Tag Archives: Toronto International Film Festival

A HYBRID FILM FESTIVAL PULLS IT OFF: TIFF20 moves from King Street to sofa

The day before the start of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), my LEGO-obsessed ten-year-old built me a mini version of a TIFF landmark, the giant orange letters stationed on King Street that read “tiff.” (Period included.) It was a meaningful creation, since, for the first time in my fourteen years covering the annual festival, I would not be crossing the border. In fact, I would be experiencing TIFF20 from my sofa. 

After months of wondering how TIFF would manage to mount a festival in the year of COVID-19—and after the cancellation of Cannes and Telluride—a hybrid festival was announced. For members of the press (like yours truly), the festival would be digital only. And the many Americans, some from Buffalo, who attend each year were out of luck, since public screenings were geoblocked to Canada. After these details were settled, TIFF20 finally took place from September 10 to 20.

The process was, shall we say, not easy. And once the festival began, there were other issues. In a provocative piece for Seventh Row (seventh-row.com), a noteworthy film site, writer Alex Heeney analyzed “the shortcomings” of TIFF20: “TIFF has doubled down on what it’s always done, which now means offering a watered down version of the festival. Most years, TIFF has programmed upwards of 300 films, including shorts and features, while, this year, it limited its selection to just 50 features and just 5 short film programmes,” Heeney wrote. “In practice, accessing the festival this year has been even more challenging than past years, in what has proved one (avoidable) PR nightmare after another for the festival—from refusing access to the festival for marginalized critics, to sticking with the (in my opinion, misguided) Ontario recommendations for mask use in cinemas (not mandatory). (Both policies have since been reversed, at least somewhat, though not before TIFF was publicly embarrassed.)”

Having watched nearly thirty TIFF20 films and participating in the online, “Film Twitter” discourse surrounding the festival, I cannot disagree with many of those points. I was sad for my fellow critics who were unable to gain accreditation this year. I was also disappointed for the American moviegoers who travel to Toronto annually for a film fest experience like no other. And, if I’m being honest, I was sad for myself, since attending TIFF is one of my favorite annual experiences.

Yet, it would have been impossible to pull off a festival during a pandemic without a hitch. Cultural institutions are facing unprecedented challenges, and, for an organization that depends on thousands of paying attendees annually, the effects could have been catastrophic. Can film festivals recover? Can the act of moviegoing recover? These are legitimate, unanswerable questions. 

What I can say is that TIFF20, while unlike any other in festival history, had its share of highlights. Yes, there were things that went wrong. But there were a whole lotta things that went right:

The digital screener platform was flawless. This “reimagined” version of the Toronto International Film Festival did include some in-person screenings for Canadian audiences, at venues like the TIFF Bell Lightbox and, uniquely, several drive-in locations. For most audience members (and all press), however, TIFF was experienced via a new digital platform. For this critic, it worked beautifully. The platform was easy to use, never took longer than a few seconds to load, and errors only occurred if a film was paused for hours. Every selection had a forty-eight-hour viewing window, and that made timing a little tricky. But the digital experience itself could not have been smoother. 

The reunions and chats were thoughtful and resonant. One of the most noteworthy elements of TIFF is that it draws a banner collection of stars, which, in turn, draws lots of fans and photographers. Well, that was all out the window in 2020. Instead, festival organizers went with a nice mix of virtual reunions (including Lady BirdRoom, and, most excitingly, Full Metal Jacket) and conversations between folks like Denzel Washington and Barry Levinson, and Claire Denis and Barry Jenkins. They were compelling for both die-hard cinephiles and average movie fans. Plus, a number of TIFF Tribute Awards were presented to folks like Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mira Nair, and Chloe Zhao during an entertaining live-streamed ceremony. 

And the films? Yes, there were some gems. While some distributors like A24 opted against bringing films to TIFF, and the number of entries fell by, oh, 200, the festival lineup was surprisingly strong. Opening night featured David Byrne’s American Utopia, a Spike Lee-directed documentary of the former Talking Heads frontman’s Broadway show. It did not disappoint; Utopia might be the greatest concert film since Stop Making Sense—electrifying, funny, and genuinely moving. The Father, a stunning exploration of dementia, featured award-worthy turns from Hopkins and Olivia Colman. Zhao’s extraordinary Nomadland, a timely study of nomad life starring Frances McDormand, was an audience and critical favorite. And the documentary No Ordinary Man was a breathtaking look at trans representation. 

Powerful smaller films to watch for in the months to come include Wolfwalkers, a magical animation treat set in seventeenth century Ireland; New Order, a morally complex, astoundingly chaotic tale of rich-vs.-poor violence in Mexico; Limbo, a warm-hearted but somber portrait of a Syrian refugee in Scotland; Violation, an upsetting, fascinating non-linear revenge thriller; and a harrowing drama set during the Bosnian genocide called Quo Vadis, Aida?

So … what’s next? The real question, of course, is what any of this means for the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. The obvious answer: who knows? The only known, for me, is this: I went from experiencing TIFF at home to experiencing the 2020 New York Film Festival at home, as an accredited member of the press. Yes, more festival selections on my sofa, while petting my dog, after the kids are asleep. That opportunity may never come again. Even though it was impossible not to miss the energizing feeling of TIFF on-ground in Toronto, I feel thankful to have had the opportunity to watch, ponder, and talk TIFF from home. I can’t imagine 2021 will look like 2020. But whatever form it takes, I’ll be there.

