Toronto: At Age 40, Festival Unleashes a Fountain of Youth

Mustang Cannes Film Festival
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

JUSTIN CHANG: And so ends another edition of the Toronto Intl. Film Festival — the 40th edition, as it happens, which organizers chose to commemorate in part by unveiling a competition slate (Platform) and a sidebar devoted to episodic TV premieres (Primetime). Not all that transpired here, of course, has been quite so celebratory. Market activity has been on the slow side, and there were two controversial last-minute withdrawals from the lineup — Sydney Pollack’s “Amazing Grace” (which was also yanked a week earlier from Telluride) and Mathew Cullen’s “London Fields” — due to creative differences and behind-the-scenes legal wrangling. Worst of all was the sad news from abroad that the Polish director Marcin Wrona, having just attended the well-received world premiere of his Discovery entry “Demon” at Toronto, had died shortly before his film was about to be unveiled at the Gdynia Film Festival.

There’s no appropriate segue from a startling real-life tragedy to the annual trivialities of awards season, of which Toronto has been a significant and historic bellwether, and which has unfortunately become the dominant metric for this festival’s overall success or failure. And the chatter on the ground this year seemed to suggest that, having missed out on “Birdman” last year, the festival again seemed to lack the sort of strong, galvanizing critical and audience hit that, like “12 Years a Slave” or “The King’s Speech” or “Slumdog Millionaire,” immediately announces itself as The One to Beat. I think it’s telling — and pretty wonderful — that the winner of this year’s coveted People’s Choice Award was not some big and flashy insta-contender, but rather a film as deceptively small and modest as Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” a very tricky adaptation of a justly beloved book and a film whose cumulative emotional power takes you by surprise. It’s always nice when the people’s choice is something that gets discovered gradually rather than mandated from on high.

Beyond “Room,” the most roundly admired picture at TIFF seemed to be Tom McCarthy’s richly absorbing newsroom procedural “Spotlight” (winner of the runner-up prize), the buzz for which began in Venice, continued building in Telluride, and is now forging full steam ahead. Responses have been a bit more muted to two other Venice/Toronto premieres, “Black Mass” and “The Danish Girl,” whose transformative lead performances by Johnny Depp and Eddie Redmayne have met with astonishment and skepticism alike. As one of the relative few who has seen “Steve Jobs” (which bowed at Telluride and will next screen as the New York Film Festival’s centerpiece gala), I couldn’t help but think that if Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s thrilling, audacious and very “Birdman”-esque biopic had played Toronto, it would have supplied precisely the charge of event-movie excitement that seemed to be in short supply this year, Ridley Scott’s brainy and engrossing “The Martian” notwithstanding.

None of this, I hasten to add, is meant to be a knock on Toronto. No film festival should derive its sense of self-worth from the crass spectacle and unrelenting machinery of awards season, and frankly I’m not often a fan of The One to Beat. As it happens, the best new film I saw on the Venice/Telluride/Toronto circuit is one that couldn’t seem less interested in winning a little gold trophy, and that would be Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s exquisitely sad and beautiful “Anomalisa,” a wondrously idiosyncratic achievement that was scooped up by Paramount in the wake of ecstatic reviews, and which is now hopefully headed toward the audience it deserves. In your own admiring take on the film, Peter, you wrote that “it’s unclear just who (the filmmakers) imagined might be the audience for such a cerebral cult offering” — and I think I speak for both of us when I say I hope you are proven wrong.

PETER DEBRUGE: Well, the great thing about film festivals is that they provide a platform for creatively ambitious movies that might not have a fighting chance commercially. Toronto audiences are famously supportive of films that might seem challenging to mainstream audiences, which in turn can give distributors the confidence to get behind a movie that didn’t necessarily seem viable on paper. I sincerely hope that proves the case with “Anomalisa,” for which Paramount reportedly paid more than $5 million. Kaufman is hands-down the most exciting screenwriter Hollywood has to offer, and whereas he overreached with the sheer scale of his last, “Synecdoche, New York,” this relatively modest stop-motion comedy allows him to cram all those existential concerns into a thimble. Still, as special as the resulting film is, it could cost Paramount nearly as much to market as it did to acquire — a phenomenon that could explain why sales have been so cool (even for such buzzy titles as Michael Moore’s irresponsibly disingenuous “Where to Invade Next”) at Toronto this year.

