For 10 days every September, Toronto plays host to one of the world’s largest festivals. Fondly known as TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival is North America’s premiere film event. From early morning until late at night, moviegoers hoping to score tickets to sold-out screenings (which most are) queue rush lines that wind around the block. Observing the daily sea of attendees (tens of thousands) surge from one venue to the next, one can’t help but wonder: how many pounds of popcorn and coffee beans does it take to fuel these committed movie-goers?
TIFF’s battalion of programmers spends a year ferreting out features, documentaries and shorts from six continents. They then funnel their 300-plus eclectic choices into 14 loosely themed sections that range from red-carpet galas featuring A-list talent to experimental Wavelength’s more artist-driven projects. Even armed with advance research and guideposts—Discovery, Contemporary World Cinema, Docs, Midnight Madness — navigating TIFF is daunting.
Like the blind men’s assessment of the elephant, it’s impossible for even the most dedicated cineaste to fully wrap his or her arms around this massive beast. Chat with any line partner or volunteer (a legion of 3,000) and one quickly discovers TIFF is not one festival, but a panorama of unique, divergent experiences, each individually curated by a moviegoer’s tastes and curiosity. Like our voraciously enthusiastic cohorts, we plunged in, seeing 70 screenings of 58 titles from 25 countries. Here are some initial impressions of our festival elephant:
‘JOJO,’ ‘JUDY’ and ASPEN-BOUND FEATURES
While independent and international productions struggle at the box office (“specialty” film weathered an especially disheartening summer), directors new and old continue finding ways to translate their idiosyncratic visions to the screen. Whether it’s a poetic Sudanese drama (Amjad Abu Alala’s “You Will Die at Twenty”) or toe-tapping crowd pleaser (“Military Wives” by “The Full Monty’s” Peter Cattaneo), filmmakers never tire of asking: How do we live with ourselves and in the world?
Fortunately for movie lovers, most TIFF films will travel the festival circuit, get a theatrical release and/or stream in the coming months. Next week, fresh from Toronto, Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat,” Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life,” Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” “Honey Boy” with Shia LaBeouf, Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Seberg” starring Kristen Stewart and Scott Z. Burns’ “The Report” will be among several stopping at Aspen Filmfest.
The risk-taking “Jojo Rabbit” and Rupert Goold’s biopic “Judy” also are bound for Filmfest.
Taika Waititi’s (“Thor: Ragnarok”) highly anticipated “JoJo Rabbit” proved to be one of most provocative premieres, contentiously dividing critics while winning the audience award. Filtering his quirky vision through a child’s eyes (as in “Two Cars, One Night” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”), Waititi’s sharp black comedy sets out to skewer the insanity of tribalism. Ten-year-old Jojo is a Nazi Youth group member with Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend (Waititi) and a secret in the closet. From this audacious, high-wire premise Waititi concocts a unique cocktail of biting caricature, absurdist buffoonery and trenchant humor, all threaded with a touch of whimsical sweetness. Filmgoers will soon have the chance to determine for themselves whether “JoJo” succeeds in packing its intended punch.
As the title character in “Judy,” a mesmerizing Renée Zellweger flings herself into an emotionally complex portrayal of the late-in-life Judy Garland. Transcending mere impersonation and jettisoning the “Tragic Judy” legend, Zellweger infuses her role — and hits her own notes — with the fierce intensity of a scrappy down-but-not-out welterweight: frail, faltering, bruised by the abuse of others (and herself), but still capable of igniting the stage with moments of electrifying brilliance.
Especially with Oscar night moving up to early February, TIFF is considered an essential awards platform for high-profile hopefuls. Some, most notably “The Goldfinch,” John Crowley’s pedigree adaptation of Donna Tartt’s bestseller, took an Icarian tumble. Others like Noah Baumbach’s superb “Marriage Story” soared. Good people unwittingly at their worst is the premise of this funny, sad autopsy of an unraveling marriage, based, in part, on the writer-director’s own experience. Despite best intentions to part amicably, Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansen in career-defining performances) chart messy terra incognita. Through an accretion of resonant moments, including an incendiary fight (the kind partners hope never to have) and a wistful musical coda (all the more poignant for its timing), Baumbach brings compassion and grace to the complicated truths of letting go.
