It was a solid year for acquisitions at the Toronto International Film Festival, with major buyers heading to the massive event and coming home with a haul of potentially commercial movies. Studios flaunting their Oscar hopefuls, like Fox Searchlight with TIFF award-winning “12 Years a Slave,” also came home happy. But even while these successes bode well for the festival’s industry clout, they simultaneously point out the chief downside to this massive event loaded with deep-pocketed distributors eager to find and exploit the easiest products: With hundreds of films screening over the course of the 10-day event, some of the more interesting titles tend to slip through the cracks.
At the start of the festival, industry insiders speculated that Jason Bateman’s vulgar directorial debut “Bad Words” and John Carney’s “Once” follow-up “Can a Song Save Your Live?” would find lucrative deals — which they did, promptly after their premieres (to Focus Features and the Weinstein Company, respectively). However, there were a lot more films that missed the chance to pick up enough buzz for buyers to swarm after them during the festival.
But guess what? It’s not too late. Here’s a look at 10 movies from TIFF 2013 that have yet to find a buyer but most certainly deserve the opportunity to find bigger audiences.
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In year where minimalist survival narratives are getting a lot of attention — that would be “Gravity” and “All Is Lost” — “Canopy” fits the sub-genre’s appeal while taking it into the unique arena of a period drama. Set during WWII, the minor plot involves an Australian airman (Khan Chittenden) who crashes into a tree in the middle of the Singapore jungle, wanders solo through the wilderness until he runs into a similarly adrift resistance fighter (Mo Tzu-Yi) and hesitantly joins forces with him to stay alive. Writer-director Aaron Wilson’s first feature is a triumph of visual storytelling that, like the ship in “All is Lost” but more colorful, turns its setting into a metaphor for the mysteries and frustrations of life itself. It’s also a riveting adventure story on par with bigger productions of its type.
Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke has steadily gained critical acclaim for his poignant studies of youth with his first two features, “Duck Season” and “Lake Tahoe.” His third movie keeps up that tradition with a bittersweet coming of age comedy exclusively set at a vacation resort where a single mother (María Renée Prudencia) struggles to let go of her 15-year-old son (Lucio Gimenez Cacho) when he falls for a teenage girl (Danae Reynaud) staying in the same place. Eimbcke’s deadpan comedy echoes early Jim Jarmusch in its use of static shots and quiet exchanges to steadily develop his characters, but the awkward blossoming of his young protagonist’s sexuality creates a clever form of tension — will the duo ever manage to slip away and explore each other’s bodies? — while the rite of passage their courtship signifies imbues the story with a rewarding emotional depth. With “Club Sandwich,” Eimbcke solidifies his reputation as one of the most significant emerging Latin American filmmakers working today.
Eccentric New Yorker John Wojtowicz was turned into an iconic figure when Al Pacino played the unorthodox bank robber in 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon.” Director Sidney Lumet’s daylong saga, in which Wojtowicz took a bank hostage in the hopes of raising money for his transsexual lover’s sex change operation, hardly exaggerated the actual 1972 event, but only captured one piece of a much larger story. “The Dog,” directors Alison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s decade-plus effort to chronicle Wojtowicz in the years leading up to his death from cancer in 2006, capably fills in the gaps in his bizarre life. After the media frenzy dies down and Liz Eden faces a tragic fate, Wojtowicz remains adrift in his own delusions of grandeur, which is more less the state in which the filmmakers find him. “The Dog” gives him the opportunity to keep messing with his curious mythology from beyond the grave.
“The Double” is based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but there’s a lot more than the sensibilities of the Russian literary giant hanging over this grimly amusing picture. British director and comedian Richard Ayoade’s follow-up to his stylized coming-of-age tale “Submarine,” this abstract drama owes an obvious debt to “Brazil,” but also borrows liberally from the likes of “1984,” the plotting of a Kafka story and the outmoded aesthetics of ’80s computer commercials, while maintaining a deadpan stillness that calls to mind Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. Yet the familiar elements of “The Double,” which Ayoade co-wrote with Avi Korine, coalesce into a unique whole that turns the material into a contemplative nightmare. Jesse Eisenberg plays two versions of himself — as a soft-spoken office worker obsessed with his neighbor (Mia Wasikowska) and a cocksure ladies’ man hired at the same company who makes the other man feel worthless — demonstrating his outstanding versatility and deepening a movie already rich with brilliantly surreal inspiration.
