TIFF 2011: five films in review

Death of a Superhero

Part of an unexpected slew of “cancer comedy” films hitting the festival (most notably 50/50, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen) this year, Death of a Superhero, from Irish director Ian Fitzgibbon (whose terrific last film, Perrier’s Bounty, screened at TIFF in 2009), proves just as poignant and hilarious.

Despite the subject matter, Fitzgibbon wisely avoids making his film dour or sombre, but instead foregrounds character and heart by, in his own words, making a film about a character who just happened to have cancer as opposed to “a cancer film.”

As such, Fitzgibbon manages to explore the circumstance of dealing with cancer in a more profound and truthful fashion. Similarly, unique touches such as protagonist Donald (the eerily believable Thomas Brodie-Sangster) envisioning himself as a superhero constantly being chased by a sinister, Freddy Krueger-like supervillain (representative of cancer) in a succession of excellent, stylized animated interludes, or daring comedic twists (when Donald’s condition takes a turn for the worse, his father, rather than crying or denying it, opts to get high with his son, arguably the highlight of the film), render the film refreshingly truthful and enjoyable without treating the subject matter with flippancy.

Add a heartwarming and hysterical performance by the criminally underrated Andy Serkis as Donald’s  therapist and Death of a Superhero emerges as one of the most charming, thoughtful, hilarious and inspiring films to reach the festival this year.


Delving into the seldom explored condition of sex addiction, director Steve McQueen (whose astonishing debut Hunger detailed the excruciating last days of an IRA prison hunger strike) offers yet another flooring film likely to haunt and perplex the viewer for days after viewing it.

Shame almost comes across as a Hollywood narrative (it’s easy to think of the film as a counterpoint to American Psycho, with the character using sex rather than violence as an outlet), but one with almost all the ‘Hollywood’ moments carved out. The backstories of characters are left largely a mystery and their thoughts and feelings are seldom conveyed. General ambiguity and unanswered questions may alienate some viewers as much as the frequent and graphic sex and nudity.

Such an approach, however, does function to better highlight the performance of the stars. Current spotlight superstar Michael Fassbender does not disappoint, delivering what is perhaps his strongest performance to date as a man who, despite projecting a confident, successful front, remains crippled with emotional deadness, self-repulsion and evident inner pain. Carey Mulligan delivers ample support as the flighty but haunted sister, making Shame an occasionally frustrating but complex and powerful work easily worth seeing.


The sole disappointment of my TIFF experience this year, Headshot, from Thailand, proved a film unable to live up to its intriguing plot (a cop-turned-hitman, shot in the head, wakes up to find he sees everything upside down). Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang aims for an artsy, non-linear feel, evoking the moody lighting, crisp cinematography and melancholy music of film noir, but struggles to maintain narrative coherency amidst constant, unspecified jolting back and forth in time and an emotionally distant approach to story and character. While the occasional (brief) shootouts instil brief bursts of energy, there is a consistent sense of being lulled into a trance by the film, which is certainly not conducive to following the plot.

Equally, the upside down seeing trope is barely explored and only eventually translated into a hackneyed metaphor (“only now can I see clearly”) which feels like a criminally misused opportunity. In the end, no matter how sumptuous the film may be to look at, an unfortunate one-two punch of the viewer having to struggle to keep up with the story and equally struggling to care makes for an uneasy viewing experience.

– Compiled by Kevin Hatch

The Artist

In this stunning black-and-white silent film, the audience is taken back to the 1930’s by French director Michel Hazanavicius. Initially, the audience is introduced to characters George Valentin, Hollywood’s current heartthrob, and Peppy Miller, an up-and-coming actress waiting for her big break. As Hollywood begins to experience a transition away from silent films into ‘talkies’, Valentin faces conflict between his ego, new technology and his budding romance with Miller. Staying true to the art of silent film, the director uses traditional conventions such as incorporating iris-ins and outs as transitions, using as few intertitles as possible, and keeping the audience on the edge of their seats with two suspenseful chase sequences.

Although the modern audience may not be used to watching a feature-length silent film, it should not be a deal breaker for going to see this film. Those who are fans of Singin’ in the Rain are especially likely to respond favourably to The Artist. If that is not enough, performances by James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, Jean Dujardin (who secured Best Actor at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for his performance) and Uggy the jack russell terrier, are sure to win you over.


One conversation, one run-in, one simple action, can alter life’s path when two strangers interact with each other. Following the format of a puzzle film, director Fernando Meirelles takes the audience in a circle as we view the cause and effects of each character’s actions towards each other and how it affects one another.

Wonderfully crafted, the film’s plotline is constructed in a way to leave you on the edge of your seat. The audience gets taken all over the world; such as seeing the gritty parts of Venice, Italy, the bone-chilling weather in Denver, Colorado and a surprisingly sunny London, England. The jump from location to location is not confusing as the cinematography is able to give us beautiful establishing shots of each location (as well as including a title at the corner of the frame) with the reoccurring motif of an airplane flying off in the background. Performances delivered by a slew of international actors steal the screen, leaving familiar faces — Rachel Weisz, Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law — left on the sidelines. The use of an ensemble cast may at first seem confusing (and at some parts, pointless), but it functions to further advance the plot, and in the end, offers a rewarding outcome to those who pay close attention. That being said, if you dislike having to constantly connect the dots in order to understand what is going on, then this film will not appeal to you. However, if you enjoy intertwining plot-lines and ensemble casts exemplified in such Oscar-winning films as Babel and Crash, 360 will not disappoint.

– Compiled by Carly Basch

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