The Toronto International Film Festival wrapped up over this past weekend, with the Grolsch People’s Choice Awards going to Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, and — in the "Midnight Madness" category — Ilya Naishuller’s hyperactive first-person action picture Hardcore. (The runners-up in the respective categories were Tom McCarthy’s ripped-from-the-headlines newsroom drama Spotlight and Jeremy Saulnier’s brutal hostage thriller Green Room.)
But TIFF has never really been about awards. Over its 40 years of existence, the fest has built a reputation as the place where cinephiles get to keep up with the latest from the world’s best filmmakers, while the showbiz press tracks the movies that stand the best chance of being players in the various year-end awards races.
The 2015 edition of TIFF was a weird one in both regards. The art films were a little off this year, with few new directors breaking out and no consensus masterpieces from world cinema’s old guard. And while the mainstream fare was unusually strong, a lot of potential Oscar candidates took a pass on the festival circuit this fall, which left the press in Toronto to speculate on the prospects of a batch of long shots.
Nevertheless, at least once a day during its first week, the fest turned a spotlight on something magnificent. The 18 titles below — some flawed but interesting, some mostly good with a few outstanding elements, and a few truly great — are all the kind of movies that critics and film buffs gather in Toronto hoping to see every fall.
About half of these will be out by the end of the year, either in limited Oscar-qualifying runs or in multiplexes around the country. The rest will be playing a few more festivals before they get more widely distributed. But they’re all worth knowing about, and seeing whenever they start making their way around the country and the world.
Release: Out now in limited release from Lionsgate; out everywhere Friday, Oct. 2
Who would have guessed that British actress Blunt would become one of contemporary cinema’s most badass action heroes? A year after she splattered alien bugs and trained up Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow (and helped fell giants and witches in Into the Woods), Blunt plays an FBI agent who gets asked to join an off-books task force, assigned to crush border-endangering drug lords. Similar to Villeneuve’s Prisoners, Sicario has a pulpy story that takes some preposterous turns, but it also has a nail-biting, nightmarish, you-are-there quality; and the performances are outstanding, from Blunt’s avenger with a conscience to Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin as shadowy warriors who keep pulling the protagonist further and further into the moral gray area that’s their natural habitat.
Release: Opening wide October 2 from 20th Century Fox
This adaptation of Andy Weir’s bestselling novel has maybe too much in common with several recent science fiction hits. It’s like Gravity in that it’s also about a scientist/astronaut stranded far from Earth; it’s like Interstellar in that it has teams of engineers working on a complicated mission in deep space; and it even resembles Guardians of the Galaxy with its soundtrack of 1970s pop hits. But damned if The Martian doesn’t work like gangbusters anyway, largely because it gives Matt Damon his most likable role in a while, as a castaway who comes up with ingenious ways to survive on a hostile planet. This movie is rousing, star-studded, and a testament to the value of math and science — which is always welcome in a culture that increasingly values "feel" over actual knowledge and expertise.
Guaranteed to wreck parents all through awards season, Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s award-winning novel stars Larson as a young mother who’s been held captive in a garden shed with her 5-year-old son Jack for as long as he’s been alive. Told from Jack’s point-of-view, Room starts out as a queasily effective suspense film, as the pair plot their escape from a psychopath. But it later becomes a sensitive drama, about the boy adjusting to a much bigger, noisier, scarier world. Abrahamson hits the emotional beats of this story too hard, but he also conveys the finer shading of Donoghue’s core metaphor, which really has to do with how all parents first protect their kids from the harsh realities of life, then struggle to find ways to prepare them.
Release: Opening in limited release November 6 from Fox Searchlight
Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Tóibin’s beloved 2009 historical novel met with a rapturous reception at its Sundance premiere, and is on track to be the kind of stealthy art-house hit that older audiences love — one that maybe even sneaks into the Oscar race. Brooklyn is also a film that could wilt from overpraise, because it’s more gentle than dazzling. Cinematographer Yves Bélanger smartly softens and blends the deep colors in both the small Irish town where a meek shopgirl (played by Ronan) is overshadowed by her more popular peers, and the 1950s New York where she gains confidence and discovers the power of choice. But the big winner here is Hornby’s script, which lightens Brooklyn’s overall tone with funny dialogue, keeping the audience engaged until the plot really kicks in. This is a very easy movie to watch, with a depth that develops gradually but unmistakably.
Release: Opening in limited release November 6 from Open Road
There were two old-fashioned journalism dramas at TIFF this year: the overheated Truth (about the 60 Minutes sourcing scandal that drove Dan Rather out of CBS), and Spotlight, a much more assured and nuanced film, about how the Boston Globe’s special investigative team carefully pieced together the Pulitzer-winning story of the Catholic church covering up sexual abuse. Rebounding strongly from his debacle The Cobbler, writer-director McCarthy makes recent history come alive, reminding viewers that it wasn’t so long ago when newspaper reporters had the time, money, and resources to provide the vital public service of exposing malfeasance. A cast of talented under-players — who say more with subtle gestures than big speeches — makes this the rare "prestige picture" that’s also a wonderful evening’s entertainment.
