Whenever something went sideways during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival – not exactly an infrequent occurrence – my mind flashed back to the dark, socially distanced days of September, 2020.
As disappointing and frustrating as some parts of TIFF 2022 have been – from Ticketmaster woes to hastily scrubbed screenings to faux press conferences absent actual press questions to a lineup that highlighted curatorial cracks – there is still no question that this year’s full-capacity, mask-free, superstar-jammed edition was a desperately needed rebuke to the deeply depressing hybrid era.
After two years in pandemic purgatory, TIFF threw itself a much-deserved comeback party – and everyone from filmmakers to the media to the industry to everyday moviegoers should thank God/Godard that we were invited.
So first, the good news: TIFF aced its A-list celebrity test, bringing an unholy number of mega-wattage talent to the city and thus ensuring that the global superfan industrial complex had its social media accounts trained on Toronto. If a film fest is as much about the moments as it is about the movies, then TIFF delivered.
There was the starry cast of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery cracking jokes about playing murder-mystery games while quarantining with one other. Bros star Billy Eichner surely introduced some sheltered audience members to the existence of poppers (that’d be the chemical psychoactive drug alkyl nitrites) during the raucous Q&A following his queer rom-com’s world premiere. Steven Spielberg got visibly emotional after receiving a standing ovation for his autobiographical drama The Fabelmans. Brendan Fraser broke down in tears all over town as he promoted his comeback role in The Whale. And your heart had to be made of cruel, cynical cinephile stone to not at least feel a flutter of warmth while watching Taylor Swift devotees dance their hearts out on Festival Street.
So much of TIFF delivered its patented brand of warm, feel-good energy, pumping life into a city drained of such live-wire excitement for too long. But don’t worry, darling: The feel-bad vibes weren’t far behind.
To start, there could be an entire miniseries made about how TIFF has gradually pushed its audience toward waging guerrilla warfare against Ticketmaster. While it has long been tradition among festival diehards to spend Labour Day trying, and then failing, to secure TIFF tickets, this year’s technical difficulties seemed to reside on another, sub-Dante-ish level of hell. I realize that whining about movie tickets is a true cry-me-a-river situation – but when your not-for-profit institution is increasingly associated with maddening inaccessibility, then you are daring your audience to not even bother. (There is a whole other conversation, meanwhile, to be had about festival pricing, even considering TIFF’s recent push to make its year-round programming more affordable, or even free.)
But more than operational issues, TIFF needs to take the time between its 47th and 48th editions to take serious stock of its programming strategy.
There is a temptation to give this year’s lineup a polite Canadian passing grade, given the whole COVID-19 thing. The various starts and stops that the film industry contended with – plus a general skittishness on the part of studios to release anything mildly unconventional into the market – undoubtedly limited the number of high-quality, prestige films in circulation from which chief executive officer Cameron Bailey and his refreshed programming team could pluck. Despite all that, the festival did manage to feature a healthy number of under-the-radar gems alongside the more expected mainstream hits like The Fabelmans and Glass Onion.
This year’s Canadian lineup, for instance – the last to be selected with the oversight of retiring senior programmer Steve Gravestock – reinforced TIFF’s commitment to emerging, diverse, explosive homegrown talent. First-time filmmakers Chandler Levack (the hilarious I Like Movies), Graham Foy (the haunting The Maiden) and V.T. Nayani (the intimate This Place) are just a few fresh names who deserved every spotlight that TIFF afforded them.
Meanwhile, the Midnight Madness lineup continued to prove that Peter Kuplowsky is a genre king maker, with the programmer matching predecessor Colin Geddes’ knack for finding bloody diamonds in the rough. I’m still unsure whether selecting the copyright-baiting satire The People’s Joker was an act of curatorial courage or a clever stunt, or both. But it did spark an essential conversation about art, identity and commerce.
