Tina Hassannia: Hey Kenji, I’m glad you could come up to Toronto for another TIFF. How was your festival this year?
Kenji Fujishima: It was good! More exhausting than usual, actually. Somehow, in my 6 years of going to this festival, I don’t think I’ve stayed out late as often as I did this festival just to try to socialize and network outside of the movie-watching and -writing grind. But in a festival as insanely packed to the gills with movies as this, a bit of downtime (some of it with heavy drinking involved) is a good thing. Also, I somehow managed to keep up with writing this year, which hasn’t always been the case with me in past years. That desire to not fall behind on my work came at the expense of some movies I missed this year that I had wanted to see…but perhaps we can talk more about that later.
How was your festival experience?
Tina: Similarly, I had to miss a few films at the behest of writing deadlines and last-minute assignments. But I’d say that your ability to keep on top of deadlines is an indication that you’re starting to find a groove in doing TIFF, which is a bit of an oxymoron since film festivals are such an organic phenomenon and things are constantly changing for us as film critics. Our assignments, the screenings we can or can’t make, social commitments, chance encounters, making time to sleep and eat—finding a rhythm that best suits us and our preferences and our commitments is really difficult and it takes time and a few years of solid TIFFing before you really get comfortable doing this beat. I think this is the first year I actually started to find that rhythm, but it was not without challenges. I had more writing assignments than I’ve ever had before, and since I find writing to be a very laborious and time-consuming process (the ADHD doesn’t help), it was still a challenge to get out and see friends and movies in the capacity I wanted to. I do agree that some degree of socializing and drinking (if you’re into that kind of thing) is required, but not every freelancer can spare the time. For those of us who are fortunate to socialize, it’s also a great time to actually talk about the movies we’re seeing at length, to process them. Did you find that same experience, Kenji?
Kenji: Indeed. Even more than whatever networking and/or friendly conversations happen between people in party situations, it’s the experience of being able to share our thoughts and feelings about a movie right afterward—talk about, work through it, maybe even get into (hopefully) friendly disagreements over it—that, for me, are the most memorable experiences a film festival can offer. Even now, I still fondly remember the joy we all felt after a few of my colleagues and I came out of Jonathan Demme’s Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, flush with the sheer euphoria the film inspired for 90 straight minutes.
By the same token, I also recall remarking to myself about how quickly the backlash cycle gets at film festivals these days, as evidenced by my enthusiastic reactions to Moonlight and Jackie being met by polar opposite reactions, either online or in person, maybe a day or two after I had seen them. It kind of bugged me, to be honest, but perhaps that’s just the nature of film festivals, especially as a journalist. Besides, as someone who was a bit less enthused by what are, I believe, two of your favorites at this year’s TIFF, La La Land and Colossal, I suppose I’m not immune.
Tina: For sure, the response to both of those films has been interesting to watch. But I do think that there is a difference between negative reactions that pour in immediately after a screening and people reacting in a knee-jerk fashion after a film has been greatly praised—only the latter, in my opinion, defines backlash. Whatever reactions—positive, negative, those on the offense, and those on the defense—they are also often characterized by critics with a polite “I see you liked that, and I thought it was just okay” response. That’s what I encounter a lot at TIFF, but it was especially apparent this year because there were so many great films that really divided people. Aside from those with near-unanimous praise (Toni Erdmann and Paterson), so many films at the festival fell on a very wide spectrum of opinion. Especially those that were extremely hyped up by early screenings. La La Land is a perfect example of that.
The extent to which people I met liked La La Land, and the extent to which they found it an imperfect film, is where I think this sort of divide between “this is such a great movie” and “this is a good movie but I have reservations” is interesting. La La Land is bright and whimsical and fun and perfectly calibrated, in a sense, but it does have a certain fluffiness that I think rubs some critics the wrong way. As for Colossal, so many people I talked to who disliked that film kept over-analyzing the internal logic and finding holes in the story. Which is fine. I chose not to take that path because I knew it was the kind of film where its humor and the originality of its premise would save it. That’s why I liked Colossal. I value originality over consistency if the film works for me. Colossal has that kind of out-there meta concept coupled with a really great, engaging, and evolving dynamic between its two leads, Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, that I found rather enjoyable.
