Crooked Marquee’s Toronto International Film Festival 2023 Diary

One must be careful to make sweeping judgments about the overall quality of a film festival based purely on their own experience—especially a giant festival like TIFF, with more selections than any one person could possibly come close to viewing for a fair assessment. But I’ve been attending TIFF since 2016 (I’m not a long-timer, exactly, but not a novice, either), and the films that made their way in front of my eyeballs, thanks to a combination of assignments and scheduling and sometimes ill-informed interest, were the weakest batch I’ve ever seen in Toronto, by a country mile.

But I’ll also note that my experience was not unique; I talked to several other critics who’d had similarly spotty runs, and had theories for it. Well-received films from other fests were inexplicably absent, due to the complicated politics and horse-trading of festival premieres. Other possible contenders had been pushed to release next year, after the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes will (hopefully!!!) have concluded. But TIFF also seemed to have made a tactical error in selecting an outsized number of films by actor-turned-directors, hoping that their star auteurs would attend in their capacity as directors and therefore bring some much-needed star power. Not only did several of them skip the fest anyway, in solidarity, but the films they sent were frequently lacking in quality. 

Michael Keaton, for example, turns in a commanding performance in Knox Goes Away, and his direction is assured. But half (at least) of the battle is knowing a good script to direct, and this screenplay by Gregory Poirier—whose credits include Tomcats, See Spot Run, and The Spy Next Door—is a dire affair indeed, riddled with cliches and hinging the entire narrative on the brilliance of a plan that’s a) not brilliant, and b) clear to any thinking audience member a half hour minimum before its big reveal. It’s a real shame, because it’s still a pleasure to watch Keaton work, and his scenes with Al Pacino are a treat. But this one is a big miss.

Same goes for Hell of a Summer, which is co-directed and co-written by Billy Bryk and Finn Wolfhard, who also co-star; they were also both in Ghosbusters: Afterlife, and if their aim was to cook up an even more dire homage to ‘80s cinema, well, they pulled it off. This throwback to Friday the 13th and similar summer camp slashers tries to walk a fine line between pastiche and parody, but it’s neither funny nor scary, and every character in it (even the ones we’re supposed to root for) gets tiresome in a matter of minutes. The less said about this one, the better. 

A conversation early in Kristin Scott-Thomas’s North Star about Chekov’s Three Sisters — one of the main characters is an actress — feels a bit like gilding the lily, as this is also a story of three sisters in a country house. One could also say it’s setting up an ill-advised comparison. Neither Scott-Thomas nor co-writer John Micklethwait are exactly Chekov; the famous actress (Sienna Miller), the captain in the navy (Scarlett Johansson), and the nurse in a hospital (Emilia Beecham) are reuniting for their mother’s wedding weekend, in which various matters of the heart come to a head, mostly unbelievably,  and long-buried secrets are confessed, mostly turgidly. The dialogue is all exposition and surface emotion, bereft of the subtext that the director/co-writer especially can act so well; she also plays their mother, writing herself pearls of wisdom like “Our entire lives are about choices” and “Let go of the children you are, and pay attention to the children you have,” and slathering it all in an insufferably twinkly score. The end text makes it abundantly clear that this was a very personal story, but that doesn’t make it a compelling one.

It almost seems cruel of the festival to have run North Star the same year as Azazel Jacobs’s His Three Daughters, a far superior comedy/drama about three adult sisters assembling at a fracture point — this time as their father, whose cancer is “very advanced,” is going into hospice care. Their personality types are established early: the bossy one (Carrie Coon), the ne’er do well (Natasha Lyonne), and the peacemaker between them (Elizabeth Olsen), though one of the small miracles of Jacobs’s screenplay is how keenly it understands that we all end up merely filling the roles we’ve been placed in, no matter the accuracy.

In fact, the intelligent and insightful writing makes it clear that they’re all flawed and complicated and petty and fascinating, caught at a moment in their lives of heightened emotion and elevated vulnerability, where everything is just raw, and so the wounds are even deeper than they initially appeared. Every performance is a winner, and the closing passages are just absolutely gut-wrenching. This is the best film I saw at TIFF — well, the best new film (I did get to see Stop Making Sense in IMAX). 

A strong silver would go to Evil Does Not Exist, the new film from Drive My Car director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, a contemplative effort — meditative in spots, particularly early on, as our first scene after the opening credits is a long scene of a man chopping wood (many, many pieces of wood). His name is Takumi and he describes himself thus: “I’m a jack of all trades. The local odd-job man.” His small community is about to be taken over by business interests, who plan to use post-pandemic subsidies to establish a tourist-catering “glamping” ground; “It’s derives its name from the concept of glamorous camping,” they are told at a public meeting, by a couple of lackies. 

