September 18, 2012

2012 Toronto International Film Festival Capsule Review Round-Up

Brain activity is slowly returning to normal after the eleven days of relentless movie-absorption that was the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. Judging both by my own picks and the critical responses to the higher-profile flicks that will be rolling out across awards season and the year to come, it was a banner year. Titles generating big buzz included The Master, Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, Thank You For Sharing, Looper, and The Place Behind the Pines. Cloud Atlas divided opinion in a way that stokes me to see it.

Here then, for your clipping and saving convenience, is my capsule review round-up of the 45 films I caught at this year’s fest. They’re ranked in rough order of preference—but bear in mind that the rankings within headers are a matter of fine differences, and will likely move about further as these pieces settle in memory. Some have already been revised upwards since my tentative number ratings in the heat of the moment.

Some of these films are shortly headed to a theater near you; most will continue through the festival circuit before going to theatrical, VOD and disc.


The Best

The Act of Killing [Denmark, Joshua Oppenheimer & Christine Cynn & Anonymous] Gangsters who acted as death squad leaders during the 1965-66 Indonesian military coup comply enthusiastically with a project to self-document their war crimes on film--complete with drag roles and a musical number. Documentary exploration of an evil that is everything but banal, and still very much in power, drops one's jaw from start to finish.

The Land of Hope [Japan, Sion Sono] After Fukushima repeats itself at another nuke plant, a farm family on the literal edge of the evacuation zone struggles with the aftermath. Sweetly drawn--and therefore, all the more harrowing.

The End of Time [Canada, Peter Mettler] Disorientingly beautiful images of the natural and man made worlds comprise a meditation on accelerated particles, island volcanism and urban decay. Unlike many documentaries, this consciousness-altering essay piece demands to be seen on the big screen.



Penance [Japan, Kiyoshi Kurosawa] A cruel promise, extracted by the mother of a murdered child from her four playmates, reverberates in all of their lives fifteen years later. Interlinked tales of fate, betrayal and murder unfold with cryptic power.

The Thieves [South Korea, Choi Dong-hoon] Heisters from Korea and Hong Kong uneasily ally to steal a diamond from a Macao casino. Cracking entertainment presents a fresh take on the genre by focusing on plots and betrayals among the gang--then throws in killer action sequences and Simon Yam, to boot!

Key of Life [Japan, Kenji Uchida] Unemployed actor steals the identity of an amnesiac hitman. Clever, charming comedy of selfhood, isolation and belonging.

Room 237 [US, Rodney Ascher] Five amateur theorists share their varying, obsessive interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Hypnotic exploration of the dissolve point where critique enters the frozen hedge maze of overthinking.

Painless [Spain, Juan Carlos Medina] Surgeon's quest for a bone marrow donor leads him to a strange case from the 30s, when a group of children were institutionalized due to a disorder rendering them immune to pain. Horror-tinged mystery takes the political themes of Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth a step further.

The Deep [Iceland, Baltasar Kormakur] Fisherman defies the odds when his ship goes down in the frigid North Atlantic. Dramatization of unbelievable real incident breaks the structural rules with surprising authority.

Something in the Air [France, Olivier Assayas] High school student navigates the contradictions of art, politics, and love in early the early 70s. Evocative autobiographical drama sticks to matter-of-fact approach, resisting the usual urges to either romanticize the era, or send it up.

Everyday [UK, Michael Winterbottom] A five-year sentence turns a man's (John Simm) relationship with his wife (Shirley Henderson) and four kids into a series of prison visits. The strength of this generous slice-of-life piece lies in the honesty of the script and performances.

Sightseers [UK, Ben Wheatley] Put-upon new couple turn their caravan holiday into a killing spree. Character-driven black comedy plays like early Mike Leigh with grisly murders.

Byzantium [UK, Neil Jordan] Vampires on the run (Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan) take refuge in a seaside resort town. Mood-driven contemporary gothic tips the hat to the Hammer tradition.

