As promised, here is my full list of capsule reviews for films seen at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. They appear in rough order of preference, though there’s not much difference between movies listed within each category. A year from now I might remember them differently and rank them in a slightly different order. Weirdly attentive readers will note that I have reassigned ratings to a few items, mostly upwards.
I found last year’s TIFF surprisingly weak. 2018 came roaring back with an unusually strong roster—more masterpieces than usual, and fewer duds. Of the films I didn’t care for, I found nothing deserving of the dreaded Ire-Inspiring rating.
I’m not the only one writing a round-up article who found it a banner year. Buzzed about titles I didn’t catch include Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, which came out of nowhere to win the People’s Choice Award and launch itself into the Oscar race. Also garnering raves were A Star is Born, If Beale Street Could Talk, Roma, Widows, and First Man, all of which are headed for release between now and the end of the year. So expect a tough time ordering your 2018 top ten lists.
A few of the titles below will also appear in that window. Others will make their way to theatrical release and then disc and/or streaming over the next year or so. These days even the obscurer items become available in some form or another. If your local library allows you to subscribe to the Kanopy streaming service, you’ll find that a rich source of past festival films that at one time would have played only that circuit before disappearing into obscurity.
ANIARA (Sweden, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja) When a luxury mass transport ship taking passengers to Mars from a ravaged Earth goes off course, a mediator of computer-assisted hallucinations struggles to keep hope alive. Surprising, multi-layered, emotionally resonant SF recalls Ballard and Kubrick while maintaining its own distinctive vision.
Shadow (China, Zhang Yimou) In defiance of his king, a commoner trained to pose as a secretly wounded general prepares for deadly and politically destabilizing duel. Stately court intrigue lays the groundwork for stunningly executed, outlandish action.
Shoplifters (Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda) Family that supplements its scant income by stealing from stores takes in a preschooler without informing her abusive parents. All the more heartbreaking for the perfect delicacy of its execution.
Burning (South Korea, Lee Chang-dong) Aspiring writer obligated to return to his dad’s crummy farm loses his new girl to a mysterious rich dude (Steven Yeun.) Sublime and ambiguous suspense film that keeps the viewer questioning the nature of its central mystery. Yeun’s casual, collected menace makes him a bad guy for the ages.
High Life (France, Claire Denis) Death row inmates, including a monkish resister (Robert Pattinson) and a controlling scientist (Juliette Binoche) take a one-way spaceship journey beyond the solar system to send astronavigational and reproductive data back to Earth. Hypnotic and distressing, horrible and beautiful vision of hijacked fecundity.
Vision (Japan, Naomi Kawase) Forester (Masatoshi Nagase) working a pristine mountainside receives a visit from a French writer (Juliette Binoche) searching for Vision, a herb that cures human pain. Gorgeous and deeply enigmatic exploration of the director’s key theme of mystical communion with nature.
The Crossing (China, Bai Xue) To earn money for a trip to Japan with her rich friend, a go-getting teen who commutes from the mainland to school in Hong Kong involves herself in contraband phone smuggling. Naturalistic drama with crime in it, elevated by the director’s buoyant lightness of touch and exquisite color sense.
Asako I & II (Japan, Ryusuke Hamaguchi) Reserved coffee shop clerk avoids telling her new boyfriend that he’s a dead ringer for her swoon-worthy first love, who up and vanished on her two and a half years ago. Truffautesque comedy-drama manages something even rarer than a successful tone shift—a subtle successful tone shift.
Border (Sweden, Ali Abbasi) Customs officer whose ability to smell fear and shame makes her a standout at her job feels a powerful attraction for a traveler whose Neanderthal-like features resemble her own. Beguiling weird tale framed, lit and edited in the style of a social realist drama.
Cities of Last Things (Taiwan, Ho Wi Ding) An ex-cop’s violent vengeance in a cyberpunk future is later explained by events occurring to his younger selves in our present and past.
Her Smell (US, Alex Ross Perry) Fading rocker (Elizabeth Moss) rides a wave of cocaine and megalomania to an epic flame-out. Rock ‘n’ roll drama amped up by stylized dialogue, roving handheld camera, strong performances from a great cast and a score that bubbles with unease. With Eric Stoltz, Virginia Madsen, Dan Stevens and Cara Delevingne.
Complicity (Japan, Kei Chikaura) Young Chinese man working illegally in Japan lies his way into a trainee chef post at a Soba restaurant. Understated drama of work and worth earns its emotions honestly.
