TIFF 2019 Part 1, or: That Time I Saw Nicolas Cage Singing, Live On-Stage, at 2 AM

The time has come: once again I find myself in the Great White North, Mama Mordor in tow, to watch the best, hopefully not the worst, and potentially the weirdest of what the world of cinema has to offer in 2019. That’s right, folks, The Avocado is at TIFF!

Last year I hemmed and hawed about posting and put up a mega-review about a month after I returned. This year I have decided to take the more foolhardy route and attempt to post some thoughts every few days while I’m at the festival, like a “professional” festival reviewer. Compared to last year, when I saw 12 films over six days, I am trying to catch a whopping 28 films over ten days (11 of which will be seen with my delightful mother and partner in crime, who I am hoping has figured out how flashbacks work in the past year).

Will I actually pull it off without once snoring in front of an audience of 2500? Stay tuned to find out!

The first weekend of TIFF is always filled with big premieres, and I’m excited to report that of the ones we managed to catch, none were duds. The fall movie season is looking to be jam-packed this year, and I’m thinking the Oscars race is going to be particularly competitive (Golden Lion winner Joker, anyone?).


Day 1
Once I picked my mom up from Toronto Union Station, we hurried to scarf down some A&W and get over to the gorgeous Princess of Wales Theatre for the world premiere screening of Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. This movie positively sparkled with wit, humor, and hope. Iannucci’s color-blind casting, besides being the way most productions really should operate, has turned out to be a stroke of genius, as Dev Patel is absolutely magical in the title role. Tilda Swinton pulls off a (typically scene-stealing) touching and hilarious performance as David Copperfield’s Aunt Betsy, and Hugh Laurie’s Mr. Dick has real pathos and nuance. The whole affair is a wee bit rushed – Iannucci has managed to cram most of the major plot points of a 900-page novel into just two hours – and things don’t really take off until Patel is on the screen, but these seem like minor complaints for what I think is ultimately a complete triumph.


Films that made me cry: 1/1


Day 2
Our first full day of TIFF featured two of the top contenders from this year’s edition of Cannes: Celine Sciamma’s Cannes Screenplay-winning queer period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning Parasite. I can say with confidence that there are very good reasons that these two are easily this year’s two most critically-acclaimed films.

Sciamma’s masterpiece would be easy to think of as “just” a female Call Me By Your Name (very high praise indeed coming from this viewer), but what Sciamma has working for her that Luca Guadagnino did not is the absolute subversion of the male gaze. Male characters share, in total, perhaps sixty seconds of screentime, and they are not missed. There is a clearly modern feminist bent to affairs, but what works so well about the film’s 18th-century setting is that all of the characters’ travails feel depressingly current. Adele Haenel and Noemie Merlant turn in powerful, masterful performances that simply must be seen to be believed. Notably, this features not one but two of the most awe-inspiring musical cues I have ever seen on film.

Mama Mordor says: This was lovely, but why do they each only have one dress? And why don’t they eat more?

Potentially Bong Joon-ho’s best film (again, very high praise indeed from this Snowpiercer lover), Parasite is a viciously biting satire. Bong has always been a bit heavy-handed, and that tendency is present here in spades, but as is usually the case with Bong, when the heavy hands are crafting this gripping a story, who cares? It’s a film with complex morality, with no purely good nor evil characters, with not a single performance falling into the background. More than a twisted upstairs-downstairs drama, this is trickle-down theory at its most literal, heart-wrenching, and dreadful.

Mama Mordor says: I thought it was so funny, and then…it wasn’t. I thought it was going to be funny!

Films that made me cry: 2/2


Day 3
Coky Giedroyc’s How to Build a Girl, based on the novel by Caitlin Moran, is yet another great star turn for Beanie Feldstein and a fitting companion piece to her other phenomenal 2019 coming-of-age comedy, Booksmart. Feldstein dominates every scene as sixteen-year-old Johanna Morrigan, who really just wants to lose her virginity until she finds her true calling as Dotty Wilde, the youngest and meanest critic in the world of British rock. Alfie Allen turns in a surprisingly tender performance (particularly for those left less than impressed by his years as Theon Greyjoy) as rocker-with-depth John Kite, but this is Feldstein’s show through and through.

