2013, Movies

TIFF 2013 Wrap Up

This year I managed to see only 10 films. I say ‘only’ because usually I see at least 12 and because next year I would like to say more. Alas. What follows are the ten movies I have seen this year, ranked by how good I thought they were.

1. Blue Ruin, directed by Jeremy Saulnier (9/10)

I have always had a thing for revenge movies, but one thing I will give the genre is that it isn’t realistic. Nearly every Hollywood or
Asian revenge movie out there features a regular guy who transforms into some kind of hyper-manly Angel of Death simply through will power. This is not that kind of revenge movie.

I don’t want to tell you much about this, I just want to say that this film contains three of the tensest moments I have seen in a film in the last few years, maybe even the last decade or so. (On par with scenes in No Country for Old Men and Zodiac, for example.) The third scene was so much for me that my leg started twitching. Every time I have a visceral reaction to a film, I know that film is effective.

But this insane, unbearable tension – and one or two really gross moments as well – is balanced by a humour of circumstance that is relatively rare in the genre. The humour adds such contrast to the tension – and the deliberate pace, and the mystery, as this is not your average revenge-by-numbers plot – that it makes the tension so much worse (i.e. better).

This is the best movie I’ve seen at TIFF ’13 and the only thing keeping me from giving it full marks is the finale, which is perhaps just a tad too over-the-top for the rest of the film.

See it.

2. 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen (9/10)

This may seem a weird thing to say but I think this is McQueen’s least difficult material to date. Obviously, slavery is a difficult subject – this is not an easy film to watch – but it is not morally difficult subject, at least for most of us. Hunger may not have been morally difficult for anyone who wasn’t British, but it was presented in a difficult – and brilliant – manner. Shame did concern morally difficult subject matter, at least for the majority of us who still wish this was the Victorian Era. But this film does not have such subject matter; it is easy for us to establish a moral position.

So hopefully you will understand me when I say that I feel like this was a safe movie for McQueen to make. I am not, for an instant, saying that it was bad, but I would say that he has entered the mainstream. In the hands of another, weaker filmmaker, this would be pure Oscar-bait. I’m glad McQueen of all people made it – I can imagine the disaster of sentimentality it would be in the hands of someone like Spielberg – but I still think it may have been slightly too easy an artistic choice for him. And I say this only because I feel like it is his weakest film, behind Hunger, on my short-list for the best film of the last decade, and Shame, on my short-list for the best film of last year, despite its flaws.

This is still a very, very good movie, it just feels like McQueen has sacrificed some of his peculiar aesthetic choices in order to get more
people to see his movie. That isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, but if it is part of a trend, I will be just slightly disappointed.

Anyway, the movie:

Ejiofor is as good as you’ve been told, perhaps better. This is likely the best acting performance any of us will see this year. There are a few moments when he is about as good as anyone I have ever seen at showing us his changing feelings, without saying a word. That’s a real talent, and it’s incredible to watch. The rest of the cast is also great, particularly Fassbender, who plays the hardest role. (More on that in a second.)

The film itself does not shy away from any of the harsh realities of the plantation economy, though the story itself has some peculiar turns. Had someone other than McQueen made it, I might doubt the authenticity of some of Ejiofor’s character’s luck. It is beautifully shot, as we would expect from this director.

The sound is also usually quite effective, though I did have a bit of a problem with the score at the beginning. It’s not that the score  itself is bad – it’s quite interesting and the one catchy musical motif is used very sparingly – it’s just that it was too obvious in the opening third or so of the film. I stopped noticing it so much later on and I’m not sure if that’s because of the film drawing me in or because the score was more subtle in those scenes.

My one bone to pick, aside from some over-scoring, is the use of Brad Pitt. I feel that, had another not necessarily better but at least less famous actor played this part, it would be more authentic. Instead, Pitt gets to condemn slavery – as he no doubt would in real life, hardly a difficult task for an actor. He practically rides in on a white horse and because of who he is, you can’t help but wonder if he bought his way into the part, as he also co-produced the film. When you look at Pitt’s small role, and its few demands, and compare it to Fassbender’s, you know who made the harder – and better – artistic decision. If this is what Pitt is doing for serious work nowadays, he won’t be convincing anyone that he is a great actor. (Full disclosure, in the late ’90s and early ’00s I would have probably claimed he was such.) He is too famous at this point and the role he plays is just too safe. Better to put him in Giamatti’s role, I think.

