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David Ansen’s Top Discoveries from Toronto 2014

David Ansen's Top Discoveries from Toronto 2014

There was much to-do about Toronto’s newly aggressive “them or us” policy concerning the Telluride Film Festival.  If you premiere in Colorado, they warned the studios, you won’t get an opening weekend slot in Toronto.  I’m not sure what Toronto gained by this supposedly hardball stance (if they really wanted to play rough, they would have excluded Telluride selections entirely) but it confirmed the growing suspicion that the Toronto Film Festival was more than happy to be viewed as the exhibition games of the annual Oscar race.   
The U.S. press, of course, plays a huge role in this perception, choosing to focus its festival coverage on Academy handicapping, ignoring the fact that the majority of Toronto’s 287 feature film lineup will play no part in awards season frenzy, and that film festivals are (or should be) about offering audiences alternatives to mass-marketed mainstream fare.  With foreign film distribution at low ebb, often festivals are the only way to see these films on a big screen.
Film festivals need a healthy dose of red-carpet glamour for their economic survival, but Toronto’s increasing obsession with star-studded premieres doesn’t add to its luster and all but guarantees a certain percentage of mediocrity.  While they are happy to cede world-premiere status to many Cannes-certified hits such as the Palme d’or winner “Winter Sleep” or Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” or such Sundance triumphs as “Whiplash,” Toronto has taken a puzzlingly competitive stance towards such North American platforms as The Los Angeles Film Festival.  (Full disclosure: as the Artistic Director there for five years, I’m not a dispassionate observer.)

This is where they are playing hardball, suggesting to filmmakers that if they premiered in L.A. they could abandon all hope of showing in Toronto.  Who exactly does this benefit? (Tellingly, the one film they relaxed their rule for this year was the thriller “Cut Bank,” which came with a carpet-ready big name cast including Liam Helmsworth, Billy Bob Thornton, Bruce Dern and John Malkovich.) 

Having achieved the status as North America’s most powerful and influential festival, Toronto is in a position to get almost any film they want.  Did they really feel threatened that, last year, “Twelve Years a Slave” and “Gravity” got their first burst of publicity out of Telluride?  Was anybody in the Canadian audience grumbling that they were being served second hand goods?  Toronto is in no danger of losing its mojo—its position as an essential stop on the festival circuit has long since been cemented, and the big studios will always turn to it as a launching pad for their heavyweight Oscar contenders. If anything, its my-way-or-the-highway posture makes it seem pettier than it is. Toronto has always been one of my favorite festivals; if I carp, it’s a lovers complaint

 
I only had five days in Toronto this year, and caught 20 movies, a mere fraction of the cornucopia.  It’s pointless to generalize about the overall quality of the fare on such a small sampling, but one could glean recurrent themes, such as the unusual number of films about tortured geniuses.  More on that in a moment.
Nothing I saw made as deep or daring an imprint as Roy Andersson’s darkly hilarious, stone-faced Swedish diorama “A Pigeon Sat Upon a Branch Reflecting on Existence.”  Andersson is one of cinema’s great undiscovered treasures:  few people in the U.S. have had a chance to see his singular movies. “A Pigeon,” his first film in seven years, is the third in his informal “trilogy about being a human being,” following “Songs from the Second Floor” and “You, the Living.” Like the other two, it unfolds in one-shot per scene vignettes (39 meticulously staged shots in all), his almost always stationary camera maintaining a wry distance from the tableaux that unfold before its bemused eye,  the beige-blue-grey colors of the sets drained of vibrancy, the faces of his sad sack actors whitened like silent movie clowns.   You can feel echoes of Beckett, Keaton, and Tati in Andersson’s work, but this deadpan Scandinavian wizard has constructed a droll, funny-sad universe all his own,  one that distills human hopes and fears and foibles into striking panoramas that compel the viewer to sit forward scanning foreground and background for its rich details.
“A Pigeon” begins with three very funny “meetings with death” and features such recurring characters as a depressed pair of novelty item salesmen trying in vain to hawk vampire teeth and laughing bags to indifferent customers, and a lovelorn dance instructor who can’t keep her hands off her favorite male pupil.  Vignettes of unrequited love and loneliness unfold with a mixture of poignance and hilarity—some turning into musical numbers, others collapsing time.  In one astonishing set piece a contemporary tavern is suddenly invaded by the war-bound soldiers of King Charles XII 18th century army, who throw out all the women and stand at attention while the King puts the moves on a handsome young bartender.  Later, we see these same soldiers return in ruinous retreat, as Andersson adds layers of historical resonance to his absurdist epic.  This disturbing deadpan delight just won the Venice Film Festival’s highest award. Let’s hope an adventurous distributor soon brings it to America.
 
