With literally hundreds of movies to choose from, the Toronto International Film Festival is a both a cinephile’s dream and nightmare, as almost every taste is catered to. If you want to check out the movies that will dominate the awards season conversation, TIFF fits the bill. If you’re eager to explore world cinema, there’s plenty to choose from. If you want to be adventurous and seek out movies featuring rising talent both in front and behind the camera, a dive into the programming will keep you satisfied. And if you want straight up thrills, Midnight Madness will get your pulse racing. Although it can be overwhelming, TIFF is a movie lover’s paradise.
And so it goes with our coverage this year, which saw our team checking out some of the most anticipated, buzzed about films, as well as smaller fare that might have flown under the radar. So we’ve whittled down the 40 plus reviews we knocked out from Toronto into a quick guide to the best of the fest, as well the movies that didn’t quite make the grade.
Read on below, and if you were at TIFF, be sure to share some of your thoughts.
TIFF’s Best Films
“While We’re Young”
Filling the gap between the post-school, pre-career uncertainty of “Frances Ha” and the midlife malaise of “Greenberg,” Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” tackles both generations with yet another incisive eye in what might be his most accessible movie yet. Starrier than “Frances Ha” and more enjoyable (and less caustic) than “Greenberg,” “While We’re Young” sees 40-something married couple Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) form an unlikely friendship with hipster duo Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). And what starts as an exciting new relationship in the lives of Josh and Cornelia soon finds them looking inwards at their own creative spark, life choices and the moral, ethical and artistic compromises worth making to find success. Chronicling matters like the age divide, authenticity versus appropriation, and the role children play in the lives of new parents in their late 30s and 40s, Baumbach’s film unpacks a lot. And like the best movies, it starts a conversation instead of trying to end it, presenting a picture that will likely change in the messages and meanings in subsequent viewings. It might not be Baumbach’s best movie to date, but it’s perhaps his most insightful about contemporary living. [Review]
With roles in two “Grown Ups” movies, lending his voice to the ‘Madagascar’ franchise and appearing in the indie “2 Days In New York,” it’s been a while since audiences have seen Chris Rock be, well, Chris Rock in a major motion picture. But the wait is now over. Raunchy, funny and entertaining as hell, “Top Five” finds Rock returning with a comedic vengeance, but with real characters and pointed satire to go along with the crude humor and f-bombs. The comedian plays André Allen, a Rock-like, A-list star whose life is is in mid-air. He’s about get married to a reality star on live television, his drama about the Haitian slave revolution is opening in theatres, and it’s time for reflection, something he’ll do reluctantly with a New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson). And so begins an odyssey that targets pop culture, questions the responsibility celebrities have (do they give the fans what they want, or indulge in their own artistic pursuits?), dashes in a touch of romance, all while being hilarious and heartfelt. With a boatload of perfectly calibrated cameos, a “Before Sunrise”-style vibe that never feels contrived, an an assured turn from the writer/star/director, this is the movie Chris Rock fans and critics have been waiting for. [Review]
“Time Out Of Mind”
Patient, quiet and perpetually heartbreaking, Oren Moverman’s “Time Out Of Mind” is not so much a story as an experience. Moving away from the immediate dramatic intensity of previous efforts “The Messenger” and “Rampart,” Moverman’s film is instead a slow accumulation of moments in the life of a man irretrievably lost. Richard Gere, in an immersive performance unlike anything we’ve seen from the actor, plays George Hammond, a man whose years spent continually “in between places” have started to take a toll. Entering the shelter system and working to put the life he once had back together as best he can, George seeks the help he needs while rekindling a relationship with his estranged daughter. Visually and aesthetically, “Time Out Of Mind” is a portrait of the desperate loneliness that comes from being on the fringes of society. Additionally, it captures the harrowing cycle of debilitating low self-esteem, addiction, and the Kafka-esque bureaucracy that makes it harder for those on the street to lift themselves out of poverty and hopelessness. However, Moverman’s film also exudes empathy. “Time Out Of Mind” has no grand solutions for homelessness, nor does it pretend to be an authority on this issue. Instead, all it asks is for everyone to acknowledge the homeless as people like us. [Review]
“Love & Mercy”
Moverman also penned the script for this Bill Pohlad-directed Brian Wilson biopic, which manages the difficult task of cramming the life of the most important pop songwriters and musicians of all time into the confines of a two hour movie. “Love & Mercy” works, while mostly ditching the standard linear structure these kinds of movies employ. Rather than a cradle-to-now approach, the film jumps between two crucial time periods in Wilson’s life—the making of Pet Sounds and a low point in the 1980s that found him zombie-fied by drugs, and under the care/control of Dr. Eugene Landy—while cleverly dealing with the Beach Boys‘ rise to fame in the opening credits. Paul Dano and John Cusack play the younger and older Wilson respectively in what becomes a story of a genius surrounded by individuals who abuse or manipulate him to the point of madness and insecurity. Capturing the magic of recording Pet Sounds, the terror of being held captive by his own caregivers, and the unlikely hope found in the love of an Cadillac saleswoman, “Love & Mercy” itself is almost like a great pop song: it’s got bright hooks, inventive bridges and tells a story that’s original, unique and compelling. [Review]