Mama Mordor says: This was so cute! She really needed better parents, though.

Two of Us, the debut feature from Filippo Meneghetti, tells the story of two madly in love retired women living in separate apartments in a French village when tragedy strikes. It’s a heartbreaking tale that verges into thriller territory at times to show how far we still have to go in treating queer people like humans. Similar to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, everything hinges on the performances of the two female leads, and Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevalier do not disappoint. I don’t want to spoil any details of the fairly spare plot – it has distribution in France and I’m hoping it makes its way stateside – but suffice to say it is well worth the tissues you will go through while watching.

Mama Mordor says: I don’t know what she was thinking, she made so many weird mistakes! Do I do things like that? Aren’t I the same age as them?

I have seen quite a bit of post-premiere criticism of Wayne Wang’s Coming Home Again on Letterboxd, and to those complaining that this utterly crushing two hours was light on plot and didn’t feature realistic performances…may you never have to worry about your mother’s mortality. I started crying around two minutes into Wang’s tale of a Korean man who returns home to San Francisco to tend to a mother dying of stomach cancer at far too young an age (adapted from an article by Chang-rae Lee about his own experiences taking care of his ailing mother), and I don’t think I stopped until around fifteen minutes after I left the theater. Seriously, I have never before cried like this in public. The TIFF volunteers looked shocked as my mom and I stumbled out of the cinema blubbering and with fists full of tissues. It is obviously a very affecting film, but it’s also a wonderful paean to the way that food can become integral to relationships.

Mama Mordor says: I love you so much.

Mama Mordor didn’t join me for the final two screenings of this marathon day: Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse and the world premiere screening of Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space, my first ever TIFF Midnight Madness screening.

The Lighthouse is a gritty, brutal two-hander that is sure to garner Oscar nominations for Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. It’s hard to imagine being able to top a debut like The Witch, but Eggers has managed with this yarn about two lighthouse-keepers in the furthest reaches of eastern Canada losing their sanity at the hands of their pasts, of one another, and perhaps of some more supernatural forces. Unbelievable cinematography, a soundtrack that takes up residence in your brain and won’t let go (seriously – the sound of a passing streetcar made me jump and yelp as I was leaving the cinema), and the same sense of creeping dread that made The Witch so effective leave this as one not to miss.

Don’t see Color Out of Space if you’re not in the very specific mood needed to watch Nicolas Cage chew buckets of scenery in a Lovecraftian, Lynchian, psychotic psychedelic maelstrom. I can’t say this is a film with a particularly light touch, but it sure is loads of fun. There’s some inventive, gory, monstrous imagery, and a climax that will surely inspire generations of midnight moviegoers in altered states for years to come.

And yes, as the title of this piece mentioned, Nicolas Cage did appear for the Q+A after the screening, and he did randomly start singing, and it was very, very weird. If video of this ever appears online, I will be sure to share it with all of you.

Films that made me cry: 3/5, one a primal and deeply hideous ugly cry


Day 4
Marielle Heller, hot off of last year’s triumphant Can You Ever Forgive Me? has outdone herself with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Far from a straightforward Mr. Rogers biopic, this is the story of how the real Fred Rogers helped an Esquire journalist asked to do a 400 word puff piece profile on him change his entire outlook on the world. This is also the story of another America, a more innocent America – one where animated recreations of the Twin Towers don’t make viewers gasp, where a subway car full of cynical New Yorkers can break out in song, and where a children’s show really can save the world. I can’t remember a recent film with a more inspired structure, nor a more entertaining pseudo-antagonist than Tom Hanks’ for-the-ages take on Fred Rogers. I walked out of the cinema feeling refreshed and ready to face the world again, like I had spent the past two hours in a group therapy session with 1500 friends, and I can’t wait to do it again.

Mama Mordor says: “Dogs don’t wear shoes!” [Ed.: Does anyone remember this specific Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood quote? She keeps saying it. She won’t stop. It’s been happening all day. Please help.]

Films that made me cry: 1/1, several times.