TIFF 2017: My highs and lows

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Every September, I look forward to the Toronto International Film Festival. With 12 days of movies, celebrity sightings and freebies right in the heart of downtown, I could argue that this time of the year is even better than Christmas!!

I’ve been going to TIFF for about seven years now. And come to think of it, it’s also been seven years since I was in first year university. Wow, time really flies.

From audience member to being  a TIFF volunteer, I’ve always made sure to go to at least three films a year.

This year, I saw 11 films. The reason why this post is almost a week late is because I’ve been spending my time trying to catch up on sleep!

So now that I am back to normal, I can finally give my thoughts on some of the movies I saw this year. There were surprises, disappointments and some really excellent films.

  1. Call Me By Your Name

Based on the novel of the same name by André Aciman, this indie flick charmed Sundance audiences and even drew comparisons to last year’s Oscar Best Picture Moonlight. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, the movie stars Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer as two star-crossed lovers spending the summer in Italy. Chalamet plays Elio, a 17-year-old boy and Hammar plays a PhD student who comes to stay with Elio’s family. Throughout the summer, the two bond over their sexuality, Jewish faith and the landscape.

Heading into the movie, I was expecting to bawl my eyes out based on early reviews. But luckily, I did not. The film DID make me feel many emotions, however. And, I was particularly struck by Michael Stuhlberg’s monologue near the end of the film, which honestly broke my heart.

All in all, this movie is a beautiful, and I expect it to go far during the awards season.

2. Lady Bird

I’ve been a fan of Greta Gerwig ever since she charmed the pants off of me in Frances Ha. So, I was super excited to see that she was going to show her directorial debut Lady Bird at TIFF this year.

The movie stars Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a strong-willed opinionated teenager who’s tired of living in Sacramento and dreams of going to school out east. During her last year of high school, she constantly bumps heads with her equally opinionated mother about money and moving away for school.

Now I know what you’re thinking…isn’t this the plot of many coming-of-age stories?

Yes, it is…but honestly, it’s worth the time. Saoirse Ronan is SO good here. And not far behind, is Laurie Metcalf, who plays her mother. It also doesn’t hurt that Gerwig’s script is so smart and funny. This movie is a real crowdpleaser, and I also expect this to make the rounds during awards season.

3. Stronger 

Stronger is based on the true story of Jeff Bauman, a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombings that happened in 2013. The film revolves around Bauman’s life after the attacks, and how he comes to terms with losing both of his legs. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Bauman, while Tatiana Maslany stars as his on/off girlfriend Erin Hurley.

I personally really liked this film, because the movie felt incredibly authentic. I felt myself tearing up at random moments throughout the film: times when Gyllenhaal’s character goes through depression and PTSD, and when his family goes above and beyond just to make his life easier.

That said though, this wasn’t my favourite movie of the festival. I’m not one for dramatic movies, but Jeff Bauman’s story is an important one to tell.

Side note: Bauman and Erin Hurley announced they were divorcing this year. The movie made no note of that at the end of the film at all, which I felt was awkward. Maybe the producers thought this would kill the story’s vibe, since their relationship is integral to the story. Oh well.

4. The Current War 

I waited WAY too long in the rush line for this movie. But to be fair, I had friends waiting in line for Surburbicon, which was the screening ahead of mine. (I was just hanging out okay?!) I also got a free ticket to the movie after five hours or so…and the seat was LITERALLY behind Nicholas Hoult’s.

That said, I lined up because I’m a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch. And in this movie, he plays yet another genius: Thomas Edison.

Upon reading the synopsis, The Current War sounds like it could be a great film. Thomas Edison goes head to head with George Westinghouse (played by Michael Shannon) as they race to see whose electrical system is the best option to light the world.

What’s great here in the movie is the Nicholas Hoult, who plays Nikola Tesla and Katherine Waterson as as Westinhouse’s supportive wife, Marguerite. But with a story that felt at times unfocused and unfinished, their characters were underused.

The movie also felt like it was pandering to Academy voters. Because near the end of it, it somehow becomes a movie about the creation of motion pictures.

5. Dragonfly Eyes

I watched this movie for work because I was producing an interview with the film’s director.

What you need to know here is that director Xu Bing managed to create a completely fictional film with real life security camera footage. He and his team sifted through 10,000 hours of footage and managed to edit it together. The project and concept is pretty spectacular. But on a story level, it wasn’t as interesting as I thought.

But hey, if this film still peaks your interest, this is what it’s about:

A young woman named Qing Ting (her name means ‘Dragonfly’) leaves the Buddhist temple where she has been training to be a nun and returns to the secular world, taking a job in a highly mechanized dairy farm. Ke Fan, a technician working on the farm, falls in love with her and breaks the law in an attempt to please her. As the movie goes on, Ke Fan increasingly becomes obsessed with her.

6. Unicorn Store

To be fair, I wasn’t planning to see this movie. I had been in the rush line for James Franco’s The Disaster Artist and FAILED miserably.

That said, I didn’t want my time in line to be a complete waste. That’s why I decided to stay for Brie Larson’s Unicorn Store.

