Monday, August 26, 2013


Here is the continuation (M - Z) of my annual preview of the eighty most interesting films of TIFF13! Check the post before this one to see my intro and the first half of the list (A - L). The films are listed in alphabetical order and are linked to the appropriate TIFF info page. An asterisk is given to movies in my own top 20 (confession: it actually adds up to 22). Some notes repeat comments made on earlier blog posts about specific films. Take a deep breath, and dive in!

The films (continued):
Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez's Manakamana
*Manakamana. As I wrote in another post, I am quite intrigued by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez's Manakamana, the latest project of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, shot in the transcendental style, observing pilgrims as they arrive at the famous temple in Nepal - - by cable car. The film is shot entirely on the cable cars, allowing us to join these pilgrims in a liminal suspension as they ride toward the temple. Always drawn to films that touch on spiritual and religious themes, this is a high seed for me.

Is it my imagination? or does it seem like there has been this sudden resurgence of interest in the political rivalry that existed between Elizabeth I and her cousin, Mary I of Scotland? Perhaps because I live near Stratford, Ontario, where Schiller's Mary Stuart is selling out in a run that keeps getting extended. This feels like such well-heeled territory, in both television and film, but Piers Handling tells us that Swiss helmer Thomas Imbach's Mary Queen of Scots is the one we've been waiting for. Starring Camille Rutherford, and featuring a screenplay that moves fluidly back and forth from English to French (as the queen's life itself did), the trailer is admittedly quite powerful. Though I am tired of this story, I take it on faith that this version of it will revive and renew my interest in those sparring sixteenth-century royals!

Chris Jordan and Sabine Emiliani's Midway
*MidwaySome time last winter, I clicked on a video that was circulating on facebook which showed the plight of birds on a Pacific island, who are drawn to the brightly coloured detritus that floats on the ocean these days, and gagged to death on things like plastic bottle caps. I was so impacted by what I saw that I began collecting bottle caps off the ground, wherever I saw them. It turns out that the video I saw was the work of consumer photographer Chris Jordan. Now joined by Sabine Emiliani (who made March of the Penguins), the two are bringing a joint effort to TIFF, Midway, which observes the life of the albatrosses living on the Midway Atoll in the Pacific. This is a documentary that leans toward experience more than information, an immersion into the lives of these birds who are also live amid the wreckage of World War II aircraft. The internet video still haunts me, but I want very much to see the whole story.

Just one of about half a dozen films concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mais Darzawah's My Love Awaits Me By the Sea is possibly the most poetic. Taking its inspiration from the work of the late Palestinian writer and artist Hasan Hourani, programmer Rasha Salti is careful to describe it as an 'essay film', that re-emerging genre that is neither documentary nor drama, but a meditation/reflection on a particular subject told from a very subjective view. (For more on the essay film, read this great piece from The Guardian.) Making her way from Jordan to occupied Palestine, then into the older and more historical areas of Palestine before arriving at Jaffa where Hourani died, she makes her own kind of spiritual homecoming.

Hany Abu Assad's Omar
Omar by Hany Abu Assad (Paradise Now) won the Un Certain Regard jury prize at Cannes. Once again a story of Palestine, Omar is being described as a "noir thriller" in its story of a young man who hurdles the now-famous barrier wall, in order to hang out with his old friend, and more importantly, the friend's beautiful sister. When his love becomes known, he is goaded into testing his own loyalties. 

Korea isn't the first country one thinks of when looking for a good romantic comedy, but as I wrote in the other half of this list, this is the year of the wide-ranging and globally diverse romcom. Our Sunhi is Hong Sang-soo’s playful story of a woman filmmaker ardently pursued by three men, all of whom think they've won her. Something about the trailer gave me the feeling of an Asian Eric Rohmer film, in which the heroine both eludes and bewitches us without our knowing how. 

As more and more films emerge from or about Palestine, it is moving to see some names of directors who have always been in the region, always wanting to tell the stories of this part of the world. Rashid Mashawari, who has premiered a number of films at TIFF, including most recently Laila's Birthday, returns with Palestine Stereothe story of brothers who try to raise money for a move to Canada, after losing their home in an Israeli airstrike. From a filmmaker who never disappoints.

Bérénice Bejo in Asghar Farhadi's The Past
Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her performance in Asghar Farhadi's first film since A Separation, Le Passé (The Past) which also deals with relationships that have ended but remain caught in unforseen events. When you have followed the same TIFF programmers for decades, you develop your favourites and become familiar with their taste. Dimitri Eipides' usual reserve busts a seam in his notes for this film, which he calls "exquisitely written and magnficently acted".   

Stephen Frears' Philomena, has the promise of another bravura performance from Judi Dench, as a woman seeking the son she was forced to give up decades ago. Steve Coogan plays a BBC reporter walking with her in the search; he is also the film's producer and screenwriter. Fresh from the success of The Queen, Stephen Frears will no doubt add another fine film to a list of some of the finest British films ever made. (IMDB him!)

