Thursday, August 10, 2017

Films to Watch Out For at #TIFF17

Recent titles added (alphabetically below): .

Screen capture from the trailer for Sky Hopinka's Dislocation Blues
Mid-August!! The unusually cold and wet Ontario summer is already beginning to look a bit like autumn. The tree in front of my house has begun shedding its leaves and the planned camping trip to northern Ontario was canceled when we discovered that the projected low temperatures would be very low. Who wants to wake up at 4 am and see your breath -- in August? Nonetheless, it's been a great summer and now I feel that shifting energy that always marks the anticipation of TIFF. Getting out my digital markers, I sift through the steady stream of announcements like a panhandler in the Yukon. All around are signs of autumn gold.

In the past I've tried to capture highlights in the programming categories as they unfold. However, nowadays the titles often get released across programmes. Yesterday (August 9th), for instance, all of the Canadian titles dropped, spread across six programme areas. So this year, I am going right to the "Films to watch out for" list, knowing that as more gets revealed, some titles will disappear and others will be added. I am also posting it early and just adding to it whenever I can. So check back often! Most recent additions will always be up top!

So put on your hipwaders and step in. Titles are alphabetical. I don't blog on Midnight Madness though there are many who do and I commend you to them. My subjectivities are pretty transparent. I am drawn to the directors of films as much as the movies themselves. I'm a teacher. I'm also interested in: faith and spirituality on film; stories about the resourcefulness of women; LGBT; anything experimental. I follow and tend to trust the other major film festivals. I shy away from action or overtly narrative-driven movies. Those titles in pink denote films already a high-priority for me. Those asterisked and in pink are my current priority-twenty films. At the end of each entry is the programme category. Titles beginning with "The" are listed by the next word and all titles link to the corresponding TIFF page. Enjoy!

*A Fantastic Woman

Sebastián Lelio won two prizes at Berlin and the Grand Jury prize in Cannes for this affecting story of a transgender woman who must navigate the prejudice and indifference of her partner's family and circle after he dies. Lelio's Gloria (2013) demonstrated his brilliance at examining the lives of women when they are feeling alienated by society. He is also bringing Disobedience (see below) to the festival, making this a rich opportunity to explore and enjoy his work. SP

Alias Grace
Sarah Polley has been planning an adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel Alias Grace for some time and in this same year that Atwood's Handmaid's Tale has seen a strong adaptation, Polley's project finally comes to the screen. Director Mary Harron's gift for finding and defining the thin line of sanity should be a good partner for Polley and Atwood in this true story of murder in 1843 Toronto and the young Irish servant who was convicted for the crime. Primetime

A Season in France

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun has been bringing his movies to the major European festivals and winning prizes for the last decade. A native of Chad who makes his home in France, he recently served on a Platform jury for TIFF. His empathic style of storytelling is this time brought to the tale of an African teacher who is forced by war to emigrate to France with his children. He his befriended and given a home by a French woman while he waits out his application for asylum. Eriq Ebouaney and Sandrine Bonnaire star. SP

*BPM (Beats Per Minute)

I have not ever seen the films of Robin Campillo (which includes the much-lauded Eastern Boys), but this fictional chronicle of the early days of the Act-Up movement in France had a stunning debut at Cannes where it won no less than four major awards including the Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI. Campillo has based his film on his own experiences in Paris in the '90s and the only available trailer (a clip) shows a strong and promising sense of style. Featuring Nahul Pérez, Arnaud Valois in major roles and a supporting turn from Adèle Haenel, whom I loved in last year's La Fille Inconnue, despite how that film was received. Docs

Call Me By Your Name

There has been tremendous buzz around this new feature from Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash) since it debuted at Berlin earlier this year. The story of a summer romance between a young man and his father's friend, it mostly follows the experiences of first love on the part of the seventeen year old. Starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, Guadagnino has apparently taken a more romantic and less sexually observed approach to what is familiar ground in gay storytelling -- and frankly for me that's a draw. The trailer is very promising and reminds me of the first-love films of Mia Hansen-Løve. SP

*Dislocation Blues

It's a great year for Wavelengths -- in both shorts and features and this film has my favorite trailer of any announced film so far this year. Sky Hopinka is a Ho-Chunk Nation filmmaker from Washington State who joined the water protectors at Standing Rock during the last year. The brief write-up available describes the film as being more interested in personal witness and testimony than the 'meta-narratives' but I am particularly drawn, through the trailer, to the discussion of what it means to be embodied, when involved in a community action -- how the body becomes larger than the individual self. Water protectors are gift givers to us all and we owe them much, even when governments do not respond. Perhaps more so in those times. *Added: Please note that this is a short! I had not realized. A separate piece on shorts programmes is coming. Wavelengths


