The Best and Worst of the Toronto International Film Festival 2015

The big story at this year’s 40th installment of the Toronto International Film Festival was, sadly, the lack of stories to talk about. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more dire than last year (my first in attendance), TIFF15 found journalists lamenting the surplus of high-profile disappointments, film buyers bemoaning the lack of quality market titles, and sellers wondering whether their offerings would ever see the light of day. All in all it was a thoroughly unremarkable year for one of the world’s biggest film fests, with additional sting coming from the lack of such major titles as Carol, Steve Jobs, Macbeth, and Suffragette, each of which chose to bypass TIFF despite participating in other festivals. But regardless of the uneven and largely unimpressive lot, there were still several radiantly bright spots among the 43 movies I watched over the course of 10 days. Check out my overlap-free lists of five overall favorites, five surprises that weren’t on my radar, five standout performances, and five highly anticipated titles that proved to be disappointing.

FIVE FAVORITES!

The Lobster

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In a dystopian near future, single people, according to the laws of The City, are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into beasts and sent off into The Woods. This had me LOLing all over the place. Brilliantly absurdist deadpan comedy about dating and society from Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of Dogtooth. It somewhat runs out of steam in the second half, which is almost necessary given the visceral intensity of its first. An all-star cast including Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz (who forcefully narrates the first hour and appears in the second), John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, Léa Seydoux, Olivia Colman, and Ashley Jensen all lend pitch-perfect support to this supremely unique work of art. [TRAILER]

The Meddler

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An aging widow from New York City follows her daughter to Los Angeles in hopes of starting a new life after her husband passes away. The most purely delightful film I saw all festival, this is a blissful and hilarious crowd-pleaser that will resonate immensely with any adult who has a solicitous mother. Inspired by real life—after the death of writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s father, her mother moved from New Jersey out to LA to live closer to her, thus complicating the untethered life she’d established for herself there—The Meddler is one of the finest vehicles for Susan Sarandon ever made. She is overwhelmingly the star of this film, with Lorene’s moody onscreen surrogate, played by Rose Byrne, banished to New York for most of the story. Affectionate and clever, abundant with heart and humor, The Meddler is a joy.

Room

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Escaping from the captivity in which they have been held for half a decade, a young woman and her five-year-old son struggle to adjust to the strange, terrifying and wondrous world outside their one-room prison. Having read the book, I had high expectations for this one and it absolutely delivered 100%. It takes a harrowing story and tells it in a manner true to the emotional realities of such a nightmarish situation, but also accessible enough not to alienate average moviegoers. Importantly, it’s crafted and acted on a level far above that of a Lifetime movie, which was certainly a risk given the subject matter. Worst-case scenario this could’ve been another The Lovely Bones situation, but Lenny Abrahamson’s direction and the performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay make this a winner. [TRAILER]

Spotlight

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The true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core. Also known as All the Cardinal’s Men. Even though director Tom McCarthy was only an actor on the fifth season of The Wire, this film feels very much a kindred spirit with that beloved-by-journalists landmark of film/TV portrayals of the newspaper world. In further proof, the journalist-heavy screening I saw had by far the loudest and most effusive applause I’ve heard at any press screening all festival, although that’s also due to this being an incredibly engrossing and vital film. It’s very much a procedural structurally, but it’s imbued with so much thoughtfulness and care that it transcends any sense of canned Law & Order-ness. Between Spotlight and Black Mass, this is a great year for excellent movies that make Boston look like a lawless nightmare factory. [TRAILER]

Youth

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Confession time: I still haven’t seen The Great Beauty. Without having that to compare it to, I can confidently declare Paolo Sorrentino’s languid follow-up, Youth, as one of the very best of the fest. A sumptuously photographed, movingly elegiac meditation on aging, vitality, and artistic legacy, it depicts the friendship of two artists in their twilight years—a composer (Michael Caine) and a filmmaker (Harvey Keitel)—taking a shvitz at an unbelievably luxurious Swiss sanitarium. Caine is joined by his daughter/assistant (Rachel Weisz, really cornering the market on 2015 Cannes titles from contemporary European auteurs that take place at resorts), while Keitel is flanked by collaborators with whom he’s trying to finish his latest script. This one is all about little moments and moods, courtesy of Sorrentino’s Fellini-esque direction and the gorgeous cinematography/music. Paul Dano has a supporting role as a Depp/Farrell-style douchey American actor, and Jane Fonda has one big fireball of a scene as a defiant aging actress. [TRAILER]

FIVE SURPRISES!

