True/False Film Festival 2014

I’ve just returned from Columbia, Missouri, the home of one of the most unique film fest­ivals in the world. The 11th edi­tion of the True/False Film Festival took place from Thursday February 27th through Sunday March 2nd. Though the fest is ded­ic­ated to “non­fic­tion” cinema, its selec­tions have often been at the van­guard of new move­ments in doc­u­mentary and so attract a lot of atten­tion from audi­ences and critics who may not con­sider them­selves fans of what’s tra­di­tion­ally been con­sidered doc­u­mentary film. That’s just a long and awk­ward way of saying that True/False picks really great films that break out of con­fining cat­egories and con­nect with audiences.

Columbia is a col­lege town, the home of the University of Missouri (affec­tion­ately referred to as “Mizzou”). It has around 100,000 inhab­it­ants and could be con­sidered an artistic and intel­lec­tual hub of the region. Nevertheless, I still found it mighty impressive the amount of local sup­port the fest­ival has attained in just a decade. More than sup­port; out­right love. The fest­ival suc­ceeds not just with its film pro­gram­ming, but by involving every artistic com­munity in the region (and beyond!). Gorgeously designed posters, pro­gram guide, and fest­ival badges, one-of-a-kind sculp­tures and exhibits cre­ated just for the fest­ival, an actual parade (the clev­erly named “March March”), buskers per­forming before every screening, and much, much more. True/False is a cel­eb­ra­tion of cre­ativity and its sense of whimsy draws a lot of people into its orbit who pre­vi­ously might have been unin­ter­ested in any­thing as stuffy as “doc­u­mentary film.” It does a great job of “evan­gel­izing” for a cer­tain kind of film­making and exhib­i­tion and com­munity engage­ment that is close to my own heart. I loved the films I saw, but more than that, I found inspir­a­tion in the way that they were cur­ated and presented to the com­munity. I learned a lot.

Here is Les Trois Coups, a group of musi­cians that T/F “co-conspirator” Paul Sturtz dis­covered playing on the streets of Paris and determ­ined to bring to Columbia. They were a hit every­where they went.

Les Trois Coups

And here are a few notes on the films I saw. I’ll rank them in order of most-enjoyed to least, although everything I saw was thought-provoking in some way. The “secret screening” cannot be named but I’ll link to the text the fest­ival used to describe it without giving the title away:

  • Actress (Dir: Robert Greene) — What hap­pens when you put an actor into a doc­u­mentary about her own life? Magic, that’s what. Layered and compassionate.
  • Rich Hill (Dir: Andrew Droz Palermo, Tracy Droz Tragos) — This por­trait of three teen boys from a small Missouri town achieves some­thing uni­versal even while telling the kind of story that doesn’t make it to the big screen often, at least without preachi­ness or pity. Humanist storytelling meets per­ceptive cine­ma­to­graphy, finding thou­sands of moments of beauty in a dif­fi­cult landscape.
  • Secret Screening Amber (Dir: ?) — this por­trait of two alco­holic friends is tough, intimate and doesn’t pass judge­ment. It is patient and open-hearted, showing the audi­ence that even the most ordinary lives con­tain drama, comedy, pain and love. Fantastic storytelling.
  • Jodorowsky’s Dune (Dir: Frank Pavich) — Alejandro Jodorowsky is a force of nature, and his immense cha­risma puts this film on its back and car­ries it through a pretty heart­breaking tale of artistic failure. You’ll laugh a lot, though, and wonder “what if?”
  • Tim’s Vermeer (Dir: Teller) — Another crowd-pleaser car­ried by its eccentric sub­ject, soft­ware mil­lion­aire Tim Jenison, who has enough free time and money to try fig­uring out the secret behind the paint­ings of Vermeer, and, you know, paint one himself.
  • Killing Time (Dir: Jaap van Hoewijk) — Formally inter­esting, this film observes an exe­cu­tion by spending the last day of an inmates’s life with his family mem­bers. You’ll (per­haps) be hor­ri­fied at the banality of death’s admin­is­tra­tion. I cer­tainly was.
  • Ukraine is Not a Brothel (Dir: Kitty Green) — What’s behind Ukrainian group FEMEN’s top­less protests? This film bares all. (Sorry). Though this film has lots of sur­prises (and plenty of boobs, too), it left so many essen­tial (to me) ques­tions unanswered. Still worth­while and in places deli­ciously ironic.
  • The Notorious Mr. Bout (Dir: Maxim Pozdorovkin, Tony Gerber) — Using con­victed “arms dealer” Viktor Bout’s home movies human­izes him while at the same time mud­dying the case against him. Successfully por­trays him as much a pawn as a true player, but leaves a lot unexamined.
  • Boyhood (Dir: Richard Linklater) — Included for its quasi-documentary method of using the same cast over 12 years, it sorely dis­ap­pointed me with its rather banal storytelling and con­stant use of pop cul­ture ref­er­ences and musical cues to mark time.

