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10 films at Toronto festival to look forward to

By PIERS MARCHANT Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published September 8, 2017 at 1:47 a.m.


Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence play a couple whose tranquil life is disrupted in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, one of the most anticipated fi lms at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Doug Jones stars as “The Asset’ in Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy The Shape of Water.

It has to be considered an encouraging sign if you are previewing a film festival and suffer difficulty cutting the potential highlight list down to 10 films. Last year in Toronto, the glut of excellent movies -- some of which had already come to massive critical praise after debuting at Cannes in May -- was truly exceptional. As difficult as the festival programmers often make it for one critic to weave his way into a workable schedule, there was still a staggering number of splendid offerings, the quality of which is rightfully celebrated on the awards circuit a few months later.

This year, there may not be as many eye-popping standouts -- sadly, Cristian Mungiu and Asghar Farhadi aren't usually that prolific -- but there is no small cadre of films from masterful directors begging to be witnessed by the cinematic world at large. One of the great things about being a cinephile in the day and age of constant media churn, is getting the opportunity to take in the vast wonders of such a large, international bevy of ultra-talented artists, with new potential masterworks rotating into the mix the second an older one has made the rounds: It might be that Iranian director Farhadi is absent this year, but here comes Haifaa Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia's first female director, with her follow-up to the excellent Wadja; legendary heavy hitter Werner Herzog isn't in this year's lineup, but German countryman Wim Wenders certainly is, and so forth. Suffice it to say, as difficult as our lives have become in many ways with the advent of internet technology and wall-to-wall entertainment options, we still live in wondrous times.

So without any further ado, here's our batch of the 10 most-anticipated films -- culled from a cut-down list about four times that size -- at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

Downsizing: Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) is known for his straightforward-if-slightly-arch material, so this film, about a busy executive (Matt Damon) and his wife (Kristen Wiig) who willfully undergo a miniaturization process as a means of best maximizing their income -- living in a fabulous doll-house mansion -- and limiting their consumption, might sound as a bit of a departure, but the film is also making a point about human beings overrunning this fragile planet, and the dangers of depleting our natural resources. With that sort of conceit, the film could either be satiric fun, or winsome nonsense: Here's hoping for the former.

Hostiles: It's often the burden of expectations after an early success that can weigh down an artist in any medium. In the case of Scott Cooper, who made a sparkling debut with Crazy Heart back in 2009, and then lost some of his luster with the less-appreciated Out of the Furnace and Black Mass, this film, which stars Christian Bale as a late 19th-century Army captain who has to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family through hostile territory, holds a certain amount of significance. If it clicks, all is forgiven, if it doesn't, it will seem more and more as if his first film was the aberration.

The Killing of the Sacred Deer: There is a sense of supreme satisfaction watching a film in which the director starts with an offbeat scenario -- say, a future world in which chronically single people are turned into the animal of their choice and set off in the wild -- and lets it play itself out under those peculiar auspices. Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) is just such an auteur: His films are eccentrically surreal, often bloody, and endlessly intriguing. Here, Colin Farrell plays a renowned cardiologist who falls prey to the son of one of his deceased patients who threatens to exterminate members of his family in return.

Lean on Pete: In the deeply moving 45 Years, Andrew Haigh proved once again his acuity for deeply rooted human connection. His new film concerns a lonely teenage boy (Charlie Plummer), whose father is constantly moving to different jobs, who spends a summer working with a worn-down horse trainer (Steve Buscemi), taking care of an equally downtrodden racehorse (hence the title). I know what you're thinking -- and, man, have there been a lot of horse-as-human-redemption movies over the years -- but I have a lot of faith that the talented Haigh won't let this dissolve into cloying gumminess.

Mary Shelley: One of the films I'm most keen to see up north. Al-Mansour, the aforementioned first Saudi female director, follows up her wonderful Wadja with this decidedly different sort of film, about the romance between young author Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning) and the older poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), which ultimately resulted in her writing Frankenstein. The film has a resounding cast (including Maisie Williams, Tom Sturridge, Bel Powley and Stephen Dillane), and it will be fascinating to see what Al-Mansour can do when she's not forced to shoot scenes from inside a nearby van.

Mother!: Darren Aronofsky's art house-horror film about a young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who helps restore to beauty the house of her husband (Javier Bardem), only to have a series of uninvited guests come and stay with them, promises a kind of updated Rosemary's Baby, but in the hands of such a visual provocateur, we can expect a lot of baffling macabre imagery to go with our sinister Satanists. Those who appreciate Aronofsky's more distinctive material (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan), hope that this finds him returned to form after the deeply flawed Noah. Early on, it's certainly one of the films with the most buzz attached to it.

The Shape of Water: Speaking of returning to form, I understand I was in the vast critical minority in not finding Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak ravishing and spectacular (my adjectives: "over-wrought" and "nonsensical"), but I would love the director of Pan's Labyrinth to again conjure something movingly magical. To that end, this film, set in the early '60s, about a lonely underling (Sally Hawkins) at a secret U.S. laboratory who makes a startling discovery about a highly-classified experiment, certainly holds promise.

The Square: One of the films from the festival that has stayed with me the longest is Ruben Ostlund's Force Majeure (2014), a family drama that was equal parts captivating, funny, and inscrutable. His new film, which won the ultra-prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes, is something of a scathing satire of the art world, involving a well-meaning museum curator who runs afoul of society after his foolish reaction to the theft of his phone (what is it, one must wonder, with Ostlund and mobile devices?). Expect a similar mix of awkward, should-I-laugh-or-not moments, as well as a hefty dose of societal commentary.

Submergence: A curious-sounding drama from German auteur Wenders (Wings of Desire, The Salt of the Earth): One part of the narrative has to do with a man (James McAvoy) being held prisoner in a small room by African jihadists; while in the other, a woman (Alicia Vikander) working as a marine biologist takes a submersible down to the depths of the ocean. The connection? They met a year ago on a beach in France, and shared a powerful romance.

Suburbicon: Working from a slightly retooled Coen Brothers' script from their very early days, director George Clooney oversees a sprawling story that involves many Coen-ready elements: A bumbling man (played by Matt Damon) in love with his wife's twin sister (both played by Julianne Moore), plans a home invasion scheme which is meant to leave his wife dead so he and his lady-love can make off with the insurance dough. The considerable fly in the ointment is a dogged insurance agent (Oscar Isaac), who simply won't let the case out of his jaws. Predating Fargo, the film promises to have a similar vibe of placid surfaces undercut by desperate people making absolutely horrible decisions. It should be fun.

MovieStyle on 09/08/2017

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