TIFF 2013: Festival Wrap-up and 'Best of the Fest'

TIFF People's Choice winner 12 Years a Slave
Another year at TIFF has ended. This year’s Toronto International Film Festival felt bigger and better than ever, although I’m sad to say that I missed some of the festival’s top hits even though I had a final tally of 38 features and 7 shorts. The massive line-up called for some tough decisions and I just had to cut coveted films such as 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Rush, Prisoners, and Dallas Buyers Club because they had immanent release dates whereas screenings they conflicted with often did not. (Why pay $25-$45 to see Prisoners in Toronto on the 15th when I can see it for six bucks in Kanata on the 20th?) It feels like I attended a different festival of sorts as I stocked up on Can Con with Oscar hopefuls and world cinema sandwiched in between. I felt less out of touch, though, when the festival winners were announced and I’d actually seen two of them: Philomena, which went over sensationally well at the public screening I attended, is a worthy runner-up to the People’s Choice winner 12 Years a Slave, which I didn’t see, but drew raves from all my TIFF-going companions who saw it. I cast a vote for Philomena in my efforts to expand voting beyond my top five this year, so I’m glad to feel included among “the people”.

I didn’t cast a vote, however, for the film that the Canadian jury deemed the best Canadian feature of the festival. That film is Alan Zweig’s funny but disposable When Jews Were Funny. I’m surprised I’m not more thrilled about Zweig’s win since his other 2013 doc 15 Reasons to Live was my top pick of Hot Docs earlier this year. There was an embarrassment of riches for the jury to choose from and they gave the prize to Football in the Groin. There’s nothing especially bad about Jews, but it is arguably among the weakest films of the thirteen Canadian features I saw at the festival this year. Gabrielle and Rhymes for Young Ghouls are among the dozen or so superior films.

The Other Awards: The Oscars

I feel as if I can’t weigh in on the Oscars with the same relish that I would in previous editions of the festival. The buzz was deafening for the films I mentioned in paragraph 1, and will be the subject of the first round of Oscar predictions following my OIAF coverage, and there are only a handful of films I saw that could be added to the conversation. Philomena is the most obvious Oscar contender I saw at TIFF, as it’s a compelling film that manages to be a weepie and a crowd-pleaser at the same time. It could easily sweep the top five categories with nominations (even wins?) for Best Picture, Director, Actress (Dench), Actor (Coogan), and Screenplay. The Screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope strikes me as the film’s strongest awards potential in the adapted category. It could bring Dench her first Lead Actress win, too, if The Weinstein Company plays it right.
TIFF Runner-up Philomena

Dench’s competition comes from my favourite performance of the festival: Meryl Streep in August: Osage County. Streep’s co-stars Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, and Julianne Nicholson are all contenders for nominations (maybe even a win for Martindale), although Roberts would likely be edged out of the lead category by the showier and stronger Streep. It’s a Kids Are All Right situation with both actresses sharing the screentime with only minutes of difference. It would be fraud (and a disservice to Martindale) for either to switch to supporting for an easy win. August: Osage County still strikes me as a contender for Best Picture despite some of the reviews it drew following the press reaction on Monday night. One would think that TIFF screened two different films on Monday and Tuesday with the rapturous response that August received during Tuesday’s screening at the Elgin. I haven’t seen a crowd go that wild during a screening since catching Precious at the festival in 2009. August is in whatever the pundits of snark suggest.

Finally, Labor Day could bring a third Best Actress contender with Kate Winslet. She is outstanding as Adele in Labor Day, as is her co-star Josh Brolin who seems like a shoo-in in the less crowded field of Best Supporting Actor. Brolin could face off against the festival’s other strong supporting turn, James Gandolfini in Enough Said, who wouldn’t be headed to the Oscars for sentimental reasons alone. He’s terrific.

The screenwriters of the latter two films, Jason Reitman and Nicole Holofcener, are certainly in the running, too, for adapted and original works, respectively. As should Ned Benson for his outstanding Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, which might be in the conversation next year. Ditto fellow Weinstein Co. acquisition The Railway Man, which is a flawed film, but could garner serious attention for Colin Firth if he waits until 2014. Best Actor is already overcrowded so we don’t need anyone else fighting for votes!

Don’t let Oscar talk be the sole barometer of TIFF though. Three Best Picture contenders is a respectable number from my sampling of the festival since many of the films I saw probably don’t have any aspirations for the Academy Awards. That’s not a bad thing since it was refreshing to approach the films I saw at the festival with a filter that felt less restrictive than the one I normally use.

The Best of the Fest: High Points and Low Points

Jessica Chastain at the Eleanor Rigby premiere
That Fateful Monday. I can’t believe the midpoint of my festival experience. I was, as readers and friends know, extremely excited to see Meryl Streep at the festival. I literally planned my week around the red carpet of August: Osage County in case I couldn’t get a ticket for opening night. I didn’t get said ticket even though I got up before 7:00 am when single tickets are normally released. (They weren’t for August unless they all sold out in twenty-three seconds.) I therefore skipped Gravity and Robert Lepage’s Triptych and planned to see Meryl walk the red carpet.
James McAvoy at the Eleanor Rigby premiere
There was some free time following the screening of Philomena, which ended at 12:40ish, before the red carpet of August: Osage County, which started at 6:00ish. Luckily, though, the premiere of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby was going on at the Elgin, so I joined the crowd at the gates so that I could see Jessica Chastain arrive and strut her stuff. Both Chastain and James McAvoy arrived and I was so impressed with how well they interacted with their fans. Each star walked the entirety of the barricade to sign autographs and take pictures with fans. Jessica Chastain was especially kind, as her entourage tried to move her along quickly—they told her a cut-off point of less than half the line—but she insisted on going the whole way and show her appreciation for everyone who showed up. Thank goodness, because I was lucky enough to get an autograph thanks to Miss Chastain’s loyalty to her fans.
Thanks Jessica!

