Guys, I had the privilege of attending the 41st Toronto International Film Festival from September 7-18. It was my third consecutive year in attendance, and as far as the movies were concerned, let’s just say the third time was the charm. There’ve always been a handful of movies you walk out of the festival telling everyone to see (last year it was The Meddler, Room, Spotlight, and The Lobster; the year before was Mommy, Nightcrawler, Wild, and The Last Five Years), but most of the movies are forgettable middle-of-the-road blips.
Never before have I seen a lineup where such a large percentage knocked it out of the park, with a cluster of them genuinely touching greatness. It may have been a long, wretched summer for movies, but it looks like we may actually remember 2016 as having been an embarrassment of cinematic riches. So, I watched 44 movies over the course of ten days (a new personal best!). In past years I’ve selected only a handful of movies to talk about, but this year, I’m giving you the whole shebang. Below, you will find every single movie I watched in its entirety, broken out into our trusty The Binge Movie Podcast rating system:
Binge It! – Our highest score.
Consume It Moderation… – It’s good, but it’s kinda meh.
Send It Back. – Life is too short for that mess.
I also added trailer links when applicable, but not all of the movies have trailers yet. Alright, here we go!
American Honey | cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough | director: Andrea Arnold [Trailer]
A teenage girl with nothing to lose joins a traveling magazine sales crew, and gets caught up in a whirlwind of hard partying, law bending and young love as she criss-crosses the Midwest with a band of misfits.
I can forgive its flaws (could’ve safely been trimmed from its 160-minute runtime by a full hour, doesn’t actually have much to say) just because it’s such an energizing blast of freshness and originality. Definitely leans heavily on the Larry Clark/Harmony Korine school of emaciated barely-legals behaving badly, but with a visual poetry that’s entirely Andrea Arnold’s. I also love it whenever a new movie still uses Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” on the soundtrack (I believe the last time it popped up was in Burlesque).
Arrival | cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker | director: Denis Villeneuve [Trailer]
A spectacular example of sophisticated, elegant, deliberate sci-fi that succeeds where Interstellar failed so disappointingly. It might be my favorite Denis Villenueve film yet, and Amy Adams continues to be infallible in her versatility. If she’s gonna wind up in the Oscar race this year, it’ll be for this rather than Nocturnal Animals (thank god she had time to shoot both of these fantastically mature adult movies in between Zack Snyder reshoots). This one got maybe a little in the weeds as we went on Amy’s very, very, very long journey of learning heptapod language basics, but otherwise it was just stunning.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe | cast: Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox | director: André Øvredal
Father and son coroners receive a mysterious homicide victim with no apparent cause of death. As they attempt to identify the beautiful young “Jane Doe,” they discover increasingly bizarre clues that hold the key to her terrifying secrets.
The English-language debut by the director of Trollhunter is far and away the scariest and goriest movie I saw. This is a fantastic horror potboiler, ratcheting up the scares and terror until you think your head’s gonna explode. NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH; I actually felt on the verge of gagging a few times, which never happens. If you have sensitivities around dead bodies and autopsy stuff, avoid this movie like the plague, because it does NOT eff around with that shit. It all gets rather ludicrous around midway through and the explanation saps most of the fun, but I was still damn impressed.
Boys in the Trees | cast: Toby Wallace, Gulliver McGrath | director: Nicholas Verso [Trailer]
On Halloween 1997, two estranged teen skaters embark on a surreal journey through their memories, dreams and fears.
This emotionally charged fable takes place on Halloween in Australia in the mid-’90s (reflected beautifully on the soundtrack, which includes “Machinehead”). It’s kinda like a male version of Heathers crossed with a trippy Halloween episode of Buffy, but with a dash of after-school special moralizing in the finale. It has a terrific visual aesthetic and succeeded in giving me the feels by the end, but definitely struggles a bit under the weight of its uneven ambition. Still, ultimately a very sweet and special little movie. Plus its one notable female character is basically a manifestation of my innermost self, walking around in a PJ Harvey shirt listening to the first Garbage album on her Discman with a Björk poster on her wall.
Certain Women | cast: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, Kristen Stewart | director: Kelly Reichardt [Trailer]
The lives of three women intersect in small-town America, where each is imperfectly blazing a trail.
Kelly Reichardt’s most accomplished feature to date, which means it might still seem insanely slow and uneventful if you haven’t seen just how slow and uneventful her movies can be. By her own standards, this is practically an action movie. Hell, there’s a hostage situation in the first act! It reminded me of Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity, but far more subdued and with much greater craftsmanship.
All three chapters address the difficulties women in positions of authority are confronted with; the first two involve women negotiating in difficult situations while men outright ignore them, and the second two involve women working up the courage to ask for what they want. This definitely isn’t a movie that gives the audience what it wants, particularly in the third chapter, but there isn’t a false moment or non-beautifully filmed frame in the entire thing. It’s a movie that requires you to lean forward in the best possible way.
Christine | cast: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts | director: Antonio Campos [Trailer]
Man, this movie is uniquely unsettling. Directed by Antonio Campos (Simon Killer), it’s a biopic about Chubbuck, the TV news reporter in Sarasota who shot herself in the head on live TV in 1974. Rebecca Hall gives what can best be described as a daring performance in the lead role. She plays Chubbuck in a way that reminded me of a Todd Solondz heroine, in the sense that she just has absolutely zero capacity for reading social cues from others or successfully interacting with the world around her in any way; instead, she’s constantly inadvertently making everything much more awkward.
Campos positions her as being ahead of her time with many of her ideas, trapped in the hellscape of ‘70s Florida and forced to work under a blatantly anti-feminist boss (Tracy Letts) who despises her. Michael C. Hall plays the dreamy head anchor, Timothy Simons costars as the weatherman, and J. Smith Cameron plays Christine’s exasperated mother. This movie got under my skin like nothing else I saw at TIFF, which is a testament to the powers of both Rebecca Hall’s haunting performance and Campos’ dynamic filmmaking. A total stunner, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.
