REARVIEW: A strong showing by Canadian and British filmmakers, an outstanding selection of performances and a relentless flow of Oscar hype were all in evidence at the Toronto Film Festival.
PETER DEBRUGE: Looking back on 11 days and several hundred movies, it’s somewhat disheartening to realize this is the year that Oscar hype all but overwhelmed the Toronto Film Festival. Things have been gradually building up to this, considering that the festival served to launch such best-picture winners as “American Beauty,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech” and “Argo,” among others, but it’s unfortunate that this hollow chatter has taken the place of substantial conversation about the merits of the many films on offer, the vast majority of which were conceived with no designs on earning little gold statues.
There’s a silver lining for those who’ve been following from a distance all the buzz around such heftily financed pictures as “12 Years a Slave,” “August: Osage County,” “Rush,” “Gravity” and “Prisoners,” as well as the scrappy, super-indie “Dallas Buyers Club,” a movie no one wanted to make but everyone seems to love: The festival has showcased what are sure to be among the best films and performances of the year (not that I ever rely upon the Academy to align with my own assessments).
Overall, this has been a terrific Toronto, at least as far as the high-profile titles are concerned. The big movies are far better than usual, although this festival is so huge, it’s hard to say whether that quality extends to the dozens upon dozens of foreign, documentary and indie films overlooked amid all this Oscar-mania.
JUSTIN CHANG: It’s worth recalling that when it first launched in 1976, Toronto billed itself as “the Festival of Festivals,” promising a selection of standout entries from other fests around the world. By now of course the event has swollen to such a point as to suggest another meaning entirely: Rarely have I been more aware that all of us are essentially carrying on our own parallel mini-festivals as we dart from one screening to the next. That isn’t always the case at Sundance and Cannes, neither of which rivals Toronto for sheer bloat, to the point where it would theoretically be possible to see five films a day here for 10 days straight and not overlap even once with someone else following the same regimen.
There are, of course, the movies everyone is eager to see, which include those preordained Oscar magnets you listed, Peter; as of this writing, I have yet to see either “Rush” or “12 Years a Slave.” I’m hoping to catch up with the latter here tonight, although the hype around Steve McQueen’s film — much of it Oscar-driven, although some of it hopefully motivated by pure, unadulterated movie love — has been so deafening that I’ve been unable to secure a ticket. (Wish me luck in the rush line.)
Although Toronto is of course complicit in its status as a major awards-bait launchpad, the sheer breadth and number of films here remain a testament to the festival’s integrity and offer a welcome if harder-to-parse counter-narrative to all the awards hype. I’m always overwhelmed by how many serious cinephile offerings, far-flung genre movies and uncategorizable curios there are on offer, every one of which would benefit from even a fraction of the attention that’s been squandered so far on the question of whether Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts should be campaigned as lead actress for “August: Osage County” — or “August: Oscar County,” as it might as well have been titled for all the publicity it’s generated in that direction.
And so, in the interest of a principled respite from awards hype, let’s hear it for just a few Toronto program highlights that don’t have a chance in hell of winning an Oscar. I’m thinking of “Night Moves,” an absorbing and eerily plausible thriller in which director Kelly Reichardt retains her micro-observational approach while upping the narrative drive. Or Goetz Spielmann’s “October November,” a beautifully written and acted family drama that suggests a sober Austrian alternative to “August: Osage County” (they’ve both even got months in their titles), with more in the way of rumination and less in the way of smashed crockery. And if I’d had a few more three- and four-hour windows to spare, I would have loved to make time not just for Wang Bing’s deeply challenging documentary “‘Til Madness Do Us Part,” but also Frederick Wiseman’s “At Berkeley” and Claude Lanzmann’s Cannes-premiered “The Last of the Unjust,” both of which I’m keen to catch up with in a less frenzied, more thinking-conducive viewing environment.
