It’s the question you hear every year at TIFF—from fellow critics, friends, family and anyone in the public who knows that you critique films. “What were the best films at TIFF this year? Any favourites?”
Choosing the best film at TIFF is a mug’s game. In the old days—like, um, 2016—there were over 300 feature films at the festival. Now, it’s down to a more manageable 250 or so. How can you choose the best from such a large sampling? You’d have to spend two months watching four or five films a day to even see them all.
What happens is that people organize their own festivals. Many have favourite sections of the festival—programs they love. Some people enjoy Midnight Madness. They spend precious hours looking at films that seem perverse and manipulative to me. Others watch Wavelengths, the avant-garde section of TIFF. Personally, I enjoy some of the selections in that program and admire others. But there are people who despise Wavelengths, calling it pretentious and meaningless.
I watch lots of documentaries, a genre that some people dislike. They think that TIFF Docs aren’t cinematic, that they lack drama and big scenes. Of course, I laugh at them because they don’t understand that turning real events into something significant with a point-of-view is very, very difficult to do well. Oh, well—as the French used to say, “Vive la difference!”
So: here are my top three films from TIFF 2017. Unsurprisingly two are docs and none have a high—or even mediocre—budget. I totally agree that someone else could sincerely be suggesting three films right now and their list would be totally different from mine. But these are surely worth seeing.
Number Three — Jane.
Jane Goodall has been the subject of so many documentaries that it’s hard to believe someone could successfully make a new one. Enter Brett Morgen, hip American filmmaker who has made great films about Hollywood producer and bad boy Robert Evans (The Kid Stays in the Picture) and Nirvana’s suicidal lead singer and, of course, bad boy Kurt Cobain (Montage of Heck).
Does he turn the chimpanzee loving Dr. Goodall into a bad girl? Hardly. But he does humanize her. Using 140 hours of previously unseen footage of the young Jane Goodall first encountering the chimps that would change her life, Morgen fashions a tale of a reticent British beauty who falls for the jungle while the cameraman who shoots her, Hugo van Lawick, falls in love with her. And, eventually, she reciprocates.
With a fabulous score by Philip Glass, Jane is being styled as a “romantic epic” about two people who love Africa and each other. Morgen has made a lovely and unique profile of Jane Goodall.
Number Two — The Florida Project
Wait a minute! Am I actually endorsing a drama?
Director Sean Baker has made a film abut the crazy and sometimes destructive high jinx some impoverished kids get up to during a summer spent in Florida, near Disney World. Six year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her single mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) act more like sisters, always goading each other or playing for laughs. Neither seems to have any social or legal barriers to hold back their anarchical ways. Although they live hand-to-mouth existences, somehow they survive by hustling and constantly acting aggressive.
Baker effortlessly creates a scene at the motel where the duo lives. There are friends, enemies, people you can trust and people you can’t. Ruling the roost is the motel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who has a soft spot for all the kids around the motel as well as for bad girl Halley.
Eventually, this uneasy poverty stricken life proves too difficult for Halley but before that happens, The Florida Project gives us a treat: a funny, almost realistic look at what life must be like for many marginalized people in America. Baker makes his points without being didactic. His film is a small miracle, bringing us into spaces and places we rarely see in U.S. cinema.
Number One — Faces, Places (Visages Villages)
The legendary director and photographer Agnes Varda teams up with artist JR in this humanistic doc about mortality and redemption. Sounds like a dramatic film–but it isn’t. Varda and JR decide to work together for unknowable reasons—perhaps they just like each other—and create a project that will embrace the ordinary folk who still inhabit villeages.
They come up with a great idea, to photograph unknown people, blow their images up to the size of a building and paste them in appropriate venues. A farmer has his giant image placed on his barn; to him, it’s a nice advertisement but, clearly, it’s intended for posterity. A woman living out the last days of her life in her family home is the only one stopping a village from destroying several blocks of old worker-style brick buildings. When Varda and JR mount her image over the entirety of her building and call her out to view it, she can barely stop from crying.
In the end, Varda goes to visit Jean-Luc Godard, a famous old directing friend, and learns some harsh truths about friendship. Undaunted, she and JR show that genuine collaborations can take place and validate people’s lives even if they’re not embracing new technologies.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean.