My September ’13 in Review: TIFF 2013 Reflection and Wrap-Up

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If you’ll forgive my purposeful tardiness, I’ve decided to dedicate this past month’s retrospective to my second consecutive TIFF venture, during which I had the pleasure of viewing a total of ten films in the company of friends both new and old. Confidently honing a requisite sum of festival knowledge, this year’s festival turned out to be one hell of a well-rounded experience as fun was had both in and outside of varying featured venues. From insightful Q&As laden with celebrity eye candy and pleasant surprises to simply enjoying a good meal in between, TIFF 2013 assuredly served as an ample perpetuating precursor for my now insatiable festival appetite. That being said, I’ve ranked my top five viewings in order from “liked” to “loved,” so feel free to click here to peruse my musings on them and everything else!

Wrap-Up

Other first-time viewings (in alphabetical order):

Adore (Fontaine, ’13)
Blind Detective (To, ’13)
Gravity (Cuarón, ’13)
Night Moves (Reichardt, ’13)
The Paperboy (Daniels, ’12)
Prisoners (Villeneuve, ’13)
Putty Hill (Porterfield, ’10)
The Sacrament (West, ’13)
Stray Dogs (Tsai, ’13)
We Own the Night (Gray, ’07)

Total number of films watched (including re-watches): 13

TIFF 2013: Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, TWN/FRA)

I’ve found it very difficult to bring myself to write about this film, mainly because Tsai is and presumably always will be considered a definitively singular filmmaker, challenging convention by way of his ever-present implementation of style over outright substance. “Slow” is one word that’s been used to describe his approach, however Stray Dogs presently remains my sole point of reference as its the very first of his I’ve seen. Even still, every frame of every deliberately prolonged sequence carries with it a perceptible sense of poise – one meaningful in contributing to his established personal niche – despite an overt penchant for alienating those who aren’t immediately captivated.

Minutely chronicling the daily goings-on of a destitute family of three – one father and two children – Stray Dogs purposefully substitutes observational minimalism for traditional narrative as hardships are regularly encountered and addressed. Characteristically restrained but lacking in impact, all Tsai seems to do is illustrate what we identify by default when questioned about contemporary homelessness. From the incorrigibly savage savoring of each meal to transforming a head of cabbage into the only attainable semblance of a child’s plaything, the film certainly has a way with circumstantial authenticity as it assuredly avoids the acquisition of new Tsai admirers, myself included.

In fact, it’s Stray Dogs‘ key latter sequences that carry with them what could be construed as poignancy, a potential reasoning behind the central family’s predicament unearthed at – as to be expected – Tsai’s own pace. While potentially indecipherable given a lack of tangible contributing context, what plays out is arguably open for interpretation as a now-present and obviously distant female entity suggests a correlation between certain moments, the most recognizable of which involves the voracious consumption/desecration of an aforementioned and identifiably feminine cabbage doll.

Without revealing too much, Tsai’s latest feature seems to unashamedly pander to his established fanbase but to what to degree I’ll never know, at least until I further familiarize myself with the Taiwanese auteur’s lauded preceding efforts. Teetering on banal throughout its initial two-thirds, Stray Dogs‘ perception of an agreeably timely if unfortunate way of living embraces visual presentation over originality, a decidedly game-changing string of final sequences shedding light on this familial plight’s onset. As sometimes unbearably minimalistic human drama, Stray Dogs is admirably and stylistically unprecedented if strenuous viewing, more specifically that of which either will or won’t reward those who remain patient and accepting of Tsai’s presentational idiosyncrasies.

TIFF 2013: A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, CHN/JPN)

A stylistically polarizing effort, A Touch of Sin travels the path of least resistance in exploring socioeconomic and political unrest in mainland China, intermittently employing wuxia ideologies among sporadic bits of violent brutality. Skillfully woven together, a series of four distinct vignettes are told in succession, each of which sport their own sense of discernible individuality as basal unifying nods to each other exist to emphasize the wraparound misfortune of these respective livelihoods. From initially and unsuccessfully tackling local corruption in a peaceful manner to supporting one’s family any which way he can, the aforementioned violent outbursts rarely seem out of place as desperate final means of righting what’s wrong.

