The profile of the Toronto Film Festival has been slowly but perceptibly shifting. TIFF may have grown a little bigger year after year, but it has also, in a way, been shrinking. Somehow, perhaps since the Slumdog Millionaire phenomenon in 2008, the industry has come to regard TIFF as the crystal ball of the awards season. While no doubt tied in with the ongoing economic transformations of the film business and the decline of theatrical release, this dogged focus on awards buzz does put pressure on the programmers and blinkers on the festival press coverage. It also fails to do justice to the number, variety, and breadth of the works programmed at the festival. Not to mention that with “buzz,” as with love or sleep, a narrow stubborn quest almost always leads to frustration.
The Imitation Game
Few obvious winners emerged from this year’s TIFF crop—there was no 12 Years a Slave or Gravity to rally critics, industry, and audiences. The Audience Award (much coveted as a harbinger of Oscar) went to Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, starring an admirable Benedict Cumberbatch as the British mathematician Alan Turing, the “father of modern computer science.” Turing’s life is a fascinating amalgam of World War II espionage, triumphant code-breaking, and tragically forbidden homosexuality, and Tyldum’s carefully measured film is quite faultless in its rendering, if a little lifeless.
My festival (I say “my” because with close to 300 films to choose from, the possibilities are almost endless) began on a particularly high note with National Gallery, Frederick Wiseman’s wondrous journey through the art collection and behind-the-scenes workings of the famed London museum. It was bound to go downhill from there, even if only a bit.
Men, Women & Children
“I don’t like to be told what to think,” the 84-year old Wiseman is prone to say in interviews. His extraordinary documentary work, free of voiceovers or interviews, demonstrates that. Narrative fiction offers less opportunity for this feeling of un-mediated experience for sure, but it all too often suffers from overwriting. This is certainly one of the problems with Men, Women & Children, Jason Reitman’s ambitious but uneven ensemble drama based on Chad Kultgen’s novel about love, sex, and disconnection in our digital age. The theme is familiar, though it is enhanced this time by the focus on the generational divide. It’s a sharply observed piece brimming with insight, satire, and pain, and anchored by strong performances. But ultimately it’s too carefully calculated to wholly convince. And by bookending the film with passages from Carl Sagan on our little place in the great universe Reitman only underscores this feeling of stifling over-calibration.
Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet
In the case of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, the problem is not so much overwriting—something that’s inherent in the material—as a sense of middling compromise. The Lebanese-American poet’s original best-selling 1923 collection of philosophical musings was long, and perhaps rightly, deemed not readily adaptable to the screen. Renowned animators (among them Tomm Moore, Bill Plympton, Joan Gratz, Joann Sfar) have been enlisted to give life to Gibran’s poem-essays (on topics ranging from “Good and Evil” to “Eating and Drinking”) in vignettes, some of which are quite beautiful. But the decision to tie them all in to an uninspired and visually mediocre framing narrative (the friendship between a headstrong little girl and a wise prisoner of conscience on some unnamed vaguely Middle Eastern island) simply kills any magic the film might have otherwise had. Instead, we end up with a dissonant piece, one too simplistic for adults yet too meditative for children.
Then again, adults, even brilliant ones, are certainly capable of making simplistic films. Sadly, Foreign Body, Polish master Krzysztof Zanussi’s eagerly anticipated take on—or rather indictment of—“the New Poland” is one of those. Out of respect for Zanussi’s rich body of work, I find myself unwilling to begin tearing apart this ridiculously over-the-top tale of a hapless boy called Angel—well, Angelo—caught between evil corporate vixens and a saintly Catholic woman. I would rather write it off as a momentary lapse of reason, and move on from the disappointments.
