TIFF 2015

I'm almost two months removed from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which is, as my friend Ken put it, my Burning Man. Going to a theater to watch a movie is as close as I get to a form of meditation, it's the one place I'm focused one one thing and one thing alone, without my phone or a computer to distract me. The half dream state of being in a darkened theater caught up in the narrative flow of moving pictures is also as close as to a cathedral as exists for me. I don't care how great a home theater you have, at home you have your smart phone on the chair next to you, and so you never have focus.

It's not just attending movies that makes TIFF a sort of vacation from the grid for me. While I usually buy a small allocation of data to use while in Canada, net enough to appease my regular data usage patterns, and certainly enough to occupy all my idle time waiting in lines, so my phone is not networked most of my there. This year, my iPhone just stopped connecting to networks halfway through my visit up there so I was even more out of touch than usual.

Of the three major film festivals on the calendar—Sundance, Cannes, Toronto—TIFF is perhaps the best for non-industry people who just love movies. It's positioned at the optimal time of year for fall Oscar hopefuls, but it also is large enough to capture a broad set of movies to suit just about anyone's tastes. Sundance, coming in January, has fewer movies than TIFF and fewer good movies of all types, in my opinion. Cannes requires industry affiliation to get tickets, and of course you have to dress formally to even attend movies there, making it even more of an ordeal than it already is. I've had a good time at all three, but TIFF is the purest for just consuming a lot of movies.

In recent years, Venice and Telluride have made inroads on TIFF as the “premiere” fall film festival, and I mean that in all senses of the word premiere. This year, for example, the Steve Jobs movie starring Michael Fassbender and Cannes stunner Carol starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara played at Telluride and not at TIFF. That may factor into travel plans for industry insiders, but neither Venice nor Telluride rival TIFF as a festival for the people.

I've never been to the Venice Film Festival, but it's in Venice, a much smaller city than Toronto, and thus less accessible, especially for Americans. Telluride is a tiny town, a several hour drive even after landing, unless you have access to a private jet, which more attendees than you might imagine do. That is, Telluride costs a fortune and self-selects to being an intimate festival for the wealthy. It's not really a festival for the people, though its reputation as an intimate gathering for rich movers and shakers has made it a desirable festival to seed buzz for movies. It may be suffering from a burst of popularity. This year, I saw many complaints on Twitter from folks who bought Telluride passes but couldn't get into either Steve Jobs screening despite spending several hours waiting in line.

It's tempting with every festival to try and scan across the entire lineup of movies to extrapolate some broader unifying themes, but it's just needless pattern seeking. With nearly 300 movies across a variety of genres and categories, most such themes are just coincidence.

I've seen over 4,000 movies in my life, and more and more I've started to seek out novelty in movies, especially formal innovation. This year, in particular, I was curious to see if and how movies are evolving as an art form to meet the increased competition for attention from everything else out there: Vine, YouTube, Snapchat Stories, the gaping internet maw. 

Here are some brief thoughts on most of the movies I saw. I'll try to avoid spoilers, but if you're like me and prefer to know as little about movies as possible, maybe skip the thoughts on movies you haven't seen yet.

Black Mass

If you've seen the trailer, you've seen images of Johnny Depp as Boston gangster and FBI informant James “Whitey” Bulger. He looks like a White Walker, an albino with strikingly blue eyes, or a vampire. It turns out that's no coincidence as the movie plays as a form of vampire movie, with Depp's Bulger a Nosferatu as Boston Southie. The movie is competent but not particularly great, which is a shame because the seeds of something far more interesting are at the heart of this true story. Something profound about why crime runs deep and long in Boston and how it survives across generations through the bonds of local neighborhood circles. Something troubling about how intelligence agencies work with confidential informants and abet crime at the same time as they claim to fight it. All of that's hinted at and then lost in the usual mob movie mechanics.

The Martian

Nothing fancy, just a highly professional adaptation of Andy Weir's novel, an out and out Hollywood crowd pleaser. In a way, the competence of Matt Damon and all the other characters working to keep him alive mirror the competence of the crew that brought this movie to life. Strong word of mouth is going to give this movie real legs.

In Gravity, the script seemed most awkward when it stretched to give us heightened stakes for Sandra Bullock: that whole backstory of the dead child, the inner life wedged into the survival story. Those were the parts where Hollywood script mechanics reared their head most prominently, when it felt most like a movie rather than just a pure piece of art.

In The Martian, there is no need for such back story because Matt Damon is the perfect shorthand casting, a likable Everyman. “It's Matt Effing Damon, whatever it takes, let's get him home!” thinks the audience. That may sound ridiculous, but the novel and movie make a strong case that galvanizing support for causes like space exploration often comes down to telling an emotional narrative, and often that's easier to do with one likable protagonist than it is with appeals to logic and numbers.