Killing (Japan, Shinya Tsukamoto) Young ronin, recruited by an older samurai, discovers that his skill with a practice sword does not prepare him for the visceral horror of death-dealing. Tsukamoto reforges the samurai film into the pattern of his signature early works—an initiatory rite of extreme physical mortification.
The Quietude (Argentina, Pablo Trapero,4) When their father’s stroke reunited two strangely intimate sisters at the family ranch, dark secrets start to spill. Particularly steamy contribution to the venerable tradition of wrapping barbed political commentary in outré melodrama.
Edge of the Knife (Canada, Gwaai Edenshaw & Helen Haig-Brown) After a canoeing accident. a fisherman transforms into a gaagiixiid, or wildman. Mythic storytelling recreates the material culture and rhythms of traditional life in 19th century Haida Gwai. In the endangered Haida language.
Screwball (US, Billy Corben) Documentary uses an array of zingy devices, most notably reenactments with child actors playing its stable of miscreants, to recount the baseball doping scandal arising from a Miami clinic run by self-styled “unlicensed physician” Tony Bosch. Its satirical presentation of factual material is both formally innovative and entirely fitting to the High Florida subject matter.
Legend of the Demon Cat (China, Chen Kaige) A supernatural feline is killing its way through the Tang Dynasty royal court—and only a cashiered scribe and an exorcist monk can solve the mystery behind it. An extravagant, theatrical farrago of color and movement celebrates the realm of illusion—which is to say, the medium of film itself.
Non-Fiction (France, Olivier Assayas) Shop talk and debate about the digital future of the book industry act as the text for a publisher (Guillaume Canet), his wife (Juliette Binoche) a novelist (Vincent Macaigne), and their circle, with infidelity the subtext. Affectionate satire of the intelligentsia is formally conventional except for one factor—having its people talk about the things they would actually talk about.
Maya (France, Mia Hansen-Løve) Journalist freed from hostage ordeal in Syria heads to Goa to clear his head and develops a bond with the daughter of a family friend. Invisibly tight editing ensures that “languorous” is by not a code word for “boring” in this experiential drama about healing and love.
The Realm (Spain, Rodrigo Sorogoyen) Bullheaded cabinet minister (Antonio de la Torre) maneuvers to save himself from fall guy status in a corruption scandal. Crackling political thriller driven by a propulsive score and a barnburner performance from de la Torre.
The Accused (Argentina, Gonzalo Tobal) Upper middle class family endures the pressure cooker of the college-age daughter’s media circus murder trial. Though the suspense revolves around the courtroom scenes, the family’s emotional world takes the main focus here.
The Wedding Guest (UK, Michael Winterbottom) Kidnapper-for-hire (Dev Patel) goes to Pakistan to abduct a young woman (Radhika Apte) on the eve of a forced marriage, so she can be reunited with her Anglo-Indian boyfriend. South Asian setting finds a fresh spin on the fugitive couple sub-genre, abetted by Winterbottom’s usual flair for atmospherics.
Diamantino (Portugal, Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt) Dim-witted soccer star who visualizes his victories as a cloud of giant fluffy puppies finds a new concern for refugees and becomes the cloning target of an ethnonationalist conspiracy. Carloto Cotta joins the all-time ranks of hunky idiots in this kooky satire.
Kingsway (Canada, Bruce Sweeney) Depressive semiotics prof whose mom and sister are wildly over-involved in his life spirals when he spots his wife’s motorbike parked outside the titular nookie motel. Sex farce of neurotic boundary trampling dispenses sharp dialogue at a near-Hawksian clip.
Helmet Heads (Chile/Costa Rica, Neto Villalobo) Motorbike courier must choose between the freedom and camaraderie of his job and his girlfriend’s request that he move with her to a crummy island. Wry proletarian comedy with a fun rock n roll soundtrack.
Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (Canada, Jennifer Baichwal & Nicholas de Pencier & Edward Burtynsky) Documentary prowls the world depicting the massive scale of Homo sapiens’ alterations to the planetary environment. Titanic in its scope and paradoxical in the beauty of its hellishness—though the narration does not grapple with the way its visual language portrays humanity as a destructive invasive species in need of dramatic culling.
Ulysses & Mona (France, Sébastien Betbeder) Art student seeking challenge (Manal Issa) appoints herself assistant to a gruff retired artist (Eric Cantona) as he finds reason for an amends tour. Charming comedy-drama with flashes of Jarmuschian eccentricity.
Tel Aviv on Fire (Palestine/Israel, Sameh Zoabi) Suddenly elevated to writer status on the titular Palestinian soap opera, erstwhile production assistant enters into an uncredited collaboration with the Israeli commander of the Ramallah checkpoint. Uses the backstage comedy genre, with writing jokes galore, to address the Occupation with neither despair nor false idealism.
