Greetings from the unseasonably brisk Toronto International Film Festival, where the days are long, the lines are longer, and the food is eaten standing up. As day four approaches its close, this reviewer has caught a solid handful of outstanding selections—albeit most of them stopovers from festivals earlier this year—and the time has come to separate the wheat from the poorly-scripted, indifferently-shot, embarrassingly-acted chaff. (Matt Damon has already headlined two stellar examples of how not to make a movie about race, Downsizing and Suburbicon.) Read on for a mini-survey of the TIFF highlights that will challenge, horrify, or amuse you throughout the next year, and take a moment of gratitude for your knee joints. It turns out they’re really taken for granted until they start rebelling against you for being forced into cramped right angles for twelve hours of every day.
Call Me By Your Name
Elio, the undeveloped teenager sensitively portrayed by Timothée Chalamet in this heart-mangling romance from Luca Guadagnino, comes of age mostly by coming. Everything in his world is sex, from the idyllic Italian summer that sets the film to the ripe peaches and apricots that bloom on his family’s estate. But when a confident adonis by the name of Oliver (actual confident adonis Armie Hammer) arrives as a seasonal research assistant to the father of the house (Michael Stuhlbarg, running away with the film’s most emotionally resonant scene), young Elio gets steamrolled by his own horniness. And when raw lust threatens to grow into bona fide love, both boys must reexamine everything they thought they knew about themselves.
It’s tempting to lump this film in with the recent wave of poignant queer masterworks, but the main thing Call Me By Your Name shares with a Carol or Moonlight is a sense of revelatory discovery. Elio’s slow to accept the full enormity of his feelings, but once he does he acts as if he’s seeing in color for the first time, like he’s awakened an entirely new sensory experience. Guadagnino permits us to watch the most intimate process in the breadth of existence, a person becoming their complete self. A great love is not unlike a profound experience with art: it is the act of finding yourself in something that is not you.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
As wry Greek hellraiser Yorgos Lanthimos has gotten settled in Hollywood, he’s embraced genre in a way that his unclassifiable Dogtooth and Alps resisted. He turned the rom-com inside out with The Lobster last year, and now he’s turned his sights on the horror flick—though you’d be mistaken if you assumed that would distance him from his streak of deadpan humor. The unholy wedding of these two styles results in a slithery, sinister piece of work that can make a leisurely walk down the street unsettling, and a dying child’s paralytic collapse into a punch line. The less plot detail specified the better, but suffice it to say that if Sophie’s Choice was a mean-spirited slapstick comedy, it’d probably behave something like this.
All you really need to know is that something’s not right with the kid played by Dunkirk breakout Barry Keoghan. He seems to want to make friends with the elite surgeon portrayed by a lovably paunchy Colin Farrell, but behind Keoghan’s beady eyes and Grinch-curled smile lurks an unspoken menace. The kid forces Farrell and his dutiful Nicole Kidman-played wife into a lethal predicament, and once its specific nature and causes have been revealed, the film turns into a blackhearted parable about maturity and accepting responsibility. While Lanthimos appears intent on growing only more alienating over time, as if in defiant response to his harshest critics, viewers with a healthy funny bone and a sadistic side will tear this open like a Christmas present. Beware, though: the gift box is full of spring-loaded broken glass.
Let the Corpses Tan
Nobody has made movies like French directorial power couple Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, not even the filmmakers from whom they liberally borrow. Their skill set combines pastiche and abstraction for hallucinatory swirls of sound, sensation and color that push the precedents of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci into even more outré hinterlands. So when you hear that their new noir-Western qualifies as the most lucid, plotted of their films, understand that that’s a highly relative distinction. It’s got dialogue and a knowable story, sure, but it also accordions time onto itself and visualizes God as a sexy naked lady who urinates liquid gold on your face right before you die. The Cattet-Forzani brain trust is, as ever, doin’ them.
A shootout between a gang of robbers defending their 250-kilogram gold-bar haul and a pair of extremely unlucky cops plays out over the course of one full day on a tightly contained complex of ruins in the Mediterranean hills, but that’s really just the scaffolding on which the directors mount their batshit formal experiments. They’ve got piles of style, composing intricate symphonies out of the sound of stretching leather and doing more with red, green, and blue than most directors can manage with a full rainbow. In one jaw-dropping fantasy interlude, a gunman literally shoots a woman’s dress off of her body in a fit of epileptic cuts. It’s bloody, horny, lurid, and merciless—to a specific sort of viewer (read: me), it’s 90 minutes in a heaven where everyone gets their own black leather gloves and submachine gun.
The Florida Project
Sean Baker begins his follow-up to the acclaimed Tangerine with a subtle sort of statement. With the needle-drop of party standard “Celebration” in the opening minutes, Baker’s announcing that he’s graduated to the next level. He can afford to license expensive music cues now. He’s ditched the iPhone and moved onto more sophisticated equipment, and he’s wrangled a name-brand actor in Willem Dafoe. This is how the film industry ought to work; talented independent filmmakers should be able to marshal greater resources in the wake of a promising success, and Baker holds up his end of the bargain by not letting it dilute or otherwise compromise his vision one iota.
Specifically, his doctrine of patience and empathy for America’s fringe poor. Migrating from the back alleys of Los Angeles’ seedier neighborhoods to a derelict hotel complex on the outskirts of Disney territory in Florida, Baker soberly shows how poverty forces those affected by it into inadvisable decisions out of necessity. Halley (Bria Vinaite) can’t hold down a job and she badly needs money, so of course she resorts to less-legal means to make ends meet. Her struggle to remain above water is filtered through the perspective of her rambunctious daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, possibly the greatest child actor I have ever seen) as the girl makes mischief with her little pals around their dumpy yet colorful home. Like an update of To Kill a Mockingbird occupying a wholly distinct region of the Deep South, the film bears witness to the darkness of adulthood through the partial comprehension of carefree youth. The final shot is an all-timer.
Get this: Sweden’s proudest son Ruben Östlund somehow made a movie about optics, performative wokeness, clickbait and media discourse that doesn’t make you crave the release of a speedy death. Grappling with themes of modernity that have left lesser filmmakers self-righteous or sputtering, he constructs a grand treatise on late capitalism’s most aggravating symptoms through a parable about a stately art museum in the director’s native land. One provocative exhibit—a simple, illuminated quadrangle in which all burdens and responsibilities are shared, one of those “safe spaces” that inexplicably frighten alt-right types—sets the institution on a collision course with controversy that slowly but surely undoes the sanity of its curator. Oh, and it’s a comedy.
Harebrained branding-consultants, one suspiciously aggressive American reporter (Elisabeth Moss, perfectly integrated in Ostlund’s drily ironic house style), and an irate child all conspire to destroy Christian (Claes Bang) in this audacious barrage of ideas and contradictions. It’s never more pleasurable, however, than when launching comic set pieces on a titanic scale. The truly unforgettable bits—a bungled statue removal like something out of a movie Buster Keaton wasn’t austere enough to make, a performance-art piece at a gala dinner that culminates in a rage-fueled beatdown—soften Östlund’s sniper shots at the absurdity of 2017 with sour laughter.
If you have not yet seen Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, stop reading this article now. I’m deadass serious. Click out of the window, go see it, and come back.
Did you do it? Good. Let’s dig in:
As far as I can tell, it’s impossible to meaningfully discuss Mother! without spoiling the entire thing and robbing the reader of the rush that comes with figuring out what it is, exactly, that Aronofsky’s doing here.The movie is one big honkin’ metaphor, a transparent allegory so unbelievably petty that it’s astonishing it exists at all. The surreal horrors that Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem endure clearly correspond to the anguish of the artist’s creative act, and its reception by the public. (“Labor of love” takes on disturbing new meaning here.) That’s the generalized read, but this movie becomes exponentially more fascinating when you superimpose the field of filmmaking and Aronofsky’s career in specific onto the parable. Though how he did it is anyone’s guess, this brash motherfucker has successfully conned Paramount into funding a salty pushback against the negative reviews for his Noah. We watch Lawrence go through so much tribulation for the sake of producing the miracle of life, and then after all that hard work, what does the public do? They rip her top off—a loaded image conjuring memories of her infamous photo hack incident—and murder the kid! Why can’t they respect the months of sweat and blood that have gone into this creation, Aronofsky implicitly howls. (The problem with this metaphor, of course, is that it makes the assertion all films have precious value.)
The reallybrain-melting part is that Aronofsky conceived (pun very intended) this clear stand-in for a contentious relationship between a director and their muse before shacking up with Lawrence! It’s like the guy made his bitter post-breakup movie and forgot he was still involved with the object of its hatred! If I sound unusually riled, know that I saw this film not ten hours ago, and that I’ve never seen a cinematic statement so suffused with personal vitriol. Though Lawrence is the truly generative force in the house, Bardem’s the one lavished with and unbothered by public attention, and the one who gets to keep the trophy. (The next time Aronofsky runs into Black Swan Oscar-winner Natalie Portman is going to be, to put it mildly, uncomfortable.) When regular people are resentful of others’ success, we tweet or blog or bitch to our more accommodating friends. When Darren Aronofsky feels he’s been wronged, he pours millions of dollars into a chaotic fever-pitch night terror and gets a nationwide release. Whether you think that’s messed-up or deeply amusing is entirely up to you. I fall into the latter camp. I’ll conclude this report with a question on which you may chew over the next few days: does this film mean Aronofsky is cinema’s Kanye West?