The Toronto International Film Festival—now in its 43rd year—ran from September 6 to 16. This was my third TIFF, and perhaps the biggest change I’ve noticed from year to year is the increasing size of the circus. Spend some time at TIFF and you’ll quickly become overwhelmed by the pomp, the circumstance, and the corporate partnerships. Rushing from venue to venue, trying to fit three, four, five films into a single day begins to take its toll. Faced with this daunting gauntlet, how do you maintain a critical eye—much less the stamina to stay standing?
You can’t see everything, so I decided to focus on genre film. Largely thanks to the festival’s “Midnight Madness” programming, TIFF has long been a paradise for horror fans. Some of this year’s biggest premieres and showings included David Gordon Green’s take on Halloween, Shane Black’s controversy-plagued The Predator, and Sam Levinson’s stylized Assassination Nation. These premieres are often accompanied by some amount of extra-diegetic celebration, such as visits by Michael Myers before and after the screening of Halloween. These extra flourishes make for a great excuse to stay up late and see some films in entirely unique environments.
One Midnight Madness film with decidedly less fanfare than some of these anticipated blockbusters was Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, his giallo-tinged follow-up to Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy. Strickland is proving himself to be one of the most exciting filmmakers working within genre cinema, with a trilogy of films indebted to the horror and suspense films of the 1970s that pay appropriate homage while moving forward with a distinct style. In Fabric, a tale about a dress from a mysterious department store that seems to have it out for whomever wears it, is also his funniest film to date.
Full of Strickland’s British absurdist sense of humour, each moment is both deeply self-aware yet somehow authentic, always striking an impossible balance of wit, terror, and just plain weirdness. His fondness for Italian horror never feels derivative—instead, he plays up and delights in the ridiculousness of these situations, and delivers it all with hilariously verbose dialogue and confident digressions that don’t serve the story so much as they illustrate Strickland’s dedication to using the language of the films he knows to create something altogether new and unique.
Jacques Audiard’s new film, The Sisters Brothers, is a more traditional genre subversion. In this western, John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix star as notorious assassins who begin to feel alienated from their chosen careers. This is Audiard’s first English-language film, and it could be that his outsider’s perspective on the most American of genres allows him a wider perspective on what that era can really tell us about communication, trauma, and daily life.
Overall I tended to explore the fringes of genre stylings at the festival, and what I found shouldn’t be particularly surprising—many of the most compelling and inventive films at the festival were infused with elements of genre, whether or not they would admit to the association. Asako I & II, for example, uses a science-fiction hook in order to tell its tender and raw love story. Asako (Erika Karata) is deeply in love with Baku (Masahiro Higashide), at least until he disappears. Some time later, she meets a man who looks shockingly similar to Baku named Ryohei (also played by Higashide). This isn’t played to its pulpy potential—at least until a third-act climax—but instead offers a way for director Ryūsuke Hamaguchi to cleverly depict relationship dynamics, and to question to what extent you can really know your partner.
Zhang Yimou’s latest historical epic, with elements of wuxia, is Shadow—a film full of betrayals, twists, trysts, and some of the gnarliest gore of his career. I had more fun at Shadow than at any other film in the festival, perhaps in part due to how much fun the director himself was having with it. Not only does the film feature a scene in which a small army of spinning blade-umbrellas barrels downhill, but it’s as if the monochromatic visual style forced Yimou to get more creative and loud in every other sense. His trademark pageantry is only matched here by his humour and his willingness to try anything.
You might ask why film festivals like TIFF are worth attending, why it’s worth braving the crowds to see films that will often be released around the world just a few months later. For me, one of the of the greatest advantages is having the opportunity to get fresh looks at new films, untainted by weeks or months of pre-release discourse on Twitter. In most cases, I haven’t heard anyone else’s takes. These are clean slates, and that’s a privilege I don’t take for granted.
For example, I expect that Damien Chazelle’s First Man and Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk will be positioned alongside each other during awards season, as a rematch following the “battle” between La La Land and Moonlight in 2016. Then as now, these narratives do a disservice to the films. Rather than allow them to exist on their own, we feel the need to gamify the race and pit them against each other.
Speaking of buzz, I couldn’t discuss this year’s TIFF without mentioning A Star is Born. Perhaps the most-anticipated film at the festival, it was already bound up in a cavalcade of expectations. Ever since the first trailer was released, I had fully accepted my new reality, in which Bradley Cooper is an acclaimed director who has somehow earned the right to adapt this story yet again.
As it turns out, his performance is perhaps my favourite of his to date, and Lady Gaga is otherworldly, as expected. As a musical, too, it succeeds. “Shallow,” an original song co-written by Gaga, shows up in some form at least three times in the film, and it’s good enough that you end up wishing it would make a fourth appearance. Gaga performs several other spellbinding songs, and Cooper’s song “Maybe It’s Time,” written by Jason Isbell, likewise shows up a couple of times and is just as welcome.
In truth, it’s remarkable that it all works as well as it does. Cooper doesn’t stray much from the formula established by the previous versions of A Star is Born, yet each moment hits with aplomb. Trust me when I say that the opportunity to see this film before it is released into the wild is not something I’ll soon forget.
TIFF is a well-oiled machine that seems to genuinely care about cinema’s present and its future. It’s a machine that is caught up in becoming bigger and brighter every year, and it can leave one feeling exhausted. But it’s a privilege to have some of the world’s most exciting filmmakers and artists all in one place, and even if everyone is trying to sell their product, it’s a place where Lady Gaga could, theoretically, bump into Hong Sang-soo. And that’s a thought I’ll hold close to my heart.