Great performance, while it can’t save a truly bad movie, often elevates films whose less artful script, direction or edit falls short of expectations. Watching actors dig deep to bring their characters vibrantly alive reminds us why we love going to the movies. Whenever Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet” — about abolitionist Harriet Tubman — sags under tired tropes of “historic epic,” Tony-winner Cynthia Erivo bursts through, bringing agency and urgency to this story of uncommon courage, fortitude and faith.
“Sound of Metal,” the odyssey of a punk-metal drummer who suddenly goes deaf, is tethered by a ferociously raw and tatted Riz Ahmed (“Girls,” “The Night Of”). Floundering in fury and bewilderment, Ahmed’s vulnerable Ruben captivates, even when Darius Marder’s unwieldy story meanders. Following his sublime “Shoplifters,” Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “The Truth” plays in a more minor key, to be sure. But it’s hard to resist the pleasure of watching the incomparably deft Catherine Deneuve, now 76, play an aging actress who’s self-absorbed and emotionally tone-deaf in equal measure.
TRUE STORIES; WOMEN BEHIND THE CAMERA
While TIFF focuses primarily on narrative features, it also showcases a consistently strong documentary strand.
Nonfiction masters Alex Gibney and Barbara Kopple premiered their latest, “Citizen K” and “Desert One.” There were profiles of the creative process (Ebs Burnough’s “The Capote Tapes,” Daniel Roher’s “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band,” Pat Collins’ “Henry Glassie: Field Work”). Several compelling works grappled with serious global issues, such as ethnic discrimination (Daniel Gordon’s “The Australian Dream”), environmental degradation (Ellen Page’s “There’s Something in the Water”), and the treatment of the U.S.’s non-citizen military veterans (Andrew Renzi’s “Ready for War”).
Among the most powerful, critically lauded documentaries was “Collective,” Alexander Nanau’s chilling examination of systemic corruption in Romania’s medical industry. In 2015, a fire in a Bucharest nightclub tragically took 27 lives. In ensuing weeks, another 37 survivors with severe burns died due to preventable infections and inadequate hospital care. Edited like a fast-paced police whodunnit, “Collective” follows journalist Catalin Tolontan as he and his investigative team pry behind the government’s wall of denials and lies, eventually uncovering an appallingly pervasive web of professional and governmental self-dealing, avarice, and callous indifference to the welfare of patients. As public outrage builds, reform efforts are forced on the government, but politicians push back. A moving example of a free press’s crucial role in combating wrongdoing, the film’s final developments ominously echo other ongoing struggles to change entrenched injustice.
Since 2017, TIFF has spearheaded “Share Her Journey,” an initiative to advance women in the film industry. The festival line-up reflected that commitment with 35% of the program directed, co-directed or created by women, the highest representation of gender parity in the world’s top-tiered festivals. Not always, but often, stories told by women feel new and different. French director Alice Winocour (writer of “Mustang”) refreshes familiar family-versus-work territory by raising the stakes in the absorbing “Proxima.” Sarah (a wonderful Eva Green) is a single mom and astronaut. Training for a long mission, she strives to balance the responsibilities of conflicting devotions: parenting and profession. Both are demanding, both involve risk. This nuanced drama, beautifully researched and shot at actual training facilities, launches an intimate voyage into the human heart.
HANKS AS MR. ROGERS
Director Marielle Heller has a fondness for broken people finding redemption, especially when they don’t realize how much they need it. Like her “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is inspired by a writer and actual events. In this case, the writer is an embittered journalist assigned a story that will shake his very being. What better agent of transformation than television folk hero Mr. Rogers? And who better to embody his soul-mending message than Tom Hanks? With quiet stealth, Hanks creates a Fred Rogers who draws from a deeply private, fully human place to meet people exactly where they are. This cleverly crafted tale of genuine goodness is a welcome fall antidote to the creeps, villains and ne’er-do-wells that crowd our worldview, onscreen … and off.
Film critics George Eldred and Laura Thielen, based in Carbondale, are the former directors of Aspen Film.