The Edge of Seventeen | cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Blake Jenner, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick | director: Kelly Fremon Craig [Trailer]
High-school life gets even more unbearable for Nadine when her best friend, Krista, starts dating her older brother.
This is a quick-witted, thoughtful, entertaining teen comedy that marks a tremendous debut for glamazon writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig. Hailee Steinfeld made me like her for the first time since True Grit as Nadine, who takes her frustrations out on everyone around her, from a sympathetic but sarcastic teacher (Woody Harrelson, giving the TIFF performance he should direct everyone toward and away from LBJ) to her widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick, under what looks like 20 pounds of hair extensions).
Maybe it’s just been a long festival full of heavy movies, but it felt absolutely miraculous to watch a fast-paced, capably executed comedy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this will be another Clueless or Mean Girls (plus it has enough swearing to guarantee an R), but it’s certainly a cut above the average teen comedy, and it really is consistently, outrageously funny. And no, Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” is not used in the film, which is just infuriating.
Elle | cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny | director: Paul Verhoeven [Trailer]
A successful businesswoman gets caught up in a game of cat and mouse as she tracks down the unknown man who raped her.
I feel like this movie would be better encapsulated by a series of shocked-face gifs than a written review. There is nothing in Paul Verhoeven’s filmography of the last 30 years to suggest he could pull off anything approaching this closely observed, richly detailed character study. If there’s a more complex female lead character in movie history than Isabelle Huppert’s role here, I cannot think of it (although the first runner-up is probably her character from The Piano Teacher).
The thing about Verhoeven is that he’s always got this nervy, bold bag of tricks that surprise at every turn. There’s an extremely perverse sense of humor running through pretty much all of his movies, and it’s never stood out in starker contrast to its surroundings than it does here—nor has it worked better. There’s just so much going on, so much to unpack and break down. I’m very much looking forward to seeing this again.
The Handmaiden | cast: Min-hee Kim, Tae Ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha | director: Chan-wook Park [Trailer]
A woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but secretly she is involved in a plot to defraud her.
I expected to love this, but frankly was turned off by the overly measured pacing and unnecessary runtime (at 140 minutes, it’s about half an hour longer than it needs to be—a tighter cut would’ve been a home run). I didn’t expect it to be so novelistic after the director’s last film, Stoker, was such a lean mean thrill machine. But there’s clearly plenty to love about it. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie that was so meticulously mannered yet so balls-out (or balls-in) perverted and deranged at the same time. Don’t know if this has come before the MPAA yet, but I have a very hard time imagining this cut getting anything less than an NC-17. I’ll have to revisit it when I’m less tired to do a better job of keeping up with its many detailed twists and turns.
Jackie | cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup | director: Pablo Larraín
Following the assassination of her husband, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.
My favorite kinds of biopics are a specific chapter in someone’s life rather than cradle-to-grave, and this one zeroes in on the darkest hour in the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women, certainly the one about which we have the most morbid curiosity. There’s even a sense of the film admonishing us for wanting to know about these terrible things, as Jackie puts a journalist through the paces to get the answers out of her, forcing him—and in other scenes, the American people—to deal with the pain and discomfort that come with facing the truth they seek.
But there’s way more going on here than merely recounting the events surrounding JFK’s assassination from his wife’s point of view. The whole thing is more of a nonlinear-montage meditation on how public figures balance their public personae with their private identities. This is entirely Natalie Portman’s show, who not only goes ALL the way in on her accent, but gives us an astoundingly layered and shaded portrayal of this most iconic of first ladies. We see the anger, the toughness, the guardedness, the conviction.
Julieta | cast: Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Rossy de Palma | director: Pedro Almodóvar [Trailer]
After a casual encounter, a brokenhearted woman decides to confront her life and the most important events about her stranded daughter.
Estranged mother-daughter melodrama, Almodóvar-style. This one has enough similarities to his masterpiece All About My Mother that one can’t help finding it somewhat lacking, since it doesn’t quite reach those heights (what could?). Once again our story focuses on a mother haunted by loss who puts her life on hold to deal with the aftermath of her absent child, although in this case it’s a long-missing daughter rather than a dead son.
Those hoping for some of the old Pedro camp humor should look elsewhere, because beyond some of the wigs and costumes in the flashback sequences—and an unrecognizable Rossy de Palma as a ball-busting mother-in-law—this is as serious as they come. Still, Almodóvar is obviously one of our last great enthusiasts in the “women’s picture” tradition, and he successfully pushes plenty of those buttons here. The Bernard Herrmann-esque score does a lot of heavy lifting mood-wise, and should deservedly push three-time Oscar nominee Alberto Iglesias into the winners circle.
La La Land | cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend | director: Damien Chazelle [Trailer]
It will soon become clichéd to talk about how “magical” this movie is, but it’s still the best word to describe how swooningly transporting and enchanting it is. Between this and Hail, Caesar! 2016 has been bookended by rapturous homages to Old Hollywood. I feel like it’s easier to talk about what worked less well than the parts which were mind-blowingly beautiful, i.e. the rest of it. The story itself is very thin and familiar, not that it has any pretensions to the contrary. The songs aren’t especially melodic. Since 98% of the screen time is Gosling and/or Stone, several solid actors are somewhat wasted in barely-there bit parts (Rosemarie Dewitt, Finn Wittrock, Tom Everett Scott).
And…that’s it! I have nothing else critical to say. I see many awards in this movie’s future, probably starting with the Grolsch, because I can’t imagine a more crowd-pleasing movie at a festival swarmed by movie lovers than this one [note: I wrote this before the Grolsch was announced, which did indeed go to La La Land a week later—called it!]. With its entwined love letters to Los Angeles, show business, and Old Hollywood, this movie will have the Academy firmly in its grasp. It is endlessly superior to The Artist, the recent winner it evokes most. Picture/Director nominations are guaranteed, and Emma Stone will almost certainly get a Best Actress nom (Gosling may suffer from a lack of dramatics; he has more comedic beats).