The Look of Silence
In The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer revisits several of the protagonists from his acclaimed The Act of Killing, coming at them this time from a victim’s point of view. It is by watching footage shot by Oppenheimer that Adi discovers the details of his brother Ramli’s murder five decades earlier during the mass slaughters that followed Indonesia’s 1965 military coup. A village optometrist, he sets out to visit the perpetrators, confronting their memories as he tests their vision. The Act of Killing is a tough act to follow. Yet though Oppenheimer is working without the element of surprise, and with the more conventional victim perspective, The Look of Silence may well be the stronger film. There’s less shock value but the impact is deeper. It is a more muted, gentler work, but an equally horrifying one, as we are left squirming, watching inoffensive-looking grandfathers trying to explain away their direct participation in mass killing.
Just as riveting in a wholly other genre, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix follows Nelly (Petzold’s striking muse, Nina Hoss), a concentration camp survivor returning to Berlin in search of Johnny (Ronad Zehrfeld), the husband she still loves, who may or may not have betrayed her to the Nazis. Phoenix is set in the intriguing period immediately following the war—or “After the Camp” as Petzold puts it—that gave rise to the Trümmerfilm (literally “rubble film”). It’s an engrossing reflection on the postwar reconstruction of identity (as the title suggests, although it also turns out to be the name of the bar where she finds Johnny) couched as a noirish thriller of mistaken identity. Co-written with the late Harun Farocki, it is a precisely and exquisitely crafted chamber piece, resonant and gripping, softly building up to a stunning finale.
Time Out of Mind
If Phoenix and The Look of Silence were unquestionably the strongest films I saw at TIFF aside from National Gallery, there remained many smaller pleasures. Watching a surprisingly convincing Richard Gere roaming homeless through the streets of New York in Oren Moverman’s rigorously spare Time Out of Mind was one of them.
Notwithstanding the presence of Gere, Moverman makes no concessions to drama, explanation, or sentiment in this almost plot-free, strictly observational piece of bleak yet mesmerizing beauty. Although the shots are meticulously composed, the observation is almost always from a distance (mirroring our own everyday tendency to keep the homeless at bay), intricately shot through layers of doorways, windows, urban noise, and chatter, emphasizing the estrangement without forcing judgment.
Anyone craving wide-ranging insight into the rich mess of the modern Middle East should watch Samir’s Iraqi Odyssey, the Iraqi-Swiss director’s fascinating documentary tracing the upheavals of Iraq and the migrations—from Los Angeles to Auckland—of his extended family, from the days of British colonialism, through the Ba’athist coups of the Sixties and Seventies that eventually brought Saddam Hussein to power, to the 2003 U.S. invasion and ensuing chaos. What the film may lack in form (despite the puzzling choice of 3-D) it amply makes up for in terms of substance. Avoiding pathos, at times even exhibiting an ironic distance, Iraqi Odyssey offers an engrossing tale of the decades of frustrated aspirations and exile that have marked and continue to afflict the modern Middle East.
Israeli-Arab filmmaker Suha Arraf’s Villa Touma was another Middle Eastern film with promise. This tale of three mildly insane unmarried sisters and their orphaned niece in the oppressive huis-clos of a Ramallah house begins intriguingly enough, halfway between Chekhov and Stephen King, refreshingly unfettered by reference to the political situation that tends to dominate films from the region. Unfortunately, the characters soon plunge into caricature. Plagued by a plodding, turgid, and outdated script, the film never comes to life. A far more memorable huis-clos was Saverio Costanzo’s delicately creepy Hungry Hearts, which charts a young mother’s descent into a vegan-diet-fixated psychosis that is slowly starving her newborn baby. Her wispy angelic frame inhabited by a violent madness, Alba Rohrwacher gives a haunting performance. Adam Driver (also starring in Noah Baumbach’s delectably mordant While We’re Young) is equally powerful in the less showy part of the reasonable but helpless husband.
My TIFF concluded on another high note with Chris Rock’s Top Five. Halfway between fiction and autobiography, it follows a day in the life of star comic and recovering alcoholic Andre Allen (Rock), his career at a crossroads and his wedding a few days away. A luminous Rosario Dawson is the New York Times journalist who takes to the streets of New York with him. The script is not without contrivance, but the overall effect is incisively rude, lewd, and hilariously cathartic.