As Blue Jays fever raised September hopes among Toronto baseball fans, the 40th edition of TIFF, its prominent international film festival, screened the strongest selection in the many years I’ve been attending. At that, I managed to see only two of the eventual prize-winners while cramming in a fraction of the nearly 300 features on offer during the 10 days Sept. 10-20. I also skipped major titles that will be in regular theatres anyway within the next weeks. That includes Room, which took the People’s Choice audience award, Black Mass, The Martian, Spotlight, Sicario, and the Canadian Afghan war story Hyena Road (one of five Afghanistan-related movies), to be reviewed later.
TIFF’s crowning highlight came on the closing Sunday with a free screening in Roy Thompson Hall of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterwork Vertigo to the live accompaniment of its famous score by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and in the presence of the movie’s leading lady Kim Novak, now 82. She was in fine form as she spoke about her collaboration with Hitchcock and co-star Jimmy Stewart. In a 2012 decennial poll of critics by Sight & Sound magazine, Vertigo displaced Citizen Kane as the top film of all time. One could see why from this superlative presentation.
As for new work, here are capsule reviews of my top 10 dramas and brief notes on another 10 worthy of mention. I’ll look at TIFF documentaries next week.
The first film I saw, and the best, is an astonishing first feature by director László Nemes that was awarded the grand prix at Cannes. Set
in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in the latter part of the Second World War it is an intense intimate rendering of the Holocaust like no other. The camera focuses tightly on the hellish vision of Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian member of a ‘Sonderkommando’ unit (Jewish prisoners assigned to do the dirty work of the crematoria then executed) as he seeks a proper burial for a boy and joins a group of escapees. There is a smile in the last scene that will break your heart.
Selected for the new juried “Platform” program, director Martin Zandvliet brings to horrifying life the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in 1945 when German POWs, many mere boys, were forced to defuse and clear from Denmark’s coastline over 2 million landmines (hence the title’s play on words). Half were killed or gravely injured. The story, taught with tension, follows a group of frightened young prisoners under the orders of vengeful Danish sergeant Rasmussen (Roland Møller) who grows increasingly conflicted about his role.
Director Jacques Audiard earned the palme d’or, the Cannes festival’s top honour, for this searing drama about Sri Lankan Tamil refugees trying to make a new life in a France afflicted by social and racial unrest. It’s anchored by an extraordinary performance from non-professional actor Jesuthasan Antonythasanas as Dheepan, an ex-Tamil Tiger who acquires a false identity and family — an unrelated “wife” and “daughter” — in the dangerous chaotic escape and process of claiming asylum. The violence that follows them underscores the desperation and precarious situation of so many migrants today.
Also in the Platform section, the story “loosely based on actual events” is about a French NGO “Move for Kids” operating in a francophone African country and deceptively claiming it is there to benefit preschool age orphans. In reality it wants children for would-be adoptive parent clients in France. In the centre of this moral quagmire of private “charity” is the gruff agency chief Jacques Arnault played by Vincent Lindon who heads a terrific cast. (He was named best actor at Cannes for another French film, The Measure of a Man.)
The strictures of house arrest imposed on celebrated dissident Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi in 2010 haven’t stopped him producing amazing work. This latest, winner of the golden bear at Berlin, was shot almost entirely inside a taxi with Panahi at the wheel navigating Tehran’s streets while recording revealing conversations and incidents with passengers from the humorous to the violent — a window on the realities of life the authorities would like kept closed, hence Panahi’s helpers must remain anonymous.
Director Pablo Larraín earned the Berlin festival’s grand jury prize for this disturbing story of a group of wayward aging Catholic priests living in a remote purgatorial refuge. When a suicide follows angry accusations of child molestation, a young priest psychologist, Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), arrives to begin an investigation that could close down the house. The confessional consequences are traumatic but not beyond the healing power of forgiveness and mercy.
Veterans Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay were named best actress and actor at Berlin for their roles in writer-director Andrew Haigh’s intimate drama about long-married couple Geoff and Kate Mercer preparing for their anniversary, the celebration of which is marred by the husband’s jarring revelation about the fate of a past love that he has concealed. Geoff’s regrets and effusive profession of love aren’t enough to repair the bond of trust that has been broken.
