In early September I was lucky enough to go to sunny and beautiful Toronto to spend a week indoors in the dark attending the Toronto International Film Festival. I’ve wanted to attend TIFF for as long as I can remember being into movies, and when the airfares aligned I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I even made the slightly misguided choice of inviting my 65-year-old mother, who loved getting dragged through a foreign city to depressing movies for a week (or so she says). So without further ado, join me on a brief journey through my TIFF experience, complete with half-baked capsule reviews! (And before you say it, yes, I know this is late – heck, half of the movies I saw have come out now! – but better late than never, right?)
Unlike some of the other prestige film festivals – Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Telluride – it’s pretty easy for Joe Movie Fan to attend TIFF, as long as you’ve got the cash and are willing to spend a lot of time scoping out tickets and waiting in lines. My adventure started back in April, when I got a ticket alert for Toronto and impulse bought a round trip for early September. The next step was finding a place to stay – all of the hotels in downtown Toronto jack up their prices during the festival far in advance, to the point that the normally $140/night Residence Inn by Marriott was a mind-boggling $750/night, so I made my first venture into the strange world or Airbnb. This is when I reached out to my mother, thinking she’d appreciate the sentiment behind an invitation and certainly not expecting a resounding “YES!” I updated my search to include Airbnbs with at least two beds. We ended up in a beautiful downtown condo with an unreal view of the CN Tower and the waterfront, ~15 minutes walking from most of the cinemas.
I became a TIFF member (their lowest tier is $100/year, which gives you early access to purchase festival ticket packages, a discount on year-round and festival tickets, early access to actually pick your films, and a relentless onslaught of newsletters) – money well spent, in my opinion – bought a twenty ticket package at the end of May (the tickets came to ~$20 apiece), and settled in for the long wait to pick my movies at the beginning of September. This is where, if you’re like me, you start to look into the possible festival selections and slowly start to understand that the world of film is way, way, way bigger than you ever recognized, and there are dozens of movies a year that you would love to see that you’ve never heard of, much less seen. TIFF ultimately screened around 250 features this year, and I would happily watch probably 150 of them. Upwards of 50-75 of these films might never be released outside of TIFF, even in this modern era of streaming, and for the rest, this is your chance to be among the first to see them, before they’re been spoiled and tarnished by the relentless awards season push.
TIFF publishes their full schedule 2-3 weeks before the festival opens, at which point you can start putting together your wishlist. A smart festivalgoer will have upwards of three or four alternatives for each timeslot ready to go in case something you want to see has already sold out by the time your ticket selection window begins. Windows are doled out by lottery within a given membership tier – so people who’ve given $1000+ this year picked first, followed by people who donated in the $300+ range, then my tier, then the general public. Studios will also reserve a number of seats for press, cast/crew, studio employees, and distributors if the movie hasn’t gotten distribution yet. Point being that by the time I picked, a couple of screenings that were in 2000+ seat theaters had already sold out (although more tickets get released every day – maybe the studio didn’t need so many seats, or maybe someone traded their tickets for another movie… This is how we ended up with last-minute, great seats a couple of rows away from Troye Sivan at the red carpet premiere of Boy Erased!) and those back-ups came in mighty handy. I snagged two tickets to eleven movies spread out over five days, and we were ready to go! One trip to the wrong airport and a pricey flight change fee later – DC has three airports, it happens to people all the time, okay!? – and we were ready for a week of movies and lunches quickly scarfed in line between screenings and celebrity sightings (including Q+As featuring Natalie Portman, Nicole Kidman, and Barry Jenkins, among others). Here’s what we managed to catch:
Beautiful Boy: This movie is one massive trigger warning for anyone whose life has been affected by addiction (trust me). I knew it would hit my mom and I hard, but I did not expect to be quite so gutted by Timothee Chalamet for the second time in one year. I’ll be upfront and say that this movie doesn’t take any risks whatsoever. It comes close a couple times, with some interesting camerawork and delirious imagery, but in the end it is a rote addiction biopic, if there is such a thing. Its saving grace is some powerhouse performances from Chalamet, Steve Carell, and especially Maura Tierney, who has an Oscars reel that folks shouldn’t ignore this year. Mama Mordor and I were both ugly crying for most of the movie, and joined a good chunk of the audience in staying through the credits dabbing their eyes.
Mama Mordor says: Let’s never go to a movie like this again.
See it: In select theaters now; will be on Amazon Prime…eventually.
