Starting tomorrow, we will officially be in the final stretch to the Oscars. I’m talking, of course, about the Toronto International Film Festival. Seen as one of the last stops for future Best Picture nominees, it is almost impossible to think of a year where the winner of one of the Big Seven awards didn’t appear in the Canadian metropolis. Last year saw four of the seven premiere there, 2014 saw three and a half (Whiplash technically premiered at Sundance), 2013 saw six, and 2012 saw three alongside several incredible premieres people didn’t see coming. Yes, Toronto is, in many ways, the bastion of filmmaking talent, and many of our modern classics made their premiere as part of the lineup.
The ultimate sign of success at the festival is the Audience Choice Award. Voted on by the critics in attendance, the award reflects the biggest upset in the festival that absolutely blew the viewers away. Most importantly for the studios, the award has a proven track record for Oscar nominations; indeed, seven of the last eight recipients ended up receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and three won. Out of the thirty-something awards given, I have seen a total of fifteen. However, that is more than enough to construct a Top Ten list. So, in honor of TIFF’s kickoff tomorrow, today’s Wednesday Listicle will be the Top Ten Best TIFF Winners (That I’ve Seen).
Before I reach the actual list, allow me to compliment the other five films on my roster. Chariots of Fire is, at the very least, inspirational. Hotel Rwanda is anchored by strong performances and is a truly powerful film. The King’s Speech and The Imitation Game are two great British imports, featuring brilliant acting, directing, writing and overall composition, and it pains me greatly to not include them in the final list. And for the longest time, Room was in the Top Ten, and I only moved it out at the last second. As great as the direction and writing are, and as powerful as Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are, I felt the #10 film deserved the mention. It was a painful decision, but the right one. What was it, you ask? Well, you can find out right…now:
10. Precious (2009)
Lee Daniels is an iffy director. He’s always been best when he’s worked in melodrama, like Empire and The Butler. However, he has never been so over-the-top when it comes to catharsis than when he made Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. Written by a first time screenwriter, starring a first-time actress, and anchored by a comedian, the film makes you roll your eyes immediately by misspelling the title. Get it? Because the main character is illiterate. Look, subtlety is not Daniels’ strong suit. However, despite his flagrant disregard for tact, Daniels understands something deeper: emotions. He gets an unbelievable performance out of unknown Gabourey Sidibe, who delivers the greatest female performance of 2009, hands down, making you openly weep for this poor, neglected girl. Well, that might not be true, as that ignores the performance by Mo’Nique, trading in her comedian label to play Mary Lee Jones, one of the great all-time film villains. She’s a true monster, yet she works because Mo’Nique never plays her that way. There’s a pain underneath the surface that makes you empathize with her, even when rooting against her. While Precious’ life is a true tragedy, and it never really improves, this allows the small victories to feel like true miracles, leaving you cheering in your seat as you witness one of the saddest, yet elegant movies in history. Don’t watch this movie without a box of tissues on hand.
9. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Where Daniels significantly lacked subtlety, Steve McQueen revels in it. Combining a history lesson with the graphic nature of Passion of the Christ, the Brit forces us to examine our own history, and make us embrace what happened for two hundred years in this country, and another two hundred before that. Anchored by a tragic Chiwetel Ejiofor, supported by the maniacal Michael Fassbender and powerhouse Lupita Nyong’o, and peppered with thousands of other great actors in small roles, the film is a master class on every level. Great direction, a strong script, smart cinematography, snappy editing (or lack thereof), and one of the best uses of sound in the history of film (there are extended silent periods, including a painful, brutal hanging scene that lasts forever), the film is a true example of how to make an epic historical film.
8. The Big Chill (1983)
For #8, I went all the way back to 1983, when a young up-and-comer named Lawrence Kasdan, fresh off being Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ prime writer, directed a small little piece called The Big Chill. Focused on a group of college friends from the University of Michigan reunited for the funeral of a dear friend, the group deals with the issues facing their lives, including from grief, PTSD, depression, love sickness and marital problems. None of these problems are magically solved over the course of a weekend; indeed, no one expected they would be. However, it is a reminder that, with the right group of friends, the right airing of grievances, and the right selection of music (if you are a Motown fan like I am, this is the greatest soundtrack of all time), you can work on all problems, and at the very least, forget them for a little while. The film is very much a product of its time, an ode to the Baby Boomer generation. However, there is enough truth to this perfectly written film to speak to anyone, of any age, in any generation. It’s one of my all time favorites, and when you see this cast reading this dialogue, I’m sure you’ll see why.
7. Life is Beautiful (1998)
I’m not going to write much about Life is Beautiful. In fact, I’m going to try to rush through it. That’s not because this isn’t a beautiful, powerful film, or because it isn’t a masterful comedy. Indeed, the film manages to be both, transcending the language barrier (it’s Italian) to speak to all cultures. However, I personally think the film works best when unspoiled. You should not know anything more than the fact that halfway through, this romantic comedy becomes an entirely new entity altogether. Some people find the change to be offensive and off-putting, and I understand these complaints-I really do. However, Roberto Benigni’s passion project really is a hilarious, moving experience, and it’s a great romance, a great physical comedy, a great father-son film, and, once you know the twist, it’s one of the greats there too.
6. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
I just read an article yesterday that stated that the minute Slumdog Millionaire premiered at Toronto, the Oscar race ended. And if I were to just explain the plot alone, you’d be skeptical to believe that it would beat The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Dark Knight in every category to bring home eight Academy Awards. And yet, here we are. A film made by a feces-obsessed British-Tarantino about an Indian boy who wins Who Wants To Be A Millionaire based on his life experiences in order to woo a girl and beat his gangster brother. An absurd concept, yes, but with gorgeous filmmaking, Bollywood inspirations (really only a handful of moments, but what a handful they are), great child actors, and a powerful love story, it’s a film that everyone can love. Danny Boyle clearly knows what he is doing behind the camera, and Dev Patel gives a fantastic performance he has yet to match. However, if there are two things that make this film work, it’s the script and the music. Simon Beaufoy crafted a brilliant and beautiful screenplay, filled with humor, darkness and romance, in perfect mixtures. Meanwhile, A.R. Rahman not only has created one of the most energizing scores of all time, but wrote Jai Ho!, one of the greatest movie songs. All in all, it’s one of the best films of the 21st century, and one of the best films in TIFF history.
5. Amélie (2001)
God, if anything in Amélie were any less ambitious, this film would be twee to the point of obnoxiousness. Instead, we got one of the most whimsical, joyous film experiences in recent history. The film follows the imaginative introvert Amélie (a role only possible thanks to the absolute perfection that is Audrey Tautou), who’s shy nature has brought her to settle for contentment. However, her grand fantasies push her to reach out for something more, and she embarks on a quest to change the lives of her family and neighbors, all while trying to open up herself. The film’s fantastical side journeys are a joy to watch, and Jeunet brings a joie de vivre to each one. However, if there’s anything in the film that makes it work, it’s Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography. One of the most underrated in the business, Delbonnel turns each frame into a painting, finding color even where none exists. This list has been full of melancholy (Life Is Beautiful, The Big Short) and depressing (12 Years a Slave, Precious) films, which makes Amélie such a treat: there’s not a cynical bone in its body, to the point that it transcends the language barrier to join the ranks of the most uplifting films of all time.
4. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Arguably the biggest surprise in festival history, I don’t know anyone who predicted Silver Linings Playbook to be the hit that it was. In fact, on paper, it shouldn’t have worked. Written and directed by a man still in the doghouse for anger issues in 2004, starring a handsome comedy star, a rising teen starlet, a washed-up A-lister, an aging Australian actress and a forgotten high-pitched comedian, and just generally being a romantic comedy about depression, nothing in this makes sense. And yet, it ended up being one of the most wonderful films this side of the 2010s. The script works perfectly, finding the humor in life while never diminishing the issues the Solitanos-or Tiffany (a never better Jennifer Lawrence, unknown at the time except to the select few of us who had seen Winter’s Bone or The Bill Engvall Show)-face. Bradley Cooper proved that he may be one of our greatest actors, turning in a nuanced, funny and heart-wrenching take on a man with bipolar disorder, while Robert Downey, Jr. showed us one last time why he may be the greatest actor who ever lived. Sure, the ending gets a little clichéd, but in one of the most brilliant decisions, the film actually defends that choice at the very beginning, justifying the “happy ending” the film gives to people with mental illness. It’s a sweet, smart, lovable film, and it’ll go down in history as one of the best of its genre, as well as the reason we’ll never get rid of that damned Lawrence girl.
