The Toronto Film Festival always brings the big names. Maybe that’s the problem and the reason why many in the industry are starting to skip it in favor of Telluride. I know quite a few people doing both this year, and at Telluride last week, almost all of them were cringing at the thought of going to Toronto. That’s just the way it’s been the last few years with Telluride being the more intimate and friendly festival with less of the glitz and glamour of TIFF.
2013 was a landmark year for movies, which translated into one hell of a festival season. I remember Sasha raving about the dynamic duo of “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” at Telluride and yours truly following suit not too long after at TIFF. It doesn’t look like there will be such intense, invigorating movie-going experiences this year until the New York Film Festival when “Gone Girl” and “Inherent Vice” screen in October.
Want to know how strong 2013 was? Some of last year’s fest films can already count as some of the best released of this year: “Under the Skin”, “Only Lovers Left Alive”, “Stray Dogs”, “Ida”, “Enemy”, “Snowpiercer”, “Stranger By the Lake”, “The Double”, “Abuse of Weakness” and “The Immigrant” all had their debuts at various films fests last year, the majority of them at TIFF. So with that in mind, can the 2014 festival season actually live up to 2013? Of course not – it’s not possible to maintain that kind of high quality year after year. Think of 1999, a year that many – including myself – believe to be one of the greatest cinematic years in movie history. It was followed by one of the worst the following year – a year that pitted “Gladiator” vs. “Erin Brokovich” vs. “Traffic” in the Oscar Race, the first two aforementioned movies coincidentally released in
March and May. Those ain’t Oscar months, but 2000 was so weak that that year they were.
And so we come to 2014, where we already have three strong – although bewildering – contenders emerging from Telluride: “Foxatcher”, “Birdman” and “The Imitation Game”. Two of those three will be at Toronto and it will be interesting to see the reception they both get. “The Imitation Game” looks to be a crowd pleaser that might sneak out with a bigger high once the fest ends at the end of the next week, or it might not and another contender will emerge instead. With that in mind, here are the burning questions I have about the festival, which will start tomorrow morning with its first batch of screenings.
1) “The Imitation Game”
Telluride loved it but the critics have so far been safe and cautious about their enthusiasm for this movie. If you take a look at Metacritic, its 9 reviews and score of 70 will tell you this won’t be a critic’s darling like “Foxcatcher” or “Birdman”, but it will have something more powerful on its side: word of mouth. “The Imitation Game” looks like it will be THE crowd pleaser to beat once its first screenings start this week. Will it sustain what it built up at Telluride? I’m on the fence about it but I sure hope Sash, Kris and Co. are right about this one – which also features an unproven filmmaker at its helm. From what I’ve been hearing, Benedict Cumberbatch is emerging as a force to be reckoned with in
the Best Actor category, but that the film itself is routinely pleasing.
The momentum will most likely not stop for this Benneth Miller film. Miller has become a real fixture of the Oscar race with “Capote” and “Moneyball”, but more importantly has become one of the genuinely brilliant American filmmakers out there. His classical style of filmmaking is done so well and with such genuine passion that I can just picture “Foxcatcher” coming out of TIFF with its profile skyrocketing. Especially when it comes to Steve Carrell, who’s been carrying a wave of praise ever since Cannes.
3) Witherspoon in “Wild” and “The Good Lie”
Reese Witherspoon is loved, we all know that. Her performance in “Wild” seems to be the real deal as well. She went all out to nail this role and I have no doubt that her buzz will continue onwards at TIFF. However, don’t discount this movie as just a strong central performance kind-of-movie. I reside in Montreal and have seen the staggering rise of Quebecois filmmakers in Hollywood the last few years. Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”, “Enemy”) is just one of many French-Canadian filmmakers trying to make art out of commerce in Tinseltown, and Xavier Dolan – who’s “Mommy” is also screening at the fest – is on his way to big things.
