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Toronto: Correspondences #1 — Festival Prelude

Our critics’ correspondence from the Toronto International Film Festival begins with recommendations and new hopes.
The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Kelley Dong and Daniel Kasman.
Dear Kelley,
I’m excited to be here in Toronto again with you, though admittedly with melancholy feelings, for I must note with broken heart that our comrade Fernando F. Croce, who has been covering the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) with me for the last six years, had to cancel his trip last minute. But I very much look forward to you and I continuing the festival correspondence we began together with Fern last year, for this year’s event looks very promising indeed.
It’s been an unexpectedly quiet international festival season so far in 2018, with Berlin, Cannes, and Locarno offering softer-than-normal premieres, many of which are now headed to North America.
At TIFF from Berlin, we have written on and recommend: Transit (with a director interview), An Elephant Sitting Still. And from Cannes: Asako I & II (interview), Jia Zhangke's Ash Is Purest White, Burning (interview), Gaspar Noé's Climax, Wang Bing's Dead Souls (interview), Diamantino (interview), Sergei Loznitsa's Donbass (interview), Jean-Luc Godard's The Image Book, In My Room (interview), The Load, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan's The Wild Pear Tree. Locarno: Fausto (interview), The Grand Bizarre (interview), La Flor (Parts 1, 2, 3), Too Late to Die Young (interview). And, finally, Venice, which we’re still in the process of covering: Vox Lux.
The big news from Cannes wasn’t even a particular movie, but, in keeping with the tenor of the times which prefers talking around films rather than about them, the headlines were devoted to yet another debate about streaming platforms versus festivals, or, in a larger sense, streaming films versus projecting them in cinemas. This happened before the festival and resulted in several bigger films backed by Netflix to be withdrawn from potential selection, many of which have now shown up in Toronto, most anticipated by me being Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark. (I don’t dare put myself through another one, Paul Greengrass’s re-creation of the 2011 massacre in Norway, 22 July.) That earlier withdrawl seemed a churlish, short-sighted gesture, for the wider film world is not in want to big name films—if anything, there are too many films to go around—but what all festivals do need is to not just sustain but amplify the vitality and importance of the presentation of cinema and the meeting point between a film and an audience. How one defines those qualities, whether on the side of industry, auteurs, or most likely somewhere in between, varies—and varies no doubt not just from festival to festival (the Venice Film Festival, which is still ongoing, had no problem premiering some of those Netflix films, including the restored, finalized assembly Orson Welles’ final picture, The Other Side of the Wind) but also from programmer to programmer: as long-time readers of the Notebook well-know, TIFF’s Wavelengths section of artier and more challenging movies is so consistently rewarding that it is worth the ticket to Toronto alone.
What films premiered elsewhere has little bearing for TIFF audiences, though, for the festival seems free to cherry-pick many of the best movies shown around the world (see the links above), and still bring the filmmakers and stars over. The difference in premiere status (world, international, North American, Canadian, and so on) of any given film is for the industry folks: The regular people who see Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born here are hardly upset that the film debuted at Venice last week. The audiences just want to see good pictures, some they are eagerly waiting for and others they hadn’t heard of, presented in an excitable, communal environment and ideally with some of the creative side of the movies on hand to suggest a level of intimacy, access, and explication that the multiplex whittles down into an often drearily arid experience. Having grown immensely since its origins as the “Festival of Festivals,” TIFF now has to juggle pleasing all sorts of people with overlapping desires, but most especially the industry-want of a substantial market component to the festival (a place to buy and sell the rights to films) and a publicity launchpad, next to the cultural need for rigorous curation of the year’s bounty of new work, and most importantly the audience’s hope for a special time, something that captures the thrill of discovery that can be so much a part of moviegoing.
This year, for whatever reason—which may simply come down to what films were finished on time and available to program, but also programming taste and plenty of other more subtle nuances—TIFF has found itself a remarkably strong and varied selection that, on paper, looks like the festival’s ideal: If they’re going to show 200-plus movies (which lamentably seems unavoidable), it might as well hoover-up fabulous movies from throughout the year, premiere the latest work by top-name artists, and try to hone the event’s enslavement to red carpet splash and a highly touted but paper-thin reputation of Oscar-prognosticator to the good stuff.
Which means Claire Denis’ sci-fi film with Robert Pattinson, High Life, is here, sharing space with Steve McQueen’s follow-up to 12 Years a Slave, Widows, written with Gillian Flynn. It means a film is showing on 70mm that is neither Lawrence of Arabia nor 2001: A Space Odyssey. (It is, in fact, a 5-minute short film by Björn Kämmerer.) It means some vibrant, big budget Chinese films, with actor-director Jiang Wen’s new film (Hidden Man), and the unexpected overlap of films by Chen Kaige (surprisingly, the director’s cut of a film that came out last December in China, Legend of the Demon Cat) and Zhang Yimou (Shadow), who long ago used to work together as director and cinematographer. Tantalizing world premieres include films by Barry Jenkins, Mia Hanson-Løve, Anurag Kashyap, and the debut film by the playful duo Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel (Jessica Forever). Meanwhile, the festival has wisely slingshoted several big names from Venice mere days ago, like Carlos Reygadas’ Our Time, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Killing, and the film many looking for a “Trump era” portrait should make a bee-line for, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Monrovia, Indiana. And better news still: Preeminent American avant-grade gray-hairs James Benning and Nathaniel Dorsky make a very welcome return to the festival, for while we may decry the telling institutional shrinking of the acclaimed Wavelengths section—which sometimes included wonderful gallery exhibitions—at the same time the festival’s superfluous Primetime section devoted to television is expanded, TIFF this year shows it can still balance supporting essential artists alongside press release-friendly priorities. After all, they are showing not only the 4-hour exegesis on despair, An Elephant Sitting Still, and the 8-hour documentary Dead Souls, but also the 14-hour (yes!) Argentine serial, La Flor. TIFF often gets (rightly) criticized for “too much,” but if such an attitude allows precisely this kind of bold excess, I’m all for it.
So here’s to a good festival, Kelley—I look forward to reading about what excites you here.

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