Toronto Film Festival: Too Many Gems, No Sole Standout

SCOTT FOUNDAS: As this year’s Toronto Film Festival hits its midpoint, the headlines are that sales have been slow and that Oscar prognosticators are still looking for The One — that mythical, anointed cinematic being that will appear before them (like Neo in “The Matrix” or the giant mechanical claw in “Toy Story”) and reveal itself to be this year’s odds-on best picture favorite. Meanwhile, for those of us who care more about the art of movies than the hype and the business, this over-programmed, over-scheduled but nonetheless essential festival of festivals has (as usual) been an embarrassment of riches. Of course, those who stick to Toronto’s starry, red-carpeted world premieres (here, as at most North American fests, milquetoast sops to the deep-pocketed donor-sponsor crowd) are bound to go home disappointed, though at least one of those much-buzzed titles, Chris Rock’s outrageously funny “Top Five,” was worthy of the fuss — and the $12.5 million Paramount shelled out for worldwide rights).

But the (occasionally daunting) pleasure of Toronto lies in exploring the festival’s full dynamic range: energetic crowd-pleasers (like Rock’s film) and Oscar-baiting prestige pictures (“The Imitation Game,” “The Judge,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Wild”) on the one hand; edgy, boundary-pushing work by maverick auteurs like Pedro Costa (“Horse Money”) and the Safdie Brothers (“Heaven Knows What”) on the other; and a wide variety of other flotsam and jetsam in between. Indeed, at what other festival can you find a gaggle of notable international critics converged on a street corner, trying to decide between a mainstream romantic comedy from Hong Kong genre mixmaster Johnnie To (“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2”), the latest teaming of the great German director Christian Petzold and his muse Nina Hoss (“Phoenix”), or Jon Stewart’s directorial debut (“Rosewater”), all screening at the exact same time?

Of course, with Toronto’s embarrassment of riches always comes an embarrassment of assignments, which means that as of midday Tuesday, I’d managed to just two festival titles that I wasn’t either reviewing or seeing for a feature story — a situation I hope to remedy in the coming days. As for the two I did see, “Time Out of Mind” and “The Theory of Everything,” I pretty much agree with Justin point-by-point on his reviews, so I don’t have much to add, except that “Time” fits into one of the emerging themes of this fall’s festival season: the late-career resurgences of erstwhile 1980s leading men, with Richard Gere’s hypnotic portrayal of a possibly schizophrenic homeless man on the streets of New York deservedly joining Michael Keaton in “Birdman” and Kevin Costner in “Black and White” on the award-worthy comeback trail.

JUSTIN CHANG: It never ceases to surprise me that, even at a festival as gargantuan as Toronto, one can sample a small cross-section of the 250-plus features represented and still find a striking amount of content and talent overlap. The wayward sexual hijinks of Australian writer-director-actor Josh Lawson’s “The Little Death,” for example, would make a fitting double bill with the delirious gender-bending machinations of Francois Ozon’s “The New Girlfriend.” Paul Bettany’s directing debut, “Shelter,” and “Time Out of Mind” both shed light on the plight of America’s homeless. And I’m hardly the first person to note the presence of two high-profile biopics centered around imposing British intellectuals, James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything” and Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game”  both of which are superficially concerned with matters of great scientific and mathematical import, but which mainly exist so that handsome and talented actors can pull off extraordinary feats of historical impersonation. The imitation game, indeed.

“Birdman” was conspicuous by its absence in Toronto, leaving a stronger impression from its buzzy screenings at Venice and Telluride than did some of the films that are actually playing here. And Scott, I, too, couldn’t help but think about Keaton’s performance as I watched Chris Rock try and shed an embarrassing Hollywood tentpole legacy in “Top Five,” one of the few surprise hits of the festival so far, and deservedly so. After riffing on Rohmer seven years ago with “I Think I Love My Wife,” Rock, clearly more of a cinephile than fans of his raucous standup might realize, has made a wickedly raunchy yet surprisingly thoughtful and heartfelt update of “Sullivan’s Travels,” to name another movie that insists on comedy as a vital and revivifying force in American movies. With all due respect to Preston Sturges, I actually think I like “Top Five” better.

To judge by some of the excellent notices written by our colleague Andrew Barker, this Toronto has been an unusually rich one for films set in and around the music biz, including Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Beyond the Lights,” Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy,” and the one that I actually did manage to see, Mia Hansen-Love’s “Eden.” Set to the pulsing, entrancing rhythms of the French electronic scene, this intimate two-decade epic about a garage DJ represents an ambitious step forward for Hansen-Love, even as it feels entirely consistent with her earlier pictures, which were similarly perceptive in their treatment of the passage of time, the intense yet ephemeral nature of young love, and the challenges of being a working artist. The new movie covers some familiar territory  substance abuse, failed relationships, quietly dashed dreams  but is so unemphatic in its approach, so winningly indirect in method, as to feel almost revelatory. Hansen-Love is my kind of director: someone who purposefully avoids hitting every note and beat as you’d expect, yet undeniably feels the music.

PETER DEBRUGE: I can’t wait to see “Eden” — or any of the movies you guys mentioned, actually. As you rightly pointed out, the Toronto festival is so big, I’ve had my hands full simply keeping up with the movies I’m assigned to review. But that’s been a pretty satisfying crop, to be honest. My favorite has been Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young,” which carries on his tradition of asking audiences to care about prickly, self-absorbed characters, though in this case, I think he could have a hit on his hands. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a pair of married filmmakers who, rather than having kids like the other couples their age, decide to make friends with a hipster couple nearly 20 years their junior. As someone caught between the two age groups represented, I feel like I have a foot in each camp and was thrilled by the way Baumbach captured so many truths about Where We Are Now.

Justin, I’ve inherited the daunting Venice-Toronto double-header you used to do and still have “Birdman” and “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” on the brain. The latter is here in Toronto, too, as are a few Cannes treasures that North American audiences are getting to see for the first time, including “Force Majeur” (the avalanche movie), “Leviathan” (as rich as a Russian novel) and “L’il Quinquin” (a small-town French murder mystery in which Bruno Dumont proves he has a pretty wicked sense of humor).

By this point, I’m sort of an emotional wreck, which always happens on the back stretch of 40 or so films about dreams being realized or smashed, be they professional, romantic or merely escapist. I might have been a bit too cynical during the first few days of the festival, refusing to fully embrace the charms of Bill Murray’s golden-hearted crank in “St. Vincent” or the even saintlier voices of Dustin Hoffman starrer “Boychoir,” but by now, I’m sobbing left and right. I teared up watching Julianne Moore’s character slip through her own fingers in the sensitively-told Alzheimer’s portrait “Still Alice,” and I was full-on weeping during the crappily shot, beautifully sung “The Last 5 Years,” about how and why a young New York couple (the terrific Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan) implode after half a decade together.

As for the films that have been downright dreamy, I’m awfully fond of three animated offerings here at Toronto. Studio Ghibli’s “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” looks like elegant Japanese painting come to life, while Tomm Moore’s latest, “Song of the Sea,” adopts the look of ancient Celtic artwork to tell a local myth. But the cartoon that took my mind and soul on a journey was “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet,” which uses a kid-friendly framing device directed by “The Lion King’s” Roger Allers to draw audiences into a series of incredible life lessons, each of them interpreted by a different animation superstar. As the prophet says, “Work is love made visible,” and rarely has that seemed more true.

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