Check out Christopher Schobert’s reviews of TIFF20 entries Akilla’s EscapeThe Best Is Yet to ComeUnder the Open SkyShiva BabySummer of 85Concrete Cowboy, and Spring Blossom on thefilmstage.com

Read original piece on BuffaloSpree.com.

Post-festival grades for thirty (virtual) TIFF20 entries (for BuffaloSpree.com)

Film stills, clockwise from left: Nomadland, No Ordinary Man, Quo Vadis, Aida?, The Father, Shiva Baby, and David Byrne’s American Utopia.
COURTESY OF TIFF

The 2020 Toronto International Film Festival came to a close on September 20. And while this year’s hybrid model was atypical, the fest itself featured a mostly impressive lineup. I outlined some of the more buzzed-about titles and under-the-radar picks in past buffalospree.com columns, but now that it’s all over, I’m sharing my grades for the thirty entries I caught virtually this year. 

*This piece originally ran on BuffaloSpree.com.

David Byrne’s American Utopia: A-

TIFF’s opening night selection was this Spike Lee-directed document of the former Talking Heads frontman’s Broadway show. It did not disappoint. Utopia might be the greatest concert film since Stop Making Sense — electrifying, funny, and genuinely moving. 

Shiva Baby: A-

From my review for The Film Stage: “Shiva is a viewing experience that is at once hilarious, awkward, uncomfortable, and unforgettable. Writer-director Emma Seligman demonstrates that there is no greater dramatic minefield than that of the family get-together.”

Quo Vadis, Aida?: A-

Strong word-of-mouth caused me to watch Aida, a harrowing drama set during the Bosnian genocide. I am so glad I did. It was one of the festival’s most resonant selections. 

No Ordinary Man: A-

TIFF’s documentary game was particularly strong in 2020, and No Ordinary Man ranks at the top. It is a breathtaking look at trans representation centered around the unforgettable story of late jazz musician Billy Tipton. 

Nomadland: B+

Zhao’s extraordinary Nomadland, a sadly current, ripped-from-the-headlines study of nomad life starring Frances McDormand, was an audience and critical favorite. It deserved the praise, and should fare well come awards time. 

The Father: B+

The Father, a stunning exploration of dementia, features award-worthy turns from Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. Anyone who has watched as a loved one has faded away will find this a difficult but memorable watch. 

Limbo: B+

Ben Sharrock’s warm-hearted yet somber portrait of a Syrian refugee in Scotland was, like Aida, a word-of-mouth sensation at the festival. The ending is particularly moving. 

Another Round: B+

I caught the latest collaboration between director Thomas Vinterberg and star Mads Mikkelsen (following The Hunt) near the end of the fest, and it left me hoping for a re-watch very soon. It’s a sharp, very funny look at maturity, marriage, and heavy drinking. 

New Order: B+

I find myself still wrestling with New Order, a morally complex, chaotic tale of rich-vs.-poor violence in Mexico. I found its sheer power to be almost overwhelming, and unquestionably involving. Yet I cannot argue with the concerns some critics have voiced regarding its view of Mexico’s indigenous people. I look forward to seeing this unsettling film from Michel Franco again, and having the chance to spend more time contemplating its message. 

Wolfwalkers: B+

Wolfwalkers is the latest magical animated treat from the team behind The Secret of Kelis. It is set in seventeenth century Ireland, and features animation that can only be described as gorgeous.

Akilla’s Escape: B+

From my review for The Film Stage: “What it lacks in surprises, Akilla more than makes up for with visual flare, thematic energy, and a major performance from Saul Williams.”

Spring Blossom: B

From my review for The Film Stage: “Suzanne Lindon directed, wrote, and stars in this remarkably assured story of a 16-year-old Parisian who falls for an older man. Though Blossom is a bit slight at just 73 minutes and sometimes prone to posing too many questions, this TIFF entry heralds the arrival of a major international talent.”

One Night in Miami: B

While I was impressed with many elements of Regina King’s feature directorial debut, I was not quite as high on One Night as some of my colleagues. The first half hour was, to me, slow-moving and uninvolving. But once King brings together Malcom X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke together in a Miami hotel room, the film takes off. The final stretch is particularly wonderful.

The Ties: B

Like New Order, I hope to see this Italian drama about a dissolving marriage again at some point. I found it occasionally tiresome but also insightful, with a surprising conclusion that proved very effective.

Under the Open Sky: B

From my review for The Film Stage: “Writer-director Miwa Nishikawa’s film about a recently released former yakuza member is a rich character study that fumbles its landing but remains compelling.”

Apples: B

Filmmaker Christos Nikou has worked as an assistant director for Yorgos Lanthimos, and it shows; Apples is a tonal cousin of films like Dogtooth. It is a beguiling, not entirely satisfying account of an amnesia pandemic.

Beans: B

An important film that shines a light on the 1990 standoff between Quebec’s Mohawk communities and government, Beans is powerful when it focuses on this key moment in Canadian history, less so when stuck in coming-of-age drama mode. 

Memory House: B

The hardest film to watch at TIFF may have been João Paulo Miranda Maria’s imaginative study of an indigenous man who suffers near-constant abuse. Viewers who can stick with it are well-rewarded. 

Violation: B

Violation is an upsetting, altogether fascinating non-linear revenge thriller. Like Memory House, it is difficult to watch but pays off. Co-director Madeleine Sims-Fewer gave one of the festival’s finest performances. 

Like a House on Fire: B-

Jesse Noah Klein’s story of a woman’s struggle to reconnect with her daughter is unremarkable but heartfelt. The rather rote story is saved by fine acting and a strong emotional pull. 

