Let the buzz begin. This week, as the 41st annual Toronto International Film Festival rolls out the red carpet, the awards season is officially under way. Almost half of the festival’s 287 features are world premieres. But I had a chance to catch some of the most acclaimed titles when they premiered in Cannes and other festivals. Here is a sweet 16 of stuff I’ve seen (followed some others I can’t wait to see):
1. Toni Erdmann
This perilously long comedy — 162 minutes — from German director Maren Ade is priceless. It’s an unlikely yarn, about a frustrated female executive who is stalked by her prankster father. Despite being snubbed by the Cannes jury, it wowed critics and was the festival’s biggest crowd-pleaser, drawing spontaneous outbursts of applause twice midway through the movie. Now it has a chance to prove itself with a North American audience—and maybe snag TIFF’s People’s Choice Award. Finally, the feminist workplace comedy we’ve all been waiting for.
Another gem ignored by the Cannes jury. Adam Driver stars as a bus-driving poet (or poetry-writing bus driver) in this Zen fugue from American director Jim Jarmusch. Full disclosure: as someone who made a movie about a dead poet (Al Purdy), I have a soft spot for the subject. But Driver has never been more in-the-moment. And Paterson feels like the most intimate, heartfelt film from Jarmusch in a long while. It’s like a stone skipping across a pond, surprising us with widening ripples of revelation. It’s a one-of-a-kind, strangely moving film, and as close as cinema gets to pure poetry.
3. I, Daniel Blake
Winner of the Palme D’Or in Cannes, it was rumoured to be a safe compromise by a divided jury. Veteran Brit director Ken Loach doesn’t break any new cinematic ground, but he draws a dynamite performance from Dave Johns as a middle-aged carpenter who has a Kafkaesque encounter with the state welfare system after he’s injured on the job. Witty, tender and oh so relevant, it’s a lot more fun than it sounds.
4. The Salesman
The latest film from Iran’s Asghar Farhadi, director of the Oscar-winning A Separation (2011), is a layered domestic intrigue about a Tehran couple traumatized after the wife is confronted by an intruder in their home. As the husband turns detective, the story plays out against an amateur stage production of Death of A Salesman, involving both him and his wife. Creating tension that ratchets up in sly increments, Farhadi steers his narrative to a shattering conclusion about the quality of mercy and vengeance.
Romania’s Cristian Mungiu, who won the Palme D’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, was awarded Best Director in Cannes for this slow-burn domestic drama that’s set in motion with the attempted rape of a teenage girl (Maria-Victoria Drăguş). Her physician father (Adrian Titieni) seems mostly concerned the assault will distract his daughter from her final exams. He has his own demons, and as in Mungiu’s previous work, intimate matters become entangled with a corrupt bureaucracy built on lies and favours. Graduation would make a fitting companion piece to The Salesman. And as you may start to notice, sexual assault is the thème du jour in TIFF films this year. Especially the next one . . .
Paul Verhoeven, master of the guilty pleasure, gave us RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct and, uh, Showgirls. With his first French-language film, he delivers a violent, darkly funny suspense drama about a female video game executive who endures a brutal sexual assault, yet seems more intrigued than traumatized as she tries to track down her assailant. Potentially the most controversial film among the glut of sexual assault dramas at TIFF, Elle will enrage some, who will charge that it trivializes rape. I saw it as a dark satire that knows exactly what buttons it’s pushing. And Isabelle Huppert is devastating as the blasé power broker who cuts her male subordinates off at the knees, while being drawn to the danger of her mysterious assailant. She’s the proto-feminist avenger that feminism never asked for.
7. The Handmaiden
With this sumptuous and erotic period piece, Korean director Park Chan-wook transplants Sarah Water’s Victorian-era novel, Fingersmith, to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. Its trompe l’oeil intrigue, which unfolds from the viewpoint of several characters in succession, involves a servant who conspires to swindle an heiress in a mansion owned by a lecherous old book collector. At the heart of the story is a steamy lesbian romance, draped (and undraped) in endless layers of silk. Park plays fast and loose with expectations, with a shape-shifting plot that’s as ornate as the art direction— a mirrored dollhouse of seduction, deception and fatal attraction.
