TIFF, the Enigma Machine

Brian D. Johnson recaps a festival defined by binge-watching, urban oases, and the craving to find film magic

A scene from 'The Look of Silence'

A scene from the standout TIFF documentary, The Look of Silence.

The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing—the gay mathematician who cracked the Nazis’ Enigma code—has won TIFF’s coveted Grolsch People’s Choice Award, voted by festival audiences. This solid but conventional biopic had been tapped as a favourite, along with St. Vincent, whose star, Bill Murray, worked the red carpet crowds like veteran politician. But St. Vincent settled for second runner-up, behind Learning to Drive. In recent years, several winners of the audience prize, such as Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave, have gone on to take the Best Picture Oscar, and The Imitation Game is certainly that kind of movie. Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum (Headhunters), it fits every Oscar fetish: it’s a period film with a high-pedigree British star cast as an unlikely hero, a math geek who was the father of the computer, an early martyr for gay rights, and who is credited for shortening the Second World War by two years. But unlike 12 Years a Slave, the film found more favour with audiences than with critics. Personally, as much as I loved Cumberbatch’s wily performance as an otherworldly genius, I found myself wincing at one contrived scenario after another — such as the eureka moment that has the crew of mathematicians literally sprinting into the night back to their workshop.

TIFF’s awards arrive as a low-key denouement for what remains an officially non-competitive festival. A cash prize of $30,000 was awarded, as best Canadian feature, to Maxime Giroux’s Félix et Meira, a film that I’d heard nothing about, and which had also escaped the attention of the mainstream film critics sitting with me at the awards brunch. I also managed to miss Bang Bang Baby, the sci-fi musical by Jeffrey St. Jules that won the $10,000 prize for best first feature. In fact, aside from The Imitation Game, I saw none of the award winners, which also included Beats of the Antonov, winner of the people’s choice documentary award, and the two FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) prize-winners, Time Out of Mind and May Allah Bless France!.

But that’s symptomatic of the wild pluralistic experience of covering TIFF. Everyone sees a different festival. You can monitor the buzz, exhaust yourself by binge-watching movies, and still feel that you’re missing what’s hot. It’s not for lack of trying. In the spirit of Alan Turing, for the first time I’ve done the math. My personal stats: I’ve seen 43 of 284 features programmed at TIFF, including 13 titles that I caught in Cannes last May. Totalling up the running times of those 43 movies, I see that they’ve consumed 77 hours and 28 minutes of my life—not counting the ones I walked out of.

So what does it all add up to? Hard to say. This was my first TIFF where I didn’t take notes, do interviews, or take time out to write. I simply immersed myself in the screen. The films flow together in one long lucid dream, with intermissions. Binge-watching turns each day into montage, and so by evening you have trouble remembering what you saw in the morning.

Why see so many? Well, there’s an addictive element to it, not unlike gambling or drug-taking. But really “doing” a festival is a kind of a vision quest: a search for the film that’s going to blow your mind, change your life, or reinvent cinema — a search for something we’ve never seen before.

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The mission is more straightforward in Cannes. There, with just 20 or so features in competition, the menu is curated for us. We all watch the same movies, more or less. But with such a glut of “must-see” stuff at TIFF, everyone curates his or her own festival, chasing down rumoured masterpieces in a kind of mad scavenger hunt. Or, to cop a metaphor from The Imitation Game, the Toronto festival is a vast Enigma machine, which we’re all racing to decode in the hope of finding the One.

This year it was more elusive than usual. No one title electrified the festival the way 12 Years a Slave and Gravity did the previous year. All too often, it was easier to embrace Oscar-calibre performances than the movies themselves, whether it was Bill Murray’s curmudgeon with a heart of gold in St. Vincent, or Jake Gyllenhaal’s ambulance-chasing sociopath in Nightcrawler. As a father figure babysitting the schoolboy next door, Murray doubles down on his Rushmore persona, while showing more range, and heart, than ever before. Murray is virtually canonized in St. Vincent— and was honoured with his own Bill Murray Day at TIFF, only to infuriate journalists by ducking out of scheduled interviews. But no matter how much I love this delinquent elder, I can’t get too excited about a movie so formulaic I resented the tears it brought my eyes in the third act.

Nightcrawler was an unadulterated blast, the most fun I had in any film at the festival. Playing a self-made tabloid videographer, a camcorder predator, Gyllenhaal goes full psycho, stalking the Los Angeles blacktop like Rupert Pupkin’s evil L.A. twin. But there were times when the movie felt as lurid as its subject, a guilty pleasure that would not stand up to scrutiny. Nightcrawler’s originality also felt somewhat diminished by its membership in a growing subgenre of movies about ruthless entrepreneurs milking the dark side of the American Dream, often by recruiting a desperate apprentice. Last year we had Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. This year, as well as Nightcrawler, we have 99 Homes, starring Michael Shannon as a real estate shark who preys on foreclosed properties, and makes a protégé of eviction victim Andrew Garfield — Spider Man with a beard. A quick scan of male actors in the new American cinema suggests that the buddy movie is losing the war to the mentor movie.

Keira Knightley, Matthew

Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch are among those who star in The Imitation Game, the Alan Turing biopic.

