This year's Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) had the strongest lineup of movies I've ever seen at a film festival. Call it a happy accident of timing that so many great directors had movies finished and ready to screen, but whatever the reason, the bounty was staggering. Any festival that can showcase new movies from Paul Thomas Anderson, Terrence Malick, Abbas Kiarostami, François Ozon, Mira Nair, Olivier Assayas, Noah Baumbach, Jacques Audiard, Costa-Gavras, Harmony Korine, Brain de Palma, Derek Cianfrance, David O. Russell, Kim Ki-Duk, the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer, Robert Redford, Ben Affleck, Dustin Hoffman, Ramin Bahrani, Chen Kaige, Laurent Cantet, Sarah Polley, Takeshi Kitano, Joss Whedon, Ben Wheatley, Spike Lee, among many others, is dealing from a loaded deck.
Of the three major festivals—Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto—TIFF is my current favorite. As just a moviegoer, you can't get tickets to movies at Cannes; tickets are restricted to the industry-affiliated. For someone who just wants to see movies (and the occasional movie star), that leaves Sundance and Toronto.
If you just want to ski or snowboard and see a movie or movie star here or there, Sundance is the clear choice. For just sheer volume of great movies, though, Toronto is positioned best in the calendar year. Landing in September, it can fish from the pool of movies that generated buzz at Sundance (January) or Cannes (May). It also gets first crack at premiering the fall prestige pictures (I saw King's Speech there in 2010, and five months later it won Best PIcture at the Oscars).
Toronto has a wealth of movie theaters, many more than Sundance or Cannes, and since they are actual movie theaters, the seating, sight lines, and audio/video quality are better than those at Sundance, which screens in many converted facilities. As a metropolis, Toronto dwarfs Park City, and thus it doesn't feel as crowded, even as lines for movies this year were longer than they've ever been. Transportation around town from screening to screening isn't that bad: most theaters are within a 20 minute walk from each other, you're not trudging through snow and bitter cold as in Park City, and cabs tend to be plentiful for those times when you have a narrow window to make it from one venue to the next. And for those moments when you need to grab a bite or a drink, Toronto has enough options that you don't have to scavenge the way you do at Sundance.
Here are some reviews of the movies I managed to squeeze in over four days of movie marathon action at TIFF this year.
Rust and Bone dir. by Jacques Audiard - Actually I missed this screening because even though I booked the first flight to Toronto out of JFK Friday morning, Delta still managed to have the flight leave an hour and a half late. Thanks for nothing, Delta.
Imogene dir. by Sharon Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini - Kristen Wiig plays a playwright who ends up back in the care of her mother (Annette Bening) after a faked suicide attempt is misread as a cry for help. As in Bridesmaids and in many of her sketches on SNL, Wiig plays a woman who tries to perform her way to a better life, or at least the perception of one. This is an example of a common film festival archetype in which the main character in their post college but pre-marriage life goes through some mid-life crisis of minor proportions, then survives and recalibrates on a trajectory towards maturity. This one, as many others of the genre, lives in a tepid zone somewhere between drama and comedy. Any frequent moviegoer will be able to predict every plot twist from a third of the movie on forward, so the only question is whether the movie can charm the hell out of them with its execution. It can't. It's good-hearted, but at film festivals, movies that don't aim high disappoint more than those that push for more but fail spectacularly.
The We and the I dir. by Michel Gondry - I can't give this a full review because, coming mid-day after my redeye flights to Toronto, I fell asleep for chunks of this movie, through no fault of its own. I have a hard time sleeping on flights, and I was running on fumes and popcorn most of that first day. What I saw I admired, especially as it marked a return towards the experimental impulses that won Gondry so many fans prior to The Green Hornet. The entire movie is set in near real-time on one long bus ride home in the Bronx on the last day of school for a set of teenagers. Some folks I spoke with couldn't stand spending so much time trapped on a bus with this set of kids, and the single setting and relentless teen aggression and posturing are indeed claustrophobic, but intentionally so. Not an environment or time of life most people will want to revisit, but for me it was an engrossing sociological study of the jungle that is teenage school life, and how much courage it takes for kids to adapt and survive an environment as ruthless as any corporate boardroom.