Jean-Marc Vallée is clearly another good example. I met Vallée 4 years ago at the premiere of his then new film “Café de Flore”. He seemed happy with what he was doing – making homegrown, personal movies – but I have a feeling he likes the freedom Hollywood is giving him at the moment. With “Dallas Buyers Club” he proved his worth and with “Wild” he will likely continue his rise among the best mainstream filmmakers working today.
Another Quebecois filmmaker at the fest? Philippe Falardeau, Oscar nominated for “Monsieur Lazhar” a few years ago and making his American film debut directing – again – Witherspoon in “The Good Lie”, a film that is getting its fair share of buzz as well and might make it a banner year for the incredibly talented actress.
4) “The Theory of Everything”
Oh, boy. Here’s a film that no one really knows what to make of. This is the story of Stephen Hawking’s life as told by James Marsh, who made the brilliant documentary “Man on Wire”. He might just break through with this film, or it might be one of many films that have come out of Toronto down, out and defeated. The potential is there. They will be screening the film in Los Angeles at the same time as TIFF. It’s about time someone made a movie about the brilliant Hawking, a man whose life was filled with so many ups and downs that I’m surprised Hollywood didn’t come knocking at his door sooner. We’re going to have to just wait and see with this film, but since the comparisons I’ve been hearing and seeing to “The Imitation Game” are dumb and unfounded, I’m not sure what people are thinking comparing these two genuinely different movies. They are looking at them from an Oscar campaigning perspective (because everyone is an expert) and assuming that both men are geniuses, both men are struggling with disabilities. But there is a huge difference between contracting a body debilitating illness and being gay at a time when it was illegal, not to mention these being two different time periods and two different countries. But hey, they look like Oscar movies!
5) Two Adam Sandler movies? “Men, Women and Children” & “The Cobbler”
Yea, you heard me right: Sandler has two films premiering here, and not just by any directors. I remember a time when Sandler had a small teeny weeny phase where he decided to make more mature, serious fare with well renowned filmmakers such as Judd Apatow, James L. Brooks and Paul Thomas Anderson. Remember “Punch-Drunk Love”? Still Sandler’s best movie and performance.
The Sandler film most people are talking about is “Men, Women and Children”, which is directed by Jason Reitman, who really needs another well received film after last year’s decent but average “Labor Day” walked out of Toronto with practically nobody talking about it. His new movie looks more socially relevant and seems to harken back to the style of his older more mature efforts like “Thank You for Smoking” and “Up in the Air”. This new film tackles the internet age and our communication breakdown in the age of the internet.
Although I am looking forward to seeing “Men, Women and Children”, the Sandler film I am most looking forward to see also closely resembles “Punch-Drunk Love” in terms of its magical realist style, or at least that’s what I gathered when reading the synopsis for Tom McCarthy’s new film “The Cobbler”. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t McCarthy one of the singular, most underrated American directors around today?
“The Station Agent”, “The Vistor” and “Win Win” are all movies that get better with age, and his minimalist approach to filmmaking is really a breath of fresh air. Having Sandler star in one of his movies is as big a what-the-fuck as Paul Thomas Anderson casting him in 2002. It worked then and I hope it works now. Can’t wait.
6) Richard Gere and Jennifer Aniston for an Oscar? “Time Out of Mind” and “Cake”
So here’s the deal, Gere and Aniston have never been nominated for an Oscar. In fact, the year we thought Gere had a shot at winning a supporting actor trophy he ended up not even getting a nomination for “Chicago”. He’s continued giving us stellar work over the years, most notably a few years ago in “Arbitrage” which was a strong performance, but sadly that year was one of the strongest Best Actor lineups in years. Sucks, bad luck. Not even a nomination over the years for far ranging work like “American Gigolo” or “Primal Fear”. In “Time Out of Mind” he is directed by Oren Overman, an Israeli born filmmaker who now resides in New York. Overman has turned some heads over the last few years, directing “The Messenger” and “Rampart” back to back. No matter what happens in this year’s Oscar race, Gere is and always will be an underrated talent.
