Walking around downtown during the final days of the Toronto International Film Festival is always a pleasantly surreal experience. Much of the international media and industry have hightailed it home, briefly taking a rest before the festival circuit heats up again later this month in New York. The celebrities are gone, too, save for whoever got stuck with a late-fest premiere. But TIFF’s purest audience – the Toronto cinephiles who fork over hundreds of dollars for the privilege of sitting next to strangers in the dark – are still crowding King Street and theatre lobbies.
And they all have one shared question on their minds: What's good? In this year's case: so very much, and not necessarily what you would expect for an organization that is, in many ways, starting fresh.
Last year, TIFF exited the Piers Handling era on a surprising high note – the long-time CEO and his team made sure that his last festival at the helm included an impressive lineup of titles, including A Star Is Born, Roma, If Beale Street Could Talk, and the world premiere of eventual Oscars champion Green Book. But with TIFF 2019, the festival had to reveal what its next chapter as Canada’s shiniest arts institution might be. How would TIFF’s new co-heads Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente – along with their revamped programming team led by new senior director of film Diana Sanchez – prove that they not only knew where the industry is heading, but how to get there ahead of everyone else?
The answer, at least for now, seems to be: diversify. This year’s lineup was wide-ranging in not only what kinds of productions played TIFF – streaming giants Netflix and Amazon had just as large a presence as traditional studios like Warner Bros. and Fox Searchlight, to the chagrin of TIFF partner Cineplex – but also in who was making them. Across TIFF’s programming slates, there was an invigorating sense of purpose and challenge: to seek out emerging voices and elevate them to the top.
Mati Diop’s Atlantics, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu, Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s The Platform, Heather Young’s Murmur, Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 ft., Oualid Mouaness’s 1982, Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century and Abba Makama’s The Lost Okoroshi all proved that the future of TIFF rests not only in promoting the expected Hollywood fare but in the thrill of discovery, too.
Certainly, the big prestige productions that arrived at TIFF riding strong Cannes, Venice and Telluride festival debuts played well, too. If TIFF 2019 is only remembered for such secondary premieres as Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes, Trey Edward Shults’s Waves and the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, then it would still be an exceptional year.
But TIFF – in its increasing desire to cement its reputation as not just a stop on the fall festival circuit, but the very starting line – secured a healthy number of through-the-roof world premieres, too. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Jojo Rabbit and Just Mercy will all have ardent defenders come Academy Awards time. As will the Jennifer Lopez-fronted Hustlers, which received such a rapturous reception from critics and audiences that it might just snag the festival’s People’s Choice Award, a coveted Oscars bellwether. (That award will be announced Sunday morning, although through press release and social media rather than TIFF’s traditional brunch reception for media, a curious sign of potential cost-cutting.)
While each of the aforementioned films has its weakness – with Taika Waititi’s “anti-hate satire” Jojo Rabbit getting the roughest reception from a certain cluster of critics – each will also nicely feed into TIFF’s self-generating cycle of confidence: the films are happy for Toronto audiences’ typically warm receptions, and Toronto audiences are happy to play just that kind of ultra-obliging host.
The real success story of TIFF 2019, though, can be found in the festival’s Canadian slate – genuine evidence that the domestic industry is (sorta) working. Along with Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 ft., Rankin’s The Twentieth Century, Young’s Murmur, Nicole Dorsey’s Black Conflux, Albert Shin’s Clifton Hill, Alan Zweig’s Coppers, and Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis’s White Lie are all stellar works that the Canadian industry should be promoting with all available fervor.
Of course, since these are Canadian productions, most were financed with the loose change found between the cushions of various arts councils, and almost all were ignored by the visiting global media that makes Toronto its home for a week. Canada is producing great artists, and TIFF programmers are making sure they’re given as high a festival pedestal as ever before, but something still needs to click in order to launch this country’s best filmmakers to the level of international exposure that they deserve.
Perhaps the answer rests with the Canadian titles sucking up some of the festival oxygen currently devoted to TIFF’s gala lineup, which as this year proved still relies on an unhealthy number of splashy-but-empty affairs (hello and goodbye, The Goldfinch, Motherless Brooklyn, Radioactive, The Burnt Orange Heresy, Harriet, Blackbird, and Joker, the latter easily 2019′s most overhyped and not-worth-the-fuss head-scratcher).
A similar rethink should be considered for the opening-night slot, which this year hosted the tepidly received Canadian documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band. Programmers have the best of intentions here but the sketchiest track record.
While the TIFF team is busy seeking new ways to grow and flourish with the changing landscape, a plea: kill Festival Street. Closing a stretch of King Street West to traffic for four days makes it easier to navigate the festival, but only marginally. So many brand activations crowded the space this year that I actively avoided it. Any sense of celebration was also muted by the increased presence of giant concrete barricades, certainly in place for crowd safety, but visually and spiritually a G2O-reminiscent eyesore and obstacle. And once traffic opened back up this past Monday, a good number of the marketing exercises just migrated to the sidewalk in front of Roy Thomson Hall anyway.
If TIFF so badly relies on the sponsorship dollars Festival Street’s corporate partners bring in, then hive them off near David Pecaut Square for the duration of the festival and let the city’s commuters go about their business. The rest of Toronto would certainly hate TIFF less. And then everyone could concentrate on what the festival does best: celebrating films and the artists who make them possible.
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