Saturday, December 31, 2016

Favourite Work by Some Still-Living Artists of 2016

Lily Gladstone in Certain Women was one of the most memorable
performances of the year for me.
2016 was a year in the arts filled with public conversations about diversity of many kinds. Race. Gender. Awards. Salaries. These conversations explored important concerns about the way we live. People spoke up, wrote articles, disclosed personal experiences. As the year moved towards its end, this discourse seemed to be drowned out by politics and the waving of flags of fear -- if not actual, then symbolic. By December we were grieving all the great artistic voices that were lost this year. I grieved too, though my candidates did not always make the lists: the powerhouse singer Sharon Jones; the gentle Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook. We do need to lament: artists feed our imaginations and without imagination there is no civilization. However, I have decided to focus instead on the still-living artists of courage, talent, integrity and humour who inspired me in 2016 and whose voices, still with us, offer us inspiration for the year ahead.


Lone Scherfig's Their Finest

I have always admired the capacity of Lone Scherfig to climb inside lives and let us occupy them as if we had always been there. Italian For Beginners opened this door, though I think her greatest film is one of her least known, the exquisite Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself. Their Finest, the film she made in 2016 and which I saw at TIFF, has now knocked these aside for me. Scherfig is Danish but makes her movies in the U.K. and therefore her films observe culture with an offshore eye. I loved this story of a woman screenwriter during WWII who is hired to push out 'the slop' (female dialogue) in morality boosting war films. In a time of war, people are still trying to carry on somehow, including the artists who make films, and 'the slop' is not sloppy at all, but part of what keeps an exhausted nation going. So my gathering of inspiring work from 2016 begins with a movie about movie artists. Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Rachel Stirling and others beautifully navigate the line between lives lived and lost, and how love grows in the ruins. This was my favourite film of 2016. We should see it in theatres in 2017. This trailer captures much of the movie's heart.


The Guardian's Shakespeare Solos

One of my favourite internet series of the past year was The Guardian's celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death with the commissioning of soliloquies by some of Britain's leading actors. Joanna Lumley's Viola/Cesario from Twelfth Night was my runaway favourite. Lumley brings a wonderful freshness to this speech which every young actress has trotted out at some point as an audition piece. All of these short videos offer some new or cinematic insight into the Bard. I was also quite moved by Zawe Ashton's 'All the world's a stage' which alternates between an internal and external series of observations on a very modern world as the actress moves along a street, observing humankind in the 21st century. A beautiful celebration of the timelessness of the literature.


Seana McKenna in As You Like It at the Stratford Festival

Seana McKenna in the Stratford Festival production of As You Like It.

I had the chance to see this same speech from As You Like It in the Stratford Festival's very unconventional and highly entertaining production directed by Jillian Keiley. There too, the speech and the role were given to a woman, renowned Canadian actress Seana McKenna. I loved the choice to make McKenna's Jaques a contemporary war photographer whose melancholy is rooted in a world-weariness from all he has seen. It was a plunging insight into the character and helped give depth to the decision he makes at the end of the play to go and be with wilderness monks, a way of both stepping away from and toward humanity. I loved other productions at Stratford as much as this one: Shakespeare in Love, Macbeth, Bunny and A Chorus Line were some of the jewels of the season.


Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women

Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone in
Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women
Kelly Reichardt's lyrical and poetic Certain Women was another of my favourite films of 2016. This director of Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff turned a quiet corner of accomplishment with her deeply felt portrait of four women's lives in rural Montana as they each seek something they cannot quite have. As I wrote in my review of it, so much of this pastoral romance is about observing women at work -- and in the case of Lily Gladstone's character that includes handling horses, and whisking across snowy fields on a motorized cart chased by a beautifully frantic dog. There is an inertia and a static sensibility in this world: lives are stuck. Meanwhile a river of quiet emotion moves underneath, animating the town and the plains beyond. When a character falls asleep at the wheel and drifts into a snowy field, we feel not so much a sense of danger, as of a life in which the desire for passion is quietly running out of fuel. The delicate encounter of Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone's characters offers one of the film's most affecting portraits of how we become attached to someone, even platonically. One of the most vivid cinematic moments I take away from 2016 is when Lily Gladstone's character drives away from seeing Stewart near the end of the film. We have all had those moments, but Gladstone's silence and Reichardt's intentional dwelling with this character much longer than most narrative films would, brings her emotion deep into our own hearts. An earlier sequence when they ride on a horse in a snowy night, with only the gentle clopping of hooves, was also stunning. This film does not seek out our expectations as an audience. Instead it invites us to meet it in the everyday places of love and loss. Don't miss it when it comes into wide release (which it hopefully will). Here's a taste.


The photography of Jo-Anne McArthur

Those horses in Certain Women are lovingly cared for by Gladstone's character. But what about the millions of animals who are treated cruelly by humankind? This issue has galvanized me since I first saw Liz Marshall's The Ghosts In Our Machine which I reviewed on this blog in 2014. That film's focus is Jo-Anne McArthur, a photographer, activist and writer, whose illumination of the suffering of animals has had a deep impact on my own life. I now support her work as an artist on Patreon and invite you to do the same. Her first book, We Animals, which is also the name of her organization, documented animal suffering, and her next book due out in 2017 documents animals in captivity. Entitled Captive, it seems as if it will continue what Jo-Anne does best, which is witness. Jo-Anne's work is never passive, always looking to broaden our perspectives, and yet I have always sensed that her presence with the animals is a companionship of solidarity and accompaniment. She is trying to teach us a new language of empathy so that we won't just have the fleeting sensation of it and instead learn to ground ourselves in it and move for change. She is a great inspiration to me and hopefully to you too. Find out more here.


