Movie Meditations from a TIFF Newbie

The moment I caught “festival fever” at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend came Saturday at 8:00pm. My boyfriend and I darted out of a 6:00 showing of I, Tonya to start a 15-minute sprint through downtown to line up for an 8:45 screening of Lady Bird, my most anticipated movie of the festival. We knew we were cutting it close; we’d make it by 8:45, but with first-come, first-served seating, we weren’t setting ourselves up for the best seat in the house.

Of course, I anticipated a line. We’d been queued up for I, Tonya, but were only waiting at the corner of the block the theater was on. We stood in a long line earlier in the day for Downsizing, but had reserved seats that time. When we arrived at the Elgin Theatre for Lady Bird, we had our first taste of the true magnitude of the festival. The line stretched up a block, then over a couple more, then up again. Festival volunteers stood in crosswalks to ensure safe everyone’s safe passage.

That’s when the magic sunk in. This line might go on forever. But it’s filled entirely with people who love movies. People who think it’s kind of amazing to be among the first to see Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. People who probably think about Frances Ha as many times a day as I do. People who care whether Laurie Metcalf might get an Oscar nomination for this movie. And we’re all right here, under city lights, experiencing it together.

Lady Bird may not have ended up being my favorite film from the weekend (though I still loved it), but running through downtown Toronto, chasing down the end of the line, will be the memory that encapsulates this TIFF experience.

The TIFF experience began on something of a whim, when the lineup was released in late July and I saw lots of films on the schedule that I’d already heard some buzz about. I knew nothing about the logistics of attending the festival or how accessible it was for the everyday viewer, but did a little Googling and discovered the festival offered a back-half package which allowed you to see any six films in the final days of the festival for $100 Canadian dollars ($85 U.S.!). That ended up being the perfect option. The first weekend, I figured, would be more crowded and more expensive; going later also fit more comfortably with my work schedule this time of year.

It was surprisingly easy to talk Timmy into going with me (this also perfectly coincided with his discovery of the Letterboxd app, which has turned him into quite the movie fan), so we found an Airbnb that seemed close to the action and bit the bullet. A friend’s roommate also tipped us off to Porter airlines, which flies smaller planes from Newark to Billy Bishop Airport, which exists on an island that’s just minutes from Toronto’s downtown. The novelty (and convenience) factor of this urban airport has not worn off for me. And Porter has a really cute raccoon logo.

Back to the movies.

Our window for selecting movies came at the end of August. We decided to select four in advance, meaning we left two of our tickets as “vouchers” that we could exchange for tickets once we got to Toronto – allowing us a little wiggle room with our schedule, and the chance to capitalize on any last-minute screenings that might be added.

We pre-selected Downsizing, the new Alexander Payne movie starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig; I, Tonya, the Tonya Harding biopic with Margot Robbie in the title role; Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, and many others who will pop up on screen and make you go “oh yeah, I love him/her”; and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh’s new film starring Frances McDormand.

Saturday morning, upon the recommendation of a local podcaster we struck up conversation with, we added Sheikh Jackson, directed by Amr Salama and just recently named Egypt’s official submission for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category. So we ended up seeing five of our possible six films, and gifted our vouchers to a couple guys sitting near us at our Saturday screenings, hoping they could use them Sunday.

Though I enjoyed some of our selections more than others, I can honestly say we did not see one bad film. All five of them were entertaining in their own ways, and I’d recommend all of them to any adventurous moviegoer.

I’ll leave the full reviews to the real critics, but I certainly walked away with impressions. I, Tonya wins my award for most engaging – not to say I was bored by the other movies, but that one had me locked in the whole time. Part of that was its being set in my hometown of Portland, Oregon (I never expected to hear the words “Clackamas County” spoken in a TIFF movie), and Tonya Harding having been something of a local figure throughout my childhood. So there was a base layer of familiarity. But more than that, it was Margot Robbie. Her performance was committed and captivating. I could never tell if I was rooting for or against Tonya Harding, which says to me that Robbie made her a real person – sympathetic in one moment, exasperating in the next, complicated all the time. She really shone in the skating competition sequences. The shot of Tonya as she lands the triple axel jump, her arms open wide in victory and adrenaline, was gorgeous. I’d pay to see the movie in theaters just to watch that again.

