It’s the Monday after the Toronto International Film Festival, which means it’s time for me to once again bundle my capsule reviews into an omnibus edition for your clipping and saving enjoyment.
My personal programming focuses mostly on items that mostly don’t have distribution (or didn’t when the schedule was announced three weeks back.) Judging from press response it was also a good year for films I didn’t catch. Titles garnering buzz included Jojo Rabbit, Hustlers (already in wide release), A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Judy, Sound of Metal, and the divisive Joker. I’m particularly stoked to catch Parasite, Dolemite Is My Name, Bad Education, Portrait of a Lady On Fire, The Laundromat, Pain and Glory, Marriage Story, and Platform.
But back to the films I did see. These are ranked from greatest to least, with titles mostly in order within categories, although that doesn’t mean much and could easily change were I to assemble this document again. Watch cinemas, streaming platforms and even good old physical media over the next year and a while for these titles to wend their way to you.
La Belle Epoque [France, Nicolas Bedos] Aging cartoonist (Daniel Auteuil) on the outs with his wife (Fanny Ardant) uses a high end historical recreation service to visit the days in 1974 when they first met and fell in love. Propulsive, funny, moving farce where, instead of doors, the characters rush between memories and layers of fiction.
Love Child [Denmark, Eva Mulvad] Because their adulterous relationship is punishable by death, a couple flees Iran to Turkey, where they seek refugee status and permission to live in a safe country. Fly-in-the wall documentary places you inside the subjects’ family life, with emotional rollercoaster suspense as they wait for the UNHCR to determine their fate.
So Long, My Son [China, Wang Xiaoshuai] A cruel decision made under the One Child policy compounds a family tragedy, reverberating through the decades for a working couple and their circle. Saga of the effect of the political on the personal in fragmented time from the 80s to the present.
Color Out of Space [US, Richard Stanley] Cozy family life for a cancer survivor (Joely Richardson) and her ex-artist hubbie (Nicolas Cage) on a farm an hour’s drive from Arkham takes a terrible turn when a glowing meteor strikes their property. Exhilarating, funny, horrible, and packed with reference points for the cognoscenti,, this is Stanley’s best film and the most philosophically faithful Lovecraft adaptation.
The Truth [France/Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda] Legendary actress (Catherine Deneuve) launches her memoir and shoots a role opposite an intimidating new star as her resentful screenwriter daughter (Juliet Binoche) and her husband (Ethan Hawke) come to visit. Funny, beautiful tribute to French cinema and showcase to an actor even more legendary than her character.
A Girl Missing [Japan, Koji Fukada] Nurse’s tangential connection to the kidnapping of a client’s granddaughter later leads her to assume a new identity in pursuit of an enigmatic plan. Twisting psychological thriller generates suspense by interweaving a past and a present timeline and making us wonder how they’re going to connect up.
A Sun [Taiwan, Chung Mong-Hong] High schooler’s juvenile detention sentence strains his family, particularly his relationship with his father, a truculent driving instructor. Bittersweet family drama with a noirish fourth act.
Ema [Chile, Pablo Larrain] Seductive dancer (Mariana di Girolamo) married to insecure choreographer (Gael Garcia Bernal) tries to regain custody of the boy they returned to the adoption agency after he burned her sister’s face. Unnerving, visually arresting, sex-drenched Bunuelian provocation.
Wasp Network [France, Olivier Assayas] In the early 90s, a Cuban pilot (Edgar Ramirez) defects to Miami, leaving behind his patriotic wife (Penelope Cruz) and entering into a web of terrorism and covert counterterrorism. Ensemble spy docudrama tackles a dauntingly detailed real story with a tapestry-like screenplay structure that keeps resetting itself to introduce new allegiances and agendas.
Jallikattu [Malaysia, Lijo Jose Pellissery] Chaos erupts when villagers try to recapture a rampaging water buffalo. Kinetic action spectacle where man vs beast devolves into man vs man, driven ever foreward by massed bodies in motion, a roving camera, quick cuts, masterful compositions and a propulsive score.
Incitement [Israel, Yaron Zilberman] Right-wing student activist opposed to democracy and the Oslo Accord pursues the justifications he requires to act on his plan to assassinate Yitzhak Rabin. Political crime docudrama depicts Benjamin Netanyahu as a key contributor to the atmosphere of permission leading to Rabin’s murder.
Varda by Agnes [France, Agnes Varda]. Documentary self-summation of the director’s body of work in cinema and installation art, expanded from a series of masterclasses shot prior to her death this March. Reveals the formal rigor underlying the apparent lightness of her style.
Devil Between the Legs [Mexico, Arturo Ripstein] Even in old age, a retired pharmacist and his wife remain tormented by lust, memories, and one another. Caustic B&W drama of passion twisted into hate.
