TIFF in Review Part One: Fall Movies

Attending any film festival, a common dilemma is whether to go for the upcoming fall movies a few months, or weeks, ahead of release, or whether to pick the more obscure indie/foreign films still awaiting distribution. The advantages of  the former are that there’s nothing quite like seeing a world premiere with a rapt audience and the filmmakers in attendance, while also having the space to formulate one’s own opinion before a consensus is formed (or too many spoilers revealed). The advantage of picking the latter, is the chance of finding diamonds in the rough, and championing them—sometimes frustratingly, to a world that may never get the chance to see what you’re on about. My personal way around this dilemma is to mix it up and pick a smattering of both. And since I’ve just seen 12 movies in five days, I’ve decided to split my reviews accordingly, in two parts.  

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12 Years a Slave

It’s hard to talk about Steve McQueen’s searing, masterful film without reaching deep for every available superlative, and a few more besides. It may not be the first film about slavery, but it feels like the first to treat it with no filter, no safety net, no redemptive catharsis , but as an American holocaust, told entirely from the black perspective. To watch it with an audience is to participate in an act of communal, immersive exorcism, and the element that makes it not just bearable, but transcendent, is the pure, jaw-dropping artistry at every level of its production. The true life tale of Solomon Northup’s Kafkaesque nightmare—kidnapped from his free life and sold into brutal slavery—feels like a major step in healing the wounds of slavery’s past, by allowing us to take collective responsibility as we watch horror turned to exquisite art, without lessening any of its impact.  In a perfect world, it would win every Oscar hands down, but given the Academy’s predilection for unchallenging feel-good entertainment, it doesn’t stand a chance.  Fuck ’em. It’s not just the best film of the year, but one of the best films ever made. And here’s a few of those superlatives to underline my point: Unmissable. Essential. Fearless. Profound. Unforgettable. (Opens in limited release October 18th.)  

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Prisoners

I loved Denis Villeneuve’s last film, Incendies, so I already had high hopes for his first U.S movie, but I was still completely blown away by this epic, harrowing, uncompromisingly dark thriller. Hugh Jackman gives the first performance of his career that I’ve unequivocally loved, full of rage and helplessness as the survivalist father who takes the law into his own hands after his daughter is kidnapped. If that synopsis sounds predictable, rest assured the movie is anything but, following its brilliantly realized characters to a true heart of darkness as it explores big themes (faith, forgiveness, revenge, grief) while twisting the screws of its nail-biting premise to almost unbearable levels of tension and dread. Jake Gyllenhaal is equally revelatory in the role of the jaded but determined cop leading the investigation, as is the entire supporting cast. A brilliant script, brilliantly directed, that joins Seven, Silence of the Lambs and Zodiac in the ranks of the all-time great criminal investigation thrillers that resonate far beyond their storylines. (Opens in wide release Sept. 20th)  

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Labor Day

Jason Reitman’s fifth movie in seven years breaks away from the knowing, arch humor of his previous work (Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult) and embraces the genre of the “woman’s weepie” with unabashed, uncynical enthusiasm that will alienate many but reward those willing to be swept along by its charms. Set in 1987and awash in a golden-hued nostalgic glow that brings to mind a Wonder Years episode by way of Douglas Sirk, the story is told from the point of view of a 13-year-old boy living alone with his fragile, heartbroken mother (Kate Winslet) as an escaped convict enters their lives, and proves to be the perfect father/partner for each of them. Josh Brolin sells a potentially ridiculous role with rugged real-man charisma and soul, and Reitman ratchets up the emotional tension and release with old-fashioned skill—though my main criticism would be an over-reliance on score, especially during a pie-baking scene that provided unintentional laughter in the screening I attended. Nevertheless, it’s a good film to take your mother to, or to watch alone if you fancy a good cathartic cry, though I would warn away anyone who has zero tolerance for melodrama or sentiment. (Opens in limited release Dec. 25th)

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Philomena

Another great pick to take your mom to, Stephen Frears’ latest boasts a smart, witty, emotionally satisfying script by Steve Coogan—who in the role of a cynical journalist helping an elderly woman find her long-lost son, may have found the movie that finally sells him to an American audience. His chemistry with Judi Dench, playing the title character, is wonderful, and the story takes some interesting turns into darker territory while always remaining warm, humane and funny. Frears’ direction is solid if uninspired—I always think his films belong on TV rather than on a big screen—but his old-school professionalism is undeniably effective, always finding the right emotional beat in every scene, as well as the laughs. It won’t blow your mind, but it’s good, solid stuff, and easy to recommend, to just about anyone. (Opens in limited release Dec. 25th)

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Gravity

Wow. Beginning to end, I watched this movie with my jaw hanging on the floor and the back of my brain exploded onto the back of the theatre. It’s so rare to see a big-budget special effects driven movie that is so uniquely an auteur’s vision, and while Alfonso Cuaron’s space epic isn’t the philosophical meditation some hoped it would be, it’s a thrilling, genuinely awe-inducing ride like nothing you’ve ever seen. Evolving his use of long takes—so well-executed in the brilliant, underrated Children of Men—to a mind-boggling extreme (the film’s first take is something like 45 mins long), the astonishing visuals on display are used in the service of a genuinely emotional journey, that sees George Clooney use his charming, comforting presence to ably support Sandra Bullock’s moving, fierce and vulnerable star turn, unlike anything we’ve seen from her to date. Of all the films playing at Toronto, Gravity is most likely the one I will return to most often, just to bask in the wonder of its technical achievements, and surrender to its immersive window into zero-g existence, with our beautiful, distant planet circling below. Wonderful. (Opens in wide release Oct. 4th)  

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August: Osage County

This much-hyped adaptation of Tracy Letts’ excellent play, is a mixed, though mostly successful bag. It’s an actors’ showcase through and through, with a cast to die for, and material that’s hard to screw up—boasting great characters, rich, blackly comic dialogue, and enough dramatic turns to fill an entire season of an American soap opera. Meryl Streep acts with a capital A, and she’s unsurprisingly impressive as the monstrous matriarch of a large extended family, but it’s the quieter turns that really stick in the memory—especially Julianne Nicholson as the quiet middle sister, and Chris Cooper as the benign but strong willed uncle. There are numerous meaty scenes for all the players to chew on (everyone gets their big emotional moment under the sun), and it’s a thrill to see Julia Roberts and Streep go head to head, most effectively in the film’s brilliant center-piece, a post-funeral dinner that spirals way out of control. Unfortunately, the film’s impact is dulled by a pace that lags thereafter, and what seems to have been a deliberate decision to soften the play for a wider audience (namely through the amber cinematography, classic Oscar-movie film-making, and obtrusive, somewhat treacly score), as John Well’s fine but uninspired direction never lets the material soar as high or dark as it wants it to go. Still, a very entertaining, very watchable few hours, that while not as great as it could have been, is most definitely worth your time. (Opens in limited release Dec. 25th)  

And that’s it for the big studio releases. Up next: Iranian immigrants in Paris, scrap-metal hunting kids in Northern England, broke musicians in Manhattan, teenage punk chicks in Stockholm, and foul-mouthed adults entering spelling bee competitions, as we round out the films that came to Toronto seeking distribution, and a place on next year’s movie calendar.

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