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[TIFF '13] FANGO’s Top TIFF picks!

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Fangoria’s Chris Alexander, Kier-La Janisse and Phil Brown spent a week exploring the many genre offerings of the Toronto International Film Festival from Sept 5-15, and here are our personal top fives of everything we managed to see!

Chris Alexander, Editor-in-Chief:

TIFF 2013 has come and gone and though I didn’t absorb as many pictures as I would have liked do to the demands of this bloody magazine I edit, the ones I did take in were almost universally majestic…save for the handful of duds I walked out on (and they shall remain nameless).

Here then, are the pictures that rocked my ass hard this round.

In no particular order…

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
Stylish, sensual and exotic vampire shrug from Jim Jarmusch casts the immaculate Tilda Swinton as an ageless vampire Queen and THOR’s Tom Hiddleston as her fanged, doom-rocker muse. Dusty, slow and often rather sweet, the film plays like a bloodscented breeze blowing through the ruins of Detroit. That said, I could have done without the heavy handed hip dialogue and out of touch asides, like the vamps driving by Jack White’s house and gushing about the rocker like he was Mozart. Still, such trespasses are forgivable and NO LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is vintage Jarmusch.

OCULUS
Mike Flanagan chases his stellar indie debut ABSENTIA with this ambitious yarn about a malevolent mirror’s centuries old hold on humanity. Lots of slow burning atmosphere and eerie dissonance meld with tepid dialogue and initially jarring flashback conceits; it all pays off in the final act with ingenious editing and a weighty dose of emotional heft. More challenging horror filmmaking from a man who is fast becoming a master.

HOW I LIVE NOW
Not a horror movie by definition, but this film – based on the same-named young adult novel – gives one hope for dark dramas geared for teens. In it, the hypnotic Saorise Ronan (who will soon be seen in Ryan Gosling’s creeper HOW TO CATCH A MONSTER, also featuring Barbara Steele), stars a British girl who finds family and romance in the English countryside only to be jettisoned into the hell of World War III. Featuring great performances, beautiful photography and alarming amounts of brutality.

UNDER THE SKIN
One of the greatest horror films I’ve ever seen. Hyperbole? Bite me. Jonathan Glazer’s fractured, surreal, abrasive, meandering and wildly beautiful art sci-fi horror erotica masterpiece is one long, alternately elegant study of bizarre behavior and offers a titanic turn by Scarlett Johansen as an alien succubus sent to Scotland to lure men to their inky, erect deaths. Why she does this is left mostly to the imagination, as is most of the plot and that’s what’s so powerful about the movie: it asks the audience to figure it out. Many won’t and this visionary work will be sharply divisive.

Phil Brown, contributing writer:

GRAVITY
Not strictly horror, but undeniably terrifying, Alfonso Cuaron’s latest film is a technical milestone and an immersive masterpiece. There’s simply never been a film like this one, both because Cuaron’s techniques are so unique and also because new technology had to be designed just to pull of his most ambitious ideas. Told with two actors in real time, it’s storytelling stripped down to its rawest form. The simplicity and directness of the script is matched by the incomprehensively complex technical achievements to produce something so viscerally effective that it plays like something halfway between a thrill ride a movie. It’s not just a film, it’s an experience and a gut wrenchingly intense one that is not to be missed.

THE SACRAMENT
Following the impressive twin successes of House Of The Devil and The Innkeepers, Ti West has returned with a far different film. It’s not as elegantly shot or classically constructed, but that’s part of the point. West stripped away all of his stylistic trappings to create a film about a suicide cult heavily influenced by Jonestown that is emotionally draining and narratively direct. The scares and dread are created through situations rather than technique and West’s intense screenplay offers plenty of ways to be disturbed. It’s framed as a found footage movie about a pair of Vice journalists that enter a cult at a moment of crisis, but never feels too enslaved by the trappings of the subgenre. Filled with incredible performances (particularly Gene Jones as the disturbingly charismatic cult leader) and deeply unsettling sequences, The Sacrament walks the line between horror and drama in a way that makes it unique in West’s increasingly impressive filmography and suggests that he still has plenty of strong work yet to come.

THE GREEN INFERNO
A big ol’ comeback for cannibal pictures and writer/director Eli Roth, The Green Inferno entered TIFF as the horror film with the most hype and delivered by far the most disgusting experience. As expected, Roth holds nothing back when his film hits mealtime, with the KNB crew delivering gag worthy work that honors the memory of the original Italian vomit factories well. The script is classic Eli Roth, shoving satirically unlikable characters into ugly situations and watching them get they deserve. There’s some mild satire about political activists groups taking advantage of naïve students as meat for their cause, as well as the subgenre’s staple comparison between “civilized” human exploitation and “waste not, want not” cannibalism. Darkly funny, gruesomely gory, and always entertaining, it’s exactly what we’ve all grown to expect from Roth and nice to know that he lost none of his skills during his prolonged absence as a director. Sure there’s some rough acting and cheesy dialogue, but that’s a staple of the horror genre and at least the film delivers where it counts.

