I learned a lot at TIFF 23, ending the festival with a more informed strategy for approaching future years. The sheer time on the ground helped; it was my first year as a volunteer and my first as a more devoted attendee, bumping up from three screenings in 2022 to eighteen this year.
You may be reading this and have never been to any film festival, but you’re considering watching a movie or two at TIFF 24. Or you’ve been doing this for many years and will happily pre-pay for thirty-plus films, sight unseen. Regardless of experience or interest, I have advice to make the most of your time at the festival.
Good engineering managers are good communicators. Good communicators are comfortable with silence, and often they luxuriate in it. Pausing after making a point conveys confidence and clarity. Waiting and considering a response to a question shows trust. Giving feedback or otherwise, uncomfortable news with few filler words delivers impact. Asking probing questions to a broader group can lead to awkward silence; good managers know the difference between contemplation and disinterest.
Admittedly, I’m still hit and miss managing silence, but I’ve come a long way since my start as an engineering manager.
Be succinct and to the point. Say what’s necessary, pause, and look for your audience’s comprehension. It might be non-verbal (e.g., a nod, leaning forward, flutter of the eyes) or verbal (“uh huh,” “ok,” “yes”). If you don’t connect with your audience, you’ll lose any further momentum you built up.
I support the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes; the financial inequity between studio executives, working actors, and writers is untenable. But an extended industry-wide pause could be disastrous to theaters and small independent movies. The strike slowdown will also accelerate a general decline of film (at least beyond the biggest blockbusters) as mainstream entertainment.
Let’s start with some cold economics: any remaining 2023 movie with major stars is at risk for a delay into next year. Studios see a marketing campaign without major talent as too high a burden. Stars working the red carpet and holding press junkets generate vast social media shares and journalist coverage. And for minor releases, one prominent actor can be the defining reason for a film to get noticed.
We’re seeing some of these delays already play out. Sony pushed two major 2023 releases – Kraven the Hunter and a Ghostbusters sequel – into 2024. Warner may pivot the blockbuster Dune 2 into next year as well. A24 bumped back the Tilda Swinton starring Problemista from August to an indeterminate date. As the strike extends, expect related announcements to only accelerate.
The new drama Past Lives centers on three ordinary people taking realistic actions, leading to messy outcomes. There are no clean Hollywood endings, heroes, or villains. Characters don’t die. Nobody is saving the world. Writer-director Celine Song challenges audience expectations of Hollywood escapism and genre conventions and, in the process, makes a riveting movie.
Reflecting on the forty-plus films I’ve seen this calendar year, three of my favorites – 2020’s The Nest, 2022’s Saint Omer, and Past Lives – share the same small scale and grounded feel.
Each film has different aims and subject matter. The Nest follows a rich family moving to 80s England for business opportunities. Saint Omer is a French courtroom procedural covering a woman accused of infanticide. Past Lives centers on two childhood friends who split apart, later in life reunited.
Diablo IV provokes an existentialist question: can one fantastic gameplay hook make a game’s vapid elements forgivable? Over twenty hours in, the answer appears to be an emphatic “yes” with caveats.
The game’s core combat loop is one of the best I’ve ever played. System balance, especially with an action RPG of this scale, is deceptively tricky, but somehow Diablo IV keeps the operation humming along like a well oiled machine. Every wave of enemies has just enough resistance to be challenging but not too much to be frustrating.
The artistic and design elements that surround the combat package are stellar. The sound design has a rich soundstage with good speakers or headphones. Waypoints and level progression are easy to follow. The atmospheric lighting is impressive, taking advantage of HDR to give dungeons a murky, often foreboding look. As my sorcerer levels up and I try new spells, I’m also happy to see elemental variety and different combat approaches open up.
For over a year, I was in a movie rut where merely “fine” movies dominated what I watched. Most were only mildly recommendable. It was passable entertainment, but I missed that feeling of raw exuberance that came with the greats, where I couldn’t wait to tell friends and family what I just saw.
For someone who argued on how important it was to push beyond algorithms, ironically, I had fallen into the trap of my own “algorithm.” With limited time and firmly held personal tastes, I wasn’t taking risks on fresh ideas or untested genres.
But over the last few months, I’ve had a breakthrough: I found curators I trusted and gave into their recommendations.