The Best Is Yet to Come: B-

From my review for The Film Stage: “The timely, China-set investigative drama is compelling and important, to be sure. But there are numerous missteps that lessen the impact and slow down the dramatic energy.”

Good Joe Bell: B-

Many critics were unkind to Bell, and it’s not hard to see why. Mark Wahlberg is atypically cast as a father who walks across the country to raise awareness of the impact of bullying, while the script takes some wildly emotional sudden turns. But Wahlberg gives a fine performance, and even better is Reid Miller as a teenager facing homophobic bullies. It is certainly imperfect, but also a worthy exploration of a tough topic..  

Wildfire: C+

Cathy Brady’s film about two Irish sisters recovering from a tragedy is well-acted by leads Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noone, but never as fresh or inventive as it should be. 

True Mothers: C+

Writer-director Naomi Kawase earned praise for her story of motherhood and adoption, but it never connected for me. 

Night of the Kings: C

An African prison drama from Philippe Lacôte, Kings is unbearably intense. That intensity left me feeling exhausted, not exhilarated.

Concrete Cowboy: C

From my review for The Film Stage: “Cowboy is watchable, well-acted, and occasionally moving. It’s also overly predictable and never transcends the tropes of the standard coming-of-age drama.” It features an exceptional turn from Stranger Things star Caleb McLaughlin and sturdy support from Idris Elba. 

Summer of 85: C

From my review for The Film Stage: “Summer of 85 is in-between the sublime and the absurd, drama and thriller, compelling and monotonous. It is utterly so-so, but it is also, undeniably, so-Ozon.” That’s a reference to Swimming Pool director François Ozon.

Pieces of a Woman: C-

Vanessa Kirby is extraordinary and award-worthy as a mother trying to recover from tragedy in the uncomfortably harrowing, manipulative Pieces of a Woman. The opening stretch is undeniably gripping, but the rest feels utterly hollow. 

Shadow in the Cloud: C-

Chloë Grace Moretz energizes (but cannot save) this absurdly silly World War II thriller. It may have been more fun with an in-person Midnight Madness crowd.

Passion Simple: D+

Based on a French bestseller, this story of an obsessive affair was the most forgettable film I saw at TIFF, despite a game performance from star Laetitia Dosch.

In addition to the reviews linked above, I was happy to be one of the 127 critics to contribute to a post-festival survey for Indiewire and one of fifteen critics to contribute to a survey for a favorite site of mine, Seventh Row

And … that’s that. While TIFF20 is in the books, watch for my post-festival feature in the November issue of Buffalo Spree. I’ll also soon be sharing some coverage of the 2020 New York Film Festival, as well. See you next year, Toronto! Hopefully, in person …

Quarantine cinema, part two: Latest capsule reviews feature Flanigan, Feldstein, Coogan, Scooby, and more

I continue to watch quite a bit during COVID-19, as evidenced in past posts, as well as for The Buffalo News. Here is another roundup of recent home views. You can also check out my Letterboxed and Rotten Tomatoes pages for more updates. Thanks for reading! And watch for more to come …

Never Rarely Sometimes Always: A-

It is possible, when 2020 comes to a close, that Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always will rank as the year’s most impactful film. Anchored by two of the most natural performances from young actors in recent memory — lead Sidney Flanigan plays a teenager who journeys to New York City for an abortion, while Talia Ryder plays her cousin — Never Rarely is, quite simply, a stunner. It also features a moment that has already achieved iconic status, a somber, unbroken shot in which Autumn is questioned by a clinic employee. It’s a beautiful sequence, wonderfully acted by Flanigan. (Interestingly, Flanigan is a Buffalo native and resident, while Ryder was born in Buffalo as well.) This is a film which should be required viewing for teenagers. It is a conversation-starter, to be sure, but also an involving character piece. Hittman, Flanigan, and Ryder deserve worldwide applause for this achievement. 

Watch now

How to Build a Girl: C+

I was bummed to miss How to Build a Girl at both the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2019 BFI London Film Festival. As a die-hard anglophile and Britpop obsessive, this is one that had intrigued me from the get-go. A teenage girl becomes immersed in the U.K. music press during the mid-90s? Come on! Sadly, however, the film itself left me rather disappointed. Beanie Feldstein gives a fine performance — although her British accent is at first rather distracting; were there no actual British actors available? Still, she brings her usual wit and charm to the role. But the film is far too predictable, and never quite as funny or moving as it should be. That being said, it’s difficult for me not to at least partially like a film that A) revolves around the British music press and B) hinges on a life-changing Manic Street Preachers concert. How to Build a Girl is worthy of a watch, but do not expect a coming-of-age classic.

Watch the trailer

The Trip to Greece: B+

The fifth and (supposedly) final film in Michael Winterbottom’s Trip series might be the best yet — uproarious and moving. Once again, British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play versions of themselves on a road trip tour of fine restaurants. This time, the duo hit the luscious landscapes of Greece. They discuss BAFTAs, trade Olivier impressions, and then are forced to confront mortality. It concludes with resigned acceptance of its characters’ stations in life; Coogan, the more commercially and critically successful performer, suffers through loss and sadness, while Brydon is left in ecstasy with his wife. Is this a judgmental finale? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps The Trip to Greece is simply accepting the trade off that occurs in order to achieve commercial success. Either way, it is a sharp, hilariously funny, emotionally satisfying film. All hail Coogan and Brydon. Please do one more, in America. 

