As TIFF increasingly becomes a launchpad for Oscar films and a meeting ground for film celebrities, the smaller films at the heart of the festival are falling under-the-radar. But these Canadian and international films are often some of the best films at the festival, and the ones most in need of a platform because they are still seeking distributors. Every year, Seventh Row spotlights our favourite smaller films that are still seeking distributors in at least two of Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. This year, Canadian cinema dominates our list, but there’s a healthy dose of films from around the world — from Finland to Mexico, Korea to Cuba.
Seek these films out. Often, some of our faves end up all but disappearing, like last year’s absolutely wonderful and delightful Sergio & Sergei. Fortunately, 19 out of 20 of the titles on our list last year at least got a VOD release. Here’s hoping this year’s selection will be picked up, too. Catch them while you can on the festival circuit.
This riveting documentary marks the third collaboration between Canadian director Jennifer Baichwal and legendary Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky (after Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark) about the ways humans have shaped the earth’s landscape. Anthropocene takes us around the world to see how humans have changed the physical landscape — through mining, landfills, deforestation, climate change, and more.
Taking inspiration from the Eames’ Powers of Ten, the film carefully shows us the scale of each operation, be it the machinery of mining or oil extraction or the magnitude of coral reef devastation. The film’s grating soundscape reminds us that the noise associated with these activities is itself destructive. This multisensory perspective gives a fuller picture of human impacts than Burtynsky’s photos alone.This is the directors’ first film to feature small portraits of locals so we can put a face to the people most affected. The film’s voice-over offers useful facts to frame the images we’re seeing without ever feeling preachy, which gives important context missing from Watermark.
Anthropocene doesn’t offer solutions so much as remind us of the breadth and extent of the problems. It can leave you depressed even as you are awed by the images of the earth’s natural beauty — coupled with how it’s being destroyed. It’s a useful update and a strong reminder of the global nature of a problem that cannot be isolated by borders. — Alex Heeney
In her gutsy debut feature, Swedish actress Tuva Novotny proves that the possibilities of the one-take film haven’t been exhausted yet. Instead of relying solely on the impressive technical achievement alone, she uses it to support the film’s real heart: a story about a mother who realises that she didn’t know her daughter as well as she thought. As the camera never cuts away to show us the other sides of a scene or a moment, we realise that blind spots are always all around us: we cannot see the whole story just from our point of view. Despite this complex setup and the film’s dramatic central event, Novotny shows an intelligent restraint that lets us truly absorb the immediate implications and emotions of the situation. — Elena Lazic
Lila Avilés’ debut film asks us to see an occupation hotels try to make invisible: maids. Eve (Gabriela Cartol) is a young single mother who dedicates herself to her job as a maid at an upscale hotel in hopes of gaining a favourable promotion to the luxury floor. The entire film enfolds within the glass tower of the hotel, the camera exploring both the opulence of the public side and the grunginess of the maintenance and cleaning floors. Often told through long takes, The Chambermaid emphasizes the simultaneously alienating and highly personal experience of cleaning up other people’s mess. But even when maids and guests interact, as is the case when Eva is asked to watch a rich Argentinian woman’s baby for a few minutes, no human bond develops. The rich woman’s expectation of the role leaves her incapable of seeing Eve as a person, instead of as a maid. Avilés challenges us to look beyond the uniform and pay close attention to the lives of workers cleaning up the wealthier’s waste. — Brett Pardy
Sixteen year old Peipei (Huang Yao) is desperate to make money to afford traveling with her rich friend. She takes advantage of her daily high school commute across the border from mainland China to Hong Kong to smuggle iPhones. However, she finds herself drawn further into the world of charismatic gangsters and increasingly risky hauls as money becomes addicting. The film takes us through us through the class geography of China, exploring rich kids’ parties, black market warehouses, working class shipping container homes, cramped apartments, and luxurious homes. First-time director Bai Xue has a vibrant style, skilfully controlling the pace to reflect Peipei’s two lives as student and smuggler. And the film has the year’s best shark scene! — BP
Edge of the Knife
Edge of the Knife is the first feature film entirely in Haida dialects, the language of (what is now) BC’s North Coast – and now spoken by less than 20 people. Directed by Gwaii Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown, Edge of the Knife was produced by Isuma, the group, behind Inuit films like Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. In the early 19th century, an accident leads Adiits’ii (Tyler York) to become a Gaagiixiid/Gaagiid (wild man) when his village leaves for their winter home. When the community returns the next summer, the community resolves to heal him. Carver York excels in a physically rigorous performance. This film immerses the viewer in the pre-colonial world, without any hand-holding exposition for a non-Indigenous audience. The film finishes with a haunting coda about impending colonial invasion — Brett Pardy
Gem, the eight-year-old Aboriginal protagonist of Imogen Thomas’s Emu Runner, has a habit of breaking into a run: in the opening sequence, she chases a wild emu; then, when her mother collapses, she sprints for help. Through her gait — her fast-pumping arms, audible breath, and steady step — we come to know Gem’s stamina and strength. In these respects, she resembles other members of her community in Brewarrina, a predominantly indigenous town some 500 miles from Sydney, Australia. After Gem’s mother dies, her father rises to the challenge of serving as primary caretaker for his three children, even as a dangerously overeager white social worker threatens to tear the family apart. Ultimately, Emu Runner is an uplifting tale of communal solidarity in the face of personal, yet politically charged, hardship. In the final scene, Gem runs a regional track race as her extended family members rise to their feet, urging her on. — Gillie Collins
The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia
For the second year running at TIFF, one of the most joyous films of the festival hails from Cuba and involves outer space. Last year, it was the sweet comedy Sergio & Sergei, about a ham radio enthusiast who befriended the last soviet astronaut on the MIR space station. This year, it’s the story of a middle-aged former teacher who works at the local planetarium, and who suddenly finds herself invited to visit an alien planet by her former neighbour — a woman so strange that Celeste is not surprised to discover she’s actually an alien.