Unicorn Store stars Brie Larson as Kit, an art school drop-out who doesn’t know what to do with her life. But then one day, she receives a mysterious invitation from none other than a man who goes by The Salesman  (Samuel L. Jackson). And throughout the film, she works towards obtaining the unicorn (yes, a unicorn!!!) she’s always dreamed of.

This movie was cute, but a little TOO adorable for my liking…if you know what I mean. It’s the kind of movie you should watch when you’re bored and having a bad day. But to be honest with you, it felt too childish for adults…and a little too adult for children….if that makes any sense.

7.  Meditation Park 

I had wanted to see this movie, because it was about a Chinese-Canadian family and I always try to support Asian talent whenever I can. But with all the showtimes so late in the day, I didn’t think it was plausible.

That is, until my friend messaged me with free tickets!

So despite losing sleep over watching a movie…it was well worth it. That’s because I could relate on so many levels…just because what director Mina Shum created was basically a love letter to Chinese moms.

Meditation Park stars Cheng Pei Pei as a doting wife and caring mother. But one day, she finds a pair of woman’s underwear in her husband’s pants pocket And thus, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery and engaging with the world around around her — something that her husband has discouraged her to do in the past.

Cheng Pei Pei’s character Maria reminded me so much of my great-aunt. She was funny, adorable, caring and at the end of it all, just completely heartbreaking. Thank you Mina Shum for bringing her to life.

8. Bodied

Ummm…this movie was AMAZING, and just the biggest surprise for me. I went into this simply knowing a few things: it was directed by Joseph Kahn, produced by Eminem, and written by Toronto battle rapper Kid Twist.

What ensued was an experience like no other. The movie’s basically two hours of intense rap battle after the other. It was hilarious, dark and to this day, I still feel so hyped up about it. Without saying too, too much about it…it was one of the most amazing film experiences I’ve had in a LONG time.

I have no idea when this film is coming out. Apparently there’s been a lot of demand for this movie since it premiered. So if it ends up getting a wide release…please go see it.

9. Molly’s Game

In Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, he teams up with the always amazing Jessica Chastain. Molly Game is based on the true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic level skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game and became an FBI target.

This movie was equal parts riveting and action-packed. And I thought Idris Elba was excellent here as Bloom’s lawyer. Chastain was also great, and her and Sorkin’s fast-talking dialogue =  the perfect combination.

10. I, Tonya

When I heard this movie was coming to the festival, I didn’t think much of it. But boy of boy, was this a pleasant surprise.

Shot in a mockumentary style, this movie retells the story of real-life former figure skater Tonya Harding (played by a wonderful Margot Robbie) as she rises through the ranks of the sport and yes, that attack on fellow teammate Nancy Kerrigan.

The whole cast here is just excellent, ESPECIALLY Alison Janney as Harding’s mother LaVona and Paul Walter Hauser as Harding’s delusional neighbour Shawn Eckhardt. Their portrayals were just SPOT on…and the movie was hilarious and dark.

Now when you think of mockumentary-style, you run the risk of being insensitive for making a parody out of someone else’s life. But to be honest with you, this movie also had scenes that made you feel empathy for its characters. And I’m glad it did because Harding is a real person who’s still very much alive.

11. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

This film won TIFF’s People’s Choice Award…and I’m glad it did because I managed to catch a free screening of it on the last day of the festival.

The film stars Frances McDormand as hard-as-nails mother who challenges local authorities to solve the case of her daughter’s murder when they fail to catch the culprit.

This movie was excellent. It was funny, dark and heartbreaking. McDormand is excellent as a mother on a mission, cussing and challenging the police in an “I don’t give a DAMN” what you think way. Also excellent is Sam Rockwell, who plays an aspiring detective who can’t seem to shake off his childish ways to reach his full potential.

Personally, I’m not sure if the Academy would love a film as darkly comic as this for Best Picture. But, I do expect several nominations to come for a film like this come next year.

Blog #…?

Okay, okay. How many blogs have you made in your lifetime, Samantha? And how many have you been able to stick with?!

To count, I think this blog is probably the 7th one I’ve ever set up. There was the Friendpages I set up in Gr.6, the website I made on Tripod  (miraculously, it is still up and running!), the Geocities website I made from scratch in Gr. 7, the Livejournal I had in high school, the Blogspot I had in university, the semi-private one I still occasionally write in and now, this one.

Seven blogs! How did I get to this point?!

The truth is, I’ve always loved to journal whether it’s through a diary or online. And now, I need an outlet to document some of my opinions and ideas…and hopefully get some input from friends and strangers around the world wide web.

I can’t promise I’ll write here everyday (heck, who is even reading this?!) but, I’m going to at least try to make an appearance a few times a week.

Here, I hope to write about what I’m mostly passionate about: pop culture, movies, television and media + how all those things can work on becoming more diverse.

There will also be little tidbits about travel and anecdotes from my daily life in the mix. And I hope to also incorporate my passion for video editing into this blog as well.

Here’s to hoping and new beginnings!

— Sam