At the moment (August 11th), Sebastián Lelio's new feature (which no one seems to have seen yet) is one of my front-runners. The Chilean filmmaker has two films in this year's festival, also bringing A Fantastic Woman (see above). Along with the excitement of an unknown new work, this project is compelling for me for its story of a renewed romance among two women in an Orthodox Jewish setting in London, featuring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams. There is no early buzz except to be buzzing about another Lelio! SP

The Escape

Both Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin starred in my favourite film of TIFF16, Lone Scherfig's Their Finest. Both actors are back this year in noteworthy projects. I don't know the films of British director Dominic Savage, who played a child role in one of my favourite films of all time, Barry Lyndon, but this story of an unhappy contemporary wife and mother who is considering leaving her family to save herself, has my interest. Arterton has a gift for illuminating the small everyday ways in which women empower themselves for change, however controversial that change may be. SP

Ex Libris - The New York Public Library
Veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has been making movies about public spaces for a long time, in which he immerses his own subjectivity into what is also an exploration and a discovery. I enjoyed his National Gallery (2014) but am very excited about this film. At over three hours in length, it follows the day to day life of one of the richest and most inspiring places in New York City, though it has none of the outward glamour of other Manhattan hotspots. Several times in my life I have had the privilege of researching in the special collections of the New York Public Library and very much enjoyed the rarefied atmosphere, wearing white gloves and turning the leaves of something precious. In their own way in a sense, people experience that all over the library. I look forward to just dwelling in that beautiful building and resting in the enjoyment others have of it too! Docs.

*Faces Places

Agnès Varda. I really shouldn't have to write anything else after those two words. The legendary auteur of more than forty films including Cléo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond is one of the great masters of cinema. But to be able to add the initials of JR, the amazing public artist whose work has covered landscapes, buildings and trains on almost all of the continents, only adds to the exhiliration! The two artists have collaborated to create a film that journeys into the countryside of France to make murals that pay tribute to the beauty of the average person. The project seems inspired by JR's vision and if you have seen any of his previous work (the one I love is his "Women are Heroes" project working with African women's faces on buildings and trains) you know a bit of what to expect. But Varda never allows us to feel like we've understood in a simple glance. The combination of their styles offers us a chance to see individuals in landscape at both the macro and the micro levels. The French title of this film (Visages Villages) captures better than the English one the innate wit of both these visionary artists. Masters

*First Reformed

Perhaps it's because I have just finished watching the electrifying British series Broken (starring Sean Bean) that I am drawn to another story that focuses on a priest. Or perhaps because it is the master voice of Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull screenplays) both penning and directing this story. Or perhaps it is because Ethan Hawke has been offering us particularly brilliant performances of late (think Maudie). For all of these reasons I am drawn to this story in which Hawke plays an ex-military chaplain/pastor grieving a son lost to conflict, who is asked to counsel a young couple with very different views. Schrader is Christian Reformed by upbringing and has been schooled as a theologian. He one of the few people uniquely positioned to authentically bring together faith and film as professional practice. I anticipate that we may see continued themes in Schrader's work of anger and despair, sacrifice and redemption. The film will premiere at Venice before coming to Toronto. Masters

*The House by the Sea (La Villa)

One of my best TIFF experiences of all time occurred on the first day of the festival in 2002. It was a Thursday and the very first two scheduled Industry screenings turned out to be long-lasting favourites. I remember getting to lunch and thinking 'I could actually go home now'. One of the films was Tom Tykwer's Heaven, which I continue to use and teach in Faith and Film classes. The other was Robert Guédiguian's Marie-Jo et ses deux Amants (Mari-Jo and Her Two Lovers). Both films are now quite hard to find -- though I managed to make use of the brief window that the Guédiguian was available in analog format, at least a dozen years ago. So I am thrilled to see that Guédiguian has brought another film to TIFF -- continuing some of the themes of Marie-Jo, including how loving relationships adapt and change as they face the tests of time and loss. Once again featuring pre-eminent actress Ariane Ascaride who is always wonderful (and who is married to the filmmaker), the film also stars Anaïs Demoustier -- one of the most interesting actors to emerge in Europe in the last years. The story follows a family gathering around a palliative father at his seaside home, where reconnections and reckonings unfold. Masters


