That’s a Wrap! The Best, Worst, and Weirdest of TIFF 2017

By Jim Slotek, Liam Lacey, Kim Hughes, and Karen Gordon

TIFF number 42 is history, and film writers worldwide are sleeping in and gratefully eating something not topped with pepperoni. While sitting down. 

Unlike last year, where multiple titles were clear awards contenders (La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester By the Sea, Lion), TIFF 42 was kind of a mixed bag... if one can generalize about a festival with 250-odd titles.  

Interestingly, multiple marquee movies with very big stars — notably, director George Clooney’s Suburbicon (Matt Damon, Julianne Moore), Alexander Payne’s Downsizing (Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz), Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game (Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba), and Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Kings (Halle Berry, Daniel Craig) — were, if not flat-out dogs, universal disappointments. Not one created authentic buzz. That fell to smaller entries like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, and James Franco’s The Disaster Artist

Perhaps that’s as it should be.

That said, watching movies all day beats hanging drywall (mostly). And with so much to see, you can’t see everything, so any truly comprehensive review of the Festival is impossible.

Nevertheless, your pals at Original Cin strategized and compared notes to help you, dear reader, maximize your time and money at the multiplex. Herewith, the best and worst of what we saw at TIFF 2017 with a few Oscar and Razzie predictions thrown in for good measure. Happy viewing.

Jim Slotek

Best Thing I Saw: The Shape of Water. Guillermo del Toro’s Cold War fairy tale is like ET for grownups. And after seeing three movies where women have unsatisfying sex with their husbands, it’s gratifying to know that sex with a marine creature is there to rock their world.

 Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in director Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water.

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in director Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water.

Runner Up: The Captain. Shot in black and white and based on the true story of a Nazi deserter who puts on a found captain’s uniform and — in order not to be exposed — plays nasty Nazi and orders war crimes. Who knew Robert Schwenke (The Time Traveler’s Wife, RED, Insurgent) had this in him?

Worst Thing I Saw: Unicorn Store, written, directed, and starring erstwhile Best Actress Brie Larson. Twee to the point of toxicity. You achieve a certain status in Hollywood and there’s no one to say, “WTF? Um, maybe you shouldn’t do this.”

Runner Up: The Escape. The bored-housewife-escapes-her-husband-and-kids oeuvre is decades-old and achieved its peak with Montenegro. Here, the lead character, played by Gemma Arterton, has unsatisfying sex with her husband (Dominic Cooper) three times in the first 25 minutes. We get it. She also cries a lot. Happily, there are still French people to rock her world.

Oscar Bait Performance: Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water. Julianne Nicholson in Who We Are Now. Timothée Chalomet in Call Me By Your Name.

Razzie Bait Performance: Samuel L. Jackson playing a rainbow-dressed pixie in Unicorn Store. I would have given anything to hear one “MF!”

Biggest Surprise: I, Tonya turning out to be very good and emerging as an awards season film for star Margot Robbie. The trashy subject matter, beaten to death by the tabloid coverage, suggested TV movie material at best. When you assume…

Biggest Disappointment: Kodachrome with Jason Sudeikis and Ed Harris. The premise takes a real and resonant event — the final official processing of Kodachrome films in Parsons, Kansas in 2010 — and uses it as a mere MacGuffin in a phony-baloney estranged-son-reconnects-with-dying-dad-on-a-roadtrip plot. A movie with not a single authentic moment. Runner Up: Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game. I know less about poker now after 10 million words about it entered my head.

Memo to TIFF Programmers: Yay, the escalators didn’t break down. But the ScotiaBank is, more than ever, a horrible clusterfuck during TIFF. Nobody’s ever sure whether they should be lining up indoors on the high side of Canada’s tallest escalator or outside. And once outside, people who were first in line have been forgotten by screening captains (who were remarkably snarky this year) and have missed movies. The TIFF Bell Lightbox is a dream of a venue. The ScotiaBank is a black eye on the Fest’s reputation.

