Toronto 2014: Festival Favorites
(in alphabetical order)
Breathe (France), dir. Mélanie Laurent – Laurent, best known here for starring in Inglorious Basterds, makes her directorial debut with this devastating look at teenage friendship gone awry. Stars Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge have the chemistry needed to show the depth of their characters’ relationship. Laurent has complete command of the camerawork and stages each scene perfectly. She creates an insular atmosphere for the high school and then tightens the screws so you can feel how suffocated the girls become. Disturbing but captivating.
Corbo (Canada), dir. Mathieu Denis – Another directorial debut, Corbo examines the rise of radical separatism in 1960s Quebec through the eyes of a 16-year-old boy. It’s a nuanced portrayal looking at ethnicity, politics and family generational shifts. Denis shows sympathy for the roots of the separatism, while condemning the violence. Star Anthony Therrien gives a deep, brooding performance echoing a young Sal Mineo. Gripping, powerful and precise.
Dearest (China), dir. Peter Ho-sun Chan – Dearest is a layered, complex story of child abduction that’s affecting while avoiding melodrama. It surprises, taking turns and showing points of view that you would not expect. Chan also takes time for his supporting characters, fleshing them out in a way where you feel they could have their own movie. In the Q&A, Chan described his research with parents of abducted children. That understanding comes through in the film.
Dukthar (Pakistan), dir. Afia Nathaniel – Dukthar succeeds as an escape thriller, a drama about parental dedication, and a blistering indictment of Pakistan’s tribal societies. Samiya Mumtaz stars as a woman who was married off to a much older tribal chief at the age of fifteen. When her husband promises to do the same with their young daughter, the mother takes the girl on the run. Nathaniel knows this world well, and provides the film much authenticity. She makes a beautiful film with exciting action sequences, but always keeps the focus on the relationships at the story’s core.
The Farewell Party (Israel), dir. Sharon Maymon and Tal Grant – Maymon and Granit somehow deliver a charming, funny and heartfelt film about one of the most difficult subjects imaginable, euthanasia. The humor comes at exactly the right times and never undercuts the dilemmas that the characters struggle with. A veteran cast makes you feel like these are people who have known each other for ages. It’s sweet, tender, and, in a strange way, life-affirming.
The Humbling (USA), dir. Barry Levinson – Levinson, screenwriter Buck Henry (adapting a Phillip Roth novel) and star Al Pacino have all seen better days, but they show that they’ve still got it. Pacino avoids the histrionics and gives a complex, self-effacing and hilarious performance. Henry’s wit has lost none of its bite in this story of an aging actor who starts a relationship with a much younger woman. Levinson deftly blends reality and fantasy and coaxes fine work from a stellar cast including Greta Gerwig, Charles Grodin, Dianne Wiest and Dan Hedaya. A welcome return to form.
The Look of Silence (Denmark/Indonesia/Norway/Finland/Engalnd), dir. Joshua Oppenheimer – Oppenheimer picks up right where his last film, The Act of Killing, left off; this time examining the victims of the Indonesian death squads, both those who were killed and maimed, and their families. He shows people who try to ignore what happened and those who desperately try to uncover the truth. As he did with Killing, Oppenheimer keeps his camera on the subjects, letting them tell the story. He allows the audience to make their own judgments.
The New Girlfriend (France), dir. François Ozon – A young woman discovers that her recently deceased best friend’s husband likes to dress in woman’s clothes. It sounds like it could be a John Waters camp-fest. Instead it’s an intricate exploration of gender, identity, love and friendship. Ozon tells the story in stages, as both characters redefine who they are. Star Romain Duris spent a month learning how to move like a woman, and his work pays off. Ozon avoids stereotypes and easy answers. His clever but unobtrusive camerawork fits the story perfectly.
The Owners (Kazakhstan), dir. Adilkhan Yerzhanov – How could I not love a film with roles including “Alcoholic in a Suit” and “Guy with a Spade”? They are small players in a bizarre story of two brothers and a sister who try to keep their family house. They deal with an impenetrable bureaucracy, hostile neighbors and corrupt law enforcement. The Owners begins as a Kafkaesque black comedy and becomes Kazakhstan’s answer to Fellini. Random people show up and start dancing. The film never loses its sense of humor, even as it grows increasingly surreal.
Rosewater (USA), dir. Jon Stewart – Stewart, in his directorial debut, captures not just the brutality but also the absurdity of totalitarianism. He tells the true-life story of Mazihar Bahari, an Iranian journalist imprisoned in Tehran for 119 days. Gael Garcia Bernal brings mischief and intelligence to the lead role. He’s able to convey small feelings and reactions to the audience while Bahari is interrogated. Bernal is just as effective in Bahari’s solitary confinement scenes as he talks to deceased family and listens to imaginary music. Stewart avoids heavy-handedness and shows restraint. He lets the natural drama come through with just the right amount of wit. At its core, Rosewater reflects Stewart’s belief in the power of media, both traditional and social, as a force for societal change.