Steven Hawking, Alan Turing and Bobby Fischer faced off in the tortured genius biopic runoff.  Errol Morris’s “A Brief History of Time” gave us a scientific and philosophical portrait of the groundbreaking physicist and cosmologist Steven Hawking, his body immobilized by ALS, his mind in constant motion.  “The Theory of Everything,” directed by James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) couldn’t be more different.  Inspired by Hawking’s wife Jane’s intimate memoir of their marriage,  it’s a full-on love story, glossily mounted and aimed directly at the heartstrings.  It could have been shamelessly sentimental, and it tries too hard to strike an inspirational note at the end, but I found it irresistible.

The key to its success is the casting: from the moment Steven and Jane meet at a Cambridge University party in 1963, the chemistry between Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones lights up the screen with wit and warmth, and never lets up. Redmayne, spookily brilliant as the twisted homosexual son in “Savage Grace,” and effortlessly appealing in “Les Miserables,”  is a virtuoso, able to convey the workings of Hawking’s restless mind even in a state of total immobility, and Jones is every bit his match. Bathed in a golden light, “The Theory of Everything” is almost disconcertingly pretty:  its beauty is as much a commercial as an aesthetic choice,   buffering us from the implacable painfulness of Hawking’s physical condition.  But to its credit Anthony McCarten’s smart screenplay doesn’t avert its eyes from Hawking’s capacity for cruelty and betrayal: he’s no plaster saint, and the emotional complexity of their relationship gets its due..  It’s a moving and honorable crowd-pleaser.
   
The Imitation Game” is even more traditional in its Masterpiece Theater storytelling style, and it’s equally blessed with a bravura performance at its heart, by Benedict Cumberbatch. He plays the brilliant, arrogant, homosexual mathematician Alan Turing, who was recruited during World War II by MI6 to help decode the Nazi’s seemingly impregnable Enigma code.  Turing’s story, which Hugh Whitemore turned into the 1986 play Breaking the Code is astonishing and tragic.  This man, who played a crucial role in winning the war, and was a key figure in the invention of computer science, was a giant whose accomplishments were only recognized long after his death.  His secret project had to remain a secret even after the war was won,  and the viciously homophobic laws in England at the time forced him to hide his own sexual nature.  It’s quite possible, if the movies depiction of him is accurate, that he suffered from Asperger syndrome.  He also had a pronounced stammer, but that has been eliminated in the movie.
Cumberbatch captures this exceptional man in all his stubbornly odd glory, but I wish more of his eccentricity had rubbed off on the filmmakers.  Though the tale has an undeniable tragic power, I could never quite forget that I was watching a movie, and one steeped in old Hollywood tropes.  The casting of the too-glamourous Keira Knightley as the lone woman on the team at Bletchley Park doesn’t help.  Emphatically directed by Morten Tyldum, who made the fine Norwegian thriller “Headhunters,” and written by Graham Moore with a snappy slickness that sometimes undermines its veracity, “The Imitation Game” doesn’t always trust its own rich material.   “Sometimes it’s the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” is a fine line the first time you hear it spoken.  By the third time it feels as if the filmmakers were selling, not telling, their story.
Of the three real-life genius on display, chess master Bobby Fischer was, at one time, the most famous.  He was also the most unpleasant, and it’s to the credit of Ed Zwick’s “Pawn Sacrifice,” which is focused on his rivalry with the Russian World Chess Champion Boris Spassky,  that it never tries to make him any more likable than he was—or, in this case, wasn’t.  Paranoid, charmless, mentally unstable, and an anti -semitic Jew, Fischer’s obsessive brilliance was inseparable from his limitations as a man. Physically and ethnically, Tobey Maguire seems an odd choice to play this part. Wisely he doesn’t try to imitate him; rather, he he taps into his own pool of nastiness and anger, with convincing sociopathic results.  (Two younger actors play him in the by-the-numbers flashbacks to his childhood, which suggest that his paranoia was planted by his leftie mother.)

