TIFF Movies 2017: Best to Worst

Due to the extremely nerdy ticket-choosing process I used, I can compare how the movies ranked after I saw them to how they ranked on my selection list (adjusted to account for screenings I had to skip when I got sick toward the end).

1 – My Days of Mercy

WTF: Two American women fall in love after meeting on opposite sides of a protest in favour of/against state execution.

Impressions: My Days of Mercy isn’t really about debating state execution; it’s about making an argument firmly against execution. What’s cool is that it does that in a way we haven’t seen before, by focussing on the horror and despair of waiting for someone you love to be murdered by the judicial system, and knowing there’s nothing you can do about it. Emotionally, it’s absolutely brutal to watch and, technically, the story sometimes veers off topic in ways that feel strange, but this is an incredibly successful film that offers an unusually sophisticated take on the subject. I have more to say at PopMatters.

Original Ranking: 9 – The premise is really interesting, but I was worried it would be a Sad Lesbian Movie.

2 – High Fantasy

WTF: Four college-age friends go on a camping trip in South Africa and wake up to find they’ve changed bodies.

Impressions: In retrospect, I don’t know why this is the first body-switching movie I’ve see that’s explicitly about racism and sexism, but it is, and it’s really smart. It’s not about switching bodies with someone and suddenly realizing that racism or sexism exists – it’s about how difficult and complicated and maybe impossible it is to have authentic friendships when there are gross power imbalances between individual friends. It was the most challenging film I saw at TIFF, and all the more impressive because it was shot on an iPhone and largely improvised. I have more to say at PopMatters.

Original Ranking: 7 – You had me at “they switch bodies,” but I was worried about “filmed entirely on an iPhone.”

3 – Lady Bird

WTF: A misfit American teen has funny, sad, and heart-warming coming of age adventures as she prepares for college.

Impressions: This film zeroes in on the conflict between rejecting or embracing your family of origin – sort of quietly wishing to be someone else while not actually hating your life; aspiring to achieve more than your parents did and having them feel judged. It moves between different tones and moods pretty deftly and packages a familiar story in a way that feels new.

Original Ranking: 2 – Writer/director Greta Gerwig is very funny and Saoirse Ronan’s a good actor.

4 – The Killing of a Sacred Deer

WTF: An American surgeon’s family starts to fall ill and the son of a patient who died on his table suggests that their mysterious disease is restitution.

Impressions: Yorgos Lanthimos’ signature awkwardly forthright dialogue is out in full force, and the situation is weird in exactly the funny-but-scary way he’s known for, but I can’t get a handle on what this film was trying to say. Supposing that it tried to say something that just went past me, it’s very stylish, and there are particular scenes that will be burned into my brain for the rest of my life, whether or not I want them to be. It’s not The Lobster, but it’s very well made.

Original Ranking: 4 – I loved The Lobster, and I like Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell.

5 – What Will People Say

WTF: A Norwegian teen is kidnapped by her father and sent to Pakistan after she tries to have sex with a boy.

Impressions: This film does not bill itself as being half as disturbing as it is. It’s an extremely dark story in which the protagonist, who initially felt divided loyalties between Pakistani and Norwegian culture, is slowly backed into a corner where she has to choose between her family and her freedom – a choice that even her abusive father, in some cold, awful way, seems to understand. As far as stories about immigration go, it’s unusually focussed on faults in the culture of origin, which led some people at the screening to ask whether it sends a bad message, but I tend to agree with director Iram Haq that it’s important to talk about these things, even if the discussion is upsetting. I have more to say at PopMatters.

Original Ranking: 6 – The premise was sold as a teen who leads a double life because of conflict between her father’s culture and the one she grew up in; kind of different from what I saw, but it sounded interesting.

6 – A Worthy Companion

WTF: A female survivor of childhood sexual abuse re-enacts her experience by kidnapping and abusing another teenage girl.

