Crix mix it up at Toronto

Variety's Peter Debruge and Justin Chang discuss this year's fest

Peter Debruge: It was a good but not great Toronto — that seems to be the consensus among public and industry who had hoped to find one or two genuinely life-changing movies in a lineup whose success can be better measured by delivering fewer disappointments than usual. We knew Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” Ben Lewin’s “The Sessions” and Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” were artful crowdpleasers coming in, since they’d previously played Cannes, Sundance and Venice, respectively. Turns out the Tom Tykwer/Wachowski sibling-directed “Cloud Atlas” wasn’t the turkey the naysayers had hoped (personally, I’m still electrified by its mad ambition).

While not to my taste, FDR kiss-and-tell comedy “Hyde Park on Hudson” and Ryan Gosling-drives-again drama “The Place Beyond the Pines” found their share of supporters. Dirty-cop auteur David Ayer gave us reason to respect the boys in blue with “End of Watch.” And watching J.A. Bayona’s tsunami survival story “The Impossible” felt like rocking out with the world’s greatest Spielberg cover band.

Justin Chang: I’d love to see Bayona’s “Jaws,” assuming my nerves could handle it. As for whether “Cloud Atlas” is a turkey — frankly, a full-on disaster would have been more interesting. What I saw looked more like “Crash” for New Age mystics and Silly Putty enthusiasts, a sweeping call for racial, sexual and spiritual freedom that, rather ironically, winds up feeling oppressively overdetermined and narratively micro-managed. Outsized ambition and technical virtuosity dovetailed to far greater effect in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” still the film of the Venice/Toronto circuit for me.

But to shift the conversation to some movies that haven’t been extensively covered elsewhere: I’m quite keen on Soi Cheang’s kickass Hong Kong actioner “Motorway,” stacked with the most balletic car chases you’ve never seen, and Christian Petzold’s superb East German drama “Barbara,” which premiered at Berlin and serves as a reminder of one of Toronto’s key functions, which is to provide a North American platform for the year’s best-of-fest selections.

PD: I’m disappointed to have missed both films, but that’s the way it goes at Toronto, which functions as a clearing house for world cinema. The quality of your fest experience is determined largely by scheduling serendipity.

Still, with its starstruck local audience and lack of a juried competition, Toronto genuinely supports cinema. You’ll never hear the tacky booing you might at Venice, Cannes or Berlin, and there’s no one here inventing arbitrary rules by which a jury must decide between “The Master,” a consternating reminder that the word “masterpiece” doesn’t necessarily mean “perfect,” and Kim Ki-duk’s “Pieta,” which should’ve landed in Midnight Madness.

What’s lost is the sense of discriminating curation. There are so many movies, you can see Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” one afternoon and “The Impossible” the next, and before you have time to wonder whether it would’ve taken a tsunami to make the teen hedonists in the former interesting, you encounter a film that combines the two: Nicolas Lopez’s “Aftershock,” surely the worst thing at TIFF this year.

JC: I don’t care if “Pieta” plays in Midnight Madness or an alcove at St. Peter’s Basilica; either way, it’s a bloody treat. Still, the Venice awards fiasco to which you allude is instructive, as that festival’s Michael Mann-led jury made the much-publicized decision to take the Golden Lion away from “The Master” and give it to “Pieta” at the last minute. (See all the trouble awards can cause?)

True, competition-free Toronto would never find itself in so embarrassing a position. Yet at the same time, this might just be the most kudos-obsessed festival on the planet, as evidenced by the nonstop Oscar chatter and those fatuous pre-screening trailers that nudge audiences about past Toronto-preemed best-picture winners such as “The King’s Speech” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

“Let’s make the next big film,” the ads urge us. Actually, let’s not. Instead, let’s savor the verbal and formal dexterity of a comedy like “Silver Linings Playbook” for its own sake, not for how many trophies it can bring in. Or the sophisticated pleasures of “A Late Quartet,” a beautifully written and directed chamber drama that, no less than “Cloud Atlas,” views the commingling of human relationships as a sort of symphony.

