2013 Toronto International Film Festival—My Top Picks

The spectacular 2013 Toronto International Film Festival has come to an exciting conclusion and I've returned home to sunny South Florida to take stock of my whirlwind week north of the border. This was the fifth year I used Twitter to write post-screening capsule reviews of all the movies I saw. Hopefully you followed along and were able to join me in experiencing the events in real time.

The quality of this year's lineup was truly extraordinary, resulting in one of the most memorable cinematic experiences I've had there in the eight years I've been attending. TIFF 2013 wowed me from the very first film, so it's a formidable challenge for me to narrow down my favorites to just a few. But, as I do following every festival (64 since the start of 2006), this wrapup will conclude with my list of Top Picks.

First, some statistics. This year I attended a total of 25 screenings, including 24 features and one shorts program. As always, many countries were represented on my schedule. Only 11 films were American, including my first three, but it was truly an international event after that. Eight of my final 12 features were all from outside the United States, including five out of six in my last three days.

13 films, almost half of my total, were from outside the US. These included two each from the UK and France along with one each from Austria, Australia, Canada, Germany, and Spain. There were four co-productions, including Canada/France, Canada/Ireland, Denmark/Finland/Sweden, and Germany/Hungary/Austria/France.

In some years as many as half the screenings I've attended were in other languages. This year eight of my 24 movies had subtitles. One (Tom at the Farm), set in Quebec, was a Canada/France co-production (in French). The other seven were from primarily non-English-speaking countries.

One thing that festivals offer over traditional cinemas is an exciting and informative Q&A session with the cast and filmmakers afterward. Only three did not have Q&As of the 24 public screenings I attended. Movies with Q&As traditionally wane after the first half of the festival. But just the opposite took place this year. Two of my first seven public screenings had no Q&A. But only one of my final 17 features did not have a Q&A.

Of the 15 first screenings I attended, every single one had a Q&A. And of my nine second screenings, six actually did have Q&As. Only three did not. In two of those cases, the directors at least did an intro (Prisoners and Exit Marrakech). Only one of my 24 public screenings had neither an intro nor a Q&A (the second screening of Philomena). In one case, the director did a Q&A while the cast stayed in their seats. This was a disappointment. On the other hand, there were two pleasant surprises where nobody from the film was there for an intro but did show up for the Q&A (including Joe and Eastern Boys).     

Another reason to attend festivals is to be among the first to see a movie. This was another good year at TIFF for me -- 12 World Premieres out of 24 films. There were five in a row at one point and nine out of 11. My list also included one International Premiere (first time shown outside country of origin), 10 North American Premieres, and one “Work In Progress” (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her). Many had debuted at European film festivals like Cannes, Berlin, and Venice.

One of the curious and, occasionally, most frustrating consequences of attending multiple films back-to-back is coming across trends which may or may not have been as apparent if not for the quick succession of these themes. Perhaps it's because I see so many low budget narratives at festivals, causing conventions and romantic comedy tropes to become tiresome, but I find myself tuning out a lot sooner than I used to. Here's a template for an indie trying to be mainstream: Begin with voiceover describing every character. For example, "This is my sister Bonnie. She broke up with her husband over a bad meatloaf. This is her girlfriend Kate. Kate likes to walk around the house with nothing on but a clown nose..." Make sure one of the first scenes is an overhead shot of the protagonist(s) in bed. If the first shot isn't a bed it's a car. At some point, have the leads say, "I have something to say." "No, I have something to say." "Okay, you first." "No, you first."

While death and issues surrounding grief are not uncommon topics, I first noticed this plot trend in 2009 when my favorites from Sundance (The Greatest) and Tribeca (Accidents Happen) both involved families grieving over the loss of a child and how parents and siblings come to cope with these tragedies. At one festival I saw six films centered on fathers dying of smoking-related illnesses. Three of these opened with a shot of a man lying in bed hooked up to tubes, coughing his lungs up. One movie opened with a young girl asking her mother, "Mommy, is daddy going to die?" The very next one opened with a young boy asking his mother, "Mommy, is daddy going to die?" I kid you not. I just sat there shaking my head.