In fact, a whole group of Cubans have been invited as a delegation on the alien planet, which means bureaucracy starts to take over. First, there are long queues to enter the draw for a spot on the spaceship. Then, Celeste finds herself at a remote and abandoned high school, sleeping in bunk beds and subjected to daily, regimented activities in preparation for the journey. Without ever seeing a single alien or even leaving planet earth, we completely buy that this future interstellar journey is real because of the sheer government might backing up all these activities.
What starts out as an absurd premise start to lose steam in the final act as the film focuses more on Celeste’s inward journey of self-discovery — and less on the light satire of Cuban bureaucracy. Still, it’s an utterly enjoyable ride and the perfect antidote to the many heavy films that dominate the festival. — AH
Falls Around Her
nishinaabe Kwe filmmaker Darlene Naponse sees a strong parallel between a toxic personal relationship and the colonialist approach to land use in Canada: both take and take, and there’s no end in sight. That parallel undergirds her beautiful new film, Falls Around Her, which follows Mary (Tantoo Cardinal), a famous but middle-aged musician who decides to stop touring and return to her grandmother’s home on a First Nations reserve.
Mary returns to the land to retreat from the vultures of the music business, sometimes including her fans, and to rediscover internal balance. Reintegrating into her community leads Mary to become involved with its inherent political activism : protecting its land from the local mining industry after the water was poisoned by a mine constructed without proper consultation.
Naponse’s film revels in the quiet beauty of the land and its subtle soundscape — the crunch of snow under Mary’s boot, the trickle of a stream or melting ice, and the wind in the trees. The land feels alive, and its tranquility brings Mary — and us — a sense of calm, without the noise and demands of the city. Much of the film is about watching Mary alone, rediscovering herself and her place in the world, reconnecting with old friends and family, and slowly forging new bonds.
With minimal dialogue, Naponse and Cardinal give us a portrait of a complex and sexual woman with desires and interests, a sad rarity in cinema. Above all, Mary possesses, immense capability: to captivate on stage, to run and fix her home off-the-grid, and to defend herself. By letting us experience the beautiful land, and its healing effects with Mary, Naponse’s film is a quiet rallying cry to stop environmental destruction. Losing or polluting this land becomes obviously criminal. — AH
Disaffected teens, desperate to leave their dingy hometown, dream of escaping to the big city — a staple logline of the coming-of-age genre. Canadian director Jasmin Mozaffari’s debut feature, Firecrackers, tells this familiar story with a promising amount of passion and empathy. This time, we’re following Lou (Michaela Kurimsky) as she struggles to keep her savings for long enough to run off to New York with best friend Chantal (Karena Evans), leaving abusive families and exes behind.
Mozaffari’s volatile style immerses us in the mood swings of her protagonist. Over the course of a few days, Lou moves between the ecstasy of being so close to freedom and the devastating crash into loneliness and depression when that hope is taken away. Mozaffari evokes excitement with bright colours and a mobile, handheld style. Mozaffari often shoots their homes and hometown as a dark place of confinement — Chantal tells Lou that she feels she can’t breathe, and we feel that too. Crucially, Mozaffari also takes moments to slow down, sometimes cutting away from a scene a few beats late to evoke the bittersweet way you might glance back at a place you grew up before leaving it behind for good.