Manchester by the Sea | cast: Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges | director: Kenneth Lonergan [Trailer]
I was expecting this to be the bleakest and most depressing movie I’d ever seen based on the Sundance buzz, but not even close! I was totally caught off guard by how much humor it had, even though I shouldn’t have been, since Kenneth Lonergan is a witty gentleman. Maybe it was just my dependably super-appreciative TIFF gala audience, but people were in stitches for almost every scene of the movie that wasn’t one of the handful of very, very, very serious and sad parts. The whole thing was way more intimate and small-scale than I anticipated as well.
Similarly to the Mark Ruffalo character in You Can Count On Me, it’s about a troubled man who’s run away from his family and the circumstances that bring him back; similarly to Margaret, it’s also about someone who caused death and doesn’t know how to face their sense of responsibility. The cast is all great, although I was let down by how small Michelle Williams’ part was. The Sundance reviews that hyperbolically claimed her final scene with Casey Affleck was her best work ever had clearly forgotten the “Jack Twist! JACK NASTY!” kitchen showdown with Heath Ledger in Brokeback. Anyway, I think maybe my expectations were too high, because I didn’t feel enough emotional connection to really love it.
Moonlight | cast: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe | director: Barry Jenkins [Trailer]
The life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie do such a profound, lyrical job of explaining how someone becomes the person they are, of how the pieces of our identities come together. It also says a tremendous deal about the prison of masculinity, black masculinity in particular. It’s a gorgeously wise poem of a film that stands at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality while deconstructing all three.
I was trying to remember where I’d remembered feeling such a specific bone-deep sadness before, and then I remembered seeing this film compared to Brokeback Mountain, which is what I’d been thinking of. The spirit of Heath Ledger’s performance is alive and well here, but made entirely its own. The song cues throughout were also unbelievably on point. This is just a stellar example of the power of cinema as an art form, with perfect and powerful performances from the ensemble cast.
Nocturnal Animals | cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Armie Hammer | director: Tom Ford [Trailer]
An art gallery owner is haunted by her ex-husband’s novel, a violent thriller she interprets as a veiled threat and a symbolic revenge tale.
It was anyone’s guess whether A Single Man was going to be a fluke in the fledgling directorial career of Tom Ford, but nope, this guy is the real deal. His sophomore effort plays like…well, a Tom Ford movie, but wrapped around an altogether nastier and more violent Texas revenge western. Ford, of course, is perfectly in his element skewering the superficialities of contemporary elite Los Angeles, with nary a hair out of place, an extravagant wardrobe opportunity missed, nor a handsome actor failing to be lit and styled better than ever (Armie Hammer). But the movie’s nonlinear, layered narrative is an intriguing little puzzle box.
Aesthetics remain first and foremost, but as with A Single Man, there’s a deep well of soulful sadness underneath it—and this time, it comes with some committed genre play. Ford elicits hugely delightful single-scene performances from the likes of Jena Malone, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Laura Linney, and Kristin Bauer van Straten (in her case, it’s a single line, delivered perfectly). Everyone is fantastic, but Michael Shannon is the only one likely to generate awards buzz. He nails his sympathetic, crowd-pleasing role as a cancer-stricken Texas sheriff. This could be his big awards moment, at last. Also: you are not ready for the opening credits.
Prevenge | cast: Alice Lowe, Kate Dickie, Gemma Whelan | director: Alice Lowe
A bleakly humorous serial-killer tale in which the murderer is both eight months pregnant and under the imagined instruction of her unborn child.
British writer/actress Alice Lowe (Sightseers) makes a memorable directorial debut with this darkly funny, oddly poignant tale of a very pregnant woman (played by Lowe) who goes on a killing spree. Why? Because when her doctor tells her to listen (with her body) for her unborn baby telling her what she needs to do for it, she begins hearing a baby voice telling her to KILL, KILL, KILL. The film gradually reveals the reasons why Lowe is picking most of her victims, which elevates this beyond an exercise in nihilism; it’s also boosted immeasurably by Lowe’s very funny and relatable performance. The whole thing is decidedly lo-fi, but between the perverse concept and the retro-synth soundtrack (a surefire way to make any movie or just-ok Netflix TV show a hit these days), I suspect this will become a critics-darling cult hit.
Raw | cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella | director: Julia Ducournau
When a young vegetarian undergoes a carnivorous hazing ritual at vet school, an unbidden taste for meat begins to grow in her.
First off, let me address the reports that this movie had people at TIFF fainting left and right from the gore. Adjust your expectations: there is just one brief scene that allegedly had that effect on people. I’ll admit that I felt briefly sick and a little faint when it happened, but otherwise my screening was perfectly calm.
What is it about young women coming of age that lends itself so well to horror allegories? To me, this was primarily a black comedy about a college freshman who just can’t get a break. The protagonist is a bookish straight-A young woman who goes to the same vet school as her more-confident older sister (why not) and must endure the most hellish rush week on record (do vet schools have wild sex-crazed rush weeks, is that a thing?).
The movie has lots of fun with its allegory about repressed kids with strict parents who go nuts in college; the punchline is that the family is militantly vegetarian, but that once our protagonist gets to college—vet school! because we shouldn’t eat their flesh!—she actually becomes a cannibal. Well, there are more punchlines throughout, but that one’s in the premise. This one isn’t quite as fun as it sounds; it has a somewhat relaxed pace and an overall lack of violence/gore that I fear might prevent it from turning into a foreign breakout (it’s in French), but it’s a beautifully executed little freakshow of a movie.
Souvenir | cast: Isabelle Huppert, Kévin Azaïs | director: Bavo Defurne
A forgotten European Song Contest singer, fading away in a pâté factory, falls in love with a young aspiring boxer. Together they decide to attempt her comeback.
