TIFF 2014 Overview

Up the Scotiabank Theatres' massive escalator to movie heaven at TIFF.

Up the Scotiabank Theatres’ massive escalator to movie heaven at TIFF.


Here’s a rundown of what I saw at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, sorted by grade. Click on each title for my reviews:

The Look of Silence
Songs She Wrote About People She Knows

Goodbye To Language 3D
99 Homes

A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence
Ned Rifle
Do I Sound Gay?

Elephant Song
Still Alice
Welcome To Me

Big Muddy
Learning To Drive

You may think I’m a soft grader since there’s nothing below a B- and you’re partially right–I rarely give out anything below that, though I have at past TIFFs (at my first go-around in 2005, I bestowed something a rare, lowly F). Even though I saw 15 films, I feel unqualified to make some “state of the film industry” summation; hundreds of titles played the festival, and I purposely stayed away from those scheduled for release before year’s end (Leviathan, Still Alice and (god willing) Mommy will likely play Boston in early 2015). Perhaps if I had an industry pass and watched 4-5 features each day, I’d feel more comfortable making bold generalizations.

However, I will say this is the best time I’ve ever had at TIFF. That’s partially due to my accommodations and having a whole week to allow room for other diversions, but the festival feels a tad more organized than it has previously. The Bell Lightbox, TIFF’s HQ which opened in 2010 is a class act. Now that most of the festival is centered around King Street West (and almost entirely away from Yorkville), it feels more unified, and all the venues I attended offered a good-to-great moviegoing environment. (My sole complaint? The uncomfortable creaky seats at the Elgin.) TIFF remains an exceptionally user-friendly major film festival; I hope to return in at least another two years (if not sooner).


ned rifle

Hal Hartley’s gotten the whole gang back together to complete a trilogy also comprised of HENRY FOOL (1997) and FAY GRIM (2006): Thomas Jay Ryan, Parker Posey and James Urbaniak all reprise their now iconic (in indie film circles, anyway) roles, while many past Hartley regulars (Martin Donovan, Karen Sillas, Robert John Burke) also appear. Fortunately, going back to the well has a positive effect, as this is probably the director’s best effort since HENRY FOOL.

The film’s title character is Fay (Posey) and Henry’s (Ryan) now 18-year-old son (played by Liam Aiken). With Fay in jail and Henry having long since disappeared, Ned lives with a foster parent, Rev. Daniel Gardner (Donovan) and his family. Following his release from a witness protection program, he sets out to find and murder Henry as revenge for his mother going to jail. After visiting his uncle Simon (Urbaniak), now a famous writer/aspiring comedian holed up in a New York City hotel, he meets Susan (Aubrey Plaza), a mentally unstable young woman who is stalking Simon. She uses Ned to get to his uncle, but it turns out she has ties to his parents as well. The mismatched pair end up on the other side of the country together, pursuing one common goal but with disparate motives.

NED RIFLE is a Hartley film through and through. It improves on FAY GRIM because he mostly emphasizes what we liked about these characters in HENRY FOOL instead of placing them in ever-more convoluted situations as the last film did. Ryan and Urbaniak clearly relish their characters, and even Posey, whose screen time is limited to phone calls from and visits in prison, makes a sparkling impression. However, the film’s real attraction is Plaza. Not only does she effortlessly fit into the Hartleyverse, she’s also a singular screwball heroine, immediately likable and always just a little bit off (and often more than that). It’s too bad, then, that Ned himself is such a sanctimonious dud. While Aiken tries hard, his part just isn’t as fleshed out as the rest of the cast. NED RIFLE is good enough to convince longtime Hartley fans that the director hasn’t entirely lost his mojo after all, but despite the title, there’s a reason (beyond star recognition) why the film’s poster features Plaza and not Aiken.  Grade: B+



You can’t say Jean-Luc Godard doesn’t give the viewer a lot of bang for his or her buck with his latest film—in just seventy minutes, he packs in enough imagery and information to sustain at least three or four features. Not much of a departure from his recent work, it has all the Godard-isms you’d expect: flashing intertitles, monotone narration, repetitive use of classical music pieces, clips from old Hollywood films, and an endless number of conversations between un homme et une femme. Every shot bears the stamp of its octogenarian iconoclast; cineastes that worship the man wouldn’t have it any other way.