La Llorona [Guatemala, Jayro Bustamante] An ex-dictator let off the hook for genocide becomes the target of unearthly retribution. Engrossing mix of political drama and horror follows the classic tradition of using genre as a bearable way of approaching the unbearable.
Saturday Fiction [China, Lou Ye] Famed actress (Gong Li) returns to occupied Shanghai to run one last op for her French spymaster (Pascal Greggory) aimed at a Japanese cipher officer (Odagiri Jo.) A tale of hazy, shifting identities in deglamorized B&W, culminating in gripping ballistics.
First Love [Japan, Takashi Miike] Young boxer with brain tumor diagnosis protects a hallucinating trafficking victim as a drug ripoff gone wrong touches off a chaotic gang war. This outing finds the prolific master of all genres (mostly) coloring within the lines of the hard action-comedy.
Deerskin [France, Quentin Dupieux] Aided by an aspiring film editor (Adéle Haenel), a man fleeing a failed marriage (Jean Dujardin) goes to extremes to fulfill his costly fringed coat’s dream of being the only jacket in the world. Absurdist fable, in desaturates, autumnal hues, about…well you don’t need me to spell out such an obvious metaphor, do you?
To the Ends of the Earth [Japan, Kiyoshi Kurosawa] Logistical setbacks and microhumiliations beset a young TV presenter shooting a travelogue in Uzbekistan. Like other Kurosawa titles this episodic mood piece feels slight at first but leaves images that grow in power retrospectively.
Crazy World [Uganda, IGG Nabwana] Ex-cop and martial artist team up to rescue victims of a child sacrifice ring. Exuberant, kooky, zero budget action comedy with kid fu, homemade CGI, blood squibs and voice-over from a VJ (Video Joker) who explains, mocks, and hypes the proceedings onscreen, sometimes intoning “Movie! Movie! Movie!”
Lina from Lima [Argentina, María Paz González] As she looks after her rich boss’ new house and awaits a Christmas trip to see her family in Peru, a beleaguered maid’s mounting frustrations manifest as fantasized musical numbers. Drama of everyday yearning heightened by the interplay of naturalism and artifice.
No.7 Cherry Lane [HK, Yonfan] In 1967 Hong Kong, a student courts a woman (Sylvia Chang) who has hired him to tutor his daughter by taking her to Simone Signoret films. Metatextual cel-animated melodrama explores the role heterosexual romance plays in gay aestheticism.
Heroic Losers [Argentina, Sebastian Borensztein] Crew of everyday Joes led by local hero gas station owner (Ricardo Darin) scheme to empty a vault belonging to the corrupt official who ripped them off during Argentina’s 2001 banking collapse. Charming rural heist flick uses the power of pop cinema to recuperate from national catastrophe.
Bring Me Home [South Korea, Kim Seung-woo] Nurse’s search for her missing young son takes her to a rural village where fishing tour operators protected by a corrupt cop exploit the labor of a couple of kids. Bars no holds in pursuit of physically and emotionally brutal thrills.
City Dream [China, Weijun Chen] Bemused and/or frustrated Wuhan city inspectors try to relocate a family’s unlicensed sidewalk fruit stall in the face of relentless resistance from its tantrum-throwing grandfather. Verité documentary’s study of underdogs against putatively benign authority presents human comedy with an under-layer of pathos.
Dogs Don't Wear Pants [Finland, J-P Valkeapää] Still shut down years after his wife’s suicide, a heart surgeon seeks strange solace as client to a dominatrix. Twisted but humane drama of grief and healing.
Sea Fever [Ireland, Neasa Hardiman] Withdrawn oceanographer’s routine mission aboard a fishing vessel turns disastrous when a gigantic, multi-tendriled parasite affixes itself to the hull. Skillfully paced infection horror, with touches of Lovecraftian oceanic unease, explore’s the genre’s ethical implications.
The Other Lamb [Belgium/Poland/US, Malgorzata Szumowska] The onset of puberty changes everything for a young member of an isolated cult (Raffey Cassidy) consisting of the many wives and daughters of a charismatic leader (Michiel Huisman.) Set in a landscape of stark and forbidding beauty, this hits the baked-in beats of a cult liberation drama with an emphasis on the role of womens’ devotion in sustaining patriarchy.
Coming Home Again [US, Wayne Wang] Tightly wound writer (Justin Chen) returns to San Francisco to care for his cancer stricken mom (Jackie Chung), despite her and his dad’s worries over the effect this will have on his career. Contemplative drama of love, resentment, and the emotional weight of getting the food right.
Wet Season [Singapore, Anthony Chen] High school teacher in a stagnating marriage bonds with a student who has a crush on her. Through delicate bservation, painstakingly draws the viewer along a heavily telegraphed narrative.
The Moneychanger [Uruguay, Federico Veiroj] 70s money launderer gets in over his head after accepting huge sums from mysterious Argentinians. Crime dramedy works as an inverted Goodfellas, in which the anti-hero narrating his career of illegality starts as a schnook and mostly stays that way through his ups and downs.
The Traitor [Italy, Marco Bellochio] After his sons are slain in a 1980 Palermo gang war, a top soldier cooperates in a mass trial that spirals into histrionic chaos. Mafia docudrama embraces the tone shifts, narrative sidetracks and wild implausibilities of a landmark historical case.
Gundala [Indonesia, Joko Anwar] Orphaned urchin grows up to discover his lightning-based fighting and healing powers, putting them to use against a sinister counterpart. Kicks off a cinematic universe adapted from an Indonesian comic continuity with labored exposition, wild overplotting, competing structural elements, inexplicable teaser sequences for future installments—you know, like a Marvel movie.
A White, White Day [Iceland, Hlynur Pálmason] Rural cop on psych leave after his wife’s death comes to suspect that she was having an affair. Impeccably crafted Nordic bleakness drama follows a familiar thesis on the dangers of bottled-up emotion.
The Barefoot Emperor [Belgium, Jessica Woodworth & Peter Brosens] After a regrettable incident at a recreation of the Franz Ferdinand assassination, the Belgian king is confined to a sanatorium, formerly Tito’s island retreat whose head (Udo Kier) exudes a sinister solicitude. Absurdist fable of the slow-motion elite bafflement.
Three Summers [Brazil, Sandra Kogut] When her employers are busted in the Operation Car Wash bribery scandal, their resourceful chief maid steps in to protect the staff and a disregarded pater familias. Naturalistic drama with satirical undertones follows the effects of elite dereliction on the working class.
Simple Women [Italy/Romania, Chiara Malta] Novice director bumps into Elina Lowensohn, who she has idolized since her iconic role in Hal Hartley’s Simple Men, and decides to star her in a a low budget biopic about her life. The shaggy spirit of the 90s indie scene smiles on this observational meta-drama about the ways films become part of our identities.
Ibrahim: A Fate to Define [Denmark/Palestine, Lina Al Abed] Documentarian investigates the life of the father she never knew, having left his family to work for his likely eventual killers, the Abu Nidal Organization, which later (probably) executed him. As befits the subject matter, its informal interviews are less about definitive answers than coming to terms with their absence.
The Twentieth Century [Canada, Michael Rankin] Weaselly perv William Lyon MacKenzie King falls in with imperialist forces as he yearns for an icy blond harpist and aims to become Prime Minister of Canada. The stylized, ironic mantle of Guy Maddin weighs heavily on this surreal historical spoof, which runs out of joke before it runs out of run time.
Greed [UK, Michael Winterbottom] Ruthless clothing retail magnate (Steve Coogan) engineers a lavish birthday party for himself. Though structured as an antihero story, the individual scenes portray Coogan’s character as an complete villain, throwing off the emotional signals the audience needs to orient itself in the narrative.
Flatland [South Africa, Jenna Bass] Bride flees rapist husband, kills abusive pastor and goes on the lam accompanied by the trashy pregnant white girl who regards her as a sister. Ill-reconciled combination of fugitive genre and social drama modes.
The Lost Okoroshi [Nigeria, Abba Makama] Unmotivated security guard transforms into supernatural masquerade spirit, performing blessing dances for the virtuous and smiting the wicked. Satire of traditionalism’s revenge on the urban is cleverer than other Nollywood films that reach the festival circuit, but the storytelling basics still aren’t in place.
The Giant [US, David Raboy] In what might be a dream, a distorted memory or a trip into the Bardo Thodol, a southern teen processes nameless trauma involving her dead mom and troubled ex. Bearing the stylistic influences of Aronofsky and Malick, this falls prey to the standard failing of head trip films—no payoff.
Lyrebird [US, Dan Friedkin] Former Dutch resistance officer investigates artist Hans van Meegeren (Guy Pearce) for his role in selling a recently discovered Vermeer to Hermann Göring. Old-fashioned, po-faced production withholds as some kind of big revelation the one thing you definitely know about van Meegeren if you’re interested enough to see a movie about him. Pearce plays for laughs, perhaps realizing that the well-conceived version of this is a satirical caper piece.
The Antenna [Turkey, Orçun Behram] Depressed building superintendent discovers that the government satellite dish installed on the roof is threatening his tenants with a bizarre black sludge. Larry Cohen-style political allegory horror realized with the very… deliberate… pacing… typical of Turkish art cinema.