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The Conversation: The Totality of Toronto (Plus 2015 TIFF Top Ten)

In the nine consecutive years I’ve attended the Toronto International Film Festival, it remains an elusive monstrosity of an event. With its hundreds of offerings, it’s a gluttonous buffet for the committed cineaste, a playground of auteurs mixed with unknown quantities. Even after having attended Sundance and Cannes, navigating the selections still somehow feels like ‘catching up’ with entries from Berlin, Locarno, and the concurrent Venice. And, therefore, everyone’s Toronto experience is bound to seem a bit different, even as streamlined as the festival is as it remains one of the most press and public friendly film festivals in existence.

Of course, there are always complaints (or questions) as to what doesn’t make an appearance at the festival, and we’re always subject to the tastes of various programmers. For instance, why exactly room could not have been made for Polish master Andrzej Zulawski’s first film in fifteen years is beyond me—especially since Cosmos picked up a Best Director award at Locarno (it’s an absence reminiscent of the Leos Carax shut out in 2012). But TIFF can’t play everything, after all, but Venice still (and increasingly, the weeks later New York Film Festival) nabs select items TIFF misses out on, like Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite, for instance. Or the new Gondry at NYFF. But enough on these slights.

Excitingly, Toronto presented its first juried competition, known as the Platform program, so named for Jia Zhangke’s 2000 titled film. Zhangke was appropriately part of a three person jury that included auteurs Claire Denis and Agnieszka Holland. Surprisingly, they awarded the top prize to Alan Zweig’s documentary HURT, a bit of a sordid realism look at Canadian ‘hero’ Steve Fonyo. My bet had been on the excellent new film from Brazilian filmmaker Gabriel Mascaro, Neon Bull. But, no dice (though there was some interest in seeing if Zhangke would lean toward He Ping’s The Promised Land considering it starred Zhang Yi, a prominent figure in Zhangke’s new film).

Unlike Cannes, TIFF’s conglomeration of titles reflected a growing pool of Latin American auteurs. Guatemala’s Ixcanul Volcano, which premiered in Berlin, appeared here, as well as that same festival’s The Club from Chile’s master, Pablo Larrain (oddly, this capped a day of film’s that started out with another high profile treatment of pedophilia, Tom McCarthy’s nicely mounted Spotlight). Confusion reigned with the similarly titled The Clan, a true crime tale from Argentinean Pablo Trapero, a decent film that’s certainly his best work in quite some time. Another Chilean master, Patricio Guzman, had his latest documentary, The Pearl Button in the lineup, while Mexico’s Arturo Ripstein presented his latest, the strikingly bizarre Bleak Street, wherein two elder hookers accidentally kill a pair of wrestling little people when they rob them. And from Colombia, the winner of the Director’s Fortnight prize from Cannes, Embrace of the Serpent was also a great title to catch up with here. Of course, following the announcement of the awards at Venice, Venezuela’s Golden Lion winner From Afar suddenly became a hot commodity part way through TIFF. Criticized by some as a drab examination of perversion, I couldn’t disagree more. Director Lorenzo Vigas expertly crafts a revolving power play between two lonely, repressed individuals with surprising results.

Besides Spotlight, a number of US films dealt with real life events from the 2000s, like the incredibly stilted Truth to several awards courting projects that range from complete misfires (Stephen Frears’ The Program) to problematic prestige pictures (Peter Sollett’s Freeheld). And LGBT issues were front and center in a number of items from the fest, from more awards courting fodder like About Ray and The Danish Girl to genre fare like Tom Hardy’s characterization of the Kray Bros. in Legend (the only real reason to watch the film). Then, unfortunately, the festival had to program a stink bomb like Roland Emmerich’s incredibly bungled Stonewall, of which the less said perhaps the better.

In the ten day stretch, there were quite a few high profile items directed by women, and except for one day, I managed to see one or even two items directed by a growing body of female filmmakers. From exciting voices like Athina Rachel Tsangari, Eva Husson, and Catherine Corsini, to vanity projects from the likes of Natalie Portman and more-or-less enjoyable new fare from Rebecca Miller, it was refreshing to see so much available in one place. Out of my top five, two new works by women absolutely impressed me, including the new film Body from Malgorzata Szumowska (she tied for Best Director in Berlin with Romania’s Radu Jude—an awards distinction which always leads to a backlash of critical dribble), a film engaging with notions of agency and control of physical states in intriguing ways. And then a provocative new film from Lucile Hadzihalolovic, Evolution, her first stint behind the camera in a decade.

10. Anomalisa – Dir. Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson (US)
9. Embrace of the Serpent – Dir. Ciro Guerra (Colombia)
8. High-Rise – Dir. Ben Wheatley (UK)
7. Bleak Street – Dir. Arturo Ripstein (Mexico)
6. The Club – Dir. Pablo Larrain (Chile)
5. From Afar – Dir. Lorenzo Vigas (Venezuela)
4. Neon Bull – Dir. Gabriel Mascaro (Brazil)
3. Evolution – Dir. Lucile Hadzihalilovic (France)
2. Body – Dir. Malgorzata Street – Dir. Arturo Ripstein (Mexico)
1. 45 Years – Dir. Andrew Haigh (UK)

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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