That's the movie's greatest flaw, however. The thing the aptly named Gravity made us feel was gravity. Death. People die in that movie, and you sense the fragility of human life, the unlikelihood that we live on this planet, in this vast, cold universe. The Martian never lets us truly flirt with our mortality, Damon never has to gaze into the void, never has to show us what that does to a person, and so he lacks a tangible inner life. It's more of a crowd-pleaser and less potent for it. Ironically, Matt Damon brought us closer to his humanity in Interstellar, when the prospect of dying alone on a planet drives him to the ultimate selfish act.

One other thing I wish the movie had done was keep the last obstacle, the dust storm. It was a wonderful moment because astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) was out of touch with folks back on Earth, who saw the problem coming before he did by virtue of their satellite imagery. Like a Hitchcock movie, the audience knew something Watney didn't. The suspense was in seeing how he'd figure it out for himself, and the way he did so in the book has a beautiful subtlety.

The movie would be too long, you argue. Some things had to be cut. In this day and age, I find arguments for very specific running times less persuasive when streaming outlets and television accommodate stories of all different lengths. Some episodes of High Maintenance are five minutes long. Francis Kitteridge was 4 hours. Show Me A Hero was 6 hours. The Wire spanned fifty hours or so across five seasons. The Martian could've been a 4 or 6 hour miniseries. I would have been more than okay with that.

Son of Saul

The Grand Prix winner at Cannes this year, Son of Saul was the first movie I saw at TIFF this year, and fittingly it was an experiment in form. The movie is shot in Academy Ratio (1:33 to 1, or almost Instagram classic square, for you kids), and the camera spends most of the movie fixated on the protagonist's back, as if attached to a selfie-stick clipped to his back belt loop. Combine that fixed shot position with the shallow focus, and much of the audience's job is trying to guess what's happening outside the frame, with a soundtrack of gunshots, screams, and the machinery of the holocaust providing more than enough horror for the imagination. Keith Uhlich has dubbed the movie Holocaust: The Ride, and I understand his misgivings. How representable is the Holocaust? Is it ethical to frame a narrative about an event of such scope in the plight of one fictional protagonist? Someday an artist will attempt to make a virtual reality experience about the Holocaust and these debates will surface again. My stomach was in a knot the whole time during Son of Saul, but my emotions and my mind wrestled with the stunt-like framing.


As with many of Denis Villeneuve's previous films, I spent much of this running time with my stomach clenched. No doubt, he can put you on tension's edge and hold you there for long periods. The sound design is brilliant, as is the work of Roger Deakins, whose cinematography is almost self-recommending no matter what the movie is about.

Unlike Prisoners, which felt like a lot of suspense in the service of itself, Sicario has more of an ideological frame to hang its technical proficiency on. How sturdy a frame depends on your perspective. All the recent art around the U.S.-Mexican drug war seems to struggle with the complexity of it all, and the instinct is to wallow in the noir, to show it's turtles holding handguns all the way down, until you arrive at a briefcase full of cash. The darkness is a contagion, and anyone who tries to peel it back gets swallowed by the enormity of the corruption and death and savagery.

The story of a Mexican cop feels most in service of script mechanics, and it's the weakest of them all. But are the other three leads much more deeply fleshed out? Is Emily Blunt the naif who ends up with eyes wide open by the end of her descent into Hell? Is Josh Brolin more than the right-wing government bringer of war, for whom every problem is a nail because he wields only a hammer, or in this case, a semi-automatic rifle? And is Benicio Del Toro more than someone who the drug war has turned into Death himself? Perhaps a simpler way to ask this question is to ask whether anyone in a Villeneuve movie can outshine Villeneuve's interest in dialing up tension.

I couldn't help but laugh when Benicio Del Toro says to Blunt, “This is a land of wolves now. And you're not a wolf.” First because it's such a movie line, and enjoyably so. But also because Del Toro is a wolf, so much so they cast him as one before.

The Other Side

One of the formal crutches of documentaries are filmed passages of talking heads, often providing a voice-over which lets you know how you should feel about the footage it plays over. Sometimes it's unavoidable, but it tends to be a reliable sign of a mediocre documentary. Roberto Minervini's The Other Side avoids that trap but raises other questions about its formal choices. Minervini is Italian, and his subjects here are alienated meth addicts and rural militants in Louisiana. Minervini's English is solid but not fluent, so I wasn't entirely clear from the Q&A how he “directed” his subjects—this is the rare documentary that actual credits a screenwriter—but from what I gathered he lightly staged scenes in which the people played themselves, the staging allowing him to capture a more cinematic version of what otherwise might have to be captured by chance. I admire the formal audacity and more dynamic visual aesthetic even as the movie struck me as having a sort of false neutrality. Many of the subjects seem like they'd vote for Trump, and clearly many would go to war to defend the 2nd Amendment, so the documentary felt particularly relevant in this moment.


