One of the more peculiar aspects of spending a week ensconced in a massive film festival, spending your days frantically rushing from one theater to another, standing in line interminably, and watching movie after movie, is the hermetically sealed aspect of being in such an all-encompassing environment day after day, night after night, until the goings-on of the outside world can sound as distant as a whisper across a mountain canyon. There are exceptions, of course -- our current president's inauguration day happened to take place on the first full day of Sundance -- but for the most part, tucked away into a film festival such as the Toronto International Film Festival, you nestle down in your seat and put as much of your concentration in front of you, on the screen, as you can muster.
Thus, it was quite a wake-up call when, at one press screening, one of the journalists there told us the harrowing story of her leaving Miami just as Hurricane Irma was bearing down on the area. She left for her flight with help from the studio, but as the flooding had already begun, she had to leave without her proper luggage, and was up in Toronto without so much as a toiletry bag. She was at the festival to attend a series of junkets, and would be flying out from Toronto on Monday over to Los Angeles for yet more junkets, and didn't expect to be home until later in the week.
At the screening, she was asking if anybody had any extra supplies they could pass her way, anything that would enable her to keep body and soul together long enough for her to do her job. I didn't have terribly much in my bag, but I passed down an extra tube of toothpaste that I must have gotten from one dentist appointment or other, a gesture she genuinely appreciated.
As for the films themselves, there was the usual assortment of overhyped big-studio pictures, underbaked smaller films, wondrous discoveries, unexpected epics, and a plethora of auteur-driven films that further burnished or tarnished their legends. Let's sort through the carnage, shall we?
Thematic Linkage: Cover-Ups
A fascinating contrast in dealing with malfeasance, John Cullen's Chappaquiddick details the insane cover-up and denial employed by Teddy Kennedy (Jason Clarke), after he drunkenly goes off a low bridge on the small Martha's Vineyard satellite island, causing the death of an innocent young woman (Kate Mara). Turning eventually to the army of lawyers and spin doctors amassed by his domineering father, Joe Sr. (Bruce Dern), Kennedy submits to their exhortations and somehow avoids jail, even if it ultimately costs him any shot of being president. In Louis C.K.'s quasi-confessional I Love You, Daddy, the comedian seems to tackle head-on the allegations of sexual impropriety leveled at him by several comediennes. His film, about a financially successful but emotionally beleaguered TV producer (C.K.), whose teen daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) becomes emotionally involved with a brilliant film auteur and admitted pervert (John Malkovich) more than 50 years her senior, makes its wishy-washy point -- we can never truly know what goes on between two people -- without actually directly addressing the damage done to his reputation. It's not a cover-up, but it is an exercise in avoidance, and eschewing confrontational truth in place of ambiguity.
Worst Dining Experience: Simply Protein Bars
Given that film critics spend most of our waking hours either standing in line for a screening, or at the screening itself, it's essential to pack snacks with you, if for no other reason than to stay the distracting rumbling in your stomach from your fellow colleagues. Out of time and other options one morning, I ran into a local bodega and bought a couple of these white-labeled monstrosities (Chocolate Peanut Butter! One exclaimed, the other: Chocolate Mint!) as I was rushing out the door. As hungry as I might have been, one bite of Chocolate Peanut Butter! with its bitter chemical aftertaste and foam insulation-like texture, convinced me I was better off digging in my bag in hopes for a couple of rogue airline pretzels. Next time, I will stick with Kind Bars, thank you very much.
Scene of Tonal Ambiguity, Working: The Square
Norwegian director Ruben Ostlund enjoys shooting scenes that can be read as either disturbing drama or peculiar comedy -- check the crying husband scene in the fabulous Force Majeure if you want an example. His new film, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, has a central scene involving a well-heeled fundraising dinner at an avant garde museum at which the attendees are forced to interact with an artist (Terry Notary) who, er, "apes" an aggressive male chimpanzee. First, he seems to amuse the crowd, stomping around on metal crutches to emulate the long arms of the primate, but then he begins to get a lot more aggressive, and as the crowd becomes more and more uncomfortable, he starts to single out individuals of the "herd" to harass, including a young woman. It's the kind of anarchic chaos that Ostlund seems to take such delight in, leaving the fundraiser audience, and those of us watching the screen, disturbed and unsure how to view the scene.
