TIFF 2013: Trends and tales

What we learned at TIFF 2013, from how volunteers make great human shields to why you will never be better than Michael Fassbender
Scarlett Johansson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Don Jon (TIFF)

As the Toronto International Film Festival winds down after another successful/stressful/underwhelming/overwhelming year, now is as good a time as any to offer some quick trends and tales from inside TIFF.

Everybody in the (rooftop) pool: A friendly note to aspiring promoters and hoteliers: If you want to draw celebrities to your TIFF party, best to make sure you have a rooftop pool. From the Thompson Hotel‘s sky-high infinity pool to the Soho House‘s little-seen (by the likes of me, any way) outdoor swimming spot, it seems celebrities can’t resist the smell of chlorine and Toronto exhaust fumes. But make sure it’s elevated: the Miami-aping pool at C Lounge was all well and good, but it sat at ground level, largely failing to capture the interest of the several stars in its orbit this week. Meanwhile, not one actor has yet to venture to my condo’s rooftop pool—it’s getting lonely out here, guys.

The InterContinental Hotel is a creepy person’s dream: While countless fans lined up outside the barricades at the Ritz-Carlton this week, the real up-close-and-awkward moments could be experienced at the Front Street InterCon, where a host of industry execs and distributors set up shop, ensuring a steady stream of arriving and departing talent. The ground-floor restaurant Azure was also your best shot at having a continental breakfast next to a genuine star. Mads Mikkelsen, Jesse Eisenberg and Colin Hanks were all spotted passing through the open space.

The meek shall inherit the Earth: A few easily spotted themes dominated this year’s festival slate, including tales of doppelgangers (Enemy, The Double, The Face of Love), wordplay (Bad Words, Triptych, Words and Pictures) and, um, cannibalism (The Green Inferno, the aptly titled Cannibal). Yet one common thread that’s seemingly gone unnoticed is how a host of TIFF films feature utterly spineless leads, most of whom thankfully break free of their own self-doubt.

In Hateship Loveship, Kristen Wiig plays a shy doormat who barely makes a peep. It’s only thanks to a cruel joke that she finally steps out of her own shadow, finding love (albeit a rocky sort) and self-respect in the process. Bruce McDonald’s The Husband similarly focuses on a man who more or less wrestles with his own emotional impotence. The Double (playing, er, double duty with this theme riff of mine) stars Jesse Eisenberg as a cowardly office drone whose own mother barely notices him. And in Tom at the Farm, the mourning lover played by director Xavier Dolan practically begs to be treated like garbage, taking heaps of abuse with barely a word of protest.

It’s not just the smaller, independent TIFF films that triumph the meek. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s character may be a world-renowned scientist, but she’s consistently shown second-guessing herself and falling into panic. No doubt I would do the same—or worse, likely much, much worse—in her grave situation, but while Bullock is flailing, her co-star George Clooney greets the entire situation with a calm chuckle, as if it would make a hell of a story someday.

While everyone loves a good underdog story, these films go beyond that, offering passive characters sometimes so submissive it strains credulity. But when you consider the alternative—such as Jude Law’s cock-of-the-walk machismo in Dom Hemingway, or Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s porno crudeness in Don Jon—maybe being more silent than strong isn’t so bad after all.

TIFF volunteers make great human shields: Of all the unpleasant things TIFF volunteers must do—deal with cranky journalists, talk down raving rush line outcasts, massage Harvey Weinstein’s knotted back (I assume?)—the most embarrassing must be acting as human barricades for press and industry screenings at the Scotiabank’s cinema No. 2. The largest of the downtown theatre’s auditoriums, it held the most sought-after screenings, including a packed Saturday afternoon showing of Gravity. To ensure all those who patiently stood in line made it inside without inter-loppers or confused seniors getting in the mix, the perpetually sunny, orange-shirted volunteers held hands and linked arms, letting the media make their way to the theatre unmolested, as if we were Israelites making our way across a split red sea. It was funny to watch, but awkward to contemplate.

There is such a thing as a free lunch (but make it snappy): Although it went unadvertised, each day at noon the third-floor press lounge at the Bell Lightbox got a much-appreciated shipment of sandwiches from Pumpernickel’s. The free food went fast, though, with packs of roving journalists pouncing on Mediterranean chicken wraps in scenes not unlike those found in The Green Inferno. I think someone even bit me (though, to be fair, I was holding two sandwiches at the time, greedy guy I am). Between that and the free yogurt given out along King Street, it was easy surviving six-screening days without ever having to touch popcorn.

There’s a secret to swag: One of the little-known perks of being a world-famous actor (besides the money, fame and constant cloud of public adoration), is that you rarely pay for things, be it dinner, drinks or even everyday household items. It’s all due to the wonderful world of gifting suites, where companies eager to get their latest products into famous hands opt to give their wares away, hoping stars will be dazzled enough to spread the good word (or, at the very least, get caught in a paparazzi shot wearing one of their signature scarves, or some such). There were several of these suites occupying discrete hotel rooms across the city during TIFF, including Rock-It Promotions’ Tastemakers Lounge, an annual celebration of all things swag. Available to visiting directors and actors by appointment only, the lounge offered everything from books by Penguin Canada (all the better for the private-plane ride home), Jessica Jensen-designed tote bags, hand cream from Cake Beauty, apparel from The Real Collective and even “eco-conscious” home cleaning products from Seventh Generation (for when Julia Roberts cleans her sink). Perhaps the best giveaway of all, though, were the caffeinated chocolate bars by AWAKE (all caps, naturally), which surely kept many an actor conscious during the endless press conferences.

Michael Fassbender, dancing machine: If you didn’t already hate Fassbender for his impossibly good looks and, um, other things more explicitly expressed in the film Shame, then just know this: He is a better dancer than you. He always will be a better dancer than you. And, no, you can’t do anything about it.