We had a wonderful time at TIFF. It is a real pleasure to spend time in a city like Toronto, watching amazing films and hanging out with fabulous people.
Our visit started off with a reunion. We had dinner at a favorite restaurant from last year, Milestones Festival Hall. When we walked in the door, server Jamie B ran over and hugged me. She didn’t just remember us; she remembered what we liked to eat when we were there a year ago. Needless to say, we were bowled over. It’s great Jamie remembered, because we totally didn’t.
TIFF wouldn’t be TIFF without great conversations. I had a very interesting chat with Tayiab Ramzan while waiting for Demolition to start. Following the screening of Meghmaller, I spoke briefly with the film’s director, Zahidur Rahim Anjan. Many thanks to Tayiab, Anjan, and all the folks in line who were up for a conversation about films. You are part of what makes TIFF such a special experience for my husband and me.
In my last post, I mentioned we’d be seeing thirty-four films. We weren’t able to make one screening, so we only saw thirty-three. I just didn’t want people to keep counting this list and wondering where they made a mistake.
Without further ado, here are my TIFF capsule reviews.
Films I Loved:
Mountains May Depart: Jia Zhangke’s poetic film shows three friends and how they are affected by the rapid development in China. The story, which is told in three segments, begins in 1999 and ends in 2025. An absolutely stunning film.
Room: People’s Choice Award Winner at TIFF 2015. Brie Larson and 8-year-old Jacob Tremblay are unforgettable in this film version of Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel. Donoghue (who wrote the screenplay) and director Lenny Abrahamson do a terrific job of keeping the focus where it needs to be-on the mother/son relationship. Don’t let the subject matter prevent you from seeing this film.
Anomalisa: Charlie Kaufman’s first film using stop-motion animation. He co-directs with stop-motion veteran Duke Johnson but writes the script himself. It’s based on his 2005 radio play. The original cast members (all three of them) reprise their roles for this film. It’s about the author of a self-help business book who travels to Cincinnati to give a workshop and ends up having a mid-life crisis. Kaufman’s humor is wry, his truths understated. This film is a lot of fun when you least expect it.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi: The beleaguered Iranian director makes a film of himself driving a taxi in Tehran. His passengers provide an interesting and sometimes hilarious picture of modern-day life in Iran. Panahi’s verbal jousts with his young niece are worth the price of admission. Their conversation takes a more serious tone when she tells him about the various specifications a film must meet before the Iranian government considers it “screenable”. Needless to say, Taxi wouldn’t make the cut.
The Music of Strangers: Cellist Yo Yo Ma has created a group called the Silk Road Ensemble. Their purpose is to unite people around the world via music. Members of the ensemble are from different countries, and each plays an instrument unique to his/her home country. The Music of Strangers is the story of Silk Road Ensemble and the people in it. Seeing these performers, who come from very different homes, playing happily with one voice is remarkable. This film is set to show on HBO next year; date is still being determined.
Our Brand Is Crisis: Sandra Bullock gives a powerhouse performance in a role originally intended for George Clooney. David Gordon Green’s film is a dramatization of events from a 2006 documentary with the same name. It tells the story of Bolivian presidential candidate Castillo, who is in real trouble at the polls. He hires an American consulting team to boost his numbers; they, in turn, convince “Calamity Jane” Bodine (Bullock) to come out of retirement and help. Meanwhile, Castillo’s opponent has hired his own American consulting firm, headed by Bodine’s biggest rival. It’s frenetic and laugh-out-loud funny.
He Named Me Malala: A documentary about Malala Yousafzai, the young woman from Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban and later won the Nobel Peace Prize. Davis Guggenheim’s film is an inspiring portrait of an extraordinary young woman. He’s done a wonderful job of showing Malala’s close relationships with her family. Interactions between Malala and her father, especially, come to mind. The film also tells the origin of Malala’s name and why it turned out to be quite apt given the events of her life.
Baba Joon: The first Persian-language film to be made in Israel. Yuval Delshad’s debut feature is a semi-autobiographical story about a father/son conflict. Father has worked hard to establish a turkey-raising business; son is more interested in cars and other mechanical devices. The action may be taking place a world away, but the emotions depicted are recognizable to us all. A small gem of a film.
