Though coming hot on the heels of Telluride and overlapping this year with Venice, the Toronto International Film Festival is anything but a third string pony. In fact it’s probably the largest, glitziest and most glamorous of the fall festival season players and no-one doubts that Toronto knows how to roll out the red carpet as well as any of them. But outside the stars, closed off streets and screaming fans, the programmers also make festivities a cinephile’s dream year after year. 2013 was no different.
While some thunder was stolen from Telluride, who managed to nab a handful of high profile pictures to show off first—“Labor Day,” “12 Years A Slave,” “Prisoners”—one could argue that it’s in Toronto where the sustainability of a critically acclaimed film, the ability to survive the conversation through the noise and buzz of the season, is truly tested. Indeed, in the lines, hallways and restaurants of the city, the eternal question between critics and moviegoers (the public is a big part of the TIFF experience) tends to be, “What has been your favorite movie so far?” And only a few movies manage to be on the tips of TIFF tongues by time it all wraps up at the end of ten days.
For The Playlist staffers on the ground, the answer to that question lies below. But before we jump in, a couple of disclaimers: if you’re wondering where “Gravity” is, it landed on our Venice list. So too did the breathtaking, bizarre and beautiful “Under The Skin,” which was so good we did a separate feature about why it’s one of the year’s best. We could’ve easily included it here—it certainly was one of the best movies to hit Toronto—but for the sake of simply not repeating ourselves, we’ve left it off (though, be sure to check out our interview with Jonathan Glazer). So, without further preamble, here are our favorites from TIFF along with links to the full reviews. And for an extra treat after that, a complete rundown of all coverage, including reviews and interviews.
A sprawling, dark crime drama starring Jake Gyllenhall, the kneejerk reaction for some critics has been to draw parallels between Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” and David Fincher’s “Zodiac.” Lead actor aside, the similarities aren’t really there. Where Fincher’s film is a precision procedural, Villeneuve’s a bit shaggier, but more emotionally resonant. More importantly, both films have different ambitions. Where “Zodiac” is about obsession, “Prisoners” is about the frighteningly thin border between citizen and criminal and the ease with which one can cross the line. The smart script by Aaron Guzikowski also profiles two specific types of loners—Hugh Jackman’s grizzled, survivalist father and Gyellenhaal’s committed detective with a complicated past, beautifully hinted at but never explained—and how they each react when the worst horrors and evils of life unexpectedly land at their doorstep. While “Prisoners” satisfies as completely as any dense, literary crime novel, it’s elevated by top notch performances from across the entire ensemble cast, and a richness of material, aided by some first rate filmmaking (Roger Deakins’ cinematography in particular does much in adding to the damp gloom of the movie). Not much light shines into “Prisoners” both figuratively and literally but it’s a profound film of lives haunted by a past which forever shatters their future, and a grim look at a cycle of violence continued by those who should be protectors instead of perpetrators.
There is that popular notion that everyone in the world has a twin or doppelganger somewhere, but what if that person was not only a better version of who you are, and also slowly began to take over your life? It’s a notion that isn’t new, with Fyodor Dostoevsky writing the classic story “The Double” ages ago, but co-writer and director Richard Ayoade takes it to absurdly comic places in his adaptation of the novella for this sophomore film. Led by Jesse Eisenberg—giving two distinct turns, as both the nebbish, awkward Simon James and his more confident and successful alter ego James Simon—the film tells the story of one man whose carefully regulated life, which includes a data entry job and pining for the girl in the print department, is overturned when his duplicate charges into his world, career and love life. It’s a dangerously one note concept, but Ayoade along with co-writer Avi Korine first creates a uniquely steampunk futurepast for the film’s setting, dots it with memorable side characters and underscores it all by exploring the idea of self-identity eroded by corporate and social structures. Sound heavy? It isn’t. “The Double” is often hilarious, when it’s not being simply a joy to watch, and even as the plot gets knotty as the doubles attempt to outdo each other, the story remains clear and is always propelled by a great score by Andrew Hewitt. Easily one of the biggest question marks at TIFF, “The Double” might have been the most genuine surprise at the festival, presenting an unexpectedly creative, delightful and truly original piece of filmmaking.