The TIFF Instagram One-Minute Shorts Contest

It was a fantastic idea for TIFF to collaborate with Instagram in inviting filmmakers the world over to tell a story in under a minute. Taking advantage of Instagram's recent move to video format, TIFF's call brought out the best in filmmakers young and old and from all walks of life in all parts of the world. I had so many favourites from this series but will offer two in particular. Arshia Shakiba's Wedding Guests observes a Syrian wedding inside the walls of a refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq. Breathtaking composition within a very limited frame drew me to this one instantly, besides how its content spoke to the year's most pressing international headlines. You can watch it here.
I was also moved by Women Only, by Tabassom Habibzadeh and Erfan Almazi, which offers a snapshot of the 'women only' car of the Teheran subway in Iran. The faces tell a dozen unspoken stories, causing us to wish that Abbas Kiarostami had not died this year and could help to tell them. Perhaps Jafar Panahi, who remains under ban from filmmaking in Iran and whose The Circle profiled the lives of women in prison in Iran, is the film's spiritual godfather. The subway car is an eloquent symbol of a different kind of cultural prison, and being on a train ride carries a theme of waiting for change. If you haven't seen these, take a moment to watch them as well as many others.


Enrique's Shadow by 'Jacinta'

Social media feeds. They seem to be an endless stream of the brilliant, the mediocre, the sacred and the profane. Our eyes glaze as they gaze across headlines and images, fleetingly engaged. But this graphic novel-styled short story by a woman named only "Jacinta" pulled me in right away. The story follows the author's mother's struggle to find out what happened to the son who 'disappeared' suddenly one day in Colombia. Produced by the International Committee of the Red Cross, this online novella is meant to help draw attention to the work that organization does with the families of the missing. The simple storytelling, the rudimentary but skilled drawing, the agony of the mother all filled me with deep sorrow but also with hope. The enduring faith of this family and their struggle to live with a gaping hole of darkness each and every day reminded me of the stories of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women of Canada. If you haven't seen it, this link takes you to the entire story. Take a moment to listen with your eyes.


Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe

The year began with outrage at the missing performances of black actors in the annual Oscar nominations. In 2017, there cannot possibly be any doubt about awards honours. Moonlight, Fences, Loving and others are all gifts to us of brilliant storytelling that plunge us into the heart of specific eras almost to the hour on the clock. Since these have been well-served by critics, I am turning here instead to Mira Nair's biopic of Phiona Mutesi, who became one of Africa's greatest living chess champions while still in her teens. In Queen of Katwe, Nair walks the thin line between hardship and victory on a well-traveled road in movies without landing in over-simplification or cliché. Mutesi is Ugandan and the story was shot and takes place there, where Nair also now makes her home. Something about that integration made the cultural shifts of the film's narrative work: we can be in one of Uganda's worst slums and also travel into other countries and worlds as our heroine gains ground. David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o are perfect in their roles as coach and mother, and newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona with a naive and gritty determination. One of the best parts of this movie, however, is its tail credits sequence. One by one the actors are pictured and then joined by the real-life people they played. It was a perfect end to a joyous ride.


Caroline Monnet's Tshiuetin

Speaking of Indigenous stories, Tshiuetin, which means 'north wind' in the Innu language, is Caroline Monnet's short tribute to the Indigenous-owned railway that runs from Sept-Îles to Schefferville through Québec and the western edge of Newfoundland and Labrador. This beautiful celebration felt to me like a re-framing of the coureurs-de-bois: Indigenous peoples travel on their own terms and carrying their own people and goods. The film's construction follows the train's conductor from behind as he moves through the cars one by one, pausing to speak with people traveling. The stories, the stops in places in the middle of nowhere where there always seem to be children ready to wave, the stations where skidoos with carts are there to meet the train -- all these were indelible images for me that invoked both the history of this great country and its ongoing struggles. A light of hope. Here's the trailer.


Annie Leibovitz' Queen's Birthday Photographs

Portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with her grandchildren
by Annie Leibovitz (2016)
Queen Elizabeth II was the focus of inspiration in two forms of work that emerged this year. Annie Leibovitz, the great American celebrity photographer took an unprecedentedly beautiful series of portraits to mark HM's 90th birthday. The photographs hint at the relationships in the Queen's life. This particular image of the grandchildren gathered around her might have been (as a friend pointed out) a nod to Velazquez portraiture but also bears the signs of Leibovitz' continual defiance of expectations. Positioning the Queen in the centre, she frames her with dark furniture, mirrors and a clock that might speak to the timelessness and continuing history of royalty, and then offers a flat widening of focus with the contrasting pastel colour and humour of the young people. It subtly suggests that this monarchy has been different and these children, whatever their future (at least one will be a monarch at some point) are just like normal children gathered for a family portrait.
The second youngest, Mia Tindall, holding that iconic part of the Queen's persona -- her purse -- is the final dash of wit. Hard to imagine a more beautiful tribute.

Claire Foy in The Crown

Claire Foy as young Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown
Queen Elizabeth is also the major player in Peter Morgan's extraordinary Netflix series, The Crown, which also debuted in 2016 and is one of the finest series I've ever seen. Among a collection of powerful performances, I was very moved by Claire Foy's Elizabeth who over ten packed episodes moves from the quiet princess in love to confident monarch, able to make some of life's hardest choices and be publicly and privately judged for them. Foy's entire body becomes slowly more rigid as the weight of responsibility and the requirement to lose herself into the role of monarch take their toll. Yet she manages to always keep Elizabeth uncomplicated and relatable, registering a range of suppressed emotion -- something that is hard to do. Anyone can emote. But only good actors can express restrained emotion. It is such a contrast to the also-good Helen Mirren performance in The Queen, which relies on a strength rooted in an actor's persona as much as a character's. Foy will continue in the role in a second season currently underway and has been nominated for a Golden Globe Award.


Xavier Dolan's Juste la Fin Du Monde (It's Only the End of the World)

Almost every single critic at Cannes hated it, but the jury gave it the Grand Prix. And I myself thought Xavier Dolan's It's Only the End of the World was one of the finest films this Québecois wunderkind has made. In fact, with this piece we can stop calling him the wunderkind, stop measuring him by his youth and mark a transitional moment in his maturity as an artist. The story of a man who comes home after a long time away to tell his family that he's dying, it continues Dolan's preoccupation with family relationships and their formative impact on the soul. Though an adaptation of the novel by Jean-Luc Lagarce, themes of family disintegration and reformation can be traced from this film back through Mommy to J'ai Tué Ma Mère. It was this maturity that struck me because it came hand in hand with a quieter, less riotous filmmaking style, as if the director knew his actors would bring the pyrotechnics to this one and he could just quietly observe. That said, there is no mistaking Dolan's visionary style. Several beautiful scenes, particularly one with Nathalie Baye and one with Marion Cotillard have stayed with me. Here's the trailer.



Have you met Rita? If not, you should. She's easy to find on Netflix. This Danish series about an unorthodox primary school teacher was actually produced between 2012 and 2015 but I didn't find it til this year, so I'm including it here. There is beautiful character work in the show, particularly with Rita herself, played by Mille Dinesen, as she dishes out the truth and lives into her vibrant sexual being with everything she has. What I appreciated about this series created by Christian Torpe, is how much we are allowed not to like her, even while being completely compelled and moved by her. She is a good teacher but often misses the mark as a parent despite loving her kids deeply, and there's something very moving about Rita's struggles with that. From the first title sequence in a bathroom stall where she corrects the spelling of graffiti aimed at herself, to some of the harrowing moments in the third series when her self-incurred losses catch up to her in the darkness of her rooms, Rita the show and Rita the character are mesmerizing. There is also a beautifully written and performed supporting character named Hjordis, played by Lise Baastrup, who was given her own five episode spin-off. I'll end the blog here, because the last image of Rita's family staring up at fireworks is a good way to say 'tusind tak' to 2016! Happy new year!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Mara, Redgrave shine in Sheridan's Secret Scripture

Rooney Mara and Jack Reynor in Jim Sheridan's The Secret Scripture.
This seems to be almost the only production still from the film -
only images from the making of are otherwise available. No trailer yet.
One of the things I love most is the first P & I screening of a world premiere. For those of us who don't/can't get to the European festivals, sometimes TIFF can feel like running down a track behind a speeding train. A film that has not yet been seen lends special excitement. I remember the crazy P & I line-ups several years ago for Dallas Buyers Club, and the volunteers desperately trying to prevent distinguished critics and other journalists from jumping the queue. Sometimes it is quieter, like Saturday morning's screening of Jim Sheridan's The Secret Scripture (though the room was full).

Adaptations are difficult endeavours. I once interviewed Anthony Minghella when he was at TIFF in 2000 to promote the Beckett Film Project, in which all nineteen of the Irish dramatist's plays were made into films. Minghella had adapted Play which I still use in the classroom. I reminded him of something he had said in a CBC radio interview for The English Patient several years before, which is that adaptations are a process of "compression and reinvention". Adapting Play, he told me, was not quite the same, because the dramatic text was fixed and couldn't be messed with. Nor would he have wanted to, passionate Beckett enthusiast that he was. (I still remember vividly his lit-up face as he talked about Beckett. I feel very lucky: my short time of doing press interviews during those early years of the millennium left me with only the most wonderful memories of conversations.)

I thought of Minghella as I watched Jim Sheridan's version of Sebastian Barry's novel about a passionate Irish woman who is wrongfully committed to an asylum and spends fifty years there. Like Minghella did on any project, Sheridan brings a tender and very compassionate lens, unafraid of the sentimentality that may emerge from simply watching a wronged life be slowly redeemed. The film is very much about the complexity of love -- and its presumed and broken boundaries. Vanessa Redgrave and Rooney Mara share the role of Roseanne McNulty, whose vivid but non-promiscuous (especially by today's standards) sexuality in a small Irish town makes her a target of scandal, especially when her love interest is an Irish-born British RAF pilot. The story thus weaves a delicate web of political and personal realities, and Roseanne's desire to simply be herself, adds a vibrating third edge: in a pre-feminist era, her desire for solitude and her capacity for independent living are as out-of-synch with her times as the political luck of her love life.

