TIFF 2018: Festival Wrap-Up and Picks for 'Best of the Fest'

Destroyer, Blind Spot, Birds of Passage, A Star is Born, Roma, and Hotel Mumbai were some of TIFF's best
That’s a wrap for another year at the Toronto International Film Festival! TIFF had its best and arguably most exhausting year yet in 2018. There were some great movies and moments of TIFF, but the highlight might have been the Saturday of the first weekend when I came home and stress ate an entire bag of Kettle Chips with a bottle of prosecco. After spending nearly the entire day on email coordinating or conducting interviews that consumed the first few days of TIFF, it was a great way to unwind after missing several movies. Check out more coverage at POV and stay tuned to BeatRoute for the work fuelled by greasy chips and bubbly.

I saw 57 movies (including pre-screenings) and did 10 interviews during the fest (plus four beforehand) and it was fun, but a bit too ambitious. The festival felt more like an intense media junket than a celebration of cinema, and the weight of industry and American influence was too pronounced to overlook. I love TIFF, but I wish it didn’t just feel like an opportunity for New York and LA-based distributors to fly their friends into town to save 30 cents on the dollar during publicity junkets. (I realize these failing are the fault neither of the festival organization nor of the Canadian publicists with the unenviable task of being the bridge between Canadian media and erratic American handlers.)  I think the festival needs to mandate some sort of best practices for the Americans, much as it has mandated virtually every other aspect of the festival, to ensure fairness, restore positive work environments, and ensure that the festival maximizes its potential to benefit more than just a select few. It sounds silly, but most fellow members of the Canadian press seemed run down by the time the festival began, so I'm not really sure who benefited from all this chaos of once again jamming everything into the first weekend.

Maybe the audiences did. The movies were very strong this year even if the line-up veered away from spotlighting fresh discoveries and more towards promoting studio fare and giving exposure to films with distribution deals and release dates in place. Even while recommending my festival favourites to friends, endorsements often lacked a sense of urgency for people to see the film at the festival, rather than to watch for it in the weeks to come. But for every A Star is Born or Roma there was a Blind Spot and a Heartbound. TIFF’s willingness to level the playing field for films regardless of the life they will enjoy after the festival inevitably highlighted a robust range of innovative voices pushing the boundaries of studio and independent filmmaking alike.

Surprise Hits

The best discoveries of the festival came in notable debut features from talents to watch. Swedish actress Tuva Novotny announced herself as a bold and visionary director with her riveting one-take wonder Blind Spot that presented a family in real time with gripping urgency. Especially powerful was Anthony Maras’s real life survival drama Hotel Mumbai about the courageous employees of Mumbai’s Taj Hotel who protected their guests when terrorists put the hotel under siege during a string of attacks that plagued the city in 2008. Hotel Mumbai provided one of the most emotionally intense experiences of the festival as its all-star ensemble cast delivered a gripping testament to courage under fire. The film has the intensity of Argo and the emotional power of Hotel Rwanda and is very much a contender to watch in the months to come. Stay tuned for interviews with Maras and actors Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher, and Jason Isaacs! (Other interviews coming include Life Itself director Dan Fogelman, If Beale Street Could Talk star KiKi Layne, Kingsway director Bruce Sweeney, and Through Black Spruce breakout Tanaya Beatty.)

Disappointing Duds

TIFF had very few turkeys this year, which is pretty good out of 57 movies. The only flat-out terrible movie was the pathetically no frills sci-fi head-scratcher JessicaForever, which was the low-point of the festival’s otherwise strong Platform competition. Also delivering plenty of gobbledygook was The Great Darkened Days from Felix and Meira director Maxime Giroux. This movie made no sense whatsoever as it followed a draft dodger through the highways of America circa 1940-ish replete with sloppy anachronisms like REM blasting over the car radio. I still have no idea what the point of it all was.

