Because I was reviewing films for Screen Daily at Toronto, the films I saw were a diverse bunch, guided somewhat by my preferences, but also by the needs of an international trade magazine. Therefore, I caught one too many midnight movies (i.e. "Aftershock") and may have lost the opportunity to see some of the big-ticket premieres. Regretfully, I missed "Argo," which would have been a perfect movie to report on for ReelPolitik, and despite the best intentions of Ben Affleck, I am suspicious about its depictions of Iran's Islamic Revolution. But it'll have to wait until its release.
For the movies I did see, nothing blew me away. However, there were a bunch of very talented filmmakers making solid work that may not have transcended previous efforts, but was certainly worthwhile, cinematically rich, probing and engaging. I'm thinking of Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha," Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Behind the Pines" and Ramin Bahrani's "At Any Price." These are all movies that I'd wholeheartedly recommend–I reviewed "Frances Ha" and "Pines" highly favorably–but I don't think you could say they're better than "The Squid and the Whale," "There Will be Blood," "Blue Valentine" and "Goodbye Solo." Having said that, what is "better" or "worse"? And really, each of the films is so different from the director's previous works, and in some cases, a refreshing change of pace, that It seems unfair to put such a qualifer on the films.
As always, this year's documentary program was strong, with particularly powerful entries such as "The Act of Killing" and "Stories We Tell" (which I wrote about more extensively in my Docutopia column this week, "Reconstrucing Memory"). I also found Alex Gibney's "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God" his strongest documentary since "Taxi to the Dark Side." Gibney's films can come across as a little righteous, but I found the movie to strike just the right balance between expose and humanism.
Here's my Top 8 breakdown, in vague order of personal preference:
"Frances Ha" (Noah Baumbach) – review (I know there are some people who are going to be annoyed by this film, but I'm a sucker for "400 Blows" references and hey, I was a 20-something in New York, too, so I can't help but relate.)
"The Master" (Paul Thomas Anderson) – A lot has already been written. I won't say more, but it firmly establishes Paul Thomas Anderson as one of America's most assured masters of the cinematic language.
"At Any Price" (Ramin Bahrani) — What's extraordinary about the film is that Bahrani made it at all. So different from his previous films in cultural and geographic millieu, it's a wild shift for the filmmaker. For me, there was just one off-note, a particular music cue–that felt inauthentic to me. But other than that, he's created a forceful reflection of failure and personal reckoning in the American heartland. And the way he handles the last scene is brilliant.
"Stories We Tell" (Sarah Polley") – see my Docutopia column for more.
"The Act of Killing" (Josh Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous) – review
"The Place Behind the Pines" (Derek Cianfrance) – review
"Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God" (Alex Gibney) – review
"Beijing Flickers" (Zhang Yuan) – review
And I should say I had my most fun reviewing the film "Aftershock." After thinking hard about challenging movies, there's something refreshing about letting lose on a move that you find offensive.