Watch the trailer

The Roads Not Taken: C

Here is a film whose heart is in the right place. But despite good intentions and a stacked cast of heavyweights, this story of a man reviewing his choices as the end draws near simply does not work. When looking at the talent roster, that might seem shocking. How could a film directed by Sally Potter (Orlando) and starring Javier Bardem, Salma Hayek, and Elle Fanning be so unmemorable? The answers lie with a script that fails to provide any fresh insight to the “what-if?” trope. Fanning, especially, gives a strong performance; coupled with her role on Hulu’s wild and woolly series The Great, she’s on a nice tear. The acting makes The Roads Not Taken a drama worth watching for fans of Bardem and Fanning. But do not expect to remember the film a day later. 

Watch the trailer

The Wild Goose Lake: B-

The Wild Goose Lake is hugely acclaimed, and it’s easy to see why; there are moments of devastating beauty in this Chinese gangster drama. For me, its story, of a small-time criminal who accidentally kills a police officer, simply did not quite land. But it’s still a stunningly photographed ride, one that is never remotely dull and often heads into unexpected terrain.

Watch the trailer

Blood Quantum: B

Canadian zombie flick Blood Quantum is down, dirty, and legit terrifying. Its final few minutes, especially, are genuinely devastating. Smartly setting its story of ravenous zombies on a First Nations reserve, it has an unhinged, anything-goes feel. It’s no wonder Blood was so acclaimed at the Toronto International Film Festival. It makes Jeff Barnaby as a director to watch.

Watch now

Scoob!: D+

Ugh. I paid $25 for to buy Scoob! since paying $20 to just rent it seemed wasteful. The animated film, which famously skipped cinema for a home debut, never feels like a Scooby Doo story. Rather than a mystery, the story involves superheroes and a journey to “the Underworld.” Oh, and Simon Cowell, for some reason. Dull, overlong, and never remotely involving, Scoob! makes the silly Matthew Lillard-starring live action films seem rather quaint and joyful by comparison. Something worth noting, however: While my kids were not particularly invested in the film when we watched it as a family, they’ve since watched it at least two times. Now, they’re fans. Maybe the $25 wasn’t such a waste after all …

Watch now

TIFF19 review: ‘Ford v Ferrari’ (for The Film Stage)

I quite enjoyed FORD V FERRARI at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival; I gave the film a B+. Here is my Film Stage review.

James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari is, in a word, sturdy. It’s the kind of airtight drama that could never be called groundbreaking or even original. But it offers ample pleasures in performance—from stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale—and design. While it could be a bit nastier, this is unquestionably intense grade-A Hollywood entertainment. The racing sequences are genuinely thrilling, and even the boardroom and back-office battles are compelling. 

While the story itself—the Ford Motor Company hires auto racing legend Carroll Shelby (Damon) and brash driver Ken Miles (Bale) in an attempt at taking down Ferrari’s dominance at the legendary Le Mans—will be new to some audiences, the structure is undoubtedly familiar. That is an issue, especially at 152 minutes. But Mangold and screenwriters Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller keep this baby humming–there’s little time to ponder structural issues when we’re moving too quickly to care.

This sense of storytelling efficiency is present from scene one, in which we watch Damon’s Shelby win the grueling, 24-hour Le Mans in France. Soon, however, health issues left the driver unable to race, and he moved into auto sales and a behind-the-scenes racing role. Beyond one shot of a messy trailer, we learn next to nothing about Shelby’s personal life, yet the film spends plenty of time on that of Ken Miles, a Brit racer struggling to keep his repair shop afloat. While the audience gets to know Miles’s wife (Outlander star Catriona Balfe, who gives a fine performance) and son, and hear of his wartime heroics, Ford v Ferrari is not very interested in its characters’ pasts.

It instead immerses us into the crucial collision of these people in the 1960s. The legendary Ford Motor Company, led by the literally and figuratively heavy Henry Ford II (a scene-stealing Tracy Letts) was in dire straits. Executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) developed a plan to make Ford appealing to younger drivers, and it hinged on gobbling up the sexy but struggling Italian kingpin Enzo Ferrari. He rebuffed the offer, setting into motion a new plan: strike back by winning Le Mans. 

The brilliant, passionate Shelby was an essential hire, but just as important was the driver. It is clear from his first onscreen appearance that Miles is an uncontrollable hothead, but a hothead who can drive, making him the subject of frequent battles between Shelby and an ever-annoyed Ford executive (Josh Lucas). As the design and testing process and eventual early races make clear, there is no driver better suited for the arduous task. It all culminates in La Mans, and this lengthy sequence is pumping with adrenaline. It features some of the best work of director Mangold’s career.

It is interesting to note that Michael Mann was originally set to direct a film with Bale as Enzo Ferrari. That project never came to fruition, and now Mann is listed as a producer, and Bale plays a different role. It is rather intoxicating to wonder what the Collateral director would have done with racing sequences like those found in Ford v Ferrari. Yet Mangold’s work should not be taken for granted. He will never be confused with Mann’s visceral touch, but the Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, and Logan director’s track record is remarkably consistent–a feat that continues here.

The director brings a dependable mix of strong characters in physically intense situations, aided by splendid cinematography (by Phedon Papamichael), full-throttle editing (by Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland), and especially Marco Beltrami’s stirring score. Bale has the showier role here, as a man seemingly on the verge of eruption at all times. (Ford v Ferrari is the rare film in which his actual voice appears.) Surprisingly, though, it is Damon who stands out. He’s the rock of this story, the figure who must navigate a minefield of relationships and keep the ultimate goal top of mind. 

Ford v Ferrari is an easy film to scoff at; there is nothing new here, and there is no debating that fact. Instead, we have a compelling story told in simple, intelligent fashion. It deserves a spot on the list of great racing dramas, and the list of the year’s most entertaining dramas.

Beyond the Galas: 10 under-the-radar TIFF19 entries (for BuffaloSpree.com)

Kristen Stewart in Seberg
COURTESY OF TIFF

My second pre-2019 Toronto International Film Festival piece for BuffaloSpree.com looks at 10 non-Galas that are seem hugely intriguing.

As September 5 draws closer, the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival lineup is growing more and more. That’s how it works: After the initial announcement — I summarized the first batch here — the following weeks feature more of, well, everything. That means high-profile releases from masters like Terrence Malick (A Hidden Life), starpower from the likes of Natalie Portman (Lucy in the Sky), Midnight Madness selections, and plenty of other unique features and docs.

The Galas draw much of the attention, but some of the most interesting TIFF selections can be found elsewhere. Here are ten non-Galas that could create some buzz.

The Capote Tapes: The life of Truman Capote is a treasure trove of anecdotes peppered with cameos from some of the most important and iconic individuals of the 20th century. In this documentary, friends of the In Cold Blood author discuss the iconic author and his fascinating career.

Clifton Hill: No, this is not a film about 19-year-old Buffalonians hitting Clifton Hill for a night of debauchery. Instead, Albert Shin’s thriller is centered on a Niagara Falls native investigating a kidnapping from years before. The cast includes the great director David Cronenberg.

Color Out of Space: Cult filmmaker Richard Stanley (Hardware) returns to screens with an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation starring Nicolas Cage. Yep, Cage at a TIFF Midnight Madness screening. This horror flick sounds unmissable. 

Hope Gap: Could this be the year in which Annette Bening finally captures an Oscar? Hard to say, but this drama about a married couple’s breakup does seem like Oscar fodder. The American Beauty and Being Julia star goes toe-to-toe with the always engaging Bill Nighy. 

How to Build a Girl: Lady Bird and Booksmart standout Beanie Feldstein plays a teenager-turned-music-critic in a coming-of-age story based on Caitlin Moran’s book. Emma Thompson and Chris O’Dowd co-star.

Les Misérables: Ladj Ly’s violent, hot-button drama earned a Special Prize at Cannes. Set in contemporary France and inspired by Victor Hugo’s novel, the film highlights the nation’s political unrest and social change. 

Liberté: Can Albert Serra top his stunning historical drama The Death of Louis XIV? Perhaps; on paper, his latest sounds like a delectable treat. It “follows an ensemble of libidinous 18th-century French aristocrats who embark on an extended night of woodland cruising to live out their sexual fantasies.”

Seberg: Kristen Stewart’s recent TIFF track record — Personal Shopper, Clouds of Sils Maria, underrated 2018 selection JT LeRoy — is hard to top. Her pairing with Una director Benedict Andrews on a biopic of controversial actress Jean Seberg could offer Stewart the meatiest role of her career. 

Synchronic: Filmmakers Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson seem to grow stronger and more ambitious with each film — see Spring and The Endless for proof. Their latest features Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan as paramedics investigating a series of deaths. 

Wasp Network: Another TIFF, another entry from Olivier Assayas. The director’s follow-up to TIFF18’s Nonfiction stars a high-profile cast — Penélope Cruz, Edgar Ramírez, and Gael García Bernal — in a thriller exploring the lives of Cuban dissidents in the 1990s.

There’s still more to come — come back to buffalospree.com for updates, and see the current lineup at tiff.net.

19 thoughts after TIFF’s first lineup announcements (from BuffaloSpree.com)

Tom Hanks stars as Mister Rogers in TriStar Pictures’ A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. Photo by: Lacey Terrell

The 2019 Toronto International Film Festival made its first batch of announcements in late July, and I broke it all down for BuffaloSpree.com.

The 2019 Toronto International Film Festival is a little more than one month away, but buzz is already building. Last week, TIFF announced its first batch of galas and special presentations, and from now until Sept. 5 (the festival runs through Sept. 15), lineup news will be steady. 

Here are 19 (how appropriate) thoughts on the first lineup announcements.