“I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations,” Lou Bloom, aka Jake Gyllenhaal says in one of his many self-possessed monologues in veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s (“The Bourne Legacy”) directorial debut, “Nightcrawler.” The theme of wage disparity launches Gilroy’s film, a nocturnal thriller with a lot on its mind. Ostensibly “Nightcrawler” is about a man desperate for employment who finds his calling in the high stakes world of freelance “crime journalism,” which turns out to be populated by bloodthirsty camera men who will shoot any gruesome accident or murder for a buck. Shot by Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood”), “Nightcrawler” is a pulse-pounding race at dangerous speeds. But thanks to Gilroy’s thoughtful screenplay and Gyllenhaal’s utterly magnetic and committed performance, it’s so much more. “Nightcrawler” is about a man from an alienated generation who’s perhaps lived a little too long on the margins. His hunger and newfound ambition collide in a dangerous combination that awakens a dark path where ethical lines will be ripped open. “Nightcrawler” is thrilling, but it’s also funny and unnerving. It might just be Jake Gyllenhaal’s best performance to date. Believe the hype on this one. [Review]
“The Duke Of Burgundy”
Peter Strickland has achieved something rare with his latest “The Duke Of Burgundy.” This film picked up an insane amount of buzz after its first screening at TIFF, so by the time the festival was over there was some predictable backlash. But you won’t find any of that here, as this is cinema at its most unfiltered and free-spirited, exploring a conventional stage in every relationship in the most unconventional of ways. With two opposing performances from Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babbett-Knudsen, who are vigorously attracted to each other, a surreal style filled with throwbacks to Giallo cinema and Stan Brakhage, a fantastically sung score by alt pop group Cat’s Eye, and Strickland’s original screenplay sprinkled with sly humour and emotional intelligence (“try to have more conviction in your voice next time”), ‘Duke’ is unlike anything you’ll see all year, regardless of which year you see it in. Look for this outlandish lesbian BDSM love story to make many critics’ year-end lists. The story’s location in ‘Duke’ is purposefully never revealed, but as far as cinephiles are concerned, it may as well be cloud nine. [Review]
The re-construction of a nation gets personified in a scarred woman looking to pick up the pieces of her past in this film. Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss have been collaborating since 2001’s “Something To Remind Me,” building a working relationship based on a deep, instinctual, understanding for each other’s craft. “Phoenix,” their sixth collaboration, is exemplary for Hoss’ riveting central performances and Petzold’s astute direction and contains an unforgettable final scene that perfectly illustrates the artistic heights both the actor and the director has reached. Cinematographer Hans Fromm also makes his work count, his use of light and shadow adding to the look and feel of a film noir. But thanks to Petzold’s screenplay and Hoss’ performance, Nelly’s story is much more personal than your average film noir, and just like every film of its calibre, cannot be pigeon-holed into a single genre. [Review]
At times tiring to watch but impossible to forget, Liv Ullmann’s “Miss Julie” is cinema at its most painstakingly emotional. Jessica Chastain stands out in the title role, and while Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton don’t look as comfortable in August Strindberg’s claustrophobic world of passion and prejudice, no one would be able to say that they are bad. Neither, in fact, has been this good in a long time, and some of the more suspicious moments of their performances could weave into the film’s allure in time. Ullmann’s direction, punctuated by arms-length static shots of the actors delivering their fiery monologues with delicious spite, is austere and typically Bergman-esque in key scenes (a reoccuring shot of a gate, the way out of Julie’s castle, gets a new meaning with every new angle). The use of classical music, Schubert’s “Andate Con Moto” in particular, injects sublime pathos into this story of a caged, secretive, woman and her duplicitous valet. It may not be the comeback people were expecting from Ullmann, but “Miss Julie” is beguiling and fervidly raw enough to make a positive lasting impression. [Review]
Adam Driver and Alba Rorschwacher star in this sordid tale of two parents with dramatically different ideas on how to raise their child, and they both deservedly walked away with acting awards from the Venice Film Festival. Directing with a keen eye for bringing paranoia to the forefront, Saverio Costanzo crafts a homewrecking nightmare with kitchen-sink aesthetics and deranged camera angles. With the help of composer Nicola Piovani and his two stars, Costanzo makes a hilarious entrance turn into something much darker and intense. It’s the kind of film that has its director’s unique vision stamped all over it, and the experience of watching it will leave you slightly altered. [Review]
There’s also a handful of TIFF selections deserving an honorable mention. Comedies “Adult Beginners” and “Welcome To Me” were delightfully funny and intelligent, while Morgan Matthews’ “X+Y” explored a math prodigy’s attempt at solving emotions with poignant care. Martti Helde’s “In The Crosswind” and Szabolcs Hajdu’s “Mirage” are two unforgettable off-the-grid discoveries that tell their stories with stunning imagery, and highly recommended to lovers of minimal, arthouse, visual cinema. Meanwhile, the chess drama “Pawn Sacrifice” is worth a peek for Tobey Maguire‘s committed performance.