Impressions: A Worthy Companion is about the way cycles of abuse repeat in the absence of healing. It’s a really important idea that’s challenging to engage with, because we’re required to empathize with an adult who abducts, physically attacks, imprisons, and has sex with a young teenager. We’re not asked to think that any of those things are right, but we are asked to recognize that there is more than one victim in that story – something that feels intellectually true but emotionally confusing. In terms of execution, the film can be a little bit melodramatic, but it’s making a sincere attempt to engage with the full complexity of a very upsetting issue.

Original Ranking: 3 – The premise sounded interesting, and Evan Rachel Wood is in the lead role.

7 – mother!

WTF: A narcissistic celebrity slowly destroys his wife by letting his fans take everything precious to her, up to the point of turning their home into a literal war zone.

Impressions: This movie succeeds in doing what it wants to do – it’s just not fun to watch. Almost the entire story follows dream logic, which is annoying because it’s so well-executed, and the final third or so spills into a series of extreme, loud, set destroying vignettes of war, murder, assault, cannibalism, and other forms of violence. The most uncomfortable part is that a very clear metaphor about the ravages of fame stands side by side with a murkier metaphor about the crimes of colonialism and, while both of those things can be hard to live with, they involve very different kinds of suffering.

Original Ranking: 1 – I loved Black Swan and The Fountain, plus I like all of the lead actors in this. Even though it was set to hit Cineplex a few days later, it was the movie I was most stoked to see.

8 – You Disappear

WTF: After her husband is diagnosed with a brain tumour, a Norwegian woman uses neuroscience to prove that no one ever really exists in the first place.

Impressions: The strongest thing about this movie is its commitment to ambiguity. It’s impossible to say for sure how the tumour is affecting the husband’s personality or whether his wife remembers what he was like “before” correctly. It sometimes risks becoming a psychology lecture, but the observations it makes about the fragility of memory, perception, and self are complex and engaging. Its weakness is that one of the critical pieces – presenting faulty memories on screen – sometimes results in more confusion than ambiguity.

Original Ranking: 5 – I generally enjoy introspective movies about someone’s perceptions.

9 – Disobedience

WTF: An English Rabbi’s daughter returns home to discover that, at her late father’s urging, her ex-girlfriend has married his most devoted male student.

Impressions: This movie is more about Orthodox Judaism than it is about homosexuality (which is presented more or less as one of several things that aren’t frum), and the real heart of it seems to be the Rabbi’s student and his struggle to determine if he truly understands the word of God. As someone who’s not part of any religion, I found it interesting, but I’d be lying if I said I understood it all. As a piece of tourism, and an opportunity to peer inside someone else’s lifestyle, though, it was intriguing.

Original Ranking: 11 – Love Rachel Weiss, but don’t as much love sombre meditations on prodigal daughters.

10 – BPM (Beats Per Minute)

WTF: Two serodiscordant members of ACT UP Paris have sex and plan semi-violent protests against pharmaceutical companies that are holding back HIV medications in the early 1990s.

Impressions: The documentary-style scenes where the ACT UP members are arguing with each other in their rented classroom or throwing bags of blood at pharmaceutical reps are what really make the movie. Unfortunately, the most interesting philosophical question presented – how non-violent can you really afford to be when people are dying? – gets pushed aside for a paint by numbers love story. I also disliked one of the lead characters and had a bad feeling that we were meant to see him as “proudly defiant” rather than “a narcissist air-lifted in from RENT.”

Original Ranking: 16 – I know people who were involved in AIDS activism in the 80s and 90s, and the trailer made the story seem very urgent, but I was loathe to put a super long movie in my schedule.

11 – I am not a Witch

WTF: A nine year old Zambian girl is accused of witchcraft and sent to live in a satirical camp for witches, where she is called on by the government to perform various spells.

Impressions: I am not a Witch is a satire both of the government’s willingness to entertain accusations of witchcraft for financial gain and of the social structures that oppress Zambian women in general. The centerpiece is a really clear, elegant visual metaphor where women accused of witchcraft are tied to large, spooled ribbons so that they can’t fly away (a mechanism the government bureaucrats are very proud of). The ending is a little bit opaque, but the central idea that women are faced with false choices, none of which lead to freedom, is pretty compelling.

