TIFF's Vanguard has always kind of been the bastard step-child of the Toronto festival, something previously had never really found a clear and definitive voice for the general festival patron. With Midnight Madness guru Colin Geddes bringing a stronger sense of unity to the program, we can now, in 2012, better see just what this little group of odd films share with one another.
Essentially, as Colin put it, these are the "cool older sister" films of the fest. What he means, if I may be so bold, is two-fold: first, these are films that may thematically share characteristics with the more bombastic or brutal flicks that play for the mad crowds that gather at the Ryerson after the witching hour. Secondly, his tacit point is that these films would not work as Midnight films, conceding that they're often too mature, too slow (relatively) compared to the younger, rangy, hyperactive younger sibling that lives only after the clock has struck 12am.
Along with putting a single voice in charge of the assemblage of films (several programmers were responsible for locating the films, but Colin's essentially curating the list), TIFF has wisely set a single venue for these films. The Bloor Cinema, recently renovated at part of the Hot Docs group, sees a return of sorts - Midnight Madness started here, after all, by Noah Cowan way back in the early 90s.
The two series have always been related - Vanguard films would not play as well at Midnight, and MM films often rely almost entirely on their ability, through adrenaline and moxy, to keep an audience away on some nights 'till almost 3am. A crap but exciting and fun film can easily be a MM success, while an excellent film seen during the early evening would be deadly at the later hour.
If I had to pick one definitive Vanguard film it would have to be Sion Sono's Cold Fish. This is a film that seems to have all the trappings of a MM classic - tense story, buckets of gore, some incredibly interesting and evocative scenes of brutality and revenge. Yet the film's long running time, coupled with its extremely deliberate pace for the first part of the film (a pace that, it should be emphasised, is most certainly the reason for the success of this extraordinary film), would make for a dire and sleep-inducing screening so late at night.
For it must be remembered that while some of the MM crowd only attend this mad sideshow of the festival, for many of us in the audience MM is our fifth, sixth, sometimes seventh film of the day. The festival is a kind of obscene cinematic marathon, and we often need a sugary jolt of insanity to keep us awake and alert after a day (several days!) of the highs and lows of other films. When we get a Raid, or a Super, a Versus or a Heaven, an Ong-Bak or Cabin Fever, we're made to feel more awake after leaving the venue. It's a remarkable thing when a MM film can do this, and its what elevates mere genre films into being Midnight classics.
Vanguard films don't need to perform this function. Sure, 9 or 10pm is late for some patrons, but for the most part these are films that can work on their own merits, taking their time, being slightly more cerebral, without the extra-textual necessity of reanimating a sleep audience every ten minutes or so. We can have our minds blown just as much, delve into darkness just as deep, without having to rely upon certain cinematic tricks that also jolt you from potential slumber.
We've got a slew of great looking films in this newly revitalized program. 90 Minutes looks to bring the kind of quiet, intense rage that works supremely well on film, but wouldn't be sustainable later at night. Blondie looks to be a lot of fun, and while I didn't love Apen (The Ape) as much as I know Colin did, this latest Bergmanesque drama from Jesper Ganslandt is very much a film I'm looking forward to.
Here Comes The Devil, Motorway, and Painless all look to be great, and Sightseers is one of my most anticipated films of the programme. The audience at MM2011 was split on Kill List, but I quite enjoyed moments of its eminently British insanity, and I'm looking forward to what Wheatley will bring to these shores this time 'round.
I've already screened Pusher, and it was a decent if not particularly memorable retelling of the Winding Refn original. I know loads that adore I Declare War, but it wasn't for me - I encourage you to take a look at it and decide for yourself.
The two films I'm most looking forward to, among the two I'm most excited about all fest, are Berberian Sound Studio and Room 237. The fact that a bunch of crazy people have made films about madcap sound designers and Kubrickian conspiracy theorists speaks directly to my cinemanerdy heart.
It's fitting that The Shining meta-documentary is playing in this programme, as the Kubrick film is an excellent example of a film that would have flourished in Vanguard, yet may have sank slightly at Midnight. It's cool and dry tonality, with bursts of aggression. It's in short a film that you'd love to see with a Midnight Madness audience, just not necessarily at midnight.
This, then, is hopefully what Vanguard will moving forward prove to be - an extension of Colin's late night festivities, eating further away at some of the more staid and predictable offerings elsewhere at the festival. These films will work best for those that have braved the late night insanity, but also a gateway for those that, god forbid, have to actually go to work the next morning.
We're now at the vanguard for what the Vanguard programme hopes to be, extending by another dozen or so films the reach of works that challenge, provoke, intrigue and sometimes startle. Freed from the necessities of keeping us awake, but providing a unified environment where thematically related films can be showcased effectively, 2012 sees the real birth of what will hopefully prove to be a vital part of the Toronto International Film Festival, a sister programme just as cool, but in different ways, as its bratty and precocious sibling.