Florianópolis Dream (Argentina, Ana Katz) Separated couple, both psychologists, take a Brazilian vacation with their teenage son and daughter, falling into the beach bum community of the oddball dude who rents them a house. Low-key observational comedy of a family drifting apart.
Fig Tree (Ethiopia/Israel, Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian) As conditions worsen in the 1989 civil war and soldiers start rounding up boys to fight, a hotheaded Ethiopian Jewish teen cares more about her boyfriend’s safety than her family’s impending emigration. Though the product of the Israeli film industry, this memoiristic drama hews in every aesthetic sense to the African cinema tradition.
aKasha (Sudan/Germany, hajooj kuka) With the rainy season over and the fighting season starting up again, local lothario Adnan drags his heels in rejoining the rebels fighting Sudan’s Islamic regime. Picaresque comedy suggests that low-intensity warfare is now woven into the fabric of village life.
The Factory (Russia, Yury Bykov) Aggrieved workers kidnap the local oligarch after he announced the shuttering of their deteriorating factory. Knows that the key to a hostage flick is to keep changing the status quo, so it never devolves into a static situation.
Girls of the Sun (France, Eva Husson) Traumatized war correspondent (Emanuelle Bercot) covers an all-woman unit of Yazidi partisans as they fight alongside the Peshmerga to liberate a city held by their former ISIS captors. The standout set-piece of this ripped-from-the-headlines feminist war movie is the gripping extended flashback depicting the escape of the protagonist from her captors.
Heartbound (Denmark, Janus Metz & Sine Plambech, 3.5) Documentary follows 10 years in the lives of Thai women who marry men in a northern Danish fishing town. Starts by showing that these relationships are more nuanced than you might want to assume, before discovering that life will get you no matter where you go.
The Man Who Feels No Pain (India, Vasan Bala, 3.5) Dweeby boy with a condition that blocks his pain receptors grows up, learns martial arts, and vows to fight crime. Self-referential comedy action that bogs down in the middle with an unneeded, tone-breaking complication of its romantic subplot.
Emu Runner (Australia, Imogen Thomas, 3.5) 9 year old aboriginal girl copes with her mom’s death by skipping school to bond with a wild emu. Sweet-natured family drama created in collaboration with the community of Brewanna in rural New South Wales.
The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia (Cuba, Arturo Infante, 3.5) Kindly, long-suffering planetarium docent receives a special invitation from the aliens living secretly among the Cuban people to travel to their homeworld. Amiable, somewhat ramshackle comedy pokes fun at human foibles and bureaucratic absurdity.
Woman at War (Iceland, Benedikt Erlingsson) Choir leader who doubles as an eco warrior aims for one last attack against the power grid before heading to Ukraine to meet her new adopted daughter. Though not without charm, never quite locks into a comic style or point of view.
The Sweet Requiem (India, Ritu Sarin & Tenzing Sonam) The arrival of an activist refugee in Delhi’s Tibetan community awakens traumatic memories of a beautician’s childhood border crossing. Flashbacks of the frigid mountain journey land with greater force than the present day plot line, which waits until the third act to activate its protagonist.
Mothers’ Instinct (Belgium, Olivier Masset-Depasse) After her best friend’s young son dies in an accident, a 50s housewife comes to suspect that the woman has sinister designs on her family. Otherwise assured Hitchcock homage winds up breaking the thriller contract in a way Hitch would never have signed off on.
Hidden Man (China, Jiang Wen) Hamlet-like martial artist (Eddie Peng) returns to 30s Beijing to seek vengeance against the Chinese cop and Japanese officer who killed his family. Wastes Peng’s action talents on a plodding script padded with endless scenes in which the characters talk about what they might do, instead of doing things.
ENDZEIT - EVER AFTER (Germany, Carolina Hellsgård) Callous survivor and traumatized psych patient try to make it from Weimar to the only other city not destroyed in the zombie apocalypse. Somber mood piece with slow pacing and arbitrary plotting.
Museum (Mexico, Alonso Ruizpalacios) Hothead veterinary student (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his easily buffaloed sidekick heist the most famous treasures of Mayan art from Mexico City’s Anthropology Museum. Tackles its recreation of a real life idiot plot by distancing itself from its protagonist, a choice that might have made sense in theory but falls flat in practice.
Jinpa (Tibet, Pema Tseden) Truck driver on the bleak high plateau of Tibet picks up a man with the same name, who is going to town to kill the man who murdered his father. Though this inexplicably won a best screenplay award at Venice, there’s only enough incident here for a short.