The question is unavoidable, but recurrent. I get it year after year at the Toronto International Film Festival: “What’s the best thing you’ve seen?”. In this list-crazy society, obsessed with best/worst comparisons, people want to know which movie of TIFF 2015 is likely to be best remembered. The choice is easy for me: Lazslo Nemes’ Son of Saul. is a holocaust movie shot from the POV of a concentration camp prisoner forced to burn the bodies of gas chamber victims after leading them to the trap. The movie is an immeasurable accomplishment with scenes of staggering beauty and incredible pain. It is perhaps the only indisputable masterpiece I saw at the fest.
This year’s edition of TIFF didn’t seem to have as many of the hot sales that happened last year. A last-minute bidding war is, however, currently happening for Equals, a sci-fi romance starring Kristen Stewart. The film received mixed reviews, but the bidding war is said to be at around $16 million as we speak. Remember last year when Paramount decided to buy Chris Rock’s Top Five for the impressive sum of $12.5 million? That didn’t turn out so well. As of this writing, not even Michael Moore’s pro-socialist documentary Where to Invade Next has found a buyer. Many highly-touted movies had a tough time getting traction. Several that came into town with a slew of expectations were received with a polite meh and emerged with their Oscar dreams battered.
The Telluride-effect, was at its peak this year as Steve Jobs and Carol — not to mention Suffragette — decided to bypass TIFF altogether by going to Telluride and New York. The sighs that greeted the would-be contenders had enough effects that it had many critics already talking about NYFF more than ever before, with Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Zemeckis’ The Walk, the aforementioned Steve Jobs and Carol all being screened there, New York will be a major factor in shaping the race. With sadly no one title breaking out in spectacular fashion, critics have been generally leaning towards Spotlight being the unofficial winner, but Room’s Audience Award win a week ago has shifted the game. Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is the real deal, a hypnotic labyrinth into dark humane feelings. Based on Emma Dongue’s best-selling book of the same name, it features awards worthy performances from Brie Larson and 8-year-old newcomer Jacob Tremblay. The best way to watch the film is by knowing as little as possible, the tonal shifts are too major to reveal anything, but do know it is one of the very best movie I’ve seen so far this year.
It is no surprise both Spotlight and Room actually debuted at Telluride. However if one born and bred TIFF film did emerge it was without a doubt James Vanderbilt’s Truth. The film works like a morality play for our times, using the journalistic approach Vanderbilt used for his Zodiac screenplay to great effect. The cast is unanimously perfect, but the standout is Cate Blanchett, exceptional as 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes. The Martian is another one, an unabashed popcorn movie that had everyone cheering for Matt Damon’s astronaut. The first half has the lost astronaut trying to survive the red planet. With nearly no dialogue, save for his video journal, we watch Damon’s astronaut try to survive in the harsh confines of the red planet. He builds his own crop (wait until you see how) and manages to survive while his crew heads back to earth thinking he was wiped out by a debris storm. In its best moments The Martian has brilliant, almost silent moments that bring to mind a hybrid of Castaway meets Gravity.
Safe for the already mentioned Blanchett performance, the acting at TIFF was great. Julianne Moore was superb in two movies (Freeheld, Maggie’s Plan), Ben Foster deserved praise for his portrayal of Lance Armstrong (The Program), a movie that had its entire cast become contenders (Spotlight), Johnny Depp made a strong comeback (Black Mass), Alicia Vikander outshone Eddie Redmayne and became a star (The Danish Girl), and Brie Larson gives her career-best work, and meets her match with brilliant newcomer newcomer 8-year-old Jacob Tremblay (Room).
Idris Elba also gave career-best work in Beasts of No Nation. Dealing with child soldiers in an unknown African country, this is a movie that means to provoke and it does. The young actor Abraham Atta gives a striking debut as the young child soldier, but Elba, bulked up, in sunglasses and a paramilitary officer’s beret, acts his guts out. Towering would be the right word to describe his performance. Buoyed by Dan Romer’s dazzling, dreamlike score, Fukunaga creates moments that recall a young Terrence Malick.
