And so, another edition of North America’s grandest film festival ends as the 42nd revolution of TIFF fades from memory and jumpstarts the beginning of the Oscar race, which will now dominate prognostications for the next several months. With a slimmer output, easily evidenced by a more petite official program book, it was still an overwhelming cascade of content to catch up with, even for those who keep up with the festival circuit offerings which comprise a majority of this poo-poo platter. If less is more, however, this year saw a stunning number of disappointments, both in highly anticipated sophomore features from new talents (Deniz Gamze Erguven, Dan Gilroy) as well as more established auteurs delivering major missteps (Michael R. Roskam, Paolo Virzi, Alexander Payne, Wim Wenders, Xiaogang Feng). Others, like Darren Aronofsky’s divisive mother! at least aim for the batshit heavens, though can’t escape the pretentious vacuum of pabulum in which it exists.
Although an opportunity to catch up with some gems I couldn’t fit it in at Cannes (such as Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc, and the enjoyable but familiar sophomore feature from Jonas Carpignano, A Ciambra), TIFF remains an interesting second run for the Venice competition lineup, hosting most of the Lido’s premieres only days later (sadly, and irritatingly, no Abdellatif Kechiche, however).
That said, Toronto remains an interesting way to immediately critique the Venice jury awards, of which this year went to Guillermo Del Toro’s audience friendly The Shape of Water, which seems a rather unprovocative choice, as does the award of the Grand Jury prize to runner up Samuel Moaz’s Foxtrot (who won the Golden Lion back in 2009). How something like Paul Schrader’s First Reformed could have gone home emptyhanded (especially seeing as Ethan Hawke lost out on a Best Actor award to the topical but woefully melodramatic The Insult) or Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White, speak to how juries tend to ignore difficult material fascinated with and driven by the murky underbelly of humankind’s cracked moral compass. Still, the most glaring critique of Venice 2017 must be its programming of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama in an out of competition slot (especially when a horrendous misfire like The Leisure Seeker rides in on the nationality of its director), a film which will eventually be regarded as another masterpiece from the Argentinean director. Here is my top ten:
10. Samui Song – Dir. Pen-ek Rataranuang (Thailand)
Strangeness doesn’t begin to describe the latest elliptical exercise from Headshot (2011) director Pen-ek Rataranuang, which focuses on a poisoned marriage between Vi (Chermarn Boonyasak) a soap opera star made famous for her bitchy characterizations and her French husband, a man who has joined a religious cult. Wishing to escape the soap star ghetto as well as her increasingly abusive and ill-intentioned husband (who also cannot satisfy her sexually), Vi gets into a Strangers on a Train/Double Indemnity deal with a handsome young man, and then the film jumps tracks and heads into even darker climes.
9. Let the Corpses Tan! – Dir. Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani (Belgium)
Arguably more of the same in their pronounced vein of pastiche from Belgian duo Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, this reconsideration for the poliziotteschi is a lot of fun, and filled with arresting visual sequences. If narrative takes as equal a back seat to their previous two films, it’s sometimes easy to forget in this Mediterranean shoot-out photographed by Manu Dacosse.
8. Prototype – Dir. Blake Williams (Canada)
An impressively edited and wholly immersive sensory experience, the first narrative feature from Canadian director Blake Williams is an experimental 3D exercise which examines photographs from a hurricane which swept over Galveston Texas in September 1900 and then morphs quickly into its own undefinable deliberation in how it regurgitates the past through a complex process of re-photographed images. Overwhelming for those who demand unobstructed coherence in their cinematic consumption, Prototype plays exactly as its title promises, the first of its kind, an experience which feels like the visualization of being transported into the eye of a storm before being dropped into the languishing arms of the sea.
7. The Disaster Artist – Dir. James Franco (US)
James Franco scores his first successful directorial effort to date with The Disaster Artist, a look at the making of Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 cult classic The Room, as based on the book from actor Greg Sestero. A loving homage to the audacity of pursuing one’s dreams, Franco’s endearing portrait of Wiseau, an out-of-touch weirdo who is often as off-putting as he is charming in his lack of social skills, earns comparisons to Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood. Despite a bit of blatant self-awareness from Dave Franco, who appears as Sestero in the film, this is a must-see companion piece to lovers of The Room.
6. The Death of Stalin – Dir. Armando Ianucci (US/UK)
As droll as it is disturbing, Armando Ianucci (2009’s In the Loop) brings his revisionist wit to examine the tenuous exchange of power following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. As his crooked, power hungry cronies vie for control, a brilliant English speaking cast captures the extreme ruthlessness of this regime with queasy aplomb.
5. Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc – Dir. Bruno Dumont (France)
Headbanging nuns and an electro-punk score are some of the highlights in this rural musical of the childhood of saint/fanatic Joan of Arc. Like most of Dumont’s output, this isn’t for all tastes, but the sheer level of pronounced strangeness in this melding of music genre and period concerning the lionized historical figure is inarguably an original vision.
4. Angels Wear White – Dir. Vivian Qu (China)
Corruption and misogyny go hand and hand in this femme centric sophomore film from Vivian Qu, who intersects the narratives of two school-age girls whose fates become inextricably linked when one is raped by a high-ranking law enforcement official. Expertly utilizing striking imagery (a gigantic statue of Marilyn Monroe and her white dress from The Seven Year Itch) with depictions of women’s agency (or lack of) over their bodies and destinies makes Qu’s film as upsetting as it is compelling.
3. Hannah – Dir. Andrea Pallaoro (France/Italy)
Charlotte Rampling took home the Best Actress prize for her turn as a woman dealing with the absence of her incarcerated husband in Andrea Pallaoro’s oblique sophomore feature. Intoxicating in every downbeat frame of this murky drama, it would make an excellent triple feature with Ozon’s Under the Sand and Haigh’s 45 Years.
2. Zama – Dir. Lucrecia Martel (Argentina)
A dejected but often droll colonialist saga, Martel’s latest focuses on a titular character battling an impossible bureaucratic system so he may transfer from his current backwater post to Buenos Aires. Wearying and exhausting, Martel’s ambitious, long gestating latest is almost as imperceptibly funny as its suffocating landscapes are beautifully shot.
1. First Reformed – Dir. Paul Schrader (US)
Schrader cooks up an addictive stew on loss, hopelessness and humanity through the prisms of questioned faith and the slippery slope to radicalism in this environmentalist melodrama starring Ethan Hawke in one of his best performances. A stellar supporting cast includes Amanda Seyfried and Cedric the Entertainer in this provoking drama which stands as one of Schrader’s most accomplished films from his five decades in cinema.