Another edition of the Toronto International Film Festival has come to a close, but the program will continue to have an impact. Well, some of it, anyway — awards season contenders like “The Theory of Everything” and “Still Alice” now join “Foxcatcher” and “The Imitation Game” in the increasingly heated Oscar race.
But what about everything else? The biggest deal out of the festival arrived when Paramount spent $12.5 million on the Chris Rock-directed comedy “Top Five,” a very funny riff on celebrity and media that was bound to find a welcoming home. But there were over 300 films screened in Toronto over the past two weeks, and some of the best of the crop have yet to find a U.S. distribution. These titles are at the top of the list.
Of course, it’s safe to assume that proactive buyers already know about many of these titles. But for those of us eager to single out first-rate cinema, whether or not it holds commercial potential, the following titles aren’t just a guide to prospective buyers. It’s a plea to the industry, because great movies require even greater risks.
“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”
Roy Andersson’s concluding entry to his “trilogy about humans” followed on the heels of the similarly irreverent and surreal “Songs From the Second Floor” and “You, the Living,” so its amusingly off-beat collection of vignettes came as no surprise. But even with certain expectations in place, nobody could have predicted that “Pigeon” would be the best of the bunch — and also a masterful cinematic achievement in its own right. The Swedish director’s deadpan comedy (which won the Golden Lion in Venice shortly after screening at TIFF) follows a handful of characters, including a pair of aspiring salesmen hocking party favors, in a strange world where anything can happen. One scene set in a dreary bar magically transforms into a musical number set to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; at another pub, 19th century soldiers invade the contemporary tableaux with results as mystifying as they are deeply hilarious.
But there’s a devious quality to Andersson’s perpetually weird narrative that reaches its apex in a haunting dream sequence depicting mass slaughter. Even when “Pigeon” goes dark, it never loses an otherworldly poignancy. Already a must-see for the sheer uniqueness of its imagery, “Pigeon” eventually reaches masterpiece territory when the visuals arrive at a place of deeper significance.
The feature-length debut of Quebecois director Mathieu Denis takes place in the 1960s, tracking the experiences of confused teenager Jean Corbo, who ultimately develops terrorist inclinations in the early days of the Quebec Liberation Front — the separatist group responsible for the 1970 October Crisis, when several government officials were kidnapped. Steeped in the generational conflicts of territory’s history, the movie features a breakthrough performance from Anthony Therrien in the lead role as a real-life teen drawn into revolution and ultimately killed in the accidental detonation of a bomb he set himself.
With an ending already written in the history books, “Corbo” takes its time fleshing out Corbo’s initial curiosity about the prospects of the revolution, and the escape it provides him from his oppressive household, where he contends with his Italian father’s harsh expectations. Denis’ elegant period drama manages to frame the situation from Corbo’s limited perspective, at once sympathizing with his burgeoning radicalism and showing the horrific stakes as he develops a more dangerous sense of commitment. The filmmaker’s patient style and carefully modulated performances make “Corbo” one of the most accomplished debuts of the year — and an ideal excuse to revisit this under-appreciated chapter in Canadian history.
French director Mia Hansen-Love has quickly established a talent for understated dramas littered with textured moments: “Goodbye First Love” was a tender ode to heartbreak, while “The Father of My Children” portrayed the tragic life of a loving family man with suicidal inclinations. With “Eden,” the director brings the same gentle touch to an unlikely topic: the history of French House music. Tracking the experiences of a French DJ (Felix de Givry) responsible for a pioneering form of electronic music in the nineties, Hansen-Love’s film stretches from Paris to New York as it covers soul-searching and heartbreak against the backdrop of lively dance sequences. With bit parts by Greta Gerwig and Brady Corbet, cameos by the members of Daft Punk and a thumping soundtrack that covers more than 20 years of events, “Eden” marks the most ambitious project in Hansen-Love’s filmography, but retains her assured control of tone. The result is a miraculous blend of hard-partying attitude and bittersweet lament. Anyone who has ever grooved to a beat at a loud gathering will appreciate this thoughtful breakdown of the world that gives life to the party.
A wicked dark comedy of the “Bad Teacher” variety, “Guidance” stars first-time writer-director Pat Mills as a former child star whose life has spiraled out of control. Struggling with alcoholism and his repressed homosexuality, living train wreck David Gold winds up applying for a guidance teacher gig at a public high school by using a false identity. Within no time, he’s taking shots with troubled students as a fast route to improving their lives. David’s destructive tendencies are awkwardly positioned in the movie’s cheery atmosphere, but that’s ultimately its greatest coup: There’s no way David can realistically get away with his scheme, and the exciting finale bears that out with thrilling results. A subversive comedy about education and personal failings that Hollywood would never make, “Guidance” bodes well for Mills as a fresh source of wit right in time to save the teen movie genre from oblivion.
