The projectors have been turned off following another year at the Toronto International Film Festival and it was something of a muted affair in 2015, thanks to some hard luck from what, on paper at least, seemed like a plethora of awards season driven World Premieres.
At least from my perspective on the ground, there wasn’t much in the way of a breakout, buzzed about picture in Toronto, aside from “Room,” and its well deserved People’s Choice Award win (more on that in a moment). Jake Gyllenhaal’s opening night picture “Demolition” was a big disappointment, particularly as it came from director Jean-Marc Vallée who got major awards season oomph from Toronto with this last movie, “The Dallas Buyer’s Club.” The two Tom Hiddleston starrers — Hank Williams biopic “I Saw The Light” and Ben Wheatley’s wild “High Rise” — received mixed notices, trans drama “About Ray” was also received with a shrug (which I’d assume led to The Weinstein Company pushing the movie from a planned release last week to an unspecified date this fall), and it was the same for the David Gordon Green directed, George Clooney produced, Sandra Bullock starring “Our Brand Is Crisis.” And while “Truth” got positive traction, it’s still seen as the second-best journalism movie this year behind the universally acclaimed “Spotlight.” As for Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” there was a lot of positive chatter, but it’s not the next “Gravity.”
Meanwhile, TIFF’s new programming sections — the Platform slate, in which 12 films compete for a juried cash prize of $25,000 and Primetime, focusing on TV works — didn’t make much of a ripple as far as I could see. I don’t think I heard anybody talking about any of the titles playing in the small screen section, though Platform perhaps did succeed in its mission in highlighting films that perhaps wouldn’t get attention otherwise, with a win for Alan Zweig’s documentary “Hurt.”
All that said, move away from A-list vehicles and there were treasures to be found in the smaller titles from auteurs, and creative, inspiring works from international cinema. The latest from Hong Sang-Soo, Terence Davies, Marco Bellochio, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Patricia Rozema, and more caught our eye. Jason Bateman‘s “The Family Fang” was a pleasant surprise, and Bryan Cranston got his “Trumbo” off to a solid awards season start. At the end of the day, these movies are why going to TIFF each year is so much fun — it allows a real opportunity for discovery.
Below, myself and Nikola Grozdanovic sound off on our favorite films we saw in Toronto. Some may have launched elsewhere, but these are the pictures that resonated once we got back home and started unpacking our luggage.
Kevin Jagernauth – 4 Best TIFF Films
While Jessica Kiang was positive, but not quite effusive about Denis Villeneuve’s latest, which she called not much more than a “solid procedural” at Cannes, “Sicario” blew my skull back. Absolutely intense and gripping from the first frame, the drug war drama barely gives you a moment to catch your breath. Emily Blunt gives a terrific and subtle performance as an FBI agent who joins a mysterious government task force, operating in a very dubious ethical grey area, to track down a deadly cartel leader. That’s the surface story, but beneath that is a rich web of thematic material about the cycle of violence, and the personal boundaries and limits that one is willing to accept in the name of doing the right thing. But of course, whether or not anybody is doing that right thing is the dangling question that hangs over “Sicario,” a drug war movie that eschews a direct message to capture a much more unsettling mood.
One of the few high profile acquisition titles in Toronto — and one that I’m rather surprised still hasn’t been picked up — Rebecca Miller’s latest is terrific stuff. Skirting a perfect line between comedy, drama and romance, the picture tracks Greta Gerwig’s titular character who finds her carefully calibrated plan to become a Mom on her own terms overturned when she meets a rumpled college professor with puppy dog eyes (Ethan Hawke). What follows is a human, heartfelt, and often hilarious observation on love, how relationships evolve over the time, and the families we come to form with the people who have populated our lives past and present. Julianne Moore hasn’t been this funny since “The Big Lebowski,” Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph are great in support, and someone better snatch this up soon.
Bring Kleenex. That’s about all the advice I can give about “Room,” Lenny Abrahamson’s moving adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s best seller. Brie Larson gives another tremendous lead performance as Ma, who is fiercely protective of her child Jack (played in an attention grabbing turn by Jacob Tremblay), and hatches a plan to break them both out of captivity. That’s the nuts and bolts of the movie, isn’t so much about big themes, as big emotions, and “Room” delivers them in force, without ever being manipulative or exploitative about the subject matter.
