The original name of the Toronto International Film Festival back in the late 1970s—when watching movies around the clock in Canada’s biggest city was a hipsters-only proposition with little in the way of corporate sponsorship—was the Festival of Festivals. The designation referred to the fact that the festival’s programmers tended to pick the best movies that had already played at other global venues.
This move was partly due to shrewd curatorial instincts—a desire to make local audiences feel like they were getting the best of the best—and partly an attempt to compensate for an inability to secure high-profile mainstream work. In an era when distribution was less tied to the idea of awards-season buzz, American studios were wary of handing over their prized titles early to Toronto audiences, thinking that previews in sold-out theaters would take a bite out of subsequent box office revenues.
As time went by, TIFF grew to become one of the largest and arguably the most influential film festival in the world. It was a haven first for American independent directors—including Michael Moore, who debuted Roger & Me there in 1989—gradually drawing in Hollywood, as well, using its September setting as a launching pad for Oscar season hopefuls. (Last year, Moonlight was the standout of the festival’s Platform competition.)
This year’s lineup includes a number of potentially significant films showing for the first time, including Veep creator Armando Iannucci’s raucous comedy The Death of Stalin, Louis C.K.’s mysterious, secretively produced I Love You, Daddy, and Joseph “Look What You Made Me Do” Kahn’s Eminem-produced, jaw-dropping battle-rap satire Bodied (about which there will be more to say later; it’s going to be the conversation-piece movie of 2017). But TIFF’s positioning near the end of an annual festival-circuit calendar, one that begins bright and early in January with Sundance and peaks in May with the art-house overload of Cannes, means that it still serves best as a sort of sampler platter—a way to see where world cinema is heading into the home stretch.
One title that seems poised to leap to prominence after stopping in Toronto is Call Me by Your Name, which debuted to raves at Sundance—and for good reason. Following a summer in which critically-hyped titles from The Beguiled to Detroit turned out to be underwhelming, this emotionally intense, luxuriously beautiful coming-of-age fable looks to have the market cornered on artful-but-accessible moviemaking.
By this time next year, its director, Luca Guadagnino, will be a (multi-syllabic) household name in the horror movie community: the Italian director just wrapped a remake of Dario Argento’s classic, canonical, deep-red shocker Suspiria, featuring a killer distaff cast (Dakota Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Mia Goth, and Tilda Swinton) and a score by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. But Call Me by Your Name could make him famous a lot sooner than that. And it should hopefully, finally make a giant star of Armie Hammer, whose performance as an American graduate student working in Northern Italy is the stuff that breakthroughs are made of. Hammer’s Oliver isn’t the film’s true protagonist—that’d be Elio (the amazing Timothée Chalamet), the brilliant, self-consciously stylish ((he doesn’t go anywhere without his Tom Cruise–circa–Risky Business–Ray Bans), 17-year-old son of Oliver’s summer employer, whose instant and irreversible fixation on the new houseguest is played first for sly, teasing comedy and then tender romantic drama.
Films about first love tend to be familiar bordering on cliché, but Guadagnino’s achievement (working from a first-rate script by James Ivory) is to make the sensations and exchanges between the two men feel as fresh and overwhelming to the audience as they do to the characters. As Elio and Oliver grow closer and make plans to meet in secret, the film measures out their shared excitement in shots of a wristwatch whose face is obscured but nevertheless represents the anticipatory ache of an August afternoon passing too slowly but also all at once. No other movie so far this year features as many striking, lyrical passages—or accesses deeper reservoirs of feeling.
At the other end of the emotional spectrum lies a film that won plaudits at Cannes: The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Unlike the animalistic moniker of Greek Freak Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous—and surprisingly popular—film, The Lobster, the title is metaphorical: no woodland creatures were harmed in the making of this motion picture. The same can’t be said for movie stars. In their second pairing of the year (after The Beguiled), Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman play a prosperous professional couple whose young son is stricken by a mysterious illness that may or may not be supernaturally inflicted.