SCOTT FOUNDAS: You guys remind me that for years I’ve described Toronto as the film-festival equivalent of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels published in the 1980s. Nor are those parallel festival realities just the ones each attendee creates when mapping out his or her screening schedule; they’re embedded in the very fabric of the Toronto program, which contains, just beneath the Oscar hubbub you’ve both described, several carefully curated mini-festivals whose identities are nearly as distinct as those of the Directors Fortnight and Critics Week in Cannes.
I’m thinking in particular of the Midnight Madness section, overseen by the enthusiastic Colin Geddes, which packs the 1,200-seat Ryerson Theater night after night with a very different crowd than one might find at, say, the red-carpet premiere of “August: Osage County.” And also the Wavelengths section devoted to avant-garde cinema, brilliantly programmed by Andrea Picard and featuring several of the best and most adventurous movies you could see in Toronto this year, including Albert Serra’s Casanova-meets-Dracula tale “Story of My Death” and the hypnotic documentary “Manakamana,” which takes place entirely inside a mountain-climbing cable car in a small Nepalese village. (The Wang Bing film Justin mentioned was also programmed there.)
But the Toronto adventure the majority of major media outlets have chosen with increasing uniformity is indeed the awards-prognosticating one — to the point that many “reviews” emanating from the festival are little more than detailed analyses of which categories said film will figure in on Oscar night. Which is really the latest iteration of the same thinking that has allowed weekly box-office reporting to take up more ink in a lot of heretofore respectable publications than anything resembling what the three of us might call “criticism.”
It is worth noting, however, that two beneficiaries of a lot of that Oscar “buzz” were French-Canadian filmmakers planting their flag on Hollywood soil. Well, technically speaking, Jean-Marc Vallee has been here before, having directed the little-seen Mario Van Peebles Western “Los Locos” in 1997 (as well as the U.S.-U.K. co-production “The Young Victoria” in 2009), but his “Dallas Buyers Club” made a much bigger splash than either of those, and immediately sparked talk of acting nominations for stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. Then there was Denis Villeneuve, whose “Prisoners” was a smash in both Telluride and Toronto, and who followed up immediately with another Gyllenhaal vehicle, the smaller and more esoteric, Toronto-set “Enemy,” which was acquired for U.S. distribution just as the festival was coming to a close.
I mention this because, with the exception of a few name filmmakers (Cronenberg, Egoyan, Maddin), Canadian cinema has never been very visible in the U.S., and that goes double for French-Canadian cinema. Although each of Villeneuve’s first three, highly acclaimed French-language features premiered in Cannes, only one (2000’s “Maelstrom”) had even a tiny American release, while Vallee’s 2005 Quebec hit “C.R.A.Z.Y.” went straight to DVD south of the border. At the same time, the question of Canadian cinema’s presence at Toronto has always been a sensitive one. For many years, the festival insisted on opening with some large-scale, local prestige production (like the insufferable WWII epic “Passchendaele” and the infamous hockey musical “Score”). That tradition has thankfully vanished in recent years, along with the Perspectives Canada sidebar/ghetto for Canadian productions that might have been labeled “Do Not Touch!” But this year, all nationalistic considerations aside, there were Canadian films — and filmmakers — at Toronto genuinely worth crowing about.
DEBRUGE: Add to that list of not-to-miss Canadian pics “The Grand Seduction,” a “Full Monty”-like crowdpleaser about a Newfoundland harbor community that goes to extreme lengths to attract a factory, and “Watermark,” in which photographer Edward Burtynsky reteams with “Manufactured Landscapes” helmer Jennifer Baichwal to delve into the backstories behind his latest series of large-scale images, depicting mankind’s impact on the world’s water supply. Meeting Burtynsky at one of the art galleries showing his work was the highlight of my festival.
And though I didn’t have nearly enough time to catch all the Canadian Short Cuts screenings (each year, Toronto screens short films by local directors, many of whom will go on to be major talents, while also making them available online), I loved the concept of Ryerson students Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg’s “Noah,” a clever commentary on virtual culture told entirely from within the title character’s computer screen. I was also duly impressed by Stephen Dunn’s “We Wanted More”: “Repulsion” meets “Rosemary’s Baby” meets “Black Swan” in this slick psychological snapshot. Dunn’s certainly one to watch.
