Stranger In A Very Slightly Strange Land

I. If There’s Free Food, Eat

Despite my general air of worldliness, I am not an especially well-traveled guy. I’ve bopped around the Eastern Seaboard and the Deep South quite a bit, but apart from that, the extent of my vacationing has brought me to Nova Scotia and Montreal once apiece (ages eight and eighteen, respectively). In accepting BW/DR’s assignment to report on the fortieth Toronto International Film Festival, I was expanding my horizons on both a professional and personal level: I had never been to a bona fide film festival before, and it had been a while since I’d left America. And so the larger alien sensation of covering a massive film festival for the very first time was then compounded by the city of Toronto, a place that felt at once familiar and foreign, like a song you’ve heard a million times transposed down a half-step.

It was sometimes difficult to discern which exotic aspects were due to the film festival and which were native to Canada. Did everyone seem so good-looking and snappily dressed because that’s just how Canadians roll, or were they actually well-sunned industry types swarming in from California? There’s no way to tell whether the pervading atmosphere of solidarity was a result of Canada’s famed politeness, or a generalized response to the bodily degradation of ten consecutive sleepless nights. In fact, it did sometimes appear that the writer-in-town experience had been specifically calibrated to provoke mental breakdowns: the combination of days packed to bursting with screenings, interviews, and mostly-mythical social engagements, all of which must be rushed to and from, conspire to deprive visiting journalists of the basic needs for human functionality.

Food is eaten hastily, standing up, and at random intervals, if at all. (The advice most frequently given to me prior to the festival: “If there’s free food, eat it. Doesn’t matter if you’re hungry. Eat anything and everything, so long as it’s free.” This would prove to be wise counsel.) Sleep’s a luxury thrown out the window in rather short order, too. The few catchable Z’s in a hostel roomed crammed with seven other men, exactly four of whom spent all night snoring in a timbre somewhere between ‘malfunctioning electric toothbrush’ and ‘riding lawn mower’, couldn’t possibly stand up against impending deadlines or the lure of a night out on the town. (The advice second-most frequently given to me prior to the festival: “Don’t worry about the parties. You’re here for the movies.” Equally wise. Most ‘parties’ amounted to little more than being told by someone with an earpiece that I wasn’t on the list, but could potentially be let in if I stuck around for a little while, doing so, and then being told that no, it’s not happening, and that I probably should’ve just left in the first place. To showbiz!)

II. Day One: Weighty, Experimental, Pornographic Seriousness

When someone spends anywhere from eight to twelve hours in and out of movies over the course of a single day, that individual’s relationship with reality becomes worrisomely tenuous. The films only spill into one another at first, characters and shots getting unstuck and drifting into other movies — what’s Colin Farrell doing in the memory of that Japanese sci-fi drama? — until the line separating the cinematic from the real blurs entirely. The first day of screenings alone, a quartet of superb holdovers from Sundance and Cannes, did a number on this writer’s fragile psyche. Watching four movies in quick succession makes for a daunting task in and of itself, but when those four films are as intense and uniformly weighty as Cemetery of Splendour, Dheepan, Love, and The Forbidden Room, all light seems to take leave of the world. Nothing will ever feel okay again, not your outlook on life and certainly not your buttocks, which at this point run the risk of developing bedsores. It scarcely matters that these films were impressive-to-brilliant across the board.

Cemetery of Splendour finds Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul rhapsodizing on some of his pet themes — the pushes and pulls between nature and industry, the past and the present, the earthly and the mystical, the self and the state — with indelible images to match. In a jungle hospital, rows of poles provide diagnostic information by silently changing colors with an unearthly glow. Dheepan portrays the immigrant experience with guarded emotion and searing violence, handily dismantling what was once thought to be a distinctly American dream for a Sri Lankan in France. Love, the 3D porno from French provocateur Gaspar Noé, was the day’s standout. I entered TIFF with a mental goal of finding something I couldn’t have conceivably seen elsewhere, and it was somewhere in the middle of Love, when a load of semen was gracefully floating out of the silver screen and into my face, that I felt I had satisfied my first goal. The final selection of the day, Guy Maddin’s avant-garde head trip The Forbidden Room, did a number on my already-jellied mind. It took a surprisingly long time to decide whether the visual distension in the frame was Maddin’s handiwork, an acid flashback, or my eyes finally turning on me. Upon consulting a fellow critic in the lobby afterward, it turned out that Maddin was playing tricks on us and I was saner than I thought. For the moment, at least.

III. High-Profile Heavy Hitters

As the festival rolled onward and I started to get the hang of this draining game, the films began to lump themselves into categories. TIFF’s programming slate boasted a handful of high-profile American releases, big premieres expected to fill out Oscar ballots nearer to the year’s end.