8. It’s Only the End of the World
Polarizing audiences, Xavier Dolan’s competition entry ran a critical gauntlet in Cannes then took silver, winning the Grand Jury Prize. With his sixth feature, the 27-year-old Quebec director tackles a French play about a writer who’s come home to announce his terminal disease to a family that won’t stop talking long enough to listen. You may not like this film. There’s a good chance you’ll hate it. But it’s unnerving to see Dolan corral some of France’s finest actors—including Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel and Léa Seydoux—in a maze of tightening close-ups, as they navigate a dense, claustrophobic script that doesn’t try to escape its theatrical origins. Unfortunately the subtitles can’t capture the sly cadences and elisions of the French dialogue.
9. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki
It’s hard to think of a boxing movie with the agile whimsy of this disarming feature debut by Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen. But then it’s another tale of a heavyweight. Based on a true story, and shot in luscious black-and-white, it’s a charming sports movie/romance based on the true story of Finland’s Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti), who challenged American champion Davey Moore in Helsinki for the world featherweight title in 1962. As Mäki struggles to get his weight down to the legal limit, his heart is only half in the game. He’d rather hang out with his small-town sweetheart (Oona Airola) than engage in the crude media circus staged by his manager. This lovely film (which won the Un Certain Regard prize in Cannes) is as modest as its protagonist, and transports us to an age when innocence still had a fighting chance.
Brazilian lioness Sônia Braga gives a powerhouse performance as a retired music critic battling a corrupt landlord who’s trying to force her out of her beachfront apartment in Rio. She almost overwhelms the film. And Kleber Mendonça Filho directs with a lazy largesse that seems designed to give his diva all the room she needs. But cast as a widow and cancer survivor who rails at a world unable to appreciate art or taste or ethics, Braga displays such a ferocious commitment that she earns the right to go over the top. Taking us into the heart of a Brazilian culture war, Aquarius serves as a bracing palate cleanser after the Olympics.
11. Mean Dreams
This sophomore feature from Canadian director Nathan Morlando (Edwin Boyd—Citizen Gangster) drew a standing ovation in the Quinzaine sidebar of Cannes, though some U.S. critics carped that it was not American enough. It’s a simple tale of two teens (Josh Wiggins and Sophie Nélisse) who go on the run to escape the girl’s abusive and criminal dad (Bill Paxton), who’s also the local sherriff. With stunning cinematography, Morlando pays honest homage to Badlands. And it’s refreshing to see a Canadian film that embraces a genre with unapologetic passion, and with no ironic asides. Despite its American lead actor, and anonymous setting, Mean Dreams reveals its Canadian quality in its tone, and in the frozen aim of a gun that doesn’t want to go off.
Jeff Nichols directs a sublimely understated civil rights drama about a mixed-race Virginia couple who are fighting for the right to remain legally married in the 1950s. Although the story is based on a true story, a landmark case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, it’s more romance than history lesson. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga give winning performances as Richard and Mildred Loving, with the ever-solid Michael Shannon as the Life magazine photographer who brought their story to the world.
13. Gimme Danger
If ever a rock icon warranted documentary treatment, it’s Iggy Pop, the Godfather of Punk, who has pushed performance beyond the brink, without a flick of compromise, and lived to tell the tale—now an elder statesman who proved with his recent album, Post-Pop Depression, that he’s still at the top of his game. Excavating rare archival footage, director Jim Jarmusch assembled a collage of Iggy’s exploits that’s a bit shambling, yet in the spirit of its subject. And Jim Osterberg, the man behind the Iggy persona, offers some candid hindsight. When I asked him in Cannes about the relationship between Jim and Iggy, he said: “You’re talking to Iggy Pop but Jim is in control of the interview.”
14. Personal Shopper
French director Olivier Assayas reunites with Kristen Stewart, who showed in his Clouds of Sils Maria that there’s a significant actress behind the star of the Twilight series. This is a ghost story with a decidedly Millennial touch as Stewart’s character roams Paris, trying to make contact with her dead brother, while frantically exchanging texts with a mystery man who might be him, texting from the Twilight Zone. Never have fingers tapping a phone been used to create such nail-biting suspense. This psychological thriller did, however, divide the audience in Cannes, leaving many howling that the ending was a cheat.
15. Two Lovers and a Bear
Against a background of abuse, incest and alcohol, two troubled lovers try to escape their despair—Roman (Dane DeHaan) and Lucy (Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black fame). Set in Apex, and shot in and around Iqaluit, the film portrays the Arctic as a shiftless frontier of cultural unrest. Kim Nguyen (Montreal director of the Oscar-nominated War Witch) finds raw authenticity in his location, and in the volatile chemistry between his two stars. Not to mention flashes of magic realism in the form of a talking bear. The narrative is uneven, but the two leads are terrific, acting with raw emotion that comes to a head in torrid bout of love-making—Maslany’s first nude scene.
