The best of TIFF 2018

Highlights from one of Toronto’s most famous yearly experiences

In a city as massive and complex as Toronto, it’s hard for most people to choose one defining annual event. But for me — and admittedly, my cinephilia makes me biased — it’s always the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

The world-famous film festival, now 42 years old, boasted a typically jaw-dropping lineup this year. I had the pleasure of seeing a variety of movies, including inevitable Oscar favourites, future cult classics, and even two very memorable films with close-ups of semen.

Those were 10 hectic days, but below are some of the highlights of 2018’s TIFF.

For awards season followers: If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins has returned, his name omnipresent a few years ago with the breakthrough release Moonlight. His previous feature was confident, passionate, and mature. Yet as If Beale Street Could Talk proves, Jenkins’ Best Picture-winning work was just him finding his footing. His newest effort is a sensational ensemble drama, full of rich emotion and an endless barrage of breathtaking performances.

This is not merely some awards-hungry prestige picture; Jenkins has created a unique and bold human drama. With endless sincerity, his camera drifts through a lush and tender colour palette as Nicholas Britell’s string-heavy score washes over us. If Beale Street Could Talk is an earnest and important work from a filmmaker destined to be recalled as one of our era’s greats.

For sci-fi fanatics: High Life

At 72, there are few filmmakers who have performed with the consistency and genius of French auteur Claire Denis. She’s worked with a variety of gifted performers in a vast array of genres, from postcolonial dramas — Chocolat, for instance — to one of the most emotionally distressing horror films I’ve seen: Trouble Every Day.

Her latest movie continues to amaze audiences. High Life follows Monte (Robert Pattinson), a solitary man raising his daughter on an abandoned spaceship, hopelessly alienated from any civilization. What proceeds is a frenzy of ethical and metaphysical questions, with a finale of literally cosmic proportions. Told with ethereal beauty and haunting imagery, High Life is a worthy addition to the filmography of one of cinema’s most original artists.

For arthouse addicts: Ash Is Purest White

Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White is a lengthy, genre-switching, and emotional epic. It tries its hand as a crime film, an action, and a comedy, but ultimately settles for something a little more delicate and difficult to grasp.

The movie follows a woman who, after spending five years in prison for protecting her lover — a violent crime boss — struggles to readjust into a supposedly ‘free world.’ Spearheaded by a show-stopping performance from Zhao Tao, Ash Is Purest White questions our relationship with time and memory.

For Eurodrama enthusiasts: Transit

The textures, landscapes, and characters from Christian Petzold’s latest film, Transit, all seem familiar. On the surface, there is nothing earthshattering about its tale of a man’s attempt to escape fascism in Europe via migration. Yet Petzold’s handling of temporal relations is quietly innovative. Adapted from Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel Transit Visa, the film sets the narrative in a contemporary setting without changing any of the time-specific details from the source material.

The result is a movie that blends eras into one narrative. Is it the past? The present? A near future? The device is effective at pointing out the cyclical nature of time in a critique of the seemingly undying presence of fascism. Unfortunately, Transit’s subtlety may prevent some from detecting its creativity. This is definitely one of the year’s most expertly-crafted dramas.

For mystery lovers: Burning

Burning, Lee Chang-dong’s latest movie, is a slow-simmer mystery — a film where all answers are obscured behind dense layers of mist. Based off of Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” the adaptation follows a love triangle turned haywire when sinister intentions come into the mix.

Drenched in melancholic moods and set against bleak landscapes, Burning is a lonesome ambient-fuelled nightmare. Admittedly, the narrative buildup requires dedication and patience. However, once the jigsaw pieces are spread across the table, Burning’s energy drives it to a thrilling finale.

It’s an unconventional and slow-paced thriller, certain to satisfy fans of Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta or George Sluizer’s The VanishingBurning is an investment, but one that pays off in subsequent days of reflection.

For horror fiends: In Fabric

Like a giallo fever dream merged with a psychosexual extravaganza, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric had me in stitches. Likely the most bizarre addition to this year’s Midnight Madness lineup, the movie weaves together a tapestry of characters whose lives take a horrifying turn when they come into contact with a murderous dress.

Between its eerie department store to its evil washing machines, I was frequently in a state of delightful hysteria. Unfortunately, some of the movie’s genius is squandered in a second half that resorts to redundancies, only to recapture its mojo in the final minutes, climaxing in an unforgettable frenzy of cinematic madness.

For documentary devotees: Monrovia, Indiana

For 50 years, Frederick Wiseman has ventured around the world, exploring various settings ­— some renowned, some only remarkable for their lack of distinction. Monrovia, Indiana has him venturing right into the abyss: a nest of Trump supporters.

Remarkably, none of the subjects in this film seem to discuss politics. Instead, they simply drift through their daily routines. Wiseman’s camera captures the minute details of this lifestyle, from graphic surgery in a veterinarian’s office to peculiar mattress sales.

Wiseman’s films have always been about honestly summarizing his own experience of the space he studied, and here, he excels with flying colours.

For tearjerker admirers: An Elephant Sitting Still

After Hu Bo completed An Elephant Sitting Still, his first and only feature, Bo ended his life. I mention this because such a detail feels inseparable from the movie itself. Every scene revolves around a sense of disillusionment with existence; there’s a constant anguish for the entire four-hour runtime.

The spectre of death haunts every moment.

With its desaturated colours, An Elephant Sitting Still is a bleak and intimate epic. Certainly one of the festival’s most challenging movies and a colossal and rewarding achievement.

Beneath all of the grey layers of desperation is a sliver of beauty. This movie is the product of a rare and unique artistic voice.

For crime connoisseurs: Birds of Passage

With his new film, Ciro Guerra trades in the psychedelic atmosphere of Embrace of the Serpent for a grittier and more narrative-driven feature. The product is like a more spiritual Scarface. Both movies are bullet-ridden epics depicting how greed and excess trigger calamities.

Guerra is an immensely talented filmmaker, managing to hit the conventional milestones of crime film, while injecting it with a singular energy. Simultaneously beautiful and brutal, Birds of Passage is a superb Colombian gangster tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

For experimentalism experts: Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Word of Long Day’s Journey into Night’s unconventional structure has been circulating since its premiere at Cannes. To summarize: the film drops its opening title card 70 minutes in before switching to an hour-long 3D tracking shot for the remainder of the runtime.

Yet the film, Bi Gan’s sophomore feature, is more than just an awe-inspiring technical achievement. It’s also a tender and melancholic portrait of a man’s attempt to resurrect the past. Gan’s tender compositions toy with neo-noir tropes in a Tarkovsky-esque rumination on love.

In my opinion, this is the most beautiful and likely the greatest film that I saw at the festival; every frame sings like a celebration of the cinematic medium. It’s the perfect summation of what TIFF is all about.

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