The Safdie brothers are among the few New York-based filmmakers to capture the city’s grimy, subterranean qualities without diminishing its livelier ingredients, as their first two narrative features “Daddy Longlegs” and “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” make clear. But the masterful “Heaven Knows What” takes that potential to a new level, showcasing the pratfalls of a young heroin addict — played by newcomer Arielle Holmes and based on her actual experiences — as she contends with her destructive boyfriend (Caleb Landry Jones). Think “Kids” meets “Panic in Needle Park”: a ruthless account of addiction that’s fully believable and compelling, portraying a world of characters simultaneously close to death and fighting hard to evade it. Some buyers may cringe at the prospects of distributing such a grim movie, but it’s that same edginess and intensity that makes “Heaven Knows What” such a must-see: It’s a talking point about the perils of addiction, but also a powerful thriller that transcends expectations at every turn.
Portuguese director Pedro Costa has already exhumed the demons of wartime trauma and troubled class issues with several films, most recently with “Colossal Youth.” That 2006 feature was the third set in the squalid Lisbon neighborhood Fontainhas and focused on the plights of Cape Verdean immigrants haunted by the country’s Carnation Revolution. “Colossal Youth,” which starred real-life immigrant Ventura as he drifted around town and contemplated his troubled existence, followed “Ossos” and “Vanda’s Room” to form an unofficial trilogy of experimental narratives set in Fontainhas and exploring its troubled state. Now the trilogy has become a fascinating quartet, with “Horse Money,” another darkly poetic examination of Fontainhas’ impoverished residents through the lens of Ventura’s quiet, soul-searching wanderings.
A rich, almost impermeably strange example of Costa’s slow-burn approach to abstract storytelling, “Horse Money” is more subdued and cryptic than its predecessors, to the point where it might be more appropriately described as a cinematic tone poem. Each new scene ventures into surprising territory, right down to a lengthy climax set in the confines of an elevator. Persistently haunting and beautiful, “Horse Money” is a brilliant conversation-starter with no easy answers, but endless interpretations. As with Costa’s previous films, it begs for multiple viewings — assuming someone takes a gamble on getting it out there.
Daniel Barber’s South Carolina-set period drama finds a trio of women fighting for their lives at the close of the Civil War, when a group of deranged Yankee scouts discover them on a desolate farm. Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld play sisters who join forces with their slave (Muna Otaru) to fend for their own while the men of the household vanish on the battlefield. Trapped in a cabin when two dangerous Yankee scouts (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) show up and try to take advantage of them, the trio face their threat in a bloody showdown worthy of Peckinpah — with more progressive sexual politics.
Based on Julia Hart’s Blacklist screenplay, “The Keeping Room” is a quiet, slow-burn story with major payoff in its climax. A feminist western with bite, the movie delivers a compelling portrait of resistance. Its events may unfold in the past, but the struggles speak to the present with the same canny focus. If anything can reignite interest in the western, “The Keeping Room” has the best shot.
“Roger Waters The Wall”
Filmed across three cities and two continents, “Roger Waters The Wall” isn’t your typical concert documentary. Co-directed by the Pink Floyd frontman and Sean Evans — the creative director of The Wall Tour — the movie oscillates between visually magnificent stage performances and footage of Waters at the grave sites for his grandfather and his father, both of whom were killed in action during the World Wars. More grounded in serious ideas than the psychedelic 1982 animated effort, “Roger Waters The Wall” manages to simultaneously bring the music to life in glorious audio-visual terms and ground its ideas in the real world. Even Pink Floyd’s biggest fans have never experienced “The Wall” like this. Thirty-five years after the landmark double album hits stores, it’s overdue for another appreciation, and “Roger Waters The Wall” does the trick.
Soon-mi Yoo’s delicately assembled diary film is a moving paean to Korean identity through the filter of its darker ingredients. Taking cues from the tradition of diary films pioneered by Chris Marker and his ilk, “Songs From the North” finds the South Korean-born Yoo (who lives in the U.S.) crafting a meditation on North Korean society with a mixture of archival materials and footage shot in the country over the course of four years and three visits. Handling editing and camera duties, Yoo recontextualizes the cold nature of North Korea’s government-mandated image by getting intimate with its ramifications.
At a time when North Korean society is a regular target of popular culture — the Seth Rogen/James Franco studio comedy “The Interview” comes out soon, after all — “Songs From the North” offers a unique window into the country’s temperament, and dares to view it in sympathetic terms.
Culture jammers the Yes Men have developed a reputation for activist pranks that trick corporations into showing their uglier sides, but the work takes a toll on its committed perpetrators. That’s the chief takeaway from the engaging documentary “The Yes Men Are Revolting,” which puts it in a class ahead of predecessors “The Yes Men” and “The Yes Men Fix the World.” Once again, the movie — co-directed by Yes Men duo Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (not their real names) and Laura Nix — documents a variety of Yes Men stunts as a means of exposing global problems, in this case focusing on climate change. But while these scenes offer the same informative blend of goofy behavior and reportage, the third chapter in “The Yes Men” franchise manages to personalize its subjects’ quest, easily making it the best of the series to date.
It’s also a canny meditation on the dangers of climate change with plenty of humorous schemes that put neglectful corporations in the duo’s crosshairs. More than that, “Yes Men” manages to resurrect the Occupy Wall Street story by putting in a renewed context: it provides just the right sort of inspiration for the Yes Men to encourage them to keep at it. As a result, more than just another document of their antics, the documentary is an ode to a new era of activism relevant to anyone moved to take action — or questioning if it’s worth their time to do so.