Scene of Tonal Ambiguity, Non-Working: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Martin McDonagh's film won the People's Choice award, which came as something of a surprise to me (I was convinced Craig Gillespie's hilarious I, Tonya had it in the bag). A peculiar film from the director of the equally peculiar In Bruges, it follows the story of a fierce but devastated mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand), as she attempts to force the local police, led by a police chief (Woody Harrelson) dying of cancer, to focus their attention on solving the brutal rape and murder of her daughter some months before. The thing is, Mildred is shown to be ferocious and relentlessly wry; most scenes with her, even during the most painful dramatic revelations, have her cracking jokes and making sardonic commentary. I suspect McDonagh fell in love with the idea of a character who could straddle both sides of that particular fence, but to my ear, it simply undermined the film's dramatic tension.
Best Torontonian Affectation: Bicycle bells
Every city has its own ambience, and part of Toronto's charm is the general lack of tension/anxiety that you would more readily find in, say, New York or Chicago. Nothing is more emblematic of this than the lack of cars honking at one another. Instead, you hear the far more gentle trills of a thousand cyclists ringing their bells at pedestrians, cars, and other cyclists. There's something almost quaint about it, right up until someone rings at you in staccato fury for stepping off the curb in their vicinity.
Best Actor, Child: Charlie Plummer
This was actually a lot closer than you might have thought. As good as Plummer is in Lean on Pete, he was very nearly upstaged by little Brooklynn Prince in Sean Baker's The Florida Project; her sassy authority is totally annihilated in the last scene, in which her character, Moonee, realizes she's about to be taken away from her severely messed-up mother. Still, Plummer's performance, carrying the emotional weight of Andrew Haigh's harrowing drama, is very near otherworldly. He carries the entire emotional weight of the film on his slender shoulders and, like a young Christian Bale in The Empire of the Sun, it's clear that we are watching a young actor with an exceedingly bright future.
Best Male Performance: Gary Oldman
Joe Wright's film Darkest Hour, about Winston Churchill's tumultuous first month in office is long on the yak yak -- lots of back room intrigue and political dithering as Parliament shuffles and reshuffles its deck -- but easily the single most riveting aspect is watching the sunk-in performance of Oldman as the venerable British leader, with his pomp and champagne, and his lispy oratory skills. Oldman has always had outrageous range but he is so settled into Churchill's consciousness, it's like watching a hologram come to life.
Best Female Performance: Margot Robbie
On my last day at the festival, I got to see Saoirse Ronan in Greta Gerwig's delightful Lady Bird; the redoubtable Frances McDormand in Three Billboards; and Michelle Pfeiffer steal the whole show in Mother!, but still even these great performances don't get better than Robbie's take on former self-proclaimed white trash figure skater Tonya Harding -- whose ex-husband utterly destroyed her career -- in I, Tonya. Like Charlize Theron, you get mesmerized by Robbie's beauty at your own peril: She may be stunning, but she's also an extremely talented actress, able to bend and twist in directions you would never think to give her credit for. The film was one of the best surprises of Toronto this year, and she was a huge reason why.
Biggest Disappointment: Mary Shelley
I absolutely adored Wadjda, Haifaa Al-Mansour's first film, shot in her native Saudi Arabia (due to the restrictions of females working in public, it was filmed mostly from inside a closed van near the set), so I was thrilled to get a chance to see what she could do with a decent budget and a bevy of strong actors in Mary Shelley. Alas, it's clear, despite the film's themes of male oppression, she was little more than a hired hand for this production, whose clunky inertness can be directly attributed to a resoundingly bad script from Emma Jensen. A crashing bore for a director -- and a subject -- that deserves much, much better.
Best Film: The Rider
As unheralded as it might have been coming into the festival, I can't imagine anyone leaving Chloe Zhao's delicate and deeply moving film without acknowledging the remarkable work done by cast and crew. From the exquisite cinematography of Joshua James Richards to the fully lived-in performances by Brady Jandreau, and the rest of the cast (lived in for real, as most of the cast essentially played themselves), Zhao's film moves like a slowly uncoiling cobra, almost mesmerizing in its languidness, without you ever forgetting the inherent danger of your proximity. It's a fascinating piece of verite filmmaking, and most certainly one of the best films of the year.
MovieStyle on 09/22/2017
Print Headline: Best and the worst of Toronto film festival