Narratively speaking, A Touch of Sin rarely breaks new thematic ground as it opts to instead play the sympathy card, our establishment of substantial or tenuous emotional bonds with the central characters playing a heavier-than-average role. Needless to say, the film’s aptly humanistic flair overpowers agreeably thin jabs at cultural commentary, most of which serve only to justify the necessarily brash last-ditch efforts these individuals are driven to take. An appropriately nuanced melancholic tone forgoes unevenness, mirroring the film’s unilateral intentions in addressing its easily identifiable inspirations.

As a unified whole, the film decidedly sidesteps propaganda to embrace an accessible, frequently hard-hitting emotional underbelly. Tapping into the psyche of the affected civilians at its core, A Touch of Sin is a fine example of solid, region-centric storytelling that asserts its strengths over that which the more critical could – and will – predictably gripe about. Whether you do or don’t condone the jarring violence permeating each bout of conflict resolution, A Touch of Sin‘s presentational confidence and effectiveness transform it into an identifiably engaging effort, even despite the issue of segmented narratives varying in terms of the strength of their parts.

TIFF 2013: Blind Detective (Johnnie To, HK)

Although not a seasoned To connoisseur, Blind Detective‘s charming accessibility is hard to deny on my behalf as it breezily chronicles the exploits of its titular protagonist (Andy Lau) and his sidekick (Sammi Cheng). Honing in on Detective Johnston’s specialty in cracking long-closed cold cases, the duo interminably does so with the intention of finding a missing relative whenever binge eating isn’t an issue.

Frequently employing an almost slapstick dynamic, Blind Detective‘s unabashed entertainment value outweighs its awkward pacing in relation to the wealth of content on display throughout. Despite ironing out a distinct central objective, the film too often strays from the path via subjectively similar if distracting plot strands, including but not limited to extensive exploitation of Johnston’s skill set and the chemistry between him and Cheng’s Inspector Ho Ka-tung. Combined with breakneck pacing that aptly mimics the speed at which jokes are delivered, Blind Detective‘s CSI-related specificity becomes negligible as broad physical comedy and verbal exchanges overshadow technical flaws.

Even after taking my opening statement into careful consideration, I think it’s safe to say that most would consider this to be minor To as it forgoes consistently cohesive substance to embrace a more farcical agenda. Although agreeably engaging, the actual crime solving takes a back seat to Blind Detective‘s more obvious merits, an adherence to its efficacious and superficial tendencies remaining prominent and rarely ineffective. Further putting aside an immersion-breaking subtitle discrepancy, I think it’s safe to say that To’s latest is a modest success in comparison to a bulk of his legacy.

TIFF 2013: Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, FRA)

Stranger by the Lake is an aptly minimalistic contribution to the realm of queer cinema, its noirish account of one Franck’s (Pierre Deladonchamps) day-to-day exploits at a local lakeside cruisers’ retreat ringing much more than adequately entertaining. Casually socializing with a newcomer (Patrick d’Assumçao) in between bouts of achieved sexual gratification, Franck soon becomes infatuated with ’70s porn lookalike Michel (Christophe Paou), such an obvious likeness doing nothing to quell the former’s burgeoning love for the mysterious if deadly sinister enigma.

Putting aside my crass bit of characterization, let it be know that Stranger by the Lake is assured if divisive filmmaking at its finest. Always hinging on the viewers’ opinion of Franck’s affected moral conscience, the film’s obvious but effective commentary on love and lust trumping the protagonist’s fuels the fire regularly. Repeating shots of day-to-day occurrences – parking his car, traipsing through the woods – hammer home his ceaseless eagerness to rendezvous with his lover-inhabited oasis, all while especially confining the film to a well-rounded, intendedly consistent atmosphere to allow the narrative to unfold without a semblance of unevenness.

Continuing to strike gold with a decided absence of mood-influencing score and a knockout, moreover appealingly dynamic supporting character, Stranger by the Lake‘s illustration of its central character’s calamitous moral quandary is quite the modest triumph. Deliberate pacing and presentation achieve a desired overall feel while emphasizing more startling, agreeably game-changing occurrences that contribute valuably to its genre-influenced tendencies, thus affirming my classification of it as best-of-festival material. Put plainly, Guiraudie’s creative adroitness is too impressive to ignore.

