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culture

Rep Cinema This Week: Oscar Shorts, TIFF Next Wave Film Festival, and 12 Years a Slave

The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.

Still from Get a Horse!

At rep cinemas this week: a limited engagement of this year’s Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts, a mini-festival of films programmed by and for youth, and Steve McQueen’s Oscar-nominated portrait of a man kidnapped and sold into slavery.


Oscar Shorts: Live-Action and Animated
Directed by multiple directors

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Live-Action Shorts showtimes
Animated Shorts showtimes


Ask any Oscar prognosticator about the hardest awards to call each year, and you’ll likely hear a sad song about how the capriciousness of the Academy’s tastes in the short film categories ruined so-and-so’s standings in the Oscar pool. Part of the reason, until fairly recently, was that the films themselves were so hard to see. The best remedy for the Oscar completist, rare as the species is, is TIFF’s annual screening of the nominees in a pair of programmes devoted to the live-action and animated categories, respectively.

This year’s live-action offerings are a mixed bag. The strongest is probably Xavier Legrand’s Just Before Losing Everything, a fast-paced, lean, 30-minute profile of a woman (Léa Drucker) gathering her two children to flee from her abusive husband. The closing act hinges upon some contrivances and the occasional thriller elements can feel out of sync with the seriousness of the subject, but Legrand’s direction is tight, and Drucker is fine as the woman on the verge of escape. The film’s minimalism is in stark contrast to the exploitative pyrotechnics of the likely Oscar winner, Esteban Crespo’s truly abysmal That Wasn’t Me. The film follows a pair of shiny white Spanish doctors as they are held hostage, in an unidentified part of Africa, by a group of child soldiers fronted by a brainwashing militaristic psychopath. The lengths Crespo’s noxious film goes to justify its ostensibly humanitarian message—that First World aid can turn African child soldiers into upright Western citizens who pass muster before the noble whites who sponsor them—would be laughable if the material wasn’t so brutal, spanning everything from sexual assault to the torture of young children in the course of about 20 glib minutes. But the Academy likes messages in this category—and this film has one, however poisonous it might be.

The animated contenders are, on the whole, a stronger lot. The obvious favourite is Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim’s Get a Horse!, which reanimates both Mickey Mouse and the voice of Walt Disney and combines black-and-white hand-drawn animation with CG for a nostalgic western caper. It’s a nice nod to the corporation’s history—certainly better than last year’s Saving Mr. Banks—and it’s not an undeserving winner. We were also fond, though, of some of the competition, including Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares’ Mr. Hublot (no relation beyond homage to the famed Monsieur Hulot of Jacques Tati’s inventive comedies), which details the friendship between a twitchy steampunk shut-in and the robot dog he can’t seem to rid himself of, and Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden’s Feral, a beautifully drawn if soapily plotted story of a wild child taken out of his natural environment and deposited in itchy Victorian duds that he can’t wait to tear from his body.


TIFF Next Wave Film Festival
Directed by multiple directors

Still from Palo Alto.

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Showtimes


Now entering its third year, TIFF Next Wave promises a spate of programming for youths aged 14-18, selected by a committee of twelve students ranging from 15 to 18 years old—a group of aspiring filmmakers and burgeoning tastemakers who presumably have their finger on the pulse of contemporary youth. The festival mixes old and new offerings, as well as events like the 24-Hour Film Challenge, which dares teams of high-school students to produce an original short over the course of a single day.

The strongest new selection here is probably Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, a tender adaptation of James Franco’s similarly titled (and infinitely worse) short story collection. We were more or less impressed by the film at last fall’s TIFF, noting that like her famous grandfather Francis and her aunt Sofia, Coppola showed a knack for capturing the lovesick ennui of her cast of disaffected young California hipsters in her surprisingly robust debut. Among the less star-powered titles, teens might also wish to take in Jean-Michel Dissard’s I Learn America, a sensitive documentary about five recent immigrant teens in their senior year at New York City’s International High School at Lafayette.

In addition to its new programming, the festival will also be screening a number of cult classics and blockbuster titles about teens, including Jason Reitman’s Juno, Edgar Wright’s wonderful, Toronto-centric Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and, of course, Mark Waters’ Mean Girls.


12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
12 Years A Slave 02 640x322

Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
Showtimes


Despite its foundational status in American history, slavery has been a fairly taboo subject on film, rarely addressed outside of timid courtroom dramas like Steven Spielberg’s Amistad and ironic extravaganzas like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. That makes acclaimed British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the autobiography of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor)—a free man taken from his home in New York in 1841 and sold into slavery—an especially important project.

Given his visceral recreation of an IRA prisoner’s hunger strike in his first film, Hunger, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave promised to be a bold alternative to the likes of Amistad, but this is a tonal departure for the director, despite its similar interest in how faux-civilized institutions bear down on the body to break an individual’s spirit. Less formally rigorous than its predecessors, despite an abundance of long takes that neatly fit into McQueen’s filmography, the film is a straightforward and at times awkwardly expository period piece, complete with an overly stacked celebrity cast in an endless procession of glorified cameos. While this is a safer film than we might have expected, that doesn’t take away from the moments of raw force and conviction, or from Ejiofor’s powerful performance as a man forced to hide his true self to survive.

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