This one didn’t play in Cannes. I saw it at a market screening at the Norwegian International Film Festival. And I’m not allowed to review it before its TIFF premiere. So I won’t. But I can tell you this: It comes from Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbjærg, who made the original Insomnia (1997), which Christopher Nolan remade in 2002 with Al Pacino and Robin Williams. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one gets remade too. Pyromaniac is a family drama about an arsonist, the teenage son of a fire department chief in a rural community. He lights the fires then helps his father put them out. You might say he’s stoking the family business, and a lot more besides.
And here are few TIFF movies I can’t wait to see:
La La Land
Why? Because we want to see Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone go on a proper date after their crazy chemistry experiment in Crazy Stupid Love. Because the date, which makes him a jazz pianist and her an actress, is a vivid musical with paintbox colours worthy of Almodóvar. Because the director is Damien Chapelle, who gave us Whiplash (2014). Because Oscar buzz from Telluride sounds like a four-alarm fire—even Tom Hanks interrupted his promo for Scully to sing its praises. And because it sounds like the perfect escape from the grim themes saturating so many other films at TIFF.
The Birth of a Nation
Nate Parker’s feature debut, about Nat Turner leading the 1831 Virginia slave rebellion, caused a sensation at Sundance, where Fox Searchlight bought it for $17.5 million. But the film’s premiere is now embroiled in controversy, after a 17-year-old rape accusation against Parker and his co-writer, Jean Celestin, has come to light. As if a powerful film about slavery were not enough to fuel a debate during a U.S. presidential campaign, this situation will force narratives of racism and sexual assault into the same conversation—along with the issue of whether we can separate the art from the artist.
It’s been exhilarating to watch Quebec director Denis Villeneuve take Hollywood by storm, vaulting from the art house to the A-list with one challenging studio film after another—first Prisoners, then Sicario, and now a sci-fi puzzle that sounds like the second coming of Close of Encounters of the Third Kind. Based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story Story of Your Life, it stars Amy Adams as a linguist who is called on to decipher the language of visiting aliens, to determine if they are hostile or friendly. This may just be a warm up for Villeneuve’s remake of Blade Runner, but early word from the Telluride festival indicates that once again he has raised the IQ of a Hollywood genre.
With films like Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Meek’s Cutoff (2010), American writer-director Kelly Reichardt has shown a knack for stopping time, while letting characters and landscape merge into oases of truth and beauty. We don’t watch her films so much as inhabit them. With Certain Women, she presents a tripartite narrative, starring Michelle Williams, Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart, shot in 16-mm film against the mountains and big skies of Montana. And by the sound of it, their stories are as open-ended as the landscapes.
Manchester by the Sea
Another movie with Michelle Williams (sorry). But again this comes from another unusual director whose films all seem like rarities. Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t exactly churn them out. The American filmmaker has made just three movies in 16 years. His first, You Can Count on Me, was a hit. The second, Margaret, disappeared in a distribution sinkhole. Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck as a Boston janitor/handyman coping with the death of his brother. The buzz from its Sundance premiere indicates that this is the Lonergan movie we’ve been waiting for.
. . . and a whole bunch of Canadian films I’m loathe to play favourites among homegrown movies that I haven’t seen. But here are three that I’m looking forward to that tackle real-life stories:
Anatomy of Violence
Deepa Mehta (Midnight’s Children) explores the 2012 rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman on a New Dehli bus, with a pared-down production, in collaboration with theatre artist Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry.
A Skyjacker’s Tale
Canadian documentary filmmaker Jamie Kastner (The Secret Disco Revolution) digs into the strange events surrounding the 1984 hijacking of a plane by Ishmael Labeet, the ostensible leader of a massacre that killed eight people at a St. Croix Country Club. It sounds like this political crime story—a mix of race, class and tabloid media frenzy— has a eerie contemporary resonance.
Producer and cinematographer Nick de Pencier has spent most of his career collaborating with his wife, director Jennifer Baichwal, on award-winning films like Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark. Here he makes his feature directing debut with a documentary about the impact of the Internet on free speech, privacy and activism. It might make a cool double bill with Oliver Stone’s Snowden.