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TIFF17 Preview

Toronto International Film Festival opens September 7th

Aug 29, 2017 By Jason Wilson
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The Toronto International Film Festival is, as predicted, packed to the gills. Even if it offers a slightly narrower slate than in years past, there will be no trouble filling a schedule. The problem will be determining what route to take when finalizing your roster and making cuts where they need to be made.

Instead of a general Top 10 or 20, I wanted to take a look at TIFF through a few lenses ahead of September 7. There are a number of exciting titles that leap off the page, but focusing on only them could cost you to miss hidden gems that are bound to peek their heads from under cover midway through the festival.


TIFF is inundated with a number of high-profile releases, from the new Darren Aronofsky thriller mother! to the retelling of the tennis feud between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carrell. Both of those movies will hit cinemas either during the festival proper or shortly thereafter.

Several others will have wide theatrical releases before the end of November, so holding off may be your best bet to be able to take in some titles that won’t see the light of day until 2018 or later. This is a matter of taste and accessibility, though. If you’re really anxious about seeing the George Clooney-helmed Suburbicon, and don’t want to wait until Oct. 27, don’t hesitate. Also worth noting is not every wide release is created the same, and if you’re visiting from a rural area that only gets a handful of new releases on time, it might be worth your investment to see the big ticket items.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water doesn’t hit cinemas until December, which will be enough to convince me to see it in advance. The first trailers make it look like a beautiful mix between period piece and monster movie with a rich roster of characters to flesh it all out. The cast is also the broadest del Toro has ever assembled with Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, and Michael Stuhlbarg.

Similarly, Alexander Payne’s Downsizing is slated to be a late-December release that features the director taking steps into uncharted waters – science fiction. It follows a couple played by Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig who decide to undergo a procedure to be miniaturized in order to escape their hectic lives and join a community of likewise individuals. In pure Payne fashion, it will blend the comedy and drama though this is definitely the furthest afield he’s ever gone, conceptually speaking.


There are way more than five films that I’m champing at the bit to see, and organizing my schedule has been mind-numbing. But there are a few movies that I’d be devastated to miss, and they will be guiding me as I continue to try and maximize my hours and days at the festival.

1. Thelma (directed by Joachim Trier)

Trier’s last film, Louder Than Bombs, didn’t seem to find an audience. It was one of my highlights of TIFF 2015 and in my personal Top 20 of 2016. His English-language debut, Bombs was an intimate portrait of a family following the matriarch’s untimely death in a car wreck and them wrestling with what her life and death meant to each. That’s ultimately a facile way of describing a beautiful and unconventional take on well-trod materials

Thelma is his foray into science fiction. A young woman (the titular Thelma) leaves her home in the country to study in Oslo. She falls in love, but her family keeps butting in. When Thelma gets agitated, however, strange things start to happen. That’s about where I stop reading in the plot synopsis. Trier has gained my trust between Bombs and Oslo, August 31st that I don’t need extra convincing. Knowing it’s more of a genre movie brings its own level of excitement and makes this the movie I most need to see at TIFF.

2. Call Me By Your Name (directed by Luca Guadagnino)

Embarrassed to say, but I am a Guadagnino virgin. Despite raves for his most recent film (A Bigger Splash) it slipped through my fingers last year. After seeing the initial trailers for Call Me By Your Name, I regret it even more. It’s coming of age story about a young American living with his family in Northern Italy. The teenager’s father, a professor, invites a doctoral student (Armie Hammer) to stay for the summer. Once there, the teen and the visitor spark a friendship that evolves into something more.

It may sound simple, but there also is an element of danger in the way their relationship is revealed in the trailer. Even if that winds up being misleading, this looks to be a complicated story told with intimacy and care while sprawling over Italian mountainsides for sumptuous feast of cinema.

3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (directed by Martin McDonagh)

Vulgar, violent, and very funny seem to be the order of the day in the newest from McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) about a grieving mother who puts up a set of billboards accusing the police of not being committed to finding her daughter’s killer. It takes a deft hand to craft a film with that plot as a dark comedy, but McDonagh has the chops to pull it off. He’ll have help from an able cast including Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and a host of others. I’d advise against watching the trailer as it may give too much away – also, always avoid trailers. His sense of humor may feel too nihilistic for some, but this looks like it has the right balance and that it won’t get too sentimental in the quiet moments.

4. The Death of Stalin (directed by Armando Iannucci)

Speaking of vulgar. No one has crafted vulgarity into comedic gold quite like Iannucci has from his television exploits in The Thick of It and Veep to one of the funniest political satires of all time, In the Loop. His latest is a farce centered around Josef Stalin’s inner circle after the Russian dictator dies and the panic that ensued. With the likes of Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Palin on board, this is a world premiere worth seeking out.

5. Valley of Shadows (directed by Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen)

One of the joys of TIFF is poring over the schedule for new filmmakers to place on your radar. Valley of Shadows is Norwegian director Gulbrandsen’s feature debut after making multiple shorts. It’s described as an atmospheric horror movie following young Aslak who has to deal with the death of his older brother while local livestock is being mysteriously butchered. Valley of Shadows is part of TIFF’s Discovery slate featuring a number of first-time (or relatively new) international directors. It’s worth taking a look at the schedule to take a chance on a few of these to support up-and-coming filmmakers from across the globe. Who knows, maybe they’ll be headlining the festival later on.


Every year, in addition to a slew of world premieres, TIFF will bring a bunch of the top movies that played at Cannes or other film festivals. Cannes has the highest profile, and in many cases TIFF is the first opportunity viewers in North America will have to see the films that first screened in the South of France.