In the midst of a bountiful crop of Palestinian films, it's good to see evidence of the vibrant vitality the Israeli film industry has demonstrated in the first decade of this century. We need all voices from this region to keep speaking to us. Yossi Madmony's Place in Heaven ambitiously takes on an epic theme: the Faustian idea of trading one's life in the hereafter for the sake of a transitory pleasure in this one. Following Orthodox tradition that allows one to barter one's place in heaven, an Israeli officer falls into a contract with a Holocaust survivor.

Rebecca Hall in Patrice Leconte's A Promise
Sometime in the early 80s when I was housesitting for my grandparents while they were in Florida, I turned on PBS and watched a four hour production of Wagner's opera Die Walküre, completely mesmerized. I made note then of the director, Patrice Leconte, and have followed him ever since. Although his work has been uneven of late, A Promise, shows much promise indeed. A classic triangular love story set in pre-World War 1 England, it marks Leconte's English language debut and stars Alan Rickman.

Ahmad Abdalla's Rags and Tatters has one of the most intriguing premises of the year. A fugitive escaped from prison in Egypt finds himself in the chaos of the Tahrir Square uprising of 2011. All he wants is a place to sleep and eat safely, while others cheer on the changes at hand. Given the tremendous upheaval in Egypt right now and its vastly altered landscape since those heady days only two years ago, this should be an especially poignant entry.

There is already a considerable anticipation for Jonathan Teplitzky's The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth as a British soldier who is captured by the Japanese during the second world war and made to work as a heavy labourer. This might be a good film to view in dialogue with Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave as there is a similarity of theme. Co-starring Nicole Kidman, the early word of mouth is very strong.

I was deeply moved by Philip Gröning's elegant and liturgical Into Great Silence, a documentary of the lives of Carthusian monks in Switzerland. 
Philip Gröning's The Police Officer's Wife
He is now back with a dramatic feature, 
The Police Officer's Wife. The brief description hints at a complex family drama revolving around the safety of a child. I am so fascinated by Gröning's understanding of emotional space and time that I don't actually care what the film is about - I'll be there.

Denis Villeneuve's script for Prisoners is based on a project from The Black List, a script depot accessed by both filmmakers and screenwriters as a way of discovering projects. The story is a familiar one: a man whose daughter has disappeared takes up his own pursuit of her safety when police release the most likely suspect. It stars Jake Gyllenhall, who also appears in Villeneuve's second film at TIFF13, Enemy.

Hiam Abbass and Nadine Labaki
in Laila Marrakchi's
Rock the Casbah
*Rock the Casbah is a rare opportunity to see some of the finest actresses in the Middle East working together in ensemble. Laila Marrakchi's first film since her hit Marock in 2006 could be called the Morrocan August: Osage County -- it is almost exactly the same story. The demise of a family patriarch (in a cameo by Omar Sharif) leads to the reunion of a family of sisters with their mother, where long-held resentments and revealed secrets wreak havoc and healing. Starring Hiam Abbass (who was so beautiful in The Visitor), Lubna Azabal (whose performance in Incendies was unforgettable) and gifted Lebanase filmmaker Nadine Labaki (director and star of both Caramel and Where do we go from here?), it promises great fun and good social satire.

In 2005, I had the chance to watch Roberto Rosselini's Rome, Open City?, sitting just in front of Isabella Rossellini, who had introduced the screening. I wrote then, "the rough condition of the print projected on Monday was a testament all by itself to the great need for restoration and loving attention to the work of Roberto Rossellini, a man who not only helped to launch the Italian neorealist movement, but whose work had a profound impact on the French new wave." [See original blog post here.] That moment has arrived and Isabella will be back. A cause for celebration!

Speaking of Morocco (see Rock the Casbah above), this is a year in which a number of films are either emerging from the North African country, or set in it. (See Exit Marrakech in the other half of this list.) Abdellah Taïa's Salvation Army is a first-feature adaptation of his own novel, which is also autobiographical. Essentially, a coming of age in sexuality story, the rich programme note from Rasha Salti promises a non-polemical and somewhat poetical excursion into one North African man's identity formation, when as a teenager he arrives to a new life in Geneva. 

Natascha McElhone and Rufus Sewell
in Stephen Brown's
The Sea
Stephen Brown's The Sea looks like it may be a compelling adaptation of the Man Booker Prize-winning book by John Banville. An art historian (Ciarán Hinds) writing a book about French Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard, returns to a seacoast home and attempts to come to terms with both the death of his wife, and the raising of challenging memory associated with the house. The trailer suggests a past/present divide in strong visual style terms, and beautiful scenery. 