Detroit Unleaded [US, Rola Nashef] Young man stuck managing the family gas station/convenience mart falls for gorgeous girl in similar boat at phone store--but they're Arab-American, which is all the complication you need.Vibrant indie comedy buzzes with social observation.

The We and the I [US, Michel Gondry] A crosstown bus ride on the last day of classes takes a group of NYC high schoolers from raucousness to melancholy. Energetic, Altmanesque group portrait with occasional flash-cuts to the director's trademark whimsy.

Dust [Guatemala, Julio Hernandez Cordon] Suicidal busker searches for the remains of his father, disappeared by the death squads, while pursuing a vendetta against the man who denounced him. Strikes an elusive tone mixing quotidian naturalism, incongruous humor, and blunted pathos.

7 Boxes [Paraguay, Juan Carlos Maneglia & Tana Schembori] Delivery kid's assignment to transport the titular containers in his wheelbarrow leads to pursuit, danger and death across a sprawling market. Sharp, fast-paced action thriller from an unexpected quarter.

Mushrooming [Estonia, Toomas Hussar] Resentful parliamentarian's Sunday forage in the woods goes spectacularly awry. Barbed comedy of errors.

Outrage Beyond [Japan, Takeshi Kitano] Oily cop connives to curb a yakuza gang by springing from prison a supposedly dead former nemesis (Beat Takeshi), who is getting too old for this shit. Slow burn, followed by stoic ultraviolence.

Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story [US, Brad Bernstein] Documentary profile of groundbreaking illustrator who was blacklisted as a children's author over his scathing political posters and shocking excursions into erotica. Filmmakers take full advantage of their subject's wit and eloquence as he takes them from a childhood under Nazi occupation to his present state of uncomfortable acclaim.

A Hijacking [Denmark, Tobias Lindholm] When Somali pirates hijack one of his firm's freighters, a CEO disregards his expert's advice to conduct the negotiation himself. Gritty ticktock focuses on authenticity over thrills.

Pieta [South Korea, Kim Ki-duk] Brutal debt collector loses his psychopathic equilibrium when a woman shows up claiming to be the mother who abandoned him at birth. Kim recovers from a dry spell by returning to the ultra-nastiness of the films that first made his name on the festival circuit.

Blondie [Sweden, Jesper Gaslandt] Fraught relations between control freak matriarch and her three daughters come to a head when they return home to help run her 70th birthday bash. Places the expected meltdown at the first act break, then follows the aftermath.

In Another Country [South Korea, Hong Sang-soo] Film student writes three similar-but-different vignettes inspired by a French woman she met in passing at an off-season beach resort. Isabelle Huppert adds left-field star wattage to the auteur's hallmark minimalist comedy of soju-soaked social misadventure.

Fin (The End) [Spain, Jose Torregrossa] A once-tight group of friends reunites at a mountain cottage for the first time in two decades, scarcely suspecting that they're about to number among the last people left on Earth. Although I'm guessing this omits a layer or two from the best-selling novel it adapts, this is still an engaging entry in the quiet apocalypse sub-genre.

Fitzgerald Family Christmas [US, Edward Burns] Large, fractious Irish-American family experiences experiences an uptick in its Yuletide crisis quotient when the father who abandoned them twenty years ago wants to come to the big dinner. Well-written comedy drama delivered by a skilled ensemble.

A Werewolf Boy [South Korea, Jo Sung-hee] Sickly girl and her family take in and tame a feral teen who is more than he seems. Funny, romantic crowdpleaser.

Shanghai [India, Dibakar Banerjee] Official shows more diligence than his bosses expect when they assign him a token enquiry into an assassination attempt on a famous activist. Crackling, vibrant political thriller represents a big step forward for Indian indie cinema.

Motorway [HK, Soi Cheang] Two traffic patrolmen, a young hotshot (Shawn Yue) and a savvy vet counting the days till retirement (Anthony Wong) pursue a cop-killing robber and his ace getaway driver. Leans into its police movie cliches as it reconfigures the car chase set piece for Hong Kong's confined spaces.

