The Weekend Warrior’s TIFF ’14 Wrap-Up and Best of Fest

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The 39th Annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) came to a close over the weekend and many are declaring it the best TIFF in many years, which is quite something when you realize how many great movies, including many Oscar winners, have played at the annual celebration of cinema.

I’ve used the term “an abundance of wealths” a few times while talking about this year’s festival, and it turned out to be one of my rare predictions that was entirely spot on. I saw somewhere between 33 and 35 movies during my ten days in Toronto for the festival and of the movies seen, there was only one of them that I felt was completely terrible and unwatchable. There were a few other movies that just didn’t work, but there was only one movie that I physically loathed and was angry that I wasted my time seeing it. And of course, it was by one of my favorite filmmakers, no less, which is nothing that new considering past duds like Blindness and Tideland.

The Oscar race has now become much clearer after the start of the fall festival season, although there’s still many movies to be seen, including the three biggies at the New York Film Festival: David Fincher’s Gone Girl, Alejandro Innaritu’s Birdman and PT Anderson’s Inherent Vice. At TIFF alone, there were a number of incredible, unforgettable performances with characters that ranged from the maniacally delusional (Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler) to the unforgivably relentless and driven (Michael Shannon in 99 Homes, J.K. Simmons in Whiplash) to the bonafide genius faced with insurmountable hurdles (Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne in The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything). There’s certainly a lot more to say when it comes to the Oscar race now that TIFF has passed, but I’m going to save that for a separate piece.

Now, before we get to the regular list of my favorite movies from this year’s TIFF, the “Best of the Fest,” let’s look at some of the acquisitions announced so far, which generally started slow as films looking for distribution competed against the bigger studio movies that premiered during TIFF’s opening weekend.

Paramount Pictures closed the biggest deal at this year’s festival as well as one of the first ones, buying Chris Rock’s crowd-pleasing comedy Top 5 for $12.5 million, which may be one of the largest amounts paid for a film out of a festival in recent memory. You’d probably have to go back a couple of years to find anything that was bought for that more money than that, that’s for sure.

As far as quantity, RADiUS-TWC bought the most films at Toronto, three in fact, including Nick Kroll’s comedy Adult Beginners, Chris Evans’ directorial debut Before We Go, co-starring Alice Eve, and the musical The Last 5 Years, starring Anna Kendrick. I’ve seen the first and the third and feel they’re both really viable buys, particularly the latter which could do huge considering how many young women love Kendrick in Pitch Perfect. (It’s also already scheduled for a Valentine’s Day release next year when it only has to compete with a little movie called 50 Shades of Grey.) RADiUS’ parent company The Weinstein Company didn’t jump on anything this year, maybe because none of their three acquisitions from TIFF ’13 (The Railway Man, Begin Again and last weekend’s Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby) really went anywhere.

Image Entertainment paid $3.5 million for Thomas McCarthy’s The Cobbler, starring Adam Sandler, which may seen like a strange fit considering some of Image’s other releases (many of which only received nominal theatrical releases), but this one definitely has commercial potential even if critics pounced on it with not a single positive review for it on Rotten Tomatoes so far.

A24, another prime festival buyer, scooped up Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, which certainly has its selling points, but I personally don’t think it will be as commercial a hit as some of the other TIFF buys.

Magnolia only picked up one movie, the doc Sunshine Superman, while Sundance Selects picked up the German post-WWII drama Phoenix, directed by Christian Petzold, which is discussed more below.

Sony Pictures Classics, which normally jumps on a lot of films out of festivals, has only picked up two so far, Giulio Ricciarelli’s Labyrinth of Lies (which isn’t Germany’s Oscar selection, oddly enough) and the Julianne Moore drama Still Alice, in which she plays a woman who begins to show the early signs of Alzheimer’s. And yes, the latter was probably bought in hopes of getting Moore back into the Oscar game in case it doesn’t happen with David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. (They bought the rights to the documentary Merchants of Doubt a month before the festival began.)