Liev Schreiber is Spassky, and performs entirely in Russian:  I cant attest to the accuracy of his accent, but he holds the screen with his powerfully confident physicality.  Quietly stealing almost every scene he’s in, Peter Sarsgaard plays a rather mysterious priest and former chess whiz signed on by Michael Stuhlbarg’s patriotic lawyer to keep the erratic genius on track as he heads towards—and tries to back out of – his clash of the titans 1972 showdown with Spassky in Reykjavik.  There was much more than a game at stake in Iceland, as this famous duel took on mammoth Cold War political symbolism.  Zwick’s solidly crafted movie tells the story well, though if you’ve seen Liz Garbus 2011 documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World, it doesn’t add much to our knowledge.   Fischer was an enigma unto himself, and Pawn Sacrifice never gets deep enough under his skin to truly crack the code.

 

You could make a case that Chris Rock’s “Top Five,” which is about a tortured comic artist desperate to be taken seriously, fits into the same genre, but this raunchy, potty-mouthed, fleet-footed comedy seems light years removed from the formal prestige picture postures of these historical biopics. Rock wrote, directed and stars as Andre Allen, a recovering alcoholic who achieved his greatest success playing the gun-toting Hammy the Bear in a critically eviscerated action-comedy trilogy.  On the eve the opening of “Uprizing,” his disastrously misguided attempt to make an oh-so-serious movie about a Haitian slave rebellion, he reluctantly agrees to be interviewed by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) for a major profile, and their 24 hours together forms the backbone of this very funny and surprisingly insightful odyssey. Not surprisingly,  romantic sparks ignite between Dawson and Rock’s characters, even though he’s about to be hitched to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union), who never makes a move without a camera in close proximity.

Though it revels in hilarious crudity (the flashback sequence featuring Cedric the Entertainer, in which Andre hits his bottom with two Houston hookers, will become legendary), “Top Five” has more on its mind than gross-out humor. Without any hint of self-indulgence, Rock is obviously working out some personal issues, but he never forgets to give his other characters their due. Dawson’s Chelsea Brown is a fully fleshed-out character, with her own raunchily funny romantic backstory, though it must be said that Rock’s understanding of the mechanics of New York Times journalism is as clueless as his depiction of the comedy milieu is dead-on.  We always knew Chris Rock was a funny guy.  Now we know he’s a filmmaker with major moves.
More good news: Noah Baumbach’s inter-generational comedy of contemporary manners, “While We’re Young,” strikes some funny and deep nerves.  Ben Stiller and Naomi Watt’s play a childless mid-40s filmmaking couple – he’s been pathetically struggling to finish a documentary for the past decade – whose solution to midlife crisis seems to arrive in the form of a twenty-something hipster couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), whose spontaneity and verve inspires them to kick up their heels and rethink their lives.  Or so it seems.  Baumbach, like Paul Mazursky in his prime, has always had a sharp eye for the small but telling sociological detail, and his understanding of the lifestyles of artsy New Yorkers is razor sharp (it’s the young hipsters who spin vinyl and adore all things retro while the oldsters play CDs and gobble up the latest tech gadgets).

I wish he’d given Watts and Seyfried more to do – he’s created great female roles in the past, but these parts are underwritten – but here what really interests him is the increasingly complex relationship between Stiller’s peerlessly foolish filmmaker, in terror of aging, and Driver’s cunningly casual but opportunistic wannabe filmmaker.  Underlying the comedy is an examination of two incompatible value systems, and even, in passing,  of warring philosophies of documentary filmmaking. More mainstream on the surface than “The Squid and the Whale” or “Margot at the Wedding,”  “While We’re Young” should resonate deeply with its intended audience.  You know a social comedy is hitting its target when it makes you both laugh and squirm.

 
Perhaps best known for his documentaries about serial killer Aileen Wuornos,  Nick Broomfield returns to the subject in his disturbing enquiry “Tales of the Grim Sleeper.”  For over 20 years, a serial killer was murdering young African American women in South Central L.A.  The killer, Lonnie Franklin Jr,  wasn’t arrested until 2010  (he’s still awaiting trial) – the L.A.P.D finally spurred into action by an in depth article about the unsolved crimes in the L.A.  Weekly by Christine Pelisek, a detail that Broomfield insufficiently  credits in his film.