I had an equally surreal experience at Sundance in 2011. The first six pictures I saw all dealt with death. The first five of these included death and guns. Two involved death, guns, and suicide. One juggled themes of death, guns, and homophobia. And one had death, guns, suicide, and homophobia (the very first one I saw). I found myself walking into theaters saying, "Please don't let this be about death..." It wasn't until my seventh screening that I finally found a film without any of these four themes. But my very last movie there was, like the first one, about death, guns, suicide, and homophobia.

In 2012, themes lightened up a bit. Days of darkness and depression gave way to festivals filled with relationship dramas. Most of my selections dealt with the struggles between parents and children, especially fathers and sons. "Write what you know," the old adage says, and screenwriters did just that. All had touches of humor, mirroring real life which, for me, is one of the definitions of an indie.

But morbidity isn't dead. For example, of the 34 features I saw at SXSW in 2012, 18 had death as a major plot point. But that was actually a relatively small percentage compared to many recent festivals (admittedly the numbers are skewed by my penchant for horror). Whether comedic drama or dramatic comedy (sort of like partly cloudy and mostly sunny -- I never could tell the difference) my favorite movies in 2012 made me laugh and cry, often within the same scene. That's the power of cinema.

What's been the trend for 2013? This year's Sundance Film Festival will go down in the books as "Porndance," as the week was filled with tales of love, lust, and sex bordering on soft pornography. Even just among the selections I saw, there was the steamy eroticism of Two Mothers, A Teacher, Concussion, and Pit Stop, as well as some that actually had porn as their subjects, including Don Jon's Addiction, Interior. Leather Bar., The Look of Love, and Lovelace. But far from being filled with shock value, these dark and occasionally not very titillating pictures were intended to be mass appeal, very carefully edited for R productions more appropriate for Lifetime movies than the art house.

Many of the sexy favorites from the last Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals showed up at SXSW this year, including Don Jon (formerly Don Jon's Addiction), Spring Breakers, A Teacher, and Pit Stop. Issues surrounding mental illness, featured in recent pictures like my 2011 Top 10 Pick Take Shelter, are now in vogue and the focus of two my SXSW favorites this year as well as one of my Palm Beach International Film Festival Top Picks (which I won't mention here as just naming them could be spoilers).

But grief and death are back as major plot points, playing a prominent role in more than half of my 37 choices at SXSW last March. There were plenty of relationship dramas but I could count the number of comedies on one hand and I only saw one movie I could label a "family picture" (When Angels Sing). At Palm Beach, a whopping 17 of 27 films featured issues surrounding grief and death as significant storylines. This included my first eight in a row, nine of 10 making up my entire first three days, and nine out of 10 towards the end. Only four of the 27 could really be labeled more comedy than drama -- one doc (Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor) and three narratives (Kings of Summer, Along the Roadside, and Chez Upshaw). The latter two I saw on the festival's very last day. I'm not a big fan of comedy, though, so this isn't meant as a criticism of the lineup (especially since I helped select many of those dramas) -- just an analysis.

At this year's Toronto International Film Festival, despite avoiding synopses and trailers, I somehow ended up picking a number of selections dealing with death, guns, and suicide again. I saw four films in four days that included someone thinking of jumping off a bridge or cliff (or actually doing it). Grief and mental illness are becoming ubiquitous as plot points. The father-son relationship was also prominent on my schedule, although that's understandable given that many festival films are by male first-time directors. Remember, "write what you know." Yet almost half the films I saw were directed by women. Who says there aren't enough female filmmakers? There are more and more every year at TIFF.  

The lost art of the opening title sequence is still, well, lost, as only one of my 24 movies kicked off the old-fashioned way. The Spanish children’s feature Zip & Zap and the Marble Gang was the only one with notable opening graphics. The horror film The Station did have some creative graphics after an opening scene. Of the other 22, 12 launch right into the action after just a few credits or superimposed over the images, while the remaining 10 open cold with no credits or title at all or just a single title card. Fortunately, fewer films are resorting to the conventions like the "opening bed shot" or voiceover narration. The few times these were used I felt they were necessary.

Every year fewer and fewer films are actually, well, films. Or at least not shot on film stock. It wasn't that long ago when digital cinematography, primarily utilizing the RED camera, was a curiosity. This is now becoming the norm, while the Arri Alexa system is rapidly taking its place alongside the ubiquitous RED ONE (and newer EPIC) as digital camera of choice. This also allows many movies to be projected in the 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio ("scope") as opposed to the common 1.85:1 ("flat") which was the traditional format for domestic indies and foreign films featured at festivals. I used to mark "scope" in my notebook next to those titles, which were few and far between. Lately I've been noting the rare "flat" where it appeared since the overwhelming majority of narratives are being exhibited in the 2.39:1 widescreen ratio. 14 of my 24 narratives were in the widescreen format, eight were 1.85:1, one was in IMAX (Metallica Through the Never), and one was a throwback to the old television ratio of 1.33:1 (Parkland). Most notably, though, nine of the 14 widescreen pictures were non-US films. Only four of my 13 foreign titles were in the traditional 1.85:1 aspect ratio typically seen in international cinema in the past. This was, perhaps, the most notable difference in exhibition from previous festivals I’ve attended. In terms of format, all but one movie at TIFF this year was projected digitally with the Christie 4K system.     

Readers of this blog know of my love for genre films. These generally fall under the "horror" umbrella but can include science fiction, paranormal, and a wide range of spooky and creepy movies. Some are more mass appeal than others but many of the most shocking ones at the Toronto International Film Festival take place as part of the Midnight Madness program. It was the first section for which dedicated passes were sold (other than some Gala premium screenings). Programmer Colin Geddes runs a festival-within-a-festival that typically hosts some of the most memorable flicks I see at TIFF. As always, the lineup was mind-boggling. However, due to new scheduling (begun last year) that has screenings ending close to midnight, I was only able to make it to four Midnight Madness shows (there are 10 altogether). Therefore, I won't be posting a separate list of genre Top Picks as I've done in the past. The ones I saw were All Cheerleaders Die, The Station, The Green Inferno, and Oculus.

TIFF took the massive amounts of negative feedback to heart after last year’s festival, which was plagued with problems, but there is still room for improvement. Scheduling conflicts (TIFF seems to be catering to producers who all want their pictures screened in the first weekend's prime time spots), exacerbated by a lack of schedule options (most films only had two screenings in the first week as opposed to the typical three or four that they had in the past) and late starts made for another frustrating TIFF in terms of logistics. This feeling was echoed by most patrons I randomly polled throughout the week, including non-members, members, and even higher level Patrons Circle attendees. Still, it wasn’t as bad as last year and I have all the confidence in the world that TIFF is aware of, and dealing with, these issues in hopes of having a more trouble-free festival next year.

In terms of film quality, though, this was one of my best TIFFs ever in my eight years attending. There were really only a half dozen disappointments for me out of the 24 full-length features I attended. Most met or exceeded expectations. The rest were pleasant surprises. So please keep in mind that even the "worst" ones on my schedule here could, theoretically, be among the best at other festivals, and would make my Top Picks from those respective fests. Just because you don't see a title listed below doesn't mean I didn't love it -- just that a "Best of" list that includes over half the films I saw isn't really valid.

I've narrowed the list down to my Top Picks using a 1-5 rating scale. None deserved just 1 star (1 = avoid at all costs) and only three received 2 stars from me (2 = not recommended). Nine movies were good enough to merit a 3 (I recommend it). There were five with a rating of 4 stars -- ones I'd not only recommend but also would see again. Three merited 5 stars -- films I'd recommend, see again, and add to my DVD collection. So those eight "see again" movies make up my Top Picks.

Astute readers may have noticed that adds up to 20, and I saw 24 features. The other four I placed in my Q category. These are films I would definitely see again but don’t feel comfortable recommending to all audiences. Hence, Q titles (for “qualified”) are those I will cite among my favorites but list the qualifications – why they may or may not appeal to certain viewers.   

Here is my list of Top Picks from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Countries of origin are listed in parentheses. Titles will link to full-length reviews and Q&A photos to be added shortly.

(in alphabetical order)

All the Wrong Reasons (Canada) -- See my full-length review, trailer, complete Q&A video and stills and my Q&A photos

Eastern Boys (France) -- See my full-length review, teaser trailer, complete Q&A video and stills and my Q&A photos

Exit Marrakech (Germany) -- See my full-length review, trailer, clips, and stills

Joe (USA) -- See my full-length review, complete Q&A video, and stills and my Q&A photos

Le Grand Cahier (Germany, Hungary, Austria, France) -- See my full length review, trailer, and stills and my Q&A photos

Parkland (USA) -- See my capsule review, Q&A photos, and trailer

Philomena (UK) -- See my full-length review and trailer

Prisoners (USA) -- See my full-length review and trailer

I would also like to acknowledge the following films, whose content precludes me from making broad recommendations but which deserve recognition nonetheless. My "qualification" is indicated after each title.

Concrete Night (Denmark, Finland, Sweden) -- I was really on the fence about recommending this Scandinavian coming-of-age tale about a 14-year-old boy uncovering uncomfortable truths about himself and the people around him. While disturbing subject matter alone never precludes my selection of a film, many viewers had serious issues with some of what is portrayed, and I wondered if I could recommend it to a broad audience. However, after speaking with some who saw the film, including teenagers, I found that the young people who could presumably be offended by the violence and nudity actually had no problem with it. Only the adults seemed to take issue with it. Therefore, I do recommend this film but with the above cautionary note. -- See my full-length review, trailer, and stills and my Q&A photos   

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her (USA) -- This was labeled a "Work In Progress" for various reasons. It's actually two films, back-to-back, that run three hours and ten minutes. Obviously I qualify this based on length as well as uncertainty about what the finished product will look like. Still, if you can sit through it without a break, it's magnificent. The screening I attended showed the "Him" film followed by "Her." The order was reversed in the second screening. -- See my full-length review and my Q&A photos

Metallica Through the Never (USA) -- In general, rock films are recommended more to those familiar with the artists and their music. This IMAX presentation of a Metallica concert interspersed with a loose narrative is a hybrid that plays more like a 90 minute concept video than a live concert performance. While it may have broad appeal, there are certainly those for whom such a film would not hold much interest. But for fans of Metallica's music it's a must-see. -- See my full-length review and trailer

Oculus (USA) -- Like most genre films, this is recommended more to an audience that appreciates horror. While this two-person one-location psychological thriller owes more to Hitchcock and Serling than the Saw franchise, there's enough blood and gore here to qualify it as a pick not for the squeamish. But for fans of the creepy and sinister, this is highly recommended. -- See my full-length review and stills and my Q&A photos    


NOTE: Four of my choices were honored at the TIFF awards for 2013. All the Wrong Reasons went on to win the Grolsch Film Works Discovery Award. Runners-up for the People's Choice Award were Philomena and Prisoners, both in my Top 8. Oculus came in second for the Midnight Madness Audience Award.

Many of my selections now have theatrical distribution. In post-festival acquisition deals, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby was picked up by The Weinstein Company, who had already acquired Philomena at the Cannes Film Market. Oculus will be distributed by Relativity. Joe is nearing a deal with Lionsgate/Roadside. Metallica Through the Never came into Toronto with distribution in hand. The film was released by Picturehouse in North America on September 27 in over 300 IMAX® 3-D theaters, expanding to additional theaters on October 4. Prisoners is being distributed theatrically by Warner Brothers and is now in theaters. 


Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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