3. The Princess Bride (1987)
“As you wish.” While Rob Reiner’s fantastical romantic comedy may not have won any Oscars, that doesn’t change the fact that it is a perfect film. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I assure you I am not. It is a perfect film. From the touching-and often comedic-framing device of a grandfather and grandson bonding (played to perfection by television stars Peter Falk and Fred Savage) to the fantastic one liners (how many quotes do you remember from this movie? The answer is most likely “Most of them.” “Inconceivable!” “Morons.” “Have fun storming the castle!” and “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”) and especially the performances. While none of these performances were going to be Oscar winners (although if anyone deserved one, it’s André the Giant’s sweet and funny Fezzik), these are characters that you love and remember, from the lovers Cary Elwes and Robin Wright to the villainous Chris Sarandon and Christopher Guest, from sidekicks Mandy Patinkin and André the Giant to the comic relief Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, and especially Wallace Shawn. A film like this should not have worked, certainly not in the 1980s. However, because of it’s blend of fantasy, romance, comedy, action, horror, and drama, the film has something for everyone, and has managed to stand the test of time. I mean, if infamous mob leader John Gotti can take time out of his day to track down Reiner just to quote movie lines to him, the film is truly a cinematic wonder.
2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Anyone who feels that critics and Academy members have no sense of fun and adventure need only see Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Steeped heavily in the wuxia martial arts storytelling style, the film follows the quest of two masters as they attempt to retrieve a stolen mystical sword. In that regard, there are four action sequences that stand as the top of the game. One in particular, a duel between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi, is one of the greatest action sequences in film history. However, there is so much more to this film than just simple action (not that there’s anything wrong with simple action, Mad Max). Crouching Tiger is a historical drama, a study of classism, and a study of love and gender roles. Wuxia is to China what samurais are to Japan and cowboys are to America, and Lee plays with that notion to put together a top-notch film. Each image is a painting, each moment steeped with intelligence and symbolism, and each character carefully crafted. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not only one of the best films from Taiwan, or one of the best films from China. It’s one of the best films in history.
1. American Beauty (1999)
There’s been a sort of backlash in recent years towards Sam Mendes’ directorial debut. It sort of makes sense: it was very much a product of the nineties, the film is undecided over if it should be a comedy and a drama, and Wes Bentley’s character can inspire such hatred it is unbelievable (that bag scene, though). However, when you get below the surface, the film is one of the smartest films ever made, steeped with rich symbolism, drenched with irony, and, weirdly enough, one of the funniest movies of the nineties. Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham is never without our sympathies as he attempts to live the life of the bon vivant and escape the ensnaring world of the “American Dream.” Hell, we support him even as he lusts after his daughter’s friend (a highly underrated Mira Sorvino). The film satirizes a conservative way of life while never truly embracing a liberal one (indeed, we aren’t supposed to want Lester to have complete success in his quest, just to escape from one reality), leaving it a film easily accessible to all points of view. And I haven’t even mentioned Annette Bening yet. Oh, Annette Bening. While Spacey plays his role straight, albeit dripping with irony, and the rest of the actors play their roles dramatic and tragic, Bening is in on the joke, amping it up to eleven each and every scene. From her affair with The King to her manic screeches, to her passionate release to “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” However, no line is as perfectly delivered as her shrill and sing-songy “What. The Hell. Do You Think. You’re Doing?” It’s one of my all time favorite line deliveries in film. I wrote my Junior Thesis on this film back in college, and I may post it to the site one day for a more detailed analysis. However, until that day, I leave you with this: there are few films as funny, as touching, as creepy, and as uplifting as American Beauty. And it is the perfect example of TIFF’s power, as it may have died upon impact had it not been the hit of the festival. It perfectly embodies why TIFF is a major deal, and why film itself is important.
TIFF coverage starts tomorrow, and we’ll soon find out what film will join these lofty ranks. If I had to make an early prediction, I would say La La Land takes the top prize, but I would keep an eye on Nocturnal Animals, Moonlight, American Pastoral and Lion. As for you all, what do you think of the list? Anything you’d move into the Top Ten? Anything you’d rank differently? Any TIFF winner I should check out that I haven’t seen yet? Let me know in the comments!