I'm surprised Jacques Audiard's latest, about Sri Lankan emigrants trying to make a life in France, won the Palme D'Or at Cannes. It's certainly a timely topic given France's conflicted feelings towards its immigrant population. How do those people, stuck in dismal suburbs, rise out of their lot? For a long time the movie is an engaging examination of that issue, and then it turns into a genre shootout film, as if the attempt to answer that question lost Audiard's interest.

The Lobster

I loved Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, I love Bunuel, so Lanthimos' latest movie The Lobster was one of the TIFF screenings I was looking forward to the most. Lanthimos' method for examining the invisible systems of society is to transpose them into more absurdist if parallel forms. In this case, Lanthimos analyzes humanity's mating rituals into something like a BBC version of Bachelor in Paradise. The underrated Colin Farrell plays a newly single middle-aged man living in a society where single people of a certain age must go to a hotel where they have 45 days to find a mate among the other guests or be turned into an animal. Given how familiar most people are with the subject of dating and marriage and given how so many already regard the whole affair as a game, The Lobster should be Lanthimos' most accessible surrealist project to date. It's perhaps a little chubby around the waist, like its protagonist, but the movie's a good reminder that sometimes the only way to come to peace with the absurdity of life is to see it reflected and distorted.


Has Tom Hardy done a movie where he doesn't attempt a bizarre accent? He has to be in Meryl Streep territory. In Legend, he takes on two of them, playing the twin London gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray. Hardy is generally so magnetic that it's shocking how flat this biopic is, stuffed as it is with two of him playing the cinema's usual charismatic but psychotic mobsters. 

Green Room

Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin was one of the buzziest films of the indie scene in 2013. Green Room confirms his command of realist, low-budget, rural genre. Blue Ruin was often compared to the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple; this is a genre in which nothing goes quite to plan, for anyone involved on either side. Green Room, about an indie punk band caught in a violent battle with some back country skinheads, doesn't aspire to any larger message though one could try to read some deeper meaning into the border skirmish between musicians and Nazi loving rednecks. It's amusing to watch normal people dropped into absurd genre situations, the contrast between their reactions and those of your typical Hollywood movie star provide fertile ground to build up and defuse tension again and again. It's the type of movie that's well-suited for a midnight movie screening at a film festival, but not the type I find much pleasure in revisiting.


Another Midnight Madness (the program at TIFF that typically includes a lot of extreme genre fare like horror and action movies) offering, this Turkish horror movie was a mess, in every sense, and if I hadn't been stuck in a middle seat I would have fled for the rather pedestrian comforts of my Airbnb before the movie ended.

Bang Gang

The title refers to a series of house sex parties organized by a group of young French teens in heat. Director Eva Husson is French, and so the movie doesn't dance around sex and nudity with anywhere near the shame that an American film might. Sex is a means here by which the teens negotiate the emotional terrain of coming of age. The actors have the sphinx-like look of American Apparel models, and about as much to reveal about sex and teen life, which is not much.

Right Now, Wrong Then

My favorite movie at TIFF this year, and the less you know about Hong Sangsoo's latest movie going in the better. The plot concerns a philandering movie director spending a day in a town to do a Q&A for one of his movies, but the broader theme is the delicate and infinite variability of life, so watch closely. Sangsoo draws blood with the most gentle touch. Its formal trick, which you'll have to watch yourself to discover, 

The Assassin

If this script consisted of nothing but the dialogue in the movie it would be perhaps just 10 pages long. This movie has the sparsity of plot exposition of a haiku, the visual stillness of an Asian scroll. It’s the opposite of a plot-driven movie and feels more like a documentary of one episode of Chinese history as shot by the SEL. The images, especially of the Chinese countryside, are gorgeous, like watercolors. Many were misled by the title into thinking it was another Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and while some of the fight scenes recall that movie's balletic quality, what with the wire work being so delicate, they are much shorter in this movie, and not the centerpiece. I have seen enough movies at TIFF over the years to predict which movies will have a high rate of walkouts based on a lack of familiarity with the director’s style, and this one was at the top of my list for TIFF. It lived up to its reputation, with those people squeezing by me the only distraction from my trance.


Ben Wheatley adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel. The collapse of capitalism and society as enacted within one high rise apartment somewhere in England, and given it’s Wheatley and Ballard, it’s the scorched earth you’d expect. For some reason, these acidic allegories aren’t for me, I feel like I’m drinking bleach straight from the bottle. I didn’t enjoy Snowpiercer, either, but at least that had a moment or two of humor amidst the social commentary. 


