2014 Toronto International Film Festival—My Top 10

The breathtaking 2014 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 and a half north of the border. This was my ninth year at this iconic Canadian institution. Many of you followed along on Twitter and were able to join me in experiencing the events in real time, for which I am eternally grateful. It's just not the same unless shared among friends!

The quality of this year's lineup was eclectic and extraordinary, as always, resulting in yet another memorable cinematic experience that has required a great deal of examination and soul-searching. TIFF 2014 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 (71 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 30 screenings, including 29 features and one shorts program. But the number of titles was actually 28 since I went to two screenings of Maps to the Stars, something I've only done once before at TIFF (The Perks of Being a Wallflower in 2012). As always, many countries were represented on my schedule. Only 12 of 28 films were exclusively American, along with one US-France co-production (Clouds of Sils Maria, which kicked off my TIFF 2014), including my first four screenings. It was truly an international event after that. Seven of my final eight features were all from outside the United States, with only one US film in my last three days.

15 films, more than half my total, were from outside the US. These included five from host country Canada along with one each from Argentina, Belgium, France, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom. There were five co-productions, including Canada/Germany, UK/Belgium, Dominican Republic/Argentina/Mexico, Finland/Germany/UK, and Argentina/Chile/Germany/Netherlands.

In some years as many as half the screenings I've attended were in other languages. This year nine of my 28 movies were all or partially subtitled. Two (Corbo and Love in the Time of Civil War), set in Quebec, were Canadian productions in French. The other seven were from primarily non-English-speaking countries. There was also one foreign film without subtitles -- but also without dialogue, narration, or voiceover. The Tribe is a "silent" film (although there are ambient sounds and occasional grunts) told completely in sign language (a specialized Ukrainian sign language, to boot).  

A big reason to attend festivals is to be among the first to see a movie. The Toronto International Film Festival excels in hosting gala World Premieres and this was another good year at TIFF for me -- 18 World Premieres out of 28 films. There were four in a row at one point and seven out of eight. My list also included one International Premiere (first time shown outside country of origin), seven North American Premieres, and two Canadian Premieres. Many had debuted at European film festivals like Cannes, Berlin, and Venice, while some had been screened at Telluride the weekend prior. This never mattered before, but now it does (see this article for an explanation).

One thing that festivals offer over traditional cinemas is an exciting and informative Q&A session with the cast and filmmakers afterward. Only five did not have Q&As of the 30 screenings I attended. Movies with Q&As traditionally wane after the first half of the festival. But this wasn't really the case this year. While only one of my first 21 screenings had no Q&A, just three of my final eight features did not.

Most pictures are shown at least three times. Of the16 first screenings I attended, every single one had a Q&A except Maps to the Stars at Roy Thomson Hall, but that venue never has a Q&A for the first screenings of Galas anyway. There is usually an intro, however, and a dozen cast and crew members made an appearance. Of my 13 second screenings, 10 had Q&As. Only three did not. In two of those cases, the directors at least did an intro (The Riot Club and my repeat screening of Maps to the Stars). The sole second screening with neither an intro nor a Q&A was the sign language Ukrainian film The Tribe. Appropriate irony, perhaps. The only third screening on my schedule (my very last film), Sand Dollars, also had no intro or Q&A.

On the other hand, there were several pleasant surprise talent appearances. Despite severe jet lag, Clouds of Sils Maria's Juliette Binoche did come out to introduce the film although she could not stay for the Q&A. Movies which premiere on opening night often have a second screening the following morning, and the cast traditionally does not show up, for a number of reasons (e.g, press interviews, hangovers). But, to everyone's delight, the legendary Al Pacino made an appearance for the Q&A of The Humbling at Ryerson on Friday morning. Other second screenings at which the stars unexpectedly showed up for Q&As included Whiplash, featuring J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller. The audience was especially lucky as the film's first screening, at Ryerson, did not have a meet & greet following the Q&A while the second screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox did offer an opportunity for fans to meet Simmons and Teller.     

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, as they were few and far between. Lately I've been noting the rare "flat" where it appears since the overwhelming majority of narratives are being exhibited in the 2.39:1 ratio. 20 of my 28 pictures were in the widescreen format, while only eight were in the "flat" aspect ratio. Most notably, though, 12 of the 20 widescreen pictures were non-US films. Only four of my 15 foreign titles were in the traditional 1.85:1 aspect ratio typically seen in international cinema in the past. In terms of exhibition, all movies I saw at TIFF this year were projected digitally with the Christie 4K system. The word "reel" will soon have no meaning.

The lost art of the opening title sequence may not be so lost after all. The practice seems to be making a comeback as five of my 28 movies kicked off the old-fashioned way (yes, that's a lot compared to recent festivals). The Belgian children’s feature Labyrinthus, the very adult and slightly pornographic Love in the Time of Civil War, Broadway musical-to-screen The Last Five Years, and David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars all featured notable opening graphics. The Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy did have a wonderful title sequence featuring Beach Boys clips following a brief opening scene. Of the other 23, eight opened cold with virtually no credits or title at all, five launched right into the action with credits superimposed over the first scene, and the remaining 10 began with a prologue followed by credits or just the title, which has been the film opening style of choice over the past few festivals I've attended. Therefore, 18 of my 28 movies open straight into the first scene. One more reason to get in your seat early, shut off your phone, and shut your mouth. There's not a lot of time to get settled in. I've also noticed that fewer films are resorting to the conventions like the "opening bed shot" or voiceover narration. Now the trend seems to be toward airport scenes and rear steadicam tracking shots. It becomes amusing when one sees six movies in a row that open with a shot of the back of someone's head. That said, I do have a fondness for long takes without dialogue, and I'm seeing that more and more in opening sequences, as well.     

Before I select my Top Picks, a few observations about the direction film festival lineups have taken in recent years and where we may be headed. 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 in 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." Unless there’s a very good reason for it, clichés like this will take me right out of the movie.

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 had an equally surreal experience at a recent Sundance. 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..." 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.

Sundance 2013 went down in the books as "Porndance," as the week was filled with tales of love, lust, and sex bordering on soft pornography. Grief and death played a prominent role in more than half of my choices at SXSW 2013 and at Palm Beach last year a whopping 17 of 27 films featured issues surrounding grief and death as significant storylines. At TIFF 2013 I somehow ended up picking a number of selections dealing with death, guns, and suicide again. I went straight from Toronto to Austin, Texas for Fantastic Fest, a genre festival whose focus is on the crazy, twisted, and macabre to begin with. Those dark themes involving death, guns, grief, and mental illness are almost prerequisites for a film to be booked there. I had two films in a row which opened with a hanging. The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival last fall also proved morbidity isn't dead. The overwhelming majority of the films I saw there had death as a major storyline.

I had high hopes that things would lighten up in 2014. Relationship dramas dominated the last several festivals I attended, including Santa Barbara in January, Palm Beach in April, and Los Angeles in June. "Write what you know," the old adage says, and screenwriters were doing just that. Even the most horrific ones had touches of humor, mirroring real life which, for me, is one of the definitions of an indie. Whether comedic drama or dramatic comedy (sort of like partly cloudy and mostly sunny -- I never could tell the difference) my favorites made me laugh and cry, often within the same scene. That's the power of cinema.

Which brings us to this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Despite avoiding synopses and trailers, I somehow ended up picking a number of selections dealing with suicide and mental illness again. They were ubiquitous as plot points. Four of my first five films dealt with mental illness -- three involving suicide (including my first two films). At one point later in the festival, I had five out of seven movies in a row that dealt with suicide and mental illness in some way. In total, of 28 titles, 19 had death as a theme, 12 contained issues surrounding mental illness, and suicides were featured in the narratives of 11 films. Only six of my 28 movies did not have suicide, mental illness, or death in their storylines. Or maybe they did and I was too numb to notice. This trend was apparent in my discussions with other festivalgoers, as well, so I know it wasn't by chance. TIFF 2014 was a rapid-cycling bipolar festival. Meds anyone?    

Now...on to my Top Picks...

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As always, it's a challenge to fit in one's "must-sees." There are scheduling conflicts (like most festivals, TIFF has to deal with filmmakers who all want their pictures screened in the first weekend's prime time spots), exacerbated by a lack of schedule options (most films only have two screenings in the first week now as opposed to the typical three or four that they had when I began attending). Occasional late starts (although not as many as last year) also complicated matters in terms of logistics, along with some computer snafus that left many ticketholders with seats to oversold screenings. Over 28 screenings had changes in venue, date, and/or time in the days before the festival opened, after selections had been made and tickets had been sold. Still, the TIFF staffers did their best to accommodate everyone. They always learn from their mistakes with the determination to put on a more trouble-free festival the following year. 

In terms of film quality, though, TIFF lived up to expectations, as it always has in my nine years attending. There were about a dozen disappointments for me out of the 28 full-length features I attended --- not necessarily bad, mind you, just that I had high hopes for them and they fell short. Several met or exceeded expectations. The rest, the ones which really made TIFF 2014 worth the trip, 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 the list below is relative. .

I've narrowed the list down to my Top 10 using a 1-5 rating scale. Only one film deserved one star (avoid at all costs) and I gave two stars to four films (not recommended). Eight movies merited a three (I recommend it). There were five with a rating of four stars, ones I'd not only recommend but also would see again. That leaves the cream of the crop, which I've listed below. These are the 10 films that merited five stars -- the ones I'd recommend, see again, and add to my home video collection.

Here are my Top Picks from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Countries of origin are listed in parentheses. Titles will link to full-length reviews as posted.


TOP 10 (in alphabetical order)


Big Game (Finland, Germany, UK)

Clouds of Sils Maria (France, USA) -- See my photos of the North American Premiere Q&A, capsule review, and trailers

Corbo (Canada)

Elephant Song (Canada)

The Humbling (USA) -- See my photos of the North American Premiere Q&A, capsule review, and trailer

Labyrinthus (Belgium)

Love & Mercy (USA)

Maps to the Stars (Canada, Germany) -- See my photos of the Gala North American Premiere cast intro, capsule review, and trailer

Still Alice (USA) -- See my photos of the World Premiere Q&A and capsule review

Whiplash (USA) -- See my photos of the Canadian Premiere Q&A, capsule review, and clip

There are several curiosities which may be noted on my list this year. Many actors had multiple films at TIFF. Just within my Top 10 there is John Cusack (Maps to the Stars and Love & Mercy), Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars and Still Alice), and Kristen Stewart (Still Alice and Clouds of Sils Maria). This is a first in my nine years at Toronto -- or in any Top 10 of the 71 festivals I've attended.     

I would also like to acknowledge the following films, whose content precludes me from making broad recommendations but which deserve mention nonetheless. 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. Geddes also programs the Vanguard section, titles which might fit into the midnight lineup if there were more than 10 midnights. Big Game, a Midnight Madness selection that made my Top 10 above, can be recommended without qualifications. Among the remaining Midnight Madness and Vanguard films which I saw, these three stood out and deserve special recognition:


TOP GENRE FILMS


It Follows (USA)

Spring (USA)

Tusk (USA)


Finally, I'd like to honor a film that I would definitely see again but don't feel comfortable recommending to all audiences. It was easily the most disturbing picture of the festival. But that's not necessarily why I recommend it with qualifications. The film is entirely in sign language -- a Ukrainian version, at that -- with no subtitles, narration, or voiceover. I found it surprisingly watchable but worthy of its prominent disclaimer. It took home three awards at the Cannes Film Festival in May, including the Critics Week Grand Prize, France 4 Visionary Award, and Gan Foundation Support for Distribution.

The Tribe (Ukraine)

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NOTE: Two of my choices were honored at the TIFF awards for 2014. Tusk was first runner-up and Big Game was second runner-up for the Grolsch People's Choice Midnight Madness Award. Many of my selections now have theatrical distribution. Some were picked up prior to TIFF while others are in the process of making post-festival acquisition deals. I'll update this section with distributors and release dates as they become available.  



Author

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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