By Jim Slotek, Kim Hughes, Liam Lacey, and Karen Gordon
Right now, at the conclusion of the 43rd annual Toronto International Film Festival, we feel like we’ve seen one big, long movie about space travel, crime, Victorian England, gender issues, racism, and insouciant French people.
We at Original-Cin have scurried from film to film for the entire 10 days of the TIFF, alerting you on a daily basis to gems and must-avoids (you do subscribe to our daily newsletter, right?). Now it’s time to collect our thoughts like marbles on the floor and give you our picks for best and worst of the 2018 festival.
For the most part, we all saw different movies – the better to expand our coverage – so what follows is a highly personal list from each critic’s viewing experience. You heard it here first.
Best Thing I Saw: Skin, the real-life story of a man who was raised in a neo-Nazi skinhead family, and whose decision to break away was sealed by two years of having his White Power tattoos removed from every inch of his body. It’s a violent movie about redemption and the notion that the good in some people cannot be held back, even in an evil environment. Jamie Bell is great, but Vera Farmiga steals it as the matriarch of the “family,” whose warm embrace is a corruption of motherhood.
Runner Up: Sign me up as one of the cheerleaders for First Man by Damien Chazelle. The film puts flesh on the bones of Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), whose wooden persona plays here as a defense against emotional pain. Instead of wide open spaces, Chazelle uses claustrophobia for the “spam in a can” experience of space flight, and appropriately vertiginous shaky-cam. Oddly, this is a movie haunted by death.
Worst Thing I Saw: I saw three “olden-days lesbian movies,” period pieces about women coping or coming out back when. One was quite good (Colette with Keira Knightley), one was silly (Tell It to the Bees with Anna Paquin and Holliday Granger). And then there was Vita and Virginia, in which Elizabeth Debicki plays Virginia Woolf being swept off her feet by a young literary admirer (Gemma Arterton) who would inspire Woolf’s Orlando. The movie is glacial, communicating precious little about Woolf.
Oscar Bait Performance: If there is a God, Vera Farmiga in Skin.
Razzie Bait Performance: Probably Huppert, if only because she so evokes Faye Dunaway in Mommy Dearest. But she was only doing her job, so…
Biggest Surprise: The romantic comedy The Weekend by Torontonian Stella Meghie, starring Saturday Night Live’s Sasheer Zamata as a comedian who reluctantly agrees to a B&B weekend with her ex (Tone Bell) and his new girlfriend (DeWanda Wise), that ends up including a handsome stranger from Montreal (Y'lan Noel). Vinegary and sardonic, it’s one of, maybe, three rom-coms I’ve liked this entire century.
Biggest Disappointment: Red Joan is sold as a Dame Judi Dench movie. But the film, inspired by a real-life grandmotherly British woman who was revealed in 1999 to have been a KGB spy in the Cold War, only uses her to sandwich the tale, a springboard for a trite fictionalization about a young woman committing treason for love.
Memo to TIFF Programmers: I get it. Hollywood is a big part of what you do, and those movies are going to get released sooner rather than later. But it’s kind of embarrassing when those movies debut at TIFF and then are released WHILE THE FEST IS STILL GOING ON! Let’s see, I could pay $25 to see The Predator now, or wait a few days for $5 Tuesday at my multiplex.
Best Thing I Saw: Green Book. Director Peter Farrelly’s sad, beautiful, hilarious film touched every emotion with absolute sincerity. That it came from the guy who helmed Dumb and Dumber shows that you can never pre-judge an outcome, especially with a cast that includes Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.
Runner Up: The Elephant Queen. It took filmmakers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone four years to capture their footage of an elephant herd and the other creatures in its orbit, and it shows. Every frame of this jaw-droppingly beautiful movie could be mounted and hung on the living room wall.
Worst Thing I Saw: Outlaw King. Perhaps made worse by the fact that it came on the heels of director David Mackenzie’s excellent Hell or High Water. Arch performances, lame script, and multiple awful scenes of horse carnage.
Runner Up: Life Itself. Even a starry cast including Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Olivia Cooke, Mandy Patinkin, and Antonio Banderas can’t rescue a treacly movie of the week-grade story where the emotional manipulation of the audience is key to its success. The trailer tells you everything you need to know.
Oscar Bait Performance: Nothing as dead-obvious as last year’s Gary Oldman and Frances McDormand performances but I’d be stunned to see better cinematography than that found in The Elephant Queen, or more powerful and timely foreign films than Israel’s Working Woman or Ireland’s Rosie.
Razzie Bait Performance: Lee Pace in Driven. The late automobile designer and executive John DeLorean was likely (and necessarily) many off-putting things but I’m guessing snivelling, haughty, easily manipulated narcissist were not chief among them.
Biggest Surprise: Sienna Miller in American Woman. I have always suspected the British-reared siren had the best agent this side of Jack Black but she is a revelation in director Jake Scott’s perfectly calibrated drama, nailing both palpable grief and a flawless (nay, Streep-ian) American accent.
Biggest Disappointment: Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy. Insane true-life story reduced to meh sort-of love story with a spectacularly annoying Laura Dern at the centre. Tied with Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest. What a pointless (if lovely) drag.