The most playful of the three Huppert films at TIFF, this was a total delight. It’s great seeing how differently a French film approaches such a massive romance age difference; the boxer (played by an actor who resembles a baby Joel Kinnaman) is 22 and Huppert is 63 (!!!), but neither is shamed beyond pragmatic conversations between them about the likelihood of their love working out longterm. Also, the boxer is totally just eye candy for Huppert to objectify and bat around, which is a nice reversal of the usual dynamic.
The one really camp element is that Huppert does all her own singing (Pink Martini contributed to the original songs), and let’s just say the last time you saw someone look this stiff and awkward while posing their way through a “sultry” live performance was when Lana Del Rey was on SNL. I’ve also learned between this and Elle that directors would be kind to stop asking her to film dancefloor scenes. Not that she gives a shit.
Their Finest | cast: Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Sam Claflin, Jack Huston | director: Lone Scherfig
A British film crew attempts to boost morale during World War II by making a propaganda film after the Blitzkrieg.
One of the most delightful and shamelessly entertaining movies I’ve seen all festival. This feel-good yet sophisticated drama marks a return to form for director Lone Scherfig (An Education). Gemma Arterton is plucky as a young woman who interviews for a secretarial position but winds up working on scripts. Similarly to A League of Their Own, this is an empowering story about women challenging sexist norms by demonstrating their professional value while so many men were away. Bill Nighy is extremely hilarious as an aging, vain actor constantly angling for juicier scenes. Occasionally it lays it on too thick and can be obvious at times, but mostly I just sat there making happy noises. Hopefully it’ll get a holiday release and you can all take your moms/aunts/grandmas to see it over break.
Things to Come | cast: Isabelle Huppert, André Marcon, Roman Kolinka | director: Mia Hansen-Løve [Trailer]
A philosophy teacher soldiers through the death of her mother, getting fired from her job, and dealing with a husband who is cheating on her.
Mia Hansen-Løve follows the Parisian rave epic Eden, which I saw at TIFF in 2014, with this complete about-face starring queen of everything Isabelle Huppert. She plays what we might think of as a Diane Lane role: a chic middle-aged philosophy teacher who starts her life over again after after a series of shakeups. This movie would probably shine a lot more brightly if Huppert wasn’t also giving the performance of everyone’s lifetime in Elle at this very same festival, but it’s a gorgeous little character piece all the same, and continues to establish Hansen-Løve as an unpredictable filmmaker to watch.
Weirdos | cast: Dylan Authors, Julia Sarah Stone, M0lly Parker | director: Bruce McDonald
It’s the weekend of the American Bicentennial and 15-year-old Kit is running away from his Nova Scotia home.
Handsomely shot in black and white, this one’s a Canadian road trip movie from director Bruce McDonald, set in the ‘70s, about a closeted gay teen and his neglected girlfriend who sneakily run away so that the gay kid can move in with his free-spirited bohemian mother (Molly Parker, showing the rest of the cast what movie-star acting looks like). The plot arc feels familiar, but the central relationship between the gay kid and his unwitting beard is thorny and complex, and there are lots of nice touches, including a glorious ‘70s AM folk-rock soundtrack and an ongoing greek chorus in the form of an Andy Warhol apparition. I was thoroughly charmed.
Consume in Moderation…
Below Her Mouth | cast: Erika Linder, Natalie Krill | director: April Mullen [Trailer]
An unexpected affair quickly escalates into a heart-stopping reality for two women whose passionate connection changes their lives forever.
YOWZA! This Toronto-set lesbian romance makes the sex scenes in Blue is the Warmest Color look like chaste hand-holding. Honestly, this is erotica, plain and simple; it certainly doesn’t have enough non-sex/nude scenes or dialogue to call itself anything else, and from what I could see, some of the sex scenes were unsimulated. This feels like The L Word slash fic; it’s kinda like, “What if Jenny had a torrid affair with Shane back when Jenny was still with a dude?” The Shane character is played by four-alarm lesbian pinup Erika Linder, a Swedish Kristen Stewart lookalike with an extremely strong accent that gives her line readings all the emotional nuance of Tommy Wiseau. I will add, however, that Natalie Krill gives one of the most uninhibited, unexpectedly soul-baring performances I’ve ever seen in an erotic film as the Jenny. This is unquestionably an NC-17 if it goes before the MPAA.
Brain on Fire | cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jenny Slate, Tyler Perry | director: Gerard Barrett
Serviceable well-cast Disease of the Week movie, based on a true story, in which Chloe Grace Moretz plays the world’s youngest NY Post reporter. She comes down with a mysterious, inexplicable condition that manifests with increasingly severe psychotic episodes; presumably she contracted it from the collective hatred of the many senior reporters who were passed over for her job. This is literally about nothing more than the disease and the characters’ attempts to identify it, so it’s an extremely limited achievement; this isn’t one of those disease movies that ties in larger themes or ideas to say something more memorable. Speaking of memorable, the name of the disease certainly isn’t; when it finally appears on screen, you just kinda look at it and think, “I will never remember that.”
Moretz no longer seems like the acting dynamo she still clearly thinks she is; she’s been borrowing from the same bag of dramatic tricks for a decade now, so she might want to start challenging herself to go deeper. Tyler Perry, on the other hand, is back in ass-kicking Gone Girl mode, which is fun to see. Jenny Slate provides welcome comic relief and sympathetic moments as Chloe’s gal pal at work, Carrie-Anne Moss is powerful as Chloe’s mom, and poor Thomas Mann from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl once again finds himself spending lots of time mooning over a girl in a hospital bed. He also moons the camera, which means I saw nude scenes from both “Me” and “the Dying Girl” at TIFF this year. Ball’s in your court, Earl.
Buster’s Mal Heart | cast: Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil | director: Sarah Adina Smith
A mountain man on the run from authorities who survives the winter by breaking into empty vacation homes. He’s haunted by a recurring dream of being lost at sea only to discover that the dream is real: He is one man in two bodies.
