The festival’s Gala and Special Presentations don’t offer much in the way of surprise, but make moderate concessions to diversity in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite.
As 20-year-old clips from The Simpsons go, nothing scores on topicality more than the moment where space aliens Kodos and Kang, newly ensconced in the bodies of Bill Clinton and then-Republican nominee Bob Dole, toast the grim ineluctability of the upcoming election. “What are you going to do about it,” they boast: “It’s a two party system. You have to vote for one of us.” Though that bit has been getting traction lately among disgruntled Democrats on the left flank of the party, it also speaks to the fatalistic attitude with which local cinephiles sometimes approach the first TIFF announcement of the year, in this case a reveal of the fest’s loosely defined Gala and Special Presentations programmes. The biggest show in town for 41 years running—thanks to its plum North American location, its timing between the summer festivals and expensive winter Oscar campaigns, and its sheer size—the Festival of Festivals is so expansive as to be nearly impervious to criticism. Even the festival’s new tagline, Infinite Views, speaks to its enormity, ungainliness, and inevitability as much as to its unique boon as the destination for any number of audiences and filmmaking voices.
Given that its utility for both semi-casual filmgoers with $30 to burn and critics unable to make the trip to Cannes or Venice is more or less intact, despite the challenge posed by competitors like Telluride, who increasingly court World and North American Premieres that would have once been an easy get, TIFF doesn’t necessarily have any reason to reinvent itself as it enters middle age. Judging by this morning’s press conference, though, TIFF 41 may be inching toward incremental progress. Consider the way Artistic Director Cameron Bailey, ever the elegant statesman of the festival, began by acknowledging the sacred First Nations land on which TIFF operates, a savvy but sincere opening gesture, and, if our memory serves, the first of its kind at this usually celebratory event.
Consider, too, the deliberate way in which Bailey and festival CEO Piers Handling alternated between fêting films like South Korean master Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden and Iranian Oscar and Cannes luminary Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, on the one hand, and North American prestige bonbons like Ewan MacGregor’s American Pastoral, a likely DOA adaptation of the Philip Roth novel, on the other. Though all three films are, in their own way, safe bets, the festival’s implicit recognition that each might play differently as a star attraction among different communities is a nice acknowledgment of the inherent diversity of TIFF audiences.
You can also trace the theme of sidestepping expectations by an inch or so in the festival’s opening and closing night films. The latter slot this year goes to Kelly Fremon Craig’s Hailey Steinfeld-led The Edge of Seventeen, which looks far more like something people might want to see than previous closers like Alan Rickman’s A Little Chaos (no disrespect to the departed). Though its star-studded cast and mainstream appeal recalls the novel pick of Rian Johnson’s Looper in 2012, the selection of Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven remake as an opener certainly inspires more confidence than goofy predecessors like The Judge, or Bill Condon’s stilted Julian Assange biopic The Fifth Estate. It also fits nicely with the festival’s so far reasonably diverse mix of films by women and people of colour, which includes both curios like Nick Cannon’s King of the Dancehall as well as expected Canadian premieres like Nate Parker’s Sundance hit The Birth of a Nation and Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, which we can only hope does more for stars David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o than the woeful Disneyfied trailer does.
Still, as tickled as we are by the prospect of a musical directed by Nick Cannon and starring Busta Rhymes, one does not typically go to a TIFF press conference for surprises but for a certain amount of old, warm familiarity, and to make a personal shortlist from the dozens of titles on offer. The other early announcements are roughly what anyone who has spitballed the festival for more than a minute would expect—the new Denis Villeneuve film, the new Tom Ford—though only a real churl would complain about predictable titles like Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea or Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, an unawarded critical darling at Cannes. Even the Q&A, which included an oddball question about the surprisingly robust presence of Gael Garcia Bernal and a tired complaint about the lack of a Canadian festival opener, went by the books. It hardly mattered: like Kodos and Kang before it, for one reason another, TIFF will get our vote.