Still, GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE 3D diverges somewhat from the usual template, most notably (and obviously) regarding the last word of that title. Godard utilizes 3D for the same simple reason directors from Martin Scorsese to Michael Bay have—to create cool, visually ravishing, how-did-they-do-that special effects. However, Godard takes it a step further, weaving this technology into one of the film’s multiple theses by questioning what we see and how we perceive it. In the most talked-about moment, he superimposes one image on top of another, but as the two images simultaneously occur, they also overlap at ever-shifting angles. On paper, it sounds like morphing, but it’s much harder to describe how it actually appears. I can best describe it as a cubist painting come to life, but even that doesn’t really suffice. It made my head hurt to think about it while watching it, and yet I wanted to see more of it.

You might as well apply that last sentence to the whole film. Godard’s “narrative” here is even more cryptic than usual, yet it moves at such a rapid pace I had trouble keeping up. Of all the dialogue spoken between two sets of male and female characters, it figures the one that stuck with me was, “I talk about equality and all you talk about is poop.” Perhaps that sentence is not so much an anomaly, as this is the most explicitly playful film Godard has made in ages. In its second half, the central focus moves from the couples to a (rather cute) dog named Roxy, whom Godard seems to be using as a catalyst for demonstrating why the spoken word is losing relevance in the modern age (or something). The problem with writing about a film so deliberately opaque (especially weeks after one has viewed it) is that you can only absorb and retain so much on a single viewing. For what it’s worth, although intellectually exhausting, it’s the first late-period Godard I anticipate seeing again (preferably on a large screen) as soon as possible.  Grade: A-


BIGMUDDY_10_ Union Pictures.jpg

Saskatchewan neo-noir? Well, if Joel and Ethan Coen can turn Minnesota into a convincing genre locale, why not set one a few hundred miles Northwest? Of course, director Jefferson Moneo’s not as proficient as the Coens were at BLOOD SIMPLE (let alone FARGO), but his ace in the hole is a good one: a knockout, Faye Dunaway-esque lead turn from Nadia Litz (who’s best known from THE FIVE SENSES). Resembling a heroine one might imagine from a Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood duet, Litz is Martha Barlow, a single mom raising her teenaged son Andy (Justin Kelly), procuring cash by robbing men she picks up at bars with the help of a ne’er-do-well boyfriend. When a meeting with a past lover goes awry, Martha and Andy are suddenly on the run, taking shelter in the rural titular town where her estranged father (Stephen McHattie) lives. Meanwhile, an escaped convict we first meet early in the film resurfaces and reveals ties with the three main characters.

BIG MUDDY is occasionally amateurish and often dumb but awfully fun if you’re a fan of the genre tropes Moneo favors: cartoonish B-movie opening credits, a soundtrack stuffed with cool obscurities, even a pretty fantastic freeze-frame action shot near the end. He also makes good use of real-life, lived-in locales such as a horse racing track, a thrift store and the sweeping prairie vistas Martha and Andy encounter on their way to her father’s home. Admittedly, without Litz’s commanding presence in the foreground (and perhaps McHattie’s as well), this movie would be a big mess–it’s the type of low-budget indie where the seams all too often show. But I’d just as soon watch a sequel if Litz ever wanted to play Martha again. Grade: B-



Nothing in the colorful, florid opening scene, set at an opera performance in postwar Cuba suggests that the bulk of ELEPHANT SONG will unfold at a visually drab, wintry mental hospital in mid-1960s Canada. Similarly, little in the film resolves itself according to expectations set up by the initial premise, where Dr. Toby Green (Bruce Greenwood), the hospital’s administrator and his ex-wife, nurse Susan Peterson (Catherine Keener), are cross-examined at length about their dealings with troubled patient Michael (Xavier Dolan). After Michael’s long-term psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence disappears, Green is called on to interview the patient at length. We never learn Michael’s exact diagnosis, but he clearly suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, among other things. Wiry and cunning, he continually manipulates Green (and to a greater extent, Peterson), and in turn, us as well. As details about his past and his relationship with Lawrence surface, other significant things comes to light about Green’s and Peterson’s former life together. The Big Reveals aren’t as interesting as the little ones, which accumulate and result in three satisfyingly multifaceted figures.

