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Lessons from TIFF on the next year in film

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From Chris Pine’s unfortunately famous penis to the latest trends in horror cinema

Photo courtesy of TIFF

This year, the Toronto International Film Festival ran from September 6th through the 16th — 10 days of public screenings, industry events, symposiums and lectures, red carpets, and nighttime parties. That may not sound like much, but over the course of those 10 days, TIFF hosted more than 200 films from around the world, from major upcoming awards contenders like Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man to weird little horror indies looking for a probable home on a streaming service somewhere. It’s impossible for anyone to come close to seeing everything at TIFF, even with screenings taking over a dozen venues, typically starting at 8:30AM and running past midnight. So our film team can’t rationally claim we saw the best TIFF had to offer. But we can tell you what we learned this year and how it’s relevant to the year of cinema ahead.

Photo courtesy of TIFF

People need to behave better if they want to see more celebrity peen

One of the earliest bits of breakout news from this year’s TIFF concerned a few brief seconds of full-frontal nudity: in Netflix’s awards-bait historical drama Outlaw King, Star Trek’s Chris Pine briefly bares his bod as he bathes in a river after a traumatic near-death experience. It’s truly remarkable that in an age of naked selfies, celebrity phone leaks, a gross fad for paparazzi upskirt shots on the red carpet, and endless online porn, that the media can still get this hyper-focused and overheated about a moment of nude flesh. But there were an awful lot of leering articles about the shot from outlets that should know better, and it became the focus of interviews where Pine was clearly struggling to stay polite. “There’s so much beheading in this, and yet people want to talk about my penis,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “And I think that says something about our society, where people can get disemboweled, but it’s the man’s junk that is of interest.” He’s not wrong.

Granted, actresses have been dealing with equally leering questions for decades, and they’ve only relatively recently started to push back. But an equally prurient focus on dicks isn’t a useful answer, it’s just an ongoing reminder that people can be nitwits about nudity and that even journalists sometimes don’t think it’s a problem if their inner eight-year-old, which giggles at the word “butts,” takes over during an interview. Problem is, reactions like these are eventually bound to convince actors and directors alike to keep nudity out of their projects because it’s such a distraction when no one can talk about anything else. Hey, critics, commentators, and social media users: if you want more nakedness in your movies and TV, don’t be so obnoxious, obsessive, and tittery about it when it happens.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers.
Photo: TIFF

Studios are still hurting their movies by misrepresenting them

One pleasant early surprise at TIFF was The Sisters Brothers, Jacques Audiard’s throwback Western about a pair of bounty hunters (played by Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly) killing their way across America in the 1800s. In the early going, it’s a chatty, beautifully acted drama, both about the relationship between Charlie and Eli Sisters and about how they make people suffer in order to keep burnishing their reputation. As it goes forward, though, it gets progressively quieter and more serious, building up to a horrifying tragedy. So why do the initial trailers play the film so much like a comedy? Taken out of context and extremely selectively, over an upbeat cover of “Tainted Love,” certain moments of the film can play as pretty lively and hilarious, but this treatment is guaranteed to get the wrong people through the door and give them an experience they weren’t expecting and likely don’t want. The Sisters Brothers plays more like No Country for Old Men than like Shanghai Noon, but if Annapurna isn’t careful about presenting the film as the latter, it’s likely to get the same kind of response as recent horror films like It Comes At Night, which used misleading trailers to lure people into theaters. Viewers aren’t likely to appreciate being misled, but more importantly, the audiences who would really love this film may miss it because they don’t realize what they’re actually being offered.

Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween.
Photo by Ryan Green / Universal Studios

Trauma is a zeitgeist theme of the moment

We’re living through a particularly stressful moment in history, with conflict, rancor, and uncertainty on all sides, so it was really only a matter of time before filmmakers began grappling with those issues in their films. Two movies in particular hit upon this idea in Toronto, though from radically different points of view. Halloween, David Gordon Green’s sequel to the 1978 John Carpenter horror film, is literally a film about the lasting effects of trauma, with Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) struggling with the impact that being terrorized by Michael Meyers 40 years ago has on her, her daughter, and even her granddaughter. In Green’s film, Meyers becomes a stand-in for whatever horrors can befall any of us at any moment: terror and loss are inescapable, the filmmakers appear to be saying, so we better buck up and learn to fight back if we want to survive.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Life Itself, the new film from This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman. The trailers and advertising frame Life Itself as a tear-jerking romantic comedy, but it’s actually an incredibly dark movie, filled with jarring moments that may truly stun viewers expecting lighter fare. Fogelman is also saying life can be terrible, but in the world of Life Itself, it’s just a matter of getting back up because a romantic happy ending is just around the corner. It says something about our current cultural climate that the slasher movie seems to have the much more honest and authentic take on reality, but in either case, it’s an example of storytellers trying to grapple with the realities of the moment — a trend that will no doubt continue in the coming years.