There were three major disappointments at the festival, however, from filmmakers I really admire. For one, Werner Herzog mailed it in with his latest documentary Meeting Gorbachev, which provided little more than a jovial chat and Herzog’s ruminative voiceover. Paolo Sorrentino, who directed this blog’s pick for the best of 2015 with Youth, delivered a brain fart with the Silvio Berlusconi satire Loro. While stylish and quirky, Loro was a tits-and-ass bacchanal that felt completely tone deaf in a festival that made great efforts to afford agency to women in film. Literally every female character in Loro is topless or naked as Sorrentino lampoons Berlusconi’s piggish misogyny through an uncomfortable male gaze viewpoint that doesn’t treat women with respect.

The roaring dumpster fire of TIFF ’18 was Xavier Dolan’s long awaited and much tinkered with The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. While neither great nor terrible, Donovan is just a mess of fits and starts. Too many ideas and characters appear and disappear at random. It has moments of greatness though and still merits a look from Dolan fans eager to see the director try new things with some big league actors.

Best of the Fest

Without harping on the negative, there were some major films at the festival this year. Two films that rode into TIFF with heavy expectations were Bradley Cooper’s sensationally good remake of A Star is Born starring Lady Gaga and Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal Netflix offering Roma. Both films delivered on expectations, if not surpassed them. Lady Gaga’s performance in A Star is Born is destined to be a serious awards player and establishes her as a truly great, electrifying screen presence. In my upcoming review of Roma for BeatRoute, moreover, I note how seeing Roma at the festival made me feel much as I imagine audiences felt when they were discovering Bicycle Thieves and L’Avventura for the first time. It is boldly realized cinema. Expect Bradley Cooper to be a big player in the awards conversation as both actor and director, while I think A Star is Born is the film to beat for Best Picture at this early stage in the race. Cuarón, on the other hand, might be a formidable frontrunner for both Best Director and Best Cinematography, while Mexico’s smart choice to submit Roma in the Best Foreign Language Film category puts another win in the bag if the film can avoid anti-Netflix bias in the consistently controversial shortlisting round.

The strongest film of the festival, like last year’s Sweet Country and 2016’s Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, came in TIFF’s daring competitive sidebar Platform. That film was Karyn Kusama’s brutally badass spin on the cop flick Destroyer, which featured Nicole Kidman at the top of her game. Everything about Destroyer was on fire as Kusama’s unflinching direction wades Kidman’s dirty cop Erin Bell into a heart of darkness as she pursues a violent vendetta. Destroyer marked Kidman’s Training Day and King Kong had nuthin’ on her when it came to eclipsing every performer at the festival. The film was the biggest surprise and a heart-pounding punch to the face. What an exhilarating rush!
Nicole Kidman in Destroyer
Courtesy of TIFF

My picks for the top films of TIFF ’18 are, in alphabetical order:

Gloria Bell
Hotel Mumbai
A Star is Born

Best Actress: Nicole Kidman, Destroyer
Runners-up: Lady Gaga, A Star is Born; Julianne Moore, Gloria Bell

Best Actor: Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born
Runner-up: Alexandre Landry, The Fall of the American Empire; Zain Al Rafeea, Capernaum

Best Supporting Actress: Carmiña Martínez, Birds of Passage
Runners-up: Nicole Kidman, Boy Erased; Ning Ding, Cities of Last Things

Best Supporting Actor: Dev Patel, Hotel Mumbai
Runners-up: Anupam Kher, Hotel Mumbai; Sam Elliot, A Star is Born

Best Ensemble: Hotel Mumbai
Runners-up: If Beale Street Could Talk; Kingsway

Best Cinematography: Roma
Runners-up: Climax, Cold War

Best Documentary: Heartbound

Best Canadian Film: Kingsway
Runners-up: The Fall of the American Empire, Carmine Street Guitars

Best Nicole Kidman: Destroyer
Runner-up: Boy Erased

Best Nicole Kidman Wig: Boy Erased
Runner-up: Destroyer

Best Q&A: Julianne Moore, John Turturro, and Sebastian Lelio, Gloria Bell
Runner-up: The cast of Her Smell; that guy who asked Nicole Kidman about wigs at Destroyer

What were your festival highlights?

 Thanks to everyone who helped make this year’s fest so great!