TIFF is ground zero for the fall Oscar race, and it’s often the case that the following year’s best picture winner can be predicted based on a movie’s reception at this festival. In 2016, for example, it was already evident that either Moonlight and La La Land would take the stage at the end of the Academy Awards. (Though not at the same time.) To the dismay of industry types and the festival’s higher-ups, this year saw no analogous breakouts. It’s an unfortunate case of irony: just as the festival tightened their programming to focus more on crowd pleasing Special Presentations, none of these bargains, for the most part, paid off.
This is already reflected in this year’s Grolsch People’s Choice award winner, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the rare audience award winner with little prestige or political clout behind it. (I missed the film on my last day in Toronto, not knowing that it would be the surprise winner.) For the domestic prizes, the Canada Goose Award for Best Canadian Feature Film went to Les Affamés, a zombie movie from Quebec that will not be at VIFF, and the City of Toronto Award for Best First Canadian Feature Film was awarded to Vancouverite Wayne Wappeemukwa for Luk’Luk’I, a bold and unwieldy narrative-fiction following an ensemble of our city’s marginalized during the 2010 Winter Olympics. (Luk’Luk’I is easily among the best and most uncompromising works in this year’s BC Spotlight at VIFF.)
But, to avert the risk of making this final dispatch a reprinted press release, here are some additional superlatives to fill in some of the gaps from my previous coverage. (Presented without any corporate sponsorships, mind you.)
For the most skull crushing for your buck, look no further than Bone Tomahawk director S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99. A ghoulish Vince Vaughn descends into solitary confinement to complete an objective imposed by a vindictive mob boss: work his way down to the highest security prison and assassinate a target. If he fails to do so, his pregnant wife will have a forced abortion, or worse, the child’s limbs will be amputated while still in the womb. This is a work of pointless sadomasochism that hides behind it’s own thrilling and skilled execution.
James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, however, has the greatest disproportion between the number of belly laughs and the overall level of quality. Franco plays cult eccentric and gloriously awful The Room auteur Tommy Wiseau throughout all stages of production on that curio. The actor-director perfectly matches Wiseau’s already heightened demeanour without exaggeration, but Franco’s film is otherwise the exact opposite of its subject: safe, professional, and boring filmmaking.
But few films aroused as much righteous anger on both ends of the positive-negative spectrum quite like Louis C.K.’s I Love You, Daddy. Simultaneously hailed a self-reflexive “classic” and, as one of my hosts during the festival described it, “a feature-length justification for C.K.’s sexism,” this is a thorny film no matter which way you come down on it. The writer-director and self-fashioned auteur has deliberately designed this for maximum outrage. It’s a check-list of anti-woke affectations: a film made by a straight rich white dude in which he mansplains feminism, liberally and casually drops the word “retarded,” and reprises his real life role as an alleged sexual creep.
C.K.’s personal defense in the film is pushed to its comedic and uncomfortable limit. While developing a new television show, his character befriends a much younger actress (Rose Byrne) and fires the perfectly qualified one who played the character in the pilot. The smarmy director uses his power for dubious favors but takes on a different perspective when it comes to the behavior of his teenage daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz). When the adolescent befriends an old, pervy, and successful filmmaker (John Malkovich, doing his best Woody Allen impression), C.K.’s initial you-don’t-know-him-and-therefore-can’t-judge-him defense is qualified by this incredibly personal circumstance. That awkward push-pull of appreciating the man’s art while recognizing he might be committing statutory rape against his daughter pretty well obliterates any prior moral highground his character had.
Where I think the film’s dissenters have gone wrong (certainly there are things here that are indefensible, and I’m not trying to rescue the work as a whole, which even the film appears to admit is impossible) is in misinterpreting Louis’ casting as repudiation against the accusations of sexual harassment directed at him. This is a film of duplicitous self-interrogation; it invites vitriol against itself even as it acts as its own critique. The final work is inseparable from the inevitable responses to it—if you hate it, it can be rescued not only as a good movie by a bad person, but a movie about good movies by bad people. C.K. is playing a game where the stacked deck is always on his side, not only because of his powerful position in real life (he was received with a standing ovation at the public screening my host went to), but also because of the plausible deniability built into the film itself. If it seems like I’m simultaneously arguing for and against I Love You, Daddy, that’s because it’s a contradiction inherent in C.K.’s representation of himself— a self-deprecating, love-hate relationship with who he is and what he has come to represent. If one stops to consider that TIFF is profiting from I Love You, Daddy’s star power, undoubtedly a product of the festival’s priorities, the film’s contradictions seem to reflect the complicated experience of the festival at large, regardless of whether this is read as a work of ingenious subversion or irredeemable sexism.