September 18, 2013

2013 Toronto International Film Festival Capsule Reviews

As promised, for your cutting and saving needs, my consolidated (and, in a few cases, slightly reconsidered) capsule reviews from the just-passed 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

Events cut my movie count to only 37 this time, so drawing conclusions from my slate of choices is even more of a mug’s game than usual. As expected it was a great year for genre, with two of my top three and many more of my recommended titles bringing an arty take to nerdospheric tropes. Maybe it means something that I saw only two duds, and nothing in between dud and okay. But probably not.

Titles appear in rough order of preference, but often with little to separate the first entry in a category from the last. That’s what categories are all about, people.

The Best

Under the Skin [UK, Jonathan Glazer] Alien invader in seductive human disguise  (Scarlett Johansson) drives around Scotland harvesting victims. Mind-blowing images and music weave a freaky sci-fi tone poem.

Only Lovers Left Alive [US, Jim Jarmusch] Married vampires Adam and Eve (Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston) reunite after a long time apart in his guitar-festooned Detroit hideout. Funny, magical meditation on the power of culture in a world of decay. With Mia Wiaskowska as the trouble-bringing baby sister vampire and William Hurt as Christopher Marlowe.

We Are the Best! [Sweden, Lukas Moodyson] Trio of teen girl outsiders starts a punk band. Richly observant tribute to the twin powers of rock and girlhood without a false note—except for the ones the band makes.

Recommended

Intruders [South Korea, Noh Young-seok] Screenwriter's attempts to work in isolation at a closed B&B are thwarted first by comic impositions, then a more sinister turn of events. Adroitly shifts tones and genres not once, which is hard enough, but twice.

R100 [Japan, Hitoshi Matsumoto] Matters go from kinky to sinister to surreal when a sad single dad enlists an S&M service to add dominatrix attacks to his everyday life. Starts as a mix of offbeat comedy and family drama, only to reveal successive new levels of batshit insanity.

Soul [Taiwan, Chung Mong-Hong] When his son murders his daughter, an elderly orchid farmer, believing he has a csae of ghost possession on his hands, goes to extremes to cover it up. Visually stunning, occasionally funny or violent, cryptic Zen koan of a film.

Bastards [France, Claire Denis] Returned sailor's investigation of the financier who horrifically abused his niece includes an affair with the mother of the man's child. Haunting Get Carter variation from France's greatest working director.

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears [Belgium, Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani] No matter how many times he gets horribly murdered, a man who thinks his wife has disappeared plumbs the secrets of his bizarre art nouveau apartment building. Gorgeous, crazed tribute to 70s Italian horror tantalizes with the possibility that it will resolve into a comprehensible narrative. It's giallo as Jorge Luis Borges would have written it.

Club Sandwich [Mexico, Fernando Eimbcke] Off-season hotel vacation for  hot mom and the 16-year-old son she treats a bit like a husband turns uncomfortable when he meets a girl his own age. Minimalist comedy of emotional boundary adjustment.

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker [Bosnia-Herzegovina, Danis Tanovic] Roma scrap metal salvager runs out of options when the hospital demands payment he can't afford before performing life-saving post-miscarriage surgery for his wife. Rarely has the matter-of-fact slice-of-life style been deployed to such gut-wrenching effect.

I Am Yours [Norway, Iram Haq]  Aspiring actress (Amrita Acharia) pursues her yearning for sexual connection despite her duties as a joint-custodial parent and the condemnation of her Pakistani immigrant family. Raw-nerved  drama, driven by a bravura performance, shows how much harder we find it to watch a female protagonist compelled to make self-destructive decisions.

Bad Hair [Venezuela, Marina Rondón] Hard-pressed projects dweller pushes back against her willful prepubescent son's incipient gayness, as exemplified by his yen for straightened hair. Keenly observed drama of family love and resentment in an unforgiving environment.

The Amazing Catfish [Mexico, Claudia Sainte-Luce] Isolated young woman befriends a dying woman and her fractious brood of kids. Drama told with a an honesty and simplicity that keeps it well clear of tearjerker territory.

Cannibal [Spain, Manuel Martín Cuenca] Quiet serial killer develops confusing feelings for the sister of his latest victim, who meets him while investigating her disappearance. Calmly gripping thriller turns the introvert-comes-out-of-shell movie on its head, by making it about a protagonist who kills and eats women.

Heart of a Lion [Finland, Dome Karukoski] Neo-Nazi reconsiders his ways as he struggles to connect with his new girlfriend's biracial son. Deftly portrayed drama of redemption.

Quai d’Orsay [France, Bertrand Tavernier] Bright-eyed new speechwriter to a pompous, highlighter-loving Foreign Minister learns the governmental ropes as he preps him for a UN address. Hilarious Gallic counterpart to In the Loop, but with less swearing and more emphasis on clothes.

Friends from France [France, Anne Weil & Philippe Kotlarski] Cousins pretending to be on an engagement trip to Brezhnev-era Russia make covert contact with a famous refusenik. Makes late Soviet drabness photographically compelling as it intertwines political idealism and personal betrayal.