I’ll also men­tion that I attended a really inter­esting panel (“The Critical Takedown”) dis­cussing issues of doc­u­mentary film cri­ti­cism that included local hero Adam Nayman, as well as Nick Pinkerton, Sam Adams, and Ela Bittencourt. If I can get the right per­mis­sions, I can post the audio here for any interested.

I’d dearly love to return next year, and will make a real attempt to stay closer to the centre of things. We stayed at a very nice Hampton Inn that was a 30 minute walk from the venues. Not hor­rible, but between the really cold weather and my advan­cing age, it would be nice to be closer in.


Spike Jonze - Her
A con­vin­cing win for Spike Jonze’s Her
(UPDATE: January 9): Thanks to the gen­tlemen of MAMO we were able to record another CASTcast this year. Check it out over on RowThree but be warned: it’s about as long as Prisoners but con­sid­er­ably more fun.

I’m very pleased to announce the res­ults of the 4th edi­tion of the CAST Awards. I received 33 com­pleted bal­lots from film lovers in the Greater Toronto Area. Here are the CAST Top 25 voted from among all films that had a the­at­rical or fest­ival release in Toronto during 2013. Voters ranked up to 10 films on their ballot from top to bottom, with first choices receiving 10 points, second choices 9, etc. The Points column lists the total score for each film, the Mentions column indic­ates the number of bal­lots it appeared on, and the First column indic­ates the total number of voters who chose the film as their top choice. I’m proud of the group of critics we’ve gathered, even though I’ve described us else­where as “a ragtag group of semi-professional film blog­gers, tweeters and Lightbox lobby loiterers.” 142 dif­ferent films received at least one men­tion this year, although 101 of those received only one mention.

1. Her 149 18 5
2. 12 Years a Slave 124 16 6
3. Before Midnight 100 16 2
4. Gravity 81 14 2
5. Inside Llewyn Davis 52 11 0
6. Mud 49 9 1
7. Frances Ha 47 7 2
8. The Wolf of Wall Street 43 7 0
9. Upstream Color 42 7 0
10. Dallas Buyers Club 41 5 2
11. Blue is the Warmest Color 40 8 0
12. The Broken Circle Breakdown 38 6 0
13. Museum Hours 29 4 2
14. Stoker 29 6 0
15. Spring Breakers 26 6 0
16. The Act of Killing 26 4 0
17. The Strange Little Cat 26 4 0
18. Pacific Rim 24 3 0
19. Belle 21 3 1
20. Under the Skin 21 3 1
21. Short Term 12 20 6 0
22. Nebraska 20 4 0
23. Frozen 20 3 0
24. American Hustle 19 4 0
25. All Is Lost 17 3 1


Here is a PDF with each person’s ballot and the col­lated res­ults, with a few more inter­esting stats included.

And here is a very nice list on Letterboxd of the entire list of films, roughly ranked.
And for those still reading, here is my very own CAST ballot, with my top ten from 2013.

My CAST Ballot

  1. Her
  2. Frances Ha
  3. The Act of Killing
  4. The Square
  5. Club Sandwich
  6. Upstream Color
  7. Nebraska
  8. Blue Jasmine
  9. The Strange Little Cat
  10. These Birds Walk

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Genre Exhaustion

by James McNally on November 13, 2013

in Personal

Now here’s some­thing inter­esting. I was poking around my hard drive this after­noon and found this almost fully-formed “think piece” from October 2011. I’m not sure why I never posted it, because I think it cap­tures a bit of why I’ve been much less attentive to this blog since then. Sure, the films men­tioned are no longer new, but a look at the recent box office shows that the trend I describe con­tinues unabated. At the end of my draft, I had one line all on its own, which may have been where I wanted to con­tinue the piece. I’ll detach it now and simply place it here: “Where are the unfor­get­table char­ac­ters in today’s movies?”


I’ll begin this by stating that this is a blog post, and not a crit­ical essay. I’m writing to express my own feel­ings on a sub­ject that’s been bug­ging me for a long time, but I’m not making this a bul­let­proof defence of my pos­i­tion. In fact, it would be great if it led to some spir­ited dis­cus­sion. So what’s my beef?

I’ve seen Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive twice in the past couple of weeks, and each time, I’ve left the cinema feeling exactly the same. The film is brilliantly-directed and a beau­tiful example of stylish genre cinema. But each time I’ve seen it, within a few hours, the exper­i­ence has faded. It’s a bit like eating junk food. Tasty and addictive but far from nourishing.


And that’s where I have noticed the cinema heading for a number of years now. The mul­ti­plexes are filled with all manner of super­hero and comic-book adapt­a­tions as well as other genre films. These films are long on spe­cial effects and explo­sions but woe­fully short on mem­or­able char­ac­ters. If Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is held up as an example of the best Hollywood has to offer us, then I’m afraid the times are very dark indeed.

I’m happy to be attacked as a snob. Maybe that’s all I am, but in my indi­vidual exper­i­ence, I’m much hap­pier immersing myself in a film with believ­able char­ac­ters. They don’t have to be sym­path­etic (although that helps) but they must be more than sketches or arche­types. This type of story seems to have largely dis­ap­peared from our screens, unless we’re willing to include European cinema.

I’m not saying I don’t enjoy well-made genre films. Drive is cer­tainly enjoy­able. The Coen brothers make great genre films, and I was recently remem­bering how much fun Alex de la Iglesia’s Balada Triste was. But a steady diet of cine­matic junk food just isn’t good for my health.

Just yes­terday I sat down to watch a classic of early Soviet cinema, Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike. While the tech­nique was dazzling Eisenstein’s refusal to identify a main char­acter ali­en­ated me. Soviet films from this period were eager to push the envelope of existing film lan­guage, and polit­ic­ally, they wanted to glorify the masses rather than the indi­vidual. My ali­en­a­tion from the story and char­ac­ters is designed to help me notice the tech­nical aspects of the film, which were new and innov­ative. I’m meant to feel on a gut level rather than to think. These films have also been called propaganda.


Today’s films have a dif­ferent reason for de-emphasizing char­acter, I think, and it’s much more pro­saic. Ever since the birth of the block­buster in the 1970s, genre films have gen­er­ated more box office. Sensation and plot rather than char­acter have been the engine of most films since then. As spe­cial effects have become ever more impressive, prot­ag­on­ists have become less com­plic­ated. The screen­play has become gradu­ally less important to the point where it’s common now to have four or five cred­ited writers on a film. Even com­edies suffer from this dumbing-down, with gags more important than the devel­op­ment of unique char­ac­ters. Can you name a char­acter from a comedy from the past decade that wasn’t somehow in the title of the film? It’s no sur­prise that audi­ences have become younger and younger, and that the most suc­cessful films are often those mar­keted to chil­dren and their parents.

There also seem to be more films than ever being made. Each weekend we have at least half a dozen new choices, not to men­tion the weekly DVD releases. As stu­dios flood the market with so much “product,” it seems less important how good it is. They’d rather have us watch some­thing new all the time than re-watch old favour­ites. Even if they do keep re-packaging pop­ular films so fans have to buy them over and over, they still make more money from us at the cinema.