  1. More than many other film festivals — I’m looking at you, Cannes and Venice — TIFF has made it a point to program features from female filmmakers. More than 50% of the TIFF19 gala selections are directed by women.
  2. Warner Bros. must be very confident in Joker, Todd Phillips’ dark comic book drama starring Joaquin Phoenix. The film will play both Venice and TIFF. The latter, especially, indicates that the studio believes Joker will play well with mainstream audiences.
  3. Perhaps the most surprising absence was Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s hugely anticipated Lady Bird follow-up. Perhaps her Louisa May Alcott adaptation will be a late addition. 
  4. Just like at TIFF18, the 2019 festival is Netflix-heavy. Biggies from the streamer include Dolemite Is My Name(starring Eddie Murphy), Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story
  5. The opening night film, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, certainly looks worthy; there are few bands with a more fascinating backstory than The Band. Yet it’s undeniable that the documentary would be more enticing if it was directed by Robertson’s old friend Martin Scorsese. He produces this one; Daniel Roher directs. 
  6. The closing film, a Marie Curie biopic titled Radioactive, almost seems like a parody of the well-intentioned borefests that often open or close fests like TIFF. However, this one is directed by the talented Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and stars Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike. That’s promising! 
  7. There is no obvious Best Picture winner here so far, although a few, like an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, seem promising on paper. James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari is another strong possibility. But it’s too early to tell. 
  8. It’s hard to think of Tom Hanks not being a player in the Best Actor race for his role as Mr. Rogers in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Once one gets past the initial humor of Hanks as Rogers, the trailer is wildly engaging.  
  9. There are some stellar world premieres on tap, like Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, Heller’s Beautiful Day, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, and Cory Finley’s Bad Education. 
  10. My most anticipated? Probably Knives OutThe Last Jedi’s Johnson is back in Brothers Bloom mode here, and the cast includes Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, and Don Johnson. 
  11. There is lots of new blood heading to Toronto, from Heller, Waititi, and Finley to Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse) and genius brothers Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie (Uncut Gems).
  12. Want some star power? Festival visitors will likely include Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Eddie Murphy, and Meryl Streep. 
  13. Yes, there are some TIFF usual suspects in the lineup: Atom Egoyan, Michael Winterbottom, Noah Baumbach, and Pablo Larrain all have new films at the fest. 
  14. Two more regular TIFF visitors come bearing favorites from this year’s Cannes Film Festival: Bong Joon-ho, whose Parasite captured the Palme d’Or, and Pedro Almodóvar, whose Pain and Glory earned Best Actor honors for Antonio Banderas. 
  15. Bruce Springsteen should be in the house, as TIFF premieres Western Stars. The Boss is the subject and co-director of this documentary.
  16. The presence of Isabelle Huppert propels Frankie to the top of the most anticipated list. The French icon stars as an aging actress in the latest from the great Ira Sachs. 
  17. Most intriguing description has to go to Motherless Brooklyn: “Edward Norton wrote, directed, produced and stars in this 1950s-set crime drama, about a private detective living with Tourette syndrome who ventures to solve the murder of his mentor and best friend — a mystery that carries him from the gin-soaked jazz clubs of Harlem to the slums of Brooklyn to the gilded halls of New York’s power brokers.”
  18. Expect one of the most buzzed-about selections to be Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the latest from writer-director Girlhood director Céline Sciamma. The story of the relationship between two women in 18th-century Brittany earned the Queer Palm at Cannes. 
  19. My goodness, TIFF19 is off to a strong start — and that makes me even more excited for the announcements to come. Watch BuffaloSpree.com for more.

From Buffalo Spree: How TIFF embraced change and ruled the 2018 festival scene

THE PREDATOR star Olivia Munn
PHOTO BY GEORGE PIMENTEL, WIREIMAGE GETTY

My last TIFF piece each year is a round-up for the November Buffalo Spree. And so here we are, with my 2018 analysis.

It’s not easy being last one standing in the battle for fall film festival supremacy. The players are the Venice Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival. Venice has a time advantage, coming first on the calendar. A few days later is the start of Telluride, and the fest has a laid-back vibe that separates it from the others. Lastly comes TIFF, the festival with size, scope, and worldwide media appeal that Telluride and Venice just cannot compete with.

Sometimes, Venice has come out on top. In recent years, Telluride is often the victor. But in 2018, TIFF did not just dominate—it destroyed. “Festival Street” on King, in front of home base the TIFF Bell Lightbox, was a hive of excitement. And, with a shocking number of world premieres, a marked focus on female filmmakers and gender equality issues, and an air of chin-held-high confidence, TIFF ruled. Here’s why.

More women, more diversity, onscreen and off

In a rather shameful display of ignorance, just one of the twenty-one entries in August’s Venice Film Festival was directed by a woman. The numbers improved at Telluride. But it was TIFF that went next-level, with more than thirty-five percent of the 200-plus films directed by women. Some of these played Telluride, Sundance, and other festivals, but others—from the likes of Clare Denis (High Life), Amma Asante (Where Hands Touch), Nicole Holofcener (The Land of Steady Habits), and Mia Hansen-Løve (Maya)—were world premieres.

In addition, the festival held a well-attended “Share Her Journey” rally on September 8 with a focus on making real change in the industry. The impact should not be understated, on both audiences and filmmakers. At the premiere of her film Tell it to the Bees, director Annabel Jankel spoke of being inspired by the event’s speakers. Plus, TIFF made a concerted effort to increase diversity among accredited film critics and media.

These are small steps, but they led to a more diverse experience for paying attendees and those who cover the festival.

Hello, Netflix

The film festival world has not quite figured out what to do with Netflix. There is the Cannes approach, in which Netflix is the enemy. And then there is the approach of Telluride, Venice, and TIFF: bring ’em on. The opening night selection of TIFF18 was David Mackenzie’s historic epic Outlaw King, starring Chris Pine. That in itself is newsworthy—a film that will only be available to Netflix subscribers (in November) was the opening night pick at the world’s largest film festival.

Joining Outlaw King from the Netflix stable were biggies like Alfonso Cuarón’s hugely acclaimed Roma and much-buzzed thriller Hold the Dark. All three were hits with festival audiences.

Major world premieres, and lots of them

A number of TIFF’s most high-profile pics premiered in Venice, including Roma, Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, and the brilliantly entertaining A Star Is Born, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. However, there was no shortage of major world premieres in Toronto. The list included Michael Moore’s Trump-focused Fahrenheit 11/9; Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave follow-up, Widows, a tremendous heist film with real resonance; and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight follow-up, the exquisite and powerful James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk. And then there was the hotly anticipated Halloween, an affectionate sequel to John Carpenter’s horror classic. With just two screenings, it was the hottest ticket in town. The lucky folks who managed to snag one (including yours truly) got to see star Jamie Lee Curtis in person, and the celebratory atmosphere added greatly to the viewing experience.

The combined weight of these films was so mighty, in fact, that there was little upset over the biggies that skipped TIFF, among them horror remake Suspiria and Emma Stone-starrer The Favourite.

