TIFF Wraps 2017
by Jim Slotek
(September 17, 2017 – Toronto, ON) The poet William Carlos Williams famously and ambiguously wrote, “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow.” Conversely, at the Toronto International Film Festival, so much depends on an escalator.
Purported to be the tallest escalator in the country (four stories high, judging by sightlines across the street), it is TIFF’s lifeline at the Scotia Theatre – one of two venues (the comparatively smoothly-running TIFF Bell Lightbox being the other) that hosts the bulk of the festival screenings.
And last year, it broke down under the weight of hundreds of thousands of public ticket-buyers, industry folk and press. Up the stairs they walked. For many, it was their first real exercise in years. Sherpas were sent to rescue the ones that collapsed midway. Scotia’s inactive escalator got mentions in harrumphing articles all over the world.
This year? Yay, the escalator held up – with signs, mind you, alerting the public not to overload its capacity, and screening-captains carefully parsing groups in carry-able numbers.
But the Scotia remains a cluster-f— that communicates better than anything else the madness that is TIFF. It is a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare. People take the week off work and cram as many as 50 movies into 10 days of binge-watching (and line-waiting).
Some press people, with the benefit of pre-TIFF screenings and links, claim to see as many as 90 (having seen a mere 35, I am considered a loafer).
As a juror in the Special Presentations category, I was privileged to see films the Oscar-buzz people ignored – including a very watchable all-but-in-name Danish reboot of Carrie called Thelma that filled in all the cracks in the Hollywood original with Scandinavian melancholy. There was a two-and-a-half hour Bollywood boxing movie called The Brawler that utterly defeated my attention span.
And there was The Motive, Manuel Martin Cuenca’s dark Spanish comedy about a man who manipulates the lives of the people in his apartment complex to create drama for the best-selling novel he wants to write. It was the film that was jointly picked as a showcase movie by a trio of jurors, Chicago writer Jonathan Rosenbaum, Vienna’s Marietta Steinhart and me.
In our voting, The Motive narrowly beat out The Captain, a terrific return to his home country for Hollywood-ized German ex-pat Robert Schwentke (RED, Insurgent, The Time Traveler’s Wife).
Taken from a true story, The Captain tells the tale of a German army deserter (Max Hubacher) at the end of WWII who, having escaped execution, happens upon a deserted Wehrmacht vehicle and a captain’s uniform. He passes himself off as an officer, eventually committing war crimes as same. Kind of clothes-make-the-man meets Lord Of The Flies.
But increasingly, TIFF (along with its concurrent competitors in Venice and Telluride) is the starting-gun for awards season, a road-trip of trophies culminating in the Academy Awards in February.
And when distributors and critics meet under one roof, there will be buzz. Guillermo del Toro came to TIFF with a Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival already in hand for his fantastical The Shape Of Water (a lovely and sweet film, kind of an ET for grownups).
Awards contender Call Me By Your Name gained extra buzz thanks to trolling from right-wing actor James Woods, who went on Twitter to denounce the movie’s plot of a same-sex affair between a 24-year-old and a 17-year-old (“As they quietly chip away the last barriers of decency”). Armie Hammer, who plays the older of the two, tweeted back, “Didn’t you date a 19-year-old when you were 60…….?” and broke the Internet. That comeback alone will probably get him at least a Golden Globe nomination.
That buzzing sound also surrounded The Florida Project, the sophomore project by Sean Baker (who shot the acclaimed Tangerine on an iPhone), a slice of life among the working-class folk and latchkey kids living in the Sunshine State in the shadow of Disney World. Frances McDormand is considered Best Actress material for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Press got turned away at an oversold debut of the crowd-pleasing comedy-drama Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan.
Almost certainly nomination bound is Margot Robbie, who deglamorized to an uncanny degree to portray scandal figure/figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. (In fact, in TIFF’s People’s Choice Award voting, Three Billboards came in first, followed by I, Tonya and Call Me By Your Name).
And in a truly ironic turn, a movie about the worst movie ever made was widely deemed one of the best movies of the festival. The Disaster Artist was directed by and stars James Franco, in the role of Tommy Wiseau, the mysterious figure who came up with $6 million to direct and star in The Room, an incomprehensibly bad feature that has become a cult favourite at midnight screenings throughout the world.
It goes to show that, just as there’s “a thin line between clever and stupid” (Spinal Tap), there may be an equally thin line between terrific and horrible.
Jim Slotek is a longtime Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter who has interviewed thousands of celebrities. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special. His writing also appears in Cineplex and Movie Entertainment magazines.