I Promise You Anarchy (Te Prometo Anarquía): Julio Hernandez Cordón’s vibrant tale of two star-crossed lovers in Mexico City. Miguel and Johnny are “skaters” who go everywhere using their skateboards. They make money through the black market for blood- giving blood and encouraging others to donate. One day there is a snafu with a group of people Miguel brings to donate blood. Miguel and Johnny are left wondering what to do-and whether their relationship can survive its fallout.
Films I Admired Greatly:
Hitchcock/Truffaut: Documentary telling of events from the book of the same name. Kent Jones has made a well-crafted film that allows both men the center of the stage. For years, Hitchcock was regarded as an entertainer and not an artist. This book and film should do a lot toward dispelling that notion.
Thank You For Bombing: Director Barbara Eder (who co-wrote with Thomas Pridnig) has created a scathingly funny film about journalists on foreign assignment in the Middle East. The title comes from the fact that journalists as depicted get bored when there isn’t shooting going on. There’s also an entrenched old-boy ethos, which one female journalist challenges in a scene that doesn’t show her or us a scrap of mercy.
I Saw The Light: Biopic of country/ western singer Hank Williams. Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen give remarkable performances as Williams and his first wife, Audrey. Director Marc Abraham chooses a straightforward approach to tell Williams’ story, maybe because he figured the events of Williams’ life provided enough conflict all by themselves.
Ville Marie: Guy Edoin’s film tells stories of four different people. There’s a celebrated European actress, her estranged son, an overworked emergency room nurse, and a paramedic who may have PTSD. These people meet and interact over the course of the film. It’s a credit to Mr. Edoin’s direction, and also to the script (which he co-wrote with Jean-Simon DesRochers) that meetings between them never seem scripted. This is a well-made and effective film.
Youth: Paolo Sorrentino’s new film is similar to his Oscar winning The Great Beauty in many ways. Between them, the two films cover a lot of ground about art, love, fame, and aging. Here we have retired composer/conductor Fred (Michael Caine) and screenwriter Harvey (Harvey Keitel) on vacation in Switzerland. Mr. Caine and Mr. Keitel have a lot to say, and you won’t want to miss a word.
Victoria: This film by Sebastian Schipper was shot in one continuous take. It’s the story of a young Spanish girl who’s working at a café in Germany. She makes friends with a group of young men, who ask her to join them while they go clubbing. Before long, she finds herself driving the car while they rob a bank. Suspenseful, with a lot of unexpected twists.
Francofonia: Alexander Sokurov does for the Louvre what he did for the Hermitage in Russian Ark. Well, sort of. The characters shown here are more recent, the message a little angrier. Sokurov addresses the management of artworks in the Louvre during World War II. As with Russian Ark, Sokurov focuses on a few key characters to get his message across (basically, that the Nazis took way better care of art in France than art in other parts of Europe). His style (deliberate and, at times self-consciously poetic) takes getting used to but is definitely worth the effort.
Meghmallar: Zahiduar Rahim Anjan’s debut feature takes place in 1971, on the eve of the war that would turn East Pakistan into Bangladesh. The atmosphere is volatile, as a man discovers when he’s hauled in for questioning-largely because of the raincoat he wears.
Campo Grande: Regina, a wealthy Rio woman, discovers a young boy and girl on the doorstep to her house. When she questions the children she learns they have been told to wait at this spot for their mother to pick them up. Several days pass with no word from the mother, and Regina finds herself feeling increasingly worried about how to handle this situation. She’s become fond on the children, especially the boy, but isn’t quite ready to take on the additional responsibility. The different levels within Brazilian society are shown but always with compassion.
Legend: Twice as much Tom Hardy means a really good film. Inspired by a true story, Legend tells the story of 1960s British gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray. The Krays were identical twins, though not in personality. Reggie was charming and ruthless, Ronnie was insecure and ruthless. Period details are well done, and that includes the music. This style and energy of this film are really groovy, baby.
Embrace of The Serpent: Two interwoven journeys on the Amazon, both based on actual events. The first took place in 1909, when German explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg tries to convince local shaman Karakamate to cure his illness. The second takes place in 1940, when American explorer Richard Evans Schultes searches for a rare flower. He encounters the aged Karakamate, who agrees to accompany him. Director Ciro Guerra has created a beautiful and thought-provoking film.
