As my 30th visit to the Toronto International Film Festival recedes in the rear view mirror, I still have my capsule reviews to remember it by. My early worries that it was a bit of a down year, were rendered null by surprise victory in the final stretch. The very last film I saw was a stunner, giving me the usual 3 absolute stand-outs to place ahead of the rest. While I usually wind up seeing about 8 titles I didn’t care for, this year that total comes out as a mere 5. So in fact I did succeed in backloading my schedule with the good stuff, placing the risks that didn’t pan out in the first half. And all of those were just run-0f-the-mill failures, leaving the dread “Ire-Inspiring” category empty.
Last year left me with the feeling of an overall down year for film rescued by a better year for the Asian titles I tend to gravitate towards. Many of the high-profile items landed with a thud. This time I come bearing better news: it looks like we’re in for a great fall season, as plenty of films arrived to rapturous receptions. Titles I didn't see that got lots of buzz included Lion, Denial, Moonlight, Jackie, Manchester By the Sea, Toni Erdmann, Brimstone, Into the Inferno and La La Land, which won the People’s Choice Award, which often but not always presages an Oscar win.
Titles are listed in my order of preference, but within a category that doesn’t necessarily mean much.
Although a few titles play the fest circuit and then vanish forever, most of these will roll out to theaters, then VOD and disc, then SVOD and cable, over the next year and a bit. For a list of films that may have already gone through the pipeline to an art house or streaming service near you, check out my 2015 capsule reviews.
Soul on a String (China, Zhang Yang) Outlaw resurrected by lama must transport a sacred stone to a holy site. Tibetan heroquest draws on Ford and Leone as it drops the viewer into one staggeringly beautiful vista after another.
Daguerreotype (France/Japan, Kiyoshi Kurosawa) Young man’s new job as assistant to a truculent photographer who makes large-format daguerreotype portraits of his winsome daughter draws him into a household of ghosts and subjective realities. Kurosawa seamlessly translates his trademark decay and subtle unease to a French cast and setting.
The Bad Batch (US, Ana Lily Amirpour) Sentenced as an undesirable to a vast, lawless Texas internment zone, a young woman (Suki Waterhouse) plans vengeance against the cannibal community that cut off and ate her arm and leg. Visually bold, sometimes shocking post-apocalyptic western. With Jason Momoa as the main people-eater, Keanu Reeves as a local potentate who looks like Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton character, and an unrecognizable Jim Carrey in the old coot role.
Citizen Jane: Battle For the City (US, Matt Tyrnauer) Documentary recounts the David and Goliath throwdown between writer Jane Jacobs’ vision of a vibrant, street focused city took on Robert Moses’ modernist urban renewalism and its mania for towering housing projects and downtown expressways. Magisterially presents a web of information and ideas as a gripping conflict with real emotional stakes.
Frantz (France, Francois Ozon) After WWI a French soldier travels to Germany to seek out the family and fiancee of his German best friend, who died in the trenches—or is that the real story? Restrained period melodrama evokes the high style of studio Hollywood, with particular touches of William Wyler and Alfred Hitchcock.
Harmonium (Japan, Koji Fukada) Man harboring a shameful secret invites an old friend (Tadanobu Asano) to live and work with him, without telling his wife that the man just got out of prison. Told in a low-key style that unsettlingly belies the extremity of its melodramatic subject matter.
Maliglutit (Searchers) (Canada, Zacharias Kunuk) When outlaws kidnap his wife and daughter and kill his other male relatives, a hunter and his son muster their sled dogs for high Arctic pursuit. Transposes the very basic outlines of the John Ford classic to Inuit culture for a spare tale of crime, punishment and endurance against a backdrop of unforgiving beauty.
Neruda (Chile, Pablo Larrain) Cynical secret policeman (Gael Garcia Bernal) hunts politician-poet Pablo Neruda after the Chilean government issues a warrant for his arrest in 1947. Magical-realist manhunt biopic shot in the blues and purples of a faded photograph.
After the Storm (Japan, Hirokazu Kore-Eda) Perpetually broke failing novelist sidelines as a private investigator and tries to be a better son and father and ex-husband. Well, kinda tries. Wry, beautifully portrayed family drama.
Julieta (Spain, Pedro Almodovar) Woman recalls the tragic events that led her daughter to mysteriously break off all contact with her. Fuses three Alice Munro stories into a melodrama drenched in passion, menace, and color--qualities that no one but Almodovar would find in her material.
The War Show (Denmark/Syria, Andreas Dalsgaard and Obaidah Zytoon) Documentary follows young Syrian idealists from its Arab Spring protest movement to the devolution into various, successively worse stages of civil war. Keeps a human perspective on a conflict whose horror and intractability challenges one’s ability to engage.
Godspeed (Taiwan, Chung Mong-Hong) A young drug courier takes a cab to a distant hand-off location, forming a combative friendship of circumstance with the aging driver. Elusive interweaving of character comedy, gangland violence, and Buddhist existentialism.