“The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby”
All the lonely people, where do they all come from? Ned Benson‘s debut is an audacious and meticulous look at the nature of relationships, with “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her” offering two prospective tipping points of the marriage between Connor and Eleanor, who have shared seven years of their lives. Part of the film’s instantaneous charm is its melancholic aura present in so many great Beatles songs. TIFF boasted a heavy-duty line-up this year, with premieres of all the best cinema has to offer, which makes the film’s unique and ambitious premise all the more noticeable. By approaching a popular subject in a unusual way, Benson has managed to create a three-hour-movie feel like a lifetime experience that flies by, making for one of the most cherished memories of this year’s festival. Starring James McAvoy in a career highlight role, a completely zoned-in Jessica Chastain and boasting a picture-perfect SAG ensemble with pillars like Cirian Hinds, Isabelle Huppert and Viola Davis, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ tells the story of Connor and Eleanor after an incident threatens to break them apart and change their lives completely. Eleanor attempts to start from scratch and Connor needs to cope without her. The story sounds like the simplest of things, but Benson sets himself loftier goals and achieves them like he’s been directing feature length films for ages rather than tackling his very first one. Thanks to his textured and original screenplay the story weaves a rich tapestry of characters and situations that are familiar to us but still enchantingly cinematic and full of refined taste. Great musical choices, layered character development, genial pacing and wonderful structure provide a recipe that will make fans faster than it takes Isabelle Huppert to drink a glass of wine. Releasing the film as two separate entities allows the audience to choose whose side to see first; a fascinating experiment into the nature of belief, human understanding and the role memory plays in forming us into the people we are. Benson respects his audience and treats them like smart filmgoers who would rather share in the experience than turn off their brains and escape reality. So all the lonely people, where do they all belong? Ned Benson does a remarkable job, of making them fit just as nicely in movies as they do in Beatles songs. Picked up by The Weinstein Company, an official release date(s) will have to wait for 2014 as TWC’s present Oscar year is already overfull. But will be one to track down.
“12 Years A Slave”
Even at this stage of the early game, it’s difficult to write about Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave” without discussing the hype surrounding it. The film turned out to be the smash hit of the Telluride Film Festival and then it turned up at TIFF and won the coveted audience award which, as we all know, tends to be a good augur for the Oscars. Awards punditry aside, here’s why “12 Years A Slave” winning this award is heartening: McQueen’s movie is a harrowing, brutal and uncompromising watch and frankly, it’s nice to see the usually populist TIFF audiences give a thumbs up to something so wrenching. Packed with stars and cameos—Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Michael K. Williams, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, Scoot McNairy—the movie belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, an African American man kidnapped from New York and sold into slavery in pre-Civil War times. Michael Fassbender is a monster of slave owner who makes Walter White look like a kind man, Lupita Nyong’o is fantastic discovery as another slave and you’ve never seen Sarah Paulson this cruel as Fassbender’s wife. Hans Zimmer writes a gorgeous score that’s very restrained and all around, this is simple, but deeply affecting filmmaking. Those who believe McQueen is making movies for Oscars simply haven’t witnessed the unflinching nature of this film. It’s a powerful piece of work, possibly destined to become an American classic.
Criminally overlooked in Toronto, perhaps due to some of the cell-phone-gate issues (one of the minor dramas went down during its first press screening), Denis Villeneuve’s first collaboration with Jake Gyllenhaal is the experimental and artier cousin to “Prisoners” (which was shot only a few months afterwards). A Kafka-esque mindbender about identity, self and the conflict of the male id and ego, Gyllenhaal—like Eisenberg in “The Double”—pulls double duty as the two leads. One is an anguished University lecturer on the verge of a breakup with his gorgeous girlfriend. He soon discovers he has a doppelganger (Gyllenhaal again), who is an up-and-coming actor with a wife and baby on the way. When the two men meet, their lives become dangerously intertwined and inexorably linked. Co-starring Sarah Gadon, Mélanie Laurent and Isabella Rossellini, Villeneuve crafts the first of his arresting one-two punches for 2013 that cement his status as a bold new auteur to keep eyes on. A enigmatic and haunting look at the unconconscious, in our review from TIFF we said, “Imagine the Paul Thomas Anderson of ‘There Will Be Blood‘ making a Brian De Palma movie, or Claire Denis directing Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento.’ Hello, sold?? A24 has picked up the film presumably for a Spring 2014 release: the season of all smart indie movies of late.
Final thoughts: Of course, these five films were just the highlights of a festival that had more than a few treasures and films to remember. Ritesh Batra‘s romantically melancholy “The Lunchbox” is a lovely diversion with a nice turn from Irrfan Khan; Ron Howard‘s “Rush” is jolt of new energy from a director that’s a pretty terrific piece of entertainment; Jude Law chews the scenery like you’ve never seen him before in “Dom Hemingway“—it’s his Tom Hardy/”Bronson” moment; Mike Myers‘ directorial debut with the documentary “SuperMensch” is surprisingly affecting while “Dallas Buyer’s Club” will rightfully earn attention thanks to two excellent turns by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. And on yeah, that whole 911/cellphone in the theater thing? In case you were wondering, while it blew up in the media, it quickly became the punchline at TIFF. It was an unfortunate, mini-distraction that shed a poor light on lots of writers, reporters and bloggers who work hard, put up with life’s little annoyances and do quality work. Anyway… Up next is the New York Film Festival, and as for Toronto, we’ll see you next year. — Kevin Jagernauth, Rodrigo Perez and Nikola Grozdanovic
Awards: you can see them all here.