Below, in rough order of preference, are my capsule reviews for films seen at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
The attentive reader will note that a header is missing. I saw a bunch of titles well worth recommending, but nothing on a par with the 2-3 best titles from a typical year. No transporting masterpieces, nothing that evoked that “am I really seeing this” feeling, nothing that crept up and stayed lodged in memory for days afterwards.
I programmed my fest as always, with a focus on films without distribution, especially international titles. From talking to others I am not left with the impression that I picked the wrong stuff. It just wasn’t there this year. I’m sure not looking at the schedule and slapping myself on the forehead for having passed up what critical reception has now pointed to as the obvious masterpieces.
And that’s with a slimmed down schedule, as TIFF cut its title list by around 50 in a bid to appear slimmer and more manageable to the perennially complaining press and industry contingent.
Even the films under the Recommended header, while definitely worth seeing, color within the lines. They work within familiar parameters of genre, tone and style. Those by established directors are solid mid-level contributions to their various filmographies. Only a couple of movies by this year’s large crop of first time directors announces the appearance of a striking new voice. The truly fresh and stylish entries came from the disreputable fields of Midnight Madness and the genre films shuffled from the now-defunct Vanguard program back into the regular mix.
A couple of theories come to mind to explain why the cross-section of world cinema paled this time out.
One, the most likely, is just plain old chance. Every so often the odds fail and the hundreds of people all making films all around the world collectively fail to deliver the gobsmacking new magic.
Two, we find ourselves in a lull before the creative storm. These are the films that went into production when people all around the world thought Hilary Clinton was going to be President. Next year we’ll see the films conceived in the heat of Brexit, the Trumpian maelstrom, and the international authoritarian lurch. Crazy times inspire wild, boundary-breaking, impassioned and just plain messed-up art. Maybe next year I’ll be praising the films but lamenting the fact that the sky is on fire.
Or three, we could be in for this for a while. Funding for art film is drying up, leaving the relatively inexpensive but often dull works of verité realism to dominate the field like a monoculture survivor species after a mass extinction. If you don’t spend money on a script, stars, music, a title sequence, artful shot-making, production design or color grading, you can still make a film, and win acclaim from a small cadre of austerity-lovers. But you’re not going to get five stars from me for a single-level work that sets aside so many of the key tools of the form to recreate for the thousandth time a film Agnes Varda made in 1955.
If it’s theories one and two, things will work out and TIFF 2018 will represent a return to form. If it’s three, well, this is the golden age of television and the talent has to come from somewhere. We are now in a world where Wong Kar Wai is making a TV show for Amazon! I can’t imagine that working out, but he’s not going to be making any features until that shakes out one way or the other.
But you’re here to see what movies to check out as they hit theaters, streaming, and home video over the next year and a half.
Of the higher-profile stuff that will soon come out, buzz in the line-ups centered around Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin, plus an Israeli film, Foxtrot. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Montana scored lots of critical praise; the latter also won the People’s Choice Award, which often foretells an Oscar win.
And on that note I’m out of further ado, so let’s get with my 2017 capsule reviews:
Les Affamés (The Ravenous) (Canada, Robin Aubert, 4.5) Survivors of a zombie outbreak try to remain uneaten in the quiet vastness of rural Quebec. Depending on the handling, films in the tightly constrained zombie sub-genre can be about everything or nothing. With its assured use of stillness and an empathy for both the living and undead, Les Affamés, falls magisterially into the second category.
Faces Places (France, Agnes Varda and JR, 4) Legendary director Varda and acclaimed street artist JR go to French villages looking for people to meet and celebrate in enormous photo murals. Documentary double act full of life, joy, artistry and friendship.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (US, S. Craig Zahler, 4) Principled drug courier (Vince Vaughn) goes to prison, where bad dudes intent on score-settling to settle have no idea who they are fucking with. Arthouse meets grindhouse as crisp dialogue and exacting formal control lay the groundwork for explosive hyper-violence.
Let the Corpses Tan (France, Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani, 4) Armored car robbers shoot it out with a motorcycle cop in the ruined seaside villa of an eccentric artist (Elina Lowensohn.) Tribute to 70s Italian poliziotteschi in which every shot is an ostentatiously perfect shot further amped by slamming sound design.
Radiance (Japan, Naomi Kawase, 4) Naive writer of descriptive audio tracks for films is drawn to a blunt-speaking blind ex-photographer. Subtly layered romantic drama about loss and the role senses play in feeling and memory.
The Great Buddha+ (Taiwan, Huang Hsin-Yao, 4) Egged on by his trash-picker buddy, the night watchman at a religious statuary factory starts snooping on his boss’ dashcam footage. Satire and pathos don’t typically go together, but in this formally audacious tale of corruption and impunity they sometimes converge in the same moment.