Both Mara and Redgrave are wonderful in their younger/older versions, and there was a close-up moment on Redgrave when I could swear that she was trying to hold her face in a way that Mara does. Theo James plays a Catholic priest who is deeply divided by his love for Roseanne -- leading him to actions of both cruelty and compassion. What I particularly liked about this portrayal in the writing and in the performance is that the "God" piece was not ever invoked: his behaviour, as Roseanne rightly calls it, is from his needs as a man. She is not condemned by him verbally, bible verses are not hurled (as they so often are in movies) like bullets her way. Where his religious sensibilities do inform his behaviour is around what he jealously perceives as her 'nymphomania'. And it is this problem with his own sense of religious morality that both judges and redeems Roseanne as the movie plays out.

There were so many actor choices in the film that were beautiful. An early scene between Father Gaunt and Roseanne in a car is subtle and creates a beautiful understated tension that will endure throughout the film. The love between Roseanne and Michael (Jack Reynor), the fighter pilot, is palpable without being gooey; the narrative-necessary love scene choice might have been torrid but lands in a place of unvoyeuristic inevitability that is both passionate and not, because of the circumstances. Eric Bana and Susan Lynch are subtle and moving (despite being under-written and overly edited) as the psychiatrist called in to assess Roseanne in the contemporary story, and the loyal nurse Kaitlynn whom the older Roseanne completely relies on. Sheridan's sure hand is everywhere in the film, and it's a very loving hand, but particularly in the performances.

The narrative frame of the film comes from the annotated scripture of the film's title. Roseanne converts the Book of Job in her small bible into the "Book of Rose" and covers the pages with her own illustrations and memory, super-imposing her life onto the stories of the Judeo-Christian narrative. What a fantastic idea. The shots went by too quickly to see which chapters of what book correlated to which parts of the storytelling but that's something I would love to follow up on. Biblical stories should be interpreted within the context of our own lives - that is part of how they stay alive, and how we live into the promises of them. Roseanne's bible is visually sumptuous and rich with her own interpretive motifs, particularly the 'tree', never named in the text, but which might stand for both the biblical 'tree of life' and the tree that brings her lover to her from the sky.

Mara with director Jim Sheridan
If I had a critique, it might be in the editing (a credit that I cannot seem to find) which relies heavily on unnecessary reaction shots. And I am never a huge fan of extended voiceover narration. Later, in that great bastion of conversation, the women's room line-up, I met the Korean buyer of this film, and shared thoughts with her about it. Ultimately, neither of us cared. Everything else is in place in this emotionally colourful and effective piece of storytelling. I think Minghella would have liked it.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Ordinary Women and Extraordinary Lives - themes of Day 1 of #TIFF16

Lily Gladstone in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women
Or is that extraordinary women in ordinary lives? You decide. Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women and Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion filled out the back half of my first day of #TIFF16. Earlier in the day I also caught some of Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper and the Dardennes' La Fille Inconnu (see below). Ordinary and extraordinary women seemed to be the common ground of all of my first-day movies. Increasingly, the first day holds an overwhelming amount of some of the strongest content of the whole fest, all lined up next to each other. The titles are mostly those which have already had international screenings at other festivals - and that's perhaps why. But it can be challenging to make decisions, especially as most of them won't have a second industry screening.

Kelly Reichardt's lyrical and poetic Certain Women was a safe bet and deeply satisfying. Since its debut at Sundance earlier this year, this film and this filmmaker (who previously brought us Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff), have been continuing to win admiration. Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone play women who live ordinary lives in Montana, even if their own deeper gifts and skills go largely unrecognized by others. Dern and Stewart are both lawyers, though not in the same office; Williams is a businesswoman building a new house and Gladstone is a ranch hand who cares for horses. So much of this pastoral romance (not romcom genred) is about observing women at work -- and in the case of Gladstone that includes lovingly handling horses, and whisking across snowy fields on a motorized cart chased by a frantic dog. The landscape fills up the screen with mountains and snows and endless road and yet the landscape of the small town of Livingstone where most of the action takes place also feels as if it is pitted with valleys and ridges, though these are relational. A man seeks justice for himself; another man watches through the window of his modest home as the sandstone blocks of an old schoolhouse are taken away. There is an inertia and a static sensibility: lives stuck. Through which a river of quiet emotion moves, animating the town and the plains beyond. When a character falls asleep at the wheel and drifts into a snowy field, we feel not so much a sense of danger, as of a life in which the desire for passion is quietly running out of fuel. Gladstone almost steals this film, as a character whose budding desire takes her into unexpected decisions.