Release: Opening in limited release December 23 from Sundance Selects
Set during the week before a married couple’s 45th anniversary party, the quietly heartbreaking 45 Years considers how people who live a lifetime together can accumulate decades of regrets and slights. Similar to Haigh’s small-scale gay romance Weekend (but a smidgen more ambitious), 45 Years reveals a lot about its characters by observing them closely, catching every subtly defensive gesture and turn of phrase. Rampling and Courtenay have two of the meatiest roles of their careers, as a husband and wife who endure one of the biggest crises of their marriage at the worst possible time. Their big climactic dance number, sets to "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," is one of the most gripping and beautiful movie moments of 2015.
Release: Opening in limited release December 30 from Paramount
Even rendered in stop-motion animation, there’s no mistaking a Charlie Kaufman film. The writer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind collaborated with Dan Harmon and Dino Stamatopoulus’s Starburns Industries — in particular "junior partner" Duke Johnson, best known for animating a popular Christmas episode of Harmon’s sitcom Community — to produce a miniaturized version of one of his usual brain-bending, navel-gazing art pieces. Anomalisa sees the world through the eyes of a depressed self-help guru, who imagines every person he meets with the same face and same voice, until he comes across an "anomaly" named Lisa who captures his fancy. At once a character sketch about a cripplingly shortsighted man and a hilariously accurate recreation of what it’s like to spend 24 hours in a luxury hotel in downtown Cincinnati, Anomalisa is a one-of-a-kind project — beautiful to look at and rewarding to argue about afterward.
Saulnier’s Blue Ruin was a hell of a debut film: a low-to-the-ground revenge procedural that showed how hard it is for an ordinary person to follow through on a plan to kill his enemies without screwing it up ... a lot. (It’s available on Netflix.) Green Room is a fantastic follow-up, almost on par with Blue Ruin in its twisty, violent story of a punk rock band that accidentally runs afoul of a white supremacist militia. Saulnier has a killer cast this time out, including a plucky Shawkat as the band’s bassist/manager and an ice-cold Stewart as the pragmatic head racist. But the movie’s real strength is its willingness to have its heroes fail over and over, regularly escaping one tight corner only to end up somewhere even smaller and more dangerous.
A wave of Romanian filmmakers dominated the festival circuit a decade ago with a mini-boom of absorbing, superbly written slice-of-life dramas, rooted in the country’s decades of sociopolitical dysfunction. The Treasure is one of the best of these to pop up in a good long time, telling the story of two financially strapped neighbors who go into debt to rent a metal detector, in hopes of finding a family fortune buried on a sprawling, deteriorating estate before the Communist era. What starts as a slip of a story gets funnier and even semi-suspenseful as it plays out, with every minor personality conflict and false lead carrying a potential catastrophe. From the static shots of men descending into an ever-deepening hole to the ear-splitting sound of the faulty machinery, every element of The Treasure is precisely chosen, adding up to a film that resonates beyond the closing credits.
Three standout performances
Great turns weren’t quite enough to save some mediocre movies in Toronto this year, but these three films — all decent to excellent to start with — are must-sees in large part because the lead actors are doing some of the best work of their formidable careers.
Release: Opening in limited release November 13 from The Film Arcade
The impressionistic James White is one of those indie films that favors tight close-ups and follow shots of a single character, which is what makes Abbott’s extraordinary performance so valuable. As a spoiled, emotionally unstable New Yorker with no job, no ambition, and no ability to handle his responsibilities to his cancer-stricken mother (played by Nixon), Abbott finds a way to portray an appallingly self-centered jerk and still be sympathetic. He gets across both the humor and the hard truth in Mond’s study of a person who’ll take advantage of any excuse — even the worst possible family crisis — to be the total mess that he already is.
As a biography of the ruthless 1960s British gangsters/businessmen/twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray, Legend is something of a slog, with a lot of pretty-looking and even exciting scenes that don’t cohere into a satisfying or enlightening narrative. But as a showcase for one of the most magnetic actors working today, Legend is essential viewing. Many movie stars have done the dual role trick before, but few have been as effective as Hardy at creating two distinct characters, with only the slightest shifts in costuming and makeup. The handsome, forward-thinking Reggie and the brutish Ronnie are always very much themselves, and never come across onscreen as the product of an actor pulling a stunt. It’s a hell of an achievement.
Just as Spotlight helps illuminate what’s wrong with Truth, so another hyped-up TIFF premiere — the Tom Hiddleston–starring Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light— looks even weaker when stacked up against a similar movie about a troubled musician. Ethan Hawke projects fragility and soulfulness as the heroin-addicted jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue, a movie that succumbs to some biopic clichés but mostly succeeds by keeping its goals modest. Set during a stretch of the late 1960s when Baker was trying to make a comeback after a career-derailing mouth injury, the movie explains the choices that faced him: between a potentially happy life out of the spotlight, and a greatness that he could only seem to achieve through self-destructiveness. It’s to Hawke’s credit that he makes both options seem attractive, leading to a concluding sequence that’s surprisingly nerve-racking, given that its outcome should already be known by anyone who knows anything about jazz.