CHANG: All in all, despite the poor reception for Atom Egoyan’s “Devil’s Knot,” this was arguably the strongest showing for Canadian directors at Toronto since 2007, the year that gave us Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” and David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises.” I’ll chime in with two more noteworthy examples: Michael Dowse followed up his delightful 2011 hockey pic “Goon” with the Toronto-set romantic comedy “The F Word,” which is no less winsome for being a fairly blatant “When Harry Met Sally” ripoff. Incidentally, this was one of three Daniel Radcliffe movies here (the others being “Horns” and “Kill Your Darlings”), and I daresay it’s destined to be the most commercial of the trio, having been acquired by CBS Films in one of the festival’s bigger pickup deals.
A far kinkier, less crowdpleasing Canadian entry was “Tom at the Farm,” a strange, unnerving story of queer longing and self-loathing in the stix, although given that writer/director/star/costume designer Dolan is present in almost every frame, the film’s true subject may well be its creator’s trademark self-absorption. Nowhere was this more evident than at the Venice Film Festival, where David Rooney’s less-than-favorable Hollywood Reporter review prompted Dolan to tweet, “You can kiss my narcissistic ass.” And yet, as incorrigible as the filmmaker may be and as awful as his dye job looks, the film itself plays like a combustible blend of Hitchcock and Highsmith — the former signaled by a feverish Bernard Herrmann-esque score by Gabriel Yared, the latter by the weird games of identity and sexual power that the talented Mr. Dolan plays so adroitly.
DEBRUGE: Dolan brings much of the criticism on himself, I fear. “Tom at the Farm” is his strongest film yet, though it suffers from paying too much attention to Tom, overshadowing the character’s late boyfriend (whose absence is really the soul of the film). It also misjudges the tone of the openly satirical source material, which Michel Marc Bouchard wrote for the stage, so Dolan can indulge some effective Hitchcock-style tricks. As queer thrillers go, I far preferred Alain Guiraudie’s “Stranger by the Lake,” a carryover from Cannes that’s still going strong on the festival circuit.
Generally speaking, Toronto is full of small, deserving films that benefit enormously from screening before an audience of international industry, critics and potential distributors, not to mention perhaps the world’s most enthusiastic local crowds. (Directors must love premiering here, given the easy ovations and overall-generous outpourings of support Torontonians show cinema.) But Scott, allow me to counter your positivity somewhat, since I think the event has become too enormous and unwieldy.
Toronto serves as the clearing house of American film festivals. Instead of representing the best of what has screened around the world, it becomes the launch pad for films that for whatever reason didn’t cut it anywhere else. One TIFF ad spotted around town boasts, “Last year, we hosted over 140 world premieres.” That’s far too many to be anything other than a dumping ground of previously unscreened new work. Instead of allowing the exceptional films to rise to the top, it buries everything under an unnavigable pile of options.
How were distributors supposed to find “Beneath the Harvest Sky,” for example? That film was a true diamond in the rough this year, a small-town coming-of-ager that showcases the enormous talent of young star Emory Cohen, who impressed opposite Dane DeHaan in last year’s “The Place Beyond the Pines” here at Toronto. (DeHaan has made good on the promise of that performance as well, appearing in “Kill Your Darlings.”)
Speaking of breakout performances, I was blown away by Jack O’Connell as a juvenile delinquent volatile enough to land himself in adult prison in David Mackenzie’s “Starred Up.” That movie grips you from the opening scene, as O’Connell’s character turns a toothbrush and safety razor into a deadly weapon the instant he arrives in jail. Both that and “Beneath the Harvest Sky” benefit from the directors’ detailed research into the milieu they depict, which brings a level of specificity to those projects that sets them apart.