But this is a small, small thing that really doesn’t detract from the overall effectiveness of an otherwise great film.

3. Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, directed by Madeleine Sackler (9/10)

This is an important and emotionally compelling film about theatre under repressive regimes. I knew nothing about the Belarus Free Theatre before seeing this film, but they seem to have found a compelling way to bring attention to the plight of the arts – and expression at large – in Belarus. Far more dangerous regimes do not get this kind of exposure perhaps only because they don’t have underground theatre troops. But regardless of the fact that there are indeed more brutal dictators than Lukashenko, he remains a dictator, and this film does an excellent job of painting him as a leader who is only a leader because he has a gigantic secret police force.

Not that the two situations are comparable in any way, but watching this film, I couldn’t help being reminded of Toronto’s minor experience with such repression in June of 2010, at the G-20 summit; a repression I witnessed first hand. Having witnessed the effects of riot police, and plain clothes officers performing abductions and the like, I can say that this film does a good job of conveying the emotional trauma of such violations of fundamental freedoms, even if such violations seem rather minor compared to, say, all-out genocide.

The film does an admirable job of bringing the rights – or lack thereof – of people in a completely different part of the world into focus in a way that the news regularly fails to: we see people just like us, who just want to perform a basic role of theatre, and who cannot, due to the insecurities of one man, and the unquestioning loyalty of so many others.

As a passerby in the film reminds us, ‘evil happens when good people do nothing.” I may not agree with that entirely – I’d say there aren’t really such people as “good people” necessarily – but I do agree that evil occurs in part when people do nothing. The Belarus Free Theatre reminds us that doing something can be as simple as telling other people what is going on. And this film reminds us that it is only by recording what happens – both what happens and our reactions to what happens – and speaking truth to power that we can influence the masses enough to see changes in our lives.

4. A Field in England, directed by Ben Wheatley (7/10)

I don’t really know where to begin with this film. Experimental or avant garde cinema – whether that cinema forsakes narrative or not – rarely has a sense of humour. So I must say that it is a bit of a delight to watch an obviously “experimental” narrative film – kind of a rare thing these days, I should think – that has a strong sense of humour.

I’m pretty sure it is the humour alone that saves this film from being either a disaster or boring. I have never been big on film effects
unless I see a point – though I must admit the camera effects achieved in this film’s “trippiest” sequence are indeed well done, even  though they gave me a headache – and I am more a fan of audio gimmickry, which this film also possesses but when a film is this funny in addition to being “trippy” or “avant garde” or what have you, you can kind of excuse the pretension.

Frankly, I don’t know why someone would decide their story needed such effects, but the filmmakers managed to make it entertaining and ambiguous – i.e. thought-provoking – enough that you kind of don’t care. I have rarely struggled so hard with my reaction to a movie because on the one hand I laughed out loud more times than I could count, on the other hand I find such “trip” sequences to be kind of obnoxious – at least in narrative features – and though I am one who appreciates ambiguity this much ambiguity can also be obnoxious. But I think I have come to the conclusion that the humour – and some very beautiful shots, and some really neat use of audio – sort of redeem whatever pretension was bugging me. So I think I liked it.

And I think you should probably see it, because even though it is weird, and a bit of a mess, it’s an entertaining weird mess, and sure as hell is thought- and conversation-provoking.

5. Beyond the Edge, directed by Leanne Pooley (8*/10)

What could easily have been a bad TV documentary is saved by the rather brilliant idea of actually recreating Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s historic ascent 60 years later and, amazingly enough, the use of 3D. There are some really clunky, TV-movie worthy ideas here: calendar pages flipping over, altimeter gauges tracking the ascent, CGI bees…

But the views are so spectacular, especially because of the 3D, that by the end of the film you don’t care that it needed a better director. No film I have ever seen has done a better job of establishing the absolute scale – and the height, and fear, and vertigo and vastness
that go along with that scale – of a mountain before, but especially a mountain like Everest. If you see this movie in 3D, you will get an
incredible sense of the size of Everest that cannot possibly be conveyed by my review, any description of its size, or even pictures or
conventional cinema. This is one movie where the 3D saves the film.

Though the story of the ascent is obviously compelling – and is rendered tense despite the known ending as the film goes on and progresses, and thankfully improves in execution – much of the telling of the story feels like it belongs on the New Zealand equivalent of TVO. But the sheer scale of this mountain renders all criticism moot. I practically got vertigo at one point. And this is as close as I will ever get to ascending Everest myself.

[Please Note: Though I have rated Beyond the Edge higher than A Field in England, I am truly torn about which is the better film. I suspect A Field in England is the superior film – by a lot – but in 3D, Beyond the Edge is just so crazy to watch that it was the more incredible experience, at least for a fleeting moment. I am really confused about this.]

6. El Alcalde, directed by Emiliano Altuna, Diego Enrique Osorno, Carlos Rossini (6/10)

This a challenging but confused film that begs the question, ‘what is more important to you, peace and security or freedom, transparency and accountability?’ This is an especially poignant question in Mexico, which experiences its share of violence.
On the one hand, we have an intimate and honest and candid as possible – as possible – interview with the Mayor of San Pedro Garza Garcia, supposedly the richest community in Latin America and a complete haven from the drug war. The mayor employs a police force that is practically a small army – officially 500 officers for 100,000 people, but probably many more – and virtually admits that he has people killed. He is also filthy rich.

Fortunately, the filmmakers just let him talk and he impeaches himself even as he spins his tenure – though not so much legally.

On the other hand, we have a film that was clearly the vision of multiple people – the three credited directors seem to have wanted to  achieve different things – that jumps from relying almost completely on found footage, to a incredibly compelling musical motif that suggests a deep mystery over top of images of the mayor’s very comfortable life, to the interview, and to the mayor’s public appearances, and back again. There does not appear to be any rhyme or reason to the structure of the film.

The score, in particular, suggests that they will eventually reveal a big secret – for example, that they have definitive proof that he is
being paid by his richest citizens and perhaps even certain drug lords to keep the peace no matter what the cost – but that never happens. Instead, we see that he is clearly up to extralegal things, that he believes these actions are justified in order to keep San Pedro free of organized crime, and that he pretty comfortable with all of this – both mentally and financially. I’m not sure anything coherent – on the part of the filmmakers – ever emerges.

7. The Police Officer’s Wife, directed by Philip Gronning (6/10)

There are perhaps few movies I have seen more in need of a little common-sense editing than this film. The filmmakers made a bizarre
choice which may have made some kind of artistic sense in post-production but which pretty much punishes the audience for watching
this film in reality. What is that choice? It will not spoil the movie for you if I tell, it will, however, likely convince you not to see it.

This film is separated into 59 chapters. That’s right, 59. Moreover, each chapter’s beginning is announced, as is its end. Now, I don’t want to think that the filmmakers think us viewers are idiots but when I am told a chapter is ending 58 times, I get it into my head that
the filmmakers think I am stupid. I wanted to say ‘I get your movie is episodic. And, given the absurd run-time in part generated by the 117 chapter headings, I would have been able to figure it out just with fade-outs. Everyone else manages without 117 chapter headings. Why can’t you?’ Where was the editor in post saying “This is an alienating decision? You are going to lose much of your potential audience through this, especially when it is distributed digitally and people can just turn it off.’ Numerous walkouts occurred during the screening – as early as Chapter 20-somethig, I seem to remember – and their was a collective sigh by the audience when Chapter 51 appeared – we had all assumed Chapter 50 would end the film despite the fact that it didn’t resolve anything.

And this is a terrible shame, because within this 59 chapter, 3-hour onslaught of “Hey, guess what audience? You’ve been sitting here for 58 chapters already! And we’ve told you that 115 times!” mess is a great movie. The actors are all incredible. I can’t decide who was the best, they were all so good. The little girls playing the daughter were incredible. The wife was incredible. And when I think they were both better than the husband, I catch myself because I remember he too was incredible. And the film builds slowly – so slowly, as this is a 3 hour movie divided into 59 parts – that it takes us a long time to figure out what is going on – and we are thrown the odd curve-ball – but because of that we get the full complexity of this kind of relationship, to perhaps a greater extent than has ever before seen in cinema, at least in my experience. And it is well shot. And there are lots of poignant and powerful moments.
That would be high praise if I thought anyone wanted to sit through it. I’m still sort of amazed that over half the audience was still there at the end. Honestly, we almost left – and I never leave! – because we were worried we would miss our next movie, a movie we actually wanted to see.