Three good docs
Toronto’s documentary program isn’t as strong as Sundance’s — or some other major international festivals — but this is a strong trio of films, which should get a lot of play over the next year, both at other fests and on home video.
Release: Opening in limited release December 4 from Cohen Media Group
There’s not enough in this film about the circumstances or content of Francois Truffaut’s long 1962 interview with Alfred Hitchcock — or enough about the enduring influence of the book that emerged from it — but this documentary will appeal to anyone who just wants to hear Martin Scorsese and David Fincher analyze Vertigo and Psycho at length. The complete absence of women from the roster of interviewees is a major mistake (in a lineup that also includes Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and the inevitable Peter Bogdanovich), especially given how much Hitchcock/Truffaut weighs Hitch’s sexual fetishes. But the dude-heavy discussion is fascinating regardless, and a reminder to film lovers to scrutinize every choice a director makes.
Most stories about "YouTube celebrities" focus on how many followers they have and how much money they’re making, but this at-times-tricky documentary follows a working-class African-American woman who typically gets less than a hundred views for the songs and video diaries she posts. What Princess Shaw doesn’t know at the start of this movie is that Israeli-based Free Culture Movement musician Kutiman is planning to use her music in one of his remixes and make her semi-famous. Thru You Princess raises some unanswered questions about appropriation (and about journalistic ethics, since Haar apparently didn’t tell Shaw the real reason he was filming her), but as the doc tracks one woman’s stressful daily life and one man’s artistic process, it becomes a genuinely moving celebration of the creativity and connectivity that the internet allows.
Moore has been maintaining a relatively low profile of late, perhaps because he’d gotten tired of being Fox News’s easily mocked embodiment of progressive politics. But after a long layoff, Moore has come back with his best film in more than a decade. And while it really wasn’t that hard for him to outdo the likes of Capitalism: A Love Story and Captain Mike Across America, Where to Invade Next is still something special. Following up on some of the ideas and themes of his Sicko, Moore tours Europe looking to plunder the continent’s best ideas about education, drug policy, labor rights, and gender equality. He stacks the deck with selective facts, and gets overly cute with the presentation — as usual — but this documentary is nevertheless an oft-inspiring effort to persuade Americans that wonderful fantasylands do exist, in nations not so different from the US.
Three freaky visions
Every year, in between all the awards-fodder, TIFF introduces films that present unique and daring visions of the world — some of which come from the experimental/avant-garde side of cinema, and some from the trashier B-movie side. The first two of the films below represent both of those disciplines, while the third falls squarely in between.
It’s been 11 years since Hadzihalilovic made the disturbing, dreamy coming-of-age film Innocence, but her follow-up is well worth the wait. Inexplicable and unforgettable, Evolution is a dark trip to a seaside town where pale women breed little boys for disgusting experiments in human(ish) reproduction. The director was unable to attend the TIFF premiere, but sent a statement that expressed her regret at not being able to do a Q&A and her relief that she didn’t have to try to explain herself. Evolution is meant to lull viewers with its lapping waves and low hum, and then to tap straight into the viewer’s subconscious with its images of slime, grime, and gender-bending. It’s best experienced, not analyzed.
Easily the most divisive film in Toronto this year (and the one that sold for the most, picking up a reported $10 million distribution deal), Naishuller’s extreme action picture is shot entirely from the POV of an invulnerable cyborg, who races through the streets, nightclubs, and abandoned warehouses of Moscow in hopes of escaping a telekinetic supervillain. Some fest-goers found Hardcore’s nonstop first-person shaky-cam — coupled with the gory violence and mean-spirited characters — to be repellent and unwatchable. Others thought it was a refreshingly gutsy exercise in exploitation, and an impressive feat of cinematic logistics. Either way, Hardcore was clearly a TIFF standout: one of the movies that will be remembered for years when people look back at this edition of the festival.
J.G. Ballard’s surreal, allegorical 1975 novel becomes a Stanley Kubrick–like tableau of grotesquerie, in the most major work yet from edgy British indie filmmaker Ben Wheatley. Hiddleston plays a doctor who moves into an ultra-modern building — designed to bring the upper class and working class together by providing them with everything they might need — and then finds himself caught in the crossfire when flaws in the complex’s technology creates conflict between the floors. Essentially a two-hour montage of mayhem, High-Rise will likely flummox anyone expecting a straightforward story. But fans of bizarre imagery and trenchant social commentary are going to embrace this film and pass it around to the like-minded for years and decades to come. High-Rise is an instant cult classic.
Films we missed but wanted to see
It’s impossible for one person to see every well-liked film at a festival — because so many of them screen at the same time. There were movies in Toronto this year that I regret missing. I would’ve liked to have seen Eddie Redmayne as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, and I definitely plan to catch up eventually with the Holocaust thriller Son of Saul, the absurdist romantic comedy The Lobster, and Guy Maddin’s densely allusive experimental epic The Forbidden Room.