Three terrific performances as well. Although more commonly utilized as a character actor in films, Greenwood effortlessly steps into the anchor/audience surrogate position. Keener gets a rare opportunity to play someone softer and more vulnerable than usual, while Dolan, a Quebecois filmmaker acting in his first major English language role capably plays crazy without going over-the-top or turning Michael into a cartoon. Unfortunate, then, that the film as a whole never transcends its stage play origins, although director Charles Binamé tries hard to turn it into a visually interesting picture with all its period details and attention-drawing compositions. A little too hermetic for its own good, ELEPHANT SONG entertains but, unlike Dolan’s own films (to cite one somewhat-related example), it rarely enlightens.  Grade: B



Destined to be remembered for its outstanding lead performance and little else, STILL ALICE is a competent literary adaptation about a Columbia University linguistics professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Alice Howland is a juicy role for any actress of a certain caliber, and Julianne Moore does not disappoint. Even with a developing narrative that now’s the time for Moore to finally get her Academy Award, if she does, she’ll fully deserve it. In a tour de force part she could easily showboat, Moore is suitably raw yet remains in control, plunging the depths of Alice’s mental and emotional states while playing her as a nuanced, complex figure—the illness takes over her life, but she works hard not to let it define the character. Between this and other recent films such as WHAT MAISIE KNEW or MAP TO THE STARS, Moore’s range continues to expand; here, the climactic scene where she delivers a speech on her illness (while greatly suffering it) is a master class in acting, serving the character (and the film) instead of her own ego.

As for the film itself, it’s better-than-average Movie of the Week stuff. Probably the best effort to date from co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (though if you’ve seen THE FLUFFER that’s not saying a whole lot), it doesn’t aim for an innovative artistic statement of any sort; the Upper West Side Manhattan privileged setting resembles a serious, less neurotic Woody Allen film. Moore gets sympathetic support from a restrained Alec Baldwin (as her husband) and Kristin Stewart, wooden as always but more likable than usual as her youngest daughter. The worst thing STILL ALICE does is manipulate the viewer into thinking the ending will be more of a downer than it actually is; the best thing, once again, is Moore and if you admire her work, this performance is not to be missed.  Grade: B



Obviously not a distaff take on Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD—the French title is BANDE DE FILLES, which translates as “Group of Girls.” Marieme (Karidja Touré), a timid sixteen-year-old living in mostly black, housing project-heavy Parisian suburb, drops out of school and immediately falls in with a female trio of fellow dropouts. They spend their time taking the Metro into Paris to shop (and shoplift), go out clubbing and spend nights together in fancy hotels. Marieme’s rapidly forming bond with the girls is of an intensity especially particular to teenagers. They defend each other against attacks from rival girl groups and serve as a makeshift family, one Marieme increasingly values more than her actual family, which consists of a working, much-absent mother, an abusive older male sibling and two younger siblings whom she’s often a substitute parent towards.

GIRLHOOD has considerably less of a queer angle than director Céline Sciamma’s first two features, WATER LILLIES and TOMBOY. However, a subtext is definitely still present, from the opening, an exhilarating, techno music-scored, all-girl rugby match to Marieme’s somewhat butch appearance. At times, it’s reminiscent of Jim McKay’s great OUR SONG (2000), with Touré just as affecting (if less conventionally attractive) than that film’s breakout star, a young Kerry Washington. Watching it, one realizes how rarely teenage female friendship is subject matter for a film; the best scenes are often the simplest, observing the dynamic between the four girls as they “hang” together. In its last twenty minutes, Marieme makes a major choice than turns GIRLHOOD into more of a social-realist drama a la the Dardenne brothers. The tonal shift compels but the whole section coexists a little uneasily with what precedes it. While overall not as charming as Sciamma’s past works, it’s certainly more ambitious—she remains a filmmaker to watch.  Grade: B+



Andrey Zvyagintsev’s films do not easily conform to concise synopses. One could sum up his first (and best) feature, THE RETURN (2003) as follows: prodigal father suddenly resurfaces and takes his two sons on a road trip which not all three of the men survive. However, that skips over the mostly unspoken but festering tension the sons direct towards their long-lost dad, each character’s uncertain, shifting motivations, and most significantly, the treasured box that somehow figures in but ultimately remains a mystery.