Cynthia Nixon and Jodhi May in Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion
The quiet passion I found in the Reichardt film was unfortunately missing from the Davies' movie with that title, although I wanted so much to like it. A portrait of the life of Emily Dickinson, I could not wait to see Davies' painterly sensibilities brought to bear on it. The cinematography is riveting: there is a scene in an opera house that is the closest one could possibly imagine to being there with its rich colour surrounded by black shadow, as if a portrait set in a daguerrotype. The camera work is breathtaking in a way only Davies can offer us, especially a shot in which we circle around a parlor room from Emily to other members of her family and return to her, finding in each face a different expression and returning to her own transformed in emotion. A time transition from the younger versions of the characters to their adult counterparts is astonishing, accomplished through the device of sitting for a photograph. While such transitions are not new, the generation of one to the other is almost unnoticeable until you realize it is a different actor now in front of us. In the end, however, the downfall of this film is its script. Forced and over-written, at times it felt as if it was almost aiming for Shakespearean. At other times, the witty banter sounded as if Joss Whedon had arrived on set. The portrayal of religion was heavy-handed and overwrought, playing into every stereotype imaginable, and the anti-religious character of Miss Buffam sounds too 2016 to be credible. Dickinson herself seems to have a love-hate relationshp with religion, but her faith remains solid: this was accomplished more by Nixon than by the screenplay which had her in defiance one moment and offering blessings in another. Jennifer Ehle is luminous, but she always is; Keith Carradine makes the Mr. Dickinson character affably strict - but he too is a victim of the writing. Jodhi May is lovely in her tiny role --- I still remember her debut in A World Apart, long ago. Ultimately however, I left disappointed. What I carry out of this day is La Fille Inconnu (The Unknown Girl) and Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women of Montana. Some time I will go back and see all of Personal Shopper --- maybe when it's on DVD and I can watch it in my jammies in bed! A great first day!


Kristen Stewart in Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper
Getting to TIFF, in every way one might think of, has been challenging this year, but I'm here, and the first day is well underway. My PCS-brain struggles against the constant noise and colour but once in the cinema, the hush is like that of a temple and I feel my whole soul relax in the spirit of having 'arrived'. Traffic and the TIFF Industry line-ups behind me, I quietly slipped into my first film of the festival, Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper. I only stayed a half hour, but that's not a critique. Even thirty minutes was enough to be impressed by an immersion into world. As usual with Assayas, there are layers established immediately, and artists influencing and affecting each other. Early on, we are introduced through Maureen (Kristen Stewart)'s obsession with her, to the work of Hilma af Klint, a Swedish mystic and spiritualist who painted messages she received from those in another realm. We follow Maureen through the streets and subways of Paris as she watches documentaries on youtube and becomes fascinated with how the artist interpreted the messages she received. She herself is waiting to hear from her deceased twin brother, also a medium. Throughout the first half hour we are following Maureen, almost as if we are her brother Louis, and in the very first sequence, we do so through a darkened empty estate house somewhere in France where Maureen has gone to try to connect with him. As usual with Assayas, there are screenplay challenges to one's sense of believability but he often manages to allow us to be fully immersed in his vision before we become aware. But here, the sequence is electric. Assayas seems to know to keep a wide distance from Stewart, as if it to tell us from the onset that her entire body will tell us the story, not just her face (a sign of respect in my view) and that the whole of her is in fact invested in the world we are in. Even in a half hour there was no missing the precise articulation of Stewart in this role. Like Rooney Mara, also in more than one film in this fest, her intuitive acting style reveals problems in the writing because the style is so naturalized, so organic. Chekhov would love them. Stewart's face, when the camera goes there, seems to reveal a million layers at once, including the deep loneliness and loss that is motivating her character. My overall guess is that the performance may be even stronger than the film (which was certainly true in the case of Clouds of Sils Maria). But I had to leave because I could see where it was going and I just wasn't up for that level of fear and spookiness. But I hope others see it and tell me more about it.

Adèle Haenel in the Dardennes' La Fille Inconnu
Instead I went in to see the re-edited version of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes' La Fille Inconnu (The Unknown Girl). These master filmmakers released a cut for Cannes that met with mixed response. I wasn't there so I don't know, but I can tell you that what they have now made is deeply moving. A doctor (played by Adèle Haenel) refuses to open her door to a woman in need because it is an hour after closing time. The woman is later found dead. For the rest of the film, this heavy weight on the doctor's heart pushes her into amateur sleuthing so that some sense of the woman's real identity can be determined (because there is no identification, she has been buried in an unmarked grave). As the doctor lives into her obsession, we see her treating patients, witness what a fine doctor she is, and the devotion of those patients who always want to feed her and whose food she eats. My faith and film instincts see a 'eucharistic' motif here. The woman's body is found initially in a construction site called "the potter's field" (the biblical place of burying those who were poor or who came to bad ends). As Dr. Jenny Davin tries to put the pieces together, she never loses her inherent goodness, even though her weakness and her pride/vanity are the reason why the whole problem is set in motion. When confessions come, they are offered to her as if she were a priest and her medical vocational instincts are similar: she remains faithful to her promises to each person to the very end. Haenel is exquisitely subdued, allowing us to feel with her, instead of just react to her emotion as an actor. 