In the end, maybe the most likely film at TIFF to hit the Academy’s sweet spot is The Imitation Game. But Cumberbatch could end up in an Oscar duel of eggheads — Turing vs. Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Neither picture, however, can match the brilliance of their protagonists, or the actors playing them. Oh yes, there’s one more historic genius to throw into mix, with Timothy Spall’s portrayal of a legendary landscape painter in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. But in that case, the filmmaking is at least on a par with the titanic performance of the leading man.

In this year of Mr. Turner, again and again, I found myself being drawn into landscapes, these immersive tableaus of immeasurably foreign places, whether they were as close to home as the suburban Montreal of Tu dors Nicole or as remote as the Colombian jungle of Los Hongos or the Korean farm. Even the dioramas of a faux nuclear summer in Neil Young’s vintage curiosity, Human Highway. Everywhere you looked, there were cloud-choked mountain passes — the Mobius-strip switchbacks of Kurdistan in Mardan; the zero visibility of a ghostly whiteout that descends on skiers in Force Majeure; the strange stone villages in the snowy ridges of Winter Sleep‘s Anatolia; and (most literally) the fog that snakes through The Clouds of Sils Maria.

While the mainstream Oscar prospects were underwhelming, many of the strongest films at TIFF could be found at the arthouse end of the spectrum. Among my favourites (and that of many critics) was the aforementioned Force Majeure, Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s acerbic tale of a marriage unravelling during a family ski vacation; A Second Chance, Susanne Bier’s audacious drama about a cop, a thug, and a kidnapped infant; and Phoenix, the implausible yet haunting tale of a German beauty disfigured by the Holocaust, whose cad of a husband fails to recognize her, then trains her to impersonate her former self in order to steal her fortune. Then there were another half-dozen TIFF entries I saw in Cannes, and now loom large in my memory: Timbuktu, A Winter Sleep, Leviathan, Foxcatcher, Mommy and Whiplash.

Meanwhile, among the Canadian offerings at the festival, three Quebec features stood out from the pack: Mommy, Xavier Dolan’s epic drama of embattled motherhood; Corbo, Mathieu Denis’s masterful debut feature, based on the true story of a Quebec teen seduced by the FLQ; and Tu Dors Nicole, Stéphane Lafleur’s black-and-white chronicle of a young woman’s bored summer in a house overtaken by her brother’s garage band. Two seasoned Quebec filmmakers premiered well-crafted Hollywood films at TIFF, both based on true stories and starring Reese Witherspoon. In Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, she plays a damaged woman who exits a downward spiral of sex and drugs to embark on a 1,000-mile hike up the Pacific Coast Trail; in Philippe Falardeau’s The Good Lie she’s an official at a U.S. employment agency who takes four Sudanese refugees under her wing. Both films are well-crafted but neither packs the dramatic potency of either Dallas Buyers Club or Monsieur Lazhar—the pictures that won Oscar attention for Vallée and Falardeau, respectively.

In the end, perhaps no picture had a more powerful impact on me than The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to The Act of Killing, his shattering documentary exposé of the 1965 Indonesia genocide, which left a million so-called Communists dead. It is necessarily a more conventional film than The Act of Killing, which had the director playing a subversive accomplice to death-squad veterans as they re-enacted their glory days of committing mass murder. The Look of Silence focuses on the victims, and on one family in particular. The narrative is driven by a courageous village optometrist, who boldly confronts each of the killers responsible for the horrific slaying of his older brother. These men, still in power and unrepentant, blithely confess their crimes in grisly detail, explaining how they drank the blood of their victims in the ritual belief that doing so would prevent them from going crazy. Yet this film, unlike The Act of Killing, is infused with intimacy, tenderness, and a doting cinematic beauty, qualities that underlie a basic yearning for truth and reconciliation. Also, there is a character we can embrace, the quietly heroic optometrist/interviewer, who risks his life with every question, and who holds the camera’s gaze in silence for long, contemplative passages as he watches his brother’s killers re-enact their crimes on video.

The Look of Silence made me keenly aware that I was watching a filmmaker take the camera to places it had never been before. Oppenheimer received an Oscar nomination for The Act of Killing, which was even more grotesquely shocking, but lost to 20 Feet From Stardom, a lovely but far less consequential film. It often takes the Academy a while to catch up, and hopefully it will redress that injustice with an Oscar for The Look of Silence, which joins The Godfather 2 and The Trip to Italy in the ranks of sequels that at least equal the originals.

On that note, it’s a wrap. Time to go back to RL — or real life, as the teenage gamer in Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children explains to his high school guidance counsellor.

A film festival — any film festival — is, by nature, a cocoon. What made this TIFF exceptional is how deeply it was embedded in Toronto’s downtown — as a car-free green zone at the heart of cataclysmic gridlock. In the official romance between the city and the festival, that was the elephant in the room. Amid rising tempers on the perimeter, TIFF posters kept reassuring the city: THIS IS YOUR FESTIVAL, working to rebrand a red-carpet mall as a populist bazaar.

For those of us on the inside, the professional binge-watchers, all that razzmatazz — from the outdoor booth with the “festival therapist” to the world’s largest bottle of Pepsi — was just a surreal distraction, a sideshow to be traversed, as cinema’s siren call kept luring us back into the dark with the promise of a deeper reality.

A scene from the film Force Majeure.

A scene from the film Force Majeure.

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