TIFF’s Worst & Most Disappointing Films
There were few egregiously awful films at TIFF, but the Samuel L. Jackson starring “Big Game” was big piece of camp that a handful of critics gave a pass to because it was “fun.” But nah, not really. Aside from the inspired final ten minutes, it’s a poorly made mess that only intermittently shows flickers of the self-aware movie it wants to be, while mostly wasting Jim Broadbent and Felicity Huffman‘s time. Meanwhile, Chris Evans’ directorial debut “Before We Go” was a shameless homage/ripoff of “Before Sunrise” with none of the depth, heart or soul, or a romance that was believable or interesting. The John Travolta-starring “The Forger” and crime-caper “American Heist” looked like easy targets from the onset, and neither defied low expectations. At least ‘Heist’ boasts a couple of determined performances by Adrien Brody and Hayden Christensen. In addition, there’s Kriv Stenders‘ “Kill Me Three Times” starring Simon Pegg, which must have been a good vacation for the cast and crew, but it’s not a good film on any level. Read on for the the ones that missed the mark.
“The Revenge Of The Green Dragons”
Even without Andrew Lau’s “Infernal Affairs” under the belt of the directing duo behind “Revenge Of The Green Dragons,” this actioner looked full of promise on paper. Not least because it has Martin Scorsese’s seal of approval in the form of a executive producing cred, and the ever-attractive “Presents” in the opening credits. But it didn’t take long for ‘Dragons’ to jump the shark, employing cardboard characters, dialogue that would make lovers of Steven Seagal movies recoil in horror, rapid editing and slow-mo effects that will leave you feeling nauseous, and a story full of shallow meaning and deep plot holes. Lau’s co-director for this thing is Andrew Loo, and with only one directing credit to his name previous, ‘Dragons’ plays out like it was the inexperienced Loo calling the shots, because the film’s sensibilities towards every cinematic element is approached in a egregiously lazy, rushed, and infantile manner. Destiny calls for it to collect dust in a second-rate rental store, and Scorsese would do well not to boast about his involvement. [Review]
“The Riot Club”
Lone Scherfig’s adaptation of a successful British play takes a scathing look at the British elite through a fractured magnifying glass, which is an especially appetizing concept on paper. Unfortunately, “The Riot Club” turns out to be a self-indulgent and tonal muddle, clobbering the same point over and over. A deliciously evil performance by Sam Claflin, seething with malice and elitist chauvinism, is just about the only reason to recommend this one-note look at rich kids behaving badly. The film’s biggest fault is in the unsuccessful transition from stage to screen, wherein Laura Wade’s dialogue and the predictable nature of events feel noticeably on-the-nose in the film. For a look at how to make theatricality work in line with cinema, one can turn to Liv Ullmann’s “Miss Julie,” because there is very little cinematic prowess found in Scherfig’s picture. [Review]
“A Little Chaos”
Actors-turned-directors may raise a few eyebrows in terms of expectations when they’re about to unveil their new directorial effort, but when you have someone as firmly established and experienced as Alan Rickman, you can’t be faulted for feeling hopeful. Especially when the story and period is as enticing as it sounds in “A Little Chaos”: a woman from a humble background becomes involved with high-class French society when she’s commissioned to design the gardens of Versailles for King Louis XIV. Sounds like it would at least look really good, right? Not so. The dim cinematography by Ellen Kuras only serves to emphasize the dispassion in this story of love and class. Even an ensemble cast as strong as Kate Winslet, Rickman, Matthias Schoenaerts, Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Ehle can’t breathe any life into the vapid, hollow characters of Allison Deegan’s screenplay. Rickman’s direction is as tonally inconsistent as Peter Gregson’s score, grappling between comedy, drama, and romance, and never finding a proper balance. Too little resonance and not chaotic enough in terms of story, the greatest asset the film has is its costumes, which is as depressing as you can get with a period drama. [Review]
“The Face Of An Angel”