Based on the true story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, this is, like The Martian, the type of competent translation of source material that wrings the emotion from a story the way that only movies can. Triumphant investigative journalism movies may not have a high level of difficulty, but they are satisfying like a detective story. As Hitchcock once noted, a movie like this can be enjoyed even if you know how it ends because the pleasure is in seeing how the persistent and curious mind of the protagonists keep selecting the correct fork in the road when forces keep conspiring to lead them down the path of ignorance. Movies like this portray investigative reporters at their most romantic and heroic, their shoes hitting the pavement, notepads in hand, brows furrowed in skepticism. A useful reminder, too, as with the Bill Cosby case, of how powerfully social institutions can suppress the truth.


Gaspar Noe’s 3D sex movie. When Noe is on the menu at a film festival, I usually throw his offering on the menu almost as a wild card, just to see what crazy concoction the enfant terrible has seen fit to bring to the world, but the movie was surprisingly dull, a strange thing to say about a movie that includes perhaps the first 3D ejaculation. Puppy love is often the most dull love, even if it involves more frequent exchanges of pheromones (and other bodily fluid).


Adaptation of a novel I haven’t read. Brie Larson was great in Short Term 12, and with this performance, she becomes an actress whose presence in a movie is reason enough to seek it out. Co-star Jacob Tremblay was eight, I believe, when the movie was shot, which makes his performance perhaps even more striking for its emotional clarity. Lots of credit goes to Larson; anyone who's ever worked with actors that young knows what a challenge it is, and as director Lenny Abrahamsson noted at an IMDb dinner where Larson received an award, she had to constantly manage not only her own performance but the energy of her co-star. The plot is heavily contrived, and you can see how it would work better as a book told just from the boy's perspective, but Larson and Tremblay and later Joan Allen ground the movie in genuine emotion, and there's a broader moral about how much of childhood itself is contrived.


That movie everyone knows as “the movie that's filmed in one single unbroken shot.” A stunt like this could be exhausting for the audience, especially given the run time of over 2 hours, but the director finds moments in the action to release the tension and shift the mood so that it’s not just one long build. Sure, it's a stunt, and at times the plot feels like one, like red sequin pants that are meant purely as a conversation starter, but it was less of one than I thought going in, and at times, as when the main characters celebrate at a dance club, it veers on the ecstatic.

Louder than Bombs

I really enjoyed director Joachim Trier’s previous movies Reprise and Oslo, August 31, and Louder than Bombs continues his run of movies about people bottling up their demons and trying not to explode, or implode. Making movies about people who are just “feeling things” is a dangerous game, you’re always one step from maudlin self-absorption. Trier has a delicate touch, as he showed in his first two movies. This one is not as satisfying; it is sprawling, jumping among storylines and characters and diffusing outward so loosely that the second half of the movie has to yoke everything back together with some more conventional plot mechanics. 

SPL 2 — A Time For Consequences

The last movie I saw at TIFF, at Midnight Madness, this was the type of bonkers Asian crime and martial arts drama which is genre comfort food, as satisfying as a bowl of ramen at 3 in the morning after a night out at the clubs. The bizarre flavor profile is uniquely Asian: a preposterous plot, odd musical interludes filled with melodrama, and gunplay giving way to fisticuffs as the movie progresses, with each significant battle choreographed and filmed like a dance number. I can only watch movies like this a second time with other people, because while you can't eat a dish like this twice, it's enjoyable to see others taste it for the first time, like watching a child eat ice cream for the first time.


Matthias Schoenaerts (the guy with an extra e in his name) is great, and he's the main reason to watch this arthouse home invasion pic. Schoenaerts plays a solider named Vincent with PTSD doing home security while on leave from the army, and trouble finds him even as he tries to take a vacation from one's own demons. Diane Kruger plays the beauty to Schoenaerts beast. Much of the movie, Vincent is trying to distinguish between demons real and imagined, and we spend the entire movie seeing the world through his confusion. We see and hear the same snippets of conversation as he does, so we're trying to piece things together with him. Schoenaerts is a lumbering bear of a man, with weary eyes and an inscrutable gaze, and so he's well-suited to carry the burden of wounded masculinity.


I backed this stop-motion movie from Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson on Kickstarter, and part of me thought of skipping the screening at TIFF to wait for my backer screening. But curiosity got the better of me, and I'm glad I went as it's one I want to revisit. Speaking of form following function, the use of stop-motion is charmingly bizarre at first, yet by movie's end you understand why the medium makes sense: what better way to convey the alienation of modern life than by putting human voices in a bunch of puppets? At one point it was going to be done as a radio broadcast, where no visuals might mediate your interpretation of the story, or even as a stage play, but puppets provide their own aesthetic distancing. The cognitive dissonance of watching puppets performing the most mundane and realistic of tasks, like using the bathroom, pouring themselves a drink in a hotel room, and riding in a taxi helps you see the rituals of human life with a more clinical eye.