Starpower + lots of screenings = mega-buzz

TIFF can never be accused of not adding plenty of screenings for its most eagerly-awaited, star-heavy entries. Consider that First Man, for example, had more than ten (!) screenings, including both public and press, scheduled between September 9 and 16. Yes, Canada loves native son Ryan Gosling. Beautiful Boy, featuring festival favorite Timothée Chalamet, had five screenings. And there were several opportunities to see A Star Is Born. That was wise, since no film dominated conversation like that Gaga-gantuan smash.

Prices are up but the process is better

There has been grumbling in recent years about the rising cost of ticket prices at the festival, and they are indeed high—as much as $82 for some. And there was talk of the Ticketmaster-run festival ticketing site crashing repeatedly before proceedings kicked off on September 6. Maybe so, but the process of actually attending screenings has never seemed smoother. Many of the venues now have assigned seating, and surprisingly, that made seating quicker and easier. Plus, the oft-criticized Roy Thomson Hall unveiled a larger screen and improved sound.

What’s next?

In many ways, 2018 felt like a year of beginnings for TIFF. That’s a good thing. Longtime director and CEO Piers Handling will be missed, but he leaves the festival in the very capable hands of TIFF veteran Cameron Bailey and new hire Joana Vicente. There is no doubt they’ll continue to find ways to innovate, while—hopefully—not losing the elements that make the fest unique.

For eleven days, the festival hub on King Street felt like the cinematic capital of the world. With more than three million attendees and a seismic impact on pop culture, TIFF is stronger than ever before. See you next year.

TIFF 18: Reviews and rankings

The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival seems like it was two months ago … but in reality, it just ended on Sept. 16. There is more#TIFF18 coverage to come from yours truly, including a feature in the November issue of Buffalo Spree magazine, but here’s a quick round-up of my festival coverage. (And enjoy the photo of Jamie Lee Curtis I took at the HALLOWEEN premiere.)

A review of Barry Jenkins’s exquisite James Baldwin adaptation, I BEALE STREET COULD TALK, forThe Film Stagehttps://thefilmstage.com/reviews/tiff-review-if-beale-street-could-talk-is-an-exquisite-painful-and-timeless-love-story/

A review of Steve McQueen’s entertaining and powerful heist film, WIDOWS, for The Film Stage:https://thefilmstage.com/reviews/tiff-review-widows-is-a-timely-tremendously-entertaining-heist-drama/

A review of DESTROYER, a dark police drama starring Nicole Kidman, for The Film Stage:https://thefilmstage.com/reviews/tiff-review-destroyer-is-a-ambitiously-pitch-black-showcase-for-nicole-kidman/

A review of JEREMIAH TERMINATOR LEROY, a fun take on the JT LeRoy literary scandal starring Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern, for The Film Stage:https://thefilmstage.com/reviews/tiff-review-jeremiah-terminator-leroy-features-a-charismatic-kristen-stewart-tricking-the-literary-world/

A review of the well-acted but disappointing love story TELL IT TO THE BEES, starring Anna Paquin, for The Playlisthttps://theplaylist.net/tell-it-bees-review-20180909/

A review of FREAKS, a pleasantly surprising sci-fi flick starring Emile Hirsch and Bruce Dern, for The Playlisthttps://theplaylist.net/freaks-emile-hirsch-tiff-review-20180908/

And lastly, I ranked the 20 TIFF18 entries I saw before and during the festival for http://www.buffalospree.com/Blogs/Talk-about-Arts/Annual-2018/Beale-Street-A-Star-is-Born-Widows-and-more/

 

Final thoughts as TIFF18 approaches (for BuffaloSpree.com)

Natalie Portman in Vox Lux; courtesy of TIFF

When I wrote this final Toronto International Film Festival preview post for BuffaloSpree.com, TIFF18 was eight days away. Now … it’s tomorrow! Watch for my coverage on BuffaloSpree.com, in the November issue of Buffalo Spree magazine, for websites The Film Stage and The Playlist, on Twitter, and right here.

The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival is now just over a week away. Starting on Sept. 6 and running through Sept. 16, TIFF18 will feature a staggering 343 films (255 features and eighty-eight shorts) and draw audiences, actors, filmmakers, industry folks and press from around the globe.

In recent weeks, I’ve contemplated what might make the lineup, looked at some standouts from the first batch of announcements, and made a few under-the-radar picks. Now, the schedule is completely set. Here are some final thoughts.

Any standouts just added to the lineup?

There is one recently-added biggie, and that’s Vox Lux, starring Natalie Portman. The trailer for Brady Corbet’s Venice and TIFF entry centered around a music superstar dropped this week and looked positively stunning.

What will be this year’s hottest ticket?

Buzz can shift as the festival progresses, but there are two obvious hotties here. First is David Gordon Green’s much-anticipated remake of Halloween, with a returning Jamie Lee Curtis. The film will screen just twice during TIFF, at 11:30 p.m. and midnight in two separate venues on September 8. That … does not happen very often. (I’m not even attempting to get a ticket.)

And the other unique screening is Damien Chazelle’s First Man on September 8. While the Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling screens throughout the festival, the  venue for its TIFF debut is notable: the Ontario Place Cinesphere. The IMAX theater reopened with much fanfare in 2017; last year, TIFF presented Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk at the venue.

Any noteworthy festival events that don’t involve film screenings?

Part of what makes TIFF so memorable is everything else happening in around the festival. At the top of the list in 2018 is the Share Her Journey Rally, scheduled for 10 a.m. on September 8. It will feature a strong lineup of speakers and guests.