To some degree, we’re obligated to consider these films’ awards or box office potential, since our industry readers want to know both. (Which Julianne Moore performance, “Freeheld” or “Maggie’s Plan,” could get her nominated again? Neither. Will “Equals” appeal to Kristen Stewart’s fan base? Yes, but just a fraction of it.) And yet festivals remain nearly the purest venue in which to appreciate cinema for cinema’s sake. It’s exciting to discover a film like “The Martian” (which will be huge) in such a context, since it encourages us to burrow in and consider the artistic choices in a studio movie that would otherwise steamroll its way into megaplexes. That said, in a festival as ginormous as Toronto, there are so many potential discoveries tucked away in the lower-profile sections that our time might be better spent helping potential distributors locate those hidden gems.

For example, I sampled several coming-of-age films with incredibly different insights into the timeless subject of adolescence. Local Canadian director Stephen Dunn’s ultra-personal “Closet Monster” feels like the sort of coming-out story we might have seen in the ’90s, with a few original twists (the teen lead talks to his pet hamster, who responds in Isabella Rossellini’s voice). In the Larry Clark-like “Bang Gang,” a bunch of French teens obliterate all sexual inhibitions in a series of afterschool orgies, while the glacially paced Icelandic “Sparrows” turns heartbreaking when two small-town characters lose their respective virginities.

I was more impressed still by Discovery winner “Black,” a star-crossed romance between Belgian kids from different backgrounds in which we see the fire slowly extinguish in newcomer Martha Canga Antonio’s eyes as she gets pulled deeper into the grips of her vicious street gang. Her incredible performance reinforces the fact that some of the most impactful acting seen in Toronto comes from minors, the two most remarkable turns being those by Abraham Attah, who goes from carefree kid to ruthless child soldier in “Beasts of No Nation,” and “Room” star Jacob Tremblay, who had me believing every second of his rocky adjustment to the real world after spending four years confined to a backyard shed.

CHANG: Attah and Tremblay were indeed superb in two films that sought to approximate — not always successfully, but with real artistry and depth of feeling — the perspective of a young boy growing up under unusually fraught and challenging circumstances. Reckless child endangerment is of course a thematic fixture of most film festivals, and this year’s Toronto was no exception. In addition to “Beasts of No Nation” and “Room,” there was “The Idol,” Hany Abu-Assad’s captivating biopic of global Palestinian icon Muhammad Assaf, which is fueled by a potent sense of what it means to grow up in an occupied state (and features terrific performances from four young Gazan kids who proved to be utter naturals onscreen, despite never having acted before).

Along similar lines, there were the barely grown Axis soldiers forced to clean up after WWII in Martin Zandvliet’s “Land of Mine,” one of the roundly acclaimed hits of the Platform competition; and also the damaged children of “Spotlight,” which shows how the trauma of sexual abuse by a trusted spiritual elder can continue to haunt survivors well into adulthood. If there’s a broader theme or insight to be extrapolated here, it’s that childhood, for some, can extend well past preadolescence until it becomes a perpetual state of mind — witness the adult siblings played by Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman in the latter’s “The Family Fang,” a lovely and bittersweet family drama that depicts parental selfishness with tenderness as well as anger. Had it not already been taken, “Arrested Development” would not have made a bad alternative title.

DEBRUGE: In that department, I finally caught up with “Mustang,” which some had dubbed a Turkish spin on “The Virgin Suicides” at Cannes — or, as it turns out, a vast improvement on last year’s “Villa Touma.” Contrasting the natural ebullience of its five young leads with the repressive society in which they yearn to assert their own identities, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s vibrant debut concerns five orphan sisters forced under house arrest by relatives determined to protect their virtue until each can be married off to suitors of their guardians’ choosing. As in Sofia Coppola’s all-American coming-of-ager, we can easily imagine ourselves in the characters’ places, though “Mustang” draws added value from its unique cultural milieu, part personal awakening, part prison-break thriller as it makes the case for gender equality in an ultra-patriarchal culture where girls just wanna have fun.

While still on the childhood theme, I marvel at the mere existence of a creepy little allegory called “Evolution” from Lucile Hadzihalilovic (better known to some as Mrs. Gaspar Noe), whom it took nearly a decade to finance this follow-up to her 2004 “Innocence” — a controversial adolescent-anxiety parable in which Victorian girls are groomed for who-knows-what potentially sinister adult service — with this bonkers look at what boys fear most. Actually, I’m not sure she knows what makes young men squirm, but the resulting phantasmagoria blends mer-people, Stepford-like mom-bots, carnivorous starfish and some deeply unsettling body-horror imagery (what the hospital nurses do to boys makes “Spotlight’s” Boston priest scandal seem tame).