Kenji: Yeah, Colossal definitely had one of the most original premises for a sci-fi/monster movie I’ve seen, and for about half of it I did find it thrilling simply to see where Nacho Vigalondo would take it. Where he does take it, though, I found kind of disappointing: To me, he basically shafted a richer and more complex dynamic between the Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis characters in order to shove them into tidy good-versus-evil binaries. And there’s ultimately something rather distasteful to me about seeing these anonymous South Koreans in Seoul becoming the targets/victims, however wittingly or unwittingly, of these two white Americans and their relatively trivial problems.
But at least Colossal offers something genuinely original to discuss. I’m still struggling with my muted response to La La Land, to be honest, because I do love musicals, and usually I do gravitate toward the kind of story Damien Chazelle tells: that of aspiring artists balancing the vagaries of practical living with trying to pursue their passions. But the older I get and the more movies I watch, I suppose I’ve become less interested in movies that reflect my worldview than in ones that challenge it somehow. Nostalgic references to classic Hollywood—like that “Presented in CinemaScope” title card in the beginning and the two main characters’ first date at a screening of Rebel Without a Cause—don’t excite me as much as they used to, and nor does a movie that, to my mind, simple-mindedly posits the John Legend character as a kind of villain for daring to think progressively about jazz—an entirely noble and necessary endeavor, whatever you may think of the music his character actually creates—rather than remain rooted to the past like Ryan Gosling’s character does.
Still, I don’t want to be too down on a movie that’s this beautifully made and is obviously very sincere and open-hearted in what it’s trying to do. And plenty of critics—like yourself—are finding it more charming than I ultimately do. So to perhaps steer the conversation toward movies we liked, perhaps we could talk about the real lifeblood of a film festival: finding hidden gems amidst the hype of larger-profile titles. Did you discover anything like that this year, Tina?
Tina: Well, it’s not exactly low profile, but I must mention the film anyway: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann. I can’t wait to see this film finally get its due upon theatrical release. TIFF definitely raised the profile and it’s the kind of movie that has such an accessible exterior that it should easily attract and win over a mass audience. It is a lovable father-daughter comedy, after all! It’s not only my favourite movie of the festival but quite easily of the year, and it’s difficult for me to comprehend the subdued reception from Cannes. So I’m genuinely curious to see how it will do in the commercial market. I haven’t written about this film because I’m not yet ready. Like much of Ade’s work, the emotional layers in Toni Erdmann takes a while to sink in and the film requires multiple viewings.
Toni Erdmann is the best of a wide selection of films at TIFF I saw that were directed by women or about female experiences, or both. These films that spoke to me the most, personally, were: Personal Shopper, Certain Women, A Quiet Passion, The Edge of Seventeen, Aquarius, Maudie, Window Horses, Loving and Things to Come. What a variety of experiences and stories. From the grief-stricken Kristen Stewart contemplating the existence of her own spirituality as Maureen in Personal Shopper to the burgeoning determination that manifests slowly but surely in Mildred Loving’s (Ruth Negga) incorrigible spirit in Loving as she seeks justice for her so-deemed illegal interracial marriage, to the existential despair of Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) in A Quiet Passion that is largely shaped by the suffocating position women had to endure in the 1800s—to say nothing of the micro-nuance on display in the tripartite Certain Women—I could ramble on for thousands of words about the things I’ve learned during this festival watching beautiful, brave, and flawed women characters try to move through their lonely fictional worlds. It’s been nothing short of moving. And it gets me excited about the future of film, quite frankly.
Kenji: Which is surely what any film festival—especially one as vast as the Toronto International Film Festival—ought to do. Until next year, here’s to keeping hope for cinema alive!