Revenge (France, Coralie Fargeat, 4) When young woman’s desert hunting camp dalliance with a married rich guy ends in rape and attempted murder, she must pick up the gun to survive. Style-forward, semiotically loaded, gore-slicked feminist detournement of that ever-problematic grindhouse genre, the rape-revenge thriller.
Angels Wear White (China, Vivian Qu, 4) Young hotel maid copies security footage proving that a high official raped a pair of preteen girls. Devastating descent into a corrupt world starts as naturalistic drama and moves ineluctably into noir.
The Cured (Ireland, David Freyne, 4) Four years after the outbreak, a man cured of the zombie virus is taken in by his dead brother’s wife (Ellen Page.) A social problem drama / political thriller that just happens to revolve around cannibal virus victims.
Good Favour (Ireland, Rebecca Daly, 4) Young man with wound in his side stumbles from the woods into a Hutterite-like community, which takes him in. Richly imagistic, ambiguous religious allegory.
All You Can Eat Buddha (Canada, Ian Lagarde, 4) Prodigious buffet eater at modest Caribbean resort gains spiritual powers after rescuing a mystical octopus. Buñuelian satire of longing, consumption and upheaval.
Mademoiselle Paradis (Austria, Barbara Licht, 4) At the behest of their status-conscious aristocratic parents, a pianist undergoes treatment for blindness at the clinic of Anton Mesmer. A fresh approach to lighting the 18th century provides the key to this story of healing and control, which depicts Mesmer with unexpected sympathy.
The Third Murder (Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda, 4) Attorney defends a capital murder case in which the accused (Koji Yakusho) confessed but keeps changing his story. Goes past the legal procedural elements to question who people are and if we can really ever know why anyone does anything.
Samui Song (Thailand, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 4) Actress hires hitman to vanish her abusive husband; he botches the job. Noir tale keeps the viewer off-balance with leaps in tone, viewpoint and time.
Five Fingers for Marseilles (South Africa, Michael Matthews, 4) Decades after his Apartheid-era shooting of a police officer, an ex-con returns to his hometown to find gangsters in charge and his former friends divided. Contemporary western where the motif of the old gunfighter again called on to pick up the gun takes on a fresh, distinctly South African resonance.
Manhunt (China, John Woo, 4) Chinese lawyer framed for murder by an evil pharmaceutical company is pursued by a maverick cop. Yeah, this overt attempt to evoke the director’s classic period suffers from the too-many-screenwriters syndrome currently afflicting commercial Chinese cinema, but Once A Thief-level Woo is still a gift at this point.
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (US, Matt Tyrnauer, 4) Documentary profile of Scotty Bowers, the pansexual Guadalcanal veteran who, as a hustler and non-profit pimp operating out of an L.A. gas station, took care of Hollywood’s clandestine erotic needs in its 40s and 50s heyday. Both a slice of hidden American sexual history and a visit with an unforgettable individual.
Princesita (Chile, Marialy Rivas, 4) Commune-dwelling teen being readied to bear her sect leader’s holy successor is sent to attend public school. As in Malick’s Badlands, a dreamy atmosphere marks the character’s dissociation from the horror of her experience.
High Fantasy (South Africa, Jenna Bass, 4) Racial and gender tensions bubble up when three friends and a random guy go camping and wake up with their bodies swapped. Found footage social justice comedy drama suggest that seeing the world with another’s eyes might just make things worse. Shot on a iPhone and looks surprisingly great.
The Poet and the Boy (South Korea, Kim Yang-hee, 4) Uninspired poet whose wife is pressuring him to do something about his woeful sperm count develops a crush on a handsome young donut shop clerk. Observational drama with early comedic touches stages the eternal battle between passion and obligation.
Sheikh Jackson (Egypt, Amr Salama, 4) When he learns that Michael Jackson has died, a youngish imam undergoes a crisis of faith triggered by memories of his awkward, King of Pop-loving teen self. Wry, compassionate drama of personal and familial reconciliation.
Euthanizer (Finland, Teemu Nikki, 4) Judgmental eccentric who puts pets to sleep cut-rate prices attracts an admirer and runs afoul of a wannabe neo-Nazi. Twisted, but never amoral, morality tale of karma and retribution.
Under the Tree (Iceland, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, 4) While one son’s marriage unravels, a woman embittered by the other’s disappearance escalates a neighbor dispute. Drama with satirical overtones indicates that Iceland’s feuding spirit still lurks within the national psyche, waiting for the right trauma to let it loose
Shuttle Life (Malaysia, Tan Seng Kiat, 4) Young man with mentally ill mom (Sylvia Chang) can’t get the birth certificate he needs to get his kid sister’s body released by the morgue after a hit and run. Neorealist drama about living with the deck stacked against you in Kuala Lumpur.
Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle (Spain, Gustavo Salmerón,4) Documentary portrait of the director’s family, particularly his incorrigibly eccentric mother, a hoarder facing foreclosure on her castle full of junk. Lovingly funny look inside a family with a bittersweet streak of dark past memories squirreled away in a few of the boxes up in the doll room.
