Friday, September 5 is over, which means I have successfully made it through my first two days of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Besides seeing eight films since arriving on Wednesday, I’ve also seen a couple of films beforehand, some of which I can talk about, some of which I still need to bite my tongue for a little while longer. I will say that as I expected from the line-up, this may be one of the best TIFFs ever, not only due to the quantity and quality of the world premieres but also due to the abundance of some of the greatest festival films that I missed earlier this year.
Fortunately, two of the best movies I’ve seen so far are coming out in October so you won’t have to wait too long to see them, although you will have to wait a little longer for my full reviews.
Like everyone else, I had heard all about the awards won by Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash at Sundance, having scored both the Jury Prize and the Audience Award, which is quite a feat in any year. My expectations were certainly high and not only did it live up to those expectations, but it far exceeded them. The long and short of it is that Miles Teller plays Andrew Neyman, a virtuoso jazz drummer studying at a music conservatory whose only desire is to be a drumming great. Along comes J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher, who handpicks and develops talent for the school’s competitive jazz band. He brings Andrew into that band as an alternate after hearing him play, and without giving too much away, that leads to one of the most tense and friction-filled relationships I’ve seen on screen in years. Fletcher is absolutely merciless when it comes to perfection and he drives Andrew to extremes to become a better drummer, saying and doing things that will utterly and truly shock you. It is one of Simmons’ greatest roles and performances to date, and that’s saying something considering how much I loved HBO’s “OZ.” I’ll talk more about this (and my connection to the material) in my full review, coming soon, but Chazelle is an amazingly talented filmmaker, someone whose name you will be hearing a lot about in the coming years for sure. Right now, this is my top movie of the year and possibly the only one to which I might consider giving a rare 10 out of 10.
Then there’s Dan (The Bourne Legacy) Gilroy’s directorial debut Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a smooth-talking criminal who decides to join Los Angeles’ sleazy and unscrupulous force of those who listen to the police scanner and try to beat the authorities to crime scenes in order to film footage they can sell to the local news. “If it bleeds, it leads,” says Bill Paxton’s character, one of the leaders in this field, inspiring Louis to get more and more inventive in the ways to get footage, which he then sells to Renee Russo’s Nina, a television producer who seems to have as little ethics and morals as Louis. The last key to this puzzle is Riz Ahmed’s Rick, an ambitious young man Louis hires to help him who also gets the brunt of blame when things don’t go right, scenes where we start to see the cracks show in Louis’ craziness. I’ve seen some great performances from Jake, many in the last year in fact, but Louis Bloom is unlike anything he’s ever done before, a character so unique in his creation and almost as crazy in terms of his obsessions as J.K. Simmons’ Terrence Fletcher in Whiplash. It’s a fascinating character study especially in his scenes with Russo where they’re “negotiating.” Again, expect a lot more on this one as I plan on reviewing more fully as soon as I possibly can get to it, but it’s right up there with films like Nicolas Refn’s Drive and Michael Mann’s Collateral in the way Los Angeles is used as a background for the film.
You’ll have to wait a little longer to see Coming Home (Sony Pictures Classics), the new film from China’s master auteur Zhang Yimou, the first of the movies which played at the Cannes Film Festival I was able to catch early. It is essentially a three-hander about a man who returns home after being locked away in prison for 20 years to learn that his wife (Gong Li in an absolutely astounding performance) no longer remembers him due to a brain injury. Their daughter feels somewhat guilty about her mother’s condition (for reasons I might get more into when discussing the film), but she silently watches as her father tries to find ways of jogging his wife’s memory. What’s interesting is that she does remember she has a husband and that he’s going to come home from prison, but her short-term memory means that she doesn’t even realize it’s him standing in front of him, not even remembering who he is from day-to-day. I know, I know. It sounds a lot like the Sandler-Barrymore comedy 50 First Dates, but the way the story unfolds, the emotional performances and the real heartbreak displayed on screen, let’s just say that there will be very few dry eyes coming out of theaters when this opens.
