When all is said and done, the cinematic cornucopia that is TIFF deserves respect. Before I’d even arrived, I’d seen 56 of the new films in its lineup—at Cannes and at screenings for the New York Film Festival’s selection committee. Of those, there were easily 30 highlights that would make the trip essential for any right-thinking filmgoer. And even with that head start, I still couldn’t fit in everything on my to-see list. What’s more, of the 38 films I saw, only five well and truly sucked—a pretty good ratio.
August: Osage County
You can carp about omissions, sure, but taste is not necessarily the reason for the conspicuous absence of Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, Jimmy P., All Is Lost, and Jealousy. And while you can roll your eyes at the usual quota of awards-season launches—18 credible contenders this year—most of them were of a higher-than-usual standard and some of them were top-notch. But not all: Bill Condon made like he was David Fincher to unconvincing effect in the Julian Assange quasi-thriller The Fifth Estate, but Benedict Cumberbatch (as Assange) and Daniel Brühl (as his comrade in arms) made it watchable. The all-star cast of August: Osage County attacked their material like there was no tomorrow. John Wells and Tracy Letts reined in the excesses of the original play, and while many viewers were under the impression that Letts was a woman, the whiff of misogyny lingering around his take on dysfunctional matriarchy should have tipped them off. Jason Reitman slowed down and took on a small canvas story with Labor Day, in which fundamentally decent escaped convict Josh Brolin bonds with depressed single mother Kate Winslet and her impressionable 13-year-old son after coercing his way into their home. A carefully measured, absorbing end-of-innocence drama, it could easily have lapsed into melodrama but happily didn’t. And Matthew McConaughey’s passion project Dallas Buyers Club, solidly directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, gave the actor a perfect occasion for another irresistibly juicy performance.
The same goes for one of the best of the awards-season selections, Stephen Frears’s based-on-a-true-story Philomena. Steve Coogan plays a former government spin doctor who puts his political fall from grace behind him by returning to his journalist roots. He reluctantly takes on a human interest story that entails him helping Irishwoman Judi Dench locate her illegitimate son, who was sold off to an American couple as a baby over 50 years ago by the nuns running the convent in which she was confined at age 18, à la The Magdalene Sisters. Coogan and Jeff Pope’s adaptation of Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee keeps sentimentality at bay while Frears adroitly strikes the right balance between the barely suppressed emotional pangs of Dench’s no-nonsense performance and the dry-humor comic relief provided by Coogan. It’s the quintessence of unapologetically middlebrow good-taste, and it’s emphatically not aimed at those awaiting the next aesthetic leap forward in cinema.
La última película
Meanwhile, at the other end of the film food chain, I failed to see Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her, described in the catalog as an “unprecedented cinematic event” —but I did see Raya Martin and Cinema Scope editor and Locarno Film Festival programmer Mark Peranson’s La última película. In this vamping update of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, filmmaker Alex Ross Perry plays a disillusioned director adrift in the swirling chaos of the Philippines, preparing to make a film as the Mayan apocalypse draws near. Who knows, maybe the film he’s making is the film we’re watching. Is La última película the multi-format eulogy to film’s obsolescence it maintains it is and at times resembles? Or an insider just-kidding put-on? Or both? Or neither? You decide, but there is always the possibility that Martin and Peranson are trying to have their cake and eat it. That said, for those who consider films like Philomena anathema, this stuff is catnip. One of the young cinephile faithful lining up early for the screening actually expressed worry that he wouldn’t get in, bless him. This is a film that separates the men from the boys: La última película began with an audience of about 80, and by the time the credits rolled, just 88 minutes later, only 39 remained.
You can always make discoveries at TIFF, and the biggest one this year was Gia Coppola, a worthy addition to her family’s filmmaking dynasty, who scored a knockout with Palo Alto. The loosely episodic film follows the trajectories of five teenagers looking for meaning, connection, or just oblivion as they struggle with bad influences, wrong moves, and inarticulate yearnings. Coppola’s direction is amazingly free and relaxed, with a loose, lyrical visual style, and a firm sense of what’s at stake for her characters that finally becomes genuinely suspenseful.
The Midnight Madness section’s strongest entries included Afflicted, the latest iteration of the found-footage horror subgenre, in which writer-directors Derek Lee and Clif Prowse play Canadian students Derek and Clif, whose video documents a not-so-excellent European vacation, and Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson’s playful pastiche All Cheerleaders Die, in which the tangled intrigue around a high-school cheer squad turns lethal—call it When Witchcraft-Resurrected, Life-Force-Sucking Mean Girls Attack. The audience received Midnight Madness favorite son Eli Roth like a king, and after some winning showmanship he gave them their money’s worth with his first film in six years (what kept him?). The Green Inferno is a lovingly made tribute to the Italian cannibal horror trend of the late Seventies, about a group of student eco-activists who fall into the hands of an Amazon cannibal tribe after their plane crashes in the jungle. You can picture the rest, right down to the Final Girl. But for sheer scary, the section standout was Mike Flanagan’s Oculus, in which a brother and sister return to the home where their parents were killed years ago, intent on destroying the malign mind-manipulating antique mirror that brought about their deaths. Flanagan brilliantly sustains an ingenious structure which switches back and forth between past and present action unfolding in the same space—with the added complication that illusion and reality are constantly up for grabs as the minds of the two protagonists are misled by the mirror’s powers. This may be the creepiest piece of furniture in cinema history.
Love Is the Perfect Crime
A final highlight for me was the little-noted Love Is the Perfect Crime, in which Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu of all people successfully pull off a psychological thriller—admittedly an offbeat one—about a student-bedding lit professor (Mathieu Amalric) who may or may not be responsible for the death of one of his conquests. His life steadily unravels as he becomes entangled in faculty politics, the police investigation into the student’s disappearance, and several playing-with-fire affairs. It’s refreshing to see Amalric’s bemused and shambolic affect transplanted to Chabrol/Hitchcock territory, and decorated with some familiar Larrieu Brothers eccentric touches, the film walks a very agreeable line between comedy and highly controlled slow-build suspense. Toronto can be full of surprises, all right.