Starve Your Dog: This film is an acquired taste and difficult in the early going. If you give it a chance, you’ll be rewarded with a highly original story. A has-been TV director, hoping for a comeback, has acquired rights to an interview with a highly feared former Interior Minister. One problem follows another, making it highly unlikely the interview will ever take place.
Films I Liked A Lot:
Janis: Little Girl Blue: This documentary about Janis Joplin’s life covers most of the high points of her life but doesn’t even touch on her career as a songwriter. The clips of her singing and riffing still pack a punch. Scenes of Joplin attending her high school reunion are especially poignant. Though she had world fame, she still wanted the approval of folks from back home.
The Danish Girl: I wanted to like this film more than I did. The cast is amazing, and the director did The King’s Speech. Eddie Redmayne gives a sensitive, full-on performance. Alicia Vikander is, as always, incredible. Trouble is, I kept thinking we’ve seen Redmayne play this character before, most notably in The Theory Of Everything. I appreciate all the work that went into it, but just couldn’t put it into my top tier.
Lolo: Julie Delpy strikes again! Very funny and very French film about a woman in her forties with a psycho son who’s bent on ruining all her romantic relationships.
Mr. Right: An odd premise for a rom com (hit man meets slacker), but Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick make it work. The script by Max Landis isn’t nearly up to the occasion; luckily, these two pros work around it.
Films That Made Me Say Meh
Demolition: A real disappointment. I love Jake Gyllenhaal as an actor, and this looked like an opportunity to do one of his high-octane performances. Instead, we just got to watch him destroy stuff. Maybe I’d like it better if I had a Y chromosone.
Miss You Already: Annoying. The very talented Toni Collette is wasted in a clichéd and formulaic script that requires her to suffer from breast cancer. This one fails the Bechdel test with flying colors.
Freeheld: This film is a feature using events of a 2007 documentary by the same name. Police detective Laurel Hester, terminally ill with lung cancer, fought to have her pension assigned to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree. A little too earnest for its own good. I am as happy as anyone about the outcome of the court case, but good cases don’t necessarily make good films.
Equals: Drake Doremus has created a gorgeous stylized world for the settlement in his story. Truly, the set and art direction in this film are something special. I wish he’d spent as much time and care on the story structure. His premise is, in my opinion, ill advised. Basically, Doremus has created a world where there are no emotions. Developing emotions are seen as a disease to be stamped out. Enter Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult, who fall in love with each other. I’ll leave the rest to you.
Septembers of Shiraz: Salma Hayek and Adrien Brody as Iranians. Need I say more?
Stonewall: I also wanted to like this film, but couldn’t. It’s glib and one-sided and gives the impression that the gay rights movement was started by hundreds of gay men, one gay woman, and one transgender man. I applaud the impact of Stonewall, just didn’t care for this film.
Films That Made Me Say Meh Twice
Afternoon: For extreme fans of Lee Kang-Sheng and Tsai Ming-liang only. The entire film takes place in one location. They talk, sort of. There are very long pauses. Tsai tells Lee about twenty times that Lee is his favorite actor. Unless you really, really like Lee and Tsai, you’re likely to regard this film as two hours and twenty minutes of your life that you can’t get back.
Ma Ma: Or should I say Meh Meh? A total vanity project for Penelope Cruz. She plays a women who is diagnosed with breast cancer. All resemblance to reality ends with the scene where she receives her diagnosis. I’ll give Ms. Cruz her due, since she was a producer here. The production values were quite good. My issues with the film are with the story and the example it sets. It’s probably the only film about cancer I’ve seen where the patient never vomits or loses weight. She does lose her hair, but she gets a cute wig. As for the story…Let’s just say, I don’t have it in me to suspend that much disbelief.
A Final Word
This year’s festival was special, because TIFF had its fortieth anniversary. Although attendance figures are still being tallied, festival officials estimate that 500,000 people attended. TIFF showed 399 films from 71 countries. It’s a movie-lover’s dream. My husband and I are already talking about going next year.