TIFF 2017: "What's the best thing you've seen?"

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      At screenings, parties, and in line, there’s one common ice breaker: “What’s the best thing you’ve seen?” This alternately trite yet productive question is not only a nifty way to keep your ear to the ground on under-the-radar titles that may have slipped through your first pass of the schedule but, more importantly, a basic compatibility test between strangers. Answer Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game and you already have me running to the hills. You may as well have made a racist joke on a first date.

      I’ve already made a few friends whose (objectively correct) response is Paul Schrader’s masterful First Reformed, elegant, profound, and readymade for an unfair return-to-form narrative. Still best known for writing screenplays for Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and the often overlooked Bringing Out the Dead, Schrader’s exuberant punishment of his characters is replaced here with a quieter, more solemn tone. Purgatorial self-flagellation, caused by the habitual guilt instilled through the director’s Calvinist Dutch Reformed upbringing, haunts this film’s elderly meditations. This is an old man's movie. While bolstered by an accumulation of knowledge and skill, the film's emotional resonance comes from a lifetime of silently uttered and always unanswered prayers.

      Toller (Ethan Hawke) is an ascetic priest whose behavioural patterns are modelled on the protagonist from Diary of a Country Priest, right down to his stomach-churning diet of wine and Pepto Bismol. Toller’s life history is a checklist of modern malaise, including the loss of a son in a pointless war in Iraq. After moving on from his position as a military chaplain, Toller is hired as the resident priest of the eponymous 150-year-old church whose pragmatic purposes withered away with its detailed refurbishing. The building is a monument to an extinct kind of idealized faith, one which may have never existed but that Toller is nonetheless trying to cling to in a world that already resemble an eternal hellfire. The stainless white edifice is the final piece of evidence for a time where it was actually conceivable that the church, via a group of devout individuals with strong personal relationships with God and upright moral lives, could be an agent of positive change.

      Toller’s congregation mostly thinks that poor people are lazy and that climate change is a liberal myth. Worst of all, these beliefs are backed by a clergy that is neutral to its flock’s prejudices, even as these professions violently conflict with Biblical teaching. Toller is segregated within what is supposed to be his church family, seeming far more comfortable with the heretical environmental activist Michael (Philip Ettinger), a man on the brink of violent outburst, either to himself or those around him, than he does the head minister (Cedric the Entertainer) of the larger church to which First Reformed belongs.

      By the time Toller wraps himself in a barbed wire crown of thorns and puts on a suicide bomber’s armour of God, Schrader has intensely intertwined the contradictory impulses facing many liberal Christians. How does one maintain a strong personal faith when the divinely ordained institution designed to bolster a relationship with God is morally bankrupt? Toller takes on the sins of the modern church, thinking his own sacrifice and self-punishment enough to wash clean these transgressions. Schrader is radically challenging those inside and outside of the church, providing an alternative example of what it means to be a Christian and try to live an upright life of faith when everything in the world points to inevitable apocalypse.

      Well on its way to winning the audience award, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, her directorial debut, asks far less of its audience and is relatively happy to please with its safe hipster quirks. Set in the ‘90s, which now seems to be pop culture’s new ‘80s, the film follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saorise Ronan) throughout her senior year at a Catholic high school. Lady Bird makes popular friends and loses her uncool old one; she dates a closeted gay theatre kid (Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges) and moves on to a pseudo-intellectual with a faint French accent (Call Me by Your Name’s Timothée Chamalet). During this time, Christine's turbulent home life with her penny-pinching mother worsens mostly because of the uncertainty of Christine’s post-graduation future. She wants to go to an expensive arts school in New York while her mother advocates for a nearby college famous for its “school of agriculture”. Gerwig structures her film around trifling vignettes about growing up poor in nowhere-Sacramento. The textural details of Lady Bird give the film some twists on the self-involved teenage coming of age story that it still too closely resembles.

      Blatantly breaking with audience expectations, Japanese director Horikazu Kore-eda, in many ways the successor to Ozu, abandons his usual story about family and generational difference for a dry and precisely orchestrated whodunnit. The Third Murder is an about-face of the two aspects seminal to what I adore about Kore-eda’s cinema; it's his most plot driven film and easily the one with the meanest characters.

      Still a remarkably subtle portrait of human behaviour, albeit one that points toward a darker side of our nature, The Third Murder is about the ambiguous relationship of a defence lawyer, Shigemori, to his client, Misumi, who has already confessed to brutally murdering his boss. A large portion of the film takes place in the private, sound proof room at the prison where the defendant is being held before his trial. The lawyer-client interactions begin with a layer of intellectual distance as Shigemori tries to build the best case possible in a bubble outside of the realm of fact. But as he delves further into the evidence, the story he encounters is different from the one he's constructing; Misumi could still be a victim.

      Or, more disturbingly, another option: Shigemori could very well be misinterpreting his violent client's vulnerable body language. It’s a cynical twist on what we've come to expect from Kore-eda’s films. The Third Murder asks us to look into a man’s soul and remark that perhaps it isn’t as good as we had hoped or what the director’s previous films had claimed.