PD: Every festival is ultimately measured by the life that the films they program go on to lead. In our job we’re so busy seeing the next big film that we don’t always have time to explore the smaller ones, and heaven knows, many Toronto treasures never find U.S. distribution. This year, the best surprises were three black-and-white movies: Noah Baumbach’s frequently hilarious “Frances Ha”; Joss Whedon’s frothy spin on “Much Ado About Nothing,” featuring his favorite TV stars; and Pablo Berger’s “Blancanieves,” a chicken-fried Spanish twist on the Snow White story (with dwarf matadors!) that doesn’t suffer from the subtitle curse since it’s told as a classic silent movie.

And who knows where audiences will get another chance to see “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology,” a rowdy continuation on Slavoj Zizek’s psychoanalytic reinterpretation of classic films — a great double bill with the thought-provoking cine-essay “Room 237,” whose crackpot theories about Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” free moviegoers to get wild and crazy when personalizing their reactions to movies.

JC: I’m glad you mentioned “Room 237,” deservedly one of the year’s best-traveled documentaries with prior stops at Sundance, Cannes, Karlovy Vary and Locarno; it’s set to screen at the New York Film Festival as well. Another standout nonfiction entry here was Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers,” a galvanizing series of interviews with six former heads of Israel’s internal counterintelligence agency, laying bare their past tactics and operations with devastating candor.

“The Gatekeepers” offers the rare and disturbing experience of watching men describe what it was like for them to take other people’s lives. So, too, does another widely praised documentary, “The Act of Killing,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s up-close and queasy-making look at the activities of Indonesia’s notorious death squads. It’s an undoubtedly provocative film, if also numbingly repetitive at times; frankly, I think there’s a limit to how much insight one can glean from two hours spent in the company of unrepentant evildoers.

PD: It’s not just the two-hour doses that get you. Seeing a few dozen movies in the span of three weeks is tantamount to a form of trauma: Your emotions are jostled every which way on subjects such as prison camps (“Camp 14”), sex addiction (“Thanks for Sharing”), molestation (“The Hunt”), euthanasia (“Dormant Beauty”) and so forth.

And while I welcome studies of challenging subjects, it makes me extremely grateful for plain old escapism like “Argo,” Ben Affleck’s white-knuckle Iran hostage-rescue thriller, in which the CIA receives an assist from Hollywood, and Toronto’s super opening-night pick, “Looper.” Had director Rian Johnson made this time-travel stunner immediately after “Brick,” he’d be the hottest young storyteller in Hollywood. As it is, he’s arguably ahead of where Christopher Nolan was at this point in his career, both raising the game via intelligent but not prohibitively intellectual genre movies, which makes me excited to see what Johnson does next.

JC: In the words of our Variety colleague Rob Nelson, “I never thought I’d be racing to see a movie by Ben Affleck.” And yet there can hardly be any doubt, at this stage, that Affleck is the real deal. His acting may still leave something to be desired (see the largely negative notices for Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” of which I seem to be the lone fan), but from “Gone Baby Gone” to “The Town” and now “Argo,” he’s had a run that any Hollywood helmer would envy.

Like any festival that commands this level of media attention, Toronto creates its own bubble, exposing journalists to no shortage of topical traumas, as you point out, but often providing a temporary shield from current events. But sometimes the bubble bursts: As tensions escalate over Iran’s nuclear program, no one can watch “Argo” in a popcorn-munching vacuum. Along similar lines, I find it chastening that while we were dutifully parsing the merits and demerits of some 150 new movies, a trailer for something called “Innocence of Muslims” was setting off far more influential shockwaves through the Arab world and beyond.

One is reminded, perhaps, of the power of certain moving images and the futility of others, that sometimes it’s just a movie and sometimes it isn’t. An event like Toronto can help us make some sense of the difference, but every film festival is, in the end, its own form of escapism. Time to head home and back to the real world, whatever it may bring.