TIFF 2017: Festival Wrap-up and Picks for 'Best of the Fest'

Sweet Country - My pick for 'Best of the Fest'
TIFF might have scaled back its programming by 20-ish percent, but the Festival of Festivals still felt as big and loud as ever. The movies were good if one was willing to look for them, but anyone who complained about 2017 being an off-year for the programming didn’t stray beyond the Galas and Special Presentations or was too concerned about premiere status. There really were some hidden gems and discoveries. Out of the 50 feature films I saw before and during the festival, about 43 of them were good to great. A pretty good average, I think.

Covering TIFF on the documentary front for POV, the Platform competition for Paste, and odds and ends here, I was able to get a fairly good sense of certain aspects of the line-up without necessarily sampling too much of others. One simply has to make tough choices at the festival and the tighter field of options didn’t change that fact.

Getting a streamlined look at two aspects of the festival—TIFF Docs and Platform—was a good way to go. TIFF Docs offered a typically strong line-up from the reliable Thom Powers with a good mix of music docs, political films, and character studies. The best documentaries, however, we’re outside the TIFF Docs mix: Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces Places and Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier’s Long Time Running, which won the People’s Choice Award for documentary and the runner-up prize, respectively. Documentary also found a TIFF highlight in Lady Gaga’s showstopper of a performance at the world premiere of her documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, which was one example of TIFF’s effort to champion the power of collective, live experiences. Having Gaga rock the house is an experience one simply can’t get watching a film on streaming.
TIFF’s Platform line-up, on the other hand, was the best party at the festival. This 12-film programme was the most tightly-curated roster of the festival and it yielded oodles of riches in terms of new voices and singular visions. I’ll keep this section brief out of respect for the upcoming reprort, but Platform delivered the two best films of the festival: Warwick Thornton’s badass re-writing of the western in Sweet Country, which won the Platform prize, and Xavier Legrand’s adrenaline-pumping domestic drama Custody.

When it comes to lows at the festival, I can’t really fault anything with TIFF the organization aside from the exorbitant pricing that inspired many friends to sit the festival out. A frequent complaint from Canadian media at TIFF was the front-loaded nature of the festival with the Americans coming in for fly-by junketing that all had to be done the first weekend. Sunday’s hectic junket day was so overloaded that multiple roundtables featured an exodus of media running from junket to junket, which worked in my favour in one case where literally every other person bailed on an actor to sprint over to the Mark Felt junket. There were exceptions, but one couldn’t overlook the fact that the 11-day festival became a ghost town by day four or five.
First They Killed My Father
One upside to everyone fleeing town meant that the back-end of the festival let TIFF be all about enjoying the movies. It was such a treat to enjoy hidden gems like Who We Are Now and Hannah, which boasted excellent performances from Julianne Nicholson and Charlotte Rampling, respectively, as well as Oscar hopefuls like Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and First They Killed My Father. Annette Bening’s interpretation of Gloria Grahame in Liverpool nails the blonde icon’s voice and sultriness, while Angelina Jolie’s Cambodian film was among the most visceral and emotional experiences at the festival. While the film debuted on Netflix during the fest, it was still worth catching on the big screen for the full effect. Father is officially Cambodia’s submission to the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film race and it might be the one to beat. Jolie delivers her best film yet as a director by drawing upon her humanitarian heart and building a sweeping epic on the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge. Her direction is first rate, particularly in handling the child actors who give riveting and emotionally intelligent performances.

Other notables in the foreign race include Hungary’s On Body and Soul, Austria’s Happy End, Belgium’s Racer and the Jailbird, and Morocco’s Razzia, which was a highlight of the Platform competition. Canada might be smart to send François Girard’s outstanding historical saga Hochelaga, Land of Souls, which is a particularly timely choice for Canada’s sesquicentennial. Distributor eOne announced today that Hochelaga will open in Medicine Hat, Calgary on September 22—a move akin to that which brought Monsieur Lazhar into the race.

Best of the Fest

As a said earlier in this post, TIFF had many strong offerings this year. My early favourite going into the festival, though, was Sweet Country and nothing matched the very high bar it set. I loved the film’s uncontrived glimpse of history that filtered the western through an Indigenous lens. A potent manhunt embroiled with racial tensions and nasty characters, Sweet Country is a rugged and visionary historical tale that resonates strongly with contemporary politics. Thornton’s outstanding cinematography made the Outback a land of great danger and beauty, while the film’s arresting violence and excellent performances, particularly Bryan Brown as a salty war veteran, gave the genre a thrilling spin.

My picks for the top ten, in alphabetical order, of TIFF 2017 are:

Faces Places
First They Killed My Father
Hochelaga, Land of Souls
Long Time Running
Racer and the Jailbird
The Seen and Unseen
Sweet Country

Cinemablographer’s TIFF Awards:

Best Film: Sweet Country
Runner-up: Custody

Top Doc: Faces Places
Runner-up: Long Time Running

Best Lead Performance – Female: Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Runner-up: Julianne Nicholson, Who We Are Now

Best Lead Performance – Male: Matthias Schoenaerts, Racer and the Jailbird
Runner-up: Ben Stiller, Brad’s Status

Best Supporting Performance – Female: Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Runner-up: Eva Green, Euphoria

Best Supporting Performance – Male: Bryan Brown, Sweet Country
Runner-up: Paul Bettany, Journey’s End

Best Screenplay: I, Tonya
Runner-up: Sweet Country

Best Cinematography: Hochelaga, Land of Souls
Runner-up: Sweet Country

Best Film Editing: Long Time Running
Runner-up: I, Tonya

Biggest Disappointment: mother!

Worst Film: If You Saw His Heart
Runner-up: Omertá

 Best Q&A: Michael Haneke, Happy End
Runner-up: Kidman and company, The Killing of a Sacred Deer

What were your favourite films at TIFF?