Toronto Film Festival 2015: The Best of the Fest

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The Weekend Warrior is back from the Toronto Film Festival with his picks of his 12 favorite movies

The 40th Annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) ended over the weekend, and admittedly, this wasn’t the best year for the festival, mainly because I only walked away with a handful of movies that might make it into my Top 25 at the end of the year, and some of the best movies and biggest highlights were ones that had already premiered at other film festivals, including the recent Venice and Telluride Film Festivals. As far as the movies that premiered exclusively at the Toronto Film Festival, only two or three of them had any sort of impact.

I ended up seeing 33 films in total (with three or four more walk-outs for various reasons, mostly due to time considerations), which is about par for the course with my coverage of Toronto in years past. Out of those 33, I’ve picked my 12 favorites below, and mind you, I didn’t include films like Mississippi Grind, which I had already seen at Sundance. This is just from the movies I saw at the Toronto Film Festival proper. (You can read my reviews of the films with a * next to the title by clicking on the title.)

12. 45 Years (Sundance Selects)
Written and directed by Andrew Haigh
Starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay 

This was a tough one to decide upon as there were two “Honorable Mentions” (see below) that could have taken this spot, but Haigh’s follow-up to Weekend was the type of naturalistic British character drama we’ve seen so rarely other than from Mike Leigh. Rampling and Courtenay play a married couple about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary only for a new secret to emerge about one of his ex-girlfriends who vanished and was presumed dead. Haigh leaves things vague enough that those who watch the movie can decide for themselves where things go after the film ends and there are still many emotions still to explore.

Toronto Film Festival 2015: The Best of the Fest

11. *Black Mass (Warner Bros.)
Directed by Scott Cooper
Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Kevin Bacon, W. Earl Brown, David Harbour, Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott and Juno Temple 

Out of the Furnace director Scott Cooper’s third film took a look at Boston’s famous criminal “Whitey” Bulger, and more than anything else, it was all about Depp’s portrayal of Bulger that left such a startling impression. Granted, it was hard not to compare this to films like The Godfather, Goodfellas and other such crime dramas, because it followed a similar formula, but its insanely talented ensemble cast offered incredible performances across the board, even from the smaller roles and lesser-known actors like Julianne Nicholson, helping to make it more than just a Boston version of those films (which granted, Scorsese himself had already done with The Departed). While I’m not sure this will be getting a ton of Oscar nominations, Depp seems like a definite.

The Danish Girl

10. *The Danish Girl (Focus Features)
Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthieus Schoenarts, Ben Whishaw & Amber Heard 

While there’s been criticisms of the latest from Oscar winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) of being Oscar fodder (and maybe it is), there’s no denying how he realized this amazing story of Danish painter Lili Elbe, the very first recipient of gender correction surgery, with Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne giving another amazing performance along with this year’s “It Girl” Alicia Vikander, who should get Oscar attention for her amazing roster of roles this year from Ex Machina to Guy Ritchie’s underrated The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Unfortunately, the subject matter of gender dysphoria is not something that’s as relatable as stuttering or even being a genius diagnosed with ALS for most, although there’s a timeliness to the film that should help it fare well.

9. Dheepan (Sundance Selects)
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Starring Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers and Faouzi Bensaidi 

This is one of the earliest films I saw even before TIFF started and I just never got around to reviewing it, but Audiard is one of my favorite French filmmakers due to his amazing films Rust and Bone, Un Prophete, The Beat My Heart Skipped and Read My Lips. Here, he goes well outside his comfort zone with a tale of Sri Lankan immigrants who come to France to escape the war there and end up getting caught up in a gang war centered around the projects they’re forced to live. It was obvious this was a different movie for Audiard when it opens in Sri Lanka, but once it gets to France, it’s another interesting take on the immigrant experience, partially because it’s about a family that’s thrown together by circumstance in order to be able to get out of the warzone. Dheepan gets a job as a caretaker at projects, while his “wife” ends up looking after an elderly man involved with the mob. It’s a complex look at what it means to be a family and it’s only slightly marred by its action-filled last act that comes off like Die Hard or Death Wish.

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8. *Truth (Sony Pictures Classics) 
Written and directed by James Vanderbilt
Starring Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Dermot Mulroney

The first of two movies about journalism that really struck a chord at TIFF is this directorial debut by James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) which adapted “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes’ memoir about the famed “Rathergate” which led to Dan Rather’s departure as CBS’ top newsman in 2005. I have to admit that I didn’t know much about what happened (having not watched CBS much during that time), but I was aware of the Presidential election of 2004 that led to the controversial reelection of George W. Bush, and apparently Mapes and “60 Minutes” got sucked into it as they were given false documents that may or may not have been a political move. The film follows Mapes and her team putting together the story and the fallout when it’s learned that information was falsified and how it affects her and Rather (played by Robert Redford), but above all else, the movie really stands out for Blanchett’s irrefutably great performance

7. Green Room (A24)
Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier 
Starring Anton Yelchin, Patrick Stewart, Mark Webber, Eric Edelstein, Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots, Macon Blair, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, Kai Lennox