Memo to TIFF Programmers: No more Netflix films, especially not as Gala Presentations. I get that Netflix is bankrolling a lot of good stuff. But to my curmudgeonly mind, film festivals should showcase material aimed at the big-screen experience. Even setting aside the fact that Netflix’s Outlaw King was pretty awful (and we know for a fact that programmers get to see these films ahead of time), its Gala Presentation conveyed no message about what the festival is supposed to represent. Why not reinstitute the tradition of launching with a Canadian film? Patricia Rozema’s Mouthpiece or Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan would have provided much better optics, not to mention more compelling viewing.
Best Thing I Saw: Burning, a psychological thriller by Korean director, Chang-dong Lee, is beautifully crafted filmmaking with a great narrative control. Adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story (with elements from William Faulkner) , Lee’s film is about a shy young man named Jongsu (Ah-In Yoo) who divides his time between Seoul and taking care of his father’s farm while his dad is in prison waiting trial on an assault charge. Early on, Jongsu meets a free-spirited and manipulative young woman, Haemi (Jong-seo Jeon) who seduces him before taking up with a sociopathic playboy named Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yuen). When Haemi disappears, Jongsu begins tracking Ben, convinced he was responsible. Burning is filled with subtle insights about class, jealousy, politics as well as offering a kind of shell game about which character is the most unstable.
Runner Up: I was moved and impressed by Mouthpiece, Patricia Rozema’s stylized adaptation of the award-winning play by Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken, in which the two writer-performers, often in choreographed simultaneous movement, play the double-consciousness of Cassandra over 48-hours as she prepares a eulogy for her mother. Cassandra is both rebellious and accommodating to the social tyranny of male power (when a workman compliments her backside, one part tells him to screw himself and the other thanks him) and caught between love and resentment toward her conformist mother in a way that feels emotionally true.
Oscar Bait Performance: The Oscars have always tended to be America first, so I’ll eliminate my favourite foreign language performances here. I only saw three Oscar buzzy films this year (A Star is Born, If Beale Street Could Talk, First Man) and I particularly admired Ryan Gosling’s performance as the emotionally repressed astronaut Neil Armstrong in First Man. He reminds us again that he can be a wonderfully subtle actor (The Believer, Half Nelson, Blue Valentine) when he’s not being a cocky movie star.
Razzie Bait: Monica Bellucci was alarmingly exuberant in the Australian sci-fi horror comedy, Nekotronic but, in fairness, you don’t want to underplay the part of a world-threatening demon queen and history’s worst mom.
Biggest Surprise: The script was formulaic and some of the performances stilted but I got a kick out of Lionheart, a Nigerian comedy about a corporate heiress (played by director Genevieve Nnaji) who saves her family bus business when her father falls ill. Think of HBO’s corporate backstabbing dramedy, Succession, but with a better soundtrack.
Biggest Disappointment: The documentary, Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes about the late mastermind of Fox News, disgraced sexual harasser and Trump accomplice, was tepid. I felt like I was watching an A&E biography about a slightly scandalous bad-boy celebrity when what was required was the full Ken Burns/Errol Morris treatment of a hugely destructive figure who bears much of the responsibility for the current American media-political malaise.
Memo to TIFF Programmers: I’m repeating myself from last year: Please rename the “Masters” program, a term that’s a fusty holdover from an era when critics were desperate to establish film’s artistic legitimacy (we don’t need a “Masters” category for authors or musicians) and also because it says “Boy’s Club.” That problem was embarrassingly obvious at this year’s TIFF, amid so much crowing about the festival support women filmmakers, all 11 directors in the exclusive Masters program were men.
Best thing(s) I saw: A saw-off between Shoplifters, written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Shoplifters won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Roma won the Golden Lion at Venice as TIFF was underway. Both are quiet, understated domestic dramas with incredible heart. Shoplifters keeps on surprising as it challenges perceptions. Roma is a little gem, shot in black and white. It tells a small story, but before you know it, you’re enraptured by these characters.
Runner Up: First Man, Damien Chazelle’s film, starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong. It’s a thrilling movie in the traditional Hollywood mold. Although it focuses on Neil Armstrong, and the way this task affected his life, the movie also gives you a sense of the incredible danger that those early astronauts took on willingly, the claustrophobia of those space capsules! It’s beautifully written, meticulously crafted, exciting, terrifying, exhilarating and moving.
Worst Thing I Saw: Destroyer. The pre-TIFF hype was that Nicole Kidman was Oscar bait in a very de-glamourized role as an undercover cop. The film is only intermittently as interesting as she is, And the make-up used to rough up her looks evokes The Walking Dead, which, as you might imagine, is distracting
Biggest Surprise: A Star Is Born. This is the fourth remake of a movie that is about as cliche as it gets. And even though I’m a Bradley Cooper fan, the trailer made me wince. But guess what?! It turns out that Bradley Cooper, one of the best actors out there, is also a talented, thoughtful director.
Biggest Disappointment: People who feel like there’s nothing wrong with turning on their phones in the middle of a dark theatre.
Memo to TIFF Programmers: For those of us covering the festival: We need more press screenings. There are fewer press and industry screenings, and more people trying to get into them. Standing in line for an hour and then not getting into a screening means missing out on five or six other films, and that’s a heartbreaker. You just added 200 more accredited press in the name of diversity. Now back it up by letting the press do their jobs.
And PS. TIFF volunteers— I love you!