In its bid to slim down for an industry that prefers its festivals trim and easy to mount, as opposed to bloated and challenging to strip down, the Toronto International Film Festival this year dropped two of its less comely programs: Vanguard and City to City.
The latter proved to be a consistently challenging one to curate, given programmers were working within the confines of a specific metropolis that may or may not have the best wares of any given year. But when it clicked, as with last year's spotlight on Lagos and the bursting Nollywood scene, it worked wonders. Vanguard was more consistently successful in its relatively short life, in that it provided a respectable home for genre cinema that harboured ambitions of art-house prestige.
But both programs, for whatever reasons, are gone. The section that has stuck around and survived TIFF's purge, to some surprise, is Platform, as programmers revealed its new slate on Thursday morning with films from such established directors as Mike White (HBO's Enlightened, writer of School of Rock) and Armando Iannucci (Veep, In the Loop).
Introduced in 2015, Platform stands apart thanks to the jury that oversees it (three filmmakers of international renown) and the $25,000 prize it administers. TIFF offers plenty of prizes, including the coveted Grolsch People's Choice Award, which has a reputation of foreshadowing Academy Awards dominance. Yet by adding a jury to the mix – this year it will be Chen Kaige, Malgorzata Szumowska and longtime friend-of-Toronto Wim Wenders – there was a sense that TIFF was inching toward Cannes-esque territory.
"We are not a competitive festival, but we decided that the time was right," TIFF CEO Piers Handling told The Globe at the time. "You're responding to the environment of what's going on in the marketplace, what's going on with our own festival, and the coverage that certain films are getting and others aren't getting."
More curious were the films Platform showcased. Originally, the program for "artistically ambitious" movies seemed designed to highlight projects whose distribution rights were still up for grabs in North America. ("This puts the media and buyers in the room with the public, which is what everyone seems to want," TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey told IndieWire in 2015.) So in its inaugural year, that meant Ben Wheatley's gonzo and now certified-cult film High-Rise, Fabienne Berthaud's Diane Kruger drama Sky, which quickly disappeared, and Canadian documentarian Alan Zweig's Hurt, which won the competition but made its premiere on television's Super Channel outside the confines of TIFF.
In 2016, the selections were of a higher profile and calibre, some already in the care of North American distributors with awards campaigns in hand, including Pablo Larrain's Jackie and Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, the latter of which would go on to win the Academy Award for best picture. Whether Moonlight, backed by American indie powerhouse A24 and distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures, or Jackie, backed by Fox Searchlight, needed that $25,000 is an open question, but there's little doubt they were the best films in the program – and the entire festival itself.
This year, the offerings represent a further splitting of the program's already fuzzy identity. There is the comfort of familiar faces in Mike White's Brad's Status, a comedy starring Ben Stiller in full Noah Baumbach mode. The film marks the first joint venture between two American outfits quickly redefining the distribution game, Amazon Studios and Annapurna. And there's The Death of Stalin, which chronicles the last days of Joseph Stalin in a presumably satiric vein, given it's coming from Armando Iannucci, famous for his foul-mouthed series The Thick of It and Veep, and starring such comedy ringers as Jeffrey Tambor and Steve Buscemi. It already has the backing of IFC Films.
Perhaps less accessible titles, at least to North American audiences, include Clio Barnard's U.K. thriller Dark River (its U.S. rights appear to be up for grabs); Indonesian director Kamila Andini's The Seen and Unseen (ditto); and the Casablanca-riffing Razzia from Nabil Ayouch, a famous face in Morocco but relatively unknown here (the film's stateside future is also uncertain). Notably, there is no Canadian Platform film this year, whereas 2015 had Hurt and 2016 had Zacharias Kunuk's Searchers.
"The films unveiled today embody our bold vision for the program, and our ongoing commitment to showcase artistic and inventive directors that fearlessly push boundaries," Handling said in a statement. "The twelve titles exemplify bravery, dynamism and a unique voice in storytelling that we look for when curating the Platform program."
It will be up to the jury whether that definition means a champion rests in a Ben Stiller film or cinema from beyond the mainstream shores. The challenge with having a platform, after all, is that everyone is going to pay attention, no matter the choice you make.