Best of TIFF: Part Two - by Jeff Mitchell

Best of TIFF 2017 – Part Two



The 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) concluded on Sept. 17, and this movie celebration presented hundreds of features over 11 days.  I entered and exited theatres for an entire week and a half, caught 35 movies and wrote a “Best of TIFF – Part One” article (published on Sept. 15), which included five films.  Here are five more great films from this year’s TIFF, and this second commentary will round out my personal top 10 from the festival. 


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“I, Tonya” – The 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway is mostly remembered (in the U.S., anyway) as the dramatic climax of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan saga.  This duel between two very different figure skaters seized the nation’s attention, primarily due to the infamous attack on Kerrigan in Detroit, Mich.  Twenty-three years later, director Craig Gillespie revisits the incident in the Motor City, but much, much more than that, his picture is a Tonya Harding biography with Margot Robbie starring in the title role.  Robbie is mesmerizing as Tonya, as she dazzles on the ice and also conveys the consequences of the physical and emotional abuse that Ms. Harding endured by her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). “I, Tonya” simultaneously generates honest sympathy for Harding and wildly entertains with drama and heaps of unexpected humor, while also routinely breaking the fourth wall.  Janney should receive a supporting Oscar nomination.



“Loveless” – Unfortunately, a significant portion of marriages fail, and this includes the nuptials of Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin).  They not only exist in a loveless marriage, but they absolutely despise each other and are not afraid to express their ire in the most vicious of terms.   Zhenya and Boris do still live together but are in the process of selling their apartment and physically going their separate ways.   The problem is that their son (about 10-years-old) prematurely goes his separate way, and suddenly, this cheerless couple is coping with a missing child.  Director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (“Leviathan” (2014)) dark picture purposely mires in misery and hopelessness, and the famous analogy finding needle in a haystack does not even begin to describe the scope of the couple’s new struggle.  Skillfully filmed and constructed under a gloomy atmosphere, “Loveless” is a stunner.


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“Sweet Country” – Set in 1929 Australia, director Warwick Thornton delivers an affecting western – which won TIFF’s Platform Prize – as it wraps its story in institutional racism between whites and aborigines.  When Fred Smith (Sam Neill) leaves his ranch for a business trip, his hired hand, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), becomes embroiled in a violent incident, in which he was not at fault.  Sam and his wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber), find themselves on the run, and Sgt. Fletcher (Bryan Brown) is in tight pursuit.   Sam and other aboriginal people – like Philomac (Tremayne Doolan) and Archie (Gibson John) – depict a collective subordinate bow towards white ranchers and authority figures, and Thornton captures these moments in very obvious and subtle ways.  Life has stacked the deck against Sam, but will the legal threads of Australian justice treat him fairly?  The parallels between “Sweet Country” and America’s history feel eerily analogous. 



“Thelma” – Although a bit shy, Thelma (Eili Harboe) seems like an ordinary 18-year-old heading off to college.  She is an only child, so her folks – Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) – lean toward helicopter parent-tendencies.  In between attempts to make friends and study in the library, Thelma falls ill, and the doctors cannot rationalize the reasons.  In Joachim Trier’s slow-burning thriller, Thelma unknowingly carries more in her DNA than meets the eye, while she struggles to explain her present…and past.  Trier paints an antiseptic, lonely world for Thelma, and then suddenly pulls five-bell fire alarms due to onscreen emergencies.  Occasionally frightening imagery balances the steady narrative, as Harboe, Rafaelsen, Petersen, and Kaya Wilkins (who plays Thelma’s friend) offer strong contemporary performances in Trier’s unpredictable world.   



“What Will People Say” – Writer/director Iram Haq serves a haunting family conflict between modern-day freedoms and vigorous tradition, as Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) – a 16-year-old Pakistani girl living in Norway - clashes with her parents’ conservative ideals.  Very early in the movie, her father, Mirza (Adil Hussain), misunderstands an awkward circumstance and takes his rage out on Nisha in extreme ways.  Intolerance and inflexibility rule in Nisha’s household, and she suffers through an emotional rollercoaster that makes the audience hold its collective breath during appalling displays of control and abuse.   Nisha lives a nightmare that she cannot wake up from and with no allies in sight, the film yanks on our heartstrings and leaves a lingering mark.  For those who embraced 2015’s “Mustang”, “What Will People Say” will resonate as well.  


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.