Philippe Van Leeuw is a Belgian cinematographer who is bringing to TIFF his second feature as a director. Set in Damascus, the story follows families gathering together in order to be safe in the middle of Syria's horrendous civil war. While much of the world's attention is on the migrants and refugees who have left that region, Insyriated imagines the life from within it, in observing the story of a mother of three (played by the always-amazing Hiam Abbas) who allows her neighbours to take refuge in her tiny apartment. The film had very strong reviews at Berlin, and won the Panorama Audience Award there. The trailer looks promising, offering us a unique perspective on this devastating ongoing reality. CWC

Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya, is being described as an "alternately tragic, hilarious and absurd" biopic of former figure skater Tonya Harding, the champion who participated in a plot to injure fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan prior to the 1994 Olympics. Though Kerrigan survived and won silver at Lillehammer, Harding's life has seen many twists and turns in the decades since. My main interest here is Gillespie, whose beautiful Lars and the Real Girl demonstrates a deft and delicate hand at gently moving between the surreal and the real, with deep respect for the lives portrayed. And Allison Janney doing a tough turn as Harding's mother, is also a draw. SP.

*Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc

Expect the unexpected in the films of Bruno Dumont. Preoccupied with stories that dramatize the deepest currents of human nature, his films have also often crossed into conversation about religion or work from within religious story. His 2009 film Hadjewich (which I reviewed at length on this blog and which is still possible to view on Netflix), is a brilliant film about religious extremism. One of the most interesting European filmmakers working today, his films also challenge us to think about established genres and conventions of filmmaking in new ways. While Hadjewich offered a grim and also pious look at religion and violence, last year's much-loved by critics Slack Bay, was a comedy. This year, Dumont brings us a childhood biography of Joan of Arc, expressed as an "electro-metal" musical. The trailer hints at both comedy and a sincerity of commitment to the story of this legendary hero. Cannot wait. Wavelengths

*The Journey

Mohamed Jabarah Al-daradji is an incredibly brave filmmaker. Born in Iraq, he fled to The Netherlands during the war with Iran in the mid-90s and has since made films from this unique Iraqi-Dutch point of view, with much of his attention focused on his native Iraq. He has been imprisoned by both western and middle eastern authorities while trying to make his films. A regular at the international film festivals, I am particularly excited by this most recent film which focuses on a woman suicide bomber on a train and her connection with the worker she holds hostage. The short one-minute teaser trailer just released promises an empathic and electrifying ride. CWC


As I write this, it is the morning after the Charlottesville riots, when white nationalists and counter-protestors have clashed in violence related to the politics of race. Therefore, Deniz Gamze Ergüven's feature film about the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots of 1992 in the wake of the Rodney King beating verdicts is extremely timely, but it is timely at any moment of any year. I don't know this director but am fascinated by the Franco-Belgian origin of the film. Like Pablo Larrain's Jackie, it is always a gift to see North American events captured from a different perspective. The film features Daniel Craig and Halle Berry and is about a man who seeks to assist a woman and her children when the violence alters their lives. Gala

*Mark Felt - The Man Who Brought Down the White House

The two previous titles that I have seen for this new film from Peter Landesman seem more fitting: The Silent Man, which is the same title as Bob Woodward's book about Mark Felt, his FBI contact in the Watergate story known only as "Deep Throat" for many years; and Felt, which has nice ironic overtones. But alas, what they have gone with is the long ungainly title you see above. Nonetheless, this is a heavy hitter for me. I was a naive teenager and budding writer when the Watergate scandal broke and for some reason it captured my interest, despite that it broke from the traditional Hollywood and entertainment scene news that otherwise drew my attention. I had a part-time job at the time inside the Plaza cinemas at Bloor and Yonge and All The President's Men was playing then. I can easily remember how the film filled the large cinema, the many times I stood inside the door at the back and watched. When I saw this title come up in the TIFF press releases, I immediately rented All The President's Men and watched it for the first time since those days. Alan Pakula's suspenseful drama is an icon of his style and its idealistic sense of American justice and freedom of the press seem almost nostalgic in the 'post-truth' era. So my appetite is utterly whetted. Liam Neeson seems a dead ringer visually for the former FBI director and the teaser trailer promises some noir-ish tone. SP