Saban Films, which is making a Power Rangers movie with Paramount, also looks like it’s jumping into the distribution game by picking up two movies, Sarik Andreasyan’s action-thriller American Heist, starring Adrien Brody and Hayden Christensen, and Philip Martin’s art heist movie The Forger, starring John Travolta, neither of which I’ve seen. (I believe they have a distribution deal with Roadside Attractions, which was surprisingly silent during this year’s TIFF.)

Another new player to the game, Andrew Karpen’s Bleecker Street picked up the U.S. distribution rights to Ed Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice, starring Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber as chess players Bobby Fisher and Boris Spassky, who clashed in a tense Chess Tournament in 1972 as the world watched.

Luc Besson’s EuraCorp, who has a distribution deal through Relativity Media, snagged the Samuel L. Jackson action flick Big Game, directed by Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander (Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale), which involves a teenager trying to protect the President of the United States when Air Force One is shot down nearby.

And that brings us to my annual Toronto Film Festival “Best of Fest”! I’ve talked about all but one of these movies in my three TIFF diaries, but we expect you’ll hear a lot more about them over the next few months.

1. Whiplash (Sony Pictures Classics – Oct. 10)

Damien Chazelle’s tension-filled drama is about an aspiring jazz drummer, played by Miles Teller, and his conflict with his competitive instructor, played by J.K. Simmons in possibly the greatest role of his career. It starts out simply as an ambitious young man trying to get into his music school’s prestigious jazz band, led by instructor Terence Fletcher, but the two of them soon start butting heads in a growing feud that absolutely explodes. So far, it’s the best movie I’ve seen this year and the only movie likely to get a perfect 10/10 rating. I imagine I’ll probably see it a couple more times this year.

2. Nightcrawler (Open Road – Oct. 31)

Possibly one of the best surprises at this year’s TIFF was the World Premiere of Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a petty thief who enters the world of crime scene videography, selling footage from grisly accidents and violent killings to a local television station for money. Gyllenhaal’s performance is his best yet, playing a character so morally bankrupt but so convinced of his own genius that you watch the movie with your mouth aghast about the words that come out of his mouth, which rightly should be credited to Gilroy’s terrific original script.

3. Coming Home (Sony Pictures Classics)

Chinese auteur filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s film is a beautiful story about a woman whose husband is imprisoned for decades who returns to learn his wife no longer recognizes him due to a brain injury. It’s one of those heartwarming films that’s unlikely to leave a dry eye in the house. Gong Li’s time-spanning performance is one of her best yet, mainly because she’s almost unrecognizable as her character ages.

4. The Theory of Everything (Focus Features – Nov. 7)

Much has been said about this biopic about renowned physicist Professor Stephen Hawking, as portrayed by Eddie Redmayne and as seen through his romance and marriage to Felicity Jones’ Jane, but James Marsh’s latest dramatic feature shows his enormous growth as a filmmaker in telling this incredibly moving story of overcoming obstacles. (Hawking was given two years to live shortly after meeting Jane and is still alive nearly 50 years later.)

5. The Imitation Game (The Weinstein Company – Nov. 21)

With many similarities to The Theory of Everything, including a brilliant performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as mathematician Alan Turing, who helped the British government crack the Nazi’s seemingly unbreakable Enigma code while hiding his homosexual feelings, this fantastic film from director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) combines an incredibly clever script with an equally great ensemble to cast a new light on WWII than we’ve seen before. It wasn’t too big a surprise that it won the Grolsch People’s Award at TIFF this year and it’s likely to follow many previous winners to a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.

6. Phoenix (Sundance Selects)

Christian Petzold’s German drama is all about reconstruction after World War II, as it follows a horribly disfigured concentration camp survivor played by Nina Hoss (A Most Wanted Man), who gets facial reconstructive surgery and returns to Berlin looking for her husband. Once she finds him, he doesn’t recognize her but feels she looks enough like his (supposedly dead) wife that he uses the woman to try to con her family out of their wealth. A slow-moving drama with a shocking climax, I’m genuinely surprised Germany didn’t choose this as their film to represent their country at the Oscars.

7. 99 Homes

Possibly Ramin (Man Push Cart) Bahrani’s most accomplished film to date looks at the housing crash of 2008 that left many in Florida homeless, including a young father played by Andrew Garfield who tries to get work doing odd jobs for Michael Shannon’s Rick Carver, the ruthless realtor who threw him out into the street, in order to earn enough money to get his home back. It’s an incredibly powerful film as you watch Garfield change as he’s given more responsibilities by Carver, which is another great character role for Shannon.