Well, here’s a good idea on paper: Michael Winterbottom directing a movie about the Amanda Knox murder trial. Here’s a less good idea: Michael Winterbottom directing a movie about a director directing a movie about the Amanda Knox murder, while admonishing the public’s curiosity and media’s interest. One third a navel gazing look at the process of filmmaking, another third an admonishment of pop culture, and the last a high falutin’ literary exploration of one man’s descent into paranoia, “The Face Of An Angel” tackles a lot of different ideas, none of which add up to much of a movie. Winterbottom can be a witty, intelligent filmmaker, but any barbs about news culture are blunted here, the true crime elements are swept under the rug and instead we’re mostly stuck with a movie about an asshole director. Given the potential this film had either as cultural commentary or nervy procedural, “The Face Of An Angel” does neither and is a missed opportunity. [Review]
“The Good Lie”
Sudanese refugees come to America and befriend a sassy employment agent worker who gets more involved in their lives than her job requires. Oscars, anyone? Not quite. This Reese Witherspoon co-starring effort (yep, she doesn’t show up until about forty minutes into the movie after a prolonged history lesson about the Sudanese Civil War opens) is so pre-designed as inspirational movie fodder for your Mom that it forgot to actually write full realized characters, a decent storyline, or give anyone a reason to get emotionally invested. With everyone in this movie filling a stock role, politely delivering their lines from a script that has its emotional beats Crayon-ed in, “The Good Lie” makes so many crude assumptions about the audience that it’s nearly offensive. Philippe Falardeau’s film wants to be an Important Movie so badly that it forgets to do all the things to make it worthy of emotion or genuine critical appreciation. Transparently manipulative, clichéd and delivered with the subtly of a Hallmark Card, it’s a good thing Witherspoon has both “Wild” and “Inherent Vice” coming this year to make everyone forget this movie exists. [Review]
“Men, Women and Children”
Jason Reitman has excelled at making enjoyable, well above average indie/studio films (“Thank You For Smoking,” “Juno,” “Up In The Air”). He’s arguably made his first great movie with the underappreciated “Young Adult,” only to whiff with the pie-making coming-of-age “Labor Day.” Ever undaunted, he’s returned with “Men, Women and Children” and it seemed like a perfect match of material and filmmaker. Tackling the issue of relationships, sexuality, gaming among other things in the internet age, the 36-year-old director looked to be the right voice to give authenticity to the point-and-click, swipe, and text era. Unfortunately, the final result is an effort more “Dateline” special than insightful drama. With a third act that tips toward melodrama, laying judgments on characters instead to sticking to the uncertainty of these times where our link with the online world is forever evolving, “Men, Women and Children” feels already dated for what is supposed to be an exploration of our current digital anxieties, hopes and fears. [Review]
There are fewer names out there that inspire as much confidence as Tom McCarthy. He’s an Oscar nominated screenwriter, and the writer/director behind three terrific, low key films: “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” and “Win Win.” And so if anyone can make a fable about a Brooklyn cobbler who suddenly gets magic powers to see into the lives of his customers work, it’s McCarthy. But from the first frame, McCarthy fumbles with the tone of his movie like a first time filmmaker. Uncertain of whether it wants to be an anti-gentrification dramedy, a romance, or a fable, the film winds up being an unholy blend of all three, with none of the elements working in tandem with the other. Clunky and cheap looking, goofy and yet serious, with a coda so gobsmackingly absurd it’s perhaps worth watching for that alone, it was one of TIFF’s real big disappointments to see a talent like McCarthy miss the mark so badly. And it says something that Adam Sandler is hardly the problem with any issues in the film. Thank goodness he already has the Catholic Church scandal “Spotlight” already lined up, because we’d seriously be worried about his prospects of directing another film after this. So let’s just count “The Cobbler” as a random misfire from a filmmaker who is usually in much better control of the material in front of him. [Review]
That’s all for 2014. Let us know your thoughts below.