Consider this: each year another few hun­dred films are released by the Hollywood stu­dios. With the pub­li­city around events like the Oscars, most of us feel we have to see at least 20 or 30 new films each year, even if they’re less than sat­is­fying. If that’s the only diet we get, we barely notice the lack of good writing or fleshed-out characters.

Oslo, August 31st

It’s only when we have an oppor­tunity to see the full range of cinema, his­tor­ic­ally and geo­graph­ic­ally, that we realize what we’re missing. At this year’s TIFF, for instance, I saw a number of great char­acter studies: Goodbye First Love from French dir­ector Mia Hansen-Løve, Volcano from Icelandic dir­ector Rúnar Rúnarsson, Oslo, August 31st from Norwegian dir­ector Joachim Trier, just to name a few. But I’m doubtful you’ll see these films get­ting much of a the­at­rical release. And while I still enjoy genre cinema, I’m becoming exhausted by its ubi­quity. Too much of it is ruining my enjoy­ment. I need a bal­anced diet, and I pro­pose to you, dear reader, that you do, too. Hopefully, the fact that you’re reading my blog at all means you are seeking out the less-flashy corners of the film world.

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For the second year run­ning, I’ve com­piled a spe­cial edi­tion of the CAST Awards, just based on what people saw during the Toronto International Film Festival. Here are the CAST Top 10 based on the votes of 27 sub­mitted bal­lots. Voters ranked up to 10 films on their ballot from top to bottom, with first choices receiving 10 points, second choices 9, etc. The Points column lists the total score for each film, Mentions indic­ates how many voters included it in their Top Ten, Average is the average point score, and Firsts shows how many voters chose it as their favourite TIFF film.

In the case of points ties, the film with the higher number of first-place votes is listed first, then by highest average score. Because our sample size is quite small, these “rank­ings” don’t actu­ally mean much, but I thought it would give a good idea of what this par­tic­ular group of fest­ival­goers enjoyed this year. I’m curious to see how many of these show up in our reg­ular year-end CAST ballot and how they do.

1. 12 Years a Slave 65 9 7.22 3
2. The Strange Little Cat 63 7 9.0 3
3. Under the Skin 58 8 7.25 0
4. Gravity 49 6 8.17 2
5. Blue Ruin 49 9 5.44 1
6. Only Lovers Left Alive 45 7 6.43 0
7. Blue is the Warmest Colour 39 7 5.57 1
8. Manakamana 32 5 6.4 0
9. The Double 32 6 5.33 0
10. Oculus 31 4 7.75 1


Here is a PDF with each person’s ballot and the full col­lated res­ults, with a few more inter­esting stats included.

And for those still reading, here is my final TIFF CAST ballot. There are only 9 films because that’s all I was able to see this year:


  1. Club Sandwich
  2. The Strange Little Cat
  3. The Square
  4. Under the Skin
  5. Young and Beautiful
  6. A Field in England
  7. Only Lovers Left Alive
  8. The Wonders
  9. Love is the Perfect Crime

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Under the Skin

by Ian Barr on September 18, 2013

in Film Festivals,TIFF

Under the Skin
Editor’s Note: The poster image used here is not final or offi­cial (as evid­enced by the incor­rect release date on the bottom) but it’s better than the book cover I was going to use.

Under the Skin (Director: Jonathan Glazer): In Michel Faber’s 2000 novel Under the Skin, a mys­ter­ious woman drives around rural Scotland, picking up hitch­hikers for mys­ter­ious reasons. Faber’s first-person prose leads us to believe her motive is purely one of sexual hunger, and when the very outré ulterior one is revealed (she’s an alien in human form, looking for flesh to har­vest), we see how weirdly kindred the two pro­cesses are.

Jonathan Glazer’s long-gestating and boldly abstract adapt­a­tion of Faber’s novel stays faithful to only a few broad plot details – her mis­sion also involves finding men, prefer­ably loners, and luring back to her abode for ini­tially unspe­cified reasons. But more cru­cially, it takes that quality of making the com­mon­place strange and amp­li­fies it ten­fold. Like the best genre nar­rat­ives, Under the Skin works on an anti-naturalistic register, and uses uncanny, icon­o­graphic imagery to grapple with themes and emo­tional ter­rain that makes psy­cho­lo­gical realism seem ill-equipped for; chief among them being loneli­ness, dis­place­ment, and the mut­ab­ility of desire.

