After a blur of films, what I remember is a series of stand out scenes and dazzling performances. If sleep is proving difficult following ten days in cinema caves, blame it on Steve McQueen and Denis Villeneuve. Both directors served up chilling scenes so disturbing I can’t quite shake them.
Their films rank high on my list in a very strong year.
Best directorial debut: The Lunchbox
Don’t watch it hungry, we were told just prior to the screening. I’m a sucker for food films so I admit to sitting up a little from the usual head slumped-back-on-the-seat TIFF pose. But this is much more than a few delicious scenes.
A lonely housewife prepares lunch for a husband who ignores her. I’d cut him off but hey, that’s just me.The lunch is sent by couriers, known in Mumbai as dabbawallas, to offices across the city of 18 million. Rarely do these talented couriers make a mistake. In this beauty, the lunch ends up at the desk of another lonely soul, a widower, played with perfect restraint by Irrfar Khan. Lonely wife Ila (the gorgeous theatre actor Nimrat Kaur) attempts to correct the mistake by sending a note along with her gourmet fare and the two begin corresponding through the lunchbox. Hard not to love the two leads or the gentle tone hinting at broader themes of urban alienation, and finally, that handy little trick of the super-talented: making the specific into the universal. It is what all storytellers hope for: few pull off with such panache.
Best newcomers: Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave and Adam Bakri in Omar
I expect Steve McQueen’s masterpiece will scoop Best Picture at the Academy Awards:it is just that good. The cast is superb but it is Lupita Nyong’o whose face lingers. The Yale theatre graduate’s performance as the talented cotton picker who has caught the eye of the brutal white plantation owner (Michael Fassbender) haunts me yet.
Also strong is Adam Bakri, who plays freedom fighter Omar, in the Palestinian film that picked up Un Certain Regard Jury prize earlier this year at Cannes. Is he a lover or a fighter? Bakri emotes and then some and made me buy in early to this taut thriller about three friends living in the occupied West Bank.
Best showy performance: Hugh Jackman in Prisoners
Is there anything this guy can’t do? I loved the chilly palate and hold-your-breath story, even as it took me to places I didn’t want to go. Montreal director Denis Villeneuve delivers a kids gone missing story with style and tension that finds you exhaling as the lights come on and shuddering when you next venture down to the basement. Jackman, the anguished dad turned vigilante, wrings out each scene with dead on despair. We’re there with him, for every move, every terrible act.
Worst showy performance: Julia Roberts in August: Osage Country
The film is a Botox starlet: so puffed with advance buzz you miss any sheen. Yes, Meryl dazzles as always even as Julia Roberts tries hard to dethrone her, literally, screaming at one point, at her pill popping, on screen mother,
“I’m in charge now!”
The film may have been adapted from theatrical gold (A Tony award for best play, and the Pulitzer) but it is that very theatricality that turned me off and left me with no one to champion but for a grace note to the consistently wonderful Chris Cooper. He looks like he walked into the wrong picture. Overdone dysfunctional family dramas need to come up for air and this one never does.
Best Eye Candy (besides Idris Elba): The special effects of Gravity
As the crowd put on their 3D glasses in the huge IMAX theatre, there was a genuine ripple of anticipation. We were in for a visual treat, we knew, and it was exciting, if a little strange, after watching small global treasures on screens across the city. I wasn’t disappointed. This was an event, a large shove at the conventions of modern cinema; exhilarating to behold. We were all lost in space together. So what if the screenplay was blah, the characters stock. Who needs dazzling dialogue with this kind of techno power? Well, actually I do. Film is an emotional medium and my heart didn’t buy the banter between Clooney and Bullock, nor the prayers behind her space helmet. Still, see it for the beauty of space. Unless you want to be an astronaut.
Most frustrating: A tie between Like Father, Like Son and The Railway Man.
I liked both these films very much but for stodginess.
The first, by Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-Eda, features a pair of adorable child actors that almost redeem the film from a painfully quiet first act. Two families learn their six year old have been switched at birth. Do they place them back with real parents or continue loving them and hope for the best? It should be an intense, emotional ride but I felt a wall for most of the film that may have been purposeful. The power of direction is saved for the last half.
Similarly, The Railway Man frustrated me with a pedestrian approach to a fantastic story of the best and worst of human nature. Director Jonathan Teplitzky was aiming for dignity in his tone and pace: the result feels like a high school essay. Still, the true story of a man tormented by memories of torture by a Japanese officer in the Second World War was compelling enough to sustain great interest. How can you complain with two of the finest cinematic treasures guiding the way? Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman also gave me one of my favourite scenes at TIFF: their whirlwind courtship early in the film is best summed up by a gorgeous embrace on a rainy cost. They are a formidable pair. If Kidman has little to do, at least she does it with depth. As for Firth, he emits power by the smallest of movement and it is this mastery of nuance that makes him one of our generation’s great performers. And one more thing: I love train travel. Bias declared.
Three cheers for the women:
All three of these talents lift their films from two dimensional (Mandela), overly meditative (The Invisible Woman) and unwieldy (All is By My Side) into something far more interesting and worthy of watching. Here’s to scene stealing sisters!
Best crowd pleaser: Can a song save your life?
Keira Knightley is not a singer. Adam Levine is not an actor. Both step it up for this charmer, director John Carney’s follow-up to Once. This one escapes predictable narrative with a damn if you don’t enjoy yourself tale about a broken-hearted singer who meets an alcoholic former record exec in a bar in NYC. Knightley pulls it off, Levine not so much. Both are saved from what is damn near cloying crap by the sexy Mark Ruffalo who can save me anytime.
I left the theatre with an extra bounce and a big sloppy grin and came across a band of horn players on the corner a few blocks away. The sun was just warm enough and like those in the film, these student musicians, who call themselves The Sidewalk Crusaders, were young, earnest and happy to play out the afternoon on a sidewalk corner. The symmetry was note perfect.
Call it the magic of TIFF.
Look for these films at theatres over the next 18 months and at the Oscars next March.
12 Years a Slave
Imperfect but still worthy
Can a song save your life?
The Railway Man
Like Father, Like Son
All is By My Side
Kill Your Darlings
What is Cinema?
Blue is the warmest colour
August: Osage County
A Touch of Sin
If you missed my other notes from TIFF, see: