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UMA DA CUNHA | 28 SEPTEMBER, 2019

The Big Wins at the Toronto International Film Fest

24th Toronto International Film Festival (September 5 to 15, 2019)


All-out support for women filmmakers with …
245 features, 82 shorts, 6 series,
51 first-time features, 84 countries/regions


The high statistics make it clear that Toronto backs women film professionals extensively. This year, 45% of the TIFF’s prestigious Gala Presentations were directed by women (36% of films overall), the highest in the festival’s 44-year history. This is in huge contrast to the overall top 100 grossing films of 2018, in which women represented just 4% of directors.

Headed jointly by Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente (co-head and executive director since 2018), TIFF stands apart as a festival which spotlights its coveted People's Choice Award. Last year, the award went to Peter Farrelli’s Green Book, starring Virgo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, a film inspired by a true friendship that transcended race, class, and the 1962 Mason-Dixon line. The film won to the dismay of another section of fans rooting for Alfonso Cuarón's semi-autobiographical masterpiece, Roma. In 2015, the festival also introduced its juried Platform competition to highlight the next generation of master filmmakers.

TIFF awards

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This year’s People’s Choice Award to Jojo Rabbit, a World War II rib-tickler on a German boy whose loyalties are divided between his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (played by the film's writer-director Taika Waititi) and the Jewish teenager his mother is hiding in her attic. The film goes straight to the heart with its positive outlook on how compassion and goodwill will prevail in the face of dark times. As usual, the People’s Choice awards, and TIFF’s selection generally, pointed towards possible Oscar nominations and winners.

TIFF’s gauntlet to attendees …

The frantic and befuddled delegates are faced with the challenge of choosing films for each of its ten days. At times, they can add up to a maximum of five per day for diehard film devotees. The majority of these films have world premiere tags which makes them unseen and unknown to the public. From a tempting array of some 300 titles, selecting which ones to see is a daunting task. However, there are films that remain in one’s memory, such as the titles that follow... 

Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (Netflix, USA). Its first public screening held at TIFF, this searing documentary is of significance to viewers in India. Director Eva Orner exposes the reality of ‘hot yoga’ founder Bikram Choudhury’s outrageous audacity in raping and assaulting innumerable women — and getting away with it. Now reportedly practising in Mexico, the film makes it clear that Choudhury rightfully belongs in jail. Orner uses footage of the domineering guru and testimonies from many victims voicing their resentment and rage. However, in his closest confidantes’ sense of betrayal also implicitly reveals his positive impact on them.

Red Fields (Israel, Luxembourg, Germany). Writer-director Keren Yedaya adaptation of a popular surrealist Israeli stage musical, the film resembles a rock opera marked by the stunning, heart-pounding performance by its female lead, Neta Elkayam, and musician Dudu Tassa as the narrator. The film is up for seven Israeli Oscars.

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Joker (USA). Described as grim n’ gritty, Todd Phillips’ comic-book thriller won Venice’s top prize and now is a serious contender for the Oscars. An uncanny reinvention of Batman’s arch-nemesis, Joker appears to have divided audiences at TIFF, with its lead Joaquin Phoenix’s stellar performance as a mentally-ill comedian, and its gripping end when he drags an entire city into his psychosis.

It must be Heaven (France, Qatar, Germany, Canada, Palestine, Turkey). Writer-director Elia Suleiman’s film was in competition at Cannes and is now Palestine’s submission for the Oscars. Throughout its duration, an expressionless, silent Suleiman observes the world around him with a bland, stoic wisdom. He is seemingly a comic victim to what is around him. Asked what country he hails from, the director replies ‘Nazareth’, and only when pressed admits: “I’m Palestinian”. His national identity, Suleiman seems to be saying, exists only as an adjective, not a proper noun. Suleiman’s earlier films, The Time That Remains and Divine Intervention, established his unique cinematic presence and style.

Verdict (Philippines, France). In writer-director Raymund Ribay Gutierrez’s drama, Joy, living with her little daughter Angel, is brutally attacked one night by her drunk low-crook husband Dante who slashes at her and she retaliates with a kitchen knife. While escaping, Joy gets him arrested. The action shifts to the courtroom, with the couple’s personal history interfacing with the cold monotony of opposing testimonies. Against all odds, the judge appears to side with the manic husband, however, later, in a merciful twist of fate he is murdered, allowing Joy a chance to live her own life in a relentlessly patriarchic society.

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Parasite (South Korea). Bong Joon-ho's Palme D'Or at Cannes is on a family that just grabs what it can; the film zeroes in on class divisions and portrays a thrilling uprising of the downtrodden. The heroes are a lovably scruffy clan of grifters, who work their way into the lives of a rich family and exploit them until a startling mid-movie twist derails their schemes. The film was second runner-up for TIFF's People's Choice Award.

Bad Education (USA). Cory Finley’s jaunty true-crime drama is on two Long Island public school administrators caught up in an embezzlement scandal. The film is a deeply embedded critique of how inadequately compensated public servants are for the value they add to communities. Bad Education constantly springs surprises while playing on audience sympathy. Actress Geraldine Viswanathan plays the collegiate sleuth who finally nails the embezzler. Vishwanathan also starred in Minhal Baig’s Hala, as a young and curious woman trying to find her identity, torn between a devoutly religious Pakistani family and her life as an American-born teen in high school.

Marriage Story (USA). Runner-up for this year's People's Choice Award, writer-director Noah Baumbach's riveting film stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as New York theatre-folk going through a divorce. With crisp dialogue and keen observations, the film unfurls like a courtroom thriller as the two executives find themselves in competing, ‘must-win’ scenarios, regretting how the legal system forces them to confront their failures. An underlying note here is that the two characters live through one of their worst experiences.

A Hidden Life (USA, Germany). Director Terrence Malick's visually lush, three-hour examination of the life of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian who was imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis in 1943 because he refused to swear loyalty to Hitler. Intense, close to gruelling, but also frequently transcendent, the film explores the spiritual dimension of resisting immoral leaders.

About Endlessness (Sweden, Germany, Norway). There's a Hitler cameo in Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson's latest exercise in elaborately choreographed, stubbornly deadpan absurdism. The movie is a series of sketches about everyday calamities and despair. At one point, Andersson depicts Hitler's final hours on Earth, in a scene no more or less significant than a later shot of some random man’s broken-down car, suggesting that the world keeps turning, revolving daily through darkness and light.

Knives Out (USA). Rian Johnson’s engaging murder mystery on obscenely wealthy family pits the blue-bloods against an employee who may know more than she says about their patriarch's death. The film unfurls with dazzling storytelling, the delightful hamminess of its performances (from the likes of Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, and Don Johnson), and its optimism that simple human decency can prevail over self-serving greed.

Uncut Gems (USA). In Benny and Josh Safdie’s mystery-thriller, Adam Sandler expertly plays a gambling inclined New York diamond dealer, who over several days juggles multiple make-or-break deals and a series of crazy high-roller bets. The film plunges viewers into the bedlam of the anti-hero's life as it goes out of control. It leaves one giddy and exhausted but a bit relieved to be personally well out of that space.

For the complete list of the 2019 TIFF award winners, see here:
https://tiff.net/the-review/tiff-19-award-winners

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