The City to City programme is one of the most innovative developments of TIFF in the last decade. With a focus this year on Athens, there is an impressive variety of film fare from masters and newcomers alike emerging from this other troubled part of the world. The one I am most likely to see is Penny Panayotopoulou's September, which chronicles a woman's attempt to find new life for herself after the death of her dog. The trailer makes clear that Panayotopoulou is as much interested in how we form new attachments, and how much we desire being loved, perhaps in that unconditional way that sometimes it seems only our pets can give us. The poetic emotional style has already drawn me in.

An alcoholic playboy and a tax lawyer become unlikely friends and business partners in Christoffer Boe's Sex, Drugs & Taxation: Spies & Glistrup chronicling the duo who revolutionized the Danish tourism industry. Starring an almost unrecognizable Pilou Asbaek from Danish television's Borgen and last year's festival sleeper A Hijacking, playing a "provocateur" womanizing millionaire, I can't wait. Denmark in the 60s? Count me in!

The Short Cuts Canada programme represents an important commitment on the part of TIFF to rising talent. Short Cuts Canada 5 is the particular collection that I have flagged, with four animations that look at slice of life realities (two of them in 3D), an essay film (see above), and the first directing effort from Québecois actress and Xavier Dolan favourite Monia Chokri. The films are: Impromptu (Alcock), The End of Pinky (Blanchet), The Chaperone 3D (Munden/Rathbone), Crime: Joe Latoya - The Beirut Bandit (Lambert/Chou), Numbers & Friends (Carson), Roland (Cornish), and Quelqu'un d'Extraordinaire (Chokri). The brief write-ups of these miniatures suggest a nice mix of the experimental and the animated comedy.

Richie Mehta's Siddharth
It's been six years since Richie Mehta debuted his lovely film Amal, about an Indian rickshaw driver who is unwittingly drawn into an inheritance he resists. So it is good to see that he is now back with his second feature, Siddharth a painful but likely deeply moving story of a man's search for his twelve year old son after sending him off to work. Without a photograph of him, and unable to read, the journey seems impossible. The redemptive and elegant spirit of his first feature offers strong promise for this one.

*A woman who has lost her entire home and family in the racial violence surrounding Kenya's 2007 elections, nonetheless tries to move back into the devastated house and start again in Judy Kibinge's Something Necessary. Meanwhile, a man anxious to separate himself from the violence of his own deeds searches ways to atone. The two stories overlap in ways that suggest theological underpinnings to the film, if the trailer is any indication. 

The sea figures strongly again in Fabio Mollo's South is Nothing, about a young girl devastated by the death of her brother. Set near the Strait of Messina, that small passageway that separates the tip of Italy's boot from the island of Sicily, the film might seem to suggest a division of worlds: a longing for the past and a new relationship forming in the present. No trailer here, but I'm trusting my gut and Piers Handling on this one. 

I am always happy to see new work by avant-garde legend Nathaniel Dorsky. Although his films invoke many moods and qualities, there is an irrepressible spiritual quality often, sometimes expressed through a mystical tone. This year, Dorsky is presenting Spring a 23 minute work that "conjures an abundant return of light and a retreat into nature so dense and rich that the film itself becomes a sort of wondrous garden-verdant, incandescent, with startling bursts of colour." How could I have found words better than those to evoke it? Song another Dorsky film, is an exploration of San Francisco from the autumn months to the winter solstice.

Roberto Minervini's Stop the Pounding Heart
I always feel a sense of dread when I start to read descriptions of films that attempt to look inside the fundamentalist Christian experience. It is rare to find a film that takes on this world without villainizing it (Higher Ground is a notable exception.) While it is not my own expression of Christianity, it deserves more subtle and caring portrayal, so that the complexity of that life becomes vivid. It seems like Roberto Minervini's Stop the Pounding Heart may just do exactly that. The story of a young home-schooled Christian girl who falls for the wrong man might lead us to expect the usual torchsong, but Minervini has tried to be true to the world and let us form our own conclusions. Watch the trailer.

Two years ago, Mark Cousins brought us the extraordinary Story of Film: An Odyssey in 2011, a fifteen hour solo exploration of the history of cinema. This year he is back with A Story of Children and Film, a look at how the experience of childhood has been depicted in movies throughout the ages.  Since we've learned that this charming Irish film historian knows his cinema, this doc seems likely to not only inform us, but do so in an elegant and uplifting way.

