Toronto International Film Festival 2015!

Once again this September, I participated in the ten-day manic film extravaganza otherwise known as TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). I love films possibly more than any other art form, and so for me and my fellow cinephiles, TIFF is a little piece of heaven.

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Click on any photo for a larger image!

This line is outside of Metro Hall, where TIFF’s main box office is. See the hundreds of tiny people in the background? They are waiting in line to pick up or buy tickets. Eeeeeeeeeep! I am sure that the Festival didn’t feel so heavenly at that moment.

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This is my friend Rachel and I at the official opening night party at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (movie theatre complex and TIFF headquarters on King Street). Behind us is a gigantic artwork celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. Yes, those are real flowers.

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On my way to see a film one day, I passed the infamous (strip club) Zanzibar on Yonge Street. The marquee claims that Zanzibar is “TIFF Party Headquarters.” Ha ha ha! Everyone wants a piece of the action (pun fully intended), I suppose.

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This is TIFF’s REAL headquarters, the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Now on to the FILMS!

I saw a total of 12 films this year. I wanted to see about 350 out of the 399 films that were offered this year, but sadly, I didn’t have enough time between working as a box office supervisor at the Isabel Bader Theatre (one of the TIFF venues), eating, and sleeping (because those are ALL the things I did other than watch films).

The following are my capsule reviews of the films I saw this year, listed in the order that I saw them.

  1.  A Tale of Love and Darkness

This Israel/USA production is Natalie Portman’s debut as writer and director. The plot focuses on the birth of Israel in the 1940s and the struggles of one family within it.  Natalie Portman takes on the character of Fania as a mother struggling with depression. It was an interesting film, but perhaps lacked dramatic tension.

2.  Guantanamo’s Child

This Canadian documentary traces the story of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was convicted of throwing a grenade that killed an American soldier during a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002. Khadr was working as a translator for Al Qaeda at the time, but was not a member of the group. He was 15 years old at the time of the firefight. He is subsequently sent to the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison where he was held and tortured for the next 13 years. He is now 28 years old and has recently been released.

This film is incredibly fascinating. It is also very well balanced, showing both sides of the story and refusing to shy away from difficult truths and contradictions. I highly recommend it.

3.  Stranger (Zhat)

This offering from Kazakhstan tells the story of one man’s struggle to survive in a world he feels no longer has a place for him. A small village and its surrounding woods in turn-of-the-century Kazakhstan under crushing Soviet rule are the setting for this compelling tale. Highly recommended.

4.  A Young Patriot

This documentary from China is a look into the life of Zhao Chantong, a young man who has an impassioned zeal for Mao and his principles. Five years in his life are covered, from his early flag-waving, slogan-chanting days in city streets to his thoughtful rethinking of contemporary China’s contradictions as a college student.

It was very interesting to see this person’s ideas grow and develop over time. The film, however, dragged in places – certain scenes were unnecessarily lengthy.

5.  The Other Side

This film was shot in a documentary style, with people playing themselves. However, some scenes are clearly set up by the director. This “docu-fiction” is a look at modern-day Louisiana’s backwaters. It is an affecting study of a group of people living on the margins of society. It was difficult to watch at times, but I will never forget some of those scenes. Try and see this film if you have the chance – it truly is one of a kind.

6.  Eva Doesn’t Sleep

This strange and haunting film from Argentina tells the story of what happened to Eva Peron (Evita)’s body after she passed away. The fact that most of it is true (with some dramatic liberties thrown in, of course), makes it even stranger. The theme, I would say, seems to be how a person can become so influential (and dangerous to some) in life that the fact that they have died cannot reduce their power.

7.  Paths of the Soul

This film from China follows a group of pilgrims on a 2000 km journey to Lhasa, Tibet. They travel on foot and camp in tents at night, despite freezing temperatures. This film was shot over an entire year with non-professional actors and no script (!) The film’s premise is very simple, yet the film is almost hypnotizing. The mountain vistas, the bowing pilgrims, and the rhythms of pilgrimage life are mesmerizing. This was one of my favourite films at TIFF this year.

8. Cemetery of Splendour

This film from Thailand centres on a group of soldiers who are being afflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness. They cannot wake, and a medium is brought in to “speak” to them. She claims that their conditions are linked to an ancient archaeological site that lies beneath the perpetually slumbering men. Sounds cool, right? Well, that description is probably more interesting than actually watching the movie. I have no problem with watching movies that are slow-paced, unclear, or mysterious. But I do have a problem with watching a movie that is SO unclear, so painfully slow, and so utterly confounding that it just becomes awkward and tedious.

9.  Hellions

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The above three photos are of the Winter Garden Theatre, a beautiful old theatre in Toronto where I watched a movie called Hellions.

Hellions, however, left a lot to be desired. The story is about a girl who is visited by supernatural beings who are after her unborn child. But….a horror movie should have suspense, right? And it should make a little bit of sense, maybe…you know, have a plot that can be described in more than one sentence, right?  And it shouldn’t feature CGI exploding pumpkins for absolutely no reason, right…??

This movie was neither good enough to be good or bad enough to be so-bad-its-good (which is my favourite kind of horror movie). It was just bad.

Dreadful, actually.

10.  SPL 2: A Time For Consequences

This Hong Kong martial arts movie high-kicked in all the right places (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one). The story centres on an undercover cop who is wrongfully sent to jail by a twisted warden. One of the guards (played by Tony Jaa of the Ong-Bak: Muai Thai Warrior movies) becomes dangerously involved with the sinister plot (which is quite involved for a martial arts film). The fight scenes are incredible and the camerawork is awesome. There is basically nothing I didn’t like about this movie. And hey, if you want to see a close-up of someone’s finger getting cut off in mid-air, this film’s for you.

11.  The Witch

This USA/Canada co-production is the one film that I saw this year at TIFF that I will be telling everyone I know to go and see. It is hands-down the best horror movie I have seen in a very long time. Possibly ever. Seriously, it’s that good.

The story is about a New England family scraping out an existence on a gloomy, unproductive farm in the wilderness in the time of the early settlers (the 1600s). This was a time when witches and supernatural forces were very real to most people. Throw in physical isolation, paranoia, and possible panic, and you have yourself on hell of a horror movie.

P.S. During the Q and A, the director mentioned that over ten thousand pages of research went into this movie. Everything is authentic, right down to the buttons on the dresses. But the most interesting thing that he said was that at that time (the early 1600s), that fairy/folk tales and court documents often featured the same language and stories. There was little to no distinction between superstition and fact. That, perhaps, is the scariest thing of all.

12.  The Girl in the Photographs

This horror film from the USA is set in modern times, and it cleverly manipulates and twists the classic slasher genre. It makes interesting observations on our camera-obsessed, self-centred (selfie) society. The story features a young woman who is being stalked by killers who continually place bloody photographs of someone who possibly has been killed in places she is bound to find them.  Interesting and effective.

…and that was all the films I had time to see! …

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…however, I did get to see this at the closing night party. A girl wearing silver hot pants, a bandeau, and a gigantic afro wig dancing inside of a strange triangular sculpture made of neon tubes. TIFF is never boring, anyway.

Stay tuned!

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