FOUNDAS: Peter, I’m glad you mentioned “small, deserving” movies like “Beneath the Harvest Sky,” which come to Toronto bearing neither Oscar buzz nor the sort of name-brand casts or directors that would put them at the top of most journalists or distributors’ must-see lists. Indeed, one of the true pleasures of Toronto, with its hundreds of films and mania-inducing schedule, is that sometimes you walk into a movie entirely by chance — either because you have to review it or simply because you have a couple of hours to kill between other screenings — and end up seeing something really special. This year, that was my experience with directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s “Finding Vivian Maier.” Maier is the now-famous Chicago street photographer who was entirely unknown until her death in 2009. That’s when Maloof, a compulsive collector with a penchant for garage sales and storage lockers, bought a box of her never-exhibited photographs and realized he’d made a major find. Then he wanted to know more: Who was this woman? Where did she come from? Why did she never go public with her obvious talent? And the more Maloof investigated, the curiouser and curiouser it got.
The great, undiscovered/forgotten artist subgenre has become a veritable cottage industry for documentary filmmakers in the last decade or so, capped by the Oscar win earlier this year for “Searching for Sugar Man.” But I’ve always felt that the best of the bunch remains Mark Moskowitz’s 2002 “Stone Reader,” in which Moskowitz, a lifelong bibliophile, set out on a cross-country journey to find out whatever happened to the novelist Dow Mossman, and ended up with an epic inquiry into the state of American letters and literacy. Like Moskowitz, Maloof is an obsessive who puts himself and his obsessions at the center of his film, and thank goodness for that, because without him — and them — the world still likely wouldn’t know about a woman who was quite clearly one of the most gifted verite portraitists of her generation. Just to sit and gaze at Maier’s photos blown up on the big screen, with their ineffable glimpses of joy, tragedy and the macabre — all, seemingly, snapped before her subjects quite realized what was going on — would be reason enough to see this film (which, happily, IFC has acquired for U.S. distribution).
As the three of us discussed on camera when we dropped by the Variety Studio last week, the downside to covering all the new films in Toronto is that one has scant little time to catch up with films that premiered at earlier festivals. One of the few I managed to squeeze in — and was very glad I did — was Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto,” a roundelay of adolescent lives based on a collection of short stories by James Franco (who produced the film and also appears in it as a high-school soccer coach whose interest in his young female players goes beyond their athletic and academic potential). Before coming to Toronto, it screened at Telluride and Venice.
Gia is the 26-year-old granddaughter of Francis (look — or rather, listen — closely to catch his cameo in the film) and the daughter of Gian-Carlo (or Gio) Coppola, Francis’ eldest son, who died in a horrific boating accident in 1986 while Gia was still in the womb. And if not everyone named Coppola has proven to be as naturally gifted at filmmaking as Francis and Sofia, in this case the apple hasn’t fallen far. “Palo Alto” is a terrific debut, very knowing in its sense of teenage lives that some might call wasted, but which are really trapped in a kind of ectoplasmic stasis between childhood innocence and adult responsibility. That could almost be a description of Francis’ “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish” or Sofia’s “The Virgin Suicides” (which “Palo Alto” directly references), but Gia’s style is very much her own — more immediate than impressionistic — as is her touch with actors. (Remember these names: Nat Wolff and Jack Kilmer.)
Time and again in “Palo Alto,” Coppola arrives at that universally recognizable moment in which a teenager is grilled by a parent or other authority figure about what they want to do with their lives or what they were thinking when they did something incredibly stupid or misjudged. And she understands how, in the maelstrom of adolescence, such questions sound as if they were voiced in a foreign language, like the babbling teacher’s voice in the “Peanuts” cartoons. And she knows there is only one true answer: I don’t have a clue.