Rami Malek stars in a dark, fragmented character study about a man’s descent in madness, violence, and antiestablishment paranoia. No, not Mr. Robot. He stars as a graveyard shift motel concierge/husband and father who somehow becomes a deranged derelict in the woods that breaks into people’s winter vacation homes; the movie is meant to show us how one led to the other. I definitely didn’t expect this to be so punishing and bleak, and it has enough of a hallucinatory undertone that you’re never quite sure what the hell is going on timeline/reality-wise. Again, I swear, it was not Mr. Robot.
The one thing I’ll say for it is that Malek truly gives his all; the character really goes through the ringer, but there’s no moment too dark or intense for Malek to convincingly meet head-on with his deep emotional access. I’m pretty sure this might be his first movie lead role, and despite how unpleasant it is to watch, he’s absolutely superb; it made me very excited to see what he can do with a similarly complex role in a movie that’s more worthy of his commitment.
Carrie Pilby | cast: Bel Powley, Nathan Lane, Vanessa Bayer, Jason Ritter | director: Susan Johnson
A person of high intelligence struggles to make sense of the world as it relates to morality, relationships, sex and leaving her apartment.
After arriving in a major way in The Diary of a Teenage Girl last year, rising star Bel Powley once again carries a movie almost entirely on her shoulders, but its broadly comedic vibe couldn’t be more tonally different (although, granted, she once again has an affair with an older man and the term “age of consent” does come up). She stars as an antisocial, judgmental prodigy who graduated from Harvard at 18 and is now 19, living in Manhattan, and has no clue how to jump into “adult life.” Her father (Gabriel Byrne) lives in London, so he sets her up with a therapist (Nathan Lane) who’s meant to draw her out of her defensive know-it-all shell. Fantastic funny/sympathetic supporting performances from the likes of Jason Ritter and Vanessa Bayer buffer the prickly heroine.
Colossal | cast: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Stevens | director: Nacho Vigalondo
A woman discovers that severe catastrophic events are somehow connected to the mental breakdown from which she’s suffering.
This was probably the buzziest breakout of the fest, but I actually wasn’t a fan. I couldn’t get past how cheap everything looked and how amateurish the filmmaking felt, which was put into even sharper focus by the caliber of the cast (Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens). I spent the first act wondering where it was going, the second act laughing at how ludicrous it was and enjoying it as a lighthearted sci-fi allegory about drunk fuckups learning responsibility via monster avatars, then the third act cringing and wishing it would end already as it devolved into a self-serious drama about toxic, abusive relationships.
I always thought my first Anne Hathaway monster movie would be her inevitable biopic about late-career Judy Garland, but nope, here we are. She has played self-destructive wastoids very convincingly (Rachel Getting Married) and less so (Havoc); this is somewhere in the middle. Vanity Fair is saying this movie is about toxic masculinity, and if that’s what they wanted, they certainly couldn’t have found a better poster boy than Jason Sudeikis. I also think it’s kinda gross that this movie uses the entire population of Seoul as undeveloped comedy props who never leave their city despite punctual daily monster terrorizing. It would be one thing if the movie had remained as proudly ludicrous as it appeared in its middle stretch, but it ruined the fun in the end.
Deepwater Horizon | cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Hudson, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez | director: Peter Berg [Trailer]
A story set on the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, which exploded during April 2010 and created the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
Peter Berg, whom I witnessed lying face-down on a hotel hallway carpet midway through the fest, is back after Lone Survivor with yet another Mark Wahlberg-starring action-drama about working-class American heroism. This one goes down a helluva lot smoother than that one, thank god. Also similarly to Lone Survivor, this takes place in a closely contained period of time; it’s pretty much all on the day the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded back in 2010, claiming 11 lives and leading to the worst oil leak in US history. The disaster-movie filmmaking here is top notch. My jaw actually dropped several times in the moments leading up to the Big Explosion; I was reminded more of Titanic than anything else, since we’re once again watching this huge floating thing crumble to bits while people scramble to get off of it and go back in to find one another.
I was kinda hoping the movie would take more time to document the legal fallout afterward, but alas, we only get onscreen epilogue cards to tell us about that. However, the two BP execs in the movie are played by John Malkovich and Buddy Garity, so I suppose it says all it needs to. Also, great to see Gina Rodriguez get her first role in a big movie since Jane the Virgin. All in all, a thoroughly solid effort, although the only villain here is corporate greed and short cuts; not a single word is spoken about the environmental impact, beyond a brief sequence in which an oil-crazed pelican terrorizes a nearby ship.
Free Fire | cast: Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Sharlo Copley, Jack Reynor | director: Ben Wheatley [Trailer]
Set in Boston in 1978, a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs turns into a shootout and a game of survival.
I was fully prepared to hate this movie after getting nothing but negative reports from friends who attended the first screening; also, High-Rise was awful and I recently had to endure it a second time, so I had a “Ben Wheatley is an overrated hack” rant ready to go. I got even more ready to rip it to shreds when it started to look like gun porn in the opening sequence. But…I liked it! Obviously it’s a very simple concept, since it’s essentially a feature-length shootout, but Wheatley knows that and is playing with how to execute such a thing.
It makes perfect sense that he’d make something like this after the way-too-ambitious High-Rise. The cast really saved this one for me, particularly Armie Hammer (never funnier), Sharlto Copley, and Jack Reynor. With her quintessentially girl-next-door vibe, Brie Larson was miscast in a role that should’ve gone to someone like Elizabeth Olsen. I still have some responsibility concerns about a movie that makes getting caught in a mass shooting look like a wisecracking good time and getting shot with multiple bullets something you can just shake off with a few well-timed eye rolls, but I think this will deservedly be a huge hit with the Green Room crowd.
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House | cast: Ruth Wilson, Bob Balaban, Paula Prentiss, Lucy Boynton | director: Osgood Perkins
This is coming to Netflix soon, but I sought it out because I enjoyed Osgood Perkins’ debut, February (now renamed The Blackcoat’s Daughter, because that’s easier to remember?). This is a super-spooky ghost story about a hospice nurse (Ruth Wilson) who moves into a senile author’s isolated home and begins to discover the ghost that’s long resided there. In just two directorial features, Perkins (son of Anthony, a clip of whom appears herein) has established himself as a master of atmospheric, impeccably art-directed dread. This has almost no blood, virtually no jump scares, no ghost-rushes-screaming-at-the-camera bits…and yet it is absolutely terrifying in its silence.
