When you read this, the 41st annual Toronto International Film Festival (or TIFF for short) will have come to an end. For 11 days every September, the downtown core of the city is under siege by fans, tourists, critics, buyers, producers, movie stars and nearly 300 films from around the world. For Canadian film fans, this is the moment you wait to revel in all year. For stargazers, this might be the closest you will ever come to meeting and interacting with your favorite actors and actresses.
For everyone else, it’s a week and a half of sheer hell and excruciatingly bad traffic on and off the street.
I have been going to the festival for seven straight years now and have no immediate plans of slowing down. While I have mastered a number of skills required for survival, there is still a lot to learn. For example, I only realized within the last two years how beneficial it was to use a full week of vacation time during the festival. You may think that sounds silly, but when you plan to watch 25 films, vacation time is a must.
And while I have had a blast going to TIFF all of these years, I have to say that this year’s festival is the best one I have attended so far. Without going into too much detail, I can tell you that I got denied a selfie from Ryan Gosling, I fell asleep during a screening while sitting across the aisle from Sigourney Weaver (!) and I got interviewed on TV twice to discuss people fainting during a French coming-of age film about cannibalism. Oh, and I saw some genuinely terrific movies you are going to have to wait months or even years to see for yourself.
Only at a film festival like this could I go from watching a revenge thriller with Chadwick Boseman (Message from the King), to a documentary about climate change narrated and starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Before the Flood), to a controversial historical drama about a slave uprising (The Birth of a Nation), to an Indonesian martial arts film (Headshot), all in the same day.
That is the magic of TIFF.
I could go on for days about Oscar hopefuls like Nocturnal Animals, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea and Lion – but for this week’s column, I am instead going to focus on the films I saw that were part of the Midnight Madness programme. TIFF splits all of the films they screen into different programmes, and the majority of genre films end up here or in the more artsy Vanguard programme. I saw five of the ten Midnight Madness selections, and watched three of them at their intended screening time – 11:59 PM. Here’s a brief synopsis and some thoughts on those titles:
Free Fire – a weapons deal goes bad and turns into a chaotic Mexican standoff within an abandoned warehouse. This was the movie I was not allowed to talk about (embargos are kind of funny like that). The film clocks in at 90 minutes, and very few of them do not involve the characters shooting and trying to kill each other. It gets pretty violent in some cases, but it is deliriously funny throughout. It stars Sharlto Copley (of District 9 and the sadly underseen Hardcore Henry), Armie Hammer (from The Social Network and the savagely beaten big screen reboot of The Lone Ranger), Cillian Murphy (from Inception and Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy) and Oscar-winner and future Ms. Marvel Brie Larson. There’s a reason this won the Grolsch People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award.
Headshot – an amnesiac man is rescued from drowning and slowly begins to realize why a local drug kingpin and his gang want him dead. It stars Iko Uwais from The Raid films, so I immediately thought it was going to be a hardcore actioner in the vein of that film series. And while it has some great action scenes (including a lengthy and literal bone-shattering battle through a police station), it slows down too hard between action beats to provide something a little deeper and more intimate. Uwais is an action star of the strong and silent type, so seeing him try and forge a vaguely romantic relationship was an ill-advised idea.
The Belko Experiment – a group of eighty office workers are locked in their Columbian office tower and ordered by a strange voice to kill each other or end up being killed themselves (think a corporate Battle Royale). If you have been following or listening to Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn over the past few years, you have likely heard him talk about writing this film and how hard it was to get it made. Well, it turns out there was a reason it took so long. The film is savagely funny and brilliantly satirical, but it is also viciously and brutally violent from beginning to end. It takes a while for it to get moving, but once it does, you will instantly be mortified or giggling with glee over what happens to these poor office drones.
Dog Eat Dog – three recently released felons go looking for a big score in order to survive on the outside. I dislike that description, but it’s the best one I can come up with based on what I watched. This is literally one of the single worst films I watched during the festival, maybe in all seven years of attending – and I say that even though it stars my spirit animal, Nicolas Cage. The film is a completely disjointed mess made up of various visual styles and ideas that legendary screenwriter/director Paul Schrader seemed perfectly content with as a final product. The film is cheaply made, and feels literally thrown together. I sat baffled at what happens over the course of its mercifully short runtime, and continue questioning what the hell the point of it all was.
Raw – a vegetarian student attends veterinary school and after a bizarre hazing ritual, begins craving raw human flesh. Now you may not have heard of the previous four films I described, but you have likely heard about this one. The premiere I attended last Monday became international news because two people fainted during the screening and EMS had to be called to the scene. I actually watched security ask a number of people to move out of their seats so they could physically grab someone who had fainted and bring them out of the theater. It was surreal to say the least, because you never truly believe a film could elicit that kind of reaction, but this intense French masterpiece did. I got to talk about the experience watching the film in two separate interviews (where I awkwardly chuckled talking about cannibalism), and feel like it may be the most memorable TIFF experience I have ever had.
And if that was not enough to pique your interest, then this might: Raw is one of the best films I watched during the festival. It is a coming-of-age drama first and foremost, and a gruesome cannibal film second. First time director Julia Ducournau is ruthless, consistently pushing the envelope and making each scene more unpredictable than the last. The music is piercing and visceral, and the blood and gore is grotesque and brutal. But the journey lead actress Garance Marillier goes on is nothing short of astounding. She is downright spectacular in every scene and makes you feel just how heavy each one is. If you can get past some of the more gruesome elements, then you are in for a terrific film.