The evocative Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang follows a Taipei family living in poverty as they make their way through daily life in Stray Dogs. The images on the TIFF page for the film, and the trailer, reveal incredibly beautiful compositions that offers a loving, if haunting frame of its subjects.
*Last year, I was knocked out by Xavier Dolan's Laurence Anyways, which went on to win the Best Canadian Feature Film of that year. Dolan is back with Tom a la ferme, which he also stars in. Featuring Evelyne Brochu, one of TIFF13's four "Rising Stars", it follows a young man as he visits the parents of his dead lover. Dolan co-wrote the screenplay with Quebecois playwright Michel Marc Bouchard, adapting from his own play. Also noteworthy is an original score by Gabriel Yared, who scored The English Patient

*It has been a while since there's been a new film from Robert Lepage, so I am happy that he is bringing one to TIFF. Based on his own theatrical project Lipsynch, Triptych follows three individuals in Montreal: a a bookseller, a brain surgeon and a jazz singer. Co-directed by Robert Lepage with Pedro Pires who is also the cinematographer, the programme notes promise a "sublime narrative geometry" as the three lives all eventually overlap and intersect.

Ariane Legault in Catherine Martin's Une Jeune Fille
*I am always very excited to see a new film from Québecois director Catherine Martin (Trois temps après la mort d’Anna, L’esprit des lieux), who never fails to move me with her poetic and elegiac films which seem to merge soul and setting. The trailer for Une Jeune Fille only increases my anticipation. The story, which "follows a teenage girl who flees an unbearable home life for the rugged beauty of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula" seems likely to continue my love affair with this filmmaker's work. In my top three. 

The relationship of Simone de Beauvoir to Jean-Paul Sartre is probably the best known aspect of her personal life, despite that both of these intellectual giants maintained other long intimacies. It's hard to tell from Piers Handling's glowing programme note for Martin Provost's Violette whether De Beauvoir's connection with French novelist Violette Leduc is an intimate one or not, but Leduc's love for the great philosopher and writer is the driving force of it. Told from Leduc's point of view, the film is a study in the underside of the writer's life when it is not quite as famous: in contrast to De Beauvoir, Leduc works eloquently to live out her identity in her work from the margins of society.

Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky's Watermark
*Jennifer Baichwal's Watermark, marks a return to collaboration between the filmmaker and photographer Edward Burtynsky (this time credited as co-director), as the duo explore the global traditions and cultural relationships to water that have impacted the way in which that most essential of resources is being depleted. Like Faith Connections, also featured in this shortlist, the film observes the religious festival of Kumbh Mela, where thirty million worshippers come every three years to bathe in a sacred river. The film is shot in ultra-hi def with impactful aerial shots. (Watch the trailer here.

The recent expansion of the Wavelengths programme is one of the most exciting developments of TIFF. No longer confined to just shorts programmes, this year there are fourteen features and a host of mixed length films. Of the short shorts, the Wavelengths 4 roster showcases "a trajectory of shifting perspective and iconographic reference". There is a spiritual quality emanating from this group, which begins with Nick Collins' Trissákia 3, a meditation on the ruins of a 13th century Greek church, and continues into Chris Kennedy's Brimstone Line. Kennedy's film contemplates landscape through a stationary-camera perspective on the Credit River in Ontario. Robert Beavers' Listening to the Space in My Room explores the filmmaker's old living space and we are told "carries rare emotional weight". 

Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises
*Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki became a festival favourite in the late 90s and early 2000s, as his unique style of animation brought together folklore and tradition in stories that seemed both naive and profound. It's been a while, however, since we have had a feature length film that offers the same kind of experience as Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. Luckily, he is back this year. The Wind Rises brings together Miyazaki's interests in aviation and ecology to tell the story of a boy who dreams of becoming an aeronautical engineer, and is aided by the spirit of an Italian inventor. Not normally a fan of animation, the beautiful trailer makes me yearn for this one.

*From veteran director Fred Schepisi (whose The Russia House I've always loved), 
Words and Pictures is about a competition between a high school English teacher (Clive Owen) and an artist on the same faculty (Juliette Binoche), as to what matters more, words or pictures. It was not supposed to appear until 2014, so it might be a bit rough. But who cares. As a teacher myself, who has often challenged students to this very debate on the first day of one of my courses, I'm curious. And who can resist the first JB film to hit TIFF since TIFF11's Elles! (And thus the asterisk.)

Well, okay. Much as I enjoy the creative talents in this entry, the only reason You Are Here makes this list is because I can't get enough of Amy Poehler. Though she is not the main character, I can already imagine her portrayal of a workaholic sister, enraged to lose out on family inheritance to a deadbeat sibling (Zach Galifianakis). With Owen Wilson along as a playboy buddy, the mix seems like fun, and it all comes to us from Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men.

Marine Vacth in Francois Ozon's Young and Beautiful
Though it happened alphabetically, it is in some ways fitting to end this list with a filmmaker who has essentially grown up at TIFF, premiering almost all of his dozen feature films at the festival since the mid-90s. Of these, I was very deeply moved by his 5 x 2, the study of a marriage in decline told backwards from the divorce to the meeting. Ozon is back this year with Young and Beautiful, a profile of a young teenaged woman as she matures and claims a sexual identity and profession, told in four seasonal movements, and four songs. 


Alexia Tessier said...
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