Boy Erased: I’ll be upfront and say that this was my most anticipated movie of the year. I wanted to be blown away by Joel Edgerton’s capital-I Important gut punch about the horrors of conversion therapy, and I was almost inevitably disappointed. It’s wonderfully acted, particularly by Lucas Hedges and a scenery-chewing Nicole Kidman (Russell Crowe is getting some good notices that I just do not understand). It’s also a very routine, stodgy biopic. No one is going to call Boy Erased transcendent, but it sure as heck is going to change some minds. If you’re a queer person, Garrard Conley’s story is not going to shock you. That said, it really is refreshing to see our stories making it to the big screen. This is a truth that the world needs to know. Make every “Christian” in your life see this.
Mama Mordor says: Were you ever worried we would do that to you? That’s so evil. Why would anyone do that to their child?
See it: In select theaters November 2.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? : Yes. Yes I can. Can You Ever Forgive Me? should settle any and all questions about whether or not we should take Melissa McCarthy seriously as an actor. It will also frustrate me throughout the entire Oscars season as this year’s winner of the Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri award for annoyingly long title. This true story of literary forgery is funny in the most tragicomic way. It’s also low-key super queer, which I did not expect, with Lee Israel’s gayness not hidden in the same way that, say, The Imitation Game straight-washed Alan Turing. McCarthy is a powerhouse, and Richard E. Grant will be a contender (if not a favorite) in the Best Supporting Actor race this year.
Mama Mordor says: I wish Molly [ed. note: my mom calls Melissa McCarthy “Molly” because she cannot comprehend her existence outside of Mike & Molly] was here because I want to tell her how much I love her! She was really good. I didn’t expect this to be so sad, though. It was really, really sad.
See it: In select theaters now.
Complicity: This is one of those “only at TIFF” movies that it’s really a pleasure to have seen. Kei Chikaura’s debut feature – a rare Japan-China co-production – tells the timely and powerful story of an illegal immigrant from China to Japan who fumbles his way into an apprenticeship with a soba master. Chikaura generates a surprising level of suspense throughout, but when you’re not breathlessly wondering whether or not the police are onto Chen, it’s also touching, hopeful, and hunger-inducing. It has a lot of the flaws of many first features – the camerawork is unconfident (and almost nausea-inducing during a couple of tense scenes) and the characters can be infuriating in their inability to talk to each other. Seriously, though, if you somehow catch this, you better hope there’s a soba house nearby.
Mama Mordor says: Wait, how did he keep getting back to China? Those were flashbacks? I don’t think I’m good with flashbacks.
See it: No domestic distributor at this time.
Giant Little Ones: Keith Behrman’s second feature is a small but effective queer coming-of-age story. It’s a beautifully shot, sharp, and realistic look at teen sexuality and what it means to be a teen in 2018. Maria Bello and Kyle MacLachlan steal the show in supporting roles as the parents of our confused hero, Franky, played by Josh Wiggins, who deserves to be the next Logan Lerman. The teenage supporting cast is fantastic – Taylor Hickson is spot on as the troubled sister of Franky’s best friend (and drunken hook-up); Darren Mann unfortunately looks his age (at 29, he’s got a decade on Wiggins) and is let down by a script that makes him the least woke dude in a liberal 21st century Canadian city, but he does a heck of a lot with what he’s given; and Niamh Wilson owns every scene she’s in as Franky’s proudly queer comic relief. Hopefully someone like Netflix picks this one up.
Mama Mordor says: I don’t get why his friend was so mean, he chose to do what they did. Also, what kind of name is Ballas? That’s not a name. He sucks.
See it: No domestic distributor at this time.
Girl: Back in May, this debut feature by Lukas Dhont won several well-deserved awards at Cannes, and soon it will be beamed into your eyeballs by the folks at Netflix as part of their continuing middle finger salute to that revered festival. Girl is inspired by the true story of an adolescent transgender girl, Lana, struggling through hormone therapy, being the woman of the house, and all of the pains of being a teenager, all while trying to reteach her changing body how to dance as a girl at an elite European ballet school for which her family uprooted itself. It’s heartbreaking and heartwarming, and newcomer Victor Polster , who plays Lana, is ridiculously talented both as an actor and a dancer. This movie will mean a lot to a lot of people, and deserves to be seen in a theater if you’re lucky enough to have it released near you.
Mama Mordor says: Is dancing really that painful? I’m glad I never took ballet.
See it: In select theaters November 16, and on Netflix soon thereafter.
