As three prominent foreign filmmakers deliberated on how to award the Toronto International Film Festival's $25,000 Platform Prize this week, there was no shortage of strong titles to consider. This year's Platform competition launched with a bang last Friday thanks to Armando Iannucci's political black comedy The Death of Stalin and concluded Wednesday with an instant classic, the Australian western Sweet Country.
In between the Kremlin and the Outback, there were several other artistic peaks (and at least one swamp) to consider. In its third year, the Platform program may not feature the kind of Oscar-ready titles featured in 2016, when the lineup included Jackie and Moonlight, but it is providing a lively and engaging view of contemporary cinema. But, as TIFF experiments with this competitive program, Platform remains miles away from producing the kind of definitive cultural conversation regularly on offer in the competition at Cannes.
Partly this is because TIFF, a festival that has pursued popularity over authority, can't snag the world premieres that would make a competition truly competitive.
Typically, several of the directorial achievements showing at TIFF have already proved themselves elsewhere. Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name was a favourite at Sundance in January; Sean Baker's The Florida Project was in the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes in May; and, earlier this month, Greta Gerwig's debut Lady Bird played Telluride, that little thorn in TIFF's side. And, as always, Cannes' best auteur offerings – this year they included Michael Haneke's Happy End and Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless – sailed into TIFF's Masters program with the wind at their backs.
But partly the Platform mix of the unusual and the lesser known with more eye-catching titles is an intentional strategy. Discussing it this week, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey said: "For years, I was a little frustrated … I thought, man, films are passing through the festival without the attention they deserve. Platform was made to address that."
So he compares the program not with the main competition but with the Directors' Fortnight or Un Certain Regard at Cannes, two programs that support directorial talent and unusual films. Bailey said of the choices he and outgoing CEO Piers Handling made for Platform: "You really want to feel you are in the presence of a vision."
Whether you are going to like that vision is another matter. This year's program included several titles with the filmmakers' integrity on full display, but that doesn't mean you will necessarily enjoy the films. I would put If You Saw His Heart, Joan Chemla's murky expressionist drama about an alienated Andalusian Roma living in a French flophouse, in that category. Michael Pearce's Beast is filled with memorable images and strong performances, but the director flubs his deliberately provocative surprise ending. Both are debut works by directors who don't seem entirely ready for their close-ups. Similarly, it's easy to admire Clio Barnard's uncompromising cinema, but no festival in the world could gather a large audience around a film as grim as Dark River, a drama about two traumatized siblings trying to run a sheep farm after the death of their abusive father.
Still, the only outright flop in the lineup is Lisa Langseth's weirdly pretentious
Euphoria, about two sisters confronting their emotional past and sad future in a woodland retreat.
On the other hand, when Platform works it can bring you a small revelation such as The Seen and Unseen, Sekala Niskala's poignantly hallucinatory film about a little Indonesian girl whose twin brother is dying of a brain tumour. Or it introduces you to Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch, whose episodic Razzia is a 360-degree portrait, both engrossing and devastating, of his own society.
At its best, Platform can focus the world's attention on a film such as Iram Haq's What Will People Say. That Norwegian film, about a teenage girl whose Pakistani parents can't tolerate her Western mores, may sound from program descriptions like an earnest and predictable affair about cultural conflict across generations in an immigrant community. Instead, the smartly filmed drama is subtly emotional and surprising at every turn. Some films are always going to find their audience: Brad's Status, the so-so Ben Stiller comedy about a middle-aged, middle-class man eaten apart by envy for his one-per-centre friends, is the only U.S. film in this year's Platform and rejoices in a recognizable star and an accessible theme; the nod from TIFF isn't going to make or break it. But Platform has now provided a crucial launching pad for What Will People Say.
Which film is going to win the prize? The critics would probably pick Sweet Country, Warwick Thornton's searing portrait of Australian racism built around a tale of Outback justice in the 1920s. That's the title that this week was leading a poll of six critics (including this one) that the British trade paper Screen International has been publishing daily during the festival. The Death of Stalin and What Will People Say were right on its heels.
But critics evaluate a whole movie and award their stars accordingly. Industry insiders are often moved by particular scenes, images or approaches and can be less concerned with whether the film offers viewers a consistent experience. This year's Platform jury, comprised of filmmakers Chen Kaige, Malgorzata Szumowska and Wim Wenders, may surprise us all when it unveils a winner Sunday.
The winner of the Platform Prize will be screened for free Sept. 17 at 8:30 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.