TIFF 2013 Notes and Reviews


Renew Theaters Executive Director John Toner (right) and Associate Director Chris Collier (left) at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

We (John Toner, Executive Director, and Chris Collier, Associate Director, of Renew Theaters) just returned from our annual trip to the Toronto International Film Festival.  This year had a very good slate of films and John even had a run of 6 excellent films in a row, a rarity. Together, we saw 40 titles – 27 completely and 13 in part.

For this years’s recap post, we are highlighting standout films by handing out our own awards. After that, we have a short review of the other films we saw. We’ve added links for each film to the official TIFF write-ups and trailers, so you can explore them further. Comments are marked (JT) for John and (CC) for Chris.

TIFF 2013 Awards

Best of the Fest: 12 Years a Slave – This was one of the films we anticipated most going into the festival and it did not disappoint. Brilliantly acted, artistically filmed, and tightly scripted, and most importantly it is a profound exploration of the darkest aspects of our country’s foundations. While the story of a free black man who was captured and forced into bondage is moving and captivating, the insight into the deep-seated culture and society of the institution of slavery makes this required viewing. (CC)   Powerful filmmaking. Quite violent in some scenes (never gratuitously), but surprisingly subtle and restrained as a whole. A must-see, for sure. (JT)

Personal Picks: Only Lovers Left Alive – The latest from Jim Jarmusch is a return to form.  Great cinematography, stunning set design and amazing music.  Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are the hippest, most beautiful vampires ever.  Yes, it’s a Jim Jarmusch vampire film. (JT)

Blue is the Warmest Color – I went to this film because of the controversy and the buzz coming off of its Palme d’Or at Cannes. Had to see if it lived up to the hype. What I was not expecting was such a breathtaking exploration of confusion, isolation, lust, and love presented in such an artful and dreamlike manner. Blue has been rated NC17 due to its very graphic sex scenes, which, together with its three hour running time, will make it a very challenging film to program. Side Note: the English title for this film is awful; the French title captures the film much better: La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2 – “The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 & 2”) (CC)

Sandra Bullock races for her life in the 3D thrill ride GRAVITY by Alfonso Cuarón.

Sandra Bullock races for her life in the 3D thrill ride GRAVITY by Alfonso Cuarón.

Most Fun
: Gravity – A 90-minute thrill ride that needs to win every technical award there is. Cuarón’s (Children of Men) camera rarely stops moving, which gives the vastness of space and the sense of disorientation an even more palatable feeling. The 3D is stunning and might be the best use of dimensionality yet. Eager to watch this one again. (CC)   I also loved this film. An exciting action film that has some unexpectedly deep moments. I will write a separate blog entry to defend each of the following three propositions: This is the best 3D movie ever made! Gravity is a better, more intelligent movie than 2001! And Sandra Bullock deserves an Oscar for her performance! (Well, maybe just two out of three.) (JT)

Best Festival Experience: Visitors – I was lucky enough to see the premiere screening of the new film by iconoclast director Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi) with a live performance of Philip Glass’s score by Members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. This screening is exactly the reason to go to film festivals. While not as breathtaking as the Qatsi Trilogy, to see this new lyrical poem on the big screen and with a live score was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. (CC)


Executive Producer Steven Soderbergh presenting introductory remarks before the screening of VISITORS. On stage with Godfrey Reggio, Philip Glass, and Jon Kane.

Surprise Finds:  Thérèse – This is a tight little genre film based on a 1867 Zola novel. It’s James M Cain meets Edgar Allan Poe on a dark back street in Paris as adulterous lovers plot to rid themselves of an inconvenient husband. Elizabeth Olsen and Oscar Isaac give memorable performances in this period-dress film noir. (JT)  1982 – Solely because I had no interest in standing in line for 2 hours to see August: Osage County, I decided to just see what was playing in one of the smaller theaters. I lucked into a tense drama about damage done by the 80s crack epidemic, which happened to be set in Philadelphia. Absolutely looking for a way to program this with the director. (CC)

