This year, the Toronto International Film Festival dealt with whatever the opposite of growing pains is — shrinking pains, I suppose. Much hubbub has been made over the festival’s decision to cut its programming by 20%, but that’s only been part of a larger effort to condense North America’s most sprawling summit of cinema. The biggest press screenings were funneled out of the giant, palatial Princess of Wales Theater and back into the Scotiabank multiplex, where the rest of the press-and-industry screenings take place. This resulted in congestion like you wouldn’t believe, lines that begin outside and snake around the block, and in one dumbfounding instance, ushers forgetting to bring in segments of lines and starting the movie without them. (An embarrassed usher hustled us into French AIDS drama BPM a full eleven minutes after the film began. I did not stick around.) Gripes aside, a lot of great films touched down in Toronto this year, as they do every year. I reported on the first half of the festival last week; here are some selections from the last five days.
The Shape of Water
First things first: Sally Hawkins fucks the fish. That’s the joke I’ve been making over and over again during the past week, describing Guillermo Del Toro’s affecting sci-fi/romance as “the Sally Hawkins fish-fuck movie,” and while there’s certainly more to it than that, that’s also a pretty key aspect of the film. (Though, in the interest of accuracy, the amphibious-humanoid creature portrayed by Doug Jones is really more of a Black Lagoon-type creature than a proper fish.) Desire truly is the fuel powering this magnificent machine, a lovingly made movie about touching and wanting to be touched and the bone-deep pain of going untouched. Hawkins’ mute custodial worker goes to town on herself in the bath each night, her water-shriveled finger a potent symbol of squandered erotic potential. Like William H. Macy in Magnolia, she’s got all this love—and lust—but nowhere to put it.
She’s not alone, either, everyone wants some intimacy. Hawkins’ two friends, an Octavia Spencer-played coworker and her gay neighbor (gaybor, if you will) portrayed by Richard Jenkins, both struggle to find someone who’ll appreciate all they have to offer. Even the villain, a cold-blooded government operative tasked with studying the creature and figuring out its secrets, gets defined by sexual dysfunction. And there’s charm in the fact that Del Toro’s horniest film also happens to be his most agreeably mushy; from the libidinous urges springs a warmhearted sentimental streak, culminating in a stunning albeit brief musical number. In a final analysis, this is not the movie where Sally Hawkins fucks a fish; it’s the movie where Sally Hawkins makes love to a fish.
The Disaster Artist
Critics don’t usually use words like “revelatory” to describe actors like James Franco, thespians who have already proven their excellence time and again. But as Tommy Wiseau, the director/producer/star/financier/madman behind trashterpiece The Room, Franco’s discovered a new universe of performance. He delivers a turn not only unlike anything he’s managed before, but unlike anything anyone has managed before. A friend compared Franco’s rendition of Wiseau to Renee Jeanne Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, and I’m inclined to agree; both actors have devised methods of conveying complex emotion through minuscule facial cues, something as simple as a look to the left or a turned corner of the mouth. Franco nails his impression-work, his Wiseau is scary-good, but that’s really just a foundation from which his character expands outward.
And what a treat that a performance so shockingly fully-formed can find a home in a film this hilarious, and this kind. Working from The Room star Greg Sestero’s memoir of the same name (portrayed in the film by Franco’s brother Dave, lending an added dimension of weirdness to the muted homoerotic tension between their characters), Franco has erected a monument to the lunatic business of filmmaking that never once condescends to its subjects. “A bad day on set beats a good day anywhere else,” muses one character early on, and boy do they have some bad days on set. But passion drives twinned dreamers Wiseau and Sestero to work past the hundred-degree heat, financial hardship, and million other aggravations to complete what they mistakenly believe will be their masterpiece. That was the film’s original title, by the way, The Masterpiece. And it’s only semi-ironic. Of course The Room is a work of spectacular incompetence, but this film reveals the earnest love that went into the quixotic quest to get it made.
Faces, Places (Visages Villages)
Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest ones: in this unscripted jaunt through the French countryside, New Wave legend Agnes Varda and street artist “JR” bop from village to village, taking photos of locals and blowing them up into stories-high posters pasted on buildings in the area. They take clear pleasure in rendering banal spaces as canvasses, turning grain silos into giant eyes and shipping containers into towering portraits of the dock workers’ wives. An antic spirit of playfulness suffuses the rest of the film as well, from the Gondry-ish animated credits to one euphoric interlude that sees JR pushing Varda through a museum in a wheelchair at top speed, fleetly leaping over obstacles as if he was weightless. Though five-or-so decades separate them, Varda and JR have phenomenal chemistry, each one respectful of the other but willing to lovingly call out their BS. (This is where the biggest laughs come from—Varda gently roasts JR for never taking off his sunglasses, and JR teases her for passing off her thirst for men with artistic rationales.)