I Called Him Morgan | director: Kasper Collin
An elegiac, low-key documentary about the tragic jazz love story between ‘50s-‘60s trumpet prodigy Lee Morgan and his wife Helen, who shot him to death at a crowded jazz club in 1972; he was only 33. Helen died in 1996, but the director tracked down a man who met her by chance and tape-recorded an audio interview with her, which provides much of the narration. There are also lots of new interviews with the likes of Wayne Shorter and other fellow Blue Note luminaries that Morgan worked with during his brief, brilliant career, but without Helen around to respond to the things they say and with her own interview (sounding uncannily like Audra McDonald’s impression of Billie Holiday) existing in a context-free vacuum, it’s all a bit anticlimactic.
The director is Scandinavian, which really shows in his lack of interest in building any kind of cathartic emotional moment out of making the eyewitnesses recount their recollection of the murder (no one cries!). Still, this is an uncommonly evocative and atmospheric music doc that presents a fascinating case study of two troubled lives fatefully intersecting.
It’s Only the End of the World | cast: Gaspard Ulliel, Marion Cotillard, Lea Séydoux, Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel | director: Xavier Dolan [Trailer]
A terminally ill writer returns home after a long absence to tell his family that he is dying.
The key to enjoying this movie is to just go into it knowing that the emotions will be cranked to 11 the entire time and that most of it will be people screaming at each other. As a longtime devotee of Real Housewives reunion shows, I am perfectly at ease in this space. Xavier Dolan’s latest garnered a critical pile-on at Cannes before winning a surprise Grand Prix; it does feel like a lateral move rather than a game-changer like Mommy, in the sense that he’s once again made a claustrophobic and stylized drama about a dysfunctional family (“I decided to try something new,” he joked while introducing it tonight).
This time, however, it’s based on a play, and it definitely feels like one; there’s just one big extended dialogue-driven fight scene after another, with everything filmed almost entirely in closeup. It’s like August: Osage Province. There’s definitely a lot of self-pity in this one, and the movie is awfully solemn for having such a big punchline at the end, but I don’t think it deserved the Cannes critics trashing.
Jean of the Joneses | cast: Taylour Paige, Sherri Shepherd, Gloria Reuben, Michelle Hurst | director: Stella Meghie
Chaos ensues after the estranged patriarch of the Jones family dies on their doorstep. When the paramedic who answers their 911 call tried to win over acerbic Jean Jones, his attempts are disrupted by old conflicts that come to a boil at the funeral.
A promising debut from writer/director Stella Meghie, this is a fresh and funny screwball family comedy. Jean Jones (Taylour Paige, an absolute stunner but the film’s weakest acting link) is a young literary one-hit wonder who finds herself homeless after moving out of her boyfriend’s apartment. So, she ends up couch-surfing her way through her mother and aunties (including a terrific Sherri Shepherd)—just as they’re all finding out Jean’s Jamaican grandmother (Michelle Hurst, Orange is the New Black) hid the existence of their father from them for decades. While it has a few first-time director timing/rhythm bugs, this is a total crowdpleaser driven by a fantastic new point of view I haven’t heard before.
Lion | cast: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawal, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara | director: Garth Davis [Trailer]
A five-year-old Indian boy gets lost on the streets of Calcutta, thousands of miles from home. He survives many challenges before being adopted by a couple in Australia; 25 years later, he sets out to find his lost family.
I will say that nothing about this movie’s description appealed to me (I avoid inspirational titles like the plague). With that said, I was impressed by how restrained it was, as if saving up all of its sentiment and emotional impact for the utterly wrenching finale, which combines happy tears and sad tears in equal measure for all who are capable of crying at movies (i.e. not me). I assumed the original score would be swooping and soaring all over the place, but no, the tone is resolutely one of social realism throughout.
The whole thing is so somber and unrewarding for so long that you realize why they cast the ever-chipper Dev Patel to play the adult version of this person (it’s a true story) and the world’s most adorable little boy, Sunny Pawal, for the grueling flashbacks: because you need to bask in their cutie-pie cheeriness to get you through the slog of what’s happening (or not happening) plot-wise. Nicole Kidman gets a nice big monologue about being an adoptive mother and sports a curly red wig reminiscent of what her hair would look like today had she remained an Aussie actor and never gone Hollywood, while Rooney Mara successfully suggests a person capable of experiencing fun as Dev’s love interest. It talks a little bit about the charged concept of racial/ethnic identity within the sphere of mixed-race adoption and packs an undeniable emotional punch at the end, but it does take an awfully long time to get there.
Loving | cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll, Michael Shannon | director: Jeff Nichols [Trailer]
Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, are sentenced to prison in Virginia in 1958 for getting married.
I feel like this is this year’s Carol: an understated-to-a-fault midcentury drama about forbidden love that many will find lacking in the dramatics department. Don’t expect any bricks through windows, burned crosses on lawns, or even an on-camera Supreme Court verdict. I’ve loved Jeff Nichols’ last three films, but the thing about his deliberate slow-burn style is that it’s always been in the service of unveiling some huge mystery, with a payoff at the end. This time around, there’s no mystery or payoff (except for its characters). Joel Edgerton seems to be playing his character as borderline-disabled, while Ruth Negga (whom I loved on Preacher) does some of the finest eyes-only acting you’ll ever see. People started laughing the second Nick Kroll showed up as their civil rights attorney, and it didn’t help matters that he was very much Playing A Character with his acting choices.
Paris Can Wait | cast: Diane Lane, Arnaud Viard, Alec Baldwin | director: Eleanor Coppola
Anne unexpectedly finds herself taking a car trip from Cannes to Paris with a business associate of her husband. What should be a seven-hour drive turns into a carefree two-day adventure, reawakening Anne’s senses and giving her a new lust for life.
