Toronto International Film Festival 2016

Toronto International Film Festival 2016

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

The 41st installment of the famed Toronto International Film Festival showed an event becoming less about sales and more about marketing. Boutique distributors wrote checks for various indie dramas and documentaries, but overall there were few headline-worthy bidding wars in Canada’s beloved global festival. What did get plenty of ink, however, were the studios’ push for Oscar® glory.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Damien Chazelle’s musical La La Land, coming off ovation-inspired presentations at events including Telluride and Venice—with star Emma Stone nabbing the best actress prize in the latter—became the darling of the festival. La La Land was screened for a large number of North American press who literally danced down the aisles with keyboards in hand to hammer out glowing reviews.

A stunningly ambitious film, it also went over big with audiences who voted it winner of the People’s Choice Award. Past recipients Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The King’s Speech (2010) and 12 Years a Slave (2013) went on to claim the Academy Award® for Best Picture.

Runner-up was first-time feature director Garth Davis, whose emotional drama Lion features an Australian man searching for an Indian family that he was separated from as a kid. Second runner-up was Disney’s Queen of Katwe. Directed by Mira Nair, it recounts the true story of female chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (played by Madina Nalwanga), a Ugandan girl who grew up to become a Grandmaster-level player.

Much of TIFF’s Oscar® bait this year were independent films already sewn up in distribution deals scored at earlier festivals. Chief among these was Kenneth Lonergan’s tearjerker Manchester by the Sea, a film that generated Casey Affleck widespread acclaim for his performance as Lee, a man separated from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams), who must take over guardianship of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). As reported earlier this year, Amazon Studios scooped up domestic rights for the film at Sundance for $10 million.

That sale at Sundance this year, however, was eclipsed by Fox Searchlight’s $17.5 million purchase for Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. As you may already know, the film recounts the true story of an 1831 slave rebellion.

Although the film’s Sundance appearance seemed the perfect antidote for #OscarsSoWhite, TIFF may mark the point where its awards hopes began to slide, as disappointed reviews surfaced and the film’s writer/director/star Nate Parker continues to be scolded for refusing to address a past rape allegation. This saga underlines the risks associated with inflated bidding wars and, seemingly, has left distributors backing off from such heavy purchases.

The most significant exception was Fox Searchlight’s pickup of Pablo Larrain’s well-received film Jackie, with Oscar®-winning actress Natalie Portman playing Jacqueline Kennedy, coping with life after her husband’s assassination.

A jury comprised of legendary helmers Brian De Palma and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun chose Jackie for the Toronto Platform Prize for international director’s cinema, noting its extraordinary script, precise direction and unforgettable acting. (Unlike its main competitor Cannes, TIFF doesn’t award a juried overall “best film” prize, but bestows honors in various program categories.)

On a side note, Portman’s performance here is widely seen as Oscar®-worthy, and Fox felt it worth a deal rumoured to be in the eight-figure region.

In other categories, The People’s Choice Documentary Award went to Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, a feature using an unfinished James Baldwin book on African-American activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. to explore themes of race in America. Its warm reception no doubt emboldened Magnolia Pictures to pick it up for North American rights.

Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire took home the People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award. Wheatley, an esoteric British filmmaker known for A Field in England and High-Rise (see HDVideoPro, June 2016), ventures into more commercial territory with this Martin Scorsese-exec-produced effort, a heart-stopping game of gang survival following an arms deal gone terribly wrong. Charismatic performances from the likes of Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer and Brie Larson roll in work that pays homage to exploitation films deemed too frenzied, violent, horrific and/or weird for viewing.

As with Sundance, many of the rights deals signed involved digital players, who are becoming increasingly competitive in traditional theatrical distributors. For big-screen releases they will often partner up with others, as Amazon did with Roadside Attractions when acquiring Manchester by the Sea.

Netflix was especially busy this year, signing worldwide rights deals for titles including Adam Leon’s romance/heist film Tramps, director Vikram Gandhi’s Barry, starring Devon Terrell as a college-era Barack Obama and Jake Witzenfeld’s doc Oriented, about three gay Palestinian friends.

A newer digital entrant also nabbed a hot title. Canadian SVOD service CraveTV, owned by broadcaster Bell Media, scored Canadian first-window rights to Paul Dugdale’s stylish concert film/travelogue The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America. It follows the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band on a recent tour, recasting them as avatars of revolution and freedom of expression in long-oppressed nations. Group members Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood drew thunderous cheers at the film’s premiere at Roy Thomson Hall.

Aside from all the business and red carpet glamour, TIFF was again the festival with something for everyone. This year it unspooled 296 features and 101 shorts, work ranging from obscure foreign dramas to cutting-edge documentaries, some populist favorites headed to local multiplexes and a few surprise discoveries. Here are four tasty treats from this year’s cinematic stew.

