I’ve attended the Toronto International Film Festival five times since 2000. What I love about TIFF is how geared to the public it is. I’ve stood on lines (because this is what you do at TIFF) and spoken with die-hard cinephiles as much as I’ve chatted with local folks who decided, on a whim, to take in a movie. With hundreds of movies to choose from, one can easily find something suited to taste. The avant-garde peacefully co-exists with midnight movies, Oscar bait and blockbusters.
There’s a welcoming, come-as-you-are aura about TIFF, something I admit I’ve never felt at any other major festival I’ve attended. Many film festivals feel exactly as you might think they do; they’re snooty affairs where glassy-eyed film critics trudge zombie-like from screening to screening while industry people try to sell their wares or keep the fans from the celebrities. Not so at TIFF, though I will come back to my glassy-eyed brethren shortly.
Having worked both sides of the coin as press and as a regular Joe Schmo (or Odie Schmo as the case may be), I prefer the regular public screenings to the P&I ones, partially because the P&I’s seem to all be scheduled at the same time, forcing a "wisdom of Solomon"-style method of choosing which ones to attend. (Sometimes your editor, or an interview opportunity, makes the choice for you.) As a member of the general public this year, I had free reign over what I chose to see, and part of the fun of making your own schedule is to see just how close you can cut the time switching between movies and venues.
TIFF venues are located in a variety of spots, some of which are close together, some not. As a result, a fair bit of running is required if your day is stacked and the movies aren’t playing close together. Every TIFF ticket package should come with a recording of Yakety Sax to accompany you as you fly between theaters. My record is a tight 25-minute switch where I ran a mile and a half, navigating crowds, trolleys, traffic lights, cars and the seemingly endless amount of stairs at the Winter Garden theater. Those days are over; when faced with having to work in an even narrower 20-minute switch between Liv Ullmann’s "Miss Julie" and the Dardennes’ "Two Days, One Night," I chose to bypass "Miss Julie" altogether rather than potentially miss my date with the second great 2014 movie featuring Marion Cotillard. I’d read "Miss Julie" in college, so I didn’t feel guilty. Sorry, Ms. Ullmann.
I saw 22 movies, which is the least amount of movies I’ve ever covered at TIFF. It would have been 25, but in addition to "Miss Julie," I had to voluntarily miss "Coming Home," the reteaming of Gong Li and Zhang Yimou. Yimou and Li are a favorite pairing of mine, and there was some nostalgia attached to seeing their film at a festival: I first discovered the duo at the New York Film Festival’s Opening Night screening of "Shanghai Triad" in 1995. I had a good reason to miss "Coming Home," namely a last minute snaring of a ticket to Cannes favorite "Force Majeure," the Finnish film by Ruben Östlund. "Majeure" is a fascinating provocation about how society views male and female gender roles; it’s the perfect date movie if you like arguing with your date afterwards.
I did not have a good reason to miss "The Cobbler," the Thomas McCarthy-directed Adam Sandler movie about magic shoes. Blame the night before. After a screening of "The Imitation Game," which I loved because I’m a mathematician and a programmer (among other reasons), I went to karaoke with several of my fellow glassy-eyed film critics and spent several hours losing my voice to song and drink. After 2-1/2 hours of sleep, I dragged my hungover ass out of bed at 8 AM, showered, shaved (crookedly) and dressed for my 9:45 screening of "The Cobbler." I made it as far as my hotel room door before sleep pulled me back into my bed like Johnny Depp in "Nightmare on Elm Street." It was a good thing too; I only had on one sneaker and one sock. I’d say "Sorry Adam Sandler," but you know I’d be lying.