A Second Chance (Denmark), dir. Susanne Bier – Do the ends justify the means? Bier asks this age-old question in new ways through a complex moral dilemma. She plays with perceptions of right and wrong through slowly adding more information to situations we thought we understood. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau shines as a cop who constantly tells himself he’s doing the right thing even as we can see that he’s in a very gray area. The film retains credibility because the characters’ actions, even as they push the envelope, come from basic and understandable human emotions.
Still Alice (USA), dir. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland – If there’s any fairness left in Hollywood, Julianne Moore will win an Oscar for her performance as a college professor struggling with early onset Alzheimer’s. She’s just that good, and the film makes the most of her talents, keeping the camera on her for long periods of time. Moore conveys so much just through her eyes, as her character struggles to remember basic facts or follow a conversation. She never plays for audience sympathies, which makes her even more effective. She finds this woman’s strength and dignity even as the mind and personality are stripped away. Still Alice never resorts to cheap tears, but, mostly because of Moore, it still breaks your heart.
Tigers (India/France/England), dir. Danis Tanovic – I described the story in morew detail discussing the film’s Q&A in the companion column. Brief recap – a former Nestlé salesman in Pakistan tries to stop the company from selling baby formula. Tanovic sets up a clever story-within-a-story by having the main character talk to producers weighing whether to make a film. He also spends time with the man’s family so you get a sense of what he is risking by coming forward. The story effectively balances the characters with the issues. A talented multinational cast all help provide the film needed depth. Tigers is political but not preachy.
Welcome to Me (USA), dir. Shira Piven – Kristen Wiig is fearless in this scathing satire of self-obsession. Wiig plays a bipolar woman who wins the lottery, and buys/creates a TV show devoted entirely to herself. It’s the perfect indictment of the social media age where every thought and experience must be shared with the world. While the film doesn’t quite measure up to classics such as Network or The Truman Show, Welcome to Me is in that vein. Wiig, as always, has impeccable comic timing and delivery, and the film fits her talents like a glove. Joan Cusack, Wes Bentley, Jennifer Jason Leigh and James Marsden lead a deep supporting cast, but this is Wiig’s show.
What We Do in the Shadows (New Zealand), dir. Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement – A very different kind of satire, but just as funny as Welcome to Me. Waititi and Clement, who earlier teamed for Eagle vs. Shark, create a mockumentary about vampires living in New Zealand. They get laughs both by poking fun at vampire lore and reality television. They ask such burning questions as: How do vampires try to look good if they can never use a mirror? Clement, in the Q&A, explained that the scenes were planned but the actors improvised the dialogue. That sounds similar to how Christopher Guest made his mockmentaries such as Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. What We Do in the Shadows is firmly in that tradition, and that’s quite a compliment.
Whiplash (USA), dir. Damien Chazelle – Whiplash asks how far you should go to push someone to greatness. A promising student drummer (Miles Teller) clashes with a demanding, bullying instructor (J.K. Simmons). Chazelle uses the music as a pressure cooker, building up the tension until it boils over. He said he wanted to make the drumming scenes his version of fight scenes, and he succeeded. The music is terrific in its own right. Teller is charismatic and passionate, while Simmons simply owns the screen. He makes his character intimidating but never turns him into a monster. The screening audience gave this one a standing ovation.
X + Y (England), dir. Morgan Matthews – A warm, irreverent, heartfelt look at love, loss, and autism. Asa Butterfield stars as a math prodigy with Asperger’s, who is still suffering from his father’s death. Rafe Spall gets the best lines as the kid’s teacher who is battling his own demons. Sally Hawkins, as the boy’s mother, gives a moving, soulful performance. A scene where the mother tells her son about unrequited love has so many meanings, and will bring you to tears. X + Y avoids cheap sentimentality and treats autism with understanding.
Also Highly Recommended:
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (Australia), dir. Mark Hartley
An Eye for Beauty (Canada), dir. Denys Arcand
The Guest (USA), dir. Adam Wingard
The Riot Club (England), dir. Lone Scherfig
The Yes Men Are Revolting (USA), dir. Laura Nix and the Yes Men
Beyond the Lights (USA), dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood
Big Game (Finland), dir. Jalmari Helander
Breakup Buddies (China), dir. Hing Nao
The Editor (Canada), dir. Matthew Kennedy and Adam Brooks
Foreign Body (Poland), dir. Krysztof Zanussi
The Face of an Angel (England), dir. Michael Winterbottom
Hyena (England), dir. Gerard Johnson
Iraqi Odyssey (Iraq/Switzerland/Germany/UAE), dir. Samir
Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet (Canada/France/Lebanon/Qatar/USA), dir. Roger Allers, et. al.
Kill Me Three Times (Australia), dir. Kriv Stenders
Leviathan (Russia), dir. Andrey Zyvaginstev
The Little Death (Australia), dir. Josh Lawson
Maps to the Stars (Canada), dir. David Cronenberg
Miss Julie (Norway/England/Ireland/France), dir. Liv Ullmann
Pasolini (France/Italy/Belgium), dir. Abel Ferrara
Phoenix (Germany), dir. Christian Petzold
[Rec] 4: Apocalypse (Spain), dir. Jaume Balagueró
Revenge of the Green Dragons (USA), dir. Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo
Unlucky Plaza (Singapore), dir. Ken Kwek
See Revisiting Toronto.
October 1, 2014
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