After documenting her family’s filmmaking for years, Eleanor Coppola has made her writing-directing feature debut at the age of 80 (!) with this slice of bougie white lady lifestyle porn. Diane Lane is at her Diane Lanest as the bored wife of a blustery movie producer (Alec Baldwin, only appearing at the very beginning in sequences they shot at Cannes two years ago). When a film shoot calls him away to Budapest instead of their scheduled vacation in Paris, Alec suggests that Diane be driven from Cannes to Paris by his French producing partner (Arnaud Viard), with the intention of Alec joining later.
This movie is somewhere between Cairo Time and The Trip; there’s an abundance of food porn, every piece of which Diane’s character dutifully documents with her camera in a completely earnest non-joke manner. Eleanor Coppola understands that all women want is someone to tell them they’re good at taking vacation pictures—just one of many quaint grandma touches, such as having Diane introduce Arnaud to the music of Phoenix (the frontman of which just happens to be a father of Coppola’s grandchildren). It’s impossible to feel good about oneself trashing the scripted feature debut of an 80-year-old woman, so I’ll just say that however stilted it occasionally feels, the movie has its charms (the oldsters in my audience were positively enchanted), it looks great, and it made me hungry. Still, it could easily have been compressed into a Paris je t’aime vignette.
The Rehearsal | cast: James Rolleston, Kerry Fox, Alice Englert | director: Alison Maclean [Trailer]
First-year acting student Stanley mines his girlfriend’s family scandal as material for the end-of-year show at drama school. The result is a moral minefield.
This is the first scripted feature film from director Alison Maclean since Jesus’ Son in 1999 (fun fact: Amy Schumer cites that as her all-time favorite movie, which is…interesting). The easiest way to understand this movie is to picture Whiplash, but set in New Zealand, about acting instead of music, and less histrionic. This is an understated but assured drama about a young man who’s accepted into a prestigious acting school, but feels pressured by the ferocious acting instructor (Kerry Fox, stupendous) to make some ethically questionably decisions. Alice Englert, daughter of Jane Campion, plays his theatre teammate. It took me a while to get used to its seriousness, but I’m a sucker for movies about performing arts schools, so this one had me at hello.
Sing | voice cast: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Seth MacFarlane | director: Garth Jennings [Trailer]
A koala named Buster Moon has one final chance to restore his theater to its former glory by producing the world’s greatest singing competition.
This energetic animated jukebox musical is about a huckster koala bear (a surprisingly exuberant voice performance from Matthew McConaughey, with not even a hint of drawl) who organizes a singing competition to revive his ailing theatre. This attracts a motley crew of locals with singing aspirations, played by actors we knew could carry a tune (Reese Witherspoon as a pig housewife, Scarlett Johansson as a punk porcupine, Seth MacFarlane as a rat-pack rat), actors we didn’t (Taron Egerton has the voice of a teen-heartthrob angel!), and just plain singers (Tori Kelly). The cumulative effect is something like Pitch Perfect meets Zootopia, but I cannot stress enough how much better and more significant Zootopia is than this.
Send It Back.
Blair Witch | cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Fernandez, Corbin Reid | director: Adam Wingard [Trailer]
After discovering a video showing what he believes to be his vanished sister Heather, James and a group of friends head to the forest believed to be inhabited by the Blair Witch.
So as this was getting started and I realized they were essentially doing a high-powered remake of the original, I was like, “Wait, why am I gonna sit through 90 more minutes of shaky found-footage camcorder nonsense when there isn’t even a tease of it being real this time around?” (I know, the first one was never real either, but it was fun when it seemed like it was at first.) Well, it turns out that the filmmakers anticipated this by loading its characters down with so many little body cameras, as well as a drone and a grainy b&w Paranormal Activity-style security camera, that the photography basically constitutes full traditional coverage. They throw in a few more bells and whistles here and there (there’s a budget), have way more take place at night, and add an undercurrent of self-aware jokes, but really, this is just the original on steroids but without the sense of surprise. I didn’t think it was especially scary, and its extreme over-reliance on LOUD NOISES for jump scares was just lame. Disappointing all around.
Catfight | cast: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Dylan Baker | director: Onur Tukel
The rivalry between two former college friends comes to an extreme fracas when they both attend the same glamorous event.
Have you ever wanted to watch Anne Heche and Sandra Oh repeatedly beat the shit out of each other like Peter Griffin and that giant chicken on Family Guy? So have I, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed this painfully unfunny attempt at satire. Heche and Oh are both fantastic, which just made me feel worse. I saw many negative reviews of this in advance, but honestly, nothing could’ve kept me from watching it based on the fights alone. Now that I’ve seen them, I just feel depressed. The actresses are basically debasing themselves, and the fights are lots of the same punches over and over again. Their anger would’ve been much better directed at this movie’s many godawful attempts at “cultural commentary.”
Katie Says Goodbye | cast: Olivia Cooke, Christopher Abbott, Mary Steenburgen, Mireille Enos | director: Wayne Roberts
A kindhearted seventeen-year-old in the American Southwest turns to prostitution to fulfill her dream of a new life in San Francisco.
This is a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold story about another Katie (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), a diner waitress in a small desert town who secretly turns dirt-cheap tricks to help support herself and her garbage mother (Mireille Enos). But goddamn if you’ve ever seen a happier, purer, more saintly hooker! Katie is positively beatific, strolling around contentedly in her waitress uniform (she’s always wearing either that or nothing), beaming at everyone, always doing selflessly and generously for others, never getting mad about a thing. She’s the madonna and the whore simultaneously. She even smiles after turning tricks for Jim Belushi as a truck driver! Impossible.