Original Ranking: 15 – Ever since I learned that witch camps were a thing, I’ve been curious about them, but I was a little bit wary of jumping into what looked like an African version of Water.

12 – Woman Walks Ahead

WTF: An artist from New York convinces Sitting Bull to let her paint a portrait of him, and then she feels sad about his death.

Impressions: This is the Dances with Wolves of my generation – meaning it’s technically well-made and expresses tolerant sentiments, but is also very problematic. A cursory google search revealed that, even at the broadest level, it’s taking a lot of liberties with history (example: Sitting Bull’s wife is erased from the story so he can be a love interest for the main character). Woman Walks Ahead is interesting in that it acknowledges the cost of siding with marginalized people more than other white saviour movies seem to, but it is still very much a white saviour movie. I have more to say at PopMatters.

Original Ranking: 12 – I love Jessica Chastain, but the premise sounded like it might be kind of annoying.

13 – Unicorn Store

WTF: An aspiring American artist with a childlike disposition meets a man who promises to sell her a unicorn if she can prove that she’s successfully adulting.

Impressions: This movie can’t quite make up its mind about whether it’s sincerely pushing us to live our dreams, no matter how stupid they are, or taking the piss out of stories about that. It seems to drift back and forth between treating the main character as a talented but misunderstood genius and a person who is dangerously out of touch with reality, before making an 11th hour push for “misunderstood genius.” Mamoudou Athie is very likable as her love interest, but I honestly would have rather watched a movie about the wilderness retreat for “gangster children” that Joan Cusack’s character runs.

Original Ranking: 13 – I like Brie Larson, and was curious to see her direct something, but the stills I saw made the movie look kind of precious.

14 – The Lodgers

WTF: A creepy Irish brother and sister live in a dilapidated Victorian mansion, where the ghosts of their dead ancestors terrorize them each night.

Impressions: Cool cinematography, sometimes cool costumes, cool effect where there’s an upside-down version of the mansion underwater, but also unintentionally funny in a lot of places. Part of that comes from the way perfectly ordinary people and things keep butting up against the High Creepiness of the haunted mansion, which only serves to highlight how weird everything happening there is. Part of it comes from how the sister is so used to being haunted by her ancestors that she treats it as just an annoying part of her day. A lot of it comes form how the village boy who tries to talk to her immediately gets swept into a whirlwind of horror that ends with nobody really caring whether water zombies drag him to his death. Otherwise, the characters’ refusal to say the word “incest” even though it’s the first thing this situation brings to mind feels quaint.

Original Ranking: 10 – I was worried that this was going to be scary, but I really like creepy gothic siblings.

15 – Porcupine Lake

WTF: Two Canadian tweens form a friendship over the summer as a way to escape their troubled home lives.

Impressions: This relationship is Judy Bloom sweet and not creepy or fucked up at all, which is nice for the characters, but not super interesting for me. I think it’s trying to capture what it’s like at an age where you’re somewhere between being a kid and a teen – curious about sex but still whispering secrets to a tree. For the record, I’m bi, and none of my childhood friendships involved kissing other girls, yet every relationship on film has that feature for some reason.

Original Ranking: 14 – The trailer and description made me think of a movie called Breathe I reviewed a while ago, which has more murder in it.

16 – Thelma

WTF: A Norwegian college student struggling with her religion, sexuality, and controlling parents discovers that she can make scary things happen with her mind.

Impressions: This film gives people seizures, which seems inconsiderate to me. I’m not joking – it purposely flashes light at a rate that causes seizures and comes with a warning about it. The subject matter is interesting but the ending’s kind of muddy. The main problem is that Themla’s powers really are quite dangerous and her controlling father’s point of view makes more sense once we learn about that. The final act of the film doesn’t seem to see those nuances, and instead focuses on the idea that she can achieve self-actualization by burning people with her mind and, possibly, forcing them to love her.

Original Ranking: 8 – I don’t know why I was so into this idea; maybe because it was sold as a story about how she might either be crazy or have superpowers.

Image: My Days of Mercy; Killer Films/Lexis Media | September 29, 2017