I’ve been more down on Lady Bird as the days have gone on, but that’s unfair of me. I wanted it to be the next Frances Ha or Mistress America – movies that resonated with me deeply and that reflect life as a young adult in New York so beautifully. But Lady Bird isn’t about an adult in New York; it’s about a high school senior in Sacramento. And it tells an equally beautiful story about how complicated family relationships can be. I also thought it did a great job of capturing the specific weirdness of “senior year,” knowing it’s the last few months under your parents’ roof, in your own room, and among faces you’ve known your whole life.

The more I’ve thought about the movie, something I think it captured perfectly was the way family members don’t (or can’t, or don’t want to) address issues with each other head-on. In order to figure out her mom, Ronan’s character goes through her dad (Metcalf and Letts were aces as her parents). It’s her brother who has to tell her that mom’s disappointed she chose to go to her boyfriend’s house for Thanksgiving. I didn’t pick up on that as I watched the film, but that dynamic added a layer of truth and believability to the portrayal of a middle-class American family.

While the mother-daughter relationship in Lady Bird resonated with me, Timmy connected with the father-son dynamic in Sheikh Jackson, which focused heavily on an Egyptian imam’s trying relationship with his dad during his teenage years (told largely through flashbacks). We starting drawing these connections on Sunday afternoon, when we walked through Toronto’s downtown entertainment district to Lake Ontario, between the Sheik Jackson and Three Billboards showings. Having that space to reflect on the films, to talk through more than just our snap judgments, was something I loved about our TIFF experience. At home, it’s easy to see a movie just for something to do, or we see one and rush off to dinner afterwards. Movies were our primary reason for being in Toronto in the first place, so we enjoyed being able to discuss each one in-depth, and view them all in light of each other.

Just a couple hours before we saw Three Billboards, it was named the winner of the festival’s People’s Choice Award. Eight of the last nine winners have gone on to be Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, and I predict this one will make it nine out of ten. It tells such a compelling, original story, and is chock-full of indelible performance. Frances McDormand stars in a role that echoes – but doesn’t imitate – Marge Gunderson from Fargo; Sam Rockwell deserves an Oscar nomination for his part as a cop who squares off with McDormand; and Peter Dinklage, though I think his role is too small for major awards consideration, delivered a line that had me (and the entire theater) howling and that still makes me smile while thinking about it a week later.

I loved Three Billboards because it’s one of those movies that keeps getting better as it goes on. At the beginning, you’re intrigued. As it progresses, it still holds your attention. And then somewhere in the middle, you realize. Oh, this is great. These are completely new characters in a completely new story, I’m invested in everyone’s fate, and the plot makes sense but I can’t tell where it’s going. I think this one will get a lot of attention in its wide release.

TIFF was a unique experience and one I hope to repeat next year and in years to come. It reminded me why I love movies – and why so many thousands of others love them, too. And since TIFF unofficially marks the beginning of fall moviegoing and awards season, I’m ready to catch up on the buzzy films I missed at the festival and start seeing the movies we’ll be talking about for the next five months during the Oscar race. There’s so much to be seen, and I can’t wait to start.

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My September of Gerwig-Baumbach Movies

I have found a new spirit animal, and it is Greta Gerwig from this scene in Greenberg, the first of a trio of Gerwig-Noah Baumbach (all starring and sometimes co-written by her, and all directed by him) movies I have seen and loved in the month of September:

Because who among us has not danced and sung along to a Wings song while alone in her apartment.

Actually, the circumstances surrounding the Admiral Halsey dance are a little melancholy, and of the three films I’m thinking of (the other two being Mistress America and Frances Ha), Gerwig’s character in Greenberg is the one I saw the least of myself in. And yet, the film as a whole still fascinates me. All three of these films seem to have met me in perfect timing over the past few weeks.

I saw Mistress America first of the three, at the picture-perfect Lincoln Plaza Cinema on the Upper West Side. I remember first seeing a preview for it when I saw Love and Mercy in June, and at the time I remember enjoying a couple of the lines and realizing, oh, that’s Greta Gerwig, the girl from Frances Ha and the forgotten How I Met Your Mother spin-off. Frances Ha came less than a week later. It was Sunday of Labor Day.

Together, those movies represented my current life phase better than any movies ever had. Never had two films spoken so articulately to the phase in which I found myself at the time of viewing them – Mistress America in a broad sense, and Frances Ha more in the specifics.