But then one day she meets an entirely charmless and borderline-psychotic ex-con auto mechanic (Christopher Abbott, doing the same grunt-and-glower thing he’s been doing since quitting Girls), inexplicably decides he’s the one, and starts working tirelessly to pay their way out of town. This movie made me LIVID, not least because it gets great performances from a really solid cast that all deserve a much better movie (also including Mary Steenburgen, Nate Corddry, and Chris Lowell), especially Cooke’s, which is luminous and heartbreaking. It also commits the cardinal sin of including a brutal rape scene but making it about the effect it has on a man. This is basically Breaking the Waves in a trailer park, but without even a sliver of the artistry or originality.
LBJ | cast: Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jeffrey Donovan, Richard Jenkins | director: Rob Reiner
The story of U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson from his young days in West Texas to the White House.
Obliviously mediocre, musty, by-the-numbers presidential biopic/pity party for ol’ Lynnie B. from director Rob Reiner, bringing his directorial losing streak to a full 20 years (Ghosts of Mississippi came out in 1996). This movie would seem terrible even if it didn’t have the vastly superior Jackie playing in the same festival and depicting some of the same events (woe betide the poor actress wordlessly playing Jackie here). Woody Harrelson does what he can under the 15 pounds of facial prosthetics he has to wear, and certainly nails the “colorful language” humor of the role, but is a wash in the more dramatic scenes. As Ladybird, Jennifer Jason Leigh has literally nothing to do and is forced to wear a big black wig and an enormous fake nose that make her look like a Halloween witch; the voice doesn’t help.
Bobby Kennedy is portrayed as a sniveling brat, but Jeffrey Donovan is good enough as JFK to suggest Jackie should’ve cast him as Bobby instead of the increasingly unpleasant Peter Sarsgaard. The movie has some interesting context about the civil rights tensions between Democrats and Dixiecrats, and Kennedy’s strategy in choosing Johnson as his VP to win over harder-to-reach constituents despite lack of political charisma certainly feels topical. But seriously, I can’t remember the last time I saw a biopic that tried so clumsily to make you feel badly for its subject. Half the movie is Woody doing his best to affect a hangdog expression through his prosthetics because nobody likes him or takes him seriously. I would much rather watch Rob Reiner rant about LBJ being underrated for five minutes on Real Time than sit through this schlock again.
Mascots | cast: Zach Woods, Sarah Baker, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch | director: Christopher Guest [Trailer]
Mostly Sunny | director: Dilip Mehta
The remarkable story of Sunny Leone, the Canadian-born, American-bred adult film star who is pursuing her dreams of Bollywood stardom.
This is a meandering, unfocused documentary about porn star-turned-Bollywood sensation Sunny Leone. There is so much potential to tell an interesting story here, but unfortunately it gets squandered in favor of endless “candid” footage of Sunny that’s more interested in appealing to her fans than saying something insightful about the unique contradictions of her careers. She was born to Indian immigrant parents in Canada, then moved to California and did porn for a while, then got cast on India’s version of Big Brother, became the world’s most Googled woman, and is now a Bollywood superstar—all this despite India’s intensely conservative culture around sex and nudity.
Aside from overly enthusiastic commentary from several creepy dudes, and some other strange talking-head segments (her brother is interviewed entirely while ironing a pair of white jeans; we get an insanely over-dramatized sequence of her costume designer wrangling one of her looks), the movie is mostly just Sunny and her Jewish husband, with whom she’s not only shot porns but also co-owns a porn production company, toddling around in front of cameras as if this were a feature-length episode of MTV’s Diary. Sunny isn’t an especially compelling screen presence, but has a self-absorbed vapidity that is undeniably Kardashian-esque, so I suppose the sky’s the limit. She mostly just says dumb things; when the provocative issue of Indian moral censors blaming the country’s rape epidemic on her pornographic image is raised, Sunny fumes that rape “was created centuries ago.”
(re)ASSIGNMENT | cast: Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub | director: Walter Hill
An ace assassin is double-crossed by gangsters and falls into the hands of a rogue surgeon, who turns him into a woman. Now physically female but with an unchanged male gender, he sets out for revenge, aided by a nurse with secrets.
Where. To. Begin. This is one of those movies where it’s so spectacularly bad in such a jaw-dropping yet entertaining way, you start to wonder how much everyone was in on it. It’s directed and cowritten by action legend Walter Hill, has a fairly esteemed cast, and even has theme music by Giorgio Moroder. And yet! And yet. This is an extremely audacious (some will call it reprehensible) genre pastiche of lurid, pulpy, exploitative B-movie film noir tropes, but presented as a full-on B-movie, not a winking homage like Sin City. The dialogue is so laughably hard-boiled right from the very first words (which I believe are Michelle Rodriguez growling “I’ve killed a lot of guys” in VO) that you will not know how to take it seriously.
Further impeding any hopes of seriousness is the sight of Rodriguez in a big black beard and enormous prosthetic penis as Frank Kitchen (Kitchen!), a hitman whose sex is surgically changed to female by the mad scientist sister (Sigourney Weaver, who gives the year’s funniest performance whether she meant to or not) of a man he killed. Sigourney’s rationale is that Frank was a bad man trapped by his own toxic masculinity, so she’s giving him a fresh start as a woman—a start that involves lots of full-frontal Michelle Rodriguez groping her own bare boobs like “WHAT ARE THESE?!?”
However, since gender doesn’t necessarily correlate with sex, Frank remains a man…a very angry man hellbent on avenging himself. This is one reason why there’s no point saying a trans actress should’ve played the part, because it’s ultimately not a trans character, nor does trans psychology/identity play any role. It should, perhaps, have been played by a man; they can load prosthetics onto Michelle’s face and crotch as much as they want, but her lady shoulders and slender arms give her right away. I’ve got it! Walton Goggins should’ve played this part.
This is far and away the most cluelessly San Francisco-set movie since The Room; at least Tommy Wiseau got some exteriors to break up all the green screen. This movie repeatedly insists it’s happening in San Francisco by showing us completely made-up business and street names for each of its locations as if it’s Law & Order. It also mistakes its stated location of the Tenderloin for Chinatown, and is casually racist in its depiction thereof. With all that said, I genuinely loved every minute of this and can’t wait to show it to like-minded lovers of great bad movies.