A Look Back at the Toronto International and New York Film Festivals

A Look Back at the Toronto International and New York Film Festivals

Film festivals are sneak previews of what to look for throughout the year, both on the big screen and through streaming services like Netflix. There are a surprising number of films circulating that are informed by architecture and design, including standouts like Twelve Years and Slave and Spike Jonze’s Her. In Stray Dogs (NYFF), a girl asks her mother why the walls of their apartment are so mottled. Her mother says houses are like people, with wrinkles on their face; their walls are so scarred because during a heavy rain the house cried tears. Not all tales are so sad, but It’s always a wonderful surprise when the physical space plays such a prominent role. Here is a selection you should be sure to catch that were previewed at the recent Toronto and New York Film Festivals (TIFF and NYFF).

Look out for Main Hall, a stroboscopic deconstruction of the central exhibition space of Vienna Secession building; the photographer’s studio of layered colored scrims, mirrors and camera of Pepper’s Ghost; the architectural illustrator starring in Bobô; the constructivist building that is built up and toppled down to the strains of Shostakovich in Gloria Victoria; the beautifully destroyed industrial interior of Portrait as a Random Act of Violence; the fetid water, workers and ships of Gowanus Canal; checking into anonymous spaces in Hotells; the ruined Byzantine Greek church in Trissakia 3; the framing device of a square perched in fast-moving riverbeds in Brimstone Line; or the tall, bleak apartment building (and its miniature in glass) at the center of Rigor Mortis; and Kenneth Anger’s Airships 1,2,3 of dirigible flying over Manhattan [all seen at TIFF]. At NYFF, we saw Aujourd’hui, the end of the world as experienced at the Biblioteque Nacionale de France (BNF) by Dominique Perrault (the filmmaker says this apocalyptic film is set there to echo the end of knowledge); L’Assenza (Absence), about a movie-goer who sees his doppelganger in a B&W 1960s Italian film set in a chic modernist house; and Nebraska (Bruce Dern won best actor at Cannes), described by veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler as a Walker Evans come to life.

Of particular note is Cold Eyes. Set in Seoul, a crack police surveillance team (the squad that precedes the tactical teams) uses the nearly ubiquitous CCTV cameras throughout the city and GPS tracking, coupled with detailed city maps, to target their quarry. There are new high rises everywhere with only a few holdouts of low-rise, downtrodden older stores and markets dotted around the city center. This is where the underworld nests because of its central location but off the digital grid. The key villain is often perched on rooftops so he (and we) see the cityscape, roadways, and pedestrian traffic and track the mayhem he causes. The striking opening sequence includes Seoul’s underground subways, above ground parking garages, and rooftops. A true sense of the layered urban fabric. (TIFF)

Similarly, Trap Street is about surveying and surveillance. The hero works as a surveyor of streets for a private GPS company in China. Intrigued with a girl who works at a covert lab on a “trap street”—a by-way that is literally off the map, he also moonlights installing hidden cameras in government offices. All goes haywire when he realizes he’s being surveilled. (TIFF)

Have you ever wanted to eat a building? In Exhibition a party gathers to do just that — at least a cake that is a scale model of the West London townhouse by modernist architect James Melvin, who designed the first fully-glazed curtain wall building in England, Castrol House (1960). The spartanly beautiful house which Melvin occupied and was remodeled in the 1990s by Berlin architects Sauerbruch Hutton features a metal spiral stair, sliding walls, built-in desks, doors studded with irises, and floor-to-ceiling glass panes. The house is occupied by an artist couple who work on separate floors and communicate by intercom. The husband, played by artist Liam Gillick, decides they should sell the house which they’ve occupied for nearly 20 years, to try something new. This sets off a series of disruptions, particularly for his wife, who loves the house and for whom it has always been a safe haven. A highlight is the disingenuous realtor (Tom Hiddleston) who is selling the house, which is the anchor and catalyst of this film. (NYFF)

Only Lovers Left Alive is Jim Jarmusch’s love letter to Detroit….and Tangier. Shot entirely at night, the vampire Adam shows his longtime partner Eve, his favorite haunts in this post-industrial city: the Michigan Building, an abandoned 1925 Rapp & Rapp Italianate movie palace turned parking garage, Albert Kahn’s Packard plant, and musician Jack’s White house. Growing up in Cleveland, Jarmusch’s vision of Detroit was “almost mythological…this Paris of the Midwest” drawn in “visually and historically, for its musical culture and industrial culture.” (NYFF)

Whereas Jarmusch looks longingly backwards, Spike Jonze envisions a near-future Los Angeles in Her. His world is a modernist paradise with elevated walkways, efficient public transportation supplanting cars, and sleek residential high-rises—Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in the Beverly Wilshire City Tower—that sport submersive video environments in the living room, rear-lit shelves, and 3D sculpture in the lobby. Theodore wanders through the city, whose exteriors were shot around the 18 feet-high, 15-person across Circular Walkway linking the Oriental Pearl and Jin Mao towers in Pudong, Shanghai. His budding romance with a female operating system, Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson) also takes him to his Jamba Juice-colored office, and an Asian fusion restaurant with coped walls that are striated like a skeleton, globe lanterns, and white Eames-like chairs. The film’s design was influenced by conversations Jonze had with DS+R’s Liz Diller, who he asked what the future could look like. She replied with a question: is your imagined future utopian or distopian. Utopia won. (NYFF)

Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave is what the director likens to a science fiction film since his protagonist has landed in a completely alien world. This Turner Prize winner, who started out making sculpture and art films, has included two pivotal scenes centered on building construction in this tale of a free black man, Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from Saratoga, NY, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. In the first, he argues with the overseer/chief carpenter, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), over the laying of shingles—“make them boards flush. Smooth to the touch.”—which are kicked in, rebuilt, and fought over, resulting in Solomon’s trade to a far harsher plantation. After more than a decade, he is again working on the construction of a new gazebo with a white day-labor carpenter, Sam Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian who opposes slavery on moral grounds. Gradually, as they work together, Solomon asks Bass to relay his story. This is what finally frees him. (TIFF & NYFF)

Films and directors:
Airships, Kenneth Anger
Aujourd’hui, Nicolas Saada
Bobô, Inês Oliveira
Brimstone Line, Chris Kennedy
Cold Eyes, Cho Ui-seok & Kim Byung-seo
Exhibition, Joanna Hogg
Gowanus Canal, Sarah J. Christman
Her, Spike Jonze
Hotells, Lisa Langseth
L’Assenza, Jonathan Romney
Main Hall, Philipp Fleischmann
Nebraska, Alexander Payne
Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch
Pepper’s Ghost, Stephen Broomer
Portrait as a Random Act of Violence, Randall Lloyd Okita
Stray Dogs, Jiao You | Tsai Ming-liang
Trap Street, Vivian Qu
Trissakia 3, Nick Collins
Twelve Years and Slave, Steve McQueen

Requested photo credits:
Only Lovers Left Alive. Photo Credit: Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
12 Years a Slave: Fox Searchlight Pictures