. And in the conventional but undeniably powerful The Theory of Everything, Les Miserables star Eddie Redmayne stunningly portrays Stephen Hawking, and is matched by an excellent Felicity Jones as his first wife.

Those are just a few of the festival’s most well-received films. There were many others I missed, of course, including Chris Rock’s Top Five, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, Sundance smash Whiplash, and Mike Leigh’s J. M. W. Turner biopic, Mr. Turner. There were also some wonderful under-the-radar successes, including National Gallery, Spring, and In the Crosswind, as well lesser but still worthy fare like They Have Escaped, Life in a Fishbowl, The Wanted 18, and the slick but empty (and ludicrously titled) Who Am I—No System is Safe.

And of course, there were disasters, including both Adam Sandler vehicles (The Cobbler and Men, Women & Children) and the WTF? opening night premiere, The Judge, starring Robery Downey, Jr. As many have remarked, the festival’s recent opening night premieres have been, well, awful. Perhaps Bill Murray Day should have been on the day one, rather than day two.

At this point, there is no telling if TIFF’s world premiere policy is the new norm, or a one-year experiment. My loonie is on the latter. Even though I understand the rationale behind the policy, it’s a bit sad, really, that Oscar jockeying is seemingly considered more important than the goal of presenting great films to as wide an audience of attendees as possible. When theTIFF-going public voted 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire as the winners of the festival’s People’s Choice Award, they were not thinking about awards bloggers, studio PR flacks, or festival figureheads. They were thinking about what film hit them hardest. The experience of being enraptured by cinema is what I love most about TIFF, and no amount of backstage drama can erase that feeling. Premiere, sh-remiere. Okay, that was awkward, but you get it. See you on Festival Street in 2015.

 

Film critic Christopher Schobert covered TIFF14 for Spree and the Buffalo News, and also contributed to Indiewire’s The Playlist, The Film Stage, and his blog, FilmSwoon.com.

 

Festival Street, Kubrick Characters in celebration of the upcoming Stanley Kubrick exhibition at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Credit: George Pimentel, WireImage/Getty for TIFF

Clouds of Sils Maria: Juliette Binoche

Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Coming soon: TIFF 2014 coverage

Maps

The 2014 Toronto International Film Festival is now just days away, and I’m excited to say that I will be providing coverage on multiple fronts.

I will be contributing blog posts (and more) for the Buffalo News, tweeting at Twitter.Com/FilmSwoon, likely writing reviews for The Playlist and The Film Stage, and writing my usual November issue recap for Buffalo Spree. This may mean no new posts on this site for a few weeks, but more will be on its way soon.

Note that the article below was recently written for BuffaloSpree.com in mid-August:

 

TIFF 2014 preview: Godard, Cronenberg, and a very creepy Jake Gyllenhaal highlight the fest

The Toronto International Film Festival is less than a month away, and a look at the lineup (so far, anyway) brings forth lots of questions. These are questions not about what’s playing, but what’s missing.

Where is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and David Fincher’s Gone Girl? October’s New York Film Festival. How about Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman? August’s Venice Film Festival. Happily, a few high-caliber Cannes 2014 hits, including the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Nightand Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, were late additions to the TIFF lineup.

As the addition of the latter two films indicates, knee-jerk responses following the initial announcement of films often look silly in retrospect. After all, I wrote the following one year ago:

“Missing in action (so far): There is still lots of time for more announcements … 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.”

None of those films were added. In fact, two of them — Zero and Wanted — were not released in 2013 at all. Meanwhile, Oldboy was a critical and commercial disaster, and while Llewyn DavisAll Is Lost, and Nebraska found favor with critics (and me), this trio did not have the impact of a film that did play TIFF, and won the Oscar for Best Picture: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.

So no need to fret. And part of the fun this year will be seeing which films come out of nowhere to capture audience and critical buzz. Here are the 10 films I’m most excited to see:

  • Xavier Dolan’s Mommy: I’m a bit late to the Dolan party, having just watched I Killed My Mother,Heartbeats, and Laurence Anyways. I am still kicking myself over missing the still-unreleased Tom at the Farm at TIFF 2013; I don’t plan on missing his recent Cannes Film Festival smash.
  • Dan Gilroy’s NightcrawlerLast year, Jake Gyllenhaal brought two very different, very strong films to TIFF: Prisoners and Enemy. This year, he stars in Nightcrawler, and from the looks of it, this is his creepiest, most unhinged role to date.
  • Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher: Wildly acclaimed at Cannes, this Steve Carell-Channing Tatum starrer has been at the center of Oscar chatter for months.
  • David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars: One of my favorite TIFF memories was attending the first Toronto critics’ screening of Cronenberg’s underrated A Dangerous MethodMaps, the Canadian master’s latest film, looks like his most gloriously wild in some time. While the early raves focus on Julianne Moore’s performance, I’m most excited to see Mia Wasikowska’s role in this Hollywood-skewering satire.
  • David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn: Green rebounded from some dodgy years (The Sitter?) withPrince Avalanche and last year’s TIFF entry Joe. Al Pacino stars in Manglehorn, and Green plus Pacino is certainly intriguing.
  • Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children: I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I liked Reitman’s Labor Day at TIFF 2013 — at least, at first. The more I pondered it in the months that followed, the more preposterous it seemed. His films often tend to grow weaker upon reflection (Juno,Up in the Air). I know little about his new film, except the cast, which includes Jennifer Garner and Adam Sandler (!). This time, Reitman has something to prove.
  • Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner: A Best Actor nomination for Timothy Spall seems all but assured followingTurner’s reviews in Cannes. Leigh rarely lets us down, and painter J. M. W. Turner seems an ideal subject.
  • Jon Stewart’s Rosewater: Can the host of The Daily Show find himself in the Oscar race. The plot of his directorial debut starring No’s Gael Garcia Bernal certainly sounds award-worthy: it’s the true story of an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was imprisoned for five months by the Iranian government.
  • Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young: Baumbach’s last film, the TIFF premiere Frances Ha, was utterly enchanting. This time, he brings his Greenberg star Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried, and Frances’s Adam Driver. That might be his finest cast to date.
  • Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3DIs Goodbye Godard’s late-late period masterpiece? And is it really his goodbye? The answer to the former is probably, the answer to the latter is probably not. Either way, this earned the director some of his strongest reviews in decades at Cannes.

As for the rest, there is Cumberbatch-y Oscar bait (The Imitation Game), some WTFs (the Amanda Knox drama The Face of an Angel, Kevin Smith’s man-turned-into-a-walrus horror romp Tusk), and, of course, Francois Ozon (The New Girlfriend).

I’ll be there to see as much as I can from Friday, September 5 through Sunday, September 7. You can follow my updates at Twitter.com/FilmSwoon, and look  for my post-TIFF recap in the November issue of Buffalo Spree.

For more on the festival, visit tiff.net.

Christopher Schobert writes about film for Buffalo Spree, the Buffalo News, Indiewire’s The Playlist, The Film Stage, and FilmSwoon.com.