Similarly, LEVIATHAN, the director’s fourth feature and arguably most ambitious since THE RETURN is, at its core, simply a tale of one citizen vs. the government, but that leaves out a lot—for starters, the rest of the community, whose members all contribute (often implicitly) to the film’s eventual outcome, or the domestic drama that initially seethes between the margins, only later occupying a central place in the story. But first, back to the core: the citizen, Nikolay (Aleksy Serebryakov) lives with his second wife and his teenaged son in a small, isolated town off the Barents Sea in the far Northwest corner of Russia, almost completely above the Arctic Circle. Representing the government, corrupt mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) wants to seize Nikolay’s land, which includes the ramshackle but charming home the latter built himself. Nikolay calls in Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov), a lawyer friend from Moscow, to help him fight against Vadim. Dmitri has little difficulty digging up dirt on the mayor, but although Vadim seems like a drunken buffoon, he soon proves far craftier than that.

Like many overstuffed Russian novels, the film starts slowly, accumulating details that won’t resonate until much later on. It’s both talkier and more darkly comic than the director’s prior efforts, and also far more outwardly critical of Russian politics. It doesn’t really take off until roughly an hour in with an extended sequence where Nikolay, his buddies and their wives converge for a party at a remote outdoor locale. As soon as one sees the number of firearms present (for “target-shooting practice”, we’re told; the targets themselves provide the film’s drollest, most risqué gag) and the copious amounts of vodka rapidly imbibed, one firmly deduces the afternoon will not end without incident. This section serves the same function as the shooting party did in Jean Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME: it abruptly shakes everything up, leaving much of the cast (and Nikolay in particular) to suffer the consequences thereafter.

In the final third, Zvyagintsev suggests that, all along, he’s been constructing a modern day version of the biblical story of Job: Nikolay’s hubris partially stems from his lack of faith, and this rejection intensifies as he slides downward into a moral and emotional abyss. If LEVIATHAN was ten minutes shorter, it’d be an average cautionary tale and quite frankly, a disappointment. Instead, like Thomas Vinterberg’s THE HUNT, which it increasingly resembles, it has a quietly startling, subversive coda. In this final scene, the director reveals there’s more to the story of Job than meets the page, especially in a contemporary environment with both political and religious institutions in play. Bitterly ironic and unforgettable, it’s not quite as rich or beguilingly opened-ended as the end of THE RETURN, but Zvyagintsev remains as provocative as ever—he’s more blunt now in his criticism, but what he’s attacking cannot reasonably be combatted against with soft blows.  Grade: A-



New York literary critic Wendy (Patricia Clarkson) breaks up with her longtime husband in the back of a cab after he confesses to cheating on her. Storming out of the car and into her apartment, she accidentally leaves behind a package. The next day, the driver, Darwan (Ben Kingsley), returns it to her front door, also leaving his business card. A Sikh who had left India and settled in Queens not long before 9/11, Darwan is a cabbie by night, but also a driving instructor by day. In a coincidence tailor-made for plot convenience (although the story is actually adapted from a New Yorker article), Wendy never had a good reason to get a driver’s license until now. With her husband gone, she has no easy way to visit her adult daughter, Tasha (Grace Gummer), who is currently working on a farm in rural Vermont. So, headstrong, emotionally distraught Wendy becomes the calm but critical Darwan’s driving pupil and naturally, culture clash-hilarity and life lessons ensue.

LEARNING TO DRIVE is a perfectly fine, pleasantly forgettable film—the kind of middle-of-the-road dramedy your mom will love. Predictably, the best parts are Clarkson and Kingsley together alone in the cab. Their chemistry isn’t necessarily romantic (although Sarah Kernochan’s screenplay works hard to suggest it’s heading in that direction) but rather platonic, and both actors are such likable pros they’d probably each pair well with anyone else as likable as themselves. There are funny cameos from John Hodgman (as a car salesman) and Samantha Bee (as Wendy’s suburban best friend) and more serious moments (a side trip to Wendy’s childhood neighborhood, Darwan’s travails with immigration and an arranged marriage) handled with suitable gravitas.