But there’s a second, more downbeat side to the film as well. Varda’s 88 years old now, and it shows. She’s losing her sight, requiring gruesome injections to be made directly into her eyeballs. She’s still grieving over the death of her close friend and colleague Jacques Rivette, a sore spot cruelly poked at via a note by an unseen Jean-Luc Godard. This film is, in no small way, about aging and approaching the end. Though Varda has remained a sharp intellect and lively personality well into old age, she’s feeling the fatigue of time and suspects she will join Rivette before too long. There’s an elegiac quality in the pensive moments between their prankish art installations, when Varda contemplates the world slipping away from her, using the camera to visualize her deteriorating sight in one particularly poignant moment. If this ends up being her final film, she couldn’t have possibly struck a better note to go out on.
The Death of Stalin
You’ve got to have a pretty serious pair of stones to make a black comedy about Russian politics at a time when America’s relationship with the Kremlin has reached a critical mass of contentiousness. But of course, the testicular fortitude of Armando Iannucci has never been a question. The master satirist has given us another rip-snorting perspective on the ugly games of governmental horse-trading, swapping the corridors of the White House for the handsomely appointed mansions of the USSR’s top advisors. And with the change of scenery comes a proportionate change in the balance between humor and cynicism, the two forces animating Iannucci’s pessimistic worldview. U.S. politicking has always been a nasty business, but one assumes that substantially fewer murders took place in the West Wing.
As the title suggests, the Soviet Union’s top dog has died of a sudden heart attack, and Iannucci has his fun watching as power players scramble to fill the power vacuum Stalin leaves. Speaking with their natural voices, Iannucci’s players deliver a host of amusing performances, the standouts being Jason Isaacs as a brusque military man, Steve Buscemi as a put-upon Nikita Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale as the trigger-happy spymaster. And yet there are fewer laughs to go around here than in the sterling In the Loop. Iannucci stocks the film with some characteristically vulgar one-liners, but he seems to take more of an interest in the hard mechanics through which power is transferred than ever before. His darkest gag of all is positing authority as a white-elephant gift, elevating those who possess it while painting a target on their back. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and it’s only a matter of time until it’s lopped off by guillotine.
Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri
Buddha says that holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. Mildred Hayes (France McDormand), the perpetually furious mother at the center of Martin McDonagh’s excellent new morality play, apparently didn’t get the memo. She’s clung to every atom of hatred and bitterness resulting from her daughter’s rape-murder months before, knowing that as soon as she lets it go, her daughter’s case turns cold. Waging a one-woman war on the local police department, from aggressive public notices to some casual arson, is the only way to get the local law enforcement off their racist duffs and into action. She’s one tough bitch, cursing like a sailor and standing tall against her abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes) and kneeing a flippant teen in the balls without batting an eye. But of course, there’s hurt beneath her leathery exterior.
There’s a little bit more than meets the eye to everyone in this small-town crime yarn. The rage empowers Mildred but makes her soul heavy, but the cops she constantly antagonizes are allotted three dimensions as well. As the chief, Woody Harrelson is caught between his sense of duty as an officer of the law and the physical limits of investigation. (Mildred refuses to hear his explanation that there are some crimes no amount of effort can solve.) Even a racist P-O-S like Jason (Sam Rockwell, as good as ever) can find a grain of decency in himself after getting a little sense smacked into him. With his characteristically colorful dialogue, McDonagh has told a difficult story with no easy way out, its bittersweet final note a testament to its commitment to ambiguity.
I Love You, Daddy
Watching Louis C.K.’s skin-crawling new cringe comedy, a viewer starts to get an idea of why he might’ve kept it a secret. Imagine the clusterfuck of controversy that would’ve erupted if Deadline had ran an item announcing, “Accused masturbator and Woody Allen collaborator Louis C.K. has begun principal photography on a film in which he plays a TV writer-producer whose nubile teen daughter establishes an unclear relationship with an older filmmaker known to prey on young women.” Now appearing next to the word “fraught” in the dictionary, the film uses highly sensitive topics from our recognizably real world for a gut-churning meta-mess. Add to this the fact that C.K. himself has been accused of sexual impropriety, and it turns into a dense tangle of half-committed self-defense.
Because the trouble of this film is C.K.’s