The Last Supper [China, Lu Chuan] Shaky memories and revised histories intermingle as the dying first Han emperor recalls the betrayals that allowed his rise from street rat status. Uses the resources of the historical epic to present a fragmented political allegory.

Caught in the Web [China, Chen Kaige] Journalists make a national scandal of a young woman who refuses to give up her bus seat to an elderly man, unaware that she just received a fatal cancer diagnosis. Satirical ensemble drama serves up gloss, social critique and pathos.

Out in the Dark [Israel, Michael Mayer] The security fence between Ramallah and Tel Aviv becomes a barrier in the budding romance between an out Israeli lawyer and a Palestinian student for whom the closet is a matter of life and death. Taut political melodrama.

After the Battle [Egypt, Yousry Nasrallah] Pro-democracy activist involves herself in the family affairs of a disenfranchised tourism worker who disgraced himself by taking part in a horse and camel attack on Tahrir Square protesters. Written and shot concurrently with the events it portrays, this political drama takes the time to round out its characters.



Here Comes the Devil [Mexico, Adrian Garcia Bogliano] Strained couple confronts weirdness after their son and daughter disappear overnight on a hill said to be haunted by ancient entities. Replaces the usual religious imagery of the demonic possession flick with domestic and sexual hysteria.

The Color of the Chameleon [Bulgaria, Emil Christov] Oddball loner, fired from job as a student infiltrator, forms his own rogue secret police operation. Absurdist satire of the informant state would be even funnier if it picked up the pace a bit.



Night Across the Street [France/Chile, Raul Ruiz] Aging shipping clerk recalls his childhood and waits to be assassinated. Adaptation of magic realist novel misses the transporting quality of the director's key works.

Tai Chi 0 [China, Stephen Fung] One-horned martial arts prodigy seeks fighting secrets from insular village, placing him in the path of steampunk railway developers. As the numeral in the title implies, this knowing and hyper-stylized fu romp doesn't bother to stand on its own, but instead stops on a series-establishing cliffhanger.

No One Lives [US, Ryuhei Kitamura] Ordinary criminal gang get more than they bargain for when their resident psychokiller waylays a super-psychokiller who has his own kidnap victim stashed in his trunk. Inventive gore thriller features heightened dialogue few of its actors are able to convincingly deliver.

Burn It Up Djassa [Ivory Coast, Lonesome Solo] A young man's plunge into street crime is seen both through the bravado of a neighborhood storyteller and the bitter reality of direct experience. Your basic naturalistic developing world crime drama.


Not Quite

Road North [Finland, Mika Kaurismaki] Aging ne'er-do-well imposes a surprise road trip on the tightly-wound concert pianist son he abandoned as an infant. Workmanlike comedy-drama hints only fleetingly at the personal style that first brought the director to prominence.

Thale [Norway, Aleksander Nordaas, 2.5] Guys abating a death scene find a feral woman in a basement lab. Folkloric creature feature invests loads of atmosphere in a rudimentary storyline.

Dreams For Sale [Japan, Miwa Nishikawa, 2.5] Discovering her husband's sad sack appeal to vulnerable women, a wronged wife puts him to work swindling them. Could be quite affecting if trimmed of 30-40 minutes of superfluous sub-plotting.



The Great Kilapy [Angola, Zézé Gamboa] Handsome player's yen for the good life puts him in the crosshairs of the secret police, both as a student in Lisbon and then in his native Angola. Rookie screenwriting mistakes show the failed struggle to fashion a compelling narrative from a colorful true story.

Satellite Boy [Australia, Catriona McKenzie] Young boy and pal go on an unintended walkabout when he tries to retrieve his mom from the city. Tale of truth to aboriginal roots is too sweet-natured to ever let us fear a negative outcome for its kid hero--which is death to compelling narrative.

Dead Europe [Australia, Tony Krawitz] A hallucinatory confrontation with dark family secrets ensues when an Australian photographer ignores his Greek parents' pleas not to visit the old country. Heavy-handed exercise in Polanskian paranoia.