By John H. Foote
Since 1994 I have attended the annual film festival in Toronto called TIFF. It began in the late seventies as the brainchild of William Marshall as The Festival Of Festivals, grew to be renamed The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and under the zen-like leadership of Piers Handling has become, I believe, the most important film festival on the globe.
Marshall was a friend of mine and not a day goes by I do not think of his wit, his wisdom and his lovely humanity. He called things as he saw them, but always with a smith to gauge reaction. I was forty one when I met Bill, Director of the Toronto Film School, to which Bill became our greatest champion, and we became very dear friends. I mourn his passing, especially at this time of year because we often bumped into one another during the festival.
Family and friends believe that a film festival is pure glamour and fun, but if they saw me during the thing they would know different. There was a time, with pre-festival screenings I could see fifty-plus films, but after a near-fatal car accident, I was slowed down. Chronic pain has cut my screenings down to thirty-five, still a formidable number to be sure but that it comes with terrible tear-inducing pain is very negative.
This will be my 25th year of covering TIFF, during which time I have seen some extraordinary things. Great films, exceptional performances, directors exploding from the unknown to the front ranks of filmmakers, bold, courageous films, but just as often was I disappointed in some of the experiences. Here are the fifteen moments, films, performances, events that have been forever seared into my mind. Please bear in mind I could have easily gone to twenty-five.
15. LA LA LAND (2016)
In the beautiful Princess of Wales Theatre I, along with many other press members, sat awestruck watching the stunning opening sequence of La La Land, each of us thinking the same thing. How did director Damien Chazelle pull off that wonderful highway sequence that opens this magnificent new musical? When the eight-minute sequence was over, the audience erupted in applause. It was thrilling to see such an energetic, original musical film. Yep, I just said that.
14. AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)
Dreamworks brought this film here, by a stage director breaking into movies, not really knowing what to do with it. The next day it was the talk of the festival, the absolute must-see of the 1999 festival. And so it went on right through to the Academy Awards where it took home five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Director for Sam Mendes, who literally overnight became a star. A profound, troubling film about dysfunction captured the imaginations of everyone who saw it.
Piers Handling displayed absolute calm, cool and class the morning of September 11, 2001. By the time I arrived at the press office, the twin towers were ablaze, Americans ere weeping openly in the hallways and New Yorkers were madly trying to book flights. In the midst of the chaos, Handling took charge and upon learning of no flights in the United States, he found places for those to have been going home to stay. The red carpets were canceled out of respect for those who perished, and very quietly the entire event became respectful. As in all times of crisis, audiences went to the movies. One of the weakest festivals in terms of quality, Handling displayed brilliant leadership and humanity.
12. THE GALA SCREENING OF ALL THE KING’S MEN (2006)
An incredible cast in a remake of an Oscar-winning political film. I sat in the packed Roy Thomson Hall as the stars of the film were introduced, making their way across the stage. Patricia Clarkson, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law, James Gandolfini, and the extraordinary Sean Penn stood smiling before their film unspooled. Like the rest of the audience, I was convinced I was about to see a masterpiece. Two hours later, it was like a punch in the gut. The film was a bombastic mess, horribly directed by Steve Zaillian, overacted, loud, just awful. When the lights hit the stars box in the mezzanine, it sat empty, they were gone. This was among the highest touted films to ever bomb out so totally at TIFF, the actors were clearly humiliated.
11. BRUNO GANZ IN DOWNFALL (2004)
Watching Ganz As Adolf Hitler in this mesmerizing portrayal has haunted me ever since. At the end of the war, with Soviet forces a couple of blocks away from the bunker which housed Hitler and his closest advisors and staff, he was no longer the electrifying leader he had been. Broken, old, feeble, he was old before his time, in his fifties yet moving like a man in his early eighties. Still fighting a war lost, he accuses and lashed out at his staff, making accusations that they have betrayed him when deep down he knows, the war is lost. Racked with illness, taking copious amounts of drugs, the tremors causing him to shake as his mind unravels, Ganz great triumph was that he found the humanity in a monster. One of the screen’s greatest performances and to the eternal shame of the Academy he was not nominated for Best Actor.
10. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2017)
The heartbreak and pain are etched deep on the face of Lee (Casey Affleck) a local handyman called back to his hometown after the death of his brother. His nephew is given to him to care for, but Lee cannot shake the demons of his past. He too once had a family, he was a father, a husband and one night it all ended in a tragic house fire. As Lee says, he cannot beat it. In one of the breathtakingly honest scenes in modern film, Lee comes face to face with his ex-wife, who forgives him. The agony in that scene will break your heart, as it instantly became one of the greatest scenes in American cinema. Telling his former wife “there is nothing there” meaning his heart, his ability to feel. Affleck deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actor, Michelle Williams was nominated and, for me, there was no better film made in 2016.
9. THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (2003)
Denys Armand’s superb sequel to The Decline of the American Empire (1986) Revisits Remy and his friends, Quebec intellectuals to find Remy in the final stages of cancer. His wealthy (however, estranged) son returns to help with bills and his father’s pain, acquiring heroin and a pretty young junkie to administer the drug to his ailing father. The group finally travel back to the beloved cottage on the lake to help Remy pass, enjoying stories and a last dinner before he passes. Both very funny and deeply moving, this opening night film went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Arcand is a national treasure.
8. THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)
Very few films today capture the pure bliss out that movies can be. Bear in mind you must give yourself over completely to a film like this, a fantasy that pays homage to the past while breaking ground as an original work. A modern-day retelling of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) with breathtaking twists, the story unfolds during the Cold War. Americans have found a creature in South America that the natives treated as a God. Bringing it to a top-secret lab, they prepare to dissect it. Eliza (Sally Hawkins) a gentle mute, communicates with the creature and the two forge a deep bond that crosses over to love. At times the film feels like a romance, others like science fiction while yet others a superhero film. The ending is pure fantasy, bliss, The we see that the natives were right, the creature is a God. Sally Hawkins deserved the Oscar as Eliza, while the film won Best Picture and the great Mexican Director Del Toro won Best Director.
7. EASTERN PROMISES (2007)
The scene comes two thirds in, as Viggo Mortensen as a Russian bodyguard goes for a steam. Two hitmen follow him in and naked he fights them. Bones are broken, bodies are smashed, and Mortensen bloodied and battered ends up in a hospital where we learn, shockingly he is an undercover cop, having infiltrated the deadly mob. The audience in Roy Thomson Hall erupted in cheers after that scene, a tribute to the actor’s courage, and the director, Canada’s David Cronenberg’s genius. Their second film together, the two men clearly loved working with one another, doing some of their finest work. Critics loved this one, and Mortensen was nominated for an Oscar. My daughter joined me for this one while my wife took our youngest to a concert. We had a blast.
6. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)
Emerging from this film I overheard someone refer to it as a gay western. Turning to them, I responded I thought it was as pure a love story as I had ever experienced, the difference being that the love was between two men. Beginning in the early sixties, the film covers twenty years in the relationship between two men, Ennis (Heath Ledger) a quiet, somber young cowboy and the more outgoing Jack Twist, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhall. They come together one night in a tent, and for twenty years are soulmates, despite marriage and children. Ledger is astounding as the taciturn Ennis, deeply lonely, ashamed of what he is, not as free as Jack, who makes trips to Mexico to feed his sexual hunger. Ang Lee won the Academy Award for Best Director, one of three the film won, though it was robbed of Best Picture.
5. SIDEWAYS (2004)
Never have I laughed so hard at a film at this festival, Alexander Payne’s exquisite Sideways had the tough press audiences in stitches. Superbly written, but acted with genius and purity by the quartet Paul Giamatti, Sandra Oh, Virginia Madsen, and Thomas Haden Church. Giamatti is a wonder as a sad sack teacher trying to get his novel published, yearning for reconciliation with his ex-wife, who is about to marry. He and best friend Haden take the last golf trip through wine tasting country before his good buddy marries, but he ends up watching his friend enter into an affair with a pretty young wine pourer, portrayed with frisky wit by Oh. Madsen is soulful as Maya, in love with Giamatti, a lovely monologue in which each compares themselves to wine. The greatest American comedy since Tootsie (1982), beloved by audiences.
4. THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997)
One of the greatest Canadian films I have ever seen, one of the finest films ever made, Canadian or otherwise. Watching this eloquent, beautifully crafted work of art was an exceptionally emotional experience, one that reduced me to tears several times. But I think the thing that impacted me most was watching audiences and press from around the globe embrace a homegrown film as an astonishing work. The talk in line ups, diners and restaurants was all about this film. When a school bus tragedy takes all but one of the small towns’ children, a lawyer descends to get the parents involved in a class-action lawsuit. Brilliant heartbreaking performances are given by Sarah Polley, Ian Holm, Arsinee Khanjian, and Bruce Greenwood. Egomaniac superbly merges elements of The Pied Piper into the film, leaving we, as the townsfolk are, forever broken. Egomaniac was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director and Screenplay Adaptation.
3. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000)
Knowing I had to go interview the cast and director, I wanted a shower after seeing this film, I felt filthy. A stunning descent into the horrific world of addictions, the film is frightening in its honest portrayal of several types of addiction. Aside from heroin, we have speed, television, sex, and candy all which horrors on our characters. Ellen Burstyn gave one of the screen’s most profoundly disturbing performances as a widow hooked on game shows, losing weight and is finally left broken and shattered. Never before, though she has been brilliant before, had Burstyn so captured the utter despair and horror of addiction. Jennifer Connelly was equally good as a young heroin addict who sells her body to a group of sex addicts. Superbly directed by the gifted Darren Aronofsky, one of the bleakest, darkest most singular electrifying films of the last thirty years.
2. SARAH POLLEY’S STORIES WE TELL (2012)
Five year’s previous Polley stunned audiences with her feature film directing-writing debut, the haunting love story Away from Her (2007). What struck me about this compelling, penetrating documentary was the courage it took Miss Polley to lay bare her family life, to so openly explore who her real father was. This must have been like an open wound for Polley, bringing her family on camera to discuss the affair that brought Sarah into the world. While doing a play in Montreal her mother, an actress, had an affair that saw her become pregnant. Blonde and blue-eyed, Sarah could not have looked more different than her siblings. She steadfastly adores the man who raised her, her father she states, but did forge a friendship with her biological father. Brilliant, authentic filmmaking. Polley was robbed of a Best Documentary nomination from the Academy, which she clearly deserved.
1. ROBERT DUVALL IN THE APOSTLE (1997)
In a searing performance of volcanic fury, Robert Duvall established himself forevermore as one of the greatest American actors in modern film. Further, he directed, wrote and financed this film, when every single studio, major and minor turned it down. For thirteen years Duvall looked for funding before finally putting up the five million on his own, allowing him to make the film his way. As southern preacher Sonny, the actor is a hurricane of energy in the film, a deeply flawed but equally devout man, who is in constant motion and always seems to be talking. The film began a bidding war that famously went through the night before upstart Newmarket Films bought the film. Duvall was nominated for an Academy Award and Screen Actors Guild Award and won awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics and National Society Of Film Critics. Until Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (2007), the greatest performance given by a male actor.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”