The alien is here made name­less, and rather than the scarred, awk­ward thing of Faber’s novel, she’s played by Scarlett Johansson, fetch­ingly but also amus­ingly dressed in a fur coat and skin­tight jeans; an appro­pri­ately alien approx­im­a­tion of attract­ive­ness. The film makes canny use of Johansson’s default set­ting for the most part – she’s a hyp­notic blank – but there’s also a real sense of emer­ging, inchoate vul­ner­ab­ility under the facade, albeit one that never truly comes across as entirely human.

The film’s opening images are of dilating orbs, which have a Rorschach-blotch quality that por­tends the film to follow, and the emer­gence of light from dark­ness in this over­ture also intim­ates the alien’s journey from effi­cient pred­ator to nas­cent humanity. The pre­cise moment of that awakening isn’t made com­pletely explicit. A scene in which she picks up and seduces a severely dis­figured young man shows her to be obli­vious and non-judgmental to his oth­er­ness (being alien has its vir­tues), though a glimpse of her­self in a mirror, fol­lowing his entrap­ment, seems to cast the burden of the body into sharp relief.

The influ­ence of Stanley Kubrick is all over Under the Skin, but it goes beyond the super­fi­cial. Glazer’s pre­vious film Birth (not to men­tion a number of his music videos) sug­gested a Kubrick heir-apparent, but occa­sion­ally in cringing fashion; par­tic­u­larly its shout-out to Barry Lyndon in a scene involving Danny Huston chasing and spanking Cameron Bright’s pos­sessed child. Under the Skin gets Kubrick-like effects from less obvious means – the inter­play of light reflected on faces, visors and wind­screens as sub­jects glide through the Scottish motor­ways achieves the cosmic grandeur of 2001’s Stargate sequence, while Faber’s heavy-handed meat-processing allegory is con­densed into an elegant montage that evokes both The Shining’s corridor-of-blood and Nikolas Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread.

But more sig­ni­fic­antly than just absorbing the influ­ence, Glazer reveals him­self, unlike his master, willing to open a window and let reality infringe upon his metic­u­lous, vis­ionary con­struc­tion. The film’s most intriguing but prob­lem­atic con­ceit involves Johansson, barely recog­niz­able in a dark bob, fol­lowed by hidden cam­eras as she scours the streets for male prey in her van, her vic­tims both unwit­ting par­ti­cipants in the film and integral to its diegesis. There’s a comic frisson to these inter­ac­tions – she’s lit­er­ally an alien placed in the real world – but Glazer rarely lets them play out as any­thing but a montage, and the strictly-functional deploy­ment of doc­u­mentary material feels a bit of a missed oppor­tunity, par­tic­u­larly in the con­text of a film that looks askance at the functional.

Nonetheless, the ten­sion between nat­ur­alism and sur­realism (the seduc­tion scenes, which seem to tran­spire in a realm beyond time and space, have the same sus­pen­sion of the motion-capture episode from Holy Motors) gives the film a tex­ture that’s alien indeed. Ironically, the film’s lan­guage becomes less exper­i­mental when Johansson’s extra-terrestrial begins to exper­i­ment her­self, with mercy, empathy and human pleasure. If Glazer’s Sexy Beast and Birth were love stories built around acts of verbal per­sua­sion, Under the Skin ulti­mately res­on­ates as a word­less evoc­a­tion of solitude, as well as an ode to nature – the mys­ti­cism of its ending feels appro­pri­ately tragic yet tri­umphant, and To the Wonder would be a per­fect alternate title if Malick hadn’t already used it.

As pure cinema, Glazer’s film is nothing short of indelible – there are few images from it that haven’t left my head (in par­tic­ular, two instances of super­im­pos­i­tion are worthy of Murnau and Jean Epstein). That it’s also mad­den­ingly opaque and imper­fect somehow works in its favour, giving it the addi­tional quality of being recog­niz­ably human.

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