8. Wild Tales (Sony Pictures Classics)

From Argentina comes this wildly dark and funny revenge flick from Damián Szifrón, made up of six short films of people who are pushed so far they have to do something about it with the scenarios ranging from road rage to a wedding where the bride finds out her new husband has cheated on her. You should be able to tell from the very first segment if this movie is for you.

9. Roger Waters The Wall

More than a concert film about the Pink Floyd singer/bassist’s world tour playing the band’s iconic 1979 album of the same name, the film acts as an indictment against war and the government, a tribute to those who died both at war and in terrorist activities but also a very personal and intimate look that follows the musician’s journey to visit the place where his father died, which played a huge influence on the album and resulting shows.

10. Men, Women & Children (Paramount)

Adapted from Chad Kultgen’s novel by Jason Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary), this ensemble drama about how the internet has affected human relationships is something that really stuck with me in a big way. I was impressed as usual by Reitman’s ability at getting performances out of his actors, especially the younger ones playing the teen characters, such as Ansel Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever, whose stories are often more interesting than that of the adults, played by Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Dennis Haysbert and Den Norris.

11. Hector and the Search for Happiness (Relativity Media – Sept. 19)

Likewise, I was pleasantly surprised by this uncynical look at the world starring Simon Pegg as a psychologist bored with his ordinary life–married to Rosamund Pike? How can that possibly be boring?–so he goes on a trip around the world trying to find happiness in diverse places like China, Africa and Los Angeles. Along the way, he meets characters played by the likes of Stellan Skarsgard, Jean Reno, Toni Collette and Christopher Plummer, which just adds to the fun.

12. Wild (Fox Searchlight – Dec. 5)

Reese Witherspoon gives another unforgettable performance playing Cheryl Strayed, a damaged woman with a past that includes drugs and promiscuous sex, who decides to walk the hundreds of miles on the Pacific Crest Trail on her own, meeting all sorts of characters, some more dangerous than others. Another brilliant piece of filmmaking from French-Canadian Jean-Marc Valee (Dallas Buyers Club)

13. Foxcatcher (Sony Pictures Classics – Nov. 14)

While I wasn’t as big a fan of this film as others, there’s no denying that the story of Olympic-level wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo) and how their relationship was infringed upon by billionaire philanthropist John Du Pont (Steve Carell) is not a movie that’s easy to discount or forget. Part of that comes from how different Du Pont is from all the other roles Carell has played before and the way director Bennett Miller masterfully tells the story in a similarly slow and deliberate way as he did Capote, but this one definitely isn’t going to be for everyone, although expect a lot of awards and nominations.

14. A Second Chance

Susanne Bier’s riveting dramatic thriller stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from “Game of Thrones” as a policeman dealing with his new baby son while at the same time having to contend with the release of a violent criminal who he thinks may continue his ways. It’s hard to say much more about the plot without giving away some of the film’s most shocking twists, but it’s one of those thrill rides that grabs you by the throat and never lets you go as it sets out to prove that two wrongs don’t make a right.

15. The Good Lie (Warner Bros. – Oct. 3)

Reese Witherspoon’s other movie at TIFF had her in a smaller but still a great role, playing Carrie Davis, a Kansas City social worker who helps a trio of young men who escaped from the war in Sudan by walking the hundreds of miles to Kenya before finally receiving refuge in the United States. The real stars of the movies are the three new actors playing the “Lost Boys” who really grow on you as the film progresses, and the beautiful storytelling by Quebec director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar).

There were other movies I enjoyed like Nick Kroll’s Adult Beginners and Lynn Shelton’s Laggies (A24) that just missed the cut, and a couple of movies that I missed completely like Force Majeure, Still Alice and the action-thriller Big Game, all of which have distribution and should be in theaters soon enough.

And that is really it for this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, although you can look for a couple of stray interviews and reviews over the next week or so, and we’ll probably bring up the festival a couple more times as we start getting further into awards season.