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TIFF 2023: A Canadian Looks Back at a Tumultuous Fest

It’s been a challenging few years for my beloved local film festival. Even before the pandemic, there were headwinds that the Toronto International Film Festival was forced to confront, with studios beginning to shift away from prioritizing this September festival for certain prime releases and award contenders. Crafting COVID-19-friendly programs was no easy feat, and while looking back at an era of pop-up drive-in screenings and outdoor Muskoka chair venues from a few years ago, it all feels somewhat quaint in retrospect.

This year’s meta-festival drama came in the form of the simultaneous WGA and SAG strikes and American labor union actions that are having a massive effect on almost every facet of the Canadian industry, even though we have our own guilds operating under different structures. Such is the weight of these writers and stars that many productions that take place here ground to a halt, once again illustrating that what takes place with our neighbors down south dramatically affects us Canadians up here, even if, save for some smoke from this summer’s fires, the reciprocal is rarely the case.

The reality of these strikes meant that most A-list actors would be skipping the festival, resulting in a reduction of that ephemeral notion of “buzz” that permeates events such as this. One clever programming decision was to select numerous directorial efforts from many big-name celebrities–Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Kristen Scott Thomas, Michael Keaton, and others–presumably in part to lure them up here under the guise of being directors (the DGA is not part of the current strike action). 

While the films played, none of the directors I just listed bothered to come anyway. Viggo Mortensen, practically an adopted Canadian by this point, was here for his film, and Ethan Hawke braved a 10+ hour bus ride to ensure he was in town for his film’s debut that starred his daughter Maya. While Kendrick’s film, in particular, was a worthy selection, many others felt like a move to fill seats with the promise of talent that never did show up to woo the crowds.

Many of these directed-by-stars titles took slots that in past years would have been held for major films that, rather than World Premiering here, were instead showcased at places like Venice and Telluride. The reasons why one film plays or doesn’t are manifold, of course, and a significant part of grabbing these selections is outside the control of TIFF and its programming team. But this was the year that the divide between have and have nots felt most acute, with key Fall films like Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” (which was even shot in Toronto!), Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro,” Michael Mann’s “Ferrari,” David Fincher’s “The Killer,” and, above all, Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things” shunned from this year’s TIFF slate, all premiering at Venice instead.

Green Border

Yes, international productions like Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Evil Does Not Exist” played to Toronto crowds, as did Agnieszka Holland's astonishingly effective polemic “Green Border.” Ava DuVernay’s “Origin,” originally skipping Toronto, was a late addition after its purchase by Neon. It played to a sympathetic crowd during its last-minute additional screenings here, even if most were half-empty thanks to worse-than-usual ticketing debacles that saw hundreds of seats given away for free just to put bodies in the venue.

TIFF can point to the other Venice titles like Linklater’s “Hit Man,” and Midnight Madness crowds were treated to Korine’s aggravating “Aggro Dr1ft”. Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” (which got its financial launch last TIFF) did get a runner-up People’s Choice nomination after its Telluride debut, as did Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron” after debuting in its native Japan.

TIFF started as the Festival of Festivals, a clearing house for the rest of the world’s selections, but over the years, it grew into a juggernaut that dominated the fall festival season, where the world came here for the first views of the films that would rule the year’s discourse. The strikes, if anything, provided a blanket excuse for the diminishment of this festival’s mark this year, with so many of these major selections tied to other places.

Loads of producers, distributors, and international journalists commented on the diminished experience this year, with rampant logistical and scheduling issues and technical challenges that marred many screenings. I heard from several festival veterans that they felt that TIFF had been disappointing this year on simply the navigating-the-fest front with major ticketing and technical issues, and many said they’d be thinking hard before returning.

Of course, that’s not to say there weren’t some extraordinary titles worth cherishing. 

His Three Daughters

A shining example was Azazel Jacobs’ sublime “His Three Daughters.” Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Olsen, and Natasha Lyonne are just extraordinary in this tale of siblings coming together at the end of their father’s life, and while the conceit is a stagey one, the performances are so compelling and the writing so sharp that it feels as epic as any title that played.

I was equally enthralled with Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction,” an acerbic, assured adaptation of  Percival Everett’s self-aware satire about what counts in telling African-American stories. Jeffrey Wright is simply fantastic, and Sterling K. Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Erika Alexander excel in this mix of a family drama, philosophical debate, and wry commentary on identity and notions of “authenticity.” 