CHANG: Between “The Bling Ring,” “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III” and now “Palo Alto,” it’s been an uneven but productive year for the Coppola clan. Shifting gears a bit, I’d venture to say that as well represented as Canada was at Toronto, the festival was an equally strong one for British filmmakers — Steve McQueen, of course, by general consensus, but also the undersung likes of Jonathan Glazer and David Mackenzie. I’ve already written at length about why I think “Under the Skin” is so magnificent, a heady draught of pure cinema whose sounds and images don’t just get under your skin but into your bloodstream. And Peter, I share your enthusiasm for Jack O’Connell and indeed the entirety of “Starred Up,” deservedly one of the festival’s sleeper hits. This viciously compelling prison drama isn’t just a moving father-son story but an indelible piece of behind-bars sociology: Mackenzie nails the vibe of an enclosed environment where aggression is the accepted lingua franca, where even friendly exchanges are lost in a miasma of rage and testosterone.
Other British films that have earned largely favorable notices here include Stephen Frears’ “Philomena” and Roger Michell’s “Le Week-End.” Amma Asante’s “Belle” is far from a great film, but it’s got a fascinating story to tell beneath all that pomp and Austen-tation. I’m not an unreserved fan of “The Double,” a curious little dystopian-noir cocktail that plays like a Kafkaesque nightmare by way of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” with a dash of Kaurismaki, but director Richard Ayoade’s talent and ambition are beyond reproach. I love and semi-endorse what Ayoade said in his introductory remarks at the film’s premiere: “I can’t recommend it, but I’m happy it exists.”
DEBRUGE: On the recommendation of SXSW programmer Rebecca Feferman, I managed to squeeze in “Le Week-End” as my last screening of the festival and can’t possibly undersell my enthusiasm for that movie, which follows a married couple (played by Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan) on a rocky anniversary foray to the City of Lights. Hanif Kureishi’s unflinchingly honest yet beautifully literate script did for me what the “Before … ” series does for you, Justin, and I would’ve happily given Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s relationship 20 more years to marinate if it might result in a state-of-the-union relationship study as insightful (and laugh-out-loud amusing) as this one.
Despite the accolades and respect Duncan has earned for her decades of stage and television work, I confess recognizing her only from very small film roles over the years — but what an impression she makes in a role that’s sexy, surprising and (rarity of rarities) written to be every bit as substantial as her male co-star’s.
In addition to “Le Week-End,” I was delighted to discover another more eccentric side of Paris in animation maestro Sylvain Chomet’s live-action debut, “Attila Marcel,” which feels like a throwback to the candy-colored delights of such hyper-imaginative directors as Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Amelie”) and Jaco Van Dormael (“Mr. Nobody”). The story concerns the friendship between a piano prodigy tortured by a deeply buried family tragedy and his mnemonically inclined neighbor, Ms. Proust, who offers him an herbal remedy to help unlock the memories of his missing parents. Chomet’s delightful confection left me grinning from ear to ear, as did Lukas Moodysson’s spunky coming-of-age comedy “We Are the Best” — both films were well worth the schlep up to the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, a classic old movie house far removed from the new center of the festival.
FOUNDAS: Because I didn’t attend TIFF at all during my time on staff at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (or “Three Years a Slave,” as it’s known in my house), 2013 marked my first visit to the festival since the opening of the TIFF Bell Lightbox complex, which has allowed Toronto to expand its programming into a year-round operation, and which prompted a geographic reorientation of the festival from the Bay-Bloor business district to Toronto’s true downtown a mile or so south. And what a difference a few blocks makes. Lots of the old watering holes are gone now, most notably the beloved Bistro 990 on Bay Street — which, due to its proximity to the Sutton Place Hotel (formerly festival HQ, now also gone), used to become something of a Maple Leaf Spago for 11 days every September. And Bloor Street, once the festival’s bustling main artery, now feels like an ordinary big-city thoroughfare, devoid of people wearing badges and hocking flyers. Indeed, the handful of distributors and publicists who still stubbornly base their operations up there seem like characters from a Bunuel film, the last remaining guests at a party that ended long ago.
