11) Twenty Cigarettes (James Benning, USA) Following the basic concept of 20 different people smoking an entire cigarette gives each segment its own time frame. It allows the viewer to get into a rhythm that becomes as addictive as smoking itself. Being a non-smoker, I found myself hypnotized by each person's physical stance and style as well as what each participant must have been thinking about during the five to eight minute process. Museum cinema at its finest.
12) La folie Almayer (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France) Adapting Joseph Conrad doesn't sound that exciting, even for fans of Chantal Akerman (Jeanne Dielman, 1975). But there is something absolutely alluring about this experimental mood piece. Feeling abandoned and lost in the jungle becomes a state of mind here; the film sincerely builds towards two of the most beautiful shots Akerman has ever created. With an audacity that can infuriate even the most weathered cinephile, this 65-year-old French auteur has created a new work that is crisp, inventive, and quite alive. For anyone who was also ignited by Godard's most recent abstraction, 2010's Film socialisme — here's another from an innovator who we too often take for granted.
13) Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, USA) Whit Stillman's much-anticipated return (showcasing mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig) has all the elements you'd expect from the maker of Metropolitan (1990) and The Last Days of Disco (1998). But this is his first film since Disco, and Damsels somehow feels like a half-step behind Tina Fey's Mean Girls (2004) and Greg Araki's Kaboom (2010). Have people been so influenced by his films that they've all caught up with him by now? It's good to have you back, Mr. Stillman, but I'm looking for you to pave some new roads with your next one.
14) Comic-Con Episode IV: A New Hope (Morgan Spurlock, USA) How has this documentary not been made until now? Spurlock (who already had a film out this year, inspired product-placement doc The Greatest Movie Ever Sold) takes a break from being in front of the camera and delivers a straightforward look at a handful of Comic-Con attendees as they hope to achieve their respective goals at the ever-growing event. As the film follows a couple of animators, a costume designer, a guy who wants to propose to his girlfriend, and a comic book seller who's ironically trying to figure out how to sell comic books at the largest comic book convention in the world, this celebratory (if not a bit too self-congratulatory) journey refreshingly doesn't have a shred of mean-spirited irony in a single edit. This is a movie that considerately allows its subjects to freely wear their nerd status on their sleeves.
15) Twixt (Francis Ford Coppola, USA) Val Kilmer hilariously leads the way in this low-budget, campy, sometimes-in-3D horror flick that even sports narration by Tom Waits! While being both surreal and boring, this mish-mash of genres has some particularly classic moments when master of impressions Kilmer and the magical Elle Fanning are given free reign to eat up the scenery. While seemingly inspired by John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (1995), this Edgar Allen Poe tale feels like something fun you make with your friends while you're prepping for the next project to finally get started. Except it's by Francis Ford Coppola.
16) The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain) Before this film's world premiere, star Antonio Banderas gave a speech about Pedro Almodóvar and reminded everyone that even though the director is considered one of our era's most celebrated and critically acclaimed filmmakers, it hasn't been an easy road. Almodóvar has constantly dared to explore subject matter and characters that are still not accepted in most circles of the world. His films aim to open people's hearts and minds, rather than reinforce already-accepted attitudes. What could be more amazing than this introduction? How about the film itself, The Skin I Live In, which could be Almodóvar's most cryptic and difficult film to watch yet?! Don't read any more about it. Just go experience it.
17) Livid (Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, France) Creating a follow-up to this directing duo's brilliantly feminist horror film Inside (2008) — which had more stomach-churning, psychotic gross-out sequences than Peter Jackson's whole career combined — was a tough task. Yet this low-budget, surreal fantasy subverts every convention, twists every cliché, and culminates with a lingering aftertaste that leaves you wanting even more. It's hard not to get excited about these filmmakers, who are clearly unafraid to push their imaginations to the limit.
18) Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, USA) With this combination of David Lynch's Lost Highway (1998) and Luc Besson's Transporter (2001), all wrapped up in a John Hughes soundtrack, Refn has designed a minimalist genre classic for the Y2teens. Ryan Gosling gives an adorable performance that is sure to evoke giggles and swoons from both women and men alike (a la Steve McQueen in 1968's Bullitt), while Albert Brooks does wonders with his deliciously demented deliveries. This is a romantic-violent cult classic has the possibility to even make some money at the box office. And, unlike any other movie on this list, it's out in theaters now. Go see it ... multiple times!
19) Crazy Horse (Frederick Wiseman, USA/France) I can't think of a more exciting concept for Frederick Wiseman's 40th film: a beautiful exploration of France's most famous burlesque strip club, the Crazy Horse. Delivering both tantalizing and uneven performances (surprisingly similar to Paul Verhoeven's misunderstood 1995 Showgirls) combined with profoundly insufferable yet oddly relatable conversations about artistic dilemmas, this two hour and 15 minute experience perfectly encompasses everything you wanted to know about strip clubs but were afraid to ask.
20) Life Without Principle (Johnnie To, Hong Kong) Reinventing himself once again, Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To was often finishing script pages the night before scenes were to be shot, forcing this financial fable to be three years in the making. The inventive editing interweaves a disconnected group of fools who were caught within the weekend of our most recent stock market crisis. Director To painstakingly exposes how sketchy our banks and investments are contrasted with one of the best Method acting performances HK legend Lau Ching-Wan has ever given. He's a bumbling, blinking wannabe gangster — the perfect martyr for an era that truly lives up to the title of this existential action film.
Check back soon for Jesse Hawthorne Ficks' final eight picks from TIFF 2011! When he's not mainlining celluloid at festivals, Ficks teaches film history at the Academy of Art University and curates the film series Midnites for Maniacs , which celebrates dismissed, underrated, and overlooked films.