Riding out the buzz and some stellar films at the first day of TIFF

We watched Paul Dano’s directorial debut, a gritty Irish western, Rob Stewart’s posthumous shark doc and Olivier Assayas’ latest during our first day at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Juliette Binoche and Guillaume Canet in Non-Fiction

I feel a bit of a different vibe this TIFF. It’s not really one that’s palpable walking around; people are still going wild for celebrities, buzz still dominates the conversation and the hot takes are still coming out with vim and vigour. But there’s also a kind of wariness surrounding this buzz that has never been this obvious before. There’s an inevitable rise-and-fall to buzz that breeds in film festivals. People work themselves up into a tizzy proclaiming things to be masterpieces only to find themselves having had the “incorrect” take when backlash brews up come awards time.

Last year, there was deafening buzz for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, The Florida Project and Lady Bird; this year, the buzz is mainly centred around Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, a movie that no one would ever have thought would dominate the conversation at this time last year. Consequently, A Star Is Born is the hottest ticket at TIFF this year – and I could care less. It’s not that I think the movie will be bad; by all accounts, it is a very good example of the kind of quadrant-pleasing movie that used to dominate the conversation. But if I see A Star Is Born now, I will be so extremely over it by the time everyone else sees it that I won’t be able to look at it with any objectivity. It’s not something that I think is particularly healthy for “the conversation” writ large, but that’s where we’re at now.


Olivier Assayas has established that he does whatever the fuck he wants for years now. There are three or four kinds of movies that are, for lack of a better term, “very Assayas.” I wouldn’t really throw the verbose satire Non-Fiction into any of those categories, though it’s so aggressively French that it may qualify by default. Guillaume Canet stars as Alain, a literary agent whose biggest client, Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) is patently incapable of writing books that don’t draw directly from his real life. That real life involves an affair with Alain’s wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), an actress on a well-regarded cop show who feels like her career is stagnating. Léonard’s wife Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) works for a socialist politician that all of her friends are fairly dubious of, and Alain is sleeping with his assistant Laure (Christa Théret), which theoretically upsets his wife but… well, all these affairs are very French.

Though it sounds like a sex farce, Non-Fiction is also an extreme talky satire of The Times We Live In, with characters expounding at length about digitization, streaming, SEO, the role of critics in current society, art consumption and various other 21st century concerns. Friends meet over wine and expound at length over this; some of it’s surprisingly funny and self-aware, some of it becomes repetitive and annoying before long. Assayas veers into some pretty surprisingly meta territory at times and the cast (especially Binoche) is extremely likeable. If nothing else, it’s the only boner jam I can think of that also spends a considerable amount of time analyzing the positives and negatives of Kindles… and that’s not nothing.

Non-Fiction is set to open the Cinemania film festival in Montreal on Nov. 1, with a release in the following weeks

Sharkwater Extinction

Documentary filmmaker and conservationist Rob Stewart was working on Sharkwater Extinction when he drowned off the coast of Florida in 2017. Though the final product is credited to him, it functions mostly as a eulogy and last hurrah. Clocking in at a slight 70-some minutes, it’s clear that Sharkwater Extinction is something of an unfinished work, but it’s also a worthy cap to Stewart’s career.

Rob Stewart was a shark nerd; he loved sharks more than anything in the world, it seems, and dedicated his entire life to their preservation. Sharkwater Extinction focuses mostly on proving a statistic wherein Stewart believes that the “official” number of sharks killed every year (somewhere in the vicinity of 80 million) is actually about half of the real amount. He and his team travel around the world specifically to observe how fishermen trap sharks and butcher them for their meat.

Not everyone will share in Stewart’s enthusiasm and love for the sharks. It’s sometimes hard to be on his side when he describes them as cute and fluffy. But it’s also clear that some fucked up shit is happening out there. The film’s points are certainly tempered by its tragic and unexpected ending, but as activist docs go, Sharkwater Extinction does a pretty good job.

Sharkwater Extinction is set for release on Oct. 5.

Black ‘47

There’s a particular breed of Western that seems to exist solely on the festival circuit. Grim and gritty, they appear to be particularly inspired by the work of John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road) and they aren’t generally seen by too many people upon release. Lance Daly’s Black ‘47 is very much in that tradition: a slate-grey, miserable thriller about morally bankrupt men and the lengths they’re willing to go to in order to right wrongs. Though it’s set in 1840s Ireland and about half of it in is Gaelic, Black ‘47 very much feels like a Western. It walks in the steps of miserabilist epics like Hostiles, taking many of the flaws inherent with the genre along for the ride.

Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) has spent years abroad as a soldier for the British Army. When he returns to his homeland, he finds that the potato famine has wiped out most of his family. Unscrupulous land barons have sentenced his brother to death, leaving his widow (Sarah Green) and children to starve. Left with very few options and facing almost certain extermination by the British-led Catholic forces that want to exterminate Gaelic-speaking Irish from Ireland, Feeney snaps. Motivated only by revenge, he begins taking out everyone and everything that may have wronged him, tailed closely by an old army comrade (Hugo Weaving), who has taken the job to avoid rotting in jail for murdering a suspect with his bare hands.

I think you can pretty easily picture the vibe: it’s always raining, everyone’s covered in mud, the only pops of colour come from people who are shot in the head, everyone’s drunk and miserable and nothing matters. There’s an inherent appeal to these types of gritted-up downtrodden genre pieces, but I’d be lying if I said that Black ‘47 brings anything new to the table. The whole thing really revels in the look and sensation of the way wearing a pair of wet socks feels.The only thing that sets it apart is its setting, which is rich and evocative enough to add a layer or two to what’s otherwise pretty boilerplate. At its best, it plays like a particularly gnarly Pogues song; at its worst, it’s a Liam Neeson movie that got all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Black ‘47 does not yet have a Montreal release date


Paul Dano makes his directorial debut with Wildlife, an adaptation of a Richard Ford novel written by Dano’s real-life partner, actress Zoe Kazan. Wildlife is ultimately a film about dysfunctional families and divorce, though Dano’s treatment places it somewhere far removed from what you might expect. Set in 1960, it stars Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as a couple who move to Montana with their teenage son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). Though they’ve ostensibly moved to find work, Gyllenhaal’s Jerry is almost immediately sacked from his job as a golf pro. With his pride wounded, he spirals into a depression and refuses to find another job that’s below him until he decides to join a roving firefighter crew, a poorly paid and dangerous job that leaves his wife Jeannette in the lurch.

With Jerry away chiefly due to his own bruised male ego, Jeannette’s resentment grows. She finds a job and starts an affair with a local businessman (Bill Camp), shirking her duties as a mother and slowly regressing to the person she used to be. Wildlife is told chiefly through Joe’s eyes, and a lot of the film takes place in the disquieting stillness that takes over when real-life drama takes hold. There isn’t a lot of yelling and screaming and dramatic Oscar flourishes here; it’s a film that explores the banality of the life-changing and irreparable. Dano wields the 1960 setting expertly, making a film that looks the way old photographs feel.

Mulligan is particularly incredible as Jeannette, a contradictory mess of well-meaning selfishness. Dano is one of the few directors to understand Mulligan’s timelessness: she both looks like she could exist at any time in history and has an ageless quality where she looks both tired and world-weary and young and chipper (sometimes in the same second). She ultimately walks away with Wildlife, but everyone else is to be commended.

Wildlife is set for release in Oct. 2018