Unbeatable [HK, Dante Lam] Disgraced former boxing champion forms an unlikely surrogate family and trains a determined young underdog for an MMA tournament. Brings charm, color, humor and nail-biting ring action to the classic beats of the fight melodrama.

Witching & Bitching [Spain, Alex de Iglesia] Jewelry store robbers with kid in tow take wrong turn into mountain village run by cannibal witch cult. Horror-comedy-action romps its cartoony way through the battle of the sexes.

Why Don’t You Play In Hell? [Japan, Sion Sono] Yakuza boss in a war with another clan wants his bad-ass daughter to be the lead in a finished movie in ten days, when his even more formidable wife gets out of prison. Gonzo cult comedy skewers unhinged film ambition as it builds to a jaw-dropping final act of slapstick hyper-violence.

Cold Eyes [South Korea, Cho Ui-seok & Kim Byung-seo] Police surveillance team plays cat-and-mouse with a criminal mastermind who works from a distance. Reconfigures the hot Hong Kong action of 2007’s Eye in the Sky into chilly Seoul paranoia.

Bastardo [Tunisia, Nejib Belkadhi] Meek resident of walled, gang-run neighborhood upends its balance of power by allowing the installation of a cell phone tower on his roof. Pointed allegory with touches of magical realism.

All About the Feathers [Costa Rica, Neto Villalobos] Oddball security guard's newly purchased gamecock spurs the friendship of a motley group. Deadpan Kaurismakian vignettes drive the sweetest cockfighting flick ever.

Horns [US, Alexandre Aja] DJ wrongly accused of murder (Daniel Radcliffe) grows a set of horns granting him the power to provoke unseemly confessions. Energetically tackles the fantasy elements of the Joe Hill source novel, even if, like any film adapted from a murder mystery, it struggles to maintain momentum within a flashback-heavy structure.

The Double [UK, Richard Ayoade] Milquetoast office drone (Jesse Eisenberg) befriends new co-worker, a confident, charismatic dead ringer for himself. Deadpan comedy of dissociation deeply steeped in Joe Versus the Volcano, Brazil, and the offbeat side of 80s indie cinema.

Good

Trap Street [China, Vivian Qu] Trainee digital surveyor who moonlights as an installer of surveillance cameras pursues a pretty girl who works on a street that doesn't show up on maps. Treats a Hitchcockian premise with naturalistic realism, observing the corrosiveness of life under omnipresent state observation.

American Dreams in China [HK, Peter Ho-Sun Chan] Three buddies embody the Chinese economic boom as they build an English language class that meets in a KFC into a business empire. Fast-moving celebration of ambition and friendship.

The Bit Player [Philippines, Jeffrey Jeturian] Longstanding soap opera extra with more perserverance than talent  navigates the highs and lows of a rough day on set. Amiable backstage comedy with just the right touch of pathos.

Blind Detective [HK, Johnnie To] Raffish blind P.I. (Andy Lau) teaches athletic policewoman (Sammi Cheng) the secrets of deduction. Broad buddy cop rom-com has of To working in the mode of his big domestic hits.

We Gotta Get Out of This Place [US, Simon & Zeke Hawkins] Handsome lunk in small-town Texas drags his college-bound girl and best friend into a gangland robbery. Debut directors make efficient use of shoestring resources and show their good taste in crime flick influences.

Of Good Report [South Africa, Jahmil X.T. Qubeka] High school teacher whose resume looks good on paper embarks on an affair with a student, to unhinged results. Histrionic crime film in scabrous B&W feels like its young director is smashing the prevailing aesthetic of African cinema in the face with a hammer bequeathed to him by Sam Fuller.

Okay

The Sacrament [US, Ti West] Events shift from unease to worse when a VICE crew visits expatriate religious compound in Central America. Redeploys the indestructible found footage technique to reimagine a real-life horror.

All Cheerleaders Die [US, Lucky McKee & Chris Sivertson] A spell brings cheerleaders murdered by the football captain back from the dead, hungry for blood and vengeance. Hybrid zombie-vampire flick with satirical overtones makes hay with high school sexual politics.

Standing Aside, Watching [Greece, Yorgos Servetas] Tough-minded woman newly moved back to her crappy hometown learns that her childhood friend and young new guy are both on thrall to the local psycho. Smalltown noir informed by the Greek economic meltdown delivers more slow burn than its ending can pay off.

This is Sanlitun [China, Robert I. Douglas] Clueless prat comes from England to Beijing to make his fortune and win back his ex-wife and son. Mockumentary of expat life in the new China owes its style to Ricky Gervais.

Duds

Ningen [Japan, Guillaume Giovanetti and Cagla Zencirci] The lives of a failed CEO, his ill wife and a strip club owner mirror a classic folk tale. Brief flashes of magic can't save an enervatingly padded storyline whose protagonist does not develop a propelling motivation until the end of act two.

Story of My Death [Spain, Albert Serra] Casanova idylls in a Swiss chateau, then a Carpathian village in the shadow of Dracula's castle. Languid mood piece could be made interesting, maybe even compelling, by any first year film editing student willing to cut the 60 minutes of superfluous material from its 2 1/2 hr running time.

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