SBS Senior Programmer Brennan Wrenn is back from the Toronto International Film Festival with a wishlist of films he'll be pursuing for SBS...
27 Sep 2011 - 5:00 PM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 3:27 PM

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the world's biggest publicly attended film festival, did not disappoint the crowds this year, as a steady stream of A-list celebs added glitz to the city and generated priceless column inches.

Being the first major North American festival of the cycle, this is where Oscar campaigns are launched and mighty box-office receipts calculated. As such, TIFF has become one of the most important, if not the most significant, event on the festival calendar for both Hollywood and beyond. A-list attendance has become vital, and this year there were more big stars than you could shake a stick at (or would want to) as Pitt, Jolie, Clooney, Bono and Madonna – to name a few – all graced the festival to tub-thump their projects and smile for the cameras (or in Madonna's case, instruct TIFF volunteers to avert their eyes in her presence, if you care to believe the tabloids).

However, scouting for films for SBS, all of this could have been happening on another planet as I rushed between screenings trying to cover as much of this massive festival as possible.

With over 400 films screening over 10 days, one would have to bring along a clone or two to make a dent. But TIFF does try to make life easy for industry. The new downtown location, complete with the now fully functional Bell Lightbox venue, certainly centralises activity and makes navigation easy, although many visitors seem to miss the ambience of the old location.

In terms of the festival program, the red carpet Gala events are predominantly mainstream titles and this year the festival opened with Davis Guggenheim's documentary From the Sky Down, which documents U2's reinvention, culminating with the creation of their 1991 album Achtung Baby. Other Gala titles included the George Clooney/ Ryan Gosling political drama The Ides of March and TIFF darling Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz.

However, red carpet Galas are but a fraction of what TIFF has to offer. The festival also presents the works of modern masters of cinema in a section aptly titled 'Masters'; introduces us to provocative films by new and emerging directors in the 'Discovery' section; travels the world to present a snapshot of global trends in 'Contemporary World Cinema'; and aims to shock and rock us in the often riotous 'Midnight Madness' screenings. TIFF features all of the above plus countless special presentations, sidebars, forums, discussions, industry events and no less than three ice hockey films.

This might sound wonderful – the world's best cinema hand-picked for you by industry experts (it sounds even better in the program notes) – and in principle it is, but the reality is that they're not all worth the ticket price.

Film festivals clearly have a lot of different and often contradictory priorities; sadly, it's not just about the movies. Some films are chosen because they guarantee red carpet talent, whilst others are included in order to secure higher profile titles. Some are invited with programmers having only seen the briefest of footage, or simply due to the names attached. Other titles are politically motivated inclusions and others, perhaps, simply come down to bad taste.

In other words, I sat through some less than inspiring cinema (at least a reel or two) so that you won't have to. But we don't all share the same tastes and TIFF gives its appreciative Canuck audiences, not-to-mention countless visitors, the opportunity to see a nearly overwhelming selection of cinema from around the world, and that is certainly a good thing. Below are my cinematic highs and lows of TIFF.

Directed by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist stars Jean Dujardin as a dapper silent movie actor who doesn't make the transition to talkies and winds up a washed up soak. Ultimately, he's saved by a guardian angel in this surprisingly modern, yet silent, black and white film that got a packed house to its feet. The Artist boasts a tremendous performance by Dujardin, who received the Best Actor award in Cannes, as well as a fabulous soundtrack from French electro duo Air.

Robert Guediguian presented one of his strongest works to date in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Set in a the working class suburb of Marseilles, where his film are predominantly set, Guediguian expertly combines elements of politics, social realism and fable to tell the tale of Michel, a recently laid off shop steward, who, along with his wife and best friends, suffer a home invasion. The robbers take off with cash collected for Michel by his former colleagues and when he discovers one of the culprits was a former co-worker, it shakes any faith he had in the workers' brotherhood and solidarity during tough financial times to his core. But eventually, Michel looks past the trauma with a more philosophical, humanistic and, of course, political eye in this surprising and intelligent film.

Another film tackling issues stemming from financial crises was Cedric Khan's A Better Life. This starred Guillaume Canet as an aspiring restaurateur who gets himself and single mother girlfriend Leila Bekhti into serious debt chasing the dream to make it on their own. A Better Life is a moving film that takes the hard data one hears on the news and turns it into a very human story.

Jean-Marc Vallée has returned to French language following The Young Victoria with Café de Flore, a bombastic piece that much like his previous feature, C.R.A.Z.Y, relies heavily on the emotion its soundtrack aims to create. Café de Flore is a film with two seemingly separate narrative strands; a single mother in 1960s Paris struggles with a child suffering from Downs Syndrome, whilst in the present day, a rave DJ and father of two leaves the woman he has loved since he was a teenager for another. Whilst I enjoyed both strands separately, I didn't buy in to the higher force, fate and destiny aspects that ultimately combined the two.

Andrea Arnold's latest, Wuthering Heights, is a wonderful interpretation of Emily Bronte's Gothic novel that strips the romance of the story away, leaving us with a brooding, elemental and brutal tale of a powerful animal attraction, all set against the howling wind and driving rain of the Yorkshire Moors. In Wuthering Heights, for my money, Andrea Arnold once again proves she's one of the bravest and most interesting directors working today.

Pedro Almodovar, who has likewise made a habit of making brave and interesting films, reunites with Antonio Banderas after two decades to deliver a perverse fantasy designed to shock the bourgeoisie in The Skin I Live In. This typically stylish (so much so that it's a little distracting) horror film about an obsessed plastic surgeon and his captive was suitably twisted and explored the usual Almodovar themes. Although The Skin I Live In didn't get under my skin in the same way that many of the masters' films have in the past, there's always something to admire in his work.

A couple of titles that I would advise you to avoid like the plague (should they see the light of day), include The Lady, in which Luc Besson returns to the directors' chair to bring us a biopic of Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi. The Lady is longer and wetter than monsoon season in Rangoon, with Michelle Yeoh as Suu Kyi spending most of the film under house arrest; dynamic it isn't, and Besson's approach is very conventional.

In Intruders Clive Owen takes on the Bogeyman, and director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo shoehorns two narrative stands into a film that appears more intent on covering all European bases, with a cast including Carice van Houten, Daniel Bruehl and Pilar Lopez de Ayala, than providing chills (let alone making any sense).

Over the seven days I spent at TIFF, I watched 50 of over 400 films on offer, of which 20 we will pursue for SBS. As such, I can offer only a snapshot of the festival. I attended none of the press conferences, nor of the industry events, forums or audio visual installations located throughout the city which were offered by the festival (life's too short). I didn't watch any documentaries, short films or any film that might be considered avant-garde or inaccessible to a television audience. In reality, I scratched the surface of this mammoth festival. Placement in the festival calendar has given TIFF the best of Cannes and Berlin, but it is the world's biggest publicly attended film festival for a reason; it is the festival best connected to its audience.