Frances Ha dir. by Noah Baumbach: this movie weaves both French New Wave (black and white cinematography, lots of music from Georges Delerue, a jumpy cutting rhythm) and American Indie DNA strands and yet has the potential for broad appeal. Greta Gerwig plays the titular Frances, and the movie is largely an ode to her youthful spirit and klutzy charm. It will draw inevitable comparisons to HBO's Girls, especially as it also features both Adam Driver and a mid-20's female lead in New York City, but as Baumbach noted when someone asked about the similarities during Q&A, he shot his movie before Girls was out in the world. Baumbach is dating Gerwig in real-life, and the movie has a compassion and affection for Frances that I needed amidst the harsher fare I had in my TIFF lineup this year. The minor crises of your first world mid-twenties are dangerous territory, as some of the Girls backlash showed, but Frances has enough moments of sharp observation and self-awareness that you're always rooting for her, even as life is dropping banana peels in her path.
Argo dir. by Ben Affleck - star and director Ben Affleck has carved out a niche for himself directing serious adult dramas. Gone Baby Gone and The Town were the first two signs, but you can draw a trend line through any two data points. Argo gives him a third bullet to affirm his status. Amidst the other directors of TIFF, Affleck won't be labeled an auteur, but this straightforward adult drama has the best odds to be the most commercially successful movie to come out of TIFF this year (at least amidst the ones I saw). Based on a true story of an operation by the CIA to get six of its embassy workers out of Iran during the 1979-81 hostage crisis by having them pose as a film crew for a fake Hollywood production, Argo may gain some dramatic heft from last night's events at the U.S. embassy in Libya. Hollywood will likely embrace this movie as it gives the industry itself a starring role and features plenty of self-deprecating humor about the biz. It features a few too many shots of Ben Affleck looking pensive in his beard, perhaps left over from the last shot of The Town; his face isn't built to for tragic expressiveness, and his character's back story is the least convincing part of the movie. I was surprised this movie didn't open the festival as the Canadian Embassy in Iran has a starring role, and the Canadian audience responded with vocal appreciation when Affleck thanked Canada during his introduction.
Satellite Boy dir. by Catriona McKenzie - 10 year old Cameron Wallaby and director McKenzie make their debuts in this movie about the clash between industrialization and Aborigines for a plot of land in Australia. Wallaby plays Pete, who lives with his grandfather Jagamarra (David Gulpilil) at an agandoned drive-in movie theater. When developers from a mining company come to kick them out, Pete grabs his buddy Kalmain and treks across the desert to try to talk them out of it. Along the way, Pete uses survival skills his grandfather taught him to help the two of them survive the harsh conditions. It feels gentle and almost Disney-ish, and the acting and script do feel like those of a first effort: a bit rough, even if the cinematography is polished. There are hints of a movie that would have interested me in some of the wordless moments when the two boys are lost in the desert, when the movie feels more mythical, and when the boys seem in real danger. And then I remembered a stronger entry in the genre: Gulpilil's own debut film from 40 years ago, Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout.
Amour dir. by Michael Haneke - this year's Palme d'Or winner at Cannes is as close as Michael Haneke will come to making a romantic comedy. He has a brutally unsentimental viewpoint, but amidst the usual Hollywood fare, it's refreshing and invigorating. This is Haneke showing us how life ends in the story of elderly married couple George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) who must deal with Anne's rapidly declining health after she suffers a stroke. In its unflinching and almost surgically precise depiction of the sadistic trials that Anne's declining health inflict on their relationship, Haneke makes the strongest case I've ever seen for marriage. And with what seems like a straightforward story, the movie inspired some questions during Q&A that had me questioning what had actually happened, much like the ending of Haneke's Cache. Haneke, as always, refused to divulge much. He noted that he would only pose questions with his movies, and the interpretation was the work he left to the audience. An early favorite for best foreign picture at next year's Oscars, and also likely to be one of the best movies this year, even if only the arthouse audience seeks it out.