This year’s Palme d’Or winner, Ruben Ostlund’s The Square is highly anticipated, especially after his cringe-inducing family dramedy Force Majeure from 2014. I’ve purposely avoided trailers, but the brief synopsis describing it as a film where disaster strikes a museum when a curator brings in a PR team to generate hype suggests more hijinks with a similar, discomfiting tone.

Other European auteur mainstays like Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos are screening their newest films, Happy End and The Killing of a Sacred Deer at TIFF after successful debuts at Cannes. Haneke, ever the provocateur, is likely having a little fun with his title. Happy End is almost assuredly a misnomer that will be far more devastating in execution as it follows a dysfunctional bourgeois family who are too self-absorbed to fully pay attention to the migrant crisis. Oh, and it’s kind of a sequel to Amour, which was about as far away from uplifting as you can get.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer looks to be another in Lanthimos’ detached dramas with injections of absurdity mixed in, though the plot description suggests it may not have his trademark touches of humor. Whether you like Lanthimos’ work or you find films like The Lobster and Dogtooth off-putting, his titles are fascinating and challenging. There’s always something to chew on and discuss long after the closing credits roll.

Finally, The Florida Project is already getting some early awards buzz following its appearance at Cannes. It’s director Sean Baker’s follow-up to 2015’s Tangerine, which should be enough to have anyone excited. The Florida Project takes place in and around a motel outside Orlando, following a young girl and her mother’s attempts to get by. It appears to blend a light-hearted touch with drama borne from real-life issues stemming from poverty and rotten luck.


Both Brie Larson and Greta Gerwig are taking their directorial debuts to TIFF 17. Larson’s Unicorn Store is a fable about getting older and taking responsibility, following an aspiring artist (played by Larson) who is forced by her parents to grow up and get a real job. She then meets a mysterious salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) who has a unicorn for sale. It could go either way, and Larson has made a series of interesting decisions as an actress and she’s worth rolling the dice on.

In Lady Bird, Gerwig stays offscreen, instead allowing for lead Saoirse Ronan to take center stage. It’s a coming of age story about Christine (Ronan) trying to bulk up her high school grades ahead of college applications while dealing with her dysfunctional family. Gerwig also wrote the screenplay, and while it reads like well-worn material she’s shown off her writing chops in the past with the likes of Frances Ha and Mistress America (co-written with Noah Baumbach) among others. This isn’t her first rodeo. This would have been exciting for fans of Gerwig if it was, though.

Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) is no stranger to the director’s chair, having directed several features and shorts leading up to her newest picture, Plonger. The film follows a couple, Paz and Cesar, who are conflicted by the futures they each desire. Paz, a photographer, wants adventure while Cesar, a war correspondent, has had enough adventure for a lifetime. When Paz gets pregnant things begin to get even more complicated. The stakes, while small in scale, are enticing because of how personal they are. This type of drama should resonate with plenty who have had to make decisions between two undesirable alternatives when it’d be preferable to have both. But, you can’t always have it all.


TIFF’s Midnight Madness has undergone a fairly big change. Programmer Colin Geddes, who has curated the selection since it debuted 20 years ago, has left the organization to pursue other opportunities. He is replaced by his former associate Peter Kuplowsky. While it’s fair to reserve judgment, the initial slate isn’t as enticing as it was a year ago or at festivals past. Hopefully, this trepidation will be proven wrong.

The most exciting title is S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to his 2015 horror-western hybrid Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99. It’s a prison drama that will probably get very bloody, especially if Zahler’s debut was anything to go by combined with its placement on the schedule. It stars Vince Vaughn playing against type, which may be cause for suspicion.

Others may point to The Disaster Artist as the gem of the schedule. An adaptation of the book of the same name by Greg Sistero and Tom Bissell, it is a re-telling of the making of the cult classic film The Room. James Franco directs and stars as Tommy Wiseau, the mastermind behind the so-bad-it’s-good classic. (Confession: I’ve never seen The Room and typically don’t enjoy that brand of cinema). Still, if the trailer is anything to go by, it should be a fun ride regardless of your feelings of the Wiseau trashterpiece.

At any rate, Midnight Madness is always a fun time and has the absolute best atmosphere even if the films aren’t always winners. As an experience, you won’t have more fun at any other screening throughout TIFF.


TIFF17 kicks off on Thursday, Sept. 7 and runs through Sunday, Sept. 17. Show up for opening weekend as Toronto shuts down King Street so it becomes a festival village and you don’t have to worry about traffic. There are games and photo ops and it’s just a blast to see the transformation take shape. While I didn’t cover the whole gamut of titles – it’s a big list, okay? – I hope this gives some insight into what’s available. I recommend balancing out between big ticket titles and the unknown. Film is not just a ticket to entertainment, but a portal into the lives of others. This is never more apparent than during a wide-reaching festival like this. Enjoy!

15 more (director in brackets): Kings (Deniz Gamze Erguven); Mudbound (Dee Rees); Woman Walks Ahead (Susanna White); Mary Shelley (Haifaa Al Mansour); Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton); The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismaki); The Third Murder (Hirokazu Kore-eda); The Day After (Hong Sangsoo); Veronica (Paco Plaza); The Breadwinner (Nora Twomey); Outside In (Lynn Shelton); The Conformist (Cai Shangjun); Let the Corpses Tan (Helene Cattet); The Ritual (David Bruckner); The Hungry (Bornila Chatterjee)


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