Liam Lacey

Best Thing I Saw: The Rider. The story of Brady, a young rodeo cowboy from the Pine Ridge reservation, who suffers a career-ending head injury, left a gentle empathetic resonance. Key elements are director Chloe Zhao’s patience with her non-professional cast, with a script built around their real-life experiences and Joshua James Richards exceptional cinematography. The top prize winner at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight program, The Rider feels like a breath of fresh cinematic air.

 A scene from  Chloé Zhao's elegiac and lovely The Rider.

A scene from  Chloé Zhao's elegiac and lovely The Rider.

Runner Up: A Fantastic Woman. Chilean director Sebastian Leolo’s portrait of Marina, a transgender woman who is treated as a criminal following the sudden death of her older lover from a stroke. Set in nightclubs, hospitals, and in the streets of Rio, it is something between a noir thriller and an inspirational character study. Star Daniela Vega is transfixing in a layered, slow-burn performance of resilience and grief.

Worst Thing I Saw: English horror film The Ritual, a cross between Deliverance and The Blair Witch Project, was carefully crafted and quite stupid. A group of English men on a masculinity-restoring Swedish forest hike encounter a commune of forest-dwelling locals who worship a big antlered creature in the woods.  If it had been about an IKEA cargo cult in the Stockholm suburbs, I might have bought it.

Runner Up: None comes to mind. Luckily, I saw mostly decent-to-good films.

Oscar-Bait Performance: Melissa Leo as a tyrannical Reverend Mother in Margaret Bett’s Novitiate could repeat her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (The Fighter) for her portrait of a proud, angry nun, watching the role of nuns diminished in the Church following the Second Vatican Council.  In the same category, I wouldn’t rule out Tatiana Maslany’s very present performance in Stronger as the tough, empathetic girlfriend to bombing victim and double amputee Jeff Bauman, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Razzie-Bait Performance: Tom Sturridge as a sniffy, handsy, eye-liner wearing Lord Byron in Mary Shelley, an otherwise fairly sturdy feminist-oriented film about the teenaged writer of Frankenstein, in which Byron emerges as by far the most amusing monster.

Biggest Surprise:  Following TIFF’s five-year commitment to promote more women filmmakers, and the prominence of the issue around the film world, I was more conscious than usual of the gender of filmmakers. One surprise to me was that more women directors means, not just more women’s films, but a gateway for all kinds of diversity. For example, Haifaa al-Mansour, whose second feature was the historical drama Mary Shelley, is the first Saudi Arabian woman to direct a feature film. Maggie Betts, who directed Novitiate, is a bi-racial New York socialite whose mentor is former First Lady Laura Bush. Chloe Zhao, who made the neo-western The Rider, is a Beijing-born feminist educated at an elite U.S. women’s college. Alanis Obomsawin, who brought her 50th film, Our People Will Be Healed, to the Festival, is an 85-year-old First Nations woman whose first career was as a singer and songwriter. 

Biggest Disappointment: I Iiked the sassy, sexy transgender sex worker comedy of Sean Baker’s iPhone-shot first feature, Tangerine (2015) but found myself feeling queasy at similar displays of endearing pluckiness in the generally admired The Florida Project. The drama follows an irrepressible 22-year-old single mother, Halley (tattooed Instagram discovery Bria Vinaite) and her six-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) living in a Florida welfare motel on the outskirts of Disneyworld. The kids’ scenes were too Little Rascals for my taste, even if Baker’s riff on the traditional family movie is intentional.

Memo to TIFF Programmers:  Can we just drop the use of “master” when talking about veteran filmmakers? The word presumes a set of professional standards, like cabinet-making or glass-blowing, that don't actually exist. Like the terms “auteur” and “pantheon,” the language is a hold-over from an era when cinephiles felt the need to insist on cinema’s artistic legitimacy. Few people feel the need to apply such honorifics to contemporary writers, painters, or musicians. Also, some of those “masters” are mistresses.

Kim Hughes

Best Thing I Saw: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. A superbly acted and exceedingly well-written story that’s at once hilarious and heart-breaking. Every bit of dialogue feels genuine. 

 Three Billboards... could add another Oscar to Frances McDormand's mantel.