Korean director Kim Ki-duk is no stranger to dark stories of estranged families led to vicious acts of violence, but “Moebius” still manages to freshen up those expectations. Within its first 15 minutes, we witness a psychotic woman attempt to chop off her husband’s penis in an act of revenge for his infidelity; when he fights back, she manages to do it to their teenage son (Seo Young-ju) instead, and swallows his bloody member seconds later. The guilt-ridden father (Cho Jae-hyun) drags his ailing son to the hospital and makes the split second decision to have his own genitals removed for a genital transplant. While these deliriously sick ingredients swiftly take place, nobody speaks a word. That surprising combination of shocking behavior and keen visual storytelling continues for the entire movie. Though it has no dialogue, “Moebius” is filled with grunts and intimidating stares that make its twisted developments into a strangely involving encounter with macabre extremes.
Japanese comedian Hitoshi Matusmoto successfully made the leap to writer-director-star with his 2007 debut “Big Man Japan,” a zany take on the kaiju genre that simultaneously managed to make its fantastical protagonist human. The unlikely combination of surrealism and pathos would continue to define Matsumoto’s astonishingly unique oeuvre with ensuing projects “Symbol” (about a man trapped in a room with cherub penises that unlock the meaning of life) and “Scabbard Samurai” (in which an imprisoned samurai must perform gags to make his captor laugh in order evade a death sentence). With his fourth feature, “R100,” Matsumoto merges his outlandish wit with a satiric take on the Japanese ratings system and disorienting tangents that’s second only to the impermeable “Symbol” in its riotous absurdity. The basic plot involves soft-spoken department store worker Takafumi (Nao Omori) attempting to care for his adolescent son while his wife remains stuck in a coma. Seeking extreme measures to find solace for his grief, he stumbles into a secret club called ‘Bondage” in which members agree to allow dominatrixes to show up unexpectedly throughout his day and humiliate him. Imagine “Fight Club” directed by Luis Buñuel and you’ll start to get the idea. “R100” is a cult movie waiting to happen.
Prison dramas tend to invite the expectations of intense, dangerous scenarios filled with violent confrontations and vulgar spats. British director David Mackenzie’s gradually affecting “Starred Up” has all those ingredients but uses them for more precise means that merely revealing the harsh nature of life behind bars. Mackenzie (whose previous credits include “Perfect Sense” and “Young Adam”) applies a sharp kitchen sink realism to this haunting setting and directs it toward an ultimately moving family drama that just happens to involve vicious convicts. When uber-violent Eric (Jack O’Connell) winds up in the same brutal enclosure as his estranged father, the duo are forced to confront their past issues with alternately shocking, darkly funny and moving results — ingredients that come together in powerful fashion during the memorable finale.
The title of Spanish director Albert Serra’s fourth feature, “The Story of My Death,” presents a sardonic riff on 18th century Italian Renaissance man Giacomo Casanova. His memoir, “Story of My Life,” recounts his lively travels across Europe and encounters with fellow luminaries of his era like Voltaire and Rousseau. But Serra sets those recollections aside in favor of a dryly introspective look at Casanova’s dwindling command over his legacy as it starts to fray when faced with changing times, a force manifested in the form of Dracula. Shot on digital video but warmly lit primarily with natural light, “Story of My Death” retains an ancient feel on par with sifting through Casanova’s texts. Serra also infuses his work with a dreamlike quality, and Dracula’s arrival turns “Story of My Death” into an irreverent revenge story. Serra’s vampire is an expressive creature of chaos, a description that also applies to the movie itself.
“La última película”
A wry spin on the setting and concept behind Dennis Hopper’s ill-advised 1971 whatsit “The Last Movie,” this fascinating rumination on the decline of celluloid and cinema itself features “The Color Wheel” director Alex Ross Perry as a self-involved filmmaker scouting for locations in the Yucatan ahead of the Mayan apocalypse. Comically jabbing at tourist naiveté and the erosion of purely creative motivations in an era defined by cynicism, “La última película” is equal parts diary film and gonzo adventure story, a zany midnight movie in traditional avant garde clothing. Co-directed by experimental filmmaker Raya Martin (“Independencia”) and critic-programmer Mark Peranson, the movie has the discombobulated feel of cinephiles arguing amongst each other about what makes cinema so appealing, and reaching no firm conclusions aside from their joint admiration of its mysterious allure.
“We Gotta Get Out of This Place”
The directorial debut of siblings Simon and Zeke Hawkins is a smartly paced crime drama about a trio of Texan teens working for a corrupt cotton farmer and suddenly forced to commit a robbery to make up for looting his safe. While the poetic landscape and pulpy subject matter echo early Terrence Malick, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” never strains for self-importance, instead focusing on making its frantic characters believable enough to make the stakes a sense of legitimacy. While nothing you haven’t seen before, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” follows a typical formula with an assured eye for suspense and pathos that makes this surprisingly polished first feature an entirely satisfying entry in the ever-dense crime genre.