There is the test.
If my Scrumptious list are films that made me feel something, this one is the group (in no particular order) of almost-rans. Within each of these hide films that want to be great. The effort is so there. What remains at the end is something memorable. Many are already critical darlings. They won’t make my Best of 2018 list but they might just make yours. All are worth your time.
Worth it for the film’s final stretch (which lasts about 20 minutes long) as the voyage to the moon is simply thrilling to behold, and for those of us old enough to remember, a wondrous memory of the way it was. This part of the film was shot on Imax so see it on an Imax screen if you can. If ever a film belonged there, it’s this one. My quibble is with the focus on Armstrong. I get it—he’s the guy, it was updated by Oscar winner Damien Chazelle on a book about Armstrong after all—but he just wasn’t charismatic. He may have been brilliant (and haunted by a personal tragedy) but his reticence lends restraint that doesn’t belong there, even with Ryan Gosling as his avatar. As for the ridiculous flap over the flag, just add it to the stinking pile.
The Hummingbird Project
Quebec’s Kim Nyugen directs this caper movie with confidence and style, and the script is as snappy as the cast. Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård are cousins who share a dream to build a fibre-optic cable straight between Kansas and New Jersey. Salma Hayek is their former boss trying to stop them from their billionaire quest. Michael Mando is fantastic here as well as the contractor hired to help these dreamers. Hugely entertaining (just wait for it…Skarsgård’s dance down a hotel floor aisle); the film’s only weakness? I didn’t care enough for the actual quest itself. This is one for the Sat night at home on the couch, though. I loved Nyugen’s previous films more, including the fantastic War Witch.
Touch Me Not
This Romanian drama is more research project, then cinema, or says Adina Pintilie, who won the top prize at the Berlin Film festival for this, her first feature film! An exploration of intimacy, Touch Me Not is also a daring study of the inner self. I liked much of it and hated other parts, specifically the scenes in erotic clubs that didn’t work with the rest of the piece. What did work: the narrative around Laura, a repressed middle-aged woman attempting to lose her inhibitions was deeply moving. This film is the kind of work festivals should show as they push boundaries and change the very context of film itself. I wasn’t troubled by all the nudity or the sex, but it was all a little precious for my liking.
This documentary only slipped from my Scrumptious list due to length, and still I just wanted more, but not more of the incredible trajectory. Just more of the man himself, Quncy Jones,a giant, just a beautiful man. His daughter Rashida acts as a dutiful archivist here in writing and directing this documentary of a workaholic legend. See it on Netflix September 21st.
Go see this for Viola Davis. She’s just hot hot hot hot here in a very sharp thriller directed (and co-written) by Oscar winner Steve McQueen. The British director can do no wrong. But for the gangster sheen, I might have slipped this up a notch. I just get tired of guns, even if they’re touted by badass women. And I have a bias here: I’m longing to see Liam Neeson in something other than tough guy. The movie opens with Leeson and Davis in bed together and never stops from there. PS Colin Farrell fans, yes he’s here too. It is sure to be a commercial hit.
Over in my column of checks, female director is high on the list so it was an easy yes to seeing French writer/director Claire Denis’ first film shot in English. A head trip like no other, High Life is, on paper anyway, about a group of convicts aboard an intergalactic prison ship with a twisted scientist intent on saving the human race. That would be Juliette Binoche, who has some fun here in a sex chamber on board. The whole thing is trippy enough to satisfy sci fi cinephiles other than this one, who saw it late one night as my fourth film of the day, and struggled to keep awake. Robert Pattison and a baby on board may cause a few hearts to flutter, but the real strength here is in filmmaking which is eerie and utterly hypnotic. Go see it if you like your films doused in despair: these travellers are headed for oblivion.
The Wild Pear Tree
Ignore the beautiful girl in the photo above: she’s in the film for one scene. Ditto the other women in this three hour Turkish epic (Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s follow-up to Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep) their characters are minor players written in to serve the through line about an aspiring author and his complicated relationship with his father. Chopping characters is nothing new but this one is three hours and there is no way you can convince me that there wasn’t room to develop the women’s roles. Sigh. It’s a pattern throughout film history and just one of the reasons for the huge rally held at TIFF this year during the festival. I digress: everything else about this film is wonderful.
Another family portrait, this one from Kazakh auteur Emir Baigazin, who is known for his stunning cinematic compositions. The story: five brothers living in isolation on a dusty farm. The isolation is deliberate: their father, severe and unrelenting, wants them cut off from outside influences. Enter flashy cousin from the city who brings with him a smart tablet. I won’t spoil it but what happens next is unfolded in a series of highly disciplined scenes that drove me a little nuts at times, even as I admired the aesthetic. This is the final in a trilogy by the acclaimed director, and the young cast of brothers were outstanding.
Another mystery about an aspiring writer, and one beguiling enough to keep me awake for 148 minutes, Burning is a South Korean drama adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, favourite writer of at least one member of my household. Like the Wild Pear Tree, this film won my favour for its haunting qualities but lost me in the end for rendering the interesting female characters ultimately invisible. This is the story of a young writer obsessed with a woman who appears to have chosen a wealthy man who may or may not be a dangerous arsonist. Steve Yuen, You Ah-in, and Jeon Jong-seo round out the principal cast who handle the thriller aspects of this film with aplomb. What remains here for me is still the beautiful direction that had Cannes audiences raving.