TIFF 2013: The Sacrament (Ti West, USA)

Drawing immediate but discernibly immersive comparisons to the early ’70s-established Jonestown settlement, Ti West’s The Sacrament follows an unbiased, well-intentioned Vice correspondence crew to a comparable offshore community with the intention of seeking out photographer Patrick’s (Kentucker Audley) estranged sister. Not knowing what to expect, these gentlemen go about their business, systematically interviewing the locals of Eden Parish so as to achieve their wraparound goal in producing a compelling documentary. Collectively conducted without a hitch, interviews and the like lead them to believe that everything is as it seems, Patrick’s sister embracing the benefit of the doubt until their interference inevitably procures and sustains a life-threatening butterfly effect.

Despite its thinness, Ti West’s career arc thus far has yielded a trio of individually distinct efforts, The Sacrament this time remaining more unsettling than terrifying in a traditional sense. Pairing the well-worn found footage approach with a characteristic and increasingly tense slow burn, West’s directorial eloquence is often palpable in the form of detail-heavy world building and execution, his intentions in presenting the natives as eerily relatable and rational thinkers sustaining a superb deftness. From faith-fueled, seasoned seniors to twentysomethings on the existential mend, these individuals all convincingly articulate why Eden Parish was right for them, their newfound lifestyles ringing agreeable even if the Vice crew and viewers alike wouldn’t join their ranks.

Finding additional strength in a necessarily charismatic group leader, The Sacrament further bolsters this acuteness through a particularly tense live interview conducted with “Father” (Gene Jones). Each answer given is a bit more than stock and tastefully mania-free, the ensuing elongated paroxysm remaining expected based on our previous experiences with West’s work. As things snowball hellishly out of control via a fist-clenching stretch of horrifying continuity, The Sacrament assuredly achieves a lasting effect, the well-rounded, researched and implemented sum of its parts overcoming trite found footage exposition and build-up.

TIFF 2013: Tom at the Farm (Xavier Dolan, CAN/FRA)

Tom at the Farm, although solid, is a hard film to critique at length based on its narrative simplicity, the titular Tom (Xavier Dolan) being introduced as a proverbial fish-out-of-water attending his lover’s funeral at the latter’s comparably titular farmstead. With said relationship remaining explicitly secretive, Tom must appear under false pretenses as merely a friend, frustrations building as a mother is kept in the dark and a brother maliciously exploits such valuable knowledge. Misleadingly if cleverly splicing in key genre-bending sequences, uncertainty remains prominent and appealing as Tom’s hard go of things is alternately alleviated and exacerbated.

In a roundabout way, Dolan’s latest is uncharacteristically slight in comparison to his preceding style-heavy tendencies, the straitlaced simplicity of Tom at the Farm shining through so as to superficially engage. Both Tom himself and the aforementioned lover’s sibling – Francis by name – are uniquely illustrated so as to perpetuate the central conflict that provides for a majority of the film’s substance. Building tensions surrounding Francis and Tom’s half-baked coverup lead to some entertaining if foreseeable blowups, however all things come to a head if only to necessarily reveal a requisite amount of resolution for us as viewers.

All key attributes considered, Tom at the Farm is alternately slick and unremarkable in the realm of inventive storytelling. Dolan continues to exhibit his prowess as a still-burgeoning, soon-to-be premier generational filmmaker, continuing a personal trend comprised of originality-sustaining successive efforts. It isn’t his strongest by inevitable comparison, what with noticeable repetition serving only to three-dimensionally build core characters and competently wade through intermittent discomfort, intrigue and unpredictability.

TIFF 2013: Joe (David Gordon Green, USA)

Further reaffirming the director’s apt handling of subtly wrought, moreover Southern-fried character and situational dramas, David Gordon Green’s full-on resurgence segues admirably from Prince Avalanche to Joe. Reveling in its immersive casting and setting-specific singularity, the film’s parallels to last year’s Mud only run as deep as you’ve heard – a well-intentioned derelict’s bond with a young man (Tye Sheridan) provides a welcome, transformative distraction from the latter’s everyday familial struggles. Running admirably deeper, Joe’s (Nicolas Cage) standing within his respective Smalltown, Texas community is a bit more palpably desirable, his haunting local legend chiseling away at him daily as the detriment of perpetuated loneliness builds in effective virility.

Enter key wayward youth, Gary, of whom catches his soon-to-be savior’s eye almost immediately upon scoring a spot among Joe’s modest backwoods workforce. Character-building remains steady from here while our two protagonists interact frequently with locals both amiable and the opposite, competent storytelling remaining just that given the wobbly arrangement of the pair’s chemistry-building sequences and corresponding tonal messiness.