Anomalisa

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Charlie Kaufman’s first stop-motion film about a man crippled by the mundanity of his life. In just 75 minutes, co-directors Kaufman and Duke Johnson manage to capture something so perfectly sad and profound about the human condition that it packed as strong a punch as movies twice as long. It took my audience a minute to adjust to Tom Noonan doing all but two of the voices, as well as the surprisingly vivid stop-motion sex and nudity, but I think they worked through it. In my opinion, I’d much rather see this win the Animation Oscar than Inside Out.

The Final Girls

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Combining the clever genre meta-humor of Scream with the Purple Rose of Cairo/Pleasantville “How did we get inside the story?” trope, it’s about a group of college friends who inexplicably end up inside the cheesy ‘80s horror movie they’re watching at a midnight screening after a fire breaks out. The catch: one of the ingenue stars of the movie (Malin Akerman) grew up to be the mother of one of the friends (Taissa Farmiga)…except Akerman died three years ago in a car crash, and Farmiga is reluctantly attending the screening in her honor. Now, she must face her deceased mother’s younger self and try to prevent her from being killed inside the movie, but without forcing her mother to break character or saying who she really is. The whole thing is a surprisingly poignant riff on grief, which it pulls off rather well amidst all the fun and genre jokes. The stellar TV-star cast also includes Adam Devine, Nina Dobrev, Alia Shawkat, and Thomas Middleditch. [TRAILER]

Miss Sharon Jones!

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Directed by the great Barbara Kopple, this is an inspiring, raw, stand-up-and-cheer documentary about Sharon Jones’ battles with cancer, which began as she and the Dap-Kings were preparing to release their most recent album. You can’t help but fall completely in love with this woman’s spirit while watching her navigate the ups and downs of chemo and recovery, then the album launch/tour. In one absolutely goosebump-raising sequence, she goes to a small church in the midst of her treatments and performs an impromptu rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” that turns into a one-woman revival. People in my theater were standing up in their seats and raising their arms. It was just unbelievable.

No Men Beyond This Point

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Hilarious, clever Canadian mockumentary about a world in which men are going extinct (the youngest man on Earth is 37 and works as a housekeeper for an all-female household) and women rule the world. The (male) writer/director has lots of fun imagining all the ways the world would be different in this scenario, which takes place present-day; the movie has a fictitious historical timeline in which women around the globe began reproducing asexually in the 1950s, thus gradually removing the biological need for men, who have since been rounded up into “sanctuaries” while women took the reins. It’s all a bit mild-mannered (read: Canadian) when you want it to be more savage, but women and non-awful men will adore it. [TRAILER]

The Wave

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A rockslide above a scenic Norwegian fjord unleashes a violent tsunami on a quaint tourist town. I was struck by how much this Norwegian action-drama played by the American disaster-movie rules. If the average moviegoer qualifies their enjoyment of foreign movies based on how well they approximate the experience of American movies, this one will be huge. There really wasn’t a single beat out of place to distinguish this from titles ranging from Dante’s Peak to The Impossible (it feels emotionally closer to the latter). It’s all there: the dad geologist celebrating his last day on the job, the cheerful pretty wife, the sullen teen son, the adorable moppet daughter carrying a stuffed animal. The ominous warning signs that go unheeded. The circumstances that conspire to separate the family into two factions, thus requiring herculean efforts to be reunited. Heroic sacrifices. Really, the only thing different other than the language was the muted Norwegian color palette, but that’s how Seattle stories look too. The body count was maybe a little higher; in the probable American remake (I’m picturing Jeremy Renner and Maria Bello as the parents), the teen boy’s crush would probably survive. And maybe there’d be a family dog that miraculously emerges from the rubble at the end. Anyway, yeah, massively entertaining without any of those forehead-slapping moments you tend to get from studio versions of these stories. [TRAILER]

FIVE BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCES!