Biggest Letdown: Labor Day – Another of our most anticipated films of the festival, but we did not adore Jason Reitman’s newest. Far from it.  While there are many aspects of the film that can be commended, there are a couple glaringly false and ludicrous moments that rip you out of the film and make it incredibly hard to stomach. (CC) Chris is being a bit charitable. Unfortunately, this earnest film has a few unintentionally laugh-out-loud parts, which eventually overwhelm the film. Jason Reitman had made four excellent films in a row and now he presents this confoundingly out-of-tune film? Completely unexpected. The blame lies with the overwritten script based on a Joyce Maynard novel.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, because I really like Reitman’s other films.  I mean, I loved Young Adult, and defended it against all comers.  Having said all of that, though, we will undoubtedly screen Labor Day at our theaters.  It is worth seeing, if only to round out the Reitman oeuvre, and I must report that some people at the fest actually did like the film, so maybe I’m the one who’s crazy (wouldn’t be the first time). (JT)

Surefire Crowd-Pleasers: There were three films that were sure to be audience favorites, even if they did not make it into our Best of the Fest category: Dallas Buyers Club with Matthew McConaughey in Oscar mode as a Texas man with AIDS running illicit, but much-needed treatments across the border; the Stephen Frears (The Queen) directed drama Philomena about a woman looking for the son she was forced to give up as a newborn with Judy Dench and Steve Coogan; and The Lunchbox, starring Irrfan Khan, in which a mistaken lunchbox delivery paves the way for an unlikely romance.  I really liked all three. Philomena and The Lunchbox both alternate between funny and moving (a little tear rolled down my cheek at the end of both). And Dallas Buyers features a rip-roaring Texas cowboy enabled by a cross-dressing queen and fueled by All-American ingenuity. All three will be on our screens this coming year. (JT)

Worst of Fest: Don Jon –  Joseph Gordon-Levitt directed and stars.  This is vulgar from top to bottom: stale ethnic stereotypes meet crude religious satire meets Howard Stern sexual humor.  False from beginning to end with some of the laziest acting ever.  This may be Scarlett Johansson’s worst performance ever, which is really saying something. No way.  (JT)


THE GOOD ONES – The next couple reviews are of the films that we enjoyed and will definitely try to book this upcoming year. Each one of these we both would look forward to seeing again.


Sylvain Chomet’s ATTILA MARCEL is full of whimsy and memorable characters and magically feels like his animated work come to life.

Attila Marcel – The first live-action film from Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Bellville) is full of whimsy and joy. Reminiscent of Jaques Tati and Amelie, the film follows a mute, sweet-natured man-child whose reawakened childhood memories unleash marvellous musical fantasies. Full of eccentric and memorable characters. (CC)  Yes, it’s Amelie meets Rushmore meets Triplets of Bellville.  Be forewarned, thought, your tolerance for whimsy needs to be VERY high.  Mine is and I loved it. (JT)

Enough Said – One of James Gandolfini’s final screen appearances directed by Nicole Holofcener (Please Give) is charming and endearing relationship comedy about two divorcees who start to date and end up with more in common than they anticipated. (CC)  I really like Nicole Holofcener’s work and this gently funny film has well drawn characters right down to the most minor parts.  (JT)

August: Osage County – A solid film (that we will show) starring a ton of A list actors who scream, cry, laugh, curse, mock, berate, moan, sing, break dishes, and generally chew the curtains, scenery, and everything else not nailed down.  It’s about three generations of an Oklahoma family gathered for the patriarch’s funeral.  Based on Tracy Lett’s award-winning play.  Yes, it’s a little stagy, but just stand back and let the actors do their thing – which they do very well.  With Meryl Steep, Julia Roberts, Ewan MacGregor, Chris Cooper, Abagail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, and Sam Shepard. (JT)

Le Week-End – A bittersweet film about a weekend spent in Paris by an older British couple (Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan) reliving their honeymoon. With a fun turn by Jeff Goldblum as an old college chum. (CC)

Enemy – Jake Gyllenhaal holds down two roles as a man who spots his doppelgänger and then tracks him. A hallucinatory Kafka-esque puzzle which is still haunting me. (CC)

Mos Def, John Hawkes, and Jennifer Aniston in the highly enjoyable Elmore Leonard-penned LIFE OF CRIME.

