The Small Side Of TIFF: Films Worth Recommending

Hundreds of thousands of moviegoers, press, and industry players descend on Canada every year for the Toronto International Film Festival. Eleven days of red carpets, screenings, junkets, and presentations cause a gluttonous amount of content to stream out of the city, covering everything from awards season contenders to fashion faux pas. It’s difficult to imagine anything getting missed by the avalanche, but those who attend know just how immense the festival is.

There’s some things you don’t want to give away (quiet bathrooms, seats with some extra legroom), and others you want to shout in the street about. Most attendees are there because they love films, and seeing great ones come and go from the festival with little fanfare gets us all riled up.

There were 296 features shown at TIFF 2016, and most of them weren’t star-studded vehicles like La La Land or breakout hits like Moonlight. I saw several excellent films that aren’t receiving the recognition they deserve, so here is my formal shout in the street about the films you should be tracking down.

The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach)

Set on a crumbling English dairy farm after a tragic death, The Levelling keeps its dramatic premise in check. The tamped-down tone matches the father and daughter at its center, who are all that’s left of their dwindling family. The daughter (played by Ellie Kendrick, who gives an astounding performance) has already abandoned the farm to obtain a veterinary certificate and only returns after a neighbor informs her of her brother’s suicide.

The Small Side Of TIFF: Films Worth Recommending
The Levelling (2016) – source: Peccadillo Pictures

Remarkably, the pair’s communication issues are only a small symptom of a much deeper disconnect. More telling is the father’s inability to acknowledge his son’s death as a suicide. An accident, he claims, perhaps so he can still get up every morning and take care of the cows.

The daily necessities of a dairy farm is not overlooked by this film, and those that didn’t grow up in farming communities may learn a thing or two about the demands of such work. But what’s even more pertinent to the story is how ancestral these areas are. Farms are passed down from generation to generation with little change to the community and immense pressure to maintain the status quo. Writer/director Hope Dickson Leach does a wonderful job of capturing this dynamic without blowing it out of proportion. These are people who swallow life’s pressures without comment, leaving them to linger in the background.

A crumbling family will always make for a sad story, but when your community is built around staying together, the failure becomes tragic. The deteriorating farm is a nice visual representation of what hangs over the father and daughter, and their slow acknowledgement of everything that’s gone wrong makes for a truly affecting story.

Fire At Sea (Gianfranco Rosi)

Documentaries rarely attract the same level of attention and distribution as their fictional counterparts, so while Fire at Sea was the big winner at the Berlin Film Festival and has already been released in several countries, the praise it deserves has been far too muted.

The Small Side Of TIFF: Films Worth Recommending
Fire At Sea (2016) – source: Kino Lorber

The film takes a microscopic view of a very large problem, looking at the Italian island of Lampedusa and its role in the European migrant crisis. Presented in an observational style, director Gianfranco Rosi followed a handful of individuals and applied a minimal narrative to what he captured. While this method causes stretches of boredom at the beginning (you spend a lot of time with a boy and his slingshot), what creeps up is a personal investment in a very large issue.

Too often, the migrant crisis is talked about in terms of macro numbers. Approximately 1,011,700 people arrived to Europe by sea in 2015. More than 3,770 died crossing the Mediterranean in the same year. Those are troubling figures, but numbers can be numbing. Looking at the faces of those affected, either the migrants themselves, the workers trying to help them, or the citizens dealing with their sudden presence, leaves a much more lasting impression.

Rosi includes all of these viewpoints in Fire at Sea, and while he doesn’t use them to construct a particular argument, there’s inescapable artistry in how they are presented. The shot composition by Rosi (who is also the film’s cinematographer) lends an optimistic and gentle feel that keeps the film from losing all hope, while the arc he applies to their stories builds to a maddening climax.

It’s difficult not to be moved by such a well-constructed documentary, and the crisis it covers needs a humanist approach like this to combat the detached, callous way people discuss the issues surrounding it.

The Untamed (Amat Escalante)

This movie contains an alien sex master. Need I say more?

In all seriousness, there’s a lot going on in Amat Escalante’s The Untamed, which will delight those who like their genres thoroughly blended. The primary story is a muted family drama, where an unsatisfied wife is being cheated on by her husband and brother. The relationship between the men isn’t rosy, either, as it’s suppressed by the husband’s terror of Mexican culture’s intolerant views on homosexuality.

The Small Side Of TIFF: Films Worth Recommending
The Untamed (2016) – source: Adomeit Film

In the midst of this dreary love triangle comes a woman seeking a new partner for the alien being. Hidden away on an isolated farm, the creature can bring great pleasure and great pain, and to lay with the beast puts a person under a bewitching spell.

