TIFF 2023 recap: A mostly starless affair puts the attention back on the movies
The 2023 iteration of the Toronto International Film Festival certainly felt a little different compared to the last time I was there in 2019. Of course, that was pre-pandemic and had blockbuster titles “Knives Out,” “Joker,” and “Ford V. Ferrari,” and, most importantly, the A-listers could show up and promote their movies and make for eventful red carpets. That wasn’t the case this year, in terms of both the festival lineup and the talent who could actually show up.
If you’ve been living under a rock, SAG-AFTRA, the actors union, alongside the WGA, have been on strike together against the major studios for over two months, which means Paul Giamatti can’t walk the carpet and talk about his showstopper performance in Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers,” and the murderous row of actors like Seth Rogen, Paul Dano, Sebastian Stan, Pete Davidson, Nick Offerman, and America Ferrara were nowhere to be seen at the world premiere of “Dumb Money,” the comedy about the GameStop stock craze from 2020.
Richard Linklater after the Toronto premiere of "Hit Man"
Some actors were allowed to show up thanks to what are called interim agreements. Basically, smaller, independent studios like A24 and indie projects that are self financed, sign a contract with SAG-AFTRA agreeing to the terms and conditions they are asking the major studios and streamers to sign. So A24 movies “Dream Scenario,” and “Dicks: The Musical” were able to send Nicolas Cage and Bowen Yang to the festival; and other smaller films that don't have distributors like “Wildcat,” “The Dead Don’t Hurt” and “Gonzo Girl” were able to bolster their status with appearances by Ethan and Maya Hawke, Willem Dafoe, and Viggo Mortensen. In addition, the band Nickeback had a documentary premiere and were allowed to attend. They want a step further and put on a free show for festival goers and it was, dare I say, very fun. Is this me entering my dad phase?
But looking around the festival craze and the enthusiasm among the crowd, the lack of talent attending wasn’t really an issue and showed the real crux of what any film festival is supposed to be about: the movies. Case in point, the opening night premiere of Hiyao Miyazaki's “The Boy and the Heron" was met with cheers and applause that could be heard from Japan (the only country who had seen the film prior to the premiere). This despite the master himself not being present (not because of the strikes, but because he’s 81 years old and doesn't travel much). It also allowed the directors to steal some of the thunder. Filmmaker Richard Linker, who was on hand to introduce his latest film “Hit Man,” a new comedy starring “Top Gun: Maverick” star Glen Powell that is one of my favorite things I’ve seen all year and was snagged by Netflix in a major bidding war. Taika Waititi was stumping for his world premiere of “Next Goal Wins” (yes I’ve seen it and it actually exists despite being delayed nearly four years!) and Tony Goldwyn unleashed "Ezra” to festival goers.
Taika Waititi throws up some fake punches after the premiere of "Next Goal Wins"
A theme of the festival this year also seemed to be actor turned director projects. There was Anna Kendrick’s “Woman of the Hour” (which was sold to Netflix for upwards of $11 million smackers); Micheal Keaton’s “Knox Goes Away,” and Chris Pine’s “Poolman.” If the gamble was to book those films thinking they would show up in their capacity as directors, it didn’t pay off. None of them made an appearance.
Still, the buzz and atmosphere around such films as Neon’s “Anatomy of a Fall,” Amazon’s “American Fiction,” A24’s “The Zone of Interest” and Focus’ “The Holdovers,” were palpable and helped round out a film festival that was missing the massive blockbusters and conversation starters of yesteryear. One wonders what films may have shown up had the guilds not been on strike (you could easily see “Dune Part Two” debuting, but alas Warner Bros. punted it off its original November release date to March because of the work stoppage). “The Color Purple,” the musical adaptation and semi-reimagining of the classic Steven Spielberg movie that’s due out at Christmas? Maybe, but we’ll never know.
Yet, if you really dug into the festival and branched out from the bigger titles that did show-up, you would’ve been rewarded with intimate character pieces and captivating performances. One of those surprises was a film called “Sing Sing,” a based on a true story drama starring Colman Domingo as an incarcerated prisoner who runs a theater program. It features a cast that’s predominantly made up of actors who, themselves, have been imprisoned. It’s a touching story about the power of human empathy and the things we do to escape the realities of our situations. And it was just picked up by A24.
Tony Goldwyn participates in a Q & A following the premiere of "Ezra"
Elsewhere, “Loving Vincent” filmmakers came to town with their latest “The Peasants” which is an adaptation of the 900 page magnus opus by Pulitzer Prize winner Wladyslaw Stainslaw Reymond. Like “Vincent,” this animated film employed a team of animators to hand paint over every single frame. So, essentially, you’re watching over 40,000 watercolor paintings at a speed of 24 frames per second. To put into perspective, it takes an animator five hours to paint a *single* frame. Talk about commitment and dedication. It’s a thing of beauty and I hope audiences can see it in the biggest, loudest theater they can find. Likewise for Harmony Korine’s experimental "film" that was shot on infrared cameras, “Aggro Dr1ft” which had, by my calculations, 20 walkouts.
Overall, the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival was a success and had a commendable catalog of titles despite the occasional blemish (apologies to Chris Pine). It proves that audiences are resistant and will support the festival even if the movies lack the prowess of past debuts “The Martian,” “Glass Onion,” and “The Fabelmans.”
Now let’s hope the studios pay their actors and writers an equitable wage so this doesn’t need to be a discussion next year.
Below please find links to my coverage both on this website and the capsule coverage I did for my friends over at The Movie Sleuth. And my top 10 movies of the festival!
P.S: The winners of the coveted People's Choice Award (a bellwether in the award season that's seen five of its champions in the last decade, including "12 Years A Slave," and "Green Book," go on to win Best Picture) are as follows:
AMERICAN FICTION (winner)
THE HOLDOVERS (runner up)
THE BOY AND THE HERON (runner up)
Top 10 Movies of TIFF 2023
Anatomy of a Fall - releases October
The Peasants - still seeking distribution
The Holdovers - releases November 10th
Hit Man - Netflix will release in the future
Dumb Money - releases September 29th
Sing Sing - releases 2024
The Zone of Interest - releases December
Dream Scenario- releases November 10th
American Fiction - releases November 17th
Flora and Son - releases September 29th
All photos courtesy of Nate Adams.