In awards season terms, the Toronto Film Festival is already old news. A bunch of films screened and some stars showed up on the red carpet and, as you all know, 12 Years a Slave has already won the best picture Oscar and everyone has gone home happy.
That’s not quite how it ends for anyone who attends a festival though. The act of film-watching itself happens with such rapidity that it becomes impossible to process all the films within the short duration of the festival. For me, TIFF hasn’t yet ended, mentally. I keep going back to every film, processing the details I remember and letting a whole new reaction unravel.
Here’s a truth I discovered this time around: it is impossible to maintain a regular work schedule, watch 30 films and also write about them. I had to compromise one of those things, and you can tell by my complete absence from this space which one of those I chose to leave out. But let’s pretend for a minute that it’s last week, you are still interested in festival coverage and you want to find out how I feel about the films I watched. Shall we?
Toronto's Oscar Problem & more after the jump...
The buzz for all films, especially English-language ones, can unfortunately be gauged by the number of people who are predicting them for Oscars. This is particularly pertinent if the film in question fits within the parameters of what we generally consider “Oscar bait”, so it’s a bit worrying when an adaptation of a classic novel involving big name stars enters the festival in absolute silence. That’s usually a sign that you should avoid it like the plague, or poisoned wine, as the case may be. Such was my plight when I sat through Charlie Stratton’s Therese, adapted from Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin and starring Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Lange. A bloated, underwritten, overacted and ultimately laughable failure on every level, Therese might just be the second worst film I have ever seen in my almost decade-long participation at TIFF – the dishonor of being at the very bottom, by the way, goes to last year’s Peaches Does Herself. The script’s truncated progression skips past significant plot points with ignorant ease, while devoting ample time trying to create hilarious sidekicks out of Mackenzie Crook, Matt Lucas and Shirley Henderson who couldn’t be portrayed in a more blatantly sexist light. It never pans out. What we end up with is a romance that is never believable in its intensity or the way it morphs into impassioned hatred, and a Jessica Lange performance for the ages hall of shame. And if you think that’s the worst, wait till the haunted ghost shows up in the shape of that cheaply produced monster from Mama, except, you know, without the irony.
There were only two other major films that disappointed – I had chosen wisely this year. Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness, an autobiographical piece about a man who conned her out of her film’s finances after she fell victim to a stroke, could have been more aptly titled Abuse of Your Sympathies. Isabelle Huppert gives a commendable performance – though even that is debatable, as this is the type of challenge we’ve seen her handle in the past – but the script does nothing to give her character any psychological nuance until the very last scene, leaving us to wonder whether Breillat actually deserves any empathy or if she’s trying to pin her terrible life choices on physical disability to fish for emotions. I certainly felt like the latter was the case. The other big downer was Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, which has quite a big fanbase. A four part narrative that feels completely disjointed, Sin attempts to set a Wu Xia film in the modern Chinese society and fails miserably, leaving the audience with a film that is tonally inconsistent and anything but illuminative, though Jia’s biggest crime might be the farcical way he wears his influences – everything from the aforementioned Wu Xia’s to Kabuki theatre - on his sleeve.
Without a doubt, my least favorite thing about TIFF is the fervor with which immediate Oscar prognostication rolls out after every premiere. The likes of “that will only get technical nods” and “well, we can cross that one off the race” have become common barometers of quality. After the disappointment of Asghar Farhadi’s The Past – yes, it is a disappointment, sadly; more on that film in the future – fewer people could be heard voicing their opinions about Berenice Bejo’s performance than those who wondered whether Sony could translate her Cannes win into an Oscar nomination with a strong campaign.
The severity of this ugliness is nowhere clearer than in the reaction to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.
Slave is one of the best films of the festival. It's the work of a visionary director married to gut-wrenching, emotional material and though I don't quite think it's his best film, not being as good as Hunger is no shame (no pun intended). I left the theatre with tears running down my face and a few days on, with the gravity of the material less immediately felt, McQueen's artistry is even more prominent for me. Normally, one would be pleased with a universally positive reaction to a personal favorite. Instead, I feel cheated by the reaction to this one. I wanted more people to analyze it and appreciate it for the work of art that it is. In reality, the discourse surrounding the film has centered on the number of Oscar nominations it will score. In fact, it has already become the preordained winner of the best picture award. So intense was the awards buzz that a backlash already began before the film's second screening at the festival! By the time the last screening came around, bloggers were hitting back at the backlashers. Bear in mind that only a few hundred people have seen the film at this point, but that's unimportant. What matters is how many Oscars it's going to win and whether it is necessary to even exist - judged, of course, by someone who isn't even one of the few hundred lucky to have seen the film. Artistic merit be out the door!
McQueen isn't the only director whose film has become the centre of such arbitrary measures of quality. At this point, most of us know that the male cast of August: Osage County isn't good enough to impress the Academy and the campaigning team should be smart with category placements for Julia, Meryl and Margo because they can't all get nominated. Fewer results will turn up if you search around for qualitative critiques of their performances. Prisoners was one of the favorite titles in town - evidenced by how highly it ranked in the people's choice awards - but chatter quietly died down in the blogosphere because, you know, that's just a thriller and can't win awards. Why bother?
To an extent, it's understandable why this happens. Toronto has become the chief bellwether for the Oscar season, and if studios are bringing their films to gain Oscar buzz, media's going to give it to them. And as long as the festival gives Torontonians the chance to watch films that otherwise won’t have a prayer of getting released in a theatre, it feels redundant to complain. It's just a shame that so often these days, the artistic qualities of the film are the last thing to be discussed.
I'll be back tomorrow on a happier note to discuss The Good of the festival.