By Gerald Schmitz

Toronto International Film Festival: a highlight reel

TIFF’s 39th edition from Sept. 4 through 14 offered not just a feast but a smorgasbord of hundreds of selections, several times the number shown at leading American festivals like Sundance and Tribeca. So even a screenings marathon (50 in my case) doesn’t allow sampling of more than a fraction of features from multiple programs. Indeed I managed to see no shorts and none of the 14 features mentioned among TIFF’s awards winners. A schedule conflict meant missing the recipient of the big “people’s choice” prize, The Imitation Game, a Second World War drama about the extraordinary role and sad fate of Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing. While reviews have been mixed, the lead performance by Benedict Cumberbatch — who attracts mobs of screaming female fans (due likely in part to his critically acclaimed and award-winning role as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC television series Sherlock) — seems likely to garner an Oscar nomination.

It’s worth noting that the festival business is becoming increasingly competitive, with major ones vying for the bragging rights to hosting world premieres. In Toronto’s case, though, it provides a splashy big-city platform, it has the disadvantage of following immediately on the heels of Venice (the world’s oldest festival) and Telluride. There are stories that TIFF is starting to use its muscle to avoid being scooped for premiere buzz by these rivals. Still it lost out on one of the year’s most highly anticipated films, Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman (to be released in late October), which premiered at Venice to rave reviews while skipping Toronto altogether.

It’s also the case that the world’s most prestigious film festival in Cannes doesn’t have a lock on the cream of the year’s art films. Sundance premiered Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the best-reviewed movie of recent decades. The film that has impressed me most since then, Susanne Bier’s A Second Chance, had its world premiere at Toronto. More about it below. Toronto remains the North American launchpad for many of the best Cannes features, notably the 196-minute palme d’or winner Winter Sleep from Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan. But several Cannes competition selections had such negative receptions they were passed on altogether. That included The Captive by Toronto’s own Atom Egoyan, which opened in Canadian theatres the same week as the festival in a vain attempt to coincide with its cachet. There’s a reason it scores a dismal 19 per cent on

Speaking of directorial misses, it pains me to observe that the latest from Quebec veteran Denys Arcand, La règne de la beauté (An Eye for Beauty), was the worst film I saw at TIFF, and certainly the worst of his illustrious career. This at a time when a new wave of Quebec directors are being courted by Hollywood and making major American movies in English. Even without Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy), three received high-profile presentations at TIFF: Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, Philippe Falardeau’s The Good Lie, and François Girard’s Boychoir. So far the youngest and most daring, actor-director Xavier Dolan, whose Mommy was a TIFF selection that shared the jury prize at Cannes, hasn’t taken that route though it’s hard to imagine offers are not being made.

The Canadian content deserves further comment but I promised a highlight reel from the festival as a whole. What follows are my top five dramas and some most memorable performances. I’ll continue with more noteworthy features next week.

A Second Chance (Denmark)
Along with Iranian Asghar Farhadi (A Separation), no director working today explores domestic moral dilemmas with a more penetrating gaze than Susanne Bier. Collaborating again with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, her latest feature focuses on two troubled couples and their infant sons. The central figure is police officer Andreas (a commanding performance by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who seems happily married with a beautiful wife Anne and first child Alexander. When Andreas and his unhappy divorced partner Simon bust in on a violent junkie, Tristan, and his girlfriend Sanne, they discover a badly neglected baby boy, Sofus. A traumatic crib death leads Andreas to a desperate action that is followed by a suicide and a still more shocking revelation. As terrible as are the losses Andreas suffers, he will find some solace in the reunion of a mother with her son. Bier won the 2011 best foreign-language Oscar for In a Better World and this intense brilliant work is equally deserving.

A SECOND CHANCE — Susanne Bier, director of the film A Second Chance, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau who stars in the film, are seen at the Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 9. (Schmitz photo)

Labyrinth of Lies (Germany)
Director Giulio Ricciarelli’s impressive first film tells the little-known backstory to what became the 1963 Auschwitz trials in a postwar Germany where many in positions of power were opposed to pursuing the perpetrators of Nazi atrocities. Indeed not a few had an interest in covering up their complicity. Spurred by a crusading journalist with his own secret, it took a junior prosecutor in Frankfurt, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), to start the monumental search effort in 1958, battling his bosses and colleagues, but backed by the Jewish District Attorney Fritz Bauer. Radmann’s obsession with capturing notorious concentration camp doctor Joseph Mengele adds to the high-stakes atmosphere of detection and prosecution.

The Humbling (U.S.)
In Barry Levinson’s adaptation of the eponymous Philip Roth novel, veteran Al Pacino delivers a master class in acting as washed-up shambolic actor Simon Axler who literally falls off the stage. After a spell in a psych ward and a commitment to therapy and giving up formal acting, he enters into an oddly affecting relationship with the lesbian daughter Pegeen (Greta Gerwig) of friends who don’t approve. It makes for a terrifically witty scenario. And for Simon, as the boundary between illusion and reality blurs, acting is like breathing right up to the final Lear-like exit.

Mr. Turner (U.K.)
Everything about British master director Mike Leigh’s period drama about the great English painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) is impeccable, including Timothy Spall’s performance in the title role, which earned the best actor prize at Cannes. Communicating mostly in guttural grunts and snorts, this Mr. Turner is hardly a gentleman — especially toward the women of his own family and devoted female housekeeper — yet finds comfort in the arms of a widow amid landscapes that evoke his most famous works. Spall and the stunning cinematography do justice to his difficult genius.

Phoenix (Germany)
Director Christian Petzold again casts the great Nina Hoss (Barbara) in this searing drama inspired by a 1946 French novel about a concentration camp survivor’s search for her husband Johnny amid the ruins of Berlin. Presumed dead, Nelly Lenz (Hoss), a former singer, stands to inherit her family’s wealth. She has been terribly disfigured and so, in the care of Jewish friend Lene, undergoes extensive facial reconstruction, after which the plan is to go to Israel. But when Nelly discovers Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) working in the Phoenix nightclub, he fails to recognize her, instead scheming how to use her to get the money. Nelly goes along with the deception until, accepting the terrible truth and its consequences, her voice rises in song from the ashes of betrayal to a heartstopping climax.

Several more outstanding performances deserve special mention:

Juliette Binoche is exceptional as an insecure fading actress in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, and Kristen Stewart and Chloé Grace Moretz are also excellent as, respectively, her outspoken assistant and an upstart young actress cast to play a role she made famous.

Julianne Moore was named best actress at Cannes for David Cronenberg’s scathing Maps to the Stars, but she may get Oscar attention for a more sympathetic role as a college professor coping with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice.

Reese Witherspoon seems certain of a nomination for her gruelling physical and emotional performance in Wild as a young woman battling her demons through an arduous Pacific Coast hike.

The same goes for Eddie Redmayne in James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything playing the role of brilliant death-defying physicist Stephen Hawking from his Cambridge student days and soulmate marriage to Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), to his diagnosis of terminal motor-neuron disease and amazing continuing triumph of mind over degenerative disability. I found the movie rather sketchy but there’s no denying Redmayne’s remarkable achievement.

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