And yet, while superficially satisfying, it feels a little slight. Perhaps I’m being too hard on it because I expect so much more from director Isabel Coixet, whose earlier features (MY LIFE WITHOUT ME, THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS) were much bolder, deeper, more unique and full of ambiguities than this. Here, she’s made a decent facsimile of a Nora Ephron or a Rob Reiner picture (complete with double entendre sexual jokes). I can get behind her wanting to court a wider audience, but she should proceed with caution (and return to directing her own screenplays)—the cinema needs more Coixets and less Reiners.  Grade: B-



Those familiar with Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s small, extraordinary oeuvre may notice the title and remember that his first feature was called I KILLED MY MOTHER. This, his fifth, is not a sequel, but it occasionally scans as a twisted, alternate-reality mirror of the earlier film. What registers next is the conspicuous 1:1 aspect ratio, rendering the canvas an intentionally claustrophobic square box. It requires an adjustment of perception on the viewer’s part, but you easily acclimate yourself and go along for the ride. Dolan, who has already made what I consider two great films (I KILLED MY MOTHER and LAURENCE ANYWAYS) scores again with MOMMY, another epic character study. Drunk on style but packed with substance, it bespeaks life experience on a level that’s unexpected from a 25-year-old.

Once again, Anne Dorval plays the mother, here named Diane (often going by the somewhat self-immolating nickname “Die”), but she’s considerably earthier (and a little trashier) than Chantle, her bourgeois matron of the earlier film. Now too old to play her teenaged son, Dolan remains behind the camera, casting Antoine-Olivier Pilon as Steve, an alter-ego but not necessarily a stand-in. To put it lightly, 14-year-old Steve has serious behavioral issues—Die dismisses it as ADHD, but it’s blindingly apparent there’s some mental illness present. Early on, we learn Steve has been living in a detention center. After he starts a fire that severely injures a fellow inmate, Die offers to take him back into her home. Although he initially comes off like your average bratty and precocious teen, within seconds, he can become horrifically violent, physically lashing out at whomever provokes him (in most cases, it’s Die). Following one of his episodes, a third central figure drifts into focus: Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a shy, secretive neighbor. Curiously, she starts spending all her time with Die and Steve, bonding with them to a degree we almost never see when she’s with her own husband and child.

Dorval, so good in I KILLED MY MOTHER, is even better as Die. She makes a vivid impression right from the first scene, where a car crash and the Sarah McLachlan song “Building A Mystery” collide. You can detect her lineage in a long line of self-absorbed, tarted-up, generally inappropriate-but-still-loving mother figures, from Gena Rowlands in A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE to Jennifer Saunders in ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS—if MOMMY was in English and distributed by, say, Fox Searchlight, there’d certainly be Oscar buzz around her performance. In what will likely be his breakthrough role, Pilon is more than capable of expressing and validating Steve’s startling mood swings, while Clément, an absolutely towering presence in LAURENCE ANYWAYS, is nearly unrecognizable here, speaking in a most tentative stutter and dressed so blandly as if to nearly disappear into her surroundings.

Still, there’s a reason why Dolan is receiving the most accolades for the film (he shared the Jury Prize at Cannes with no less a living legend than Jean-Luc Godard): regardless of whether your own sensibility is compatible with Dolan’s, in every frame, you know you’re watching the work of someone with a limitless artistic vision. He makes a dull Montreal suburb seem both otherworldly and approachable. The soundtrack, as usual, is stirring and immense, using artists as disparate as Vivaldi and Lana Del Rey, breathing life into an overfamiliar standard like Oasis’ “Wonderwall”, even redeeming an unloved, half-forgotten hit like Dido’s “White Flag”. And, rather than constricting his scope, the box-like ratio allows Dolan to piece together a different way of seeing: his oblique camera angles and unpredictable, swooping pans are completely in sync with all the chaotic, swerving emotions expressed by the three main characters—keep this in mind while watching, for Dolan actually rewards those paying attention to this dichotomy (to say anything less cryptic would spoil the fun in discovering it).

MOMMY is not flawless. The title cards, which establish a legal reason for Die taking custody of Steve via a new Canadian law “passed in 2015” (when the film’s ostensibly set) are muddled and completely unnecessary. Although nearly a half-hour shorter than the 168-minute LAURENCE ANYWAYS, it still feels a tad long. However, apart from those title cards, I can’t think of a good reason to cut anything. Dolan may be self-indulgent, but he’s never, ever boring. Often, he’s genuinely brilliant—nothing, nothing I’ve seen in many years is more poignant than the scene of Die, Steve and Kyla dancing together in a darkened kitchen to Celine Dion’s “On Ne Change Pas” or as intense and breathtaking as the extended fast-forward montage set to a modern classical piece late in the film. Earlier, I alluded to A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE and while Dolan’s aesthetic is nothing at all like John Cassavetes’, he’s the rare auteur today making movies that are just as messy and passionate and uncompromising and sublime.  Grade: A