Kurimsky’s searing lead performance brings the whole thing together. We open on her boisterously fighting another girl in a parking lot (a scene that mirrors the opening of Fish Tank, as if Andrea Arnold’s influence needed to be clearer). But while Lou is initially presented as an extrovert, the time Mozaffari spends with her alone makes this character study so much more insightful. Kurimsky’s defences suddenly drop: Lou is pensive, quiet, thoughtful, and grappling with a faltering (but still burning) flicker of hope. Her extroversion in public is a front she’s developed in order to survive. — Orla Smith
The Fireflies are Gone
Sébastien Pilote’s third feature is a buoyant, colourful, and often very funny coming-of-age story about a clever and cynical teenager, Léo (the wonderful Karelle Tremblay), who is coping with her parents’ divorce. To make matters worse, her new stepfather is a pompous right-wing talk radio host (“the king of the airwaves”) who helped to chase her father, the former union leader, out of town. To avoid her own problems, Léo strikes up a friendship with a middle-aged guitar teacher, which proves tender without ever problematically crossing boundaries. Tremblay’s Léo is a complex and uncommonly intelligent female protagonist, which puts Fireflies are Gone in the league of great teen films like Juno or The Edge of Seventeen. But Pilote’s interest in the complexities of the adults in Léo’s life, and the changing landscape of the town paints a broader picture beyond the confines of Léo’s teenage perspective. — AH
Giant Little Ones
17-year-old Franky (Josh Wiggins) occupies a comfortable in-between of high school life. He’s well-liked but far from the centre of attention. He watches a gay kid on his swim team get bullied, looking guilty yet doing nothing because he’s safe as he is: sensitive and quiet, yet adept at fitting in with a group of bros. Life is all lazy days in school classrooms, happy and aimless bike rides through suburban streets with his best friend Ballas (Darren Mann), and making out with his girlfriend on the couch. Franky appears relatively content. But about a third of the way through Keith Behrman’s Giant Little Ones, something happens that changes everything.
What unfolds is one of the most warm, thoughtful, and patient explorations of teen sexuality that the coming-of-age genre has to offer. In fact, the film flips the genre’s typical arc: most teen protagonists start out lost and eventually realise who they are. Franky starts the film pretty sure of who he is — but he learns to open himself up to not knowing. It’s a beautiful notion that ought to be espoused more often, and chiefly, it’s delivered here in a highly entertaining package, fit with a great soundtrack, compelling characters, and one unforgettable dick joke. — OS
The Great Darkened Days
Although Maxime Giroux’s (Felix and Meira) latest film has all the ingredients of an absurdist movie, its core is extremely sincere. Our anchor across the film’s many odd situations is a Charlie Chaplin impersonator (brilliantly played by Martin Dubreuil) who, as quirky as he may appear, turns out to be the most sane of all the people he meets. Among the beautiful and bare landscapes of the American west, our hero drifts from encounter to encounter, each more violent and unsettling than the one that came before — this chaotic world that seems to exist outside of time appears bent on destroying his kindness and his heart, as humble and small as it is. The Great Darkened Days is as unsettling as it is absorbing, as eye-pleasing as it is heart-wrenching. — EL
In stripping the samurai film back to its main components and placing it into a realistic setting, Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto crafts a potent and thrilling critique of violence and the traditions that justify it. Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a young ronin used to a tranquil life in the countryside: in a time of peace, he makes a living helping farmers with their daily chores. A skilled sword fighter, he appreciates sparring as a sport rather than as a means to an end: he doubts his ability and his desire to kill a man. This pressure he feels to live up to the idea of the bloodthirsty samurai is exacerbated by his meeting with Jirozaemon Sawamura (beautifully played by director Tsukamoto himself). This older, charismatic and cold-blooded samurai shames Mokunoshin into coming with him to a faraway battle, but they never get there. In the middle of the forest, far from the city where the traditions and rules of samurai honour make sense, Jirozaemo’s ruthless assassinations are the cruel and unnecessary murders of a sadistic killing machine. Tsukamoto’s film is a tense, moving, and visually inventive study of class, madness and violence. — EL
Korean filmmaker Han Ka-ram’s first feature is a thoughtful and sensitive look at late twenties malaise, female friendship, and the way both of these can turn into an obsession with the body. Ja-young (Moon Choi) is 31 but still living like a student, after spending years studying for a civil service exam that her mother wants her to take but that Ja-young has long since lost interest in. She doesn’t know what she wants, and she feels detached from her body, her family, and her life. But when she spots a beautiful runner, Hyun-joo (Ahn Ji-hye), Ja-young becomes obsessed with meeting and befriending her — the film leaves ambiguous whether Ja-Young wants to be Hyun-Jo or simply desires her. So Ja-young, who has barely left her apartment in year, takes up running, which helps her become more connected to her body and her life. And her friendship with the successful, seemingly together Hyun-joo helps Ja-young realise that nobody really has it figured out. — AH
Out of Blue
A sinewy and complex riff on the gumshoe thriller, the latest film from British director Carol Morley is her most ambitious and hypnotic to date. New Orleans native Patricia Clarkson stars as a detective investigating the mysterious death of a renowned astrophysicist in modern day New Orleans — a case that quickly brings back buried memories for the usually very private and unemotional woman. Populated with distinctively oddball turns from amazing actors like James Caan, Jacki Weaver and Toby Jones, this atmospheric and haunting murder mystery of astronomical proportions evokes Lynch, Cronenberg and classic Noir, all the while retaining Morley’s own evocative style. — EL
Ray & Liz
The debut feature from celebrated British photographer Richard Billingham is one of our favourite discoveries of the year. Based on Billingham’s own childhood memories, the dreamlike film isn’t so much a walk down memory lane as a series of brief but momentous visits into the past. Billingham reinvents the genre of the kitchen sink drama, its social realist angle filtered through the processes of experiencing and remembering.