Well, this is an odd one. The good news is that “The Martian” is the best Ridley Scott movie since “American Gangster” (though, I am a defender of “Prometheus” if not for the story, than the experience). That said, “The Martian” is also a (enjoyably) forgettable popcorn movie. In fact, a couple of days after I saw the sci-fi adventure, it was completely was wiped from my TIFF experience. However, I can’t help but recommend the movie — it’s entertaining in the moment, it looks great, is perhaps the most expensive love letter to science ever made, and it’s a crowd-pleaser, just don’t expect it to resonate beyond the cinema.
Honorable Mention: Jeremy Saulnier‘s “Green Room” will delight anyone looking for a decent quota of blood and gore paired with a wholly original premise for a mostly single-setting thriller. While it’s fairly light, “The Meddler” features a fun lead turn from Susan Sarandon in Lorene Scafaria‘s dramedy about the difficulty of moving on. And though they didn’t break the form, documentaries “Janis: Little Girl Blue” and “Keith Richards: Under The Influence” do justice to their iconic subjects.
Nikola Grozdanovic’s TIFF Top 5
“The Forbidden Room”
“Surrender yourself to its demented genius,” Rodrigo Perez wrote in his Berlin review of Guy Maddin‘s labyrinthian “The Forbidden Room.” And honestly, it’s the only advice one should heed in preparation for the bizarre, brazen, and bedazzling cinematic adrenaline jolt to the brain that is this film. Wait, sorry, what film? It’s a deranged mosaic unpacking a plethora of short narratives, all inspired by lost silent films from all over the world. Among them is a story featuring something called Aswang Bananas, a train that travels from Berlin to Bogota; a woodsman who must save the beautiful Margot from a pack of Wolf-Men; and the catchiest song about derrières you’ll ever hear. Also, you won’t be reading title cards this ingenious anytime soon. The structure is built as if a madman took controls of the dream-machine in “Inception,” and the result is one of the most ridiculously enjoyable and hilarious times I’ve had in a theatre. This ode to the precarious nature of celluloid is a carousel speeding at 200 miles a minute without ever stopping. By the time it was over I felt nauseous and exhausted and my brain hurt. Exactly what Maddin was going for, as he himself confirmed in the Q&A afterwards: “We wanted to make a movie that left people feeling exhausted, like spent on a beach having barely survived a drowning.” In the case of “The Forbidden Room,” what doesn’t kill you makes you ten times stronger.
It took Lucilie Hadzihalilovic over ten years to direct another film after her trailblazing and unforgettable debut, “Innocence.” In “Evolution” she makes it even harder for the audience to grasp her short narrative straws, but thanks in large part to Manuel Dacosse‘s photography and a frightfully haunting score by Jesus Diaz and Zacarias M. de la Riva, all the painstaking time it took for the project to see light of day pays off. The story follows young Nicolas (Max Brebant, who’s got the formidable screen presence of a 10-year-old Alain Delon) on an rocky island behind God’s back. He suspects everything around him: his mother’s actions, his friend’s fascinations with death, a recently-maimed star-fish that gets jarred and becomes a pet of sorts, and a hospital whose practices are far more threatening than comforting. As with all my top five films, I was taken in entirely. My mind’s eye was blinded by jaw-dropping imagery, while its tendrils imprisoned my imagination for all 80 minutes. The film is formed in connotations, speaking directly to the individual and vexing the general audience, so be wary impatient ones. It worked wonders for me.
“Blood Of My Blood”
It’s the first Marco Bellocchio film I’ve ever seen, so I walked into the theatre with zero preconceived expectations. When I walked out, I realized that nothing could’ve prepared me for “Blood Of My Blood,” other than perhaps a Bellocchio film. With two highly compelling narrative paths converging around a monastery in the small Italian community of Bobbio, the picture lures the unsuspecting viewer into a place rarely visited. It’s like following a path towards a hidden entrance of a great mountain. The first story embroils the emotions with the religious tortures endured by Sister Benedetta (Lidya Liberman), while the second cozies up to the intellect with a story of a vampire Count (Roberto Herlitzka) who is melancholically misaligned with the modern world. “Blood Of My Blood” is double strong for weaving together riveting narratives with a singular execution that’s mostly indebted to its use of music and score. More than any other film of the festival, it begs to be re-watched almost immediately to catch any details missed, or simply enjoy succumbing to its sorcery once more. I’ve heard people praising it as a “nightmare” of sorts, but it’s nothing if not a dream to me.