The Summit (Argentina, Santiago Mitre) High-stakes oil summit becomes additionally fraught for the Argentinean president (Ricardo Darin) when his daughter suffers a breakdown. What seems like a sober-minded political procedural takes a surprising turn into Marnie-style style psychological mystery.
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Indonesia, Mouly Surya, 3.5) Widow kills a gang of rapist bandits and heads to town with the boss’ head to report the crime. Tale of women versus predatory men mixes agrarian social drama with engagingly staged Leone pastiche.
Hostiles (US, Scott Cooper) In 1892, a Cavalry Captain (Christian Bale) reluctantly accepts a mission to escort his cancer-stricken foe (Wes Studi) from imprisonment in New Mexico to his peoples’ home in Montana. Though some of the text would be better as subtext, its classical storytelling sense and performances from a cast including Rosamund Pike, Ben Foster, Rory Cochrane, Adam Beach and Scott Wilson is worthy of consideration.
The Number (South Africa, Khalo Matabane) Longtime member of dreaded prison gang the 28s feels the pull of a reformist warden’s guidance. Based on a memoir, this conveys the local cultural detail overlying the universals of life behind bars.
Cocaine Prison (Bolivia/Australia, Violeta Ayala, 3) Low-level drug trade laborers languish in an uncontrolled, overcrowded Bolivian prison. Fly-on-the-wall documentary of third world injustice, with glimmer of hope.
Motorrad (Brazil, Vicente Amorim, 3) Pals on a dirt bike trip are attacked and hunted for sport by mysterious black-clad bikers. Survival horror flick is strong on dread, weak on action staging.
I Kill Giants (UK, Anders Walter, 2.5) Teen RPG fan with a chip on her shoulder resists the friendship of a new arrival in school and the concerns of its psychologist (Zoe Saldana) to continue her mission laying traps for the giants she believes are about to attack her seaside town. I loved the portrayal of the nerd experience from a girl’s s perspective, but the script withholds the true nature of the lead’s problem until the end, even though it’s told from her POV--a massive cheat.
Pyewacket (Canada, Adam MacDonald, 2) Girl mad at her mom (Laurie Holden) for moving her to the country performs a ritual to summon an evil spirit. The idea of a verité-style teen drama that turns into a horror flick is kinda cool, but to pay off this would have to escalate sooner and go further.
The Lodgers (Ireland, Brian O’Malley, 2.5) When a twin brother and sister turn eighteen in their damp, decaying manor, she determines to escape the terrible fate the water shades of their ancestors have laid out for them. Evocative, but lacks the ruthlessness of great horror and an adherence to the ghost logic it establishes.
Western (Germany/Bulgaria, Valeska Grisebach, 2) German construction worker on a river diversion project tries to fit in with the locals, in contrast to his bullheaded boss. Like too many verité dramas is uninterested in pace or emphasis but fascinated by people performing quotidian tasks.
The Motive (Spain, Manuel Martín Cuenca, 1.5) Aspiring writer manipulates the lives of his new neighbors to make them better source material for a novel. Darkly comic material cries out for speed and energy but gets a director clearly more comfortable with deliberate pacing and an understated performance style.
1% (Australia, Stephen McAllum, 2.5) The return from prison of a brutal motorcycle gang president (Matt Nable) puts him on a collision course with the protege who has been running it more effectively in his absence. Populated pretty much exclusively by charmless, malignant half-wits eminently deserving of failure and doom, without the layer of black comedy that makes that setup work.
Sergio & Sergei (Cuba, Spain, Ernesto Daranas Serrano, 2) After the dissolution of the USSR, a struggling Cuban art prof and ham radio enthusiast makes contact with the cosmonaut trapped in the Mir space station. Cutesy stab at feel good entertainment for the subtitle crowd shows that a script can be overstuffed and still have nothing in it.
Valley of Shadows (Norway, Jonas Matzow, 1) Boy whose older brother has just died seeks lost dog in a forest he believes to be inhabited by a werewolf. Beautifully shot, with fine score by Zbigniew Priesner, and as slo-o-o-o-w as one snail going to visit a second snail to discuss the possibility of ordering tickets to a Tarkovsky retrospective.
The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (Canada, Simon Lavoie, 1) In 1930s backwoods Quebec, a pregnant teen raised by her religious fanatic father to believe she’s a boy fashioned from clay yearns to escape him and her rapist brother. Allegory of Quebec before the Quiet Revolution attacks its parade of grotesqueries wildly overblown utter seriousness
Mary Shelley (Ireland, Haifaa Al Mansour, 1) Young Mary Godwin (Elle Fanning) falls for handsome poet and free love advocate Percy Shelley, causing the suffering that inspires her to invent the science fiction genre. Squanders a top-notch cast, not to mention the subject matter, on a script creaking with hackneyed biopic devices.