As a diligent ticket stub collector (I know some of you do that, too) it wasn't hard for me to look back at the previous editions of the festival, put the films side by side and compare this year to past festivals. Without a doubt, my 2013 lineup is the cream of the crop. So strong were the films I watched this year that my TIFF top ten can easily match the quality of any of my year-end top tens. Still, I hesitate to call this a good year for Toronto. TIFF is, by nature, impossible to classify as having a "good" or "bad" year. The festival's gargantuan program offers nearly 300 films and each person's experience hinges entirely on their particular selections. Essentially, every year is a good year for TIFF and every years is also a bad one. It all depends on which tickets you buy.
Yet, the films themselves aren't the only thing that made this festival special for me. The people did, too. Boring as it might be for you to read, I'd be cheating you if I pretended that the cinema was all I had on my mind, that the conversations and the atmosphere didn't affect my experience of the festival. And that's really what makes the whole ordeal worth it. Sure, I watched a few early morning screenings with pins holding my eyes open, but would you pass up on the chance to talk about actresses with Nathaniel and Nick over beer and nachos? Yes, I had to skip a screening I had paid for, but I dare you to find an Iranian cinephile who wouldn't take a dream-come-true interview with Asghar Farhadi over any film. I should have probably given a film its fair due by not watching it hungover, but hey! I got to Karaoke with the two German brothers who made my favourite film of the festival, so that's a win-win in my books. That's not to mention the invaluable friends I've made among journos whom I cherish more than the films I watched. The point is, the standard of films was more consistently great than previous years, but the mood was set just right, too. I'm aware, however, that most of you would rather read about the films than my beer-fuelled adventures, so let's get right to the point.
Starting from the top, the aforementioned German film by Ramon Zurcher, The Strange Little Cat, was the clear highlight for me... [more]
A product of the minimalist Berlin school of filmmaking, Zurcher and his brother developed the work originally as a student film and entered it in the forum at the Berlin Film Festival. The staggering simplicity of their work and the confidence with which they handle such intricate material, however, betrays nothing of their relative inexperience. The film arguably takes the perspective of a family's cat as it witnesses the gathering of several generations of family members for a dinner in a Berlin apartment. As such, events are not so much the focus here as are non-events that entertain the animal. Zurcher focuses on the fleeting fascinations that make up a significant chunk of our thoughts every day but are rarely given time in films; stories like a temporary obsession with how the skin of an orange falls if you drop it on the floor, or how a certain sound always triggers the same reaction in the family's pets. From these seemingly random moments, Zurcher creates a heartfelt portrayal of each character that feel more human and genuine than anything in recent memory. It's a gentle and touching film that appears effortlessly moving, though it's precise construct is anything but effortless.
You already know the extent of my love for Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave and my disdain for Charlie Stratton's Therese. Those were two of only four English-language films I saw this year. Happily, the other two share more in common with McQueen's film than the drab literary adaptation. Kelly Reichardt, a director whose work I'm not as enthusiastic about as most people, brought her latest to town. As it turns out Night Moves, her most icily received work to date, has become my favorite of her oeuvre. A fascinating character study wrapped under the guise of a political thriller, the film stars Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as eco-terrorists joined in a plot to save the planet through violent activism. Their collective motives remain a mystery for a very long time, but this isn't so much a film about the politics of their work as it is an atmospheric take on a struggle with the moral codes of activism and dealing with guilt. The film's final shot, a close-up of a convex mirror in a department store, is a testament to the intensity with which Reichardt has plunged us into Eisenberg's paranoid state. The seemingly innocuous shot sent a chill down the audience's spine and took a huge gasp out of the theatre by simply cutting to black.
Equally frosty and even more divisive was Jonathan Glazer's astonishing Under the Skin. Scarlett Johansson gives what is arguably her best performance yet and in a role that showcases her beauty more consciously than anything she's been in before. Under the Skin follows the actress as an alien driving through the roads of rural Scotland looking for male prey. Skin's taciturn, repetitive structure proved too exasperating for some viewers - it had by far the most walkouts of any screening I attended - but I personally found it to be the festival's most uniquely cinematic film, pushing the boundaries of how image and sound can be manipulated to create a sensory experience that can, for the lack of a better phrase, get under your skin. A few days on, I still haven't wrapped my head around it, but I'm fully under its spell and itching to see it again. I expect many of you will feel similarly.
On the less buzzy side of things, there were two films near the top of my most anticipated list that delivered on their promise. Closed Curtain, Jafar Panahi's follow-up to This Is Not a Film, is a meta-narrative based on the same themes and concerns that shaped his last film, though matured into a less angry and more coherent piece this time around. Co-directed with Kambozia Partovi who also plays the lead, Panahi's ingenious take on the limitations of filmmaking under political censorship find him entering the same diegetic space as his characters. His frustration is more contained and his critique is subtler; the result is a film with a more universal appeal than perhaps any of his past films.
The second film was Corneliu Porumboiu's awkwardly titled When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism. A parody of the conventions of Romanian New Wave cinema, of which the director is a stalwart himself with films like Police, Adjective. With a total of 17 cuts in the film, Bucharest tests the limits of the audience's patience, but for anyone interested in the creative process, the end product couldn't be more rewarding. In a progression of stark, wordy sequences, Porumboiu ruminates on the problems that encounter every film during production - from forced script changes due to a location problem, to jealousy issues between two directors competing for an actress's affections, to insurance problems due to the director's gastritis - and reveals, to comic and evocative effect, facets of filmmaking that the audience is never conscious of. Yet, his biggest achievement might be the way in which he operates within the parameters of the Romanian New Wave, while deconstructing it. The film surely faces an uphill climb with distributors but it's one that I really hope finds the audience it deserves.
Finally, for the list-lovers among you, I've jotted down my top ten below. Otherwise, it's time to move on and start obsessing about TIFF14!
1. The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zurcher)
2. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
3. When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Corneliu Porumboiu)
4. Miss Violence (Alexandros Avranas)
5. Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
6. Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi, Kambozia Partovi)
7. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
8. The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas (Elina Psykou)
9. Ilo Ilo (Anthony Chen)
10. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez)