The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which wraps up its 10-day run Sept. 16, showcases 342 films, including features and shorts. I saw a goodly 20 of them, sometimes four per day. I’m not boasting. Some of my more intrepid colleagues saw five and six a day. And that includes midnight movies. Good luck with that.
This was the first Toronto festival of the #MeToo era, and its influence was everywhere. All official attendees were handed cards titled “Safety & Respect at TIFF” in which a “fair and equitable” code of conduct was laid out, with a phone number and website to confidentially report wrongdoing. The festival also announced it will make public the gender and race of all members of its selection committee, programmers, and consultants. It was reported that about 36 percent of the 342 movies in the festival were directed by women, up 3 percent from last year.
On Sept. 8, hundreds of women and men assembled downtown for the Share Her Journey Rally to protest the low representation of women filmmakers in the entertainment industry. It was noted that 4 percent of directors of the top films from 2007 through 2017 were female. A documentary about gender inequality in Hollywood called "This Changes Everything" was screened. In it, Natalie Portman says, “I’ve worked with two female directors on features, and one is myself.”
Politically themed movies were also a fixture of the festival, many of them documentaries. Errol Morris’s "American Dharma" focused, some complained too nonconfrontationally, on political consultant Steve Bannon; Werner Herzog’s "Meeting Gorbach"ev is a genial sit-down with the former Soviet president; "Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes" is a devastating look at the late Fox News chairman and chief executive officer, all the more so for being, well, fair and balanced. The jokey title of Michael Moore’s "Fahrenheit 11/9" refers to Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected president – and the film is the usual Moore mashup of screed and scandal.
It’s best when it deals with the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Mich., and other predominantly black cities, in which, in 2014, under the aegis of Michigan’s Republican governor and Trump crony Rick Snyder, Flint’s water supply was switched from the clean Lake Huron to the toxic Flint River, poisoning thousands of adults and children. But this outrage began under the Obama administration, and Moore flays him as well. (We see Barack Obama arriving in Flint and taking a drink of water as he tells a huge crowd that the water is now safe. A close-up of his glass reveals he barely took a sip).
But Moore has a penchant for undermining his own best intentions: When he shows us newsreels of Hitler speechifying and inserts Trump’s verbiage, whose cause is he really serving? (Seeing Frederick Wiseman’s fine documentary "Monrovia, Indiana" right after the Moore film was like a palate cleanser. Wiseman is the least coercive of directors).
I was also witness to a live “political” event: At a post-screening party for the movie about astronaut "Neil Armstrong, First Man," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, an accomplished amateur boxer, was asked by an American journalist if he would please – please – step into the ring with Trump. Trudeau was quick to answer: “I’ve retired.”
And what of “First Man”? I saw it on the outskirts of Toronto in a stadium-sized IMAX theater – the first ever built – and the experience was, if nothing else, immersive. Damien Chazelle’s first movie since “La La Land” stars Ryan Gosling (he’s Canadian!) as Armstrong, and the movie is best when it’s literally flying high. The ground-level domestic drama is less compelling, and Gosling seems so intent on playing down the heroics that at times he comes across as near-catatonic. But Armstrong’s two sons were in attendance and endorsed the film. Said Mark Armstrong,” I’m here to tell you they got it right.”
‘Star is Born’ impresses – for awhile
The other big hoo-ha at the festival was "A Star is Born," the fourth filmed iteration of that classic chestnut about a male star hitting bottom as his lady love hits the heights. Bradley Cooper, who also debuts as a director, stars as a down-and-out rocker, and Lady Gaga is his singer paramour. Both are impressive, and the first hour or so, a high-style swirl of romance and performance, is more than that. It should not come as any surprise that Lady Gaga (real name: Stefani Germanotta) is a good actor: Singer-performers often are (Frank Sinatra, Bette Midler, Willie Nelson, etc.). But the relentless downward spiral of this old-style story, even in its new-style trappings, becomes wearying.
Speaking at a press conference for the film, Lady Gaga, connecting to her own experience, said, “ I think that fame is very unnatural.... And the truth is, people think that we change, but it’s not us that changes – it’s everyone around us that changes.”
A slew of major directors, as usual, was represented in Toronto, but I was not alone in thinking, as the days wore on, that a towering masterpiece was not in the offing. Lots of movies had terrific passages, but the best movie I’ve seen here, front to back, is Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical "Roma," shot entirely in black and white and set in the early 1970s in the middle-class Roma district of Mexico City. The film focuses not only on a well-to-do family but equally on the nanny (played by non-actress Yalitza Aparicio) who lives with them and cares for the children.
It’s beautifully felt, but because the action is almost always filmed in medium shot, utilizing long, slow pans, I often felt oddly abstracted from the characters. Cuarón has had an astonishingly versatile career – among other films, “A Little Princess,” “Y Tu Mamá También,” “Children of Men,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Gravity” – but clearly this is his most personal movie and one that at its best draws closely on the plangent, humane neo-realist tradition of the Italian director Vittorio De Sica in such films as “The Bicycle Thief” and “Umberto D.”
“I wanted to look into the past from the standpoint of the present,” Cuarón said in a post-screening interview. “I wanted to come to terms with the women, the country that formed me.”
Another semi-autobiographical black-and-white opus was "Cold War," from the Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, whose “Ida” won the Oscar for best foreign language film. It gets my vote here for best first half of a movie, but, in its depiction of a romance gone to pieces in the cold war 1950s, it unravels along with the relationship.
Mike Leigh was represented at the festival by "Peterloo," a sprawling, uneven epic about the Peterloo massacre of Aug. 16, 1819, in which 60,000 people demonstrating peacefully for electoral reform in Manchester, England, were brutally set upon by the king’s forces. It takes a while to get going but, as is often true with Leigh’s period films (“Topsy-Turvy,” “Mr. Turner”), you feel as if you’ve been airlifted into the past. It’s not just the costumes and sets in this film that are in period. It’s the faces.
"If Beale Street Could Talk," Barry Jenkins’s highly anticipated follow-up to “Moonlight,” extends that film’s almost trancelike stylistics in this adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel about a young black couple where the man has been falsely charged with rape. Jenkins is essentially a director of moods, and his films, as touching as they often are, have a tendency to drift off into the ozone. He etherealizes experience.
With all this heavy-duty seriousness on the screen, I welcomed the regular clamor of the ever-present fans in the street. Bar none, this city has the friendliest fans of any festival I’ve ever attended.
Aside from some of the movies, of course, my favorite takeaway from Toronto came just before a gala screening of "Outlaw King," a Scottish period piece, heavy on the mud and the chain mail, starring Chris Pine. Two young Asian girls, standing just behind the barricades, held up a sign that read “Pine Nuts.”
They looked ecstatically happy.