Best of TIFF: Part One - by Jeff Mitchell

Best of TIFF 2017 – Part I



Toronto – one of the world’s most iconic cities – sports a lively downtown, soaring high rises, a culturally-rich and warm populace, major league sports teams, the CN Tower, and much more.  This Canadian metropolis also hosts one of the world’s most iconic film festivals, the Toronto International Film Festival or TIFF.   This year’s festival runs from Sept. 7 to 17, and I’ve anchored myself in downtown Toronto for the entire film fiesta.  Of course, I have not seen every feature but have caught 28 movies (as of Sept. 14), via a healthy mix from many genres.  Here are some of the very best films that I have seen so far, and on Sept. 22, I’ll conclude the list with a “Best of TIFF – Part II” article.     


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“The Captain” – In April 1945, Herold (Max Hubacher), a young German soldier, is running for his life from his own army and some locals, however, in an incredible stroke of luck, he stumbles upon a pristine captain’s uniform.  He suddenly forms a brand new identity – with his new appearance – which commands respect, but can Herold convince his fellow soldiers and officers that he is a captain?  Hubacher delivers a highly convincing performance as a desperate man who must continually swallow his fear to survive, and over time, his anxiety transforms into something else.  Writer/director Robert Schwentke’s movie - filmed in black and white - hypnotizes and/or horrifies us during every step of Herold’s journey.   



“The Disaster Artist” – “The Room” (2003) is rightfully considered one of the worst movies in recent memory, but legions of fans have embraced it as a cult classic and continue to religiously watch this disaster (as an unintended comedy) at local arthouses to this day.  Director James Franco’s downright hilarious film – based upon actor Greg Sestero’s memoir - revisits the making of “The Room”, and he also offers a pitch-perfect performance of its unorthodox creator, Tommy Wiseau.  Franco is simply brilliant as Wiseau, who sports 80s heavy metal hair, claims that he is from New Orleans (but carries a thick Eastern European accent) and enjoys an endless supply of money.  “The Room” fans will immediately embrace this picture and probably watch it over and over and over.  For those who have not seen “The Room”?  Well, it is probably a prerequisite for “The Disaster Artist”.


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“The Florida Project” – The Magic Castle – splashed in purple and yellow - sits in Orlando, Florida, but tourists from around the world do not target it as a specific destination.  It is an extended stay motel that resides near a busy freeway and a concrete neighborhood of fast food joints and gas stations, but to 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), this is her playground!  Director Sean Baker (“Tangerine”) organically captures Moonee’s daily adventures of mischief and laughter, as she and her friends find wonder and opportunity in ways that only children can.  Baker’s film volleys between comedy and tragedy, because he presents – in full view – the poverty and grit of Moonee’s living conditions provided by her irresponsible mother (Bria Vinaite).  Willem Dafoe gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the motel’s manager and do not be surprised if Prince is nominated as well. 


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“The Square” – Writer/director Ruben Ostlund (“Force Majeure” (2014)) is back with an infinitely quirky and entertaining picture about an art curator’s (Claes Bang) experiences after an unusual incident during an ordinary morning in Stockholm.  Ostlund fills his movie with many said incidents, odd visuals and strong comedic writing, as the eccentricities of the museum’s modern art sometimes reflect the lives of everyday people.   Bang anchors the picture with a steady hand, while the supporting players cinematically dance and dart around him.  Elisabeth Moss is hysterical as an American journalist, and Terry Notary contributes to the year’s most uncomfortable scene (in a comedy) with his portrayal of an unconventional performance artist.  



“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” – Frances McDormand is destined for an Oscar nomination with her best performance since “Fargo” (1996) in writer/director Martin McDonagh’s (“In Bruges” (2008), “Seven Psychopaths” (2012)) latest dark comedy.  Mildred Hayes (McDormand) pays $5,000 to place a message on three billboards, and her actions cause an uproar in the small town of Ebbing and the surrounding areas.  Sam Rockwell deserves an Oscar nomination too – by playing a bigoted deputy with terrible cases of arrested development and poor judgment - and Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage and John Hawkes lead an outstanding supporting cast.  Salty language, rough behavior and violence heavily pepper the snappy dialogue and big laughs in one of the year’s best screenplays.


Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.