I Am Not Madame Bovary (China, Feng Xiaogang) After her husband reneges on a deal to remarry after a sham divorce to skirt housing regulations, a woman (Fan Bingbing) initiates a series of protests that ensnare countless hapless officials. Deceptively gentle comedy-drama shot within the imposing formal constraints of two extreme aspect ratios: a cropped upright rectangle and an iris
Colossal (Canada, Nacho Vigalondo) After returning to her hometown to regroup, a hard-drinking ex-journalist (Anne Hathaway) discovers a link between her actions and the kaiju attacking Seoul, half a world away. Vigalondo delivers another delightful genre smush-up with this character-driven comedy/drama/monster piece. With Tim Blake Nelson and Jason Sudeikis, who gets to do a turn we haven't seen from him before.
Asura: The City of Madness (South Korea, Sung-soo Kim) Crooked cop gets squeezed between the maniacal mayor he serves and the ruthless special prosecutor intent on bringing him down. With its elaborate plotting, universal corruption, darker-than-noir worldview, and brutal violence, this is what James Ellroy would write if he suddenly turned Korean.
Never Ever (France, Benoit Jacquot) After the film director husband she has only briefly known commits suicide, a performance artist holes up in their home and begins to take on his mannerisms. Quietly absorbing chamber piece about the way grieving is like living with a ghost. Based on Don Delillo’s The Body Artist.
Barakah Meets Barakah (Saudi Arabia, Mahmoud Sabbagh) Naive municipal inspector falls for fiery Instagram star--but love isn’t easy when any date can be raided by the religious police. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting protest against the fundamentalist constriction of ordinary Saudi Arabian life than a funny, charming romantic comedy.
Catfight (US, Onur Tukel) A chance meeting between former college frenemies (Sandra Oh, Anne Heche) leads to brutal combat and a cycle of reprisals. If you need your movies to feature likeable protagonists, you will not enjoy this cruelly hilarious satire of America’s poisoned discourse nearly as much as I did. Kubrickian not in its visual style but in its use of music and view of humanity.
The Net (South Korea, Kim Ki-duk) North Korean fisherman accidentally drifts across the border and is interrogated by southern officials as a possible spy. Kim’s most overtly political and most accessible film to date.
Headshot (Indonesia, Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel) Bullet fragment in a battle-scarred hospital patient’s brain prevent him from remembering that he was raised to be one of several super-henchmen serving a legendary gangster—but his former allies haven’t forgotten. Stylish, ultra-hard martial arts extravaganza will revise whatever mental image you currently associate with paper-cutters. Starring The Raid’s Iko Uwais.
The Empty Box (Mexico, Claudia Sainte-Luce) Aspiring playwright) pieces together moments from the life of her distant father (Jimmy Jean-Louis) after he is stricken with dementia. Perfectly modulated drama, drawn from the experience of director/writer/lead actress Sainte-Luce, never strikes a note too hard.
The Age of Shadows (South Korea, Kim Jee woon) During the Japanese occupation of Korea, a collaborating police captain (Song Kang-Ho) plays a double game while hunting the resistance. Assured blend of action, Hitchcockian spy suspense, and drama of conflicted loyalties from the director of The Good, The Bad and the Weird.
The Oath (Iceland, Baltasar Kormákur) When his daughter’s drug dealer boyfriend threatens his family, a driven cardiologist (Kormákur) demonstrates a very surgical set of skills. Spurns the exploitation roots of the vigilante genre, placing its realistic action in a moral universe where transgressions incur consequences.
Heaven Will Wait (France, Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar) Interwoven narratives show two French girls at different stages of being lured, via cult-style social media recruitment, to Syria to be given to ISIL soldiers—one being indoctrinated, the other, deprogrammed. Fragmented storytelling techniques lend texture to what might otherwise be a standard-issue social problem film.
Pyromaniac (Norway, Erik Skjoldbjærg) Young volunteer fireman goes on an arson spree. True crime character study fosters a strong sense of authenticity as it looks at how isolating it can be to live in a small town where everyone knows everyone and you can never quite bring off a social interaction.
Happiest Day in Life of Olli Maki (Finland, Juho Kuosmanen) Finns pin their hopes on a featherweight contender who is more interested in remaining a small town mensch in love with his girlfriend than coping with the pressure put on him by his ex-fighter manager. Reverses the emotional polarity of the boxing bio: here you’re rooting for the hero to escape the dread fate of championship glory.
Guilty Men (Colombia, Iván D. Gaona) When a political deal leads to the national demobilization of paramilitaries, the farmers charged with delivering extortion money to one local group is left holding a dangerous bag. Slow burn contemporary Western with a trenchant Latin American twist.
Sadako vs Kayako (Japan, Kôji Shiraishi) When two young women fall prey to separate ghostly curses--one connected to an abandoned house, the other to a cursed VHS tape--an exorcist hatches a scheme to save them by provoking two legendary bakemono to fight each other. Monster rally sequel to The Ring and The Grudge has creepy, crazy fun merging the two J-horror franchises.