Peter Sarsgaard and Joey King in The Lie.
Photo: TIFF

The era of so-called “elevated horror” may be giving birth to prestige schlock

The past few years have seen a rise in serious-minded genre fare. Movies like The Babadook, The Witch, Get Out, and Ari Aster’s Hereditary have treated the supernatural and shocking as an opportunity to explore thoughtful themes, leading to the use of the term “elevated horror.” (Whether the subgenre name makes sense is its own point of contention.) But the formula seemed to get inverted at Toronto this year, with films that gave extraordinarily somber, serious-minded treatments to schlocky drek. The most successful was Neil Jordan’s Greta, a pseudo-fairy tale about a young woman (Chloë Grace Moretz) who befriends an older lady (Isabelle Huppert) with some serious stalking tendencies. Jordan’s movie is filled with plot contrivances and twists that are simultaneously impossible to believe and easy to spot coming. Depending on your personal preferences, that either makes it a tongue-in-cheek delight or a miserable contrivance. (I leaned toward the former, though I talked with plenty of people in Toronto who felt the opposite.)

There was little confusion about The Lie, however. From Veena Sud, creator of the TV series The Killing, the film features Mireille Enos and Peter Sarsgaard as divorced parents who decide to help their daughter cover up a terrible crime. The film is as somber and dour as any episode of The Killing ever was, but where that series always felt gritty and grounded, The Lie frankly comes off as dumb. If there’s meant to be an intentional dissonance here between subject matter and stylistic treatment, the film doesn’t make it clear, and the result is a film that inspires cringing rather than cowering. If anything, both films show that effective, serious-minded horror is more than just long, dramatic pauses and artfully composed visuals. They require a precise knowledge of how the genre works — the kind of thing that makes Jordan Peele’s work so exciting.

Damson Idris in Farming.
Photo: TIFF

Actors directing movies continues to be a phenomenon

At some point in an acting career, there has to be a nagging voice that kicks in that says “The director’s job isn’t that hard, I could do that.” Or maybe “Just once, I want to be in charge.” Or maybe “The story we’re telling here is interesting, but I’d like to tell my own stories.” Whatever triggers it, the tradition of actors becoming directors is an old and venerable one, dating back to the beginning of film, with actor-directors like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and reaching up to the moment, with actors like Sarah Polley or Jon Favreau largely transitioning away from acting in favor of making their own movies. The growing democratization of film — the technology that’s made it cheaper and easier to make a movie than ever before — has led to a lot more independent productions and indie studios looking for trustworthy people and profitable projects. Actors who want to direct have a leg up on the process because they already have name recognition that might stir interest from producers beforehand and audiences afterward, and because they may already have a lot of the moviemaking contacts they need to put together a cast and crew.

Which helps explain why TIFF’s lineup this year feels so actor-heavy among the directors’ slots. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star is Born got the lion’s share of the attention, but the TIFF 2018 slate also included Emilio Estevez’s The Public, Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased, Jonah Hill’s mid90s, Max Minghella’s Teen Spirit, Paul Dano’s Wildlife (which premiered at Sundance 2018), Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks’ Quincy, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Farming. Most of these are from first-time directors (though Estevez has been directing since 1986), so the big question becomes whether they’ll direct again. Most actors who try out directing don’t return to it, and cinema history is full of fascinating one-offs from dabblers who go back to acting after testing out the other side of the camera. Mostly, it’s worth watching the phenomenon because it’s begun to feel like every actor who stays in the industry for an appreciable length of time will eventually join the other team.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste in In Fabric.
Photo: TIFF

A24 is still the most fearless distributor in the game

Around film festivals like TIFF or Sundance, there’s often a lot of chatter about how festival acquisition — movies that get picked up for proper distribution only after screening — is dominated by new money from services like Netflix and Amazon. And that certainly has been true; this year, even Apple got into the game by picking up the documentary The Elephant Queen. But the dynamic has also shifted, as streaming services have become more concerned with generating their own content. These days, a company like Netflix is more apt to be screening movies at a festival rather than buying them. This year, it had eight films at TIFF, including the Chris Pine awards bait epic Outlaw King and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.

So while streaming services may be the companies best suited to take a risk on an edgy or challenging acquisition, due to the sheer amount of content it’s putting out, they’re rarely the ones making those bets. Who is? For years now, that answer has been distributor A24 Films — the company has released movies like Room, The Witch, Moonlight, Green Room, The Florida Project, Hereditary, A Ghost Story… the list goes on, with many of those bets resulting in acclaim and even Oscar wins. And sure enough, despite the money Amazon, Apple, and their streaming brethren brought to Toronto, this year it was still A24 taking a chance on the most challenging, daring movies. It had already snatched up provocateur Gaspar Noé’s latest film, Climax, at the Cannes Film Festival, and over the course of TIFF, it also picked up movies like the bizarre In Fabric (a horror movie about an evil dress), and High Life, a glacially paced science fiction film that features Robert Pattinson as a criminal stuck on a spaceship.

At a time when the theatrical distribution feels as if it’s under siege, there’s something wonderful about a company that focuses on putting movies in theaters leading the way with some of the most interesting and daring work out there. Streaming services may need to proclaim their legitimacy and they may need to try to address all possible audiences, but nothing inspires loyalty like impeccable taste and utter fearlessness, which is part of why A24 has developed such a devoted following among movie fans.