Meditation Park

It's wonderful to have a new Mina Shum film back in the mix. She is a Canadian filmmaker whom I have been following (mostly through TIFF) since her debut with Double Happiness in the early 90s. Teaming up again with Sandra Oh, Meditation Park tells the story of Vancouver wife and mother (played by the amazing Cheng Pei Pei) who finds herself re-evaluating her marriage after discovering her husband has been unfaithful. The only available clip points to a comedy-drama, with Oh playing her daughter. This is a wonderful filmmaker worth following into any adventure. CWC


I recently read an interview with Novitiate director Maggie Betts and was completely impressed with this young filmmaker's integrity of purpose in looking at religious vocational life and her passionate research around it in literature and film. I am so tired of the Little Hours way of responding to what are the tropes of a perceived religious life. My enthusiasm was dampened slightly by the just-released trailer, which seems to want to market the film as if it were a parody, but the reviews out of Sundance were great and it has a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes to date. The film reminds me a great deal of Léa Pool's Passion of Augustine (2013) which covers similar territory in profiling a convent community deeply impacted by changes resulting from Vatican II in the 1960s, when communities were encouraged to become more modernized. I am also curious wheter that film inspired this one. In light of the Betts interview and a terrific review in Hollywood Reporter, I've decided to keep the faith! SP

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have impressive experience turning their documentary camera lens on the difficult edges of religion. Their 2006 Jesus Camp was nominated for an Oscar and raised enough controversy about the camp depicted in the film to lead to its closure. Now they turn their focus on the Hasidic Jewish community of New York City, following some members who are seeking a change. In films like Detropia (about Detroit) and 12th and Delaware (about an abortion clinic in Florida), this talented duo have travelled the United States, offering us an image and reflection of American tension. Docs

*Our People Will Be Healed

It is hard to imagine a person in this land who has had more impact on our understanding of Indigenous culture than Alanis Obomsawin. She has not only documented but illuminated so much of our history as a community of nations and settlers. I first became aware of her in the 90s with Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance but it is her more recentl work that has been most impactful, particularly Trick or Treaty and We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice. In this new film, she profiles the efforts of Norway House Cree First Nation in northern Manitoba, that offers an extraordinary paradigm for us all of what a sustainable and independent community looks like. At at time when many are working toward reconciliation, this documentary will certainly offer us an inspiring precedent. Masters


Naomi Kawase's beautiful film An (now known as Sweet Bean) was one of my most favourite films of TIFF16 and Kawase is always someone to make time for. I love how her narratives walk the line between a rigorous emotional honesty and a subtle magic realism. Radiance won the Ecumenical Jury prize at Cannes and I trust this jury more than any other as I have just begun an association with them. Her stories are always simple, even if they embrace magically endless landscapes as in 2014's Still the Water. The relationships are key: in Sweet Bean, so much was evoked by so little in the human connections. This film follows an audio transcriptionist as she encounters a photographer who is going blind. Esoteric, perhaps, but promising. SP

The Shape of Water

Fresh from her extraordinary performance in Maudie, Sally Hawkins joins the crew of Guillermo del Toro's much-anticipated next film set in a high-tech laboratory of the early 1960s. In his traditional and brilliant way of melding fantasy with science fiction the story follows a cleaning woman as she befriends a creature being held captive for scientific experimentation. This is the first movie del Toro has made since moving from Mexico to Toronto and also features Octavia Spencer. The first-look images reveal the kind of classic and unique world we have come to expect from the director of Pan's Labyrinth and the trailer is exciting. Hawkins seems like a beautiful partner for the kind of emotional investment del Toro always invites us into. This will be one of the most popular films of the festival so be prepared to line up early. SP


I am very excited to see another film from Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir in this year's line-up. Her previous films Salt of this Sea and When I Saw You are both unflinching but empathically observed stories of people living in statelessness, unable to create a home where their ancestors and they themselves have belonged. Family inheritance, land, history and traditions are important themes of her work as is the sacrifice and cost of trying to uphold them. Excited to see this new drama, about the experiences of a father and son while trying to observe the Palestinian custom of hand delivering wedding invitations. CWC

*You Disappear

I don't know the work of Danish director Peter Schønau Fog but the trailer for You Disappear is quite mesmerizing and the film features Trine Dyrholm whom I will follow into any world. Based on the novel by Christian Jungersen, the story portrays one woman's attempt to surf the dramatic changes in her husband's personality after a brain tumor appears to cause him to behave in erratic, unpredictable and consequential ways. The complexity of the brain seems to be as much a focus of the narrative: how do we continue to live with those whom we no longer recognize? A fascinating premise with a promising cast. SP