The Best of TIFF 2016

Did we get many great movies at TIFF 2016? I say yes but this isn’t an easy question to answer. Even though I managed to catch 28 films at the festival, this only accounts for about 9% of the entire lineup. Within this limited window, it was a terrific year – easily among the very best I’ve experienced in my years of attending the festival. Some notable films I missed (but look forward to catching up with in the fall) are: ‘Jackie’, ‘Moonlight’, ‘Nocturnal Animals’, and ‘Queen of Katwe’. Among the movies I’ve seen, here are my top picks from TIFF16. 

1  ‘Manchester by the Sea’

Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is, as of this writing, the best film I’ve seen in 2016. I’ll be astonished if it doesn’t receive Oscar nominations in the major categories. When Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart attack, his younger brother Lee (Casey Affleck) is forced to return to his hometown, the site of some very painful memories, to take on the responsibility as guardian to his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). This achingly exquisite movie of life after loss immerses us in a world of pain, segueing between past and present effortlessly, while slowly revealing the source of that pain. It may not sound like a joyous cinematic experience, but what caught me off-guard was just how funny the movie was. This superb screenplay is sprinkled with many hilarious moments, mostly between Lee and his nephew. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams will likely receive well-deserved Oscar nominations, but young Hedges is the revelation here. Affleck gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen; it’s a surprisingly physical one – his mannerisms and gestures point to the turmoil within. We feel his pain through what is not said. I think I literally heard my heart break during this one – I defy anyone to watch ‘Manchester by the Sea’ without releasing tears. Release Date: November 25th.

2.   ‘Toni Erdmann’

What if I told you one of the very best films of 2016 features a Bulgarian hair monster? The latest from German director Maren Ade is, quite simply, a masterpiece – a fearlessly entertaining look into parent/child bonding. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a corporate consultant in Bucharest who is every bit as ambitious, stressed, and humorless as her prankster father Winfred (Peter Simonischek) is impish. Imagine Ines’ discomfort when her father pays a surprise visit. If Yasujirō Ozu ever made a comedy, it might look something some like ‘Toni Erdmann’ – the family relationship dynamics reminded me of ‘Tokyo Story’. Though its focus is on the central relationship, the scope is wide enough to consider workplace sexism, the effect of a managerial culture on social relationships, generational estrangement, and how performance and role-playing can be used as devices to explore unchartered emotional terrain. It has a runtime of 162 minutes, but I promise it will be the shortest 3 hours you will spend in a movie theater this year. ‘Toni Erdmann’ is wildly funny, deeply moving, and genuinely unpredictable (especially in its climactic set piece which I wouldn’t dare spoil for you). Release Date: December 25thstateside – it should open in Toronto theaters around then.  

3.   ‘La La Land’

A lot has already been said about ‘La La Land’. It won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF16, the festival’s most prominent award which is determined by audience members and not a jury. Unlike previous years, this year’s winner was easy to predict. As I was exiting the Elgin Theater, it was clear that the movie worked its magic on us all. Never before had I witnessed so many folks submit their ticket in the voting box as they were leaving the venue. A jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) fall in love while pursuing their dreams of stardom in Los Angeles. While paying homage to Old Hollywood (‘Singin’ In The Rain’), French New Wave (‘Umbrellas of Cherbourg’), and classic Hollywood romances, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s song-and-dance musical feels exhilaratingly alive and new. ‘La La Land’ looks like the world we dream about but without masking the harsh realities that can come out of those dreams. The opening sequence and the ending are among the finest moments the cinema has ever known. The stuff in between is pretty terrific too. ‘La La Land’ is an instant classic. Release Date: December 16th.  

4.            ‘The Handmaiden’

Park Chan-wook’s ‘The Handmaiden’ draws its plot from Sarah Waters’ novel ‘Fingersmith’ about a petty thief who pretends to be a servant girl to help a con man marry an heiress kept captive by her depraved uncle. The book was set in Victorian England but Park moves the story to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s.  The film employs a three-part structure to tell the story from three different perspectives, playing with our knowledge of who is in charge and who is being strung along before doubling back in on itself again and again. It’s a vision of repression, sexuality, culture, and class that is absolutely gorgeous and unsettling – a strikingly assured piece of filmmaking on every level. I loved the imagery, the score, the performances, and the pot-boiler of a plot. What surprised me the most about ‘The Handmaiden’ (and Park acknowledged this when he introduced the film at TIFF) is how wildly romantic it is. It is certainly his tamest film to date. It is also his very best. I don’t know why South Korea submitted ‘Age of Shadows’ to the Academy nominators for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration over ‘The Handmaiden’. Release Date: November 28th.

5.        ‘Paterson’

Jim Jarmusch’s latest is a keenly observant work of poetry. We get a glimpse into a week in the quiet life of a bus driver who writes poetry. Adam Driver is the bus driver; his name is Paterson and he lives in Paterson, New Jersey – an intentional circular joke on Jarmusch’s part I’m sure. Paterson lives a life of calculated routine: awake at 6 am, home by 6 pm, chats with his wife (Golshifteh Farahani, excellent) walks the dog, and downs a beer at the local tavern. I wanted to be more like our titular character – one who is fully aware of the beauty in the world around him, and revels in life’s simple pleasures. Everything he encounters fuels his art. ‘Paterson’ makes us believe that all of us are artists of different sorts whether we know it or not and that if we look at something or someone long enough, it may become the impetus for a captivating narrative. Nearly a week after seeing this movie, I’m still parsing its beautiful text. I could have easily spent another week or two with Paterson. Release Date: December 28th stateside – it should open in Toronto theaters around then.

Also Great: ‘Aquarius’, ‘Arrival’, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, ‘Loving’, ‘Sand Storm’

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