The Fall of the American Empire
Denys Arcand got my attention in 1986 with The Decline of The American Empire and he’s back with his playful self here, continuing his focus on societal ills. This final in his trilogy is a crime caper about a Quebecois philosopher who drives a courier truck (when he’s not helping the homeless at a soup kitchen) who then interrupts a major robbery. There’s a love interest (of course) played here by Montreal’s Maripeier Morin (star of Hockey Wives). Best thing about this film is Rémy Girard as a reformed money hustler, and Arcand’s script, which had my TIFF audience howling with laughter, despite the far-fetched plot lines. My beef: a sub-plot with gangsters that almost derails the social conscience of the film.
Dublin writer/director John Butler has created a beautiful essay about loneliness but what spoke to me was gorgeous Matt Bomer’s raw performance which is one I won’t forget easily. Bomer plays a heartbroken gay weatherman who suffers a breakdown on the job. Recovering at home involves painting his deck and for that, he hires a Mexican migrant day worker, and forms an unlikely friendship. It’s a tiny slip of a film, almost too tiny to register, but it should. I wished for some of the other characters to have developed more, but have nothing but praise for Bomer here as you will too.
Every year along come films from actors who have become directors -and this year I saw three of them, all finely crafted and commendable, if not yet masterly. (Wildlife, directed by Paul Dano:very good, Teen Spirit, directed by Max Minghella, also good). Boy Erased is directed by Australian actor Joel Edgerton, who also acts in the principal cast. Lucas Hedges plays the son of a Baptist minister who is pressured into a gay conversion therapy program where he clashes with the head therapist played by Edgerton. I liked this film enough, although it felt like a Sunday movie of the week, although one I hope receives a wide audience given the crucial message of the film. Second only to a few documentaries I screened, this was easily the most disturbing subject matter of this year’s festival. What I will remember is Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as the parents-Kidman shines so bright here. I also saw her in Destroyer which I’m sure you’ll hear lots about but it did nothing for me as it’s just another damaged cop film and she, as blasphemous as this is to report, isn’t as great as the gushing reviews suggest. But in this film, Kidman is tops.
Yet another film with lots of buzz is this weeper. Addiction was another thematic thread this year in theatres. Let’s just call this film for what it is, shall we? Oscar bait. Steve Carrell made me cry. His performance? Surely among the best of the festival, best of the year at that. There’s not a parent anywhere who won’t see themselves in him. Timothée Chalamet is equally strong as the young addict but dammit, that guy is beautiful indeed and never once did his head of curls lose their gloss. I found it hard to believe in his downfall physically despite some fine acting chops. The whole piece lacked edge. But again, see it for the performances. Based on two bestseller memoirs written by real life father and son, David and Nic Sheff.
Time to confess: I’ll see anything with Guillaume Canet. Yes, yes, I know he has a beautiful girlfriend (Marianne Cotillard) but the guy does it all: acts, writes, directs, and makes it all look effortlessly cool. French director Oliver Assayas has assembled some other talents beside Canet for his latest, a screwball comedy, Non-Fiction. Canet is Alain, a successful Parisian publisher grappling with the looming digital shadow threatening to take over the industry. Married to an actress played by Juliette Binoche, Alain begins an affair with a digital expert..and well, I won’t spoil it but this film isn’t about plot points anyway. It’s very chatty and oh so French and somehow feels like a sparkling dinner party with your wittiest friends. This is the film where little happens but dialogue. And oh, what dialogue! I wanted to scribble away in the darkness, such was the brilliance of Assayas’ script. Warning: If you don’t like conversation films, you should skip this. It slipped from Scrumptious for me because I threw my hands up: bring me more plot please.
British-Libyan filmmaker Naziha Arebi made her debut at TIFF in her first feature length documentary which tracks a group of female soccer players struggling for acceptance in Libyan society. There was much to love here, especially the young women themselves who will inspire all viewers, athletes or not. Arebi began filming in 2011 after the Libyan revolution and the film spans five years following three main characters who became activists to encourage the younger generation. I loved their passion, and Arebi’s cinematography style, clearly one to watch in the future.
What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire?
The most urgent film of the festival surely should be seen by everyone. Italian director Roberto Minervini tackles ingrained racism in four parallel threats in this gripping examination; some work better than others. I saw many films this year about boys (I’m still waiting for the deluge about girls. HELLO WORLD?) but the pair in this film broke my heart. Ronaldo King and his brother Titus are the most memorable characters of TIFF for me. I wish to know their future. I hope and pray for their future.
The Friendly Greek and I ran into TIFF head Piers Handling at the St. Lawrence market late summer and were happy for the occasion to shake his hand with thanks: this is his last year at the helm and we TIFF fans know what he’s done for the city, for film, for all those young aspiring filmmakers seeking a platform. The amount of talent this guy has unveiled here in festival theatres is astounding. Anyway, Handling offered up his personal festival picks and we greedily snapped them up. Had to laugh though: these wizards likely have nuggets for every TIFF fan they meet. Handling suggested Cold War and off we went. Impressive yes. Director Pawel Pawilikowski won Best Director at Cannes last May for this film, an epic love story set against the background of the Cold War. So much to admire here: the music, the gorgeous black and white cinematography, the performance of lead actor Joanna Kulig. But I didn’t really like either of the lovers. One doesn’t need to like a character to embrace a film. But lovers? To buy into a big messy love affair, I needed to feel something. See it and tell me differently. Love to hear your thoughts. The critics are all over this one. Gasp.
More reading: from four years ago: TIFF: A field guide
Tomorrow: Quotables: the moments, and then… my partner in all things TIFF, The Friendly Greek weighs in with a guest blog, and his take on TIFF. Warning: he’s not as nice as me.
Note: People’s Choice winner, Green Book, opens in Toronto on November 21st.