Studio projects The Martian and The Danish Girl exceeded expectations, but that’s more of a testament to low expectations than high quality. Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi epic tipped the scales far too heavily in the direction of ‘sci’, sacrificing things like character and script for the rigor of its meticulously technical explanations. The new collaboration between The Theory of Everything team of Tom Hooper and Eddie Redmayne outdid itself simply by not being a plodding, manipulative heap of gooey sentiment. Hooper still directed like he wants the audience to know he went to film school, but Redmayne and his costar Alicia Vikander left it all on the screen. A chronicle of the life and times of Lili Elbe, the first trans woman to ever receive gender correction surgery, the film mostly handled its fraught political subtext with sensitivity and delicacy, though Redmayne’s casting in a trans role remains troubling. Sandra Bullock’s political vehicle Our Brand Is Crisis had its fair share of problems, such as a script in which Bullock’s character actually says “our brand is crisis.” The film’s intended tone of whip-smart knowledgeability frequently veered into the scriptwriting equivalent of an extended smirk, and despite a token native boasting two whole dimensions, the film’s understanding of the Bolivian locals was cursory at best.

Of the A-lister movies, only a scant handful stuck out as keepers. Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of the pop-lit novel Room, the recipient of the coveted People’s Choice Award, provided Brie Larson with the thespian’s showcase she’s deserved since Short Term 12, and Brooklyn was a warming crowd-pleaser with a decidedly sunnier outlook on emigration than Dheepan. A pair of execrable duds — Demolition was merely phony, whereas Stonewall was punishingly, blindingly awful — were offset by a pair of top-ten picks. Tom McCarthy bounced back from the unaccountably poor The Cobbler with the taut investigative journalism procedural Spotlight, an exhaustively researched account of the process by which the Boston Globe uncovered the massive cover-up of pedophilia within the Roman Catholic church. The film never devolved into histrionics, instead letting the story and those that survived it speak for themselves. A deep roster of consummate professionals deliver solid, unshowy work, from Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo as reporters putting feet on the street to Michael Keaton and Liev Schriber as the higher-ups railing to keep the investigative unit up and running. Netflix’s society debut Beasts of No Nation landed on the Scotiabank Theater like an active warhead. The film seamlessly vacillated between three equally harrowing stories, devoting equal time to its main character’s neorealist baptism in the blood of combat, a literally hallucinatory panorama of war’s corrosive effects on the soul, and a difficult character study of Idris Elba’s opportunistic cult leader. Director Cary Fukunaga cherished the chance to stretch his legs artistically, funneling his budget into a series of casually proficient tracking shots that wend through barracks and foxholes, undaunted by explosions and gunfire.

IV. The Contemporary Auteurs (and Best of the Fest)

The second major category claimed auteurist recognition as the umbrella under which its inclusions were organized. These films were mostly referred to as “the new [insert director’s name}’, a terming reflective of their importance more as entries in a larger canon than works unto themselves. That’s not to say they weren’t still good; this subsection contained the most triumphs, by a wide margin. The auteurist obligations, as the esteemed critic Scott Tobias calls them, yielded the pictures that filled out my top five. Jeremy Saulnier’s nasty, no-holds-barred thriller Green Room had the punk cred to back up its show-in-a-bottle premise, which traps the members of a punk quartet in a neo-Nazi clubhouse and tasks them with fighting their way out. The leads, Anton Yelchin in particular, evince enough toughness to carry the film, but not so much that they strain credibility as regular folk. Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, widely and rightly touted as a work of perfection from the breathless crowds at the Saturday morning press and industry screening, stimulates the head and the heart in equal measure. Kaufman returns to his trenchant exploration of loneliness and depression, this time shedding the metafictional fireworks and goosing his own style with gorgeously wrought puppetry. It’s a brainiac’s tearjerker—marionette cunnilingus, Cyndi Lauper singalongs and all. Youth, another elegiac masterpiece from The Great Beauty’s Paolo Sorrentino, could’ve passably been about nothing; such is the evident genius of its dizzying formal opulence. It’s icing on the cake that his characters, aging titans of the arts played by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, spoke entirely in fortune cookies as written by 19th-century philosophers. Each and every painterly frame made this writer want to stand up before the assembled audience and yell, “Isn’t this art form just the best?”

But the pick for Best of the Fest would have to go to The Lobster, Greek master Yorgos Lanthimos’ debut in the English language. Lanthimos’ signature charred-black humor translated across languages with no losses whatsoever — indeed, his drily acerbic punchlines took on new life when heard in a native tongue. His deviously clever and surprisingly thought-out premise started by deconstructing the romantic comedy, got bored, and then turned on the whole of society, remorselessly exposing the way society makes little impositions on character that get bigger and bigger until all sense of self vanishes. Colin Farrell flawlessly executed a role that’s not both dramatic and comedic, but neither. The Lobster secured its number-one spot when I walked out of the theater and was immediately seized by the desire to show everyone I know the film.