Monday, September 05, 2016

80 Films to Watch Out For at TIFF16: Part 2: M-Z

Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle in Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion
This is a continuation of a previous post (go here), which outlines top picks for this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Alphabetically organized by movie title, this blog picks up the second half of the list. Reminder Note: the first letters after a title indicate World Premiere, North American Premiere, International Premiere or Canadian Premiere. The second set of letters are the short forms for the TIFF programme that the movie is slotted into. My blog on the shorts to watch out for at this year's TIFF can be found here.


Maliglutit (Searchers) - WP - P
Zacharias Kunuk
Two films in this year's festival seek to take a classic story told from a white settler point of view and reposition the lens, offering something different. One such film is Nate Parker's The Birth of A Nation, also screening at TIFF. Now Zacharias Kunuk is bringing us a retelling of John Ford's The Searchers. This version, set in Nunavut in 1913 follows a caribou hunter who returns to find that the women in his family have been kidnapped. With the assistance of a family spirit guide, he sets out to find them. There are a number of exciting Indigenous films at TIFF this year. TIFF Page.

Manchester By the Sea 
- CP - SP
Kenneth Lonergan
There is considerable buzz around this new feature from screenwriter-turned-director Lonergan who brought us You Can Count on Me (as director) and wrote the script for Gangs of New York. Starring Kyle Chandler (Carol), Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, this story about a man who must return home after the sudden death of his brother, has already received strong reviews from its other festival screenings. TIFF Page.

Marie Curie - WP - CWC
Marie Noëlle
The unconventional life of the first woman to win a Nobel prize and the only woman to date to win it twice, this biopic of the scientist who changed our understanding of radioactivity is largely about her life after the death of her scientist husband and great love. Staring down nineteenth century Academy chauvinism, doubt and sabotage, she continues the pioneering work she and her husband had begun. TIFF Page.

Mascots - WP - SP
Christopher Guest
What's not to love about a Christopher Guest movie that will bring together some of the best talents in comedy around the unlikely premise of cutthroat politics in the pursuit of outstanding achievement in being a sports mascot? Who will take home the Golden Fluffy is all we are waiting to see. Always fun. TIFF Page.

Maudie - CP - SP
Aisling Walsh
Maud Lewis is a Canadian artist whom Canadians likely know little about, despite that the tiny cottage she shared with her husband in Nova Scotia is actually inside the Nova Scotia art museum, and her work has been celebrated as one of Canada's finest folk artists around the world. Sally Hawkins brings to life the enormous challenges Lewis faced in living with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, which both challenged her and also prompted her into a unique way of expressing her art. One day she is discovered, and the landscape starts to shift. A Canadian/Irish co-production also starring Ethan Hawke.TIFF Page.

Mimosas - NAP - W
Oliver Laxe
Dying with dignity, according to religion and tradition shapes the spiritual path of this Wavelengths feature from Laxe who won the Grand Prize at Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique. A preacher (faith tradition not specified) is summoned to follow a caravan through the Morroccan mountains to bring a dying Sheik to his appropriate final resting place. TIFF Page.

Mostly Sunny - WP - Docs
Dilip Mehta
I had the opportunity to see a rough cut of this film (shot and edited by a former student Decebal Dascau), almost a year ago. Even then it was compelling, but how could it not be? This story of Sunny Leone, the famous Canadian-born adult film star turned reality tv and Bollywood personality, celebrates her capacity for staying both true to herself and in command of her own destiny. I was moved by passages in which she revisits her Sarnia home with her husband, a man who has both understood and served her complex career. I am looking forward to seeing how the film has landed, but I have no doubt that it will offer up an insightful portrait. TIFF page.

One Sings, the Other Doesn’t
Agnès Varda - 1975
I am so so so excited to see actually projected Agnès Varda's great classic from 1975 being screened as part of the TIFF Cinemathèque programme. The story of a friendship among women born out of the feminist movement in France, the film offers parallel views of women taking ownership of their life's choices and living into the consequences. With music! But it is the heartbeat of friendship that is the most compelling part. Not to be missed! TIFF Page.

The Ornithologist - NAP - W
João Pedro Rodrigues
There are so many reasons to be utterly intrigued by Rodrigues' latest, about a Portuguese man whose intense interest in birds and quest to find a rare species brings him into an unknown world, in which he lives into and must fulfill the trials of former saints. Billed as both religious and erotic, it also evokes the work of great religious artists like Fra Angelico while taking unexpected narrative turns. Classic Wavelengths. TIFF Page.

Orpheline (Orphan) - WP - SP
Arnaud des Pallières
Gemma Arterton who was so good in Anne Fontaine's Gemma Bovery, is in two films this year -- see also Their Finest below. Here, she joins Adèle Exarchopoulos and Adèle Haenel in a story told over four different storylines with four different actors to portray the life of the same character. A disjointed but revelatory experience of one woman's life emerges.TIFF Page.

Paris Can Wait - WP - SP
Eleanor Coppola
This story of an American woman who rides to Paris with a Frenchman she doesn't know, reminds me of last year's Un Plus Une from Claude Lelouch (which although flawed, I actually enjoyed), or Ruba Nadda's Cairo Time, in its possibilities for both friendship and romance. There is very little to go on in the way of advance images but I saw a great review of it, and hold hope. With Diane Lane and Alec Baldwin. TIFF Page.

