TIFF has come and gone, leaving moments of profound emotion, complexity, or amusement for those who chose particularly good films, or who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Choosing a few films out of an array of several hundred is often a crap-shoot. Without inside information about new movies, TIFF-goers read the blurbs and hope for the best. Debriefing with friends after the fact, I wonder if I should not have by-passed the obvious biggies that will get general release down the road, and chosen more of the films that may never return to North America. On the other hand, I like to get a heads-up on the season ahead.
So what are the must-sees? The People’s Choice Award this year, often an indicator of future Oscar success, went to The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley; a biopic of mathematician Alan Turing, who was recruited by the British government to break the German communications code “Enigma.” It is a real-life spy story and a human story of great genius and state-perpetrated tragedy that is shocking to contemporary sensibilities. Another biopic is The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne as cosmologist Stephen Hawking and Felicity Jones as his first wife, Jane. Although diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s motor neuron disease) and given two years to live, Hawking went on to make physics accessible to the masses and continues his research even today. Based on the memoirs of Jane Hawking, the movie shows us a love story which makes the personal and the professional more understandable. Turing and Hawking were both heroes of our times; these brilliant renditions of their stories are masterful and warrant our attention.
Other movies at TIFF are very highly recommended. Yet another biopic is Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner starring Timothy Spall as the irascible J.M.W. Turner, whose wonderful collection of paintings hangs in London’s Tate Gallery. The acting is superb and the visuals as rich as Turner’s paintings themselves. Reese Witherspoon in Wild, directed by Canadian Jean-Marc Vallée, is outstanding in her portrayal of Cheryl Strayed who sought redemption by hiking 1600 kilometres of the Pacific Crest Trail on her own. Rosewater, comedian and “Daily Show” host, Jon Stewart’s début as writer and director, tells the story of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s imprisonment in Tehran with an amazing touch that is as compelling as it is affirming. After seeing this film, you may be as moved, as I was, by the need to ensure that we all act on behalf of political prisoners languishing abroad. Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, was runner up for the People’s Choice Award. It is a charming take on contemporary issues with a cross-cultural twist which is heart-warming and delightful. The British movie Pride describes the interactions between a Gay and Lesbian Miners’ Support Group from London and the miners’ unions besieged by Thatcherism in the mid-1980s. As human as it is hilarious, the movie and the real people who were the heroes of the story, and who attended the Q and A, drew a prolonged and emotional standing ovation from the Toronto audience. The People’s Choice Documentary Award went to Beats of the Antonov by Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka. It tells how the locals use their traditional music to deal with contemporary civil war characterized by bombing by Russian-made Antonov aircraft. I didn’t see the movie but a friend who did was utterly mesmerized by it. Among the foreign-language movies, several different friends spoke very highly of the post-Second World War psychological thriller Phoenix by German director Christian Petzold.
Check out the TIFF website for a list of all movies shown at the festival. It can serve as a guide for movie-going in the year ahead.
It’s Toronto International Film Festival time again, and the city is buzzing. They turned King Street from University to Spadina Avenue into a pedestrian precinct for the first four days of the festival. This is the geographic heart of TIFF, the home of the TIFF Bell Lightbox with its several very comfortable high-tech screens, the Ticket Center at Metro Hall, the large venues at the Princess of Wales Theatre and Roy Thomson Hall where the big galas take place, and the activities at David Pecaut Square. In addition to the red carpet entrances provided for the big stars at the gala venues, the Lightbox has become the honey pot for movie star groupies who congregate to see their favourites in the lobby or at the “stage door” entrance outside. Eating places and watering holes expanded onto the street, assorted games and industry curiosities amused passers-by, and TIFF volunteers sporting their bright orange t-shirts seemed to abound. People streamed to the street, revelling yet again in walking a public space freed of traffic. What Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume yesterday termed “the festivalization of Toronto” is one of his “reasons for optimism” for the city, one of his “eight reasons to love Toronto.” I agree.
Closing the street caused some controversy. The King streetcar line is one of the busiest in the city, serving thousands of commuters to the Bay Street core of the city every day. As diverting these streetcars around the King Street TIFF scene would slow the commute, there was a concern that inconveniencing commuters to accommodate movie goers would not go down well. After all, inadequate transit, traffic congestion and, if you are “Mayor” Ford, anything which interferes with the free flow of cars (let alone streetcars of any kind) are major themes in the current municipal election campaign. Toronto streetcar riders, however, are resilient, infinitely patient, and as starstruck as anyone else. The media consensus seems to be that the pedestrian-only experiment was an outstanding success which should be repeated in the future.
It helped that, the weekend before TIFF began, the Toronto Transit Commission launched the first two of their fleet of 240 modern, readily accessible, air-conditioned streetcars on the Spadina line which crosses King. It may be several years before the new streetcars become the norm on all lines, but the actual appearance of the new streetcars, after a transit draught spanning decades, has provided a glimmer of hope. Whatever “Mayor” Ford may say, the people in inner-city Toronto love their streetcars and are thrilled with concrete evidence that streetcars are here to stay.
Getting back to TIFF. Another change this year was the new TIFF policy that galas featured during the early days of the festival (“prime time” apparently) must be real “world premieres,” not reruns from a prior festival such as Cannes, Sundance or Telluride. TIFF regulars were fearful that major new movies would be deterred from coming to Toronto. Such has not been the case. The galas have been as big and spectacular as ever; if anything, the new policy has meant that big new films which may have opened elsewhere are now spread throughout the ten days of the festival which makes it easier for fans to fit them into their schedule.
I had intended to write about some of the movies I’ve seen at TIFF, like the new biopic about Stephen Hawking, called The Theory of Everything, which I saw yesterday. It is a wonderful movie and well worth seeing. Another time. And look for further posts on the Toronto municipal elections and other issues that have come to my attention over the summer. Having left the Alsek River, it is time to move on.