Ray, an old man living alone in a small and grey one-room flat atop a tall building, drifts into memories of his younger days. The contrast between these temporalities is brutal, making Ray’s remembrances all the more vivid and precious. Back then, life was busy and colourful, animated by the eccentric character of his wife Liz, and the naughty jokes of his two children (Billingham is one of them). But Ray & Liz, as visually striking and melancholy as it is, isn’t straightforwardly nostalgic: most of the moments we revisit from Ray’s past show parental negligence, violence, alcoholism, and loneliness. — EL
Part I, Daniel Blake and part Two Days, One Night, Paddy Breathnach’s Rosie tackles the Irish housing crisis through the lens of one woman’s search for a place where her family can stay the night. Over the course of 24 hours, we anxiously watch Rosie (a captivating Sarah Greene) call number after number in the hope that one will come back with good news. The closest Breathnach’s film gets to overtly political is the newscast audio that plays over a black screen in the opening seconds. Otherwise, he decides that the best way to make a political point is by telling a human story: all we need is to spend some time in Rosie’s shoes. Greene plays her as kind, intelligent, and resourceful — she’s doing everything she can and more, which makes her ultimate helplessness against the system even more heartbreaking. — OS
Based on the play by Canadian Lee-Anne Poole, Splinters is a quiet family drama about grief, acceptance, and trying not to repeat the past. Belle (a luminous Sofia Banzhaf) returns to her rural Nova Scotia home for her father’s funeral with complicated feelings: her parents were unaccepting when she came out to them as a teenager, and she blames her father for her mother’s stagnant life even as she misses him. Belle is also desperately trying to hide that she’s been in a relationship with a man for two years, concerned that her family will chalk up her past girlfriends to just a phase. Instead, Belle finds an unexpectedly accepting — if complicated — welcome. Shot by the incomparable Luc Montpellier, the film captures the beauty of Nova Scotia and keeps us steeped in the very specific Maritime culture. — AH
Stupid Young Heart
Disaffected 15 year Lenni (Jere Ristseppä) gravitates toward a white nationalist group in a working class Helsinki suburb. Lenni believes he must become a “man” to support his pregnant girlfriend, but can only imagine this in terms of traditional, toxic examples. Director Selma Vilhunen (Little Wing) captures how hate groups lure: not through ideology, but through emotional appeals to isolated young men. Vilhunen avoids a trite redemption arc in favour of asking larger, troubling questions. Even in Finland, a country with one of the world’s most developed social safety nets, the hopelessness young people feel in finding work and housing can easily be co-opted by the worst of society. What hope do more conservative nations have? — BP
Vita & Virginia
Chanya Button’s second film, Vita & Virginia,, tells the story of two very different women, each radicals of their time, who had one of the most infamous affairs in literary history — Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton). Arterton’s Vita is a rich, fabulously dressed 1920’s New Woman, a successful author who wants to experience everyone and everything, and has no interest in letting her husband slow her down. Debicki’s Virginia is more reserved and subdued, a brilliant woman with confidence in her intellect but less comfortable socially; she seems as fragile as she is ethereal. Though Virginia doesn’t have a sexual relationship with her husband, they are deeply entwined partners, offering mutual support and running a publishing house together.
Button builds up the meeting between these two women to feel like a momentous occasion, though the relationship that ensues is less exciting: the women desire each other, but fit together in bed better than they do in life. The film is smart about the difference between desire and need, between a relationship and an affair. Virginia’s soulmate is her husband; Vita’s soulmate is the world. Featuring gorgeous period costumes and a spunky 21st century score, Vita & Virginia is above all a showcase for its leads even as it repeatedly reminds us how ahead of their time these women were. — AH