TIFF: What To See, What To Avoid

The Bell Lightbox in Toronto, the official home of TIFF.

It’s one of the most exciting times of year if you’re a movie fan. It’s one of the most stressful times if you’re a publicist. And if you really love summer, well, you might be apt to spend more time at the beach soaking up the last of the sun and screw going to a theatre.

The second week of September means it is time for the Toronto International Film Festival. (It also means the start of the NFL season, which can be difficult for some — an embarrassment of riches indeed). Scores of films big and small, familiar and foreign, wonderful and worrisome (Birth of a Nation…) descend on Toronto for a spectacle of cinema and celebrity.

There are a couple hundred films: you can’t see them all, but you can certainly try. However, like most things in life, it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. Even if you’re racking up four or five films a day, to what extent are you really enjoying each one individually? So much is unknown about many films, especially the ones premiering for a first time, and particularly those looking to be picked up, so it’s hard to choose correctly every single time. But there are some ways to be prepared. Here are some tips and guidelines on choosing the right films to see ahead of TIFF.

Stay Away From Blockbusters

There is a sense of power and awe held within a ticket to a gala screening; sure, sitting in a massive theatre to bear witness to something no one has ever seen, while the stars attend, is pretty special. But these are films that will be out really soon, and it’s hard to argue for seeing something that takes up more time, energy, and money during the Fest compared to after the Fest — especially when there are so many other, rarer, more intriguing options from which to choose.

So avoid those huge movies that already have release dates coming up; some are even coming out a week or two after the festival, or even during! TIFF is only ten days, so choose wisely to find the unique experience. That said, if somehow you snag tickets to La La Land and you get to see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, get on it!!

Avoid: Snowden, Deepwater Horizon, Arrival, The Magnificent Seven, Blair Witch

Get Into Midnight Madness

However you can, whatever it takes, whichever movie it is, go to a Midnight Madness screening. It’s a special environment, hard to recreate, and even harder to properly describe. Rabid, excited genre fans convene and add electricity and excitement to seeing a film that is likely already full of tension, blood, gore, fear, and/or sexuality. Chances are that it’ll be weird.

But it’s here where people cheer, where people who know the rules of how these movies work reward those filmmakers who break the mold, who exaggerate the template, and who deliver something satisfying. It’s here you can make friends, as those in attendance are joined by a common interest. These are not the films you want to watch in the intimacy of your own home, studying them and having a personal connection. No — get awkward and get loud and let the craziness shower over you all.

Here’s the lineup so go to any, including Blair Witch, provided it’s the first showing.

Don’t Watch Trailers

This rule goes not just for TIFF, but for ever and always. For the most part, trailers are utterly unnecessary, filled with spoilers, and ultimately irrevocably ruin a singular movie experience. There is absolutely no reason you need to watch the Star Trek Beyond trailer, for example, what with Star Trek being a pretty widely understood franchise, and this being the third film in the new series.

Now, it gets trickier with TIFF because most of the films don’t have reviews out, and some don’t even have distributors. But there is always going to be some gamble, and with trailers for small films, chances are you’re going to learn about a first act twist or turn, and in some cases, be set up for what happens at the end. While it may help sway a decision, if you do opt to take the film in, chances are you could ruin your special viewing. So how to choose?

Go With the Director

Everytime you look up a film, check out the director and look up what he or she has done in the past (odds are, for this year’s lineup, it’s a ‘he’). Film lovers don’t need to know what The Handmaiden is about; they just need to know Chan-wook Park made it, and we’re sold. If you’ve trusted filmmakers, and you’re curious about their work, just go in blindly. You may not love it, but follow those you’ve been interested in, piqued by, and taken to over the years. Among the auteurs and intriguers in this year’s Fest to follow:

Examples to see: Jim Jarmusch (Paterson), Paul Verhoeven (Elle), Deepa Mehta (Anatomy of Violence), Xavier Dolan (It’s Only the End of the World), Mira Nair (Queen of Katwe), and Damien Chazelle (La La Land).

Stay Skeptical

Yes, TIFF is wonderful and there are magical, moving films to discover, but let’s be honest: some films suck. They can’t all be great, and in fact, a fair amount are buoyed by the arena in which they are shown. If you’re in a crowded, excited theatre, and the stars are in attendance, and you know you are among the first in the world to see it, and you already took a selfie with your ticket and posted it on Instagram, you might be swayed to like a movie that otherwise isn’t very good.

Getting a film into TIFF brings credibility, but the festival looks for, among other things, diversity, opportunity, and name recognition, so sometimes stuff that comes in isn’t great. Remember, the pictures and descriptions on the TIFF website are meant to sell you the film.

So seek a balance between exploration and refusal. Maybe a festival isn’t the best time to inquire into what Terrence Malick movies are really like. Maybe just because Pedro Almodovar is a huge hit in Spain and perhaps their most well known director, it doesn’t mean you’re going to relate to his new film. What’s more, beware of adjectives in synopses such as ‘experimental’ and ‘dreamlike’, and avoid films that are described as ‘Hitchcock-ian,’ ‘Godard-ian,” or the like. You’re only going to get your hopes up — often, to be let down.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.