I can’t say enough good things about the Lightbox: It’s an extraordinary suite of cinemas, cafes and exhibition spaces, clearly built with movie lovers (as opposed to an architect’s ego) in mind. Later this fall, it will host in-person retrospectives of the Coen brothers, Claire Denis and David Cronenberg, the last of which will also include a major gallery show. (A trailer for this, showing Cronenberg’s iconic mug morphing into the mugwump from “Naked Lunch,” preceded every screening during the festival.) The theaters themselves are vast and elegant, with widely spaced seats, large screens, complete darkness and soundproofing, and enough distance between the first row of seats and the screen that sitting there won’t give you a crick in your neck. Even a poor film (like the saccharine “Billy Elliot” knock-off “One Chance”) is made slightly more bearable by seeing it there. And much the same can be said of the festival’s other major venue, the nearby Scotiabank Theater, a 14-screen multiplex built by the Famous Players chain in 1999, but still in remarkably good shape. Outside the ArcLight Cinemas in Los Angeles, I know of no finer commercial cinemas in North America. Nothing in New York even comes close.
On the other hand, I can’t say enough bad things about Roy Thomson Hall, a circular, multi-tiered monstrosity designed for live music performances that plays home to Toronto’s nightly red-carpet gala screenings. Somehow, in a dozen or so visits to the festival, I’d managed to avoid ever seeing a movie there until this year, when a technical breakdown at the afternoon press screening of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” forced me to attend the official premiere later that night. There I sat, gazing down at a postage-stamp-sized screen from the last row of the second balcony (where press are routinely seated), listening to muffled sound, and marveling that a festival with Toronto’s prestige and impact has this as its premiere venue. (A colleague told me that she bolted the Roy Thomson screening of “Rush” after 20 minutes for similar reasons, returning to see it the next day at the vastly superior Ryerson.) Never has Venice’s crumbling, Mussolini-era palazzo, or Sundance’s center-aisle-deprived Eccles Center, looked—and sounded — so good.
CHANG: If I recall correctly, the last time I was at Roy Thomson Hall was to review “Silver Linings Playbook,” a film whose raucous energy that postage-stamp-sized screen was scarcely able to contain. As you’ll recall, David O. Russell’s comedy emerged from Toronto last year the winner of the coveted People’s Choice award and thus the pre-anointed Oscar frontrunner, although of course “Argo,” the runner-up in the TIFF sweepstakes, overtook it in the end.
Given the predictive power of these prizes when it comes to the annual Academy Awards derby, all eyes of course are now on this year’s beneficiaries, “12 Years a Slave” and “Prisoners” — and it’s here that I must express a reservation or two regarding the latter. I confess to having been fairly mystified by the acclaim for Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies” (2010), an empty and appallingly manipulative slab of arthouse miserablism that was duly nominated for a foreign-language film Oscar, and my skepticism has only grown with “Prisoners,” a compulsively watchable but increasingly far-fetched crime drama whose self-serious moral dilemmas feel as cheap and rigged as its jack-in-the-box narrative twists.
Some of this is undoubtedly due to Aaron Guzikowski’s script, and Villeneuve’s got undeniable filmmaking chops. But given his inclination toward ostentatiously grand themes and his button-pushing sense of tragedy, he strikes me less as the second coming of David Fincher than as an heir to the mantle of Paul Haggis. Speaking of which, Haggis is another Canadian director who had a new film in Toronto this year, although the reviews of “Third Person” were generally so awful as to suggest a pre-emptive attempt to kill its awards chances in the cradle, lest we find ourselves with another “Crash” on our hands.
DEBRUGE: As someone who has seen “Third Person,” allow me to offer a defense (its awards chances being entirely beside the point): By now, we all know how Haggis manipulates characters to prove his own prejudices, but this film is far more honest, conflicted even, about how he operates. Had “Crash” ended with the camera swiveling around to face Haggis and find the director admitting, “This is what I think people think about racism” (as opposed to merely implying, “This is what people actually think about racism”), then I might have forgiven it. I appreciate the self-reflexive leap he takes with “Third Person,” just as I was stunned that Villeneuve was able to take such a legitimately serious and deliberately paced approach to what could have been an instantly forgettable thriller with “Prisoners.”