Life of Crime – A fun Elmore Leonard crime caper with enjoyable performances by an ensemble cast including Mos Def, Jennifer Aniston, John Hawkes, Tim Robbins, Will Forte, and Isla Fisher. On the Get Shorty level of pure enjoyment. (CC)  Elmore Leonard from start to finish.  He is (now was, sadly) the master of his own genre.  (JT)

THE MAYBES – The next batch of films were ok. Not bad, but maybe not the best fit for us. Interesting to watch and in the Maybe category.

Kill Your Darlings – Daniel Radcliffe as a young Allan Ginsberg at Columbia, who is finding his way. Not great, but not bad.  (JT)

Prisoners – A tense thriller that veers into horror. Reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs. Another great acting performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as the detective working to locate two missing girls. (CC)

The Double – Richard Ayoade’s (Submarine) second feature is a Gilliam-esque adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double. Jesse Eisenberg plays against himself, but does not really fit the dark atmosphere of the film. (CC)

All is By My Side – OutKast’s André Benjamin stars as Jimi Hendrix showcasing the famous rocker’s pre-fame period in England. Thankfully not a standard biopic, but moves too slowly to actually capture much interest.  (CC)  Benjamin nails Hendrix, but its very fragmented with very little music (although the rare music is awesome).  This feels like the outtakes of a much better movie.  (JT)

Belle – A painfully slow, overly preachy, and needlessly dramatic costume drama about a black woman raised as an aristocrat in England. No nuance at all in what could have been a fascinating retelling of this true story. (CC)  This could have been so much better.  It’s not badly done, it just hits its “race, class, gender” issues with a sledge hammer.  And, the way they are addressed feels completely anachronistic.  Granted, the issues themselves are interesting, just not they way they’re handled here.  Nonetheless, the film is still pretty good, so we’ll probably screen it at our theaters.  (JT)

Jesse Eisenberg in NIGHT MOVES.

Jesse Eisenberg in NIGHT MOVES.

Night Moves – The most commercial of Kelly Reichart’s (Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) films, but retains her quiet and contemplative style. Jesse Eisenberg plays an eco-terrorist who succumbs to paranoia as he grasps the actual ramifications of his actions. (CC)  Very, very slow with no substantive payoff, in my opinion.  (JT)

Hateship Loveship – A dragging adaptation of a short story which misses the mark of the stories melancholy and replaces it with a bizarre wistfulness. Kristin Wiig shows off some dramatic chops, but the film slowly limps along despite her. (CC)

The F Word – A quirky rom-com with Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan that rehashes the “can you be friends with a member of the opposite sex” question. Cute, and fun, but not really all that memorable. (CC)

Can a Song Save Your Life? – Remember that movie Once? You can call this one Twice. Except this one is more commercial and lacks charm. But, others seemed to like it. Maybe I am just cynical. (CC)

THE NOT-SO-GOOD ONES – These next ones did not make the cut. Will be unlikely that we will end up booking any of these.

Blood Ties – A grim, washed-out 70s-style crime thriller by the director of Tell No One. While it’s got a great cast on paper, you really never buy that they should be in the same universe. While it nails the time period, it slides all over the place and never really comes together. (CC)  I liked this one a little better, but agree that it has real story problems. (JT)

We Gotta Get Out of This Place – Part of the TIFF Vanguard series highlighting new directors and genre pieces. An indie crime noir set in Texas, but its no Blood Simple. (CC)

Bad Words – Jason Bateman’s directorial debut about a foul-mouthed 40-something high-school drop-out competing in a national children’s spelling bee. Needlessly raunchy. Comedy is subjective. (CC)

Love is the Perfect Crime – Perhaps one of the most un-thrilling thrillers I have ever seen. Lusty professor, missing girl, breathtaking views of the Swiss Alps, and no suspense. (CC)

Bright Days Ahead – A by-the-numbers film about a middle-aged woman (Fanny Ardant) who has an affair with a younger man.  A pretty boring French film.  (JT)