Terence Davies‘ films build, and build, and build, in ways so effortless and ephemeral — you never feel the final hammer. What grabbed me most with “Sunset Song,” Davies’ adaptation of the eponymous Scottish novel (which I’ll be adding to my library any day now), is his masterful evocation of time passed and memories lost. Gliding what feels like a feather-weight camera around interiors and exteriors – shot in resplendent 65mm, by the way — Davies wrings out a juice from his frames that tastes like some heavenly elixir. Former model Agyness Deyn is a revelation as Chris Guthrie, a young woman who grows up in an Aberdeenshire countryside under a puritanical father (played by the magnetic Peter Mullan). The deep connection she feels to her country of Scotland, her neighbor Chae (Ian Pirie), and her beloved Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) had a profound impact on me. The film’s messages of hearth and home, learning from life’s tragedies, and holding strong to your sense of self, felt genuine and not masked by any cinematic conventions. Heartrending and sonorous, “Sunset Song” is still resonating with me, and I forgive its slightly self-aggrandizing nature for how boldly it wears its classical heart on its sleeve.
The long-awaited new picture by Hou Hsiao-Hsien made its graceful bow at this year’s Cannes film festival, and I didn’t have to physically be there to know that it elevated the entire French Riviera a few degrees towards the sky. Being able to catch it at TIFF was a blessing. “The Assassin” transported me into its world, swiftly and securely, and kept me there utterly spellbound by its visual masterwork until the closing credits. It’s the only time at this year’s TIFF where I couldn’t get up until the credits ended. The tale of near-silent assassin Nie Yinniang (wholly embodied by Qi Shu) is mostly told by other characters’ stories of her, in a film that pays equal amount of respect to the power of music, dance, storytelling, a brush of wind, or the movement of clouds. Hou Hsiao-Hsien makes his aspect ratio feel more expansive than any widescreen as the composition of every single frame is brought to evergreen life. Production designer Wen-Yin Huang and cinematographer Ping Bin Lee achieve some kind of unearthly osmosis, which the Taiwanese master filmmaker extracts in subversive fashion, even while staying close to the spirit of classic wuxia tales. As Jessica says in her excellent review from Cannes, “he presents us his scenes like individually wrapped gifts, each one a small masterpiece of timing, set design, costume, and immaculately researched detail.” “Pure cinema” is a term in danger of losing its varnish, but it’s films like “The Assassin” that give it a new coat, for it’s truly a rare thing to see something as purely cinematic as this.
Honorable Mention: Other films I’ve seen at TIFF that will stay with me, for one reason or another, are: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson‘s stop-motion tragicomedy “Anomalisa“; Sebastian Schipper‘s 137-minute one-take-wonder “Victoria” (cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen has pulled off the year’s greatest technical feat); Tsai Ming-liang‘s illuminating and absorbing “Afternoon“; Jayro Bustamante‘s bewitching documentary hybrid “Ixcanul“; and “Men & Chicken,” the absurd comedy pulled out of a long tradition of Danish seriousness. All are worth your time (and in some cases, patience) as the rewards are plentiful.
All of the reviews by The Playlist’s TIFF team — including Noel Murray, Sam Fragoso, Kenji Fujishima, Oktay Ege Kozak, Gary Garrison, Rodrigo Perez, and Christohper Schobert — below.
“Blood Of My Blood” [A-]
“Right Now, Wrong Then” [A-]
“Sunset Song” [A-]
“Maggie’s Plan” [B+]
“Northern Soul” [B+]
“Born To Be Blue” [B]
“The Family Fang” [B]
“Into The Forest” [B]
“Janis: Little Girl Blue” [B]
“Keith Richards: Under The Influence” [B]
“The Martian” [B]
“Men & Chicken” [B]
“Schneider Vs. Bax” [B]
“Where To Invade Next” [B]
“Eye In The Sky” [B-]
“The Meddler” [B-]
“About Ray” [C]
“The Dressmaker” [C]
“I Saw The Light” [C]
“Eva Doesn’t Sleep” [C+]
“The Ones Below” [C+]
“A Tale Of Love And Darkness” [C-]
“Len And Company” [C-]
“London Road” [C-]
“Miss You Already” [C-]
“The Paradise Suite” [C-]
“The Program” [C-]
“London Fields” [C-/D+]
“Kill Your Friends” [D+]
“Our Brand Is Crisis” [D+]
“Mr. Right” [D]
“The Reflektor Tapes” [D-]
“Ma Ma” [F]