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Thursday, August 29, 2013

The top 10 movies to watch at TIFF 2013

Top movies tiff 2013Over the last nine days, I've done my best to thoroughly preview the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival with lists of the biggest buzz titles, the most promising Midnight Madness and Gala & Special Presentations films, must see Canadian features and shorts, as well as the award-winning films making their way over from Cannes. Now, with only a week until opening night, it's time to reveal my top overall recommendations for what to see.

Most of the following picks are films I have seen and can personally verify are top notch movies that cannot be missed. It's worth reiterating, though, that I think TIFF is most valuable for allowing cinephiles to see great films - even some masterpieces - that likely won't be coming out in theatres. Regular tickets are $23.50, after all.

For this reason, I've focused on the Wavelengths section in my picks, with a number of Masters titles as well (how can you pass those up?!). If you see any or all of these, you're guaranteed to have a great festival this year.

The Strange Little Cat [WAVELENGTHS]

In a nutshell: Pure, unparalleled cinematic pleasure. There is a recurring musical piece that plays in the film, the instrumental "Pulchritude" by Thee More Shallows, the title of which makes a great single word summary of The Strange Little Cat, the most charged 72 minutes of cinema I've seen in years. Set in a single cramped German apartment, first-time (!) filmmaker Ramon Zürcher focuses on the absurd details of a family that's trying to navigate the space so that each member maintains their sanity. The cacophony of voices, appliances, and (of course) purring activates even the most minimal shots, so that there is never less than five or six things or persons fighting for your attention, visually and aurally. It's like a Rube Goldberg machine in which every step in the chain is isolated off--a room full of triggers, each going off randomly and without consequence. It's madness, it's frisky, it's sedated, and it's utter perfection.


It might sound boring on paper - 11 shots, each about ten minutes long, of people sitting in a cable car, riding up to or down from the Manakamana temple in Nepal - and yet your mind is never not racing with ideas and stories about the people you're looking at, all while you're dizzied by the scrolling landscape in the background. Consistently surprising in that it's always a joy to see who (or what) will occupy the car in the next shot, the film also has one of the funniest scenes of the year, involving nothing but two ladies eating ice cream. It's minimalist cinema at its finest, coming from Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, which also brought us last year's excellent and nightmarish fishing boat film, Leviathan.

Norte, the End of History [MASTERS]

Here's another amazing film that might sound difficult on paper, Norte, the End of History, is a four-hour film by Lav Diaz, who hasn't made a film this short since the very beginning of his career (six, eight, ten, and eleven hours are more typical durations for his movies). It's worth the time, though. In what is probably the best ever cinematic adaptation of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, this is a film that reaches spiritual heights even as it shows the worst in humanity, the camera gliding and even flying around the drama to draw out a stunning mix of pity and hope. The final hour (I know, I know...) is truly unshakable.


Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang and his regular muse Lee Kang-sheng, who have now made ten features together, are the most curious and progressive director/actor duo since François Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud of the French New Wave. Tsai's cinema is built around long shots of very simple yet absurd architectural scenarios that Lee and the handful of other actors engage with, as if partaking in fictional narrative performance art. This latest film is a hypnotic and wrenching film about a man who cares for his two children, holding up real estate signs along the highway to make a living. Featuring dramatic time jumps into either the past, the future, or some parallel universe (it's often difficult to tell which), it's likely the most dream-like film in the festival.


Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake is, simply, the best and most artful queer film since Apichatpong Weerasethakul's landmark Tropical Malady (2004); there's a reason why it topped Blue is the Warmest Color to win the Queer Palm. In perhaps the boldest depiction of cruising life to ever grace an art house screen, the French filmmaker draws up a mysterious, noir-ish romance like nothing you've ever seen before. Yes, there is a lot of penis in this movie, but it's there with a purpose; by the time the last lines of the movie are spoken (rather, yelled, into a pitch black summer night), I was too stunned to speak.

Bastards [MASTERS]

Claire Denis is not just the best woman director of the last two decades, but one of the best period. Her films are uncannily elliptical, mysterious, seductive, and beautiful in ways no other filmmaker can even approach. So it almost goes without saying that Bastards, as an ostensible remake of David Lynch's Twin Peaks as a 100-minute, noir-ish hallucination of child abuse and sexual intrigue, is an experience not worth missing. The TIFF Bell Lightbox will be holding a complete retrospective on Denis this Fall, so you could wait until then to see this, but you'll want to see it more than once, so this might be a good time for the first.

A Touch of Sin [MASTERS]

This would've been my pick for the Palme d'Or this year, personally. An ostensible (read: utterly unrecognizable) tribute to King Hu's A Touch of Zen, Jia Zhang-ke breaks form and makes an all-out, bloody wuxia picture. There's still some of his trademark introspective ruminations on the state of his union, but there's a dreamy yet lucid undercurrent that feels wholly new for the Chinese master (he had two films in the Top 3 of Cinematheque Ontario's Best of the Decade (2000-09) Poll). Comprising four more-or-less distinct short stories, it was its coda that knocked me on my ass.

La última película [WAVELENGTHS]

Experimental Filipino director Raya Martin joins forces with Cinema Scope editor and publisher Mark Peranson for this singular take on the apocalypse - the end of the world and the end of cinema. The film follows a director (portrayed by The Color Wheel director Alex Ross Perry) who buys up the last remaining film stock in the world and heads down to Mexico to film the Mayan temples at the end of their calendar. Setting out to make the last film - the ultimate film - Peranson and Martin spastically capture the hubris that's inherent in all endings. Every generation thinks they're the last, and they make a spectacle of themselves as a way of legitimizing the thing that's disappearing. If there's only one movie left to be made, it ought to go all out, and this film shows a logical potential product of that kind of ambition.

Closed Curtain [MASTERS]

I guess it was only a matter of time before Jafar Panahi - who's been banned from making films by the Iranian government - went into full-on self-reflexive mode. Like the many parts of his powerful doc This is Not a Film, Panahi literalizes his subtext and then buries it in a meandering non-narrative. This film, which is fictional drama rather than doc, follows a writer and his dog who arrive at an abandoned house, fleeing from something we're not sure of. When a strange couple arrives, things get dangerous and intense. And then it all gets rather meta. This is the film of a censored man, who, miraculously, is as creative and unencumbered by cinematic conventions as he's ever been.


Frederick Wiseman is the greatest American documentary filmmaker working today (maybe ever). Studying the functions and inner-workings of institutions of every kind - hospitals, schools, animal testing labs, strip clubs, boxing gyms - he studies the way humans create systems, and the way those systems reflect back on humanity. His latest film, true to its title, dives deep into the goings-on at UC Berkeley in California, focusing especially on debates taking place over tuition hikes, budget cuts, and the future of higher education. It may sound dry and excessively pedagogical for a four-hour doc, but Wiseman shows humans in a way that's endlessly fascinating, and this film should be no exception.


There are plenty of us at blogTO who will be hitting up TIFF this year. Here's a round-up of other top film picks suggested by the rest of the team.

Thanks to Grolsch for sponsoring our coverage of TIFF13 Grolsch TIFF

Lead still from A Touch of Sin.

by Blake Williams via blogTO

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