FOUNDAS: I won’t dwell on “Prisoners,” except to say that I don’t think plausible reality is one of the movie’s main objectives. Just as the wonderful “Incendies” invoked Aeschylus, “Prisoners” announces its own mythic intentions from the start, with Hugh Jackman reading the Lord’s Prayer on the soundtrack and a father and son engaged in that symbolic American pastime of deer hunting. (Oh, and the family shares a surname with the capital of Delaware, the first state in the Union.) I was happy to learn that it was one of the runners-up for Toronto’s audience award, and even happier to learn that the winner was “12 Years a Slave,” which came into Toronto with a strong Telluride headwind, and built to gale-force intensity as the days went by.
Like Peter, I think it’s an incredible film on a tricky subject, very faithful to its source material (the memoir of Solomon Northup), but with a visceral pull and economy of form that are entirely the contribution of its director, Steve McQueen. McQueen makes films about the human body in extremis. In his brilliant debut, “Hunger,” the subject was a man—the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands — with a fierce, almost super-human control over his own physical impulses. In his follow-up, “Shame,” McQueen used the same actor (Michael Fassbender, who also turns up in “12 Years a Slave”) to play a man — a New York City sex addict — with no control over his. Now, in”12 Years,” he gives us a protagonist who forcibly surrenders control of his body to a series of slave masters, becomes a piece of human property in the process, but never loses his essential dignity. With the exception of a handful of movies that have treated slavery as the basis for cheap exploitation or postmodern satire, this “peculiar” institution has been conspicuous by its absence in American movies (including, it should be noted, in Spielberg’s otherwise commendable “Lincoln”). But McQueen doesn’t back away from anything: he gives us the story of Solomon Northup and the Southern slave economy in all of its ugliness and unshakable power.
CHANG: Speaking of which, guys, I wasn’t expecting my own “Choose Your Own TIFF Adventure” narrative to end with me and some 200 other wretched souls in the rush line on Saturday night, almost all of us shut out of the final screening of “12 Years a Slave.” Ah, well. There is no other film this year that I anticipate catching up with more, and it will actually be a relief to see and digest it at a (reasonable) remove from all the hype. My expectations remain sky-high, not only because Steve McQueen already cemented his standing as one of our finest filmmakers with “Hunger” and “Shame,” but because of the ecstatic recommendations across the board, your own included.
That said, we are clearly of different minds on “Prisoners.” Peter, I’ll grant that the film is far from forgettable — it’s got one hell of a final shot, if nothing else. (The same goes for “Enemy,” from what I’ve heard.) And Scott, yes, I was attuned to all that portentous spiritual window-dressing, which of course comes into full flower in the third act when (spoiler alert!) a character suddenly finds himself surrounded by snakes — a development that is nothing if not an Old Testament signifier, a literal manifestation of the metaphysical evil underlying this dark parable of violence, retribution and salvation. No question that Villeneuve’s cinema is one of mythic intentions, although whether he’s groping for Greek tragedy in “Incendies” or applying a thick layer of Scriptural shellac to “Prisoners,” I’d say “pretensions” may be more the operative word.
While I’m on the subject of snakes, I surely can’t have been the only one to notice the curious excess of serpentine imagery on Toronto screens this year. Daniel Radcliffe gets down with his bad self and attracts the company of snakes in “Horns.” Nicolas Cage takes a venomous cottonmouth in hand in David Gordon Green’s “Joe” (a stunt the actor impressively performed himself). And in the deranged Filipino horror-thriller “Possession,” an enormous snake slithers through a TV newsroom and later turns up (spoiler alert!) shooting out of a woman’s birth canal; this being a Brillante Mendoza film, we are spared none of the gooey details. I am reminded once again of the capacity of film festivals — especially a festival as sprawling as this one — to put different movies into a kooky sort of dialogue with each other. I haven’t a clue as to what it all means, but in any event, Toronto, fangs for the memories.