Should you have wondered whether the Toronto International Film Festival was indeed “back” in full force — in its 47th edition, and its second since Virtual TIFF Year Zero — you simply had to look outside. Folks milled in front the Bell Lightbox when they weren’t packed into screenings, chatting away in small groups, comparing notes and looking for recommendations and comparing lookie-loo celebrity stories. Lines once again snaked around the Scotiabank multiplex. On King Street, home to the neighboring Princess of Wales and the Royal Alexandra theaters — the latter only having been employed as a festival venue for the first time this year — throngs of people lined the two-block radius and screamed for whomever got out of their black SUVs and/or worked the red carpets. You could rate pre-screening reactions by volume levels. The Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery premiere: Deafening. The “In Conversation With Taylor Swift” event: An early ’70s Who concert. Harry Styles, waltzing into the first showing of My Policeman: A symphony of jet engines that went to 11.
And then there were the movies themselves, a mix of big-name projects — welcome to TIFF, Steven Allan Spielberg! — and several coming-soon-to-a-streamer-near-you prestige dramas that suggested studios and stars were happy to once again run the press gauntlet in the name of a gala premiere. Add to that a few crowd-pleasing comedies, the North American premieres of Euro-festival standouts, your usual midnight-movie flotsam and jetsam, and from-hot-jazz-to-Herzog documentary programming, and you had what felt like a vintage Toronto festival. Even the few controversies that popped up, like the I.P.-culture-jamming The People’s Joker (which used D.C. Comics’ characters to tell an infectiously irreverent trans coming-of-age story) being pulled after a single public screening, was reminiscent of a time before Covid jitters and end-times paranoia dominated the conversation. Last year’s ghost-town TIFF was but a distant memory. It was like Fall 2014 never ended.
We saw a lot over the eight days we were there, and the following titles were what stuck with us after the lights came up — and will undoubtedly stick with us long after the books have closed on TIFF ’22. From a groundbreaking portrait of a photography legend to a biopic on the greatest musical artist of our time [accordion-playing parodist division], these were the 10 best things we saw at Toronto this year. It felt great to be back.
(Shout-outs as well to The Eternal Daughter, A Gaza Weekend, Glass Onion, The Inspection, Louis Armstrong’s Black and Blues, The Menu, Other People’s Children, The Woman King…and, of course, Paolo Sorrentino’s pre-show WTF Bulgari ad starring Anne Hathaway, Zendaya and a peacock, in that order.)
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Documentarian Laura Poitras turns a portrait of an artist — photographer Nan Goldin — into a work of protest art, toggling between biography and chronicling how the “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” creator took on the Sackler family and forced art institutions to recognize that philanthropists can also be Big Pharma pushers. You still get a deep dive into Goldin’s life and times, but as with Poitras’ past looks at whistleblowers and disruptors (Citizenfour, Risk), there’s an erasing of the boundaries between the personal, the political and the ethical that enhances both the backstory (notably re: the influence of Nan’s sister Barbara) and the back catalog. Some biodocs serve as victory laps or epitaphs. This one feels like a call to arms, soundtracked by shutter clicks.
The Banshees of Inershin
Speaking of going back: Martin McDonagh returns to his Irish roots with this bitterly funny tale of a middle-aged fiddler (Brendan Gleeson) who decides to cut ties with his best friend and slightly dim drinking buddy (Colin Farrell). The idea is that he wants to use his remaining years to compose great music; unfortunately, his erstwhile pal won’t take no for an answer. If you know McDonagh’s stage and screen work, you know that both salty, warp-speed banter and violence are on deck, both of which are present and accounted for here. Yet there’s a humanity to the humorous back and forth and, eventually, bloody self-harm that harkens back to the playwright’s early work (this was supposed to be the third entry in his “Arans Island” trilogy but was never published), and benefits from having his In Bruges duo once again bringing his dialogue to life. You’re going to be hearing a lot about Farrell’s performance in the coming months. For once, you can believe the hype.
Steven Spielberg finally gives us his Roma, and it was worth the wait. Looking back on his formative years in the 1950s and ’60s, the director and screenwriter Tony Kushner chart how a sensitive kid survived geographical relocations, familial strife and anti-Semitic bullies thanks to the power of the movies. Spielberg has alluded to what sounded like an upbringing with its share of tumult over the years, but to see him re-enact the agony and the ecstasy of his early life — and to feel like he’s finally at a place where he can do so with empathy and forgiveness — was to witness American cinema’s great escapist looking inward. Imagine American Graffiti crossed with a Eugene O’Neill play and a primal-scream therapy session, and you’re halfway there. Plus it’s blessed with a casting-coup and a parting visual gag that’s absolutely rapturous.
Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s ongoing status as a political prisoner — he’s currently serving a six-year sentence for “producing antigovernment propaganda” — certainly lends his latest meta-drama a sense of urgency and regrettable currency. Yet it would be a masterwork regardless, as Panahi once again uses his situation to produce something that’s somehow life-affirming and deeply devastating. Unable to make movies in his own country, a slightly fictionalized version of the filmmaker skirts the ban by remotely directing a production in Turkey via laptop. The quaint village he’s staying in, however, begins to worry that their famous visitor has shot something in his off-hours that affects some local residents, and they demand to see the pictures. What plays out is like his real-life tribulations in miniature, with irony and tragedy waiting right around the corner. My favorite movie of TIFF 2022.
Return to Seoul
The ’90s Wong Kar-Wai vibes are strong in the first half of writer-director Davy Chou’s drama about a young Korean woman named Freddie (Ji-min Park) who, having grown up in France after being adopted, returns to her home town as a twentysomething in order to find her birth parents. The task will prove harder than she might have imagined, and she passes the time by hanging out, hooking up and drinking her way through Seoul. When she does meet her father, he’s in an equally unstable place; her mother remains AWOL. Years pass, and the more the movie flashes forward, the longer you feel her need for a sense of closure. It’s anchored by a hell of a performance from Park, as well as the sense that Chou — who was born in France to Cambodian parents — is tapping into his own cross-cultural experiences in the name of cine-catharsis. His early love letter to Cambodian cinema, Golden Slumbers (2011), had suggested he was a talent to watch. This latest film turned me into a ride-or-die fan.
Filmmaker Alice Diop turns to a real-life court case involving a Franco-Senegalese woman on trial for murdering her 15-month daughter on a beach. A documentarian by trade — you can, and definitely should, catch her early work on Mubi right now — she’s taken court transcripts and had actors re-enact scenes from the trial in long takes, with a writer (Kayije Kagame) standing in for the director herself. And somehow, in the act of translating this factual material for her fictional-feature debut, Diop manages to take notions of truth, justice and the second-hand thrill of a courtroom drama and slyly bend them into dialectic on who benefits from modern social norms and why. Absolutely stunning.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story
Behold, the story of a young man who, thanks to his facility with a squeezebox and a dream “to take popular songs and change the words,” became the best-known parody singer of his generation. Eric Appel took his Funny or Die short and, with help from “Weird” Al Yankovic himself, turned it a full-length feature that — much like the singer’s own gloriously absurd songs — goofs on an entire genre to a ridiculous degree. Daniel Radcliffe’s hilariously deadpan take on the curly-headed accordionist more or less seals the deal, while a party scene featuring a who’s who of alt-comedy bigwigs impersonating famous pop-culture figures bridges the ridiculous with the sublime. No, it’s not the second coming of Walk Hard, still the gold standard for ripping music biopics apart. It’s still an incredible addition to a long legacy of Yankomania.
And now for something completely different: a gay musical fantasia about a prince who falls in love with a fireman. Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues (O Fantasma) somehow shoves a pointed eco-critique about our relationship to nature, elaborate dance numbers, a stirring romance between a future regent (Mauro Costa) and the Afro-Portuguese trainer (André Cabral) assigned to train him, anti-royalist sentiment, anti-colonialist digs, farce, tragedy, class warfare and a soupçon of sci-fi into a scant 67 mins. The result was unlike anything else at the festival, or even anything else in Rodrigues’s already impressive filmography. A colleague simply summed it up as “joyous.” We second that descriptive.
Welcome back, Sarah Polley — it’s been a minute. The Canadian actor-writer-director returns to TIFF with an adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel about a Mennonite community plagued by a longstanding epidemic of sexual abuse. It’s a sickeningly open secret, one that the women have had to endure in silence. Then the male members of the religious sect leave town for a night in order to post bail for the rapists, and the remaining mothers and daughters gather to discuss whether they should stay or go en masse. Polley and an ensemble cast featuring Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey and Frances McDormand, among others, turn this drama into a damning indictment that goes far beyond pointing the finger at a single group or culture. It’s a tough watch, a tribute to the strength of survivors and a genuinely beautiful movie.
Florence Pugh — “Miss Flo” if you’re nasty — once again reminds you why she’s a peerless screen actor (as if we’d somehow forgotten!) courtesy of director Sebastián Lelio’s period piece about a British nurse trying to find out why a young Irish girl (Kíla Lord Cassidy) has not eaten for four months. Both an old-fashioned melodrama and a meta-take on the same, it’s the sort of good, solidly made film that’s uplifted by a genuinely compelling central performance. We don’t mean to damn the project with faint praise — the Chilean moviemaker has been on a role since 2013’s Gloria, and a deep-bench supporting cast that includes Toby Jones, Tom Burke, Niamh Algar, Ciarán Hinds, Brian F. O’ Byrne and Station Eleven‘s David Wilmot all do bang-up work. It’s just that you can feel Pugh digging into this role in a way that seems to elevate everybody and everything around her. The title comes from the nickname for the child who locals seem to think might be some sort of divinity in human form. It also equally applies to its star.