When the stars stay home, one way to bring out the crowds is by highlighting musicians' careers. Nickelback did a free concert on King Street to celebrate their career-highlight documentary “Hate to Love,” rapper Lil Nas X’s screening of “Long Live Montero” was delayed because of a bomb threat prank. Paul Simon showed up at the end of Alex Gibney’s 3.5+ hour “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon” to admit he hadn’t watched a frame, and was unlikely to ever do so. I watched it, of course, and while it’s got pieces that will inevitably be used for a better doc, it’s ridiculous that a solid three decades of Simon’s career is skipped over without notice.

The hottest ticket at the entire fest was for the Talking Heads reunion, as for the first time in over two decades, the four band members were in the same room as one another at a public event. Jonathan Demme’s sublime “Stop Making Sense” screened on the giant IMAX screen. It was a wild experience to be up in our seats mid-film, dancing away to “Once in a Lifetime” with Q&A moderator Spike Lee a few seats away, and the members of the band at the end of the row (separated, it should be noted, by several seats). 

Flipside

Docs are always a highlight at TIFF, and besides some extraordinary Cannes faves like “In the Rearview,” I was quite struck by “Flipside.” Even the programmer suggested this tale of record collecting, creative lethargy, and Gen-X middle-aged ennui might be perfectly in my wheelhouse. For those reasons that I was hesitant that it would transcend my own cynical reservations. Director Chris Wilcha manages to avoid many of the overt pitfalls, elevating his examination of both his foibles and how a series of half-finished projects can so wonderfully coalesce into this bold, brilliant meta-narrative. 

Towards the end of the fest, I took a few more chances and was extremely pleased to attend the “Mountains” screening on the final weekend. It’s rare for a film to first screen at Tribeca and then make it up to Toronto, but Monica Sorelle’s acutely realized family drama set in the Haitian community of Miami made for a worthy export. Sorelle’s immensely assured debut elicited fine performances from her capable cast, and the visual style presents a very different Miami than is often presented. It’s a film that both feels highly specific and entirely universal as the challenges of blue-collar communities are transformed with modes of gentrification, both subtle and overt.

I was also hesitant about Payne’s “The Holdovers,” as I wasn’t quite as blown away during the TIFF World premiere of “Sideways” the way many were, and found “Downsizing” and the “The Descendants” lacking, even if I quite adored much of “Nebraska.” For the first hour of this private school drama, I thought we were in for much of the same–handsome films, good performances, stories that didn’t quite stick for me–until, by the final act I managed to be completely swayed by this latest project. So much of that has to do, of course, with Paul Giamatti, in absolute top form here as a demanding teacher, but plenty of kudos to both Da’Vine Joy Randolph and newcomer Dominic Sessa, who take what should be two-dimensional characters and manage to make them so richly realized. 

The Holdovers

After dozens of films over a dozen days, I left this festival the way I have for the last three decades, a mix of exhaustion and exhilaration, enthralled by a few titles and wanting more from others. Despite all the challenges, I still have hope for the future of this festival, yet I am concerned that simply looking at metrics like ticket sales will miss out on some real structural problems that remain, especially about an increasingly narrow selection of breakout films. 

With the strike effectively shutting down many film productions, it means next year’s slate is already on the back foot. The demolition of two main venues where most screenings occur (the Scotiabank is supposed to happen in the next two years and The Princess of Wales Theatre is also reportedly doomed) is set to proceed. After decades of support, they lost their main title sponsor, and a retinue of privileged Hollywood types trolled another key sponsor from the comfort of their mansions. The divide between studios, streamers, international producers, and indie filmmakers continues, and time will tell just how important these splashy (and expensive) TIFF premieres are for the success of films moving forward, all while other cities, both big and small are taking up the mantle.

Yet despite all these reservations, I applaud the tens of thousands that came here to celebrate cinema, with viewers new and old engaged with images projected on the big screen experiencing stories from around the world. I’m worried about what the future will bring and frustrated by what took place this year. Yet I remain hopeful, perhaps naively, that this storied institution can continue as a top-tier fest worthy to be a part of a small handful of destination festivals. 

The crown may be tarnished, but there remains an opportunity for TIFF to fully shine once again.

Jason Gorber

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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