Elle Fanning, About Ray

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After Ray (Elle Fanning) decides to transition from female to male, Ray’s mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), must come to terms with the decision while tracking down Ray’s biological father to get his legal consent. Directed by Gabby Dellal, About Ray vividly captures a vibrant all-female family dynamic while also giving us by far the most impactful American portrayal of a trans youth yet committed to film. This deserves to be a massive game-changer for Fanning, who absolutely floored me with this landmark performance. She deserves significant awards chatter, especially for her easy-to-identify Oscar clip which gave me full-body goosebumps. She simply must be seen to be believed. [TRAILER]

Isabella Laughland, Urban Hymn

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Urban Hymn is not a great movie. A brazenly clichéd mix of Short Term 12 and Sister Act 2 from director Michael Caton-Jones, it’s a gritty yet uplifting drama about Kate (Shirley Henderson), a British social worker at a facility for at-risk youth. New to the role, she makes a number of mistakes right away—not least of which is coming between life-long besties Jamie (Letitia Wright) and Leanne (Isabella Laughland) when she begins encouraging Jamie to pursue her natural singing talent. We’re supposed to care about Jamie’s newfound musical passion inspiring her to leave her old ways behind, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Laughland as the deadweight anchor violently dragging Jamie back down. A seething, toxic black hole of chilling rage and rancor, yet sympathetic in her bone-deep desperation and ferocious loyalty, Leanne is by far the most captivating element in a mediocre film. Best known for a character also named Leanne in the final three Harry Potter films, Laughland gives a performance of such unsettling authenticity that I still can’t shake it. [TRAILER]

Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch

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A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic, and possession. One of this year’s buzziest Sundance sensations, Robert Eggers’ The Witch left me a bit cold. I thought I was settling in for a scary movie, but what I got instead was an academic exercise in constructing a believably Puritan-era folk tale based on transcripts and other recorded accounts from the time. It starts off unbearably slow (exacerbated by its Old English dialogue), then ends abruptly just as it starts to get good. But the extent to which it does work is owed almost entirely to the surprising, emotionally riveting lead performance by relative unknown Anya Taylor-Joy. As Thomasin, the eldest of three children in a family banished from their community due to the religious beliefs of her father (Ralph Ineson, whose speaking voice is so deep it sounds like an effect), Taylor-Joy is the only actor onscreen who isn’t consumed by illogical hysterics for the duration of her screen time, so she automatically comes out on top. But in addition to playing the film’s lone relatable character, Taylor-Joy gives a performance of enormous range and startling intensity. She’s unquestionably one to watch. [TRAILER]

Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

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A romantic drama inspired by the lives of artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, whose marriage and work evolve as they navigate Lili’s groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer. The most unequivocal Oscar bait of this year’s festival, The Danish Girl is directed with entirely too much tasteful polish by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and features a somewhat flawed lead performance by reigning Oscar champ Eddie Redmayne, who plays Lili with a hint of madness that suggests dissociative personality disorder rather than transgenderism. Its arc is remarkably similar to The Theory of Everything: Redmayne plays a notable 20th century figure who make a life-altering discovery that profoundly impacts his identity. His resilient and devoted wife (Alicia Vikander) sticks by him through thick and thin (and many, many doctor’s visits). However, as his life becomes increasingly defined by this new identity, neither can deny that they’re each becoming attracted to people who better suit their needs—despite the unshakable bond they share. Out of the many conversations I had about The Danish Girl throughout the fest, not a single one went by without a confident assertion that Vikander was the real star of the show. The Swedish siren, who’s totally Chastaining this year between Danish Girl, Ex Machina, Testament of Youth, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., is the film’s vibrant, volatile emotional center. Her heart-on-sleeve turn as Gerda covers a vast range of emotional ground—think Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind—and she is unfailingly present and poignant for every moment of it. [TRAILER]

Evan Rachel Wood, Into the Forest

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In the not too distant future, two young women (Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood) who live in a remote forest discover the world around them is on the brink of an apocalypse. Informed only by rumor, they fight intruders, disease, loneliness, and starvation. As the logline suggests, this drama from director Patricia Rozema is really more of a two-hander between Page and Wood, so it’s difficult to single out one performance. But I’mma do it anyway! Back in 2003, Wood gave one of the most harrowing underage performances ever captured on film as a pubescent girl coming violently undone in Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen. And while she gradually became a household name with high-profile films like Across the Universe, The Wrestler, and The Ides of March—as well as stints on HBO’s True Blood and Mildred Pierce—it seemed impossible for her to locate a project that accessed her deep wells of talent the way that breakthrough role had. And so, I’m extremely pleased to report that with Into the Forest, Wood has at last found a role that does justice to her full range of electrifying powers as a dramatic actor. There is greatness to be glimpsed in this raw, transfixing turn.