Toronto International Film Festival 2016
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

76

Lagos, Nigeria, was the focus of TIFF’s City to City program that showcases filmmakers from different international production centers each year. Previous cities featured include London, Tel Aviv, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Mumbai, Athens and Seoul. Hundreds of movies are shot annually in Africa’s largest city, earning the Nigerian industry its “Nollywood” moniker.

Highlights on show included 76, the most ambitious feature, to date, from acclaimed director Izu Ojukwu. Inspired by true events, the English-language drama focuses on army officer Captain Joseph Dewa (played by Nollywood star Ramsey Nouah), whose refusal to participate in a planned political coup. This move gets him imprisoned and dragged far away from his pregnant wife Suzy (Rita Dominic), all while unable to prove his innocence.

76 succeeds as a thriller, plus it rewards with its rich visual re-creation of mid-’70s Nigeria. Nollywood productions typically contend with limited budgets, but while most filmmakers embrace the convenience of digital, Ojukwa and Director of Photography Yinka Edward teamed up to use a Super 16mm ARRIFLEX to capture the crisp, rich colors of the film’s period costumes and production design, while using unconventional camerawork to tell a jarring story.

The soundtrack’s era-appropriate American and African pop songs also help capture an era when military men in Nigeria had to chose sides—often at the risk of their own lives.

Toronto International Film Festival 2016
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience

Voyage of Time’s production journey began in the 1970s, back when auteur Terrence Malick set out to chronicle no less than the history of our universe. He commenced shooting footage for the project, but it unfortunately didn’t come to fruition. Malick covered similar ground in The Tree of Life (2011), wedging a cosmic sequence into the human drama.
Now Malick has finally returned to the project with a standalone documentary—two, in fact—that spans from the Big Bang to the creation of life and the dinosaur extinction, right the way through to modern-day Earth.

Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience is narrated by Brad Pitt, with a 45-minute cut for large-format screens slated for an October release. Meanwhile, Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey is a 90-minute version narrated by Cate Blanchett that will come to theaters in 2017. Producers have characterized Pitt’s voice-over as “awestruck and explanatory” while Blanchett’s as “more searching and poignant.”

What The IMAX Experience sacrifices in running time it makes up for in stunning visuals, all captured on 65mm film and RED cameras under the eye of cinematographer Paul Atkins.

Astonishing views of the universe were sourced from the Hubble Space Telescope, while filmmakers here on our planet traveled to locales that recall Earth in its formative years, spots such as Chile’s Atacama Desert and Hawaii’s bubbling Kilauea volcano. The dinosaurs are CG, of course, and created by VFX Supervisor Dan Glass.

Toronto International Film Festival 2016
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

La La Land

Who said the musical was dead? Certainly not writer-director Damien Chazelle, following up his jazz-themed Oscar® winner Whiplash with this modernization of the classic Hollywood song-and-dance picture. The film features winning performances by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. The opening scene, shot in jaw-dropping long takes, features more than 100 drivers stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam, exiting their cars to perform a number on the freeway.

This bravura sequence garnered rapturous applause in Toronto—and that was at a critics’ screening! Another highlight features frustrated jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) and stalled actress Mia (Stone), a pair of reluctant lovers together defying gravity in a dance routine at the famed Griffith Observatory.

Cinematographer Linus Sandgren, FSF, shot La La Land on 35mm Kodak stocks, which, in conjunction with the bold colors in David Wasco’s production design and Mary Zophres’ costumes, produces a 1950s Technicolor glow. The film is also presented in Cinemascope’s vintage super-widescreen 2.55:1 retro aspect ratio.

But the movie isn’t mere nostalgia and, despite ample comedic moments, it’s not all happiness and sunshine, either. This is a drama centered on people’s dreams and sacrifices, on the choices we all make, the repercussions that come from those choices, and the regrets they can leave. La La Land is a marvelous technical achievement with a sad, melancholy soul.

Toronto International Film Festival 2016
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Colossal

Call it The Lost Weekend meets Godzilla. In one of the most left-field moves for a recent Oscar® winner, Anne Hathaway stars in Colossal as Gloria, an alcoholic party girl who leaves New York to head back to her hometown after being dumped by her patronizing boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens).

There she reconnects with childhood friend and creepy Internet stalker Oscar (Saturday Night Live alum Jason Sudeikis, revealing a new dark side). Gloria’s life seems to be getting back on track—until she comes to realize that her actions control those of a giant monster laying waste to Seoul, South Korea.

It sounds beyond silly, but somehow the cast and Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) successfully ride a fine line between earnestness and self-parody. It’s the same for the creature VFX, which manage to be campy, yet exciting. If one can embrace the film’s premise, then Gloria—distancing herself from toxic men and saving the world on her own—makes for a great feminist heroine.

This Spanish-Canadian co-production also represents a clever model of financing an indie feature and making it internationally palatable, by combining European sensibility with Hollywood star power and elements of Asian kaiju cinema.

During the festival, The Hollywood Reporter broke that the producers signed a mid-seven-figure deal with a new North American distributor run by industry vets Tom Quinn and Tim League, with ambitious plans for a 2017 release.

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