Previewing the Films of Toronto International Film Festival

From Terrence Malick's "A Hidden Life" to Todd Phillips "Joker" and Robert Egger's "The Lighthouse", here's what this year's TIFF has to offer.

click to enlarge A still from Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner "Atlantics" - Courtesy mk2 films
Courtesy mk2 films
A still from Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner "Atlantics"

Every year, for the past decade, I have eagerly approached late August as if it were the highest of holidays, my birthday and Christmas morning, all rolled into one glorious gift. The reason for such joy is the announcement of the schedule for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and the anticipation that comes with attempting, over the precious few weeks leading up to the event’s kickoff, to determine how many films I will be able to catch during my time at the fest.

And this year, much like previous years, there’s a sneaky undercurrent to my anticipatory glee, a bit of jealousy, in fact, lit and stoked by my colleagues in the media and the unavoidable presence of two competing festivals — Venice and Telluride — which take place days before the start of TIFF. These three festivals push and shove one another in the lead-up to their annual events like spirited siblings seeking the attention of their adoring parents or friends. 

A handful of journalists, generally from major trade magazines like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, or well-connected industry bloggers with significant followings, attend a couple of these festivals each year. This level of access affords them the opportunity to create the initial buzz about titles that wind up on Top 10 lists and in the hunt for awards.

Something curious happens though, for critics like me, who enter the scrum later in the game. Instead of feeling like a late comer to the proceedings, I appreciate being in the position to confirm or overturn the rush to judgment that has already taken place at one of those other festivals. I’m not part of the industry machine, generating yet another piece of puff to keep an imposter afloat. I can be the pin prick that deflates the gaseous hopes of a lesser entry, one not worth the time and attention. Or, far more positively, I can offer a hearty and trusty second opinion capable of convincing folks that something real exists in those projected dreams up there on the screen.

My 2019 schedule starts off fully loaded: the latest film from the elusive master Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life, will set the bar quite high. While I have not always been a fan of Malick’s most recent output (there’s a straining in To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song that makes the effortlessness of Badlands and Days of Heaven even more astonishing), I have to admit that I find myself drawn in to each new work as if I’m watching him for the first time.

I follow that up with Mati Diop’s Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner, Atlantics. With the Senegalese-set film, also her feature debut, Diop became the first black female filmmaker to have a film in competition at the renowned festival. A tale of fated lovers, Atlantics merges the supernatural with social consciousness, enticing for global audiences already enthralled by the work of writer-director Jordan Peele.

Next up, I enter the world of The Lighthouse, from Robert Eggers (The Witch), starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as a pair of lighthouse keepers in 1890s New England. If you’re going to be locked up in isolation on a creepy island, Pattinson and recent Academy Award nominee Dafoe (Best Actor for At Eternity’s Gate) make for excellent company.

And that’s just day one. TIFF loves to tout their record for the People’s Choice Award winners earning Best Picture honors at the close of the awards season (Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, 12 Years a Slave, and last year’s Green Book), but this year’s intrigue will certainly run high for a rather surprising choice — the Todd Phillips standalone origin story for one of the most iconic comic book villains ever, Joker.

Known for broad comedic hijinks (Old School, The Hangover trilogy), Phillips (with co-writer Scott Silver) has crafted an R-rated feature that, based on the trailer, appropriates the look and feel of 1970s era Martin Scorsese to create a sadly realistic backstory for a homicidal fiend who becomes the arch-nemesis for the world’s greatest superhero-detective. That sounds the least like a typical TIFF entry, but with Joaquin Phoenix in the lead and Robert De Niro as back-up, Joker just might get the last laugh. I’ll let you know.

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