OCULUS
A unexpected treat that ended up being one of the highlights of the Midnight Madness program this year, Mike Flanagan’s follow up to Absentina is one of the finest haunted house (or haunted mirror) flicks in recent recant years. The script takes a little while to get going, but once it takes off Flanagan provides two solid horror flicks for the price of one. The film follows the story of a brother and sister who saw their parents go murderously insane from a haunted mirror in childhood and reunite as adults to prove the object was responsible. By the end Flanagan mixes between the two narrative in such creative and terrifying ways that it becomes impossible to tear away. Filled with effective set pieces, impressive special effects, and a handful of good old timey jump scares, Oculus is a classic haunted house experience with some well employed creative tricks to make old feel new. It’s enough to make it seem as though Flanagan could have a long future in the horror game and hopefully his next project can live up to this one.

A FIELD IN ENGLAND
TIFF favorite Ben Wheatley (KILL LIST, SIGHTSEERS) returns with hallucinogenic historical fiction that doubles as a sly medieval horror tale. The setup is as simple as five men going insane on magic mushrooms and misplaced belief systems in an abandoned field in Civil War England. The delivery can feel maddeningly complex, mixing arcane language with graphic violence and philosophical musings amidst a few rounds of psychological warfare. Wheatley shoots in his usual handheld realist style, but adds more stylized sequences and black and white photography to expand his craft in what very much feels like a tiny experimental feature made between major projects. Still the man has done enough solid work to enjoy a self-indulgent experiment between bigger productions and one-off directorial wanks rarely turn out this compelling. A weird and wonderful little film that’s worth seeking out (Lord knows a massive nationwide theatrical release is not in this thing’s future).

Kier-La Janisse, FANGORIA Online Director:

THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS
I took some heat for giving Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s latest experimental  mind-masher 4 skulls (see my full review HERE), but the fact remains that no one in the genre is doing what they do, or doing it as well. Sure, you can argue that the film would be infinitely more accessible if plotting was prioritized a bit more, but this impressionistic giallo-inspired audiovisual arsenal is an absolute pleasure if you like your films on the formalist side.

PROXY
A big discovery of the fest for me (see full review HERE), Zack Parker’s fourth feature opens with a bang and just gets weirder and darker by the minute. Alexia Rasmussen stars as a pregnant woman who is attacked in an alleyway and becomes psychotically obsessed with a woman she meets at grief counseling. But this is no SINGLE WHITE FEMALE; rarely have the cinematic sub-branches of female neuroses extended to this deep of an emotional black hole. A brilliantly daring psychosexual thriller that poses many uncomfortable questions, PROXY is one to watch for when IFC Midnight releases it down the line. Also featuring yet another great performance by mumblegore fave Joe Swanberg.

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE
Frank Pavich’s sophomore feature doc shines an enthusiastic light on one of the most famous films never made: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s fabled 1970s version of Frank Herbert’s DUNE.  Although Jodo’s DUNE never made it into actual production before falling apart (as with epic counterparts like Andrzej Zulawski’s ON THE SILVER GLOBE or Richard Williams’ THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER) the pre-production on his would-be psychedelic sci-fi masterpiece was extensive, and included him putting together not only a killer cast that included Orson Welles, Salvador Dali and Mick Jagger, but also a creative dream team of then-strangers (Moebius, Dan O’Bannon, HR Giger and more) who would go on to win Oscars for ALIEN, taking with them many of the concepts from the aborted DUNE project. The doc suggests that film history – and especially the history of George Lucas’ contemporary sci-fi blockbuster – would have been significantly altered had Jodorowsky’s vision been allowed to come to fruition. While the fawning interviews can seem a bit repetitive, it is hard not to get sucked into Jodo’s rousing spiritual trip. The magnitude and mystery of this project make Pavich’s enlightening doc a must-see.

UNDER THE SKIN
Jonathan Glazer’s latest, based on the book by Michel Faber (2000), sees Scarlett Johansson don a British accent as an alien trawling Glasgow streets for men to consume, turning them into soggy husks with the help of some unearthly black ooze. Johansson’s Pre-Raphaelite facial vacancy actually works to great effect here; she’s believable as an alien trying to pass for human (even if this human form does seem modeled after cult film fave Fairuza Balk!). A rambling – some might say unforgivably slow – travelogue punctuated by truly startling setpieces and the most eerie film score I’ve heard in ages (courtesy of experimental musician Mica Levi), it is a haunting film that envelops you in its warm wet womb of unfathomable otherness.

OCULUS
I was a huge fan of Mike Flanagan’s 2006 short film version of OCULUS as well as his debut genre feature ABSENTIA, and with this follow-up he provided the most traditionally scary film of this year’s TIFF (the woman next to me was jumping and screaming regularly throughout, which added extra ambience to the screening). The intensity of the short film’s sole character is transferred to the female lead here (played by DOCTOR WHO regular Karen Gillan), who revisits her childhood home following her brother’s release from a mental institution to video document the historical tragedies associated with a haunted mirror known as ‘The Lasser Glass’, which she believes is responsible for her parents’ deaths a decade earlier. The simplistic premise of the film is bolstered by clever editing (aside from directing, Flanagan is a regularly working film editor) that sees events from the past playing out simultaneously with events from the present rather than relying on conventional flashbacks. This paralleling of time becomes more frenzied as the film nears its climax, creating a tense denouement that dabbles in physics as well as hallucinations and ghosts.

*Note: BLUE RUIN, BORGMAN and A FIELD IN ENGLAND only didn’t make my list because I first saw them at other festivals!

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