The opening night of TIFF’s “Midnight Madness” slate ended up being one of the best of the series (at least that I saw) as it followed the misfortune of a punk band called the Ain’t Rights who end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, as they witness a murder at a white supremacist bar and immediately become targets for the bar owner, played by Patrick Stewart in a very different role. I was really impressed by what Saulnier did with a fairly common genre trope by creating unbearable tension as you never know who will survive and who won’t. It features great performances by Anton Yelchin and an unrecognizable Imogen Poots, and it’s such an original take on the “wrong place, wrong time” horror films where teens are being threatened and killed for seeing something they shouldn’t as exemplified by the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

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6. *The Martian (20th Century Fox) 
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie

I won’t go as far to say that this is one of Ridley Scott’s best films in years, because I actually was a fan of Prometheus, Robin Hood and others that have received critical drubbings, but it’s definitely a step back in the right direction after the awful Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Counselor as he took Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s bestselling novel and created an exciting and entertaining film on par with Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. As fantastic as Goddard’s screenplay was, it was just as impressive for the amazing cast Scott assembled and his ability to juggle three completely separate sections of the film (Mars, Earth and a spaceship in between the two) with nary a dull moment and without it ever feeling disjointed. Not sure about its awards potential so far, but it should be one of October’s biggest movies.

Check out Jake Gyllenhaal in the Demolition trailer.

5. *Demolition (Fox Searchlight) 
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis 

I wasn’t the only person who liked or loved this new movie that pairs TIFF regular Jean Marc Vallée (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club) with Jake Gyllenhaal, but it does feel like it’s a fairly small island of fans, which may be why it’s not being released until April. Even so, this edgy dark comedy that feels like it belongs in a genre alongside Fight Club and American Psycho, puts Gyllenhaal in the role of a broker whose wife was killed in a car accident sending him on a very odd journey with Naomi Watts and her son (played by Judah Lewis) joining him for part of it. I’m a big fan of originality and we just don’t get original movies like this here in the States, because this feels like something that might be commonplace coming from Japan, Korea or other places.

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4. Room (A24) 
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy 

When you talk about truly heart-wrenching movies, you can’t get more emotionally taxing than this story of a young mother (Brie Larson) who has been trapped in a shed with her 5-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) for years until they finally figure out a way to escape. The movie is quite an amazing step forward for the Irish director Abrahamson who last directed the musical film Frank, starring Michael Fassbender, and while he had two great actors to help bring Emma Donoghue’s adaptation of her own novel to life, it was also about the visuals and music that put us into the head of the film’s young protagonist and all the things he was experiencing for the first time. It’s a wonderful film and one that I’m likely to enjoy even more on repeat viewings. It was little surprise when it won the People’s Choice Award. (Hope to have my own review soon.)

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3. *Spotlight (Open Road Films) 
Directed by Thomas McCartney
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James and Billy Crudup

While my first knowledge of the Catholic Church covering up pedophile priests began with Amy Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil, it actually was a huge news story that was broken by The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative team in early 2002, and this amazing ensemble drama shows the research and negotiations that led to the shocking story. Ruffalo is once again a stand-out among a terrific ensemble cast as Thomas McCartney goes in a different route than his previous movies, which were mostly lighter comedies, and creates an intricate drama that keeps you invested in what is essentially a bunch of journalists doing research.

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2. *Sicario (Lionsgate) 
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro

Maybe I was already ready to love this film before seeing it due to my absolute adoration for everything Villeneuve has done previously, including his last two TIFF offerings, Prisoners and Enemy, both starring Jake Gyllenhaal. But Sicario was such a different take on the Mexican cartel crime thrillers we’ve seen in the past mainly due to the focus on Emily Blunt’s character, a female FBI agent brought into a DEA task force to take down a vicious cartel crime lord. The movie is tense and exciting and it features Benicio Del Toro giving one of those rare performances that you can’t easily forget. (Think Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men and Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, which is why I think Lionsgate needs to go all-out with an Oscar push for Del Toro.)

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1. Janis: Little Girl Blue (PBS American Masters) 
Written and directed by Amy Berg

See, there’s a good reason why I don’t see a lot of documentaries at film festivals and it’s not because I don’t like them, but rather because I tend to like docs more than narrative features, so when I see one as good as Amy Berg’s look at rock legend Janis Joplin, it’s likely to trump even the best narrative feature. Which is exactly what Janis: Little Girl Blue did with the brilliant way Amy Berg (West of Memphis) combining archival footage and her amazing performances with narrative culled from Joplin’s letters home, read by Cat Power’s Chan Marshall. It created a stirring portrait of a highly-underrated singer, someone whose actual off-stage personality we rarely got to see, but whose tragic and sudden death made her even more famous. Seeing this movie so soon after Amy and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck really struck home how being famous, especially so suddenly, can really affect someone’s ability to not get bogged down in addiction, depression and worse. I still remember how amazed I was when I saw the footage of Joplin in the 2003 doc Festival Express and Berg’s movie is that times 100 because there’s so much footage of her performances and lots of insights that it’s one of those rare documentaries that is absolutely riveting.

Honorable Mentions: Beasts of No Nation, Where to Invade Next

Movies I wish I had a chance to see: Youth

That’s mostly it for this year’s Toronto Film Festival, although I still have a lot more interviews and a couple more interviews to share over the next few weeks.