One of my favorite things to write each year is my Toronto Film Festival recap for Buffalo Spree. This year’s is in the magazine’s November issue, but not on the Spree website — so here it is, in full.
The strangest sight at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival was not the gorgeous, befuddled twentysomething couple—she in a skin-tight white dress, he in a well-tailored suit—staring at the screen with confusion during Koyaanisqatsi director Godfrey Reggio’s non-narrative, visually splendiferous, enjoyably frustrating Visitors. (Incidentally, they only lasted about fifteen minutes.) Nor was it the John Gotti-look-alike who suddenly hit the deck while waiting in the press line, got up, brushed himself off, and shrugged his shoulders. And it certainly was not the preponderance of cell phone use during press and industry screenings, even though this increasingly obnoxious situation led one film blogger to—seriously—call 911.
And it was nothing onscreen, either, although the fun documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, a chronicle of the El Topo and Holy Mountainmaestro’s attempt to bring Franker Herbert’s spice-and-worm-fueled epic to the big screen, contained its share of acid-flashback imagery. Nope, it was the sight of children, scores of them, rushing through the Scotiabank Cinema with their parents. This is not normally the case. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen kids at TIFF, although the festival does program a TIFF Kids sidebar that, until now, had never made an impression on me. (These particular kids were heading to a screening of a small-fry superhero yarn called Antboy.)
What made the scene seem especially relevant—poignant, even—was the fact that so many of the films I saw this year involved children separated from their parents, kids in peril, and worse. It made me think I should high-tail it back to Buffalo ASAP and make sure my son was happily playing. Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners was not a film on my must-see list; the Hugh Jackman-Jake Gyllenhaal kidnapping thriller looked rather ho-hum. But nothing could be further from the truth. It was a modern American nightmare about stolen children, vigilante justice, and dark, dark secrets in suburbia, and it left me breathless. (Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal unveiled another well-received film at TIFF, Enemy.) The fascinatingly up-and-down Stephen Frears (The Grifters, The Queen) brought the crowd-pleasing Philomena, a moving based-on-a-true story of a woman’s search for the child she was forced to give up by the Catholic Church.
But it was 12 Years a Slave that stole TIFF. Shame director Steve McQueen’s slavery epic ranks as the most emotionally overpowering viewing experience I’ve ever had, a harrowing, gripping story with award-worthy performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, among others. Like Prisoners and Philomena, as well as Jason Reitman’s well-made Labor Day (to a lesser extent), the separation of kids from their parents was a central theme, but that is only one of the powerful themes of 12 Years. I was literally shaking and unable to speak when it concluded, and that hasn’t happened since Grown Ups 2.
These films, and some of the breaking news that came out before and during the festival, which ran from September 5–15, created an air of tension; even the light comedies were a bit serious. (Or, in the case of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s directorial debut, You Are Here, seriously awful.) I’m not sure this had anything to do with Syria, or Rob Ford, or the Bills’ opening day loss to the Patriots, which bummed me out, long-distance. Perhaps it is the feeling that the festival gets larger and larger every year, from the crowds to the sheer number of films (nearly 300). Or maybe everyone is just a bit exhausted after getting up so early—early rising being an essential element of festival viewing. As Anthony Lane put it in a New Yorker piece on this year’s Venice Film Festival, “There are people who go to movies, and there are people who go to film festivals, and the difference between them, by and large, is that only the latter are willing to line up for necrophilia at nine o’clock in the morning. Not just willing, but bright with larkish zeal, getting there half an hour ahead of schedule so as to grab the best seat.”
That zeal can quickly turn into outrage. I attended the first press screening of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a rote but well-acted (by Idris Elba and Naomie Harris) biopic. Almost one hour in, the sound vanished. Within seconds, someone entered and announced that due to mechanical issues, the screening was cancelled. The press was not happy, and grew even more annoyed when the almost three-hour drama was rescheduled for 10:15 that night. (Couldn’t they at least have skipped the first forty-five minutes?) This cancellation was especially interesting because it delayed the instant responses that have become a film festival trademark. Critics, websites, etc., have an intense desire to tweet a reaction within minutes of a screening’s completion. And once these tweets declare a film to be a dud, or an Oscar player, the internet passes out with excitement. I love film festivals.
Interestingly, the fall festival scene is now a battleground, and TIFF finds itself under attack, so to speak, by festivals in Venice, Telluride, and New York. There was griping about biggies from the Coen Bros. and Alexander Payne not appearing in Toronto, and I heard multiple folks at the public screenings complain about this year’s gala lineup. One woman from Albany told me she waited five hours (!) to catch a glimpse of Benedict Cumberbatch at the second screening of the poorly-received Julian Assange bio The Fifth Estate, only to find out that he was not attending. I can only imagine the Cumber-bitching among that crowd.
I did not get to see the The Fifth Estate, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, Ron Howard’s Rush (these three will be released well before this article is published), Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, or Meryl Streep inAugust: Osage County. But it’s not all about awards-bait. I enjoyed the pre-fame Jimi Hendrix tale All Is By My Side, starring a perfectly-cast Andre Benjamin; Jason Bateman’s fast, dirty directing debut, Bad Words; François Ozon’s visually stunning, creepily sexy Young and Beautiful; and the utterly unique English Civil War freak-out A Field in England.
The final film I saw during my TIFF weekend was a one-night-only event: the aforementioned world premiere ofQatsi trilogy director Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors. Booking Reggio’s first film—“presented” and introduced at the screening by Steven Soderbergh—in more than a decade was a major success for the festival; Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002), all featuring collaborations with Philip Glass, rank among the most acclaimed and influential non-narrative features of the last thirty years. The Visitors screening was the cinematic event of the festival, and a reminder that above all else, TIFF was created and exists as a showcase for greatness. (Another less thrilling but worthy event was a Big Chill reunion; the baby boomer favorite debuted at the 1983 festival.)
Yes, the eleven days often seem dominated by industry-speak, money-talk, Oscar hype, red carpet hi-jinks, and long, long lines. But Reggio’s film defies description, and even renders reviews useless. It is all about the experience, and the emotional, visual, and auditory impact. As Soderbergh put it before the film began, “If you show this movie to a hundred people, you get a hundred different responses.” Imagine a world in which every film at the multiplex—even a bad one—is capable of this kind of reaction. Impossible? Hardly. It happens every September in Toronto. Bring the kids.
For more TIFF writing from Christopher Schobert, see Indiewire’s The Playlist (http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist), The Film Stage (thefilmstage.com), and FilmSwoon.com. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/FilmSwoon.