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Art House Cinema: Our 12 Picks for TIFF

With 366 films on tap from 70 countries—including 268 world, international or North American premieres—it’s no wonder that the Toronto International Film Festival is one of the most-watched events on the world’s cinematic calendar. Increasingly, the same could also be said on the art front. Here are a dozen great TIFF picks for gallery goers and museum mavens.

Watermark by Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal
In 2006, Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Manufactured Landscapes, based on the breathtaking industrial photography of Edward Burtynsky, won Best Canadian Film at TIFF and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Now, the duo is back with a stunning look at another pressing issue: water and its place in an ever more polluted and unbalanced contemporary world. To find out more, read Daniel Baird’s feature from our Summer issue. September 6 at 7 p.m. and September 8 at 9 a.m.

Grosse Fatigue by Camille Henrot
This rollicking, much-praised 21st-century tour through history, evolution and mythology won Henrot the Silver Lion for most promising younger artist at the Venice Biennale this year, and it is having its North American debut at TIFF. That’s a great coup on the art front for the festival, since the French artist’s mashup of Smithsonian archive shots and slam poetry narration has been winning her big fans worldwide (with more to follow in Toronto, no doubt). Opens September 4 from 8 to 10 p.m. and runs until September 15.

Asphalt Watches by Seth Scriver and Shayne Ehman
Over the last few years, NSCAD-trained, Toronto-based artist Seth Scriver has become known for his South Park-esque takes on Canadiana. Whether creating a canoe out of repurposed street-hoarding posters or rendering Canada Council recipients in different shades of lumberjack plaid, Scriver melds the best of Robert Crumb and Joyce Wieland. Now, Scriver and partner in crime Shayne Ehman present a feature-length animated version of a cross-country road trip. In the works for seven years, the film has had tantalizing excerpts shown previously; now, we get to see the whole hilarious thing. September 10 at 9:45 p.m., September 12 at 8:45 p.m., and September 13 at 2:15 p.m.

Tim’s Vermeer by Penn & Teller
Normally, the work of a Las Vegas–based magic duo is not on our art radar. But this year, it’s different. Penn & Teller, renowned for exposing the secrets behind popular conjuring tricks, have turned their attention towards Vermeer’s sleight of hand. In this film, they follow their friend Tim Jenison over the course of a year while he tries to reproduce Vermeer’s famed painting The Music Lesson using a camera obscura and period pigments. An art-technique whodunit? The genre itself is rare enough to merit a viewing. September 5 at 6:30 p.m. and September 6 at 1:30 p.m.

12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen
Few contemporary artists can claim the kind of trajectory Steve McQueen has blazed. From winning the Turner Prize for art to the Caméra d’Or at Cannes, McQueen has done it. His much-anticipated new feature 12 Years a Slave (originally slated as a TIFF world premiere but since pre-empted by a small screening in Telluride) is, like his breakthrough feature Hunger, based on a true story of oppression and transcendence: this time, Solomon Northup, a freeman kidnapped into slavery in 1840s America, is the focus. September 6 at 6 p.m., September 7 at 11:30 a.m., and September 14 at 9 p.m.

Finding Vivian Maier by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel
For most of her lifetime, Vivian Maier was known simply as an eccentric Chicago nanny. All that changed in 2007 with the discovery of some of the thousands of street photographs she had shot for decades. Though the artist passed away in 2009, her fame has only grown since; her first Canadian solo show, now on at Stephen Bulger Gallery, shows a body of work that is at once as retro as Weegee and as current as Instagram, our own David Balzer observed. This world premiere film, made in part by one of the main collectors of Maier’s work, aims to shed light on her curious and long-hidden creativity. September 9 at 4:45 p.m. and September 10 at 7:15 p.m.

David Cronenberg: Transformation
Canadians are often accused of not paying homage to their own until they are recognized abroad. Perhaps David Cronenberg is the exception that proves the rule—since the 1970s, Cronenberg has won renown at home and away for his films such as Videodrome and A Dangerous Method, which tend to look at societies in moments of technological and epistemological transition. Now, TIFF kicks off a multifaceted, multivenue look at Cronenberg’s work with “Transformation,” an exhibition of Cronenberg-inspired works by Jeremy Shaw, Marcel Dzama, Candice Breitz and three more Canadian and international artists. Opens September 4 from 8 to 10 p.m. and runs to December 29.

Hi-Ho Mistahey! by Alanis Obomsawin
For more than 40 years, internationally acclaimed filmmaker and activist Alanis Obomsawin has focused on issues affecting Canada’s aboriginal peoples. Her latest effort looks at the fact that First Nations communities receive less funding for education and schools than most other Canadian communities, with Attawapiskat as a case study. It forms a fitting prelude to shows such as “Ghost Dance: Activism. Resistance. Art.” and Brian Jungen and Duane Linklater’s Modest Livelihood, both of which open later this fall in the city. September 7 at 4:30 p.m., September 9 at 2 p.m. and September 14 at 6 p.m.

For No Good Reason by Charlie Paul
Who wouldn’t want a studio visit from Johnny Depp? Or a publishing partnership with Hunter S. Thompson? Ralph Steadman has done both, and much more, producing the gonzo illustrations that came to define Thompson’s texts and participating in this film that guides Depp (who famously portrayed the author) through his practice. Accompanied by an exhibition of Steadman’s work at TIFF Bell Lightbox, it’s a must for Thompson fans. September 9 at 7:15 p.m. with exhibition September 5 to 15.

Letter to a Refusing Pilot by Akram Zaatari
TIFF brings another little bit of this year’s Venice Biennale across the pond with this film, which was commissioned for the Lebanese Pavilion. In it, Zaatari investigates an act of resistance that marked his childhood memories: the refusal of an Israeli pilot to bomb a boys’ high school on June 6, 1982 in south Lebanon. September 11 at 9:45 p.m. and September 12 at 2:30 p.m.

The Fake by Yeon Sang-ho
Fans of animation and socially conscious filmmaking won’t want to miss this sophomore feature from provocative South Korean animator Yeon Sang-ho. Where his award-winning first film, The King of Pigs, addressed class divisions and structures in his native land, The Fake sets its sights on the hypocrisies of organized religion. September 7 at 9 p.m., September 9 at 9 p.m. and September 13 at 3 p.m.

Midway by Chris Jordan and Sabine Emiliani
In the late 2000s, American artist Chris Jordan became increasingly renowned for his Running the Numbers series: a body of work in which pictures were created out of thousands of socially notable items. One early print in the series, for instance, showed 65,000 cigarettes, one for each American teenager who becomes addicted to smoking each month. Another showed 213,000 Vicodin pills, one for each of the yearly US emergency room visits due to misuse or abuse of prescription painkillers. More recently, Jordan has embarked on a project about the birds of Midway Atoll, whose stomachs are often found full of plastic junk—providing a kind of “macabre mirror” on our society, Jordan says. His first full-length feature focuses on these endangered albatrosses and their threatened habitat. September 6 at 4 p.m., September 9 at 9:45 a.m. and September 13 at 9 a.m.

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