Three Billboards... could add another Oscar to Frances McDormand's mantel.

Runner Up: Jane. Director Brett Morgen’s dazzling documentary on Jane Goodall has a can’t-miss trifecta: previously unseen footage gathered by ace wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick for National Geographic, a breath-taking original score by Philip Glass, and narration and context from the planet’s foremost chimpanzee researcher, who beguiles us still. 

Worst Thing I Saw: Kings. Trite, absurd, and racially tone deaf.  

Runner Up: A Worthy Companion mostly because actress Julia Sarah Stone scans as a child. Ergo, watching her in sex scenes with the decidedly adult Evan Rachel Wood was soooo creepy. Also, the whole thing is just so pointlessly dark. 

Oscar-Bait Performance: Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Arguably even better than she was in Fargo and she was very, very, Oscar-winning good in Fargo. Also, Willem Dafoe as the sad-eyed but kind-hearted motel manager in The Florida Project. And since we’re on the subject, Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. The film is so-so but Oldman’s Winston Churchill is frigging astonishing. Churchill scholars and history buffs alike will be floored. 

Razzie-Bait Performance: Daniel Craig in Kings. Have I mention I hated Kings? I really, really hated Kings. 

Biggest Surprise: The Disaster Artist. To make the film work, director and star James Franco had to walk the fine line between satire and homage, make the film appealing to those who hadn’t seen The Room while appeasing the die-hards for whom the spectacularly awful source material is hallowed cultural ground. He did it. Plus, it’s hilarious.

Biggest Disappointment: The last 15 minutes or so of On Chesil Beach. Ian McEwan’s adaptation of his own slight but devastating novel is note perfect until then. I went back and re-read the final chapter, and yes, all that stuff about the record shop and the fateful future meeting at Wigmore Hall did happen in the protagonist’s mind. But the whole thing would have walloped more if they’d ended it after the throw-down on the beach. Also — and yeah, it’s a pet peeve — young actors made up to look old rarely works.  

Memo to TIFF Programmers:  Less really would be so much more. Every year, I vow to catch Short Cuts or some kooky Wavelengths feature or something completely off my radar that I overhear someone raving about. And every year, I fail to do it because by the time I check off assignments and foreign stuff I’ll never have another chance to see, TIFF is over. Slimming the program this year was a step in the right direction but 250-plus films still isn’t remotely doable for anyone. 

Karen Gordon

Best Thing I Saw: The Square. Sweden's Ruben Ostlund won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for this wry social satire that takes on a range of modern issues.

 From Sweden with love: A scene from Ruben Östlund's brilliant and mercurial The Square.

From Sweden with love: A scene from Ruben Östlund's brilliant and mercurial The Square.

Runner Up: mother! Darren Aronofsky’s audacious movie is already dividing critics and audiences. But for those of us who liked it, mother! is an unpredictable, surprisingly funny (although not without a few disturbing moments), and thought-provoking ride.  

Worst Thing I Saw: The Leisure Seeker. Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland co-star as a long-married couple taking a cross-country road trip in this dreary, predictable movie.

Oscar-Bait Performance: I heard enough hype about Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour to make me worried that I could only be disappointed. As it turns out, his performance exceeds expectations. His best yet. Also, Michelle Pfeiffer as the icy intruder in mother! and Oscar Isaac in Suburbicon.

Biggest Surprise: The Disaster Artist. James Franco directs and stars in this adaptation of a book on the making of The Room, considered one of the worst movies ever made. It’s funny but never mean-spirited, and ends up celebrating the risk-takers and true eccentrics of the world. Runner Up: Thelma, a Norwegian movie that starts as a naturalistic coming-of-age story and slides seamlessly into something more supernatural that never loses that natural tone. Written and directed by Joachim Trier.

Biggest Disappointment: Suburbicon. George Clooney directs from a script originally set aside by the Coen Brothers, that he and partner Grant Heslov finished. Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac co-star, so what could go wrong? Clooney’s heart is in the right place, but he never quite finds the right tone to pull off the Coen-level satire.