Casey Affleck and Kyle Chandler in Manchester by the Sea (2016)

TIFF 2016: ‘Manchester by the Sea’ and ‘Neruda’

Misery and Poets: the first day of TIFF sees a brilliant return for Kenneth Lonergan and meta-fictional madness from Chile.

When the Toronto International Film Festival kicks off, so, at least to a certain extent, does the annual awards race. A mix of Hollywood favorites and the best from world cinema, TIFF usually contains future nominees within its massive program. Boasting a smattering of world premieres and a round-up of festival highlights from earlier in 2016, this year will likely prove no different.

Over the next week and a half, I’m not going to attempt to pick winners but I will watch a lot of films. Besides, winning awards isn’t everything, or even all that much compared to making a good film. Luckily, day one of the festival got things off to a strong start on the quality front.

Before the films began though, things a little wrong for me. Arriving in town a day early, I was feeling overly smug at my unexpected level of organization. Press pass in hand, all I had to do was make it home and get some sleep before the films commenced in the morning. Unfortunately, I didn’t reckon with a thunderstorm when deciding to take the scenic route to my temporary home. An hour in driving rain soaked through my best shoes, my bag and everything I was wearing. I’m hoping by the halfway point of the festival they may be usable again.

A little rain (it really was quite a lot actually) isn’t enough to ruin hours spent in the dark watching a big screen, and so it proved on day one. I managed four films, but for embargo reasons I can only talk about two right now, or risk the collected wrath of PR representatives who can make or break all dreams come festival time. I’ll slip them in on a later date but the two remaining are worth plenty of attention, particularly my first of the festival.

That Manchester by the Sea turned out to be brilliant is hardly a surprise. For a start, Kenneth Lonergan, when he does make a film, tends to make a good one. It also premiered back at Sundance, so good reviews have been doing the rounds for a while. At the risk of repeating the praise, it really is excellent. Lonergan takes a broken man forced to return to the place that broke him and spins it into something magnificent.

Casey Affleck lies right at the heart of all that’s good, playing a Boston janitor living a lonely and isolated existence. Death in the family drags him from his one room hovel back to the town that had been his happy home until a self-inflected disaster tore his world apart. Lonergan’s writing is superb, capturing a collection of distinct voices and infusing them with natural humour and unbearable despair.

Affleck at the top of the cast puts in his finest performance, ably supported by Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler. Throw in a score that elevates his personal struggle into something far larger and we have the best film I’ve seen this year. If anything tops it at TIFF, I’m in for a treat.

Gael García Bernal and Diego Muñoz in Neruda (2016)

With the opening film out the way, it was time to move south from America to Chile for Neruda, the latest from Chilean director Pablo Larraín. Taking the famous poet as his subject, he weaves a meta-tale around Neruda’s flight from his homeland when the Government ordered a crackdown on Communist Party Members. Into this story comes Gael García Bernal’s fictional police inspector, who is determined to track him down.

The film develops into an interesting examination of the distinctions between the artist and the art. It’s clever and stylish, and while not entirely successful, Larraín handles his ambitious material well.

That wasn’t the end of the day at TIFF, but to hear the rest of the story, you’ll have to come back tomorrow.