This sounds like the set-up for an overdone tale of a tight-knit community rallying together to save their town, but that’s not Hamaguchi’s bag at all. Sure, he makes satirical hay of the pointed contrast between people who visit the outdoors and those who spend real time there, but those lackies are the key to understanding the picture’s title; we met them basically as villains, and get to know them as people, via their understated dialogue and Hamaguchi’s wry humor, which sometimes makes them the butt of the joke, but not always. He veers styles and tones, from observational drama to human comedy to potential tragedy, but doesn’t quite land the last of those, as his ending hinges on a piece of information it feels like we should get much sooner. That complaint aside, this is another compelling work from one of the most fascinating filmmakers on the world stage. 

Plenty of films have attempted to replicate the dream logic and anything-goes imagery of nightmares or fantasies, but I’ve never seen a movie so successfully do what director Niclas Larsson does in his feature debut, Mother, Couch: he creates a cinematic stress dream, where everything’s in motion and out of your control. He composes and cuts his scenes so they’re a little bit off, the rhythm ever-so-slightly sprung, while keeping his impressive cast’s feet on the ground, making fine use of Ewan McGregor’s crisp comic timing, providing another fine showcase for the very promising Taylor Russell (the best part of Bones and All), and getting yet another great late-in-the-game performance for Ellen Burstyn, who has a piercing way of delivering an already tough line like “I never wanted any children, David.” (David is her child.) It’s all legitimately bizarre and refreshingly unpredictable, and he sees it all the way through to an appropriately bonkers conclusion—and then goes on one scene too long, as so many movies do. 

D.W. Waterson’s Backspot is about cheerleaders (it takes its title from the position our protagonist Riley fills, anchoring the lifts and flips), but this is not a Bring it On riff; Waterson uses a rough(ish), handheld, captured aesthetic in the practice sessions, and in the lives of these young women outside the gym, working in micro-closeups and making visceral use of sound and image to depict the physical manifestations of Riley’s anxiety (while making the case for the hard work and athleticism of cheering via training montages that really linger on the blood, sweat, and vomit). It relies a bit too much on stock characters, and you can spot every story beat a mile away. But Reservation Dogs’ Devery Jacobs is as solid an anchor for the movie as she is for the team, and Evan Rachel Wood’s big speech about how the world treats “people like us” hits extra hard because of who’s delivering it.

When Taylor Sheridan’s producer credit appears at the end of Brian Helgeland’s Finestkind, it feels like a skeleton key to the picture’s failings — it’s a Paramount+ original, he’s their golden boy, and he probably let his pal Helgeland do whatever he wanted. In this case, that means a wildly inflated running time and all-over-the-damn-place tone, as a recent college grad (Toby Wallace) decides to spend the summer as a deckhand for his brother (Ben Foster), who captains a crew of scallop fishermen in New Brunswick, Mass. That material has a kind of straight-to-streaming Perfect Storm vibe, as we learn the tricks of their trade and observe the masculine camaraderie, bar sing-alongs, and brotherly bonding (and occasional tension).

Helgeland’s script is full of predictable beats, but the best of the performances (Foster, Jenna Ortega, and Tommy Lee Jones specifically) raise it up considerably. But it’s far too wobbly of a vessel to withstand the third-act transformation into a crime picture. It’s not that this material isn’t compelling — it’s Helgeland’s wheelhouse, after all — but it’s just a completely different movie, and the waters get mighty choppy by the time it concludes its wildly overstuffed two-plus hour running time.

On the documentary front, I Am Not Your Negro director Raoul Peck’s Silver Dollar Road tells the story of a 65-acre North Carolina waterfront property purchased generations ago by Elijah Reels, patriarch of a large and close Black family, which has been at the center of a long, complicated legal battle for decades, culminating with two uncles who’ve lived on the land their entire lives being evicted from the property and sent to jail for trespassing. It’s a riveting and nuanced story (first told in a ProPublic article), but Peck’s telling is oddly unfocused, with a strange sense that he either needed to do more (placing this conflict in the fuller context of racism in this particular area) or less (focusing more tightly on, say, the period of incarceration). But the emotional impact is undeniable, particularly as the months and then years of Uncles Melvin and Licurtis’s time in jail ticks away. “All I know, it wasn’t right,” says the latter, and that’s an understatement. 

TIFF itself plays a cameo role in Sorry / Not Sorry, the New York Times-produced documentary examination of how its own reporting brought down, ever so briefly, the career of Louis C.K. The comedian and filmmaker premiered his film I Love You Daddy, one of the most flagrant examples of an artist telling on himself, at TIFF 2017; less than two months later, that film’s release was canceled when the Times published its reporting on his (eventually confessed) sexual misconduct with female comedians. Directors Cara Mones and Caroline Suh tell that story well, particularly when digging into the dynamics of fame and power that kept this an “open secret” for so long, and the material concerning his comically short exodus, and the deliberate choices he made about how to frame it, are similarly effective. But the film powers down just when it seems to be getting going; one wishes the filmmakers would have drilled down deeper into the politics of “cancel culture” and how the comedy community is really kinda stepping on its own dick right now. That’s the film I wish they’d made, but the one they did make is well worth seeing and contemplating.

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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