Even TIFF’s juried Platform program, which has struggled to match its high-brow ambitions since it was launched in 2015, delivered a handful of excellent titles, including the riveting eco-heist thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
And yet: If TIFF wants to retain its self-made reputation as the unofficial launching pad of Oscar winners – as the home for both the best and most popular cinema – then there is some serious work to be done.
This festival’s most enthusiastically received titles – Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, Laura Poitras’s doc All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Alice Diop’s Saint Omer, hometown star Sarah Polley’s Women Talking – arrived at TIFF after already premiering at either the Venice or Telluride festivals the week before. (The same thing happened with the Hugh Jackman melodrama The Son, but the less said about that dreadful movie, the better.)
Meanwhile, the splashy world premieres that TIFF did snag, such as the Jennifer Lawrence drama Causeway, the Harry Styles romance My Policeman, and Peter Farrelly’s Green Book follow-up The Greatest Beer Run Ever, evaporated from the conversation swiftly after their debuts. A log-jam of middling Hollywood fare (Devotion, The Menu, Moving On, and a whole lot of second-tier Netflix titles) also contributed to a simmering sense of so-what. Bloating the program with star-driven but ultimately underwhelming movies is far from an unfamiliar situation for TIFF – but for that strategy to survive a pandemic-forced reset is dispiriting.
By the time the festival closed this past weekend with the by-all-accounts forgettable Ben Kingsley drama Daliland, it seemed that TIFF was still trading too heavily on those twin forces of curatorial complacency: studio politicking and crowd-pleasing shoulder-shrugging.
Certainly, dissecting the state of “premier status” in film-fest land might seem like the most insider-y of insider baseball. And honestly, Toronto’s notoriously warm audiences don’t much care that Women Talking was first glimpsed in some Colorado mountain town – we’re just happy to be out of the house.
But TIFF’s brand of can’t-miss excitement is one built largely on exclusivity, not secondhand buzz. And if studios and producers and distributors see Toronto’s programming slips outnumber its coups, then that affects where those power players decide to send their films next year, and the year after that. Is TIFF the leader, or the follower?
Granted, it is so very easy to criticize an immensely complicated, highly sensitive system from behind the safety of a press lanyard. And I get it: One film festival cannot have everything, even if that has long been TIFF’s all-you-can-watch philosophy. But as someone who wants TIFF to be the best that it possibly can be, I cannot help but shake the feeling that something about this year’s edition was ... off.
This anxiety seeped into TIFF’s market, too, where business was muted. The streamers came and left with little, and though a few titles got decent theatrical pickups, including cool-kid U.S. distributor Neon landing How to Blow Up a Pipeline for an undisclosed sum, the all-night bidding wars of years past didn’t return. The biggest deal brokered at TIFF? That would be the US$30-million that Focus Features paid for Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers – a movie that wasn’t actually in the festival, only screening privately for buyers.
At least Pearson International Airport and Air Canada played nice – I heard little about cancelled flights or lost luggage. It was also delightful to see the party circuit back in full force – no masks, but lots of ludicrously complex cocktails and armies of appetizers (arancini appear to have replaced sliders as the hors d’oeuvres of the moment). And though I’m not the film’s biggest fan, I was happy to see The Fabelmans take home the coveted People’s Choice Award on Sunday, as it is simply a nice win for everyone. (I shudder to think how darker the mood might have been had Spielberg skipped TIFF.)
While this year’s attendance numbers won’t be available for a bit, there is no question that TIFF – as a spectacle, and cultural destination – is back. But before we pack up the Cineplex Scotiabank escalator for another year of maintenance (this is a joke ... I hope), the festival should think carefully about where it wants to go next – and what it will be willing to do in order to get there.
Top 10 Films from #TIFF22
1. Women Talking
2. How to Blow Up a Pipeline
3. I Like Movies
4. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
6. The Banshees of Inisherin
7. Queens of the Qing Dynasty
8. The Maiden
10. The Fabelmans, I guess?