Riding on a high from seeing Jessica Chastain and having a star live up to expectations, I made my way to the red carpet at Roy Thomson Hall just around 2:00 to get a spot for Meryl. The crowd was already thick even though there were four hours to go. There was a buzz as everyone shuffled in anticipation of the festival’s biggest premiere. However, I got a major buzz kill an hour or so later when a festivalgoer joined the group beside me and sadly told her friends that Meryl Streep wasn’t coming. I didn’t want to believe her so I turned to Twitter—the source of all reliable news—and saw that the festival tweeted that Meryl had called in sick. It was very disappointing. The silver lining, I guess, was that I wasn’t able to get a premium ticket for the event anyways, which would have been doubly disappointing to pay fifty bucks for a letdown. Streep was certainly there in the spirit of her fans, though: I’ve never seen a crowd at Roy Thomson Hall that big—three hours before the event, no less.

If my biggest complaint about the festival is that my favourite actress got sick, then that is a sign of a good festival. There was only one major disappointment among film choices for me, which was Atom Egoyan’s surprisingly hollow Devil’s Knot. What happened with that one? The biggest letdown, however, might have been the Jason Reitman Live Read of Boogie Nights, which just couldn’t hold up to the original. The Live Read was still a one-time event, though, so it was hardly a night misspent seeing Josh Brolin and company bring the script to (comedic) life.

The Boogie Nights Live Read
It’s funny that the Jason Reitman Live Read is a low point of the festival since a Jason Reitman film tops my list of the 'Best of the Fest'. I'll admit that nothing at the festival hit me with quite the same power as Anna Karenina or Black Swan did at previous editions of the festival, but Jason Reitman's Labor Day is an easy favourite of all the films I saw at TIFF for its note-perfect adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel and for Reitman’s laudable maturation as a director.
Labor Day is the best of the fest

The runner-up for Best Film goes to The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her, which added a breath of life to my festival line-up. Rigby is the most original, daring, and debatable film experience I had at the festival. It’s an excellent film from any perspective.
The Big Chill reunion screening

Other highlights included two of the extended discussions I attended. The first was my opening night choice of The Big Chill, which had much of the principal cast and crew in attendance for a reunion screening. The event brought exactly the kind of hype and energy to a theatre that one expects to see on opening night. It was a wild celebration of cinephilia and a great way to begin TIFF by looking back upon one of the films that brought the festival to the status it enjoys today.
Ken Taylor and Pat Taylor at Our Man in Tehran

The other Q&A highlight was the World Premiere screening of the documentary Our Man in Tehran, which looks at the Iranian Hostage Crisis from the perspective of Canada’s involvement and gives insight into the efforts made by heroes like Ambassador Ken Taylor. Both the film and post-screening discussion provided an insightful and comprehensive story of the events that didn’t make their way into Argo. I especially liked how Our Man in Tehran doesn’t give the Canadians their due at the expense of the story told in Argo—in fact, the film doesn’t even mention Ben Affleck’s Oscar winner and it was only the moderator who insisted on discussing it—so one can enjoy both films in their own right.

I think the biggest highlight of TIFF, though, was the annual event of spending eleven days with people who love movies and the thrill of celebrity just as much as I do. A big thanks to all the friends who joined me at screenings and made TIFF ’13 another great festival experience. I’m already looking forward to TIFF ’14!

To recap:

Top Ten Eleven Films of the Festival (alphabetical)

Festival Prizes:

Best of the fest: Labor Day
Runner-up: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her
Third Place: August: Osage County

Best Canadian Film: Gabrielle
Runner-up: Rhymes for Young Ghouls

Best Actress: Meryl Streep in August: Osage County
Best Actor: Colin Firth in The Railway Man
Best Supporting Actress: Margo Martindale, August: Osage County
Best Supporting Actor: James Gandolfini, Enough Said; Josh Brolin, Labor Day (tie)
Best Performance in a Canadian Film: Cara Gee, Empire of Dirt
Best Director: Jason Reitman, Labor Day
Best Adapted Screenplay: Jason Reitman, Labor Day
Best Original Screenplay: Ned Benson, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her
Best Cinematography: Norimichi Kasamatsu, Unforgiven
Best Score: Mica Levy, Under the Skin
Best Short: We Wanted More
Worst Film: A Field in England

I’m sad that another festival is over, but I must thank all the staff and volunteers for another great TIFF. The silver lining is that as one festival ends, another begins… so stay tuned for (accredited!) coverage from the Ottawa International Animation Festival, which starts Wednesday!

More TIFF pictures can be found on the Cinemablographer Facebook page. (Which you should 'like' while 'yer at it!)

What are your favourite films/moments from TIFF this year?