I’m pretty sure I heard the title and buzz for Damian Szifron’s Wild Tales (Sony Pictures Classics) coming from out of Cannes, but I really didn’t now much about it, which is great because knowing too much about any of the six shorts that make up this Argentine anthology surely would spoil some of the fun. I’ll keep it simple in that it’s basically a dark comedy made up of six separate stories, each depicting a person who has been driven to the edge of madness where they feel the need to do something, and it’s usually something quite extreme. In that way, it’s kind of a series of revenge thrillers, but all of them are done in a way that are so humorous and insane that you realize that you are seeing the birth of possibly one of the most distinctly original voices since Tarantino or Kevin Smith. Sure, it’s a genre film in some ways, but Szifron has also assembled some of the country’s greatest actors to play out his ideas, which just become more over-the-top as each short plays out. Without saying too much, the opening short involves strangers on a plane who all have a connection to one man, while the closer involves a wife discovering her new husband has been cheating on her. In between, there’s an absolutely hilarious story about road rage taken to the most insane levels. I have a feeling this will be the first film from Argentina since the Oscar-winning The Secret in their Eyes to really break here in the States. I wouldn’t even be shocked if it becomes Argentina’s movie put up for this year’s Oscars.
Another nice surprise for me was Hector and the Search for Happiness (Relativity Media Sept. 19), starring Simon Pegg as the title character, a psychiatrist who indeed goes on a search for happiness. (It’s nice when a movie’s title spells out the plot quite clearly.) It starts out as one thing, about a man unable to make changes in his dreary life (although he has a super-hot girlfriend in Rosamund Pike, reuniting the two actors from last year’s The World’s End). Hector’s mission sends him to China and Africa and then Los Angeles, getting him into trouble every step of the way, but there are so many satisfying moments and seeing Pegg playing such an uncynical character–one more like himself in fact–really makes this a joy. Now, mind you, I was a huge fan of Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty–my #1 movie of last year in fact–and “Hector,” while not quite as skilled in terms of filmmaking, has a similar sense of optimism and ultimately satisfies on a similar level. It’s been a while since I’ve talked to Simon Pegg so look for that interview sometime soon and before the film’s release and hopefully, a fuller review as well.
Another really nice movie out in October–the 24th to be exact–is Lynn Shelton’s fifth film Laggies (A24), this one starring Keira Knightley as a woman seemingly going nowhere who starts hanging out with a teenager she meets (played by Chloe Moretz, who is in THREE films at TIFF!) and her father, played by Sam Rockwell, when she decides she needs a break from her life and her brand-new fiance, played by Mark Webber. What makes this different from so many other movies that have played at the Sundance Film Festival (as this did) is the novelty of the premise and how it plays out in unexpected ways. I’m thrilled by Keira Knightley continuing to do more contemporary roles and films between this and Begin Again (which premiered at TIFF last year). There’s something about the way things play out in this film that makes it thoroughly enjoyable as Shelton gets further away from the improvised style she used in Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister. For this one, she’s also working from another writer’s screenplay, in this case Andrea Seigel, which works out incredibly well. I gotta say that as much as I’ve liked her earlier work, Shelton is continually surprising me and I hope she can continue this fantastic run. (Interviews for this movie are also planned for next week.)
I’ve been a fan of Olivier Assayas since seeing 1996’s Irma Vep, and I’m delighted to see him making a more accessible film like Clouds of Sils Maria (IFC Films – Dec. 1) without giving him up his distinctive voice and style. In fact, part of the film harks back to that earlier film in that also takes a very insidery look at the world of entertainment, in this case Juliet Binoche’s Maria Enders, a superstar actress who takes a train to Zurich to honor the first film director who hired her only to learn he has suddenly passed away before that event. Reluctantly, Maria agrees to appear in a play that acts as a sequel to that first film with the director, only this time playing the role of Helena, an older woman. With her the whole time is her personal assistant Valentine, played by none other than Kristen Stewart, and honestly, it might be my favorite role and performance by the actress ever, because she really nails it. Whether it’s the contempt for the press–gee, where did that come from?–or her fascination with tabloid rumors and Hollywood, Stewart’s performance is incredibly nuanced. For instance, in a few scenes, she’s going over lines with Maria for seriously dramatic scenes, but she reads them straight–as a non-actor might–which must be tough for any actor to pull off. The scenes between Stewart and Binoche–which makes up possibly 80% of the movie–are phenomenal, especially as the relationship starts to break down and lines begin to blur between reality and the art of being an actor. Oh, and Chloe Moretz is also in this one, playing an up and coming actress who is continually getting into trouble and has been cast to play the younger role Maria originated 25 years earlier. I have so much to say about this movie, the performances and the screenplay, because this one is incredibly layered and thought-provoking, especially for someone involved in the industry.