On the other end of the spectrum is Jennifer Aniston. Her new film is “Cake” and it looks to be the darkest role she’s ever tackled. She’s proven her worth as a serious actress in the past, most notably in Miguel Arteta’s “The Good Girl”, but never has she fully been taken seriously on the big screen. Some actors just can’t get past their iconic small screen roles, and Aniston’s Rachel is and always will be her legacy, and so her most successful big screen endeavors have all been in comedies. However, “Cake” is her chance. It really is. She is surrounded by a top notch cast of talents which include Anna Kendrick, William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman, and the role seems to dig into some of the darkest territory the actress has ever pursued. I think she can pull through and hit this out of the park.
7) “Cannes” they do it? “Leviathan”, “Timbuktu”, “Mommy”, “Winter Sleep”, “Goodbye to Language”, “Two Days, One Night”, “Wild Tales”
This year’s Best Foreign Film race kick-started at Cannes and continues over at TIFF. These are not films that are “Oscar material” and that’s sometimes a good thing. They don’t follow anything about formula and they go by their own furious beat. Here are films by filmmakers trying to reinvent the language of cinema and tell their stories in ways that have never been attempted before. “Wild Tales” had such an impressive showing at Telluride last week that people were demanding another screening at a bigger location and they got it. Word of mouth is building and this could be our next Foreign Language winner.
8) What to make of “The Judge”
I have my reservations about this courtroom drama starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. For starters, the director is David Dobkin, who’s more known for his work in comedy (Wedding Crashers) than drama. However, I wouldn’t bet against the cast. Downey Jr. especially. He’s proven to us time and time again what a great actor he can be – just take a look at “Chaplin”, “Tropic Thunder” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” for proof. The guy has talent. He’s never won an Oscar and this is major Oscar bait. If he hits it out of the park he can become a major player in the race. As for Robert Duvall, well…it’s Robert Duvall.
9) Will American indies have a surprise up their sleeves?
Remember when the Oscars was just five nominees for Best Picture? And usually one of those spots was reserved for a small indie gem”? “Juno”, “Little Miss Sunshine”, “In the Bedroom” and in later years “Precious”, “Winter’s Bone”, “An Education”, “The Kids Are All Right” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. It happens. Most of the time these movies start off at Sundance and only grow in momentum as the year goes. This year the only film that can possibly do that is also a film that won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance: “Whiplash”. I have already seen Damien Chazelle’s film and it really is an amazing watch. Miles Teller and J.K Simmons are both phenomenal and would most likely garner an instant Oscar nomination if we didn’t live in such a cruel world. Reality is that there will be a struggle for “Whiplash” to even nab one Oscar nom, but I’m betting that if it garners the reception that I think it deserves in Toronto, then watch out, because this is a movie that deserves everything that might be coming its way.
10) The fate of “Mr. Turner”
Ever since its triumph at Cannes, Mike Leigh’s newest film hasn’t kept up with the momentum that it built at La Croisette. TIFF is most likely the make or break moment for the film and will tell us a little more of what to expect come awards season. I just want it to be a great movie, awards or not. That’s why I’m here watching 3-4 movies a day – I want to watch stuff that’ll knock me out, put me on a high and have me talking about it for days on end. That is why most of us are here in the first place.
11) Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young”
This finally leads me to Noah Baumbach’s newest film. Here’s a director I greatly admire who has never gotten the awards recognition he deserved. Well, that’s too bad. That means people have missed out on such Baumbach gems as “The Squid and The Whale” and “Frances Ha”. Not surprisingly, this Brooklyn born filmmaker started out as a writer for another Oscarless but brilliant filmmaker: Wes Anderson. “While We’re Young” is one of my most hotly anticipated films of the fest, yet I doubt it will get recognized in any categories. Consider that a good thing. It means he doesn’t play by the rules and has a unique vision all his own, and I wouldn’t want it another way. Word of mouth is building and this could be our next Foreign Language winner.