One of the best reviewed movies was Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa. What is there to say about it that hasn’t already been said? I’ll leave it to Sasha for an eventual full in-depth review, but writer-director Charlie Kaufman has crafted a unique work of art. The film is a frustrating, but brilliant portrait of a man that doesn’t see the good in people. He is lonely, isolated and miserably unexcited about humanity. That is until he meets a woman who breaks the mold for him. Since this is Charlie Kaufman there is a ton of neurotic existentialism. The movie is essentially episodic in nature, with around 10 set-pieces -most of them working brilliantly, but even those that don’t give us important clues to the story’s overall mystery.
The film is a look at the fleeting nature of attraction and Kaufman seems to be dealing with a lot of personal issues in the screenplay. It’s no stretch to say Kaufman’s state of mind is clearly not very Zen and the film seems to be a therapeutic way for him to deal with his inner demons. Oh and did I mention it’s all done in stop motion animation? Beautifully rendered and created. It’s been a great year for feature animation, with this summer’s Shaun of the Sheep another standout. Kaufman doesn’t lose control of his movie the same way I felt he did with Synechdoche, NY. The film is riddled with small details that watching the film once is just not enough. I can’t wait to see it again.
If a few of the big Hollywood productions disappointed, there were some real foreign gems that had people talking: Chili’s The Club, Denmark’s Men and Chicken, France’s Evolution and Eva Husson’s Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) will all be festival regulars from now until the end of the year. However, nearly all of the 10 best movies I saw at the TIFF had already screened at other festivals earlier in the year: Cannes, Telluride, Venice and even Berlin are represented in my list. Sundance favorites James White and The Witch — both harrowing, but brilliant movies — also had impressive followings.
1) Son of Saul
Lazslo Nemes’ masterpiece reinvents the Holocaust movie by focusing more on the psychological nuance of the tragedy rather than just shock. If there was a better, more artistic movie at TIFF 2015 I didn’t see it.
A work of brilliant genius from Charlie Kaufman. The film is a look at the fleeting nature of attraction, all done in stop-motion animation and with enough imagination to shame most of its live-action counterparts. It’s also very touching.
Sebastian Schipper’s high-wire act of a movie is more than just a stunt. Shot in a single 138-minute take, it’s a grim, but powerful look at a Spanish girl named Victoria who meets 4 men in the wee hours of the night in Germany and embarks on a harrowing journey with them.
Lenny Abrahamson proves 2014’s Frank was no fluke by directing Brie Larson and newcomer Jacob Tremblay in a film that starts off as a disturbing thriller, but becomes an even more disturbing, engrossing psychological study.
5) Truth & Spotlight
Two brilliant journalism dramas that had the critics going nuts. James Vanderbilt’s Truth featuring an incredible performance by Cate Blanchett. Tom Mccarthy’s Spotlight with spot-on screenplay and the best ensemble of the year so far. It looks like a Redmayne vs. Keaton race all over again.
6) 45 Years
The unraveling of a 45 year marriage is devastatingly delivered onscreen by British filmmaker Andrew Haigh and a never better Charlotte Rampling performance that deserves all the praise in the world.
The Palme D’or award winner from director Jacques Audiard is one of the very best immigrant dramas in recent years. Jesuthasan Antonythasan stars as an ex-Tamil fighter that frees Sri Lanka with two women he doesn’t know to France. They pretend to be a family, but realize the violence has followed them there.
8) Beasts of No Nation
38-year-old Cary Joji Fukunaga follows his triumph in True Detective with an absorbingly raw take on African civil war. Idris Elba owns the screen in a career defining role as the commander of child soldiers. Dan Romer’s dazzling, dreamlike score and Fukunaga Malick influenced direction make this an incredible experience .
9) Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)
Directed by promising director Eva Husson, this unflinching and mesmerizing French film has early day Sofia Coppola’s style mixed with Larry Clark’s Kids. An absorbing look at promiscuous high schoolers and the way sexual experience has changed among the new generation of teenagers.
Denis Villeneuve’s best American movie is not easy stuff. Detailing America’s war on drugs it presents to us a new action heroine in the form of Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer. The action is relentlessly brilliant, but the repercussions and themes hit us just as hard.