Microsoft wants Xbox Game Pass to be the HBO of gaming, with heavy hitters rolling out regularly to plenty of buzz and critical fanfare. But today, Microsoft falls far short of that standard. Game Pass AAA releases, both from Xbox Game Studios and third party partnerships, are uneven in quality and too infrequent.
2022 came and went without a single notable big budget Game Pass release. Grounded, As Dusk Falls, and Pentiment got decent critical attention but were small titles primarily ignored by the larger gaming public.
2023 looks much more promising. However, Minecraft Legends scored a passable but far from great 73 on OpenCritic. I suspect the buzz following Redfall – rushing out the door at 30 FPS alongside some lukewarm previews – will lead to a similar lukewarm critical consensus. Even what will likely be a critical hit – Xbox Game Studios’ mainstay Forza Motorsport – missed its original Spring 2023 release window and settled into a vague “2023” timeline. For what’s left on the horizon, I see sci-fi RPG Starfield, with Bethesda Game Studios’ pedigree, as the only remaining possible “must play” for the remainder of the year. (I passed over Hi-Fi Rush and MLB The Show, both splashy titles that played well critically but didn’t break out into a wider audience.)
Midway through Nicolas Winding Refn’s new Netflix series Copenhagen Cowboy, I was thoroughly bored. The repetition was annoying: another neon-drenched set with stilted dialogue and glacial plot development. Then, in a shot that probably lasted no more than a minute, the series’ protagonist moved upwards in an elevator as a synth score kicked into overdrive. The brief scene’s immaculate construction ended up burrowing in my brain for days.
That small example underlines how Refn and fellow art house helmer Gaspar Noé are some of the most stylistically dazzling directors working today, to the point I regularly seek out their work. Yet I struggle to recommend almost any of their films. They provide memorable moments of stylish brilliance that clash against sophomoric writing, turgid dialogue, and nihilistic, sadistic violence. It’s frustrating because both could produce fantastic work with the right writers and collaborators.
Admittedly it can take a lot of work to group these two directors. Noé’s and Refn’s most famous films derive from different genres, if not at times, entirely different worlds. Noe’s 2002 Irréversible is messy and heavily improvised, a French extreme horror revenge tale whose reverse narrative structure feels in conversation with Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Refn’s 2011 Drive is a slick, minimalist crime thriller that meshes late 70s Walter Hill with 80s synths and a stoic turn from star Ryan Gosling.
Playing Call of Duty: Warzone 2.0’s DMZ mode this winter has been one the best first person shooter experiences I’ve had in years. It’s not because of the graphics, the level design, the battle pass, or the gunplay. All match but rarely exceed expectations for a free-to-play shooter in 2023. Instead, DMZ is awesome by mixing an open sandbox of activities with widely divergent human psychology. The results are unpredictable and often fascinating.
DMZ’s power derives from how much it differs from normal big budget multiplayer gameplay that funnels players down a narrow path of expected behavior. Racing games like Gran Turismo: Sport or Forza Horizon 5 push players through a track as fast as possible. Large scale battle royale shooters (Fortnite, Apex Legends) drop combatants into a combat zone as players battle to remain the last standing. There are, of course, endless tweaks and variations to give each game its character and difficulty, but successful gameplay hinges on an easy to follow win condition.
High dynamic range (HDR) is one of the biggest innovations for TV and smartphone displays in years. The technology improves luminance, color, highlights, and shadows, giving TV shows and movies a more natural, realistic look. It also enjoys wide availability across TVs, mobile devices, and streaming content. But bafflingly, in 2023, Netflix is the only streaming service that gate keeps HDR behind their highest tier subscription. It’s an underhanded, dated, and consumer unfriendly practice.
Critically, Netflix’s tiered strategy around streaming quality leaves the overwhelming majority of its massive audience in the dark (literally) on HDR’s full potential. Netflix is ubiquitous, virtually a utility at this point, and locking HDR away hampers the technology’s long term awareness and adoption. Fewer eyeballs, more shrugs about HDR’s effectiveness, and potentially more filmmakers questioning how essential HDR capture is in the first place.
Of course, Netflix is far from the only streamer that offers HDR TV shows and movies. For example, on HBO Max, you can watch popular series like The Last of Us and House of the Dragon in 4K HDR. For Disney Plus, all recent Marvel and Star Wars features are streamable in 4K HDR.