Jason Bateman directs and stars in this rather absurdist black comedy (based on a bestselling novel) about a highly dysfunctional family. Caleb and Camille Fang (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) are notorious for staging outrageous public pranks that involve son Baxter (Bateman) and daughter Annie (Nicole Kidman) until they grow up and turn their backs on the whole business. An accidental reunion leads to unwelcome memories, a performance episode gone awry and a dubious disappearance before the siblings (Bateman and Kidman have great chemistry together) find a way to escape their parents’ shadow.
First-time director Andrew Cividino drew plaudits at Cannes and TIFF’s best Canadian first feature award for this finely observed drama about a trio of teenage boys — Adam and cousins Nate and Riley — spending a summer on the shores of Lake Superior. Adam is reserved and
uncertain, reluctant to be drawn into the others’ adolescent misdemeanors and dares, troubled by his father’s affair, and confused when a girl he knows becomes attracted to the physically dominant Riley. The relationships are increasingly fraught when tragedy puts a fateful chill into their lives.
In director Philippe Falardeau’s political satire a Haitian immigrant, Souverain Pascal (Irdens Exantus), becomes the unlikely intern to independent rural Quebec MP Steve Guibord (Patrick Huard) when he suddenly finds himself holding the crucial vote on the Conservative government’s planned military deployment and torn between his ambitious wife’s and activist daughter’s contrary demands. It’s a delicious sendup of Canadian political follies with some well-aimed shots, including at a manipulative piano-playing, hockey-loving prime minister.
The festival’s opening film, Demolition (U.S.), from Quebec’s Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), doesn’t really hold together but as its protagonist, a Manhattan investment broker whose marriage is falling apart, Jake Gyllenhaal gives another terrific performance to add to his physical transformations in Nightcrawler, Southpaw, and the current climbing disaster epic Everest.
Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation (U.S.) depicts the horrors befalling child soldiers in a fictionalized African civil war. Although overlong and verging on highly negative stereotype, the performances by Idris Elba as a brutal rebel commander and Ghanaian Abraham Attah as the abducted boy Agu are compelling.
Desierto, a first feature by Jonas Cuarón (son of renowned director Alfonso), took home an international critics’ prize at TIFF for its unrelenting intensity as homicidal racist vigilante Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) hunts down a group of Mexican migrants illegally crossing into the U.S. until stopped by Moises (Gael García Bernal), a father trying to reunite with his son.
Pablo Trapero’s The Clan (Argentina/Spain) tells the stranger than fiction true story of the Puccio family whose abductions, extortions and killings paralleled the nefarious disappearances of Argentina’s military regime. Especially fascinating is the relationship between patriarch Arquimedes and his rugby-star son Alejandro.
Magallanes by Peruvian director Salvador del Solar is a gripping tale of taxi driver’s scheme to blackmail a frail elderly colonel, under whom he had served while fighting the Shining Path insurgency, for the former’s sexual abuse of a young indigenous girl held captive by the military. Nothing goes according to plan.
Magnus Van Horn’s The Here After (Poland/Sweden/France) follows the fate of troubled 17-year-old John (Ulrik Munther) after he is released from a detention facility into the custody of his father in a rural Swedish community that cannot forgive his terrible crime. It’s an absorbing study of three generations of male rage and emotional disconnection.
In Campo Grande by Brazilian Sandra Kogut, a five-year-old girl, Rayane, is left on the doorstep of middle-aged Regina’s home in a wealthy Rio neighbourhood, soon joined by nine-year-old brother Ygor. Regina’s dilemma in caring for the abandoned children speaks volumes about the social extremes that disrupt her comfortable life.
Terence Davies brings an exquisite widescreen cinematography to Sunset Song, an adaptation of a classic 1932 novel centred on the resilient character of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) as she grows up in a Scottish farming family, ruled over by a tyrannical father, and copes with a series of tragedies including her husband’s execution for desertion during the First World War.
French Blood by filmmaker Diastème (the pseudonym of Patrick Asté) strikes a chord with its story of young racist skinhead Marco (Alban Lenoir) who over several decades renounces the path of violent extremism. It’s a timely portrait given the current popularity of France’s anti-immigrant far right Front National.
Finally, the most wickedly entertaining feature I saw was Dutch writer-director-actor Alex van Warmerdam’s Belgium/Netherlands coproduction Schneider vs. Bax in which two contract killers — family man Schneider (Tom Dewispelaere) and dissolute novelist Bax (van Warmerdam) — are pitted against each other. This movie’s twists kill, literally.