As in The Lobster, and his feral 2009 breakthrough Dogtooth, Lanthimos delights in setting up an absurdist scenario governed by an arcane set of rules (this one rooted in an ancient Greek myth that the script never quite spells out), and puts his famous Hollywood stars through the ringer. Casting Kidman clarifies, once and for all, that the director is angling to be the new Lars von Trier—a provoc-auteur who can sign big-name talent for his endurance-test moviemaking.
The reward-to-punishment ratio is lower here than The Lobster, which was grim and pessimistic but also consistently witty and funny. The follow-up has more dead air in between the jokes (which admittedly makes the few one-liners land like haymakers) and doesn’t fully achieve the creepy, severe surrealism it’s going for. It does come close on occasion, though, and when that happens, it’s a reminder that this director has a unique talent for deadpan nastiness. The film showed at Cannes and won an award for its script, complementing the Oscar nomination that Lanthimos and his cowriter Efthymis Filippou got for The Lobster. You’ve been warned: They’ll be back.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an art film that cultivates the bizarre; The Disaster Artist tells the story of a filmmaker whose avant-garde reputation happened by accident. James Franco’s adaptation of Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s wonderful 2013 book—a bruising blow-by-blow of the making of The Room, filtered through costar Sestero’s (played in the film by Dave Franco) half-embarrassed, half-awed impressions of Tommy Wiseau—lacks its source material’s complex empathy. But it’s really, really funny. The obvious reference point here is Ed Wood, with the reverence of Tim Burton’s 1994 Oscar winner swapped out for a kind of affectionate condescension. Franco the actor’s performance as the man who wrote, directed, and starred in the consensus worst-movie-ever-made is outrageously stylized, hammy, and ridiculous, just as Franco the director intended. (It’d be some kind of landmark if Franco scored an Oscar nomination for impersonating Wiseau—an egomaniacal weirdo being rewarded for approximating another one of his kind.)
It’s hard to say how the meticulous, borderline-miraculous re-creations of scenes and sets from The Room will play for viewers who’ve never seen the genuine article. At the same time, The Room’s status as the cult-movie-of-the-21st-century—The Rocky Horror Picture Show minus the glad-handing self-awareness, or Showgirls without the hidden greatness— guarantees that there will be a rabid audience for Franco’s prankish roast-slash-tribute to a filmmaker whose insistence on doing things his way, no matter what anybody else thought or said to him or behind his back, could be taken as heroic if not for the inconvenient truth of the final result.
The most formidable pair of disaster artists poised to emerge out of TIFF this fall might be Belgium-based directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, whose Let the Corpses Tan is a standout of the festival’s always popular Midnight Madness section. Cattet and Forzani are pastiche specialists who previously evoked giallo grandeur in 2013’s The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, and this time out they’re chasing no less a figure than the Chilean maestro Alejandro Jodorowsky—the godhead of art-house/grindhouse overlap.
Let the Corpses Tan is calibrated for maximum outrageousness. It filters relentless gunplay through sexually explicit dream sequences that split the difference between hallucination and exploitation, straddling the line between they-don’t-make-em-like-this-anymore and you’ve-never-seen-anything-like-this-before. The film stakes its claim to delirious weirdness early on with a montage of bullet holes exploding though freshly painted canvases. We’re watching a different kind of splatter movie: a modern art piece punctuated by bursts of violence.
Set in a sun-baked Corsican village, the film takes the shape of a thriller, with a group of vicious robbers holing up in the small seaside town after divesting an armored car of 500 pounds of gold. Their attempts to lie low don’t go well (to put it mildly), and soon we’re plunged into the middle of a multi-directional shoot-out involving a pair of motorcycle cops, a group of decadent, bohemian artists, and innocent bystanders—all of whom end up dishing out and taking punishment over the course of a lethally hot afternoon and rain-soaked night.
At times, the sensory assault can be hard to take (or maybe to take seriously), but these filmmakers know their crowd and do everything they can to please them. For every viewer who’s exhausted by Let the Corpses Tan’s lushly colored atrocity exhibition, there’s somebody else who’ll be exhilarated.