Made in America – Ron Howard’s documentary about the Jay Z produced concert in Philly over Labor Day weekend 2012.  If you like the artists, it’s interesting.  If you don’t, you won’t, because there’s not really much else, despite it’s claims that it has stuff about Philadelphia (it doesn’t, really).  It kind of boils down to a Jay Z commercial.  (JT)

Dom Hemingway – OK, I have a problem with this type of film: vulgar, smart ass gangsters who are super articulate in a particularly fake movie way.  This is Guy Richie/ Quentin Taratino-land and the star is Jude Law as a hood just getting out of prison.  The movie starts with Law’s character sputtering a five minute rant as an “ode to my cock”, as he’s being, ah, “orally serviced”, which pretty much tells you all that you need to know.  If that sounds like an amusing introduction, then you’ll probably like the rest.  Personally, I think this type of bad boy film/script is extremely tiresome.  (JT)

Joe – A lot of people think this David Gordon Green directed fim starring Nicolas Cage is a return to form for both.  About poor Southerners on the edge of society and their sad (but noble?) lives.  I guess there is more to it than my cheap condescendion, but I just didn’t see it.  And I can’t imagine our audience wanting to sit through this stuff. (JT)

Rhymes for Young Ghouls – Only saw 15 mins, so it would be unfair to criticize the whole film, but the first part was ungracefully and needlessly brutal. (CC)

The Right Kind of Wrong – Very broad comedy about a down-and-out guy trying to win his girlfriend back after his ex publishes a tell-all book about his shortcomings. (CC)

The Love Punch – An attempt to make a romantic comedy / heist film that just misses the mark and is so fake and cliched it was painful. (CC)

Antboy – Quirky Danish superhero film about a boy with ant powers. Sadly more formulaic and cliched than the Hollywood cape films, but without the special effects. (CC)

Asphalt Watches – Not sure where to even start. Absurd flash animation with songs. Not my scene. But hey, that’s why you go to festivals and try things out. (CC)

So, on the whole a pretty interesting Fest.  We welcome your comments and feedback. Please share them with us below.

8 thoughts on “TIFF 2013 Notes and Reviews

  1. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it :) What I found most interesting is whether both of you always agreed on the movies that you saw together, which increases the validity of your reviews. It does appear that you did have to split up a lot in order to be able to cover as many films as you did. I also wonder what one’s brain state is like after seeing so many movies in such a short time – possibly like the shot of Sandra Bullock in GRAVITY? All in all, a nice report!

  2. Yes, GRAVITY is better than 2001, I’m not kidding. Have you watched the primate scene of 2001 recently and not been embarrassed? 2001 was ground breaking, for sure, but time has not been kind to it. It is cold and dead, like a lot of late Kubrick. GRAVITY is alive and vital and just as ground breaking. More on this on a separate blog post. John Toner

  3. Okay, no use arguing, John, over something I haven’t seen yet. I’ll wait until then to let you know what I think.

  4. Looking forward to seeing these at the Ambler in the coming months especially “12 Years a Slave,” “Blue is the Warmest Color” & “Life of Crime.” One of these days I’ll make it to TIFF but most years I can’t male it to the Philly Film Festival so I maybe too ambitious.

  5. Plus I think “Gravity” is the one film I’m going to shell out the money to see in IMAX 3D, really looking forward to that one

  6. Brian,

    As always – thanks for your comments and support of the theater. We have GRAVITY lined up to open at the Ambler on Fri, Oct 4th in 3D. While I totally hear you and agree that it will be amazing in IMAX, just wanted to let you know that we will have it in 3D as well and with the Dolby process, which for my money is better than what you get with RealD or the IMAX glasses.


  7. Okay, so I caught up – so to speak – with “Gravity,” and it is stunning. Yes, it is mind-boggling like “2001,” and there are echoes of it throughout the film – rebirth and evolution, for example. But, whereas “Gravity” is about one person’s progress along these lines, “2001” is about humankind’s progress. “Gravity” casts these themes as an adventure story. “2001” explores them more philosophically. “Gravity” fudges space science sometimes. “2001” does not. Is one film better than the other? Absolutely not. They are both great films in their own right. And they both linger in the mind for a long time. But someday I’d like to see “2001” restored in Imax to experience its power as I did the first time I saw it..

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