Something in the Air dir. by Olivier Assayas - Assayas admits that much of this film is autobiographical, and so we read the development of the lead character Gilles (Clément Métayer) as Assayas' look back on his youth and his plunge into filmmaking. The movie begins with Gilles and his friends as young revolutionaries in late 1960's France, printing leftist leaflets, rioting, and vandalizing, but as the movie progresses, we see Gilles losing his revolutionary fervor, his love for painting waning in favor of an interest in filmmaking. I enjoyed many pieces of the movie, but it misses a beating heart. Some of it is the characters who remain attractive cyphers, and some of it may just be that an older Assayas no longer views his revolutionary youth with the same affection or empathy.
Like Someone in Love dir. by Abbas Kiarostami - if To The Wonder is Terrence Malick's B-side to The Tree of Life, as my friend Kenji puts it, then Like Someone in Love feels like a B-side to Kiarostami's Certified Copy, one of the best movies of 2011. If To The Wonder fails to live up to The Tree of Life in heft, then so does LIke Someone in Love in comparison to Certified Copy, but that's praising with faint damnation. I won't say much about the plot because deciphering who the characters are and what they want is central to the experience of this movie. The acting is gentle but precise, and the cinematography matches it in tone, so many stories told in gorgeous reflections wiping across windows and windshields. Like Someone in Love is less cryptic than its predecessor, and yet even in this seemingly straightforward story, Kiarostami gently tantalizes the audience with the mysteries of the human heart, so much so that many have found the ending mysterious even as it seems quite straightforward.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist dir. by Mira Nair - a disappointingly trite take on fundamentalism in the wake of 9/11. I've seen lots of critiques of American capitalism recently (see my notes below on Costa-Gavras' Capital), but the way that movies try to dramatize the issues for cinematic consumption by simplifying them always strip away all credibility. Riz Ahmed plays a Pakistani immigrant in the United States who lands a plum job on Wall Street with what seems to be an investment bank or consulting firm. After 9/11, though, the country turns against him, and he returns to Pakistan, now to be recruited to a fundamentalist movement as strongly as he was by Wall Street. The ills of capitalism and Islamic radicalism are held up as foils, and the message of the movie is not to worship at the altar of either. Nair's Monsoon Wedding is such a wonderful film about generational clashes in India, but the scope of the problem she tackles here feels so much larger than the fictional canvas she's painting on.
Spring Breakers dir. by Harmony Korine - we won't ever look at Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson the same way again after Spring Breakers. I'm not familiar with their work as teen princesses for Disney, but I felt the urban legend of Walt Disney's cryogenically frozen corpse turn over in its preservation chamber. It's subversive good fun to see these teen idols wielding their power in such a different way, and their choice to do this movie mirrors their characters' journey to see just how their girl power can take them in their quest to make enough money to spring break in Florida. You won't see many reviews of this movie that don't include a litany of their transgressions: drugs, copious drinking, nudity, armed robbery, murder, sex (of the variety with trois personnes). Or that fail to mention one memorable montage set to a Britney Spears ballad. Or that don't highlight James Franco's hilarious turn as a Florida drug dealer, with hair in cornrows and teeth in grills. But beyond all of that, Korine has tapped into the limited possibilities for teen rebellion in modern America and refracted it back to us in the style those same kids have grown up with. The style of the movie, a mix of slow motion footage, sometimes repeated, often playing under voiceover or audio from other scenes, parallels the electronic sampling style of much of the soundtrack, which includes original music from Skrillex. It's a style both brilliant and visceral, and at the end of my trip, echoed Terrence Malick's To The Wonder more than any other movie I saw in putting its audience in a trance with its liquid timeline and hazy melange of audio and video. What Haneke's Amour is to the romantic comedy, Korine's Spring Breakers is to the coming-of-age story.
Eat Sleep Die dir. by Gabriela Pichler - introducing the movie, first time filmmaker Pichler said she wanted to make a movie that showed the Swedish life she grew up with but never saw on screen, the immigrant working class struggle. 20 year old Rasa lives with her father and works at a food packing factory, but she loses her job during a round of layoffs. With her father's declining health and her minimal education, the rest of the movie is an uphill battle to stay in her hometown where jobs are hard to come by, despite a series of job retraining sessions. The film is grueling, but in a way that helps you experience the way that working class immigrant life tries to grind Rasa and others like her into despair, and how capitalist imperatives can subvert older social structures like family and community. That Rasa maintains her pluckish spirit is this movie's loudest note of hope, and the ending scene is brilliant. Eat Sleep Die tackles the problems of capitalism on a more intimate scale, and in doing so, feels more successful than movies that try for a dramatically simplified global scope like Capital and A Reluctant Fundamentalist.
