11 Things to Look Forward to at the Toronto International Film Festival

There are hundreds of movies and just not nearly enough time. At best, and this is in itself a butt-numbing goal to have set for myself, I will sit through 30 films over the next ten days. I have mapped it all out, and things are looking good. A mix of art house experiments, mainstream confections, grand costume dramas, sex-soaked character studies, apocalyptic horror, intimate human drama, political satires, rock ‘n’ roll documentaries, and a little Werner Herzog for good measure.

But, it isn’t just films, of course. Half of the people I know who look forward to this festival every year are getting geared up for a little Canadian stargazing (which means slightly less effective stalkery but with free health care). There are parties, there are industry events, there are press conferences, red carpets, “secret concerts”, and all sorts of stuff you can do that is TIFF minus the actual seeing of films. I, as a rule, try to avoid most of this stuff. I don’t get invited to much, anyway, but even some of the stuff I do get the call for I will skip. Frankly, I’m always too exhausted from watching eight hours of movies that day and trying to write up five reviews before bed that night to think about trying to look cool by myself at a party. Let’s face it: getting drunk and maybe brushing past Emily Blunt would be awesome, but not that awesome.

However, there is one event I will not miss. Starting last year TIFF has sponsored this clever crossover event called the Festival Music House which works as a kind of Canadian pop music showcase/festival. Running right through the middle of the Film Fest, September 12-14, this is my kind of party. Featuring up and coming Canadian talent like Hooded Fang, Hannah Georges, Hey Rosetta!, Whitehorse, and Lights alongside more internationally-recognized acts like the Arkells, Sheepdogs, the Rural Alberta Advantage, Sam Roberts and K’Naan, each of them performing a 45-minute set at a mid-sized venue on trendy College Street, this invite-only concert attracts the stars, the music insiders, and the luckiest of the lucky rock ‘n’ roll fans. So, if I’m sleepy, that’s why. You get a ticket to this, and you don’t think about it, you just go. How exactly this ties in with film I am not entirely sure, but it’s probably best not to pull at that string too hard.

But back to the main event. Here are ten of the films I am most excited about (bearing in mind that I am eager to see at least 40 more, and am already feeling deeply conflicted about my scheduling conflicts and my cursed inability to be in two places at once. That’d really help on the day when, say, Drive plays opposite A Dangerous Method. I mean come on!.) No particular order, though The Descendants is way up there after its strong showing at the Venice Festival last week.


Melancholia (Lars von Trier)

Lars von Trier is a real dickhead, it would seem, after the whole Hitler thing at Cannes, but I have never been part of the school that says our artists should be good dinner companions. His provocative, unsettling, and often downright ridiculous films are never less than interesting, and I admire him for this above all else. Like Werner Herzog before him, von Trier explores the dark side of this thing we call modern life in a signature style. This time, he is going to destroy the world. Sign me up.


House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello)

Advance press on this suggests that it may be a bit less than riveting, but the subject matter is undeniably compelling. Set in a turn-of-the-century Paris brothel, this study of escape (sexual and otherwise) has generated buzz not just for its copious nudity and omnipresent casual sex, but for its gorgeously realized art direction and tableaux-style cinematography.


A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

A Toronto Film Fest favourite, this hometown boy is back with his quirky flick about the relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Always a masterful student of psychology himself, Cronenberg is here riffing on two of the greatest, and surely the most influential, minds in the field. Among my favourite living directors, I wouldn’t miss anything with his name on it.


Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

This three-hour Grand Prix winner from Cannes has divided audiences with its glacial pacing and lack of obvious storyline, but emerging Turkish master Ceylan has always got more on his mind than what the surface appears to present. Advance word on this suggests that, though it may be a long haul, it is worth every minute of our time.

Pearl Jam and more…

Pearl Jam: 20 (Cameron Crowe)

I am a fan of both Cameron Crowe and Pearl Jam, so this Crowe-directed retrospective documentary on the band is a slam dunk for me. We’ll see if Crowe can step around his own reverence for the group, pushing into the darker territories to come up with something other than hagiography here. My guess is that he’ll pull it off, but there are many who will dismiss this as Crowe’s own wish-fulfillment.


Elles (Malgoska Szumovska)

I’ll see Juliette Binoche in anything, and this sounds like it might be a perfect vehicle for her multifaceted talent. Playing a journalist for Elle magazine, Binoche goes on assignment to cover student prostitution in France. A frankly sexual film from an emerging feminist director, the advance buzz on this one suggests that we will all be talking about it once the Festival is over. I want in on that conversation.


Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley)

Another hometown hero, Sarah Polley is generally regarded as Canada’s next great director. Her directorial debut Away From Her (2006) blew the Festival crowd away, and many people here simply can’t wait for her follow-up. Starring Michelle Williams as a woman trying to decide whether to leave her husband or not, and featuring comedians Seth Rogan and Sarah Silverman, colour me intrigued.


Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)

Whit Stillman. Remember him? If you are a well-educated white person, roughly between the ages of 33 and 43, and kind of a twink, you certainly do. The Wes Anderson of his time (which time ended almost the very same minute Anderson showed up!), Stillman made three very good, highly verbal, and always clever pictures in the 1990s about wealthy well-educated white people in their early 20s. After a 14-year absence, he is back with his fourth film, this one about wealthy well-educated white people in their early 20s! (OK, there is a black woman in the still I just saw, so maybe he has evolved?) I will knock people over to see it.


Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

Among my favourite lines in recent cinema comes from Hertzog’s much-loved 2004 documentary Grizzly Man. After his ostensible subject, Timothy Treadwell, says something about the inherent beauty of nature, Herzog interjects: Here I differ with Treadwell. He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder. His new documentary film is a study of the legacy of a triple homicide in Texas. Apparently one of his interview subjects is on death row, literally days from execution. Just imagine what he’ll do with this.


The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

Like many filmgoers, I was charmed by Payne’s Election (1999) and Sideways (2004). His fierce wit, and his ability to see the goofy side of serious issues (without insulting us for taking them seriously) are perhaps his most enviable traits. But chief among his assets is his skill at drawing masterful performances from his actors. In his latest film George Clooney (looking almost like a regular guy in the promo stills!) plays a man struggling with his wife’s illness, and a King Lear-like dilemma about what to do with a vast parcel of land. The buzz on this one coming out of Venice is palpable all the way across the ocean.