If Beale Street Could Talk: This Barry Jenkins guy is going places. If Beale Street Could Talk is a thing of beauty. If you’ve read James Baldwin’s classic novel, you know the story; if you haven’t, all I’ll say is it’s a stark look at how race played into the treatment of everyday black Americans in the 1970s told through one family’s attempts to stay together. Take everything you liked about Moonlight, and double it – Jenkins knows how to let a scene breathe, the acting is sublime, and the cinematography and production design are flawless. It’s also tragically timely. Eat your heart out, Damien Chazelle.
Mama Mordor says: That was gorgeous. I hate how timely it feels. But we need to leave this Q&A, I have to go to the bathroom.
See it: In select theaters November 30.
Non-Fiction (Doubles Vies): Olivier Assayas’s latest is surprisingly comedic and dialogue-heavy movie for a director that most recently gave us Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper. This isn’t a complaint, as the script is sharp as nails, just a bit of a surprise. Juliette Binoche shines at the center of a love…pentagon?…that gives us a lens into the way that art is commoditized in the digital world through the affairs of a publisher, his actress wife, his writer client and one-time friend, his digital media guru, and the writer’s political campaign manager wife. Yes, I know, it sounds pretentious and horrible. Maybe it is, but then I suppose I am pretentious and horrible. This is a solid, hilarious, straightforward movie of the type that we don’t see a lot of nowadays. You already know whether or not this one interests you.
Mama Mordor says: You went to see a movie without me? How rude!
See it: No domestic distributor at this time, but we all know it’s going to end up in the Criterion Collection.
The Old Man and the Gun: This is a great “over the holidays you can see it with your mother who still thinks Robert Redford is dreamy” movie. I know, because I saw it with my mother who still thinks Robert Redford is dreamy. Honestly, at 82, dude’s still got it, and since it’s supposedly his last film, there’s that much more reason to catch it if you haven’t already. It’s a rollicking heist thriller-comedy with some good camerawork, especially in a nifty bit of editing magic towards the end (if you’ve seen it, you know what I mean). My biggest complaint is the casting of the typically bland and affect-less Casey Affleck as the foil to Redford’s charming and energetic career robber. Why are we still putting Casey Affleck in things? Let’s stop doing that.
Mama Mordor says: I love Robert Redford. I can’t believe he’s so old! But he’s so charming and good. I’m glad we saw this.
See it: In theaters now.
Sunset: Blech. Laszlo Nemes’s second feature is absolutely breathtaking to look at and listen to, but the story is a total mess. Is there a story? I’m not entirely sure. If you’re looking for some insight into pre-World War I Hungary, you’ll get a bit. If you want to look at sumptuous hat shops and manors for 2.5 hours, you’ll get a lot. If you want a coherent plot, look elsewhere. Credit where credit’s due, Nemes totally gets that he made a dud, because he came out before the screening began to ask us to “ignore what [we’ve] heard and embrace a cinematic journey.”
Mama Mordor says: What did we just watch? What happened? I don’t get it.
See it: No release date at present, but Sony Pictures Classics picked it up so you can expect it in select theaters…eventually.
Vox Lux: This is my film of the festival. It didn’t have distribution at the time, but Neon has since picked it up and just released a very spoilery trailer ahead of its Dec. 7 release. Vox Lux is shocking. It’s bonkers. It’s gorgeous. It’s brash. I would go so far as to call it a tour de force, both for star (and unlikely Best Supporting Actress competitor) Natalie Portman, but also newcomer Raffey Cassidy (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and director Brady Corbet (uhhh…the guy from Funny Games?). Portman finally reaches the peak that she started ascending in Black Swan and Jackie as a Staten Island born-and-raised pop demigoddess whose life has been marked by violence and tragedy. I cannot WAIT to see this critique of modern celebrity culture again.
Mama Mordor says: It was a little scary at first. I think I liked it? I can’t stop thinking about it. That Natalie was short in person!
See it: Neon is releasing this one into theaters December 7.
Widows: Steve McQueen’s latest is going to make lots of money and win lots of awards, and I am here for it. Viola Davis leads this razor-sharp heist thriller written by Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame), and she’s everything you’d want her to be in the role of an ice queen who’s starting to crack. It’s Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki, though, who steal every scene they’re in. Both are absolutely revelatory as two of the other titular widows. I could’ve done without pretty much the entire male cast (although Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya are getting great notices, and they deserve them), and there’s some ham-fisted “Chicago corruption / Chicago is a character itself” sub-plotting that lets McQueen down, but really it’s hard to criticize this dark counterpoint to Ocean’s 8’s bubbliness.
Mama Mordor says: I love that Viola! This was a little scary, though. I was worried about the dog.
See it: In theaters November 16.