It’s sad, really, because anyone not emotionally close to the project – someone without any practical editing experience even, me for example – could have shaved off 25-35 minutes of the run-time and not affected the story. Hell, it would be a better, perhaps even great, film. And the thing that’s maddening: this is the ideal subject for a film-school course in “How to edit” and it’s so obvious that anyone could have done it. Anyone except the filmmakers, evidently.

8. The Station, directed by Marvin Kren (6/10)

The Station is a reasonably entertaining horror film that suffers from some poor directorial and story choices and perhaps a bit to much interpersonal conflict. The actors are all very capable but the story asks them to get downright hysterical often times just over each other’s actions rather than over the threat of death. The creatures are revealed a little early though that is, I guess, necessary to help explain what is going on. Also, there is some odd use of tinting that really isn’t required.

On the other hand, there are some really entertaining sequences and some good characters, a sparing use of CGI – which I feel has become a crutch for many filmmakers, though this film has its bad moments too: fire still looks terrible when it is CGI – and a unique ending that, though it doesn’t satisfy, is at least unconventional. So I’m kind of torn, I really liked it in places, and I like how the creatures are mostly homemade, but then at other times I was getting downright annoyed at some of the story / directorial decisions.

9. Pioneer, directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg (5/10)

What starts out as a fascinating and tense, if oddly shot, story of the divers who laid Norway’s earliest North Sea pipelines soon turns to an over-the-top conspiracy theory where literally everybody did it but the hero. The film features too much shaky-camera, too much of a “It’s the ’70s! colour palette, and too much out-of-focus-for-the-sake of it, but otherwise the story of the divers themselves seems very compelling. I was practically on the edge of my seat for the first dive in the movie. But for some reason the filmmakers decided that the real story wasn’t good enough, instead they had to invoke just about every conspiracy movie cliche in the book to make this story more “interesting.” And that’s a pity, because by the climax things get really absurd. To make the plot worse there is about zero character development beyond the protagonist himself: his sister-in-law is the token “I don’t want you doing dangerous things!” wife, the politician is the typically horribly corrupt politician, the US divers and staff are the typical Ugly Americans, and so forth, and none of them really change. (Even if the protagonist’s perception of them changes, the characters themselves don’t develop.) And the whole thing is made worse by the attempt to set this in history, as if this movie is some kind of message movie against the Norwegian government and its pursuit of oil revenues.

So I view this as a missed opportunity: a good fiction film or great documentary could have been made about this subject and the fiction film need only have focused on the actual risks took – not the ridiculous, invented, multiple-plot twist conspiracy we got. That would have been a movie I would have enjoyed. These people apparently didn’t realize you don’t need explosions to make a great thriller.

10. Almost Human, directed by Joe Begos (3/10)

So Jen, I’m trying to decide if this was the worst movie I have ever seen at TIFF.
Really, Seth? That seem’s a little harsh.
But Jen, the opening 5-10 minutes of it were painful.
Seth, you’re right, that was bad. As was that scene in the diner, Seth.
Jen, it was like we were watching Netflix,  Jen!
Seth, it was almost as if the actors were better at acting hysterical than at just having normal conversations. Right, Seth?
Right Jen. It might be easier to act hysterical. But Jen, that script didn’t help.
No Seth, it didn’t.
I mean, Jen, if we had been playing a drinking game, drinking whenever a
character said another’s name, well Jen we would have been drunk in 20
Seth, I think you’re right. But there was that one moment.
Jen, there was that one creepy / funny moment in the climax. It was
like they tried to change the tone too late, Jen. Like they played it
straight for the whole movie and tried to play the climax for laughs.
Seth, everyone else in the theatre was laughing.
you’re right, but I’ve seen way more creative / funny gore than that.
Something was off: the timing of the gags, if they were gags, or the
fact that the movie had been played straight for so long before the
humour in the climax, Jen.
That’s true Seth, but the sound design was good.
Jen, you’re right again – but the sound was well produced for the low budget, not necessarily well written. Those musical footsteps in the climax weren’t exactly scary, Jen.
True, Seth, true. They sort of made the whole thing a little hyper-real or absurd. And, Seth, there was no denouement.
Not always a bad thing, Jen. At least that part was unconventional.
True, Seth. So what are you going to give it?
I want to give it a 4 because people laughed and I jumped exactly once,
but I think I have to give it a 3. I think it was the worst movie I
have ever seen at TIFF, Jen.
If you say so Seth.
I do Jen.
Until next time, Seth.
One more thing, Jen.
What, Seth?
What happened to Rob?

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