Gone but not forgotten: TIFF 2014

Playback's TIFF critic Thom Ernst looks back on the most-buzzed-about Canadian films at TIFF and weighs in on how they might fare post-fest.
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While the Vancouver International Film Festival swings into action on the West Coast, veteran film critic Thom Ernst looks back on the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month and what’s head for many of the Canadian films that premiered there. 

When wrapping up TIFF2013, I was encouraged by what I saw as growing momentum in Canada’s nascent star system.

Much of my hope rested on the appeal of director Michael Dowse’s The F Word (renamed What If to attract a more date-friendly U.S. audience). The F Word had all the makings of a film ready to play on an international market. Yes, Dowse’s film had international stars Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan and Adam Driver to help it along, but it also had a backdrop that was unmistakably Toronto, as well as Meghan Park, who, in many ways, outshone her more famous counterparts.

Although no Canadian feature coming out of TIFF2014 quite compares to the commercial potential of The F Word – which opened softly in Canada to a $500K opening week – there’s still some evidence indicating a promising move forward in the industry. The films may not be as marketable as last year’s, but there’s a greater confidence that the stories being told can be told without the aid of marquee headliners. Still, without star-names attached, these films might be harder to find.

Not that American stars don’t pop up occasionally. They do. They just don’t take up as much space. Director Jacob Tierney barely uses James Caan in his romantic comedy, Preggoland and despite a notable performance from James Le Gros in Jefferson Moneo’s Big Muddy  (a film that doesn’t hide its Saskatchewan roots), the banner draw in this bit of contemporary noir comes from veteran Canadian actor, Stephen McHattie.

Likewise Eric Balfour (Six Feet Under) provides an underscore of apprehension and dread in director Adam MacDonald’s harrowing thriller, Backcountry. But it’s Canadian actors Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop – as well as the talents of special effects artist, David Scott – who drive the movie.

In October Gale, director Ruba Nadda relies on her Cairo Time (2009) star Patricia Clarkson to carry the film, along with Tim Roth but the rest of the cast is fleshed out with Canadians Scott Speedman and Callum Keith Rennie.

Some films, like director Andrea Dorfman’s Heartbeat and Lindsay MacKay’s Wet Bum work solely on the charm of their lead actors: the relatively unknown Tanya Davis and the young Julia Sarah Stone, respectively. Wet Bum also gets by on the strength of an all-Canadian cast featuring Kenneth Welsh and Leah Pinsent.

With the exception of Backcountry, which has a horror/thriller element that is readily transferable, it’s unlikely any of these films will travel well. Even the works of Canadian masters, David Cronenberg’s Map to the Stars and Denys Arcand’s An Eye for Beauty might well expect to be shuffled through an art-house run before settling into Netflix. Arcand’s film has some chance of notoriety by giving audiences artistic permission to enjoy beautiful people engaging in explicit sex.

Harder to classify is director’s Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy’s The Editor. This is a film with a built in audience but is of such a niche genre – a horror film homage to Italian horror films – as to amuse some while confounding others. But again, horror films are easier sells, and Astron-6, a collective involved in making the film, have already a solid fan base.

One of the most polarizing films to come out of TIFF2014 is Jeffrey St. Jules’ Bang Bang Baby, a bizarre mash-up of science-fiction and musical pastiche that took the festival jury prize for Best First Canadian Feature. Maxime Giroux’s Felix & Meira won Best Canadian Feature Film and Randall Okita’s The Weatherman and the Shadowboxer won Best Canadian Short.

Easily one of the best at this years festival, Canadian or otherwise, is Xavier Dolan’s Mommy.  There’s enough buzz around Dolan’s film since winning a jury prize at Cannes (although it goes unrecognized by TIFF) to give the movie a significant international profile.  Now, as Canada’s selection to enter the Oscar race, Mommy has an even greater chance of being seen. Still, the film is a difficult story that is subtitled, without stars and presented in a way that uses only a third of the screen. Despite critical acclaim, Mommy might still struggle to find an audience.  An Oscar win would help.