2019 Toronto Int. Film Fest Diary: Entry 4 — And that's a Wrap

by C.J. Prince

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday September 17, 2019

TIFF is finally over and with that comes a sense of relief. For more diehard attendees, seeing three-to-five films every day takes its toll by the time the final weekend comes along and the swarms of press and industry have left the city. The last day of the festival was a rainy one, providing a grey and muggy sendoff to one of the biggest film events of the year.

I don't care much for taking these things as something symbolic or metaphorical, so it was just a mild annoyance. For me, the festival was a mixed bag overall this year and getting into the details would be a slog for anyone unfamiliar with the behind the scenes of how this beast operates. There were plenty of highlights, lowlights and a lot of films that will pass through my mind much faster than the time I spent watching them. This is normal for a festival and the ratio of good to meh to bad varies each year.

But that's part of the gamble of something like TIFF. I saw 30 features this year, some of which will likely never be shown in a theater again in this city. And while I could talk about the overall quality of what I saw, I was given the opportunity to take these films in as they're meant to be seen and to give some of them a chance without the influence of hype or consensus. This is the main privilege of TIFF that keeps people coming back every year.

To close things out, here are my thoughts on five more films, including a festival favorite and one of my biggest discoveries this year.

"Jojo Rabbit"

Writer-director-actor Taika Waititi. Photo credit: Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Continuing in the tradition of problematic favs, "La La Land," "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" and "Green Book," "Jojo Rabbit" has taken home the People's Choice Award at TIFF this year. This means its path to the Oscars is all but certain, along with a barrage of attacks and campaigns against the film's success from now until February 9. And despite the moral outrage coming out against Taika Waititi's new film, it's likely the film's sense of humor that will be the make or break factor for viewers.

Luckily for me, I find the New Zealand filmmaker's brand of comedy to be pretty funny, so I had a good time with "Jojo Rabbit." His gimmick seems to be making kids movies, but using subject matter so dark and traumatic that it can't really be shown to children. This time, his focus is on Nazism, as he takes the perspective of 10-year-old Jojo, a member of the Hitler Youth who breaks free of his hateful ideology after discovering a Jewish teen girl hiding in the walls of his house. Save for Waititi himself as Hitler, every performance is great (Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie, Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson star) and as far as messaging goes it's a simple story of love triumphing over hate. Whether or not you prefer such a simple, broadened approach is for you to decide but I was fine with it. After all, Nazism should be a pretty easy topic to suss out on a moral level.

"Knives Out"

A scene from "Knives Out." Photo credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Rian Johnson's "Knives Out" surprisingly did not win any awards at TIFF this year but it does win my personal award for the most try-hard film of 2019. This is a whodunit, where the head of a wealthy family (Christopher Plummer) dies by slashing his own throat — or so it seems. Enter Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who gathers all the suspects together to find out any consistencies. Was it the bitchy eldest daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis)? The lifestyle guru daughter-in-law (Toni Collette)? The sniveling youngest son (Michael Shannon)? The jackass grandson (Chris Evans)? The nurse (Ana de Armas)? And so on and so forth, with lots of twists and turns and exposition and flashbacks.

I can only describe "Knives Out" as like being trapped in a room with a theater kid for two hours. It's so enthusiastic in its self-awareness, so deliberate and obnoxious that its constant winking looked more like a facial twitch to me. In case you don't know it's a whodunit, this film will remind you every step of the way, underlining and overemphasizing every trope it indulges, including Craig's exhausting Southern drawl. This film nudged me so many times I felt like my ribs were bruised by the end but apparently this forcefulness seems to be working like gangbusters on audiences. And the less said about Johnson's attempts at a commentary on class relations and keeping things modern, which includes alt-right references and a debate over Trump's border wall, the better.


A scene from "Jallikattu." Photo credit: Courtesy of TIFF

I like to come away from TIFF with at least one discovery, a film that I likely won't see outside of here that leaves a strong impression. This year, that film is Lijo Jose Pellissery's "Jallikattu," which has a great, high concept premise: A butcher's wild buffalo breaks free, wreaking havoc on a village who try to capture and kill it. Pellissery focuses on a handful of characters in the town but the details of their subplots don't matter too much. This is primarily a film about pure chaos and man being driven back to his primal nature and on that front "Jallikattu" is a visceral delight.

There's obviously some difficulty in maintaining the energy of hundreds of people running and screaming for their lives (the best comparison I've seen for this film mentioned the last act of "mother!") but it does a pretty good job. And while the middle section may lag from time to time, the disorienting opening and hellish ending sequences are some of the best things I've seen at the festival this year. Pellissery also does a nice job blending practical and C.G. effects to create stunning images within the chaos, like hundreds of flashlight-carrying men spreading through a forest or a "World War Z" esque pile-up of flailing, writhing bodies. Hopefully a distributor will be willing to give people a chance to catch this insanity on the big screen.

"Bad Education"

A scene from "Bad Education." Photo credit: Courtesy of TIFF

If "Thoroughbreds" established first-time director Cory Finley as someone to watch, then "Bad Education" confirms that he's brimming with potential. Based on a true story, the film details a larceny scandal that rocked a Long Island high school in the early 2000s, where the district's superintendent (Hugh Jackman) learns his co-worker (Allison Janney) has been embezzling money out of the school's budget for years. But Finley and screenwriter Mike Makowsky structure the film so the scale of this scandal increases dramatically over time, underlining just how unbelievable this story really is as a microcosm of the corruption of the American dream.

While the role of a wise-talking Long Island housewife is like catnip for Janney (who pulls it off easily), this is hands down Hugh Jackman's best performance to date. As the vain, calculating superintendent obsessed with getting his schools to a no. 1 ranking in his district, watching his world crumble around him is riveting. Jackman also gets an opportunity to use his effortless charm for evil here, giving a sociopathic edge to his character that makes him desperate and threatening in equal measure. "Bad Education" is a good film, not a terrific one, but it's a big step up from "Thoroughbreds," and makes me believe that Finley has a truly great film in him.

"The Lighthouse"

Willem Dafoe, left, and Robert Pattinson, right, in "The Lighthouse." Photo credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Much like his last film "The Witch," Robert Eggers' "The Lighthouse" has caused a feverish reaction on the festival circuit, making it one of the hottest tickets in town during TIFF. A24 seems poised to make it their next hit too with an upcoming release, so let me be the first to say people should temper their expectations. As the marketing materials and enamored critics say, the film is shot in 35mm black and white in the boxy 1.19:1 ratio, evoking silent cinema even though it takes place in the 19th century. On a secluded island, two lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) go insane, and that's basically it.

Eggers has put a lot of effort into the look and sound of his film. I just don't know to what end all of his work is going towards. Is there such a thing as an auteur exercise? There are references to Greek mythology and Herman Melville among other things but none of it really adds up or ties into any real ideas. I guess watching Dafoe and Pattinson give it their all on some well-constructed sets with a lot of loud noises and so-so imagery is enough to get people entertained. All I saw was someone trying to flex artistic muscles they don't actually have. But still, "The Lighthouse" definitely has a lot of effort, which is worth something and saves this from being completely frivolous. As always, your mileage may vary.

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