My next full review will hopefully be for Michael Roskam’s The Drop (Fox Searchlight Sept. 12), the English-language debut from the director of the Oscar-nominated Bullhead, based on Dennis Lehane’s short story “Animal Rescue.” I probably won’t say too much about it except that it features a great cast giving subdued but finessed performances starting with Tom Hardy and the late James Gandolfini as cousins Bob and Marv Saginowsky, running a Brooklyn bar that’s also a money drop for the mob. When the bar is robbed, its Chechen owners come down hard on the cousins to find those responsible. At the same time, Bob has found an injured dog in the trashcan of Noomi Rapace’s Nadia, earning the ire of the dog’s previous owner (and Nadia’s boyfriend), played by Bullhead star Matthias Schoenarts, who gives an astounding performance which might make you think he was from Brooklyn rather than from Belgium. It’s a movie that’s slow to set up, one that almost feels like it’s telling two separate stories at once which takes some time before we know how they’re connected. It’s also not a movie that exactly pays off with the type of fireworks you normally expect from a movie like this. It’s by no means an “action movie,” that’s for sure, but Lehane’s writing–he adapted the script himself–the talented cast and Roskam’s skillful eye for visuals and sense of tone really works. Besides that full review, I’ll be talking to Noomi Rapace and Dennis Lehane this weekend so look for those interviews sometime next week before the film opens.
Similarly, I’m a long-time fan of British actor Tim Spall and I’m well aware of the quality of his work with filmmaker Mike Leigh, which is why there’s little surprise in why I enjoyed his portrayal of Mr. Turner (Sony Pictures Classics – Dec. 19), that being 19th Century British painter J.M. William Turner, a grumpy crank unwilling to cater to social niceties expected in the art world around that time. It makes him quite a rebel, but it also makes the character a hard one to like. Again, I have more to say about this one, but being that it doesn’t open until December, I likely will see it again before reviewing.
On the other hand, I was quite disappointed with Samba the new movie from the filmmakers behind The Intouchables, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. They’re once again working with actor Omar Sy, who won a Cesar award for his role in their previous collaboration, this time playing the title character, a struggling immigrant from Senegal who makes a connection with a social worker, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who has given as many impressive and daring performances as Binoche. At first, it seems like the filmmakers were trying to make a realistic drama about the perils of immigrants in France, possibly similar to Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, but it turns into something so full of ideas that never really work together as a whole. For instance, Gainsbourg’s character has an issue with depression, and though she’s told to keep her distance from the clients, she starts hitting on Samba, more and more flagrantly. They have a rather tenuous and tense relationship which takes a long time to define itself and that probably would have been a fine movie in itself, but it regularly goes off in tangents into more crowd-pleasing comedy, mostly in the form of Tahar Rahim as Samba’s Brazilian partner in crime. After he’s reintroduced, there are a lot of scenes that just don’t ring true, taking away from the authenticity established earlier in favor of laughs. I do have to say there is one hilarious scene where Sy, who won over audiences with his dancing in The Intouchables, refuses to dance at a party. Yes, the title character named “Samba” doesn’t dance. Wrap your head around that one.
You can also read my full review of David Dobkin’s The Judge (also out October 10) right here and look for full reviews of This is Where I Leave You and The Equalizer (from Joshua Starnes) sometime this weekend.
Look for my next update either on Monday or Tuesday with a few more reviews before then as we make our way to the annual “Best of the Fest” TIFF wrap-up next week.