“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” asks Joaquin Phoenix, playing a deranged incel version of the DC supervillain in “Joker,” the unconventional comic book movie that’s sucked up much of the air from the fall festival circuit. Like an aggro caricature of the “involuntary celibates” who troll message boards online, he’s responding to a version of Gotham City that looks a lot like New York 30 years ago, circa the Central Park Five case, but he could just as well be describing the deluge of new movies flooding into the world between the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals and the way they’re being interpreted by critics high on the nitrous oxide of our time — critics who came with “knives out,” so to speak.
This new “Joker” claims not to be taking a specific stance (which couldn’t be further from the truth), but there are plenty of genuinely apolitical movies that are being scrutinized by critics through the filter of representation and the latest Trump tweet. Readers — or at least the ones who comment — seem to resent being forced to hear how every movie relates back to current events or the commander-in-chief. They want escapism. Trouble is, the kind of films invited to premiere in those three fall festivals typically pack more substance than your average popcorn movie, and both the films themselves and the reactions they elicit have become … if not crazier, then certainly more heated.
Take Taika Waititi’s anti-fascism satire “Jojo Rabbit,” a commercial gamble (from a director leveraging the success of “Thor: Ragnarok” to make a risky personal project) that provoked the most enthusiastic response I witnessed in Toronto: Like “Moonlight Kingdom” with Nazis, the questionable-taste comedy is set in the final months of World War II and focuses on an overzealous Hitler Youth cadet, whose blind acceptance of anti-Semitic propaganda is challenged when he discovers a Jewish girl hiding under his roof. With one line, the stowaway pierces not only his delusions but the rise of white nationalism in the world today: “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”
Also in Toronto, Rian Johnson delivered the ultra-eccentric, clockwork-tight Agatha Christie homage “Knives Out” (a “one for me” feature dashed off between episodes of the “Star Wars” franchise). As the whodunit comes into focus, the film pits Ana de Armas’ immigrant nurse against a bunch of heir-brained white 1-percenters looking to inherit their dead dad’s fortune. The movie’s a hoot, but a fair number of pundits missed the forest for its treatment of trending topics, obsessing over those issues in their reviews.
In some cases, addressing identity politics seems fully appropriate. “Hustlers” sets out to be a female “Goodfellas,” and it clearly took a woman writer-director to flip the script on characters so often stereotyped in man-made movies, celebrating a gang of New York strippers for using their sexual power and wits to their advantage. We absolutely need such voices in the mix. To Toronto’s credit, the all-important market/showcase has reached a point where more than one-third of its 245-film lineup was “directed, co-directed, or created by women.”
That makes Venice Film Festival topper Alberto Barbera’s ongoing defiance of matters of inclusion so galling. Of the 21 films competing for Venice’s top prize, only two were directed by women. As if to fan the flames, Barbera invited both Roman Polanski and Nate Parker to premiere their new films, which many American critics evaluated through the lens of the filmmakers’ respective sexual scandals — shifting the conversation from aesthetics to morality. (Personally, I find Golden Lion winner “Joker” to be the season’s most amoral offering in its deification of an iconic fictional sociopath.)
Representation matters, but we should celebrate great stories wherever we can find them. Perceptions of privilege shouldn’t count against Noah Baumbach’s intensely personal “Marriage Story,” a raw, gut-wrenching autopsy of a once-loving relationship — and the rare film invited to play all three fests. After casting his own mother in his award-winning “Krisha,” South Florida-based director Trey Edward Shults shifted the focus to an African American family in his astonishing new film “Waves,” resulting in an enthralling emotional journey where the characters feel universal by virtue of their specificity.
As Barack Obama put it in a promo for his Higher Ground initiative, “We want people to be able to get outside of themselves and experience and understand the lives of somebody else. Which is what a good story does.” Ideally, film festivals offer audiences the chance to do that, assembling new work of every conceivable genre and provenance. Call me crazy, but whatever our gender or color or personal beliefs, we are all looking to be moved by the movies.