Fury of a Patient Man (Spain, Raúl Arévalo) Man whose fiancée was killed during a jewelry store robbery blackmails the one guy who went to jail for the crime into helping him hunt down his accomplices. Contemporary take on Seven Men From Now in which the vengeful actions of the Randolph Scott figure are portrayed as chaotic and squalid.
The Patriarch (New Zealand, Lee Tamahori) In 50s New Zealand the head of a prosperous Maori sheep-shearing family (Temeura Morrison) butts heads with his smart, questioning teen grandson. Masterfully summons the sweep of fifties and sixties CinemaScope epics--though unfortunately the comparison extends to some extremely on-the-nose dialogue in the climactic dramatic confrontations
In the Radiant City (US, Rachel Lambert) Man shut out by his family after testifying against his then-juvenile brother in a murder case returns twenty years later, when the sentence comes up for review. Though the script of this hard-drinking Americana piece hooks a bigger fish than it can quite land, the visual sense, scene building and work with actors marks the director as a name to watch.
The Red Turtle (France / Belgium / Japan, Michael Dudok de Wit) Island castaway lashes out at sea turtle that thwarts his raft escape plans, only to see it transform into a woman. Wordless animated feature visually references Herge and Moebius, shows that in a world of mortality, beauty and sadness are just two sides of the same experience. From Studio Ghibli.
Death in Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Danis Tanovic) A failing hotel heads for a strike as it prepares to host an EU commemoration of the Franz Ferdinand assassination centenary. Ensemble political drama portrays the Balkan conflict as not resolved, but latent, behind a crumbling facade.
Indivisible (Italy, Edoardo de Angelis) 18 year old conjoined twins whose parents parade them around as low-rent pop singers discover that they can be safely separated after all. Visually compelling neo-neorealism, with affecting star performances from leads Angela and Marianna Fortuna.
Prevenge (UK, Alice Lowe) Woman goes on revenge kill spree, egged on by the sinister voice of her unborn child. The premise is doing most of the work in this ultra-dark comedy of female rage, shot when the director/writer/lead was 7 ½ months pregnant.
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (US, Dash Shaw) Uncool kids struggle to survive when a quake causes their entire high school to...well you get the idea. Animated feature drawn to look like the doodles in the back of a misanthropic teen’s geometry notebook. Voice talent includes Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Reggie Watts, Lena Dunham and Susan Sarandon.
Tramps (US, Adam Leon) Boy meets girl, boy screws up criminal bag drop with girl, boy and girl try to get bag back. Before Sunrise riff showcases charm of its two leads--Grace van Patten in particular has “future movie star” written all over her.
Wulu (Senegal, Daouda Coulibaly) Level-headed smuggler rises from courier to kingpin during the advent of large scale drug trafficking in 2000s West Africa. Senegalese counterpart to Narcos or Blow serves up some interesting region-specific detail before an ending so sudden and arbitrary that one suspects the filmmakers had to bail before completing principal photography.
Mad World (HK, Wong Chun. 3) Hospital releases bipolar man to the care of his estranged truck driver father, who struggles to keep up with his needs. A showcase performance by stalwart Hong Kong actor Eric Tsang as the father adds dimension to this downbeat melodrama.
Yourself and Yours (South Korea, Hong Sang-soo,2.5) Artist wrecks his relationship with his fiancée by accusing her of lying about her drinking--a situation that arises either out of mistaken identity, or shifting identity. Lacks the layer of comedy and/or melancholy that usually lifts Hong’s very similar films above mere formal gamesmanship.
Planetarium (France, Rebecca Zlotowski,2.5) In late 30s France, American sisters (Natalie Portman, Lily-Rose Depp) who perform as mediums join a studio head’s effort to film ghostly presences. Glossy period drama shows that when your script fails to create a strong drive for its protagonist, it is a paper bag that not even Natalie Portman can act her way out of.
Blind Sun (Greece, Joyce A. Nashawati) In a near future where a water shortage is pushing Greece back in police state condition, a man engaged to guard a rich family’s villa slowly loses it. Monotonous Antonioni pastiche.
Without Name (Ireland, Lorcan Finnegan) Philandering surveyor succumbs to hallucinogenic madness in a remote wooded area. Stylish, but has so little story development that it would be overlong as the weak 20 minute middle segment of a horror anthology flick.
Santa & Andres (Cuba, Carlos Lechuga) Village woman assigned to act as temporary minder to gay dissident writer develops a soft spot for him. Poky, underdeveloped political drama.
Just Not Married (Nigeria, Uduak-Obong Patrick) Ambitious student with ex-con brother and mom who needs medicine hatches scheme to get through police checkpoints with stolen cars by posing dressing himself and an accomplice as a just married bride and groom. There's a big desire on the part of fest programmers and cinema fans for the rough-and-ready Nollywood scene to yield titles that stand with the best of the developing world. Judging from this entry in this year’s TIFF spotlight on Lagos, we’re kinda rushing them.