There’s no mistaking Hadzihalilovic’s visually poetic, unusually withholding brand of provocation (she relies on our imaginations to fill in the subliminal horror implied, but deliberately left offscreen) for Noe’s more directly confrontational punk sensibilities, on display in her husband’s 3D explicit-sex apologia “Love.” I admired “Love” on first viewing at Cannes, mostly for what I perceived as its sincerity, but have since come to see the stunt as mostly puerile — not unlike the last couple of semi-autobiographical Terrence Malick movies (his botched Hollywood satire “Knight of Cups” was conspicuously absent in Toronto). If you want stories that benefit from their directors’ actual-lived experience, I would sooner recommend Lorene Scafaria’s mother-loving “The Meddler” or Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s tony French estate farce “Families,” both suitable for all audiences.

While Noe has a point that the movies are far too prudish on the subject of sex, the solution isn’t his juvenile impulse to show more genitals (or, POW!, the obligatory direct-to-camera climax), but to get honest about the role sex has in adult relationships — which is one reason movies like Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall” still seem so far behind the times. Despite its gay-rights stance, every sexual encounter in that film is traumatic. I was impressed to see “Demolition” (Fox Searchlight’s opening-night “American Beauty” wannabe) allow Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts to connect onscreen without getting physical, and also intrigued by the way cliche-averse “C.R.A.Z.Y.” director Jean-Marc Vallee once again handled a young character’s coming out (another strong kid perf, this one from newcomer Judah Lewis). Though “Demolition” cloyingly panders to our emotions, it also has its finger on the zeitgeist, which was otherwise best represented in a handful of hit-and-miss transgender stories. I was thoroughly seduced by “The Danish Girl,” despite Tom Hooper’s impulse to drape everything in too-polished prestige-movie drag. Eddie Redmayne gives a stunningly transformative performance in a film with even-more-stunning mainstream appeal. We’ve come a long way, baby.

CHANG: We have indeed, although 10 years after “Brokeback Mountain” took Toronto by storm, it’s worth asking exactly what kind of progress we’re making if we can’t do better than “Stonewall” and “Freeheld,” a drearily correct film starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page as a couple fighting for recognition of their domestic partnership (and also fighting not to be upstaged while Steve Carell camps it up as a flamboyant crusader). If these pictures are indicative of the new wave in LGBT cine-advocacy, the surely unintended message seems to be that gays and lesbians are people, too, and deserve their blandly ripped-from-the-headlines prestige vehicles just like everyone else. (Of course, we can do better, as evidenced by Todd Haynes’ incalculably superior lesbian love story “Carol,” which skipped Toronto in favor of more exclusive berths at Telluride and New York.)

What else? Amid the vital and ongoing conversation about the general dearth of films directed by women, perhaps it’s a sign of progress that the sheer number of female filmmakers at Toronto this year went generally unremarked-upon — either that, or this is a regular, healthy TIFF occurrence of which my heightened sensitivities are only now taking notice. In any event, whatever you thought of the films themselves, it was refreshing to see the names of Rebecca Miller, Patricia Rozema, Catherine Hardwicke, Deepa Mehta, Meghna Gulzar, Gaby Dellal, Fabienne Berthaud, Barbara Kopple, Scafaria and many others in this year’s program. I’ll take this moment to reiterate my appreciation for Jocelyn Moorhouse’s “The Dressmaker,” a nutty, messy and wildly entertaining Australian revenge saga that — like the eponymous heroine played by Kate Winslet — refuses to behave in the tittering, docile manner you’d expect. And of all the films I missed at Toronto, Peter, your recommendations have me especially eager to catch up with both “Evolution” and Chantal Akerman’s “No Home Movie,” two works by singular French artists that make a compelling case for TIFF as much more than just an awards-season launchpad.

As ridiculous as it may be to come to Toronto with the expectation that you’ll see this year’s best picture winner, I think we would both agree that the festival did screen the best film of 2015 to date, even if we disagree upon which film that happens to be. For you it would be Laszlo Nemes’ “Son of Saul,” a formally audacious Holocaust drama that I expect will continue to disturb and provoke many in the coming months, and for me it’s Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “The Assassin,” a meditative period epic that duly cleared half the theater at its first screening at the Scotiabank, but for some continued to work its nearly indescribable magic. Having already been well received at Cannes, these two pictures naturally flew a bit under the radar at Toronto, which is exactly why sometimes the radar is best avoided. The glory and the agony of this festival is that when you have just shy of 300 features to choose from, the next one you see — be it an American film or an overseas co-production, a world premiere or yesterday’s news — might just turn out to be something very special.