Past Life - WP - CWC
Avi Nesher
It feels like yesterday that I saw Avi Nesher's The Secrets and loved it. He seems to have a special understanding of female relationships. In Past Life, two Israel women discover unknown truths about their father's activities in WWII Poland. So glad to have another film from this director, and programmed by Jane Schoetle who rarely disappoints. TIFF Page.

Paterson - NAP - SP
Jim Jarmusch
Stranger than Paradise. Down by Law. These were Jim Jarmusch films that my friends and I saw in the early 80s when our own film aesthetic was being born. I loved Coffee and Cigarettes too. Paterson promises to be even more poetic and reflective than he can be, a contrast to his other TIFF entry this year, the doc Gimme Danger. A poet drives a bus in a small town in New Jersey, composing from what he sees. This sentence in the programme guide nailed me: "the quiet triumphs and defeats of daily life are observed over one week, along with the poetry evident in its smallest details." TIFF Page.

Pays (Boundaries) - WP - CWC
Chloé Robichaud
I was impressed with Robichaud's Sarah Préfère la Course, so I am keen to see this new and more intense feature which follows the upheaval of an imaginary island country in Canada's Atlantic that becomes a hot focus for its abundant natural resources.TIFF Page.

Personal Shopper - NAP - M
Olivier Assayas
One of my favourite things to do is to just watch a selected excerpt from a film over and over as a stress-releasor, or just to savour it. Assayas movies figure high in this collection and it's usually about his openings: I watch over and over the sun-drenched landscape and exuberance of children that opens L'Heure d'Été and I also love the entire train sequence that opens Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart's juggling of phones and emotions in trying to manage the life of a movie star seemed like perfect preparation for this return joint venture with Assayas in which she plays the personal fashion shopper for a rich woman. Even the dark undertones of Sils Maria were like a foreshadowing of the intense thriller-like atmosphere that is Personal Shopper, about a woman mourning her brother who begins to have occultish experiences around his spirit. It terrified even the hardest of hearted at Cannes and Stewart is meant to be brilliant. TIFF Page.

Planetarium NAP - G
Rebecca Zlotowski
And speaking of the occult, Planetarium sounds like a sort of shadow side to Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight. The story of two sisters played by Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp, who are famous spiritualists who do acts of supernatural astonishment in 1930s Paris, they are hired by a filmmaker to do something entirely new with their gifts. It's hard to get a read on the tone of this one but there is considerable buzz. TIFF Page.

Queen of Katwe - WP - G
Mira Nair
One of the earliest memories I have of a TIFF screening almost thirty years ago, was that of Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay, which remains as vivid to me when I watch it again as it was in that big Uptown Cinema screening. Now Mair has made a film about a Ugandan girl who excels at chess, and how that transforms her world. David Oyelowo, also starring in A United Kingdom (see below), is the man who helps her find her way. Also starring 12 Years a Slave's amazing Lupita Nyong’o. TIFF Page.

A Quiet Passion - NAP - M
Terence Davies
Terence Davies is another filmmaker whom I have followed through the decades from Distant Voices, Still Lives right up to last year's Sunset Song, which I reviewed here. Long long an artist who likes to dwell in the moment with characters, sing with them and listen to the beat of the hearts and the breath of their souls, he is now bringing this sensibility to bear on the very complex world of Emily Dickinson. Cynthia Nixon plays the great poet. TIFF Page.

The Salesman - NAP - SP
Asghar Farhadi
The deeply held emotions and potential violence of domestic relationships is a source of great interest to Farhadi, whose 2011 A Separation won raves for its portrait of a couple trying to divorce in contemporary Iran. One of several movies taking on the performance of a work, as a context for exploring deep internal relationships, in this case the man and woman are performing Miller's great play, while navigating the tension in their own lives.TIFF Page.

Sand Storm - CP - Disc
Elite Zexer
This film first caught my attention in the line-up at Sundance. A combined Israeli and Arab crew worked together on a story of Bedouin woman who must prepare for the wedding of her husband to a second wife. But the focus of the film is really on the relationship between dutiful mother and rebel daughter, who is breaking taboos with her own relationship. Set in Southern Israel. TIFF Page.

The Secret Scripture - WP - G
Jim Sheridan
Of the three Rooney Mara movies at TIFF this year, this one from veteran Irish filmmaker Sheridan seems most likely to impress. Mara and Vanessa Redgrave play younger and older versions of a woman being released from a closing mental health asylum in Ireland, who has been using her bible to to scrap book the story of her own survival through loves won and lost and the many hardships she faced. I would not normally pair up these two actors but they are both nuanced and subtle in their choices so I'm curious to see how this latest from the director of My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father. TIFF Page.

The Stairs - WP - Docs
Hugh Gibson
Director Hugh Gibson wrote a beautiful guest-curated essay for TIFF's periodical The Review, on the journey of making this film, and particularly on the enormous impact on him of the work of the recently deceased Abbas Kiarostami. I was already interested in this documentary about three survivors of the street in Toronto who now work in public health in the places they once frequented, but the essay has made me even more keen to take it in. TIFF Page.

Ta’ang - NAP - W
Wang Bing
Another film which seeks to help us understand the refugee experience, this Wavelengths feature follows families moving from ethnic persecution in Burma (known as Myanmar), in this case to China. A documentary, it is based on Wang Bing's experiences visiting and living in refugee camps in China. TIFF Page.

Their Finest - WP - G
Lone Scherfig w. Bill Nighy
I have not only loved the films of Lone Scherfig since I first saw Italian for Beginners, but I have the lovely memory of having once interviewed her on a patio. There is a deep humanity in her portraits of everyday people situations. And often bittersweet. This film follows a young woman screenwriter (Gemma Arterton) hired in blitz-lit London of WWII to make a film that might encourage people, about individuals who have taken in soldiers after Dunkirk. An impressive UK cast, including Bill Nighy and Richard E. Grant. TIFF Page.

Toni Erdmann - CP - SP
Maren Ade
This is not a high seed for me, but merits attention because of how well it was received at Cannes, and because of director Ade, who has been praised widely. I don't know her work and so I want to check out what is being billed as a "hilarious and mortifying comedy" about an uptight woman and her practical-joke playing father. TIFF Page.

Una - CP - SP
Benedict Andrews
Rooney Mara has three films in TIFF this year and this is the one that I'm least sure of but only because it's a psychological thriller which is not generally my genre (Personal Shopper excepted). Based on the play Blackbird, by David Harrower, a woman confronts a man who long ago assaulted her, by confronting him in his work place. This is definitely a theatre-to-film venture: Harrower did his own adaptation and Andrews is a vet of the Aussie stage. This is his first feature film. TIFF Page.

A United Kingdom - WP - G
Amma Asante, w David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike
Forget Edward VII and Wallis Simpson, this is the really interesting and equally controversial love story of the twentieth century. Khama, king of what will become Botswana, marries a London woman named Ruth Williams who shares his passion for jazz in post-war England. Then they have to take their interracial marriage back to Africa and survive. Khama eventually leads the country to independence, with Williams at his side. It's Rosamund Pike. It's David Oyelowo. It's Amma Assante directing. What more is there to say? TIFF Page.

Unless - WP - SP
Alan Gilsenan
How amazing that someone has been brilliant enough to cast Catherine Keener in a starring role. But not only that, Hanna Schygulla, an actress I fell in love with in the 70s when I first saw her in Ettore Scola's La Nuit de Varennes, is in it too! Big red circles went around this title even before I fully realized the other reasons to be drawn to it, namely that it is based on Carol Shields' last novel, set in Toronto, and is about a girl who one day camps out in front of Honest Ed's with a sign saying "Goodness" but otherwise silent. A Canadian/Irish co-production. TIFF Page.

Voyage of Time - NAP - SP
Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick has been having a very rich and abundant period of creativity since the release of The Tree of Life in 2011 broke a more typical gap between projects of five years. He has made almost as many films since. Each new one seems to be more ambitious than the last if that is even conceivable. Voyage of Time promises no less than a history of the universe and anyone who has been swept up in his cinematic experimental exploration of the cosmos will want to be on the ride. With what's being described as "soulful narration" by Cate Blanchett. This is the long version, the shorter IMAX version narrated by Brad Pitt will arrive in theatres separately. TIFF Page.

The War Show - NAP - Docs
Andreas Dalsgaard and Obaidah Zytoon
Another of a very compelling docs feature line-up, this joint witness by two filmmakers of the journey from the Arab Spring to the hell that is contemporary Syria provides both a deeply personal and also universally accessible perspective on lives behind the front lines of war. With footage from Homs, Syria and Lebanon, we travel with them to places of personal history in the midst of overwhelming upheaval. TIFF Page.

We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice - WP - M
Alanis Obomsawin
Indeed we can't. This venerable documentary filmmaker, who has been showing films at TIFF since I can remember, has brought us a testimony of the contemporary treatment of First Nations children on reserves, in comparison to other cities. I am glad to see both this feature and one or two short films (see Road to Webequie in the shorts blog) looking at Indigenous youth from their own cultural perspective. Much needed. TIFF Page.

Window Horses (The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming)
Ann Marie Fleming
Ann-Marie Fleming is one of those careers I have watched bloom through the TIFF uh,.... window. This feature reminds me at a glance of the work of Marjane Satrapi, with its stylized animation and Iranian contexts. A young Canadian woman of mixed Persian and Chinese heritage finds a spiritual home when she goes to participate in a poetry festival in Iran. Voices of Ellen Page, Sandra Oh and Don McKellar. TIFF Page.

The Women’s Balcony
- WP - CWC
Emil Ben Shimon
The women's balcony confronts a problem of leadership when a new rabbi in an Orthodox part of Jerusalem, and a bar mitzvah gone wrong, lead to a revolt among women who find themselves without a place to worship. The tone of the trailer is comedic - with a pointed message. Think Nadine Labaki's 2012 drama Where Do We Go Now -- goes to Israel.TIFF Page.

X 500 - WP - CWC
Juan Andrés Arango
Originally called X Quinientos, this co-production among Canada, Colombia and Mexico, tells three different migrant stories from different parts of the world, all of which begin from the place of a death. It is the possibility of new life, however, that motivates them to pull themselves away from home communities and try a world elsewhere. TIFF Page.

See you at the movies!