I kept running into the star of the most memorable karaoke scene in film history, Bill Murray. He was the guest of honor at TIFF’s "Bill Murray Day." I didn’t attend any of the Murray-attended free screenings of "Ghostbusters," "Stripes" and "Groundhog Day," but that didn’t stop me from seeing him everywhere else. Bill Murray sightings as of late have become as legendary as the Loch Ness Monster’s, and when I wasn’t crossing paths with him on the street, I heard numerous tales of Murray from bar patrons. The best was one where Murray, riding an elevator with the storyteller, leaned in and mysteriously whispered "no one will believe you saw me!" Conversely, I failed to run into my RogerEbert.com editor Brian Tallerico even once. These are the odds you get at TIFF—you’ll run into celebrities more than people you know—though I’m pretty sure that, unlike Bill Murray, Brian was hiding from me.
One of my favorite actors, Michael Douglas, sat directly behind me at the premiere screening of his latest movie, "The Reach." It was quite odd having Michael Douglas’ voice in such close proximity, and I felt very uncomfortable knowing he was back there because I absolutely hated his movie. "He’s watching the audience response," my brain told me, "and he’s going to see you banging your head into the seat in front of you." It was here I thought of Roger and an E-mail conversation I’d had with him about the day he panned "Three Amigos" while sitting next to Chevy Chase on the Tonight Show. He would have gotten a kick out of an E-mail about me squirming with worry.
The best thing about TIFF—about any festival for that matter—is seeing great movies and discovering hidden gems. To close out, a few words on some movies of note:
Along with "The Imitation Game," Gina Prince-Bythewood’s "Beyond the Lights" was my favorite film of the festival. Prince-Bythewood is 3-for-3 with me. Her prior film, "The Secret Life of Bees" serving as a fine adaptation that corrected the few problematic issues in the book. Her first film, "Love and Basketball" has a permanent place in my heart, and while "Beyond the Lights" won’t replace it, there’s enough room in there for it to nest. This is an epic film, full of music, female empowerment, drama and romance; it plays like a less tragic variation on "A Star Is Born" or "Mahogany" if "Mahogany" had been any good. At its center is Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a stunning 180-degree turn from her work in this year’s "Belle". The versatility of these two performances should put viewers on notice regarding this multi-talented actress.
Prince-Bythewood’s script takes on the rampant sexism in the music industry, mental health issues and the pitfalls of success. In addition to her lead actress, she gets excellent work from Nate Parker and Minnie Driver, the latter playing the meanest, most complex stage mother since Mama Rose in "Gypsy." A must-see.
"Clouds of Sils Maria" and "The Humbling" offer two different takes on actors getting older. The former, and far better of the two, is taken from a female perspective. Juliette Binoche is very good navigating the complexities of her role, but Kristen Stewart constantly threatens to steal the film from her. The way Olivier Assayas deals with the film’s unseen male characters is in stark contrast to the way Barry Levinson handles the women in the male gaze of "The Humbling." That film’s sexism is rather hard to take, but it’s saved by screenwriter Buck Henry’s patented absurdity and Al Pacino’s willingness to look like a damn fool. Pacino does slapstick for the director who wrote "And Justice For All…", and Henry is reunited with "Catch-22"’s Charles Grodin (who is great in a small part). These two would make a good double feature worth discussing and debating.
The biggest surprise for me was a movie I had no expectations for, "Before We Go." The description of Chris Evans’ directorial debut sounded like a rip-off of Linklater’s "Before" series (hell, "before" is in the damn title, for Pete’s sake). But its tone and intention are different, and what emerges is a bittersweet meditation on regrets past and present, and how its two characters deal with them. Co-star Alice Eve is excellent, joining Rosario Dawson ("Top Five"), Binoche, Cotillard and Mbatha-Raw in the group of actresses who gave the best lead performances I saw at TIFF. Evans’ charm in front of the camera makes you forget the first-time director’s occasional shakiness behind it.
For genre fans, Sam Jackson’s "Big Game" offers more fun from the director and star of "Rare Exports." "The Equalizer" is an EXTREMELY violent, completely satisfying Denzel Washington vehicle that bears more than passing resemblance to Tony Scott’s "Man on Fire."
See you next year, TIFF!