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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“Brooklyn” and Reinvention

In keeping with my previously stated goal of keeping better track of all that inspires me in 2016, I’m sitting here to meditate on a beautiful piece of writing I encountered today: “Bronx, Brooklyn, Broadway: Saoirse Ronan’s New York,” by Colm Tóibín, who also authored Brooklyn, the novel upon which the Ronan-starring film is based. The piece is the cover story for the current issue of New York magazine, its annual spring fashion issue. I love Saoirse Ronan, but it wasn’t her as the subject that made me love this; it was Tóibín’s turns of phrase, his perfect articulation of what it’s like to reinvent yourself, and his understanding of why you’d want to in the first place.

One of my favorite elements of the movie Brooklyn, which I saw a couple weekends ago, was that it understood homesickness in a very real way. I have not moved between countries, but I moved from Oregon to New York at a key transitional point in life – right after I graduated from college and entered the quote-unquote real world – and I identified so strongly with Ronan’s character, Eilis, as she left Ireland for Brooklyn and began a new life. I have cried like Eilis cried in the movie, felt the same hopelessness and wondered why I ever did this. But I’ve also made friends, started a career and built a life in this new place, and felt with unshakeable certainty that this is where I am meant to exist right now.

In the article, Tóibín describes Ronan (in comparison with her Brooklyn character) “as someone familiar with rural Ireland who was also intensely glamorous and ready to be transformed.” That phrase “ready to be transformed” leapt out at me. My transformation has been less a physical transformation than one of attitude, one of thought. I have changed since moving to New York in ways I did not expect, but the more I thought about Tóibín’s words, the more they rang true. The expectation of some kind of transformation was inherent in my longstanding desire to move to New York.

The strangest parts of being home are those subtle moments when I realize how much I’ve changed. I’ll notice moments when I say something, or react to a comment, or take an action that makes so much perfect sense to me now, that I only realize later how out-of-character that would have been for the pre-New York me.

I left the theater after Brooklyn concentrated on one shot: Eilis, briefly back in Ireland following a family tragedy, running errands around her sleepy town in a bright dress and sunglasses. It embodied the transformation she’d undergone in Brooklyn; not just that she now wore sunglasses, but that it was only natural for her to wear them in public, even in rural Ireland.

saoirse ronan brooklyn sunglasses

I’ve thought about that shot for days. In the context of the film, it says more about homesickness and reinvention than I ever could with words, and I grinned when I got to the end of Tóibín’s New York magazine story and saw he referenced it:

Sometimes she tries to fit in, to pretend that she has not changed at all and that being away is no big deal; other times she flaunts her new self. There is one moment when she walks through the small Irish town wearing sunglasses and a brightly colored dress when she seems like a returned Yank…ready to gather the poor natives around her to show them the style she has acquired.

I’m still working on the literal style part of my transformation (I do think I dress better than I did in college, though when I made this observation to some friends I visited at home over Christmas, I realized I was wearing a plaid Gap button-down technically made for men) but in the broader sense, this is exactly what I experience any time I’m home, or when I’m in New York and stop to think about how I am different because of this city.

The Tóibín piece can be enjoyed apart from deep reflection on self-reinvention, though. His turns of phrase alone are a joy to read. A few of my favorite parts:

On observing people like a childhood neighbor in Ireland, who emigrated to America but would come back to visit: “They had white teeth and good suntans. They thought life was short.”

On the specific childhood neighbor, compared with her sister who moved from Ireland to England: “The American sister, on the other hand, was all glitter and fascinating talk.”

On the realization Irish immigrants to America had when fully understanding their freedom in the new country – no family members to bump into on the street, etc.: “You could invent yourself here, even if the term self-invention was not yet understood by you.”

On Saoirse Ronan in this moment: “She has come home to a place that is neither Brooklyn nor Ireland but rather a place that she herself has imagined and embodies.”

And more on Saoirse: “She invites envy, she lives in light, she loves glamour, but she also moves easily into the shadows.”

Read the whole thing yourself, and enjoy. And see Brooklyn while you’re at it.