As an allegory for sexual drives and the destructive nature of ignoring or completely giving in to impulse, The Untamed delivers a notably progressive message. As a piece of science fiction, it’s an odd take on alien encounters. The creature itself is meted out in a tantalizing fashion, and the full reveal is a glorious moment of beauty, revulsion, and outright wonder.

This is a film for those who like their cinema to be a little edgy and very, very weird. A narrow audience, maybe, but one that doesn’t get many films this ambitious or this compelling.

Boys In The Trees (Nicholas Verso)

Featured in the Discovery program of TIFF, Boys in the Trees is the most tenuous of my recommendations. The section is reserved for first and second time directors, so while missteps can be fairly rampant, the point is to find filmmakers with a notable spark. In that spirit, writer and director Nicholas Verso’s vibrant coming-of-age tale demands to be mentioned.

The Small Side Of TIFF: Films Worth Recommending
Boys In The Trees (2016) – source: Mushroom Pictures

The film is set on Halloween night in 1997, and the throwback nostalgia is part of what charmed me. The boys are decked-out skaters, and the film features a soundtrack full of alt-rock jams. This was the definition of cool when I was young, and there’s a part of me that never let that notion go.

When two former friends play a game that causes fantastical elements to come crashing into their lives, Verso’s feverish imagery takes center stage. Metaphors that should be too on the nose (like cruel teenagers as a pack of wolves) morph into thrilling pantomimes and tense chases, making even the film’s narrative detours a visual pleasure.

Supporting all this style is a flawed but laudable script that refuses to treat boys as coarse beings. Even the annoying alpha male of the group has cracks, and watching them navigate around bravado to find moments of honesty is encouraging.

Boys in the Trees has too many familiar elements to be called daring, but there’s a swagger to the film that’s hard to resist. It thinks it’s pretty darn cool, and often times I agreed.

Hema Hema: Sing Me A Song While I Wait (Khyentse Norbu)

On the other end of the narrative spectrum is Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait, whose basis in Buddhist concepts and rituals will confuse many western viewers.

The Small Side Of TIFF: Films Worth Recommending
Hema Hema: Sing Me A Song While I Wait (2016) – source: Tsong Tsong Ma Productions

The film doesn’t give us time to acclimate, either. It begins with a man wandering in the forest of Bhutan, who hesitantly puts on a mask and plays a flute. He is quickly ushered away to a gathering of similarly masked individuals and instructed to speak very little. The event is said to be preparation for the bardo, a state between life and death, but what unravels is an examination of human nature when consequence is seemingly taken away.

The film takes place almost entirely in this gathering, and writer/director Khyentse Norbu’s construction of a nearly wordless and faceless story is remarkable. The main character’s dilemma is always clear, and as his battle between self-imposed limits and desires crescendo, the film takes on the feel of a thriller. What is to stop him, really, now that self has been stripped away?

The ramifications of that question stretches across all cultures, and that is what keeps the film so engaging. Yes, the movie does benefit from a fascinating bit of exoticism, but to credit that for all of its power would be reductive. It stands firmly on its own merits, but unfortunately, everything that makes it unique and impressive will also restrict it to the festival circuit.

Clair Obscur (Yesim Ustaoglu)

There’s two stories in Clair Obscur, but one fine point.

The Small Side Of TIFF: Films Worth Recommending
Clair Obscur (2016) – source: Ustaoglu Production

The Turkish drama follows a well-to-do psychiatrist and a young, unhappily married wife, initially contrasting the two women’s circumstances only to land on a disturbing similarity. It’s a film about repression and the many ways it manifests itself, and it’s a bleak, visceral take.

Director Yesim Ustaoglu establishes each woman’s world through subtle visual cues, setting up a different pallet for each storyline and using that to foreshadow their eventual wrongs. The audience is even given intimate views of their bodies, showing how the women use them to rebel and pleasure themselves.

That graphicness isn’t a gimmick, though; it establishes the body as a tool the women use in their lives, and by separating it from the mind, the repression that is physically taken out on them remains in sharp opposition to the dreams they carry for themselves.

This is one of the few glimmers of hope that Clair Obscur offers up. While the film points out that sexism is still rampant in Turkey, by simultaneously giving audiences two women who hope for something better, we know that the fight for an equal society continues on.


Given that I only saw a very small slice of what was offered at TIFF, there’s bound to be more deserving films that haven’t been properly covered. Hopefully that’s something to hold on to when your local cinema is filled with halfhearted sequels and remakes. There’s lots of great films out there. Sometimes it just takes some digging to find them.

What undervalued films do you encourage people to watch? Let us know in the comments!

Does content like this matter to you?

Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.

Join now!

Posted by Contributor