La La Land, a romantic song-and-dance tribute to Hollywood, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is opening the 2016 Whistler Film Festival (WFF).
La La Land follows the joy and pain of an aspiring actress and a jazz musician as they seek their dreams in modern-day Los Angeles.
It screens at the 16th WFF on Wednesday, Nov. 30, the first of 86 films — 50 features and 36 shorts — that will be shown at the five-day festival.Paul Gratton, the head of programming for WFF, is smitten with the film.
"When I saw it I said to myself, 'This is the perfect opening film. Please God, can I get it?'" he laughs.
"There's an opening musical number that blew my mind; it's about all these people stuck in a traffic jam in L.A. and nothing is moving... Suddenly somebody jumps out and starts dancing... it was all shot live during morning traffic.
"I'm thinking this film could win Best Picture. It's just wonderful... It was the opening film at the Venice Film Festival. The reviews were raves and I started bugging the distributer.
"They know that I am personally a huge fan of this movie and I will do anything to get an audience out for it."
The ability of WFF to attract such a film is a testament to its continued success, says Gratton.
"For its size, Whistler is really chugging along. I always say that film festivals are like romantic relationships, they could be growing and building and getting stronger, or reached a stasis point, or going downhill," Gratton says.
"If you look at the quality of the Canadian titles, as well as the Oscar-bound titles, Whistler is growing year after year, after year."
Lion, starring Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel, is also showing at WFF. Lion came second to La La Land in the People's Choice Awards at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September. WFF will be the Western Canadian premiere for both films.
And another film coming to Whistler, Free Fire starring Oscar-winner Brie Larson, won the Midnight Madness People's Choice Award at TIFF.
"We've got 50 feature films showing and out of them all, only seven also showed at TIFF," Gratton says.
"We're not a Western version of the Toronto Film Festival... I'm amazed that we're getting films that have skipped TIFF. It's an honour for Whistler to be getting these movies... they come bound in extreme Oscar hopes."
He adds: "And there are two other films we're showing that I think will be Oscar bound. Miss Sloane, with Jessica Chastain playing a lobbyist who takes on the pro-gun lobby, is very timely with what is happening in the U.S. election."
The buzz around Chastain's performance suggests that she may be up for the Best Actress Oscar, Gratton says.
20th Century Women, starring Elle Fanning and Annette Bening, has also been tipped for nominations.
"For us to get the Canadian premieres for both those films is really a step up for Whistler, in terms of it launching Oscar contenders," Gratton says.
"This is my fifth year programming and this is by far the best year we've put together."
Sixty per cent of WFF content for 2016 is Canadian, Gratton says.
Canadian premiere entries for this year's Borsos competition for Best Canadian Film include Population Zero, Adam Levins' mockumentary investigation into a triple murder in Yellowstone National Park; Grand Unified Theory, David Ray's story of an astrophysicist's fractured family life; Chris Craddock's It's Not My Fault And I Don't Care Anyway, featuring Alan Thicke as a narcissistic self-help guru; Ken Finkleman's wicked American political satire An American Dream: The Education Of William Bowman; and Lost Solace, Chris Scheuerman's thriller about a psychopath who develops empathy after ingesting a party drug.
Additional Borsos entries include: The Void, a zombie-type horror movie featuring the special effects from directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski; Menorca, John Barnard's study of a bad soccer mom featuring Tammy Gillis; Hunting Pignut, a first-time feature from Newfoundland filmmaker Martine Blue about a teen runaway played by B.C.'s Taylor Hickson; The Space Between, Amy Jo Johnson's dissection of what fatherhood really means; and The Sun At Midnight, a rare film from the Northwest Territories about a teen runaway and a bear attack, directed by Kirsten Carthew and featuring Devery Jacobs.
Four films from Quebec will also vie for the Borsos awards this year: Before The Streets, the first film ever made in the Atikamekw language from first-time filmmaker Chloé Leriche; The Cyclotron, an Casablanca-style Second World War thriller set on a train with sci-fi overtones, from director Olivier Asselin; The Squealing Game, Steve Kerr's harrowing drama about a married man who runs an online dating site for cheating husbands; and the highest-grossing Canadian film of 2016 at the box office, Jean-François Pouliot's The Three Little Pigs 2.
A number of Canadian films will be showcased outside of the Borsos competition, including internationally acclaimed director Deepa Mehta's Anatomy Of Violence, a study of six rapists who attacked a woman and her companion on a bus in India in 2012 that revisits the event as a kind of cinematic docu-fiction.
Gratton says 13 of the films at WFF 2016 are by first-time filmmakers and 15 are by female directors.WFF will screen 23 world premieres, five North American premieres, 17 Canadian premieres, 24 Western Canadian premieres and 17 B.C. premieres.
Asked if his job gets any easier because of the festival's rising stature — in 2016 Gratton reviewed over 1,000 films for WFF — he gives an emphatic "no," and provides some insight into the challenges of his job.
"If I were to tell you the levels of approval I needed to (get some films) you wouldn't believe it," he says.
"I have less trouble talking to Canadian distributors about what we have to offer, from a marketing point of view, timing, and location, but then we have get the U.S. distributors approval, the director's approval, and the production company. Getting some of these films takes months. I wish it was as easy as picking up the phone or going to a local video show and taking it off a shelf."
Gratton continues: "We have a track record now. Carol (shown at WFF in 2015) and The Imitation Game (shown in 2014) both 'over-indexed' in Canada; they did better at the box office in Canada than one would normally expect.
"English Canada normally represents eight per cent of the North American box office. The Imitation Game did over 12 per cent; Carol over 10 per cent."
While he didn't take credit for WFF creating box office numbers like this for those two films, he said: "We do have example after example of films that open in Whistler and go on to have great careers in Vancouver. The Robert Carlyle film last year (Barney Thomson) ran only for a week in Toronto, but for three weeks in Vancouver because of the publicity we got it in Whistler.
"We don't sell thousands of tickets (at WFF) so it doesn't hurt the Vancouver market. These are the kinds of conversations you need to have with distributors."
As well, Gratton says that the relationship WFF has built with film industry bible Variety Magazine has given them "a tremendous leg up."
Further announcements about festival honourees are expected in the next few weeks.
For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.whisterfilmfest.com.