I recommend the new offerings from Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Joachim Trier, Jia Zhang-ke, Ben Wheatley, and Takashi Miike all with the same disclaimer: if you liked these directors’ previous films, you will like their new films. The artists all stuck to their strengths (HHH can make any vista look worthy of immortalization old a painter’s canvas, Wheatley’s violence feels fresh and new again) and wrestled with their same bugaboos (Miike’s lack of focus gets tiresome around the hour mark, Zhang-ke’s desire to do and say everything about Chinese culture sometimes exceeds his grasp). A pair of East Asian talents delivered a pair of curveballs; after the anything-goes lunacy of Why Don’t You Play In Hell? and Tokyo Tribe, Sion Sono dialed it way back for the minimalist sci-fi fable The Whispering Star. The long stretches of silence and sparse monochrome photography will test the patience of those who delighted in the ADD-baiting everything-at-once ethic of Sono’s previous works. Hong Kong’s Johnnie To, having conquered the action flick with Drug War and the romcom with the Don’t Go Breaking My Heart franchise, set his sights on the musical. But To’s idea of a musical ends up as a cracking yarn of corporate intrigue that looks like a Brechtian exercise in experimental theatre, all set outlines and black voids. Songs in Cantonese and Mandarin didn’t exactly get feet a-tappin’, but the audacious art design was too entrancing to ignore.

V. Festival Flotsam

I’ve taken to referring to the films in the remaining third category as festival flotsam, indies and curios that might’ve been overlooked entirely if not scouted out at TIFF on a whim. And for the most part, I could’ve gone just as well without seeing them. Rob Reiner’s Being Charlie was the worst at the festival, and the less said about it, the better. After showing such promise with the short film accompanying Kendrick Lamar’s breakout album good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kahlil Joseph got lost in his own visual experimentations in the Arcade Fire doc The Reflektor Tapes. Small-town indie The Missing Girl granted a cast of competent actors some off-kilter roles, but still felt too slight to have left any sort of impact. Polish horrorshow Demon was overshadowed by the behind-the-scenes tragedy of its director Marcin Wrona’s shocking death. (Sad stuff, but at least he left behind a serviceable scarefest with some meaty character work to chew on while waiting for the spooks.) Julie Delpy tried her hand at directing once more with the French-as-French-can-be Lolo, which weds a European freewheeling approach to sexual candor with an equally European comic sensibility predicated on malice. I entered Into The Forest completely blind, and was pleasantly surprised by the lived-in performances courtesy of Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood. They reframed the apocalypse as a human event with human ramifications; the small-scale drama revitalized a subgenre hide-bound to drab loudness.

That leaves three commendable orphans with their fair share of troubles. Tom Hardy devoured the Goodfellas-lite gangster flick Legend whole, cementing himself as one of his generation’s finest screen actors in his tour de force dual turn as British bad boys Ronnie and Reggie Kray. I wish I could’ve taken the pleasure in Robert Eggers’ directorial debut The Witch that so many of my colleagues clearly and vocally have. The last twenty minutes were absolutely horrifying, sure, but the road to get there could be rather tedious — a desaturated color palette and script hobbled by the colonialese dialect may have contributed to the feeling that this ninety-minute film ran fifteen minutes too long. The final film I took in before jet-setting back to the states was the depraved Danish comedy Men & Chicken. It’s been a while since a film ostensibly passing itself off as a comedy blew through this many taboos; in the lead role, Mads Mikkelsen and his clan of hare-lipped brothers make high comedy out of incest and bestiality.

It may have just been a couple hours north of the American border, but TIFF still privileged this provincial writer with images too rare to be found at the neighborhood cineplex, and those are the memories that’ll stick around long after recollection of plot details and attached personnel have faded: Gaspar Noé’s go-for-broke sex scene scored by Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain”; the psychedelic interlude in Beasts of No Nation that sees our pint-size antihero hopped up on dirty African coke and let loose in an innocent village; John C. Reilly’s hand stuck into a toaster as punishment for furtive masturbation. And then, deeper than those, are the experiences lived outside the bright walls and dark rooms of the theater: shooting the breeze with a nonchalant Ava DuVernay in the press lounge; drunken arguments over Gregg Araki’s legitimacy as a high artist of the film medium; being bought a beer by a personal influence, who then tells you he likes your work. In a city slightly different than New York, in the English language, we find miracles like no place else on the planet.