Which music drama will draw the most praise?

That’s a good question. Will it be Lady Gaga’s A Star is Born or Natalie Portman’s aforementioned Vox Lux, or two smaller-scale selections, Elle Fanning’s Teen Spirit or Elisabeth Moss’s Her Smell? We’ll find out.

What will be this year’s Lady Bird?

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird was the unquestioned delight of TIFF17 — sweet, funny, and built around a stupendous lead performance from Saoirse Ronan. Perhaps this year’s Lady Bird will be American Dharma, Errol Morris’s documentary portrait of Steve Bannon. KIDDING!

In actuality, at first glance there does not seem to be a Lady Bird on this year’s list — in other words, a warm-hearted comedy-drama from a female filmmaker. There are many eagerly awaited entries from woman directors (such as Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer and Amma Asante’s Where Hands Touch), but it’s a dark bunch. While it lacks the star power of Lady Bird, one female-fronted entry to watch for is Mia Hansen-Løve’s Maya. The director of past festival favorites Eden and Things to Come this time tackles the tale of a French war correspondent’ss return home following captivity in Syria.

For folks planning to attend, what are three must-sees that might fall through the cracks?

There are so , so many films at TIFF that choosing what to see is extremely difficult. And it’s also tricky when so many high-profile, star-driven films are in the lineup. One film to consider is Mélanie Laurent’s Galveston, the story of a hitman on the lam with a young prostitute. Ben Foster and Elle Fanning star in the latest from Laurent, the Inglourious Basterds star who directed 2014’s great Breathe. Galveston is based on a novel by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto.

Next on the must list is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes. This was the most high profile honor yet for director of the masterful Like Father, Like Son and After the Storm. Shoplifters tells the story of a ramshackle family that relies on shoplifting to survive. It’s set for U.S. release in November.

Lastly is Museo, starring Gael García Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También, No). Alonso Ruizpalacios follows up his acclaimed 2014 debut, Güeros, with the tale of two men on a quest to steal artifacts from Mexico’s National Anthropology Museum. Inspired by a true story, Museo looks to be one the TIFF18’s most entertaining films.

Why no Suspiria or The Favourite?!

Friends, I can’t answer that one, nor can I say why Mary, Queen of Scots is missing from the TIFF, Venice and Telluride lineups. So let’s just be happy with what is on tap for TIFF. After all, there are 343 reasons to be excited.

 

10 under-the-radar TIFF18 entries (for BuffaloSpree.com)

Julianne Moore in GLORIA BELL
STILL COURTESY OF TIFF

Check out my latest TIFF18 entry for BuffaloSpree.com.

The lineup for the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, running from September 6 to 16, is nearly complete. That means the full schedule will be announced in a matter of days (August 21), the opening night selection is official (David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King, starring Chris Pine), and the Twitter buzz is deafening.

There are some clear biggies — I covered many of these a few weeks ago — and a few frown-inducing omissions. (Where are you, SuspiriaThe Favourite, and Mary, Queen of Scots?) But there is so much to be excited about in the #TIFF18 roster. Here are ten under-the-radar films to consider seeing at TIFF18, or to make note of for future viewing.

In Fabric: Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy was one of the strangest, most mesmerizing films at the 2014 festival. His latest feature, a horror-drama making its world premiere at TIFF18, “follows the surge of misfortunes afflicting customers who come into contact with a bewitched dress at an eerie department store.” Yes, I’m in.

Gloria Bell: English-language remakes of acclaimed foreign films are hit or miss. Here’s hoping that A Fantastic Woman director Sebastián Lelio’s remake of his 2013 international hit, Gloria, falls in the hit column. Oscar winner Julianne Moore plays a middle-aged divorcee looking for love.

Hold the Dark: If you’ve seen Blue Ruin or Green Room, you know Jeremy Saulnier is adept at creating intense viewing experiences. His latest, a thriller about a missing child in Alaska, stars Alexander Skarsgård, Riley Keough, and Jeffrey Wright.

Mid90s: Jonah Hill, director? Indeed. For his directorial debut, the Superbad and Moneyball star tells the story of teenager and his skateboarder friends. The cast includes Manchester by the Sea and Lady Bird standout Lucas Hedges.

Teen Spirit: Actor Max Minghella (The Social Network, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale) follows in the footsteps of his late-father as he moves behind the camera for a TIFF world premiere. Elle Fanning plays a teenager dreaming of pop stardom.

The Image Book: Jean-Luc Godard is back, with a film TIFF describes as a “provocative collage film essay.” The New Wave icon’s last two features, 2010’s Film Socialisme and 2014’s Goodbye to Language, were astonishingly ambitious — and, of course, very difficult.

Ray & Liz: Critics at the Locarno Film Festival raved about thus U.K. entry from photographer Richard Billingham. This autobiographical feature is noteworthy for being shot on 16mm.

Destroyer: Can film starring Nicole Kidman really count as “under-the-radar”? In the case of Destroyer, perhaps it can. Little is known about this Platform program selection from Karyn Kusama (director of the slow-burn horror film The Invitation). Kidman plays an LAPD detective taking on a new case.

Her Smell: Certainly the, um, most memorably-titled entry in this year’s festival, Alex Ross Perry’s drama about a self-destructive musician stars Mad Men and Handmaid’s Tale star Elisabeth Moss. It’s making its world premiere in Toronto as part of the Platform program.

Sunset: Director László Nemes follows up the Oscar-winning Son of Saul — a standout from TIFF15 — with the story of a woman’s quest to discover her past.