Chasing Down Movies at the Toronto International Film Festival

As a journalist, it’s routine for me to cover film festivals, but my festival going has been primarily restricted to New York, where I annually cover the New York and Tribeca Film Festivals, among others. This year, I decided to take a last-second trip to Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the largest film festival in the world. Over the course of 48 hours, I saw eight films (mostly very good), ate very little, and likely spent more time on the phone with the ticket office than I did in bed.

Before getting to Toronto, I had tickets to three screenings: HIrokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, and Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. Needless to say, I was praying to whatever film gods exist that tickets would magically become available for some more of the hotter titles.

When I arrived in Toronto on Saturday, I immediately sat down for an interview with Mike Rezendes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was part of the Boston Globe Spotlight team who investigated and exposed the Catholic sex abuse scandal. He is portrayed by Mark Ruffalo in Tom McCarthy’s excellent Spotlight.

That evening, I attended the premiere of Youth, which normally would have been a joyous experience, but due to the fact that I was running on an hour of sleep after a long week and a very long day of travelling, I could barely stay awake.

After that film, I attended the world premiere of Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, and Julianne Moore in a movie-stealing performance. Because I had some food in me and the film was a straight comedy, it kept me more awake. Maggie’s Plan was one that I saw on a whim. It was the only exciting title that had tickets available at the time I had free, so I went. Frequently the films I don’t plan on screening at a festival and see by chance are the biggest surprises, and Maggie’s Plan was no exception. Sony Pictures Classics recently bought the film.

The following morning, I was up early to get on the phone with the box office to see what tickets had become available for that day (tickets for sold out films are sometimes released at 7 AM the day of the screening). Luckily, there were tickets available to John Crowley’s Brooklyn and the world premiere of Peter Sollett’s Freeheld. I started my screening day with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s acclaimed film, Our Little Sister, which I adored. It was a beautiful, intimate humanist drama that moved me greatly. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film in the future.

After Our Little Sister, I had a bit of a break (what’s that?!) before Brooklyn. Brooklyn was a magnificent film that will be a major awards contender. Saoirse Ronan gives one of the most emotionally raw performances of the year, and Nick Hornby’s screenplay is typically poignant. I would highly recommend everyone see this one when Fox Searchlight releases it on November 6. It has played every fall festival save for Venice after a hugely successful Sundance premiere.

The last film of the day was Freeheld, a new drama starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, which featured another movie-stealing Julianne Moore performance.

The following morning, bright and early, I was back on the phone with the box office and bought tickets to Ben Wheatley’s latest, High-Rise, and Lorenzo Vargas’ Desde Allá, which had won the Venice Film Festival the day before.

The screening day began with Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, which was a visceral, emotional experience. It is pure cinema that features two phenomenal performances by newcomer Abraham Attah and Idris Elba. I can’t remember the last time a film simultaneously filled me with so much awe and horror. Netflix will make the film available for streaming on October 16 and Bleecker Street Films will release theatrically the same day. If you can see this one in theaters, do so. It’s made to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

High-Rise was next, and that didn’t disappoint either. Ben Wheatley has made a career for himself by creating crazy, bizarre films with highly original premises, and High-Rise, Wheatley’s first film with an A-list cast (Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Elisabeth Moss), was the craziest ride of the festival. The film does not have US distribution.

Finally, I screened Lorenzo Vargas’ Desde Allá. I wasn’t enamored with the film, but that very well could have been due to the fact that I had seen seven movies before it, had no food in my stomach, and was functioning on no sleep. I guess a lesson from this festival is that I should never judge a film I screen in the latter part of a festival until I screen it again!

TIFF was the best kind of endurance test – one full of constant moving (the theaters are all in different locations, sometimes a mile or two apart – not conducive to making screenings that are 40 minutes apart where seating is first come-first served), last-second schedule changes, and fantastic cinema.

Riding a wave like a festival, I go around never quite knowing exactly what’s coming next, frequently discovering hidden gems of cinema. I thrive on lunacy like this. It’s one of the reasons I love film festivals. And this is why two weeks later, I’m back at the New York Film Festival.

Joshua Handler is a film critic, journalist and a senior in the NYU/Tisch Undergraduate Film & TV Department.