Barring its questionable structural integrity, strong performances across the board and palpable commentary on the wide-reaching desire and necessity of capable father figures do wonders for Joe. The titular flawed antihero’s self-examination and reevaluation remain touching as Gordon Green’s discernible flourishes benefiting the proceedings from an equally resonant and technical standpoint. Jarring moody and sometimes violent infrequency detract from its poignancy, yet the fact of the matter remains: Joe is simply a solid chunk of regional storytelling bolstered by attention to detail and all-encompassing sensitivity regarding the handling of its subjects and situations.

TIFF 2013: Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK)

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At once impressionistic and unforgettable, Under the Skin is – at its core – a vast departure from typical alien invasion tropes as Jonathan Glazer fully employs a striking vision unlike anything you’ll see in coming years. As can be gathered from a particularly cryptic, almost indecipherable teaser, Scarlett Johansson aptly handles the role of a sultry otherworldly denizen that ritualistically preys on unsuspecting male loners. Initially and consistently challenging a traditional approach to the film’s inherent simplicity, Under the Skin‘s ensuing smorgasbord of unfathomably affecting style is impressive beyond words.

Calculatingly roaming the suitably alien-esque and agreeably stunning Scottish landscapes, Johansson’s intentedly effective femme fatale quality contributes valuably to some of the more aesthetically beguiling sequences I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Employing “beguiling” as a rarely used term of endearment, the first two-thirds of the film are permeated by the central character’s means of needfully “ingesting” her victims, a soul-piercing swatch of endless black serving as the backdrop for the aurally and visually captivating.

With repetition and a mysterious, comparatively enigmatic enforcer-type inexplicably but competently monitoring his subject’s every move, a rhythm is established that paves the way toward a fish-out-of-water latter bit encapsulating familiar themes of self-discovery and maturation. Mildly jarring and equally beneficial in pursuit of this narrative manipulation, Glazer’s preceding creative onslaught takes a backseat as look and feel are maintained but to a less-involving degree.

Although partially detracting from my initial and unabashed adoration, Under the Skin‘s substantial last-third departure didn’t grab me as much as the proceedings wholly did for many others entirely. Remaining effortlessly and admirably inventive thanks to a ceaseless surpassing of preconceptions, Jonathan Glazer’s long-awaited third feature is an agreeably avant-garde and loosely-played treatment of its literary origins. Flipping basal genre conventions on their heads while simultaneously losing some steam on account of an overtly minimalistic if striking bout of existential rumination, Under the Skin presents its sum-totaling parts in an unparalleled and consistently impressive fashion.

TIFF 2013: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, USA/UK)

As the most buzzed-about, big-budgeted deep-space anxiety attack here at TIFF, Gravity basally fits the bill as it falls flat in the realm of relatable emotionality. Focusing on a team of astronauts on the cusp of completing a characteristically labor-intensive Hubble Telescope repair, fast-traveling orbital debris looms threateningly on the horizon as time to act accordingly wears foreseeably thin. Soon enough, key players Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Lieutenant Kowalski (George Clooney) must restlessly pool their alarmingly sparse remaining resources if they’re to live to see another day.

Technical proclivity undeniably remains front-and-center throughout Cuarón’s viscerally arresting campaign for former glory, the film’s relentless intensity frequently overshadowing what could be described as cloying, moreover embarrassingly stock character building and humanistic tendencies. Spliced together with Clooney’s Kowalski’s wisecracking demeanor, the broader bits of accessible comedy aim to please an equally broad audience in occasionally awkward places. For all intents and purposes, Gravity‘s adherence to Dr. Stone’s latter trials and tribulations compel us to root for her, Bullock’s laudably taxing performance doing wonders for what’s otherwise an archetypal central character.

When taken into consideration as a solid contemporary cinematic venture, Gravity accomplishes what’s expected of it while noticeably stumbling along the way. A mostly unprecedented exercise in captivating setting-specific bombast and tension, the film’s merits palpably if barely outweigh the script’s shortcomings. In summary, Cuarón’s simply admirable exercise – if you’ll forgive the pun – aims for the stars but fails to capitalize on a marketing campaign that had me eagerly anticipating this title more than anything premiering at this year’s festival.