FIVE LETDOWNS 🙁

Freeheld

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New Jersey police lieutenant, Laurel Hester, and her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, both battle to secure Hester’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. I feel like the first thing I need to stress about this movie is that it’s not a disease movie, despite the fact that it stars Julianne Moore one year after Still Alice as a woman dying of cancer. It’s very much an issue movie though, committing to celluloid the most textbook known case representing the essential legal need for marriage equality. If you want to talk about a crowdpleaser, this is one of those movies that actually has audience-applause beats written into it. It gives people exactly what they’d want from this kind of inspirational story without ever challenging them or presenting ambiguity. It’s all very simplistic: there’s the right side, the wrong side, and the people on the wrong side who need to be brought around to the right side. However accurate that may be, it doesn’t resonate as great art. Starts off as a cop movie, strangely enough; it’s actually more compelling when it’s about a closeted female detective hiding her lesbian relationship from her colleagues, prior to the cancer diagnosis. Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are both solid if unspectacular; this is the first time Page has really gone full-lez onscreen, so good for her. Steve Carell comes close to Supporting Actor-consideration territory with his firecracker performance as the gay lawyer who takes Moore’s case, but he has maybe one too many cringey “Oh honey!” mincing moments to close the deal. [TRAILER]

I Saw the Light

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Ugh. Just an interminably dull, derivative, and overlong biopic of Hank Williams. The dialogue is hackneyed, the plot feels like a tasteful and anemic Walk the Line, and Tom Hiddleston is plainly miscast as Williams. He comes alive in the musical numbers, which he sings himself, but otherwise reads as little more than a smiling blank who looks far too old to play a man who died at 29. We get no insights into who Williams was or what he was about. If there’s a compelling narrative to be made about this man’s life, I Saw the Light doesn’t have the first clue how to identify it. Elizabeth Olsen adds a bit of emotional texture as the volatile mother of Williams’ first child, but that’s not nearly enough to make this recommendable. [CLIP]

Legend

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Tom Hardy’s amusingly bizarre dual performance as ‘60s London gangster twins Reggie and Ron Kray is the only reason to consider this otherwise unremarkable crime drama/biopic. Written and directed by Brian Helgeland in what he clearly hoped was a return to the wit and verve of his Oscar-winning script for LA Confidential (it isn’t), Legend goes off the tracks right away with its decision to tell the entire story from the point of view of Frances (Emily Browning), Reggie’s wife and arguably the least interesting thing about him. Combining flashes of Guy Ritchie’s style with GoodFellas-style period pathos, Legend just doesn’t work like you hope it will. Still, Hardy succeeds in fashioning two completely distinctive characters, although he doesn’t go especially deep into either of them—Reggie is the one who looks and acts like Tom Hardy, and Ron is the loose-cannon gay one with glasses, a constantly furrowed brow, and prosthetic lower teeth. [TRAILER]

Sicario

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An idealistic FBI agent is enlisted by an elected government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico. When will I stop expecting great things from Denis Villeneuve films? Like his other recent output (namely Prisoners), Sicario is gorgeously shot, impeccably acted, and has moments of great intensity—but it’s also grim, slow, and adds up to a shrug. I feel misled by the Cannes buzz about what a badass Emily Blunt is in this. Having now seen her pitiful character arc in its entirety, that seems laughable (no disrespect to the physical demands of her performance). Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro play familiar variations on the roles they seem fated to play in every movie they’re cast in (smirking hard-ass law enforcement dude and shadowy morally complex drug figure, respectively). [TRAILER]

Trumbo

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The successful career of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo comes to an end when he is blacklisted in the 1940s for being a Communist. Director Jay Roach has found his greatest critical success with politically charged HBO originals like Recount and Game Change. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t shake the feeling that Trumbo seemed like an exceptionally star-studded HBO flick. For a movie about movies, there’s nothing even remotely cinematic about this well-meaning liberal history lesson. That doesn’t make it any less important or its performances any less enjoyable, specifically Bryan Cranston in the title role, Louis C.K. as a fellow blacklisted writer, John Goodman in a variation on his Argo character, Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, or Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper. Still, I can’t help but think Dalton Trumbo deserved a more exceptional screen tribute to his incredible life story. [TRAILER]

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