Since I saw Mistress America in theaters, I haven’t been able to go back and recall the exact wording of several lines that made my eyes widen in recognition. I’m stuck with the lines I typed furiously in a note on my phone as I left the theater, and with what I’ve been able to dig up from tumblr and trailers. But the overall feeling, of being a young person trying to figure it out in New York, resonated to my core. Gerwig’s character, Brooke, has a line (maybe several and I’m only remembering it as one) about how she loves so much, but none of what she loves or seems to be good at is something that the world, at least from a work perspective, finds valuable. I also identified with the characters of Tracy and Tony, two college freshmen, who realize they’re kind of the worst right now and just want to grow up, fit in, and be good at something.

And Brooke’s New York is the New York I think a lot of people glimpse and have in the back of their mind every time they dream of moving here. She lives in Times Square and gets by purely on her commitment to her artsy ideas. There’s a shot of Brooke and Tracy in the middle of Times Square one morning, parting for the day as any friends might outside an apartment building, and that image is stuck in my mind because it’s exactly how I first envisioned living here. Even the mundane things, like heading out for a morning gym class, happen against the big, bright backdrop of the city. As Brooke, and everyone else in New York eventually learns, this does not retain its glamour.

I’m making it sound like Mistress America drove me to an existential criss, but much of the film is great just because it’s enjoyable. Lines like, “If you live in suburbia, you really have to love your house,” (said by Tracy) simply made me laugh because that’s an idea that has crossed my mind as I’ve schlepped stuff from one apartment to the next in New York City. (In The New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote, “While watching the film, I wanted to transcribe the dialogue in real time for the pleasure of reading it afterward.”)

A few days after seeing Mistress America, I decided to watch Frances Ha. I’d been meaning to watch it for months, since I knew it had been well-received, and I’d heard rave reviews from a movie-loving friend. Mistress America made me even more willing to dive in.

If I’m judging a movie based on how well it delivers what I most want out of a film, Frances Ha is as perfect as they come. Shot in black-and-white, set in New York City, insanely well-cast, highlighting people who are a little bit aimless…it’s all there.

It’s almost hard to find words for how well this movie depicts New York life in a specific way. I didn’t have quite the same ahhhh what am I even doing here?  feelings as I did with Mistress America, but had more moments of, oh, yes, I have experienced exactly that crappy or amazing thing while living in this city. Like waiting an eternity on the subway platform before realizing that line isn’t running this weekend. Or having your eyes bug out with excitement the instant you realize your tax rebate has come.

Greta Gerwig is from Sacramento, and the movie features a whole montage depicting Frances’ trip home for Christmas (her real-life parents play Frances’ parents). I have never seen the spirit of a holiday trip home from New York City shown in such a lovely way on film. Joy, family, fun, Christmas decorations, walks around the neighborhood, twinges of melancholy. I’m finding I want to end every sentence I write about this film with sigh, it’s perfect.

In the past year (and some change) in which I would say I’ve become legitimately interested in film, I’ve basically just followed movies from one to the next, going after whatever directors or actors or styles hold my obsession that moment. I can’t even remember why I first stumbled upon Greenberg, but something in my movie knowledge quest led me to it on Netflix awhile ago. I didn’t actually watch it until last week, completing my September Gerwig-Baumbach trifecta. This is actually the oldest of the three films I watched, and the only one set in Los Angeles. What I loved about it was less about how it connected to me – since I noticed fewer similarities between its characters and myself – and more about the movie as a whole and its specific performances. Like the aforementioned dancing to Admiral Halsey.

There’s an underlying uncomfortableness to it since Greenberg, Ben Stiller’s character, is so unpleasant. Even Greta Gerwig’s Florence has her difficult moments. But there’s a scene where she and Greenberg are talking in her apartment, and she’s describing a time she and her friend went out and pretended to be slutty girls at a bar, and Greta Gerwig in that scene just blew me away. (I came across this piece in the New York Times by A.O. Scott, written at the time of Greenberg‘s release, which eloquently describes the scene and the heart of Gerwig’s greatness in it.) It’s not that I didn’t appreciate Gerwig’s acting in the other two films, but in this one, it’s just more apparent, or at least it’s the element that most resonated with me.

It’s the end of September now, but not the end of my quest to see more of the Gerwig-Baumbach catalogue. I’ll have to shift to movies they did separately; I’m most excited to watch earlier Gerwig performances, and Baumbach’s While We’re Young (bonus points for even more Wings music in the trailer). But these three they did together have been added to heavy rotation in my movie world.