His subject this time is not the killer himself, a longtime South Central resident well liked in the community, but the shocking indifference of the police, who sat on evidence for decades, and never informed the community that a serial killer was at large.   As one observer notes, had the victims been white women in Beverly Hills, it would have been an entirely different story.   Aided by a former self described “crack whore” who opens doors for the filmmaker, the fearless Broomfield interviews the men who considered themselves Franklins friends (who later admit to having seen disturbing signs of the man’s darker side) and the many women who survived their scary encounters with the predator.  It speaks volumes about the lack of trust between the black community and the LAPD that none of these women went to the police to report their close calls.  What the movie also profoundly exposes is the plight of underclass black women in America, whose lives are considered disposable in the eyes of the media, the law enforcers, and the men they live among.  Lonnie’s former guy friends may berate themselves for their blindness to the evil in their midst, but not one of them expresses any concern for the 20 women he’s been charged with killing, or the many more who’ve vanished from the face of the earth.

Another doc that will raise your gorge – but will it only speak to the converted?—is from the maker of “Food Inc.,”  Robert Kenner.   “The Merchants of Doubt” takes aim at the spin masters who, following a playbook established by the big cigarette companies, use their corporate might to cast spurious doubt on the reality of climate change.  Masquerading as grass roots efforts, but in fact funded by the oil and gas industry, these duplicitous corporate campaigns have been   infuriatingly successful in forestalling any action on climate change.  More research needs to be done…we don’t really know if global warming is man made… there are two sides to every story… so the mantra of disinformation goes, when in fact  the scientific community is nearly unanimous on the subject.  The media, of course, contributes to the charade in its insistence that it is only “fair” to give equal weight to each “side.”  While a lot of this will be familiar to the documentary audience,  Kenner’s polished and deftly argued film finds compelling subjects on both sides of the fence, from the proudly sleazy Marc Morano, who boasts of his underhanded tactics to discredit the science, to the touching figure of South Carolina Republican Congressman Bob Inglis,  who, faced with the evidence,  reversed his position on global warming and fought for change – with devastating political repurcussions to his career.

 
Finally, I caught up with two films that debuted in Cannes, both of which deserve a wide audience.  The better known and already much debated is David Cronenberg’s  fiercely gonzo Hollywood satire “Maps to the Stars,” whose wild and scathing view of tinseltown owes as much to writer Bruce Wagner as it does to the director.  Julianne Moore, no stranger to self-flagellating performances, delivers a bravely full throttle turn as an aging and desperate actress, and she is surrounded by an equally fine cast including John Cusack,  a deeply creepy Mia Wasikowska, and newcomer Evan Bird, playing a scary and hilariously obnoxious 13 year old child star.  “Maps to the Stars” is proudly over the top—it’s chock a block with incest,  ghostly appearances, insider name dropping, fatuous self-help gurus, murderous insanity, and a grotesquely dysfunctional family. But Cronenberg’s characteristically chilly eye keeps the soap-opera nuttiness at satirical arms distance.  He turns hothouse Hollywood into a landscape as alien and spooky as the moon.
Celine Sciamma, who made the wonderful “Tomboy,”  a coming of age story of a girl who would rather be a boy,  turns her elegant and curious eye on young black girls in the projects outside Paris. “Girlhood” (“Bande de Filles”), blessedly free of stereotype, melodrama or preconceived assumptions, is filled with a fresh and inquisitive energy.  The gifted Karidja Toure plays 16 year old Marienne, whose gradual evolution from quiet student to girl gang member and beyond unfolds with unsentimental precision.  The girls in the gang she takes up with, led by the sassily self-assured Lady, are a fascinating mixture of bravado and sensitivity, with a sweet loyalty to each other and a vulnerability they’d never show to the outside world.  There’s an unforgettable scene where they hole up in a hotel room partying on pot and booze and dancing in their stolen clothes to Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” blissfully free for the moment from the perils and uncertainties of the outside world.   Sciamma gives us a privileged glimpse inside Marienne’s life, and the director’s fresh eyes become our own.  Luckily, you wont need to search out a film festival to see it: Strand Releasing will bring it to theaters later his year.
 

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