At Any Price dir. by Ramin Bahrani - Chop Shop was so good that I had high hopes for Bahrani's latest film. I usually recoil when film festival directors try to cast a broad thematic umbrella over an entire festival's offerings, but I admit that many of the movies I saw at TIFF in 2012 pointed a critical eye at capitalism, as if channeling populist rage against the most recent financial crisis or the growing economic inequality in the world. Bahrani follows an Iowan farmer and his family to see how strongly they'll cling to their values under the pressure of a simple economic imperative: grow or die. Dennis Quaid plays the patriarch who's trying to grow his farm to gain the economies of scale necessary to avoid getting crushed by larger competitors. Zac Efron plays his son who wants to leave the corn business and his hometown behind to race cars. The screenplay is well-structured, but it's almost clinically neat, and the movie never burrows its way into your gut the way it could have due to some poor performances. Quaid is very strong as the Willy Loman character (Bahrani cited Death of a Salesman as one inspiration), but Efron attempts to exude teenage angst by constricting himself, and it throttles his charisma. Other characters, from Quaid's wife to Efron's girlfriend to some of the other farmers in town, also fail to register deeply. It's a shame, because this film contains the seeds of a mythic American story.
The Act of Killing dir. by Joshua Oppenheim, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous Indonesian - Werner Herzog and Errol Morris signed on as producers of this documentary (Morris provided early creative consultation, and Herzog came on later just as a fan to help publicize the movie), and it's easy to see why. This documentary is made up of equal measures of the surreal and the chilling, qualities notable in Morris and Herzog's most famous works. In Indonesia in 1965 and 1966, hundreds of thousands of citizens, perhaps millions, were murdered in a bloody anti-communist purge. The murders were carried out by both militia and local gangsters, and despite the scale of the genocide, most of the world and even Indonesians today rarely acknowledge the scale of the atrocity. The Act of Killing finds many of the killers still living peacefully in Indonesia, and in a stunning twist, enlists them to re-enact their murders in the style of movies they loved growing up: westerns, gangster films, and Asian musicals. That they are not only willing but eager participants in this project is only one of the horrifying insights into the nature of evil, how casually it can appear, and how simply and resolutely the human mind can rationalize it. In one sequence, Anwar, the gangster with the most screen time, recalls the hop in his step as he came out of an exhilarating movie and how he strove to sustain that cinematic high on his walk across the street to a house where he executed a suspected communist. I usually shy away from documentaries at film festivals as so many of them are an uncinematic mix of talking head footage mixed with some archive photographs and video footage, many of them stretched to fill an hour and a half when 40 minutes would suffice. The Act of Killing doesn't feel like a news recap, it is a filmed inquisition. It was the only documentary I watched at TIFF this year, and it turned out to be one of the most memorable I've ever seen. It remains to be seen if it will be screened in Indonesia. I doubt it wil be, but it's hard to imagine a film's distribution having higher stakes.
Capital dir. by Costas-Gavras - if The Act of Killing demonstrates how film can be a catalyst for social change, then Capital is an example of how it usually fails at the job. When the CEO of Phenix Bank falls ill, Marc Tourneuil (Gad Elmaleh) takes over, and immediately he's swimming with sharks, both within the bank and on its board. All are greedy white male bastards, and there's nothing about their behavior that would surprise you. As the "hero" of the film, Tourneuil is a cypher for much of the movie: it's unclear how he's different from all the other crooks who want sex and power and how he came to want them, and so the audience is left emotionally adrift. During Q&A, Costa-Gavras admitted that he made some changes to the book on which the movie was based, for dramatic purposes. As a filmmaker, his goal was to make a movie to entertain, to move people, and in the process, ask some questions. That it fails to explain the financial meltdown in its cartoonish depiction of the industry is forgivable; this isn't a documentary. That it fails to get the blood boiling is a greater sin. We've seen this past week that even a 14 minute trailer can set the world on fire.
A Late Quartet dir. by Yaron Zilberman - this movie felt like a stage play with its strong conceit of using the interplay among the four positions of a string quartet as a script for their interactions in life. If you know much about the usual roles of the 1st violin (Mark Ivanir), 2nd violin (Philip Seymour-Hoffman), violist (Catherine Keener), and cellist (Christopher Walken) in a string quartet, you'll anticipate the personalities and desires of each of those characters, even without having seen the movie. When Walken's cellist finds out he has Parkinson's, the Fugue Quartet is thrown into disarray, and the movie follows them as they try to stay together for one last performance of Beethoven's Opus 131 String Quartet in C-Sharp Minor. I grew up playing violin and piano, and I'm particularly allergic to classical music metaphors, especially one as blunt as this one. When you have actors of this caliber, wasting them on middlebrow domestic squabbles feels like driving a Ferrarri to pick up a gallon of milk at Whole Foods. The actors are, as you'd expect, very good, but the script is both subdued and self-serious. Yes, their ensemble is named the Fugue Quartet, but a few more moments of levity for Keener, Seymour-Hoffman, and Walken wouldn't have killed anyone. If ever a movie could have used a bit of Woody Allen's touch, this is the one.
Byzantium dir. by Neil Jordan - the surge in vampires in pop culture continues to surprise me. What is it a metaphor for in this age, and why is it so resonant? In Jordan's Byzantium, vampirism is a battleground of the sexes and social classes, with mother and daughter vampires Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan on the run from a mysterious male brotherhood of vampires. This group of men has always chosen who to pass the gift of eternal life onto, and it has always been exclusively male, that is until Arterton steals her way into the "bloodline." Not only poor but female, Arterton and Ronan are playing with a short deck in what feels like a Victorian age European town, with Arterton forced to turn to prostitution from an early age. There's the germ of an interesting feminist and economic critique here, a story about women breaking into bastions of male privilege, but the structure of the screenplay is such that you don't find out most of what's happening until very late in the movie. In the meantime, Ronan plays a lead who yearns to tell her life's story to someone. Unfortunately, she does it too well, and for most of the movie it's really unclear what Ronan and Arterton are after and why we should care about their family squabbles. The movie did leave me thinking of the potential of a Dickens-vampire mashup novel. Or maybe Jane Austen and Abraham Lincoln should switch zombies and vampires.
To the Wonder dir. by Terrence Malick - in style, evocative of The Tree of Life, but the subject matter is less gargantuan in scope. To the Wonder is a study of love and faith, whereas The Tree of Life saw Malick grappling with the meaning of life. The sequencing of these two movies feels reversed. If Malick had made To the Wonder first, then The Tree of Life, we'd read it as a great filmmaker climbing the ladder of life's mysteries, starting with a movie that feels like the work of a man coming off a few mid-life crises to one from a man looking back on his life from old age. You can read about the plot of To the Wonder in great detail elsewhere if you so desire. I enjoyed much of To the Wonder for the sheer aesthetic lyricism of it all (the same handheld cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, the classical music score, the Malickian montage of video and audio that is almost mosaic), but it feels much more like a tone poem than The Tree of Life, even if many labeled the latter as such. If To the Wonder is a tone poem, The Tree of Life is a symphony. While most people wanted a cleaner narrative from The Tree of Life, I found it tightly unified by the mind of Malick himself, hovering over the entire proceedings, turning the mystery of human existence over and over. To the Wonder has multiple perspectives, those of Neil (Ben Affleck), Marina (Olga Kurylenko), Jane (Rachel McAdams), and Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), and so its yearning feels more diffuse. That the subject matter is less momentous is not as problematic as the imprecise framing of the questions. We're meant to read them through the occasional snippets of whispered dialogue, and on the faces of our leads, but as I noted in my notes for Argo, Affleck's face is too straightforwardly handsome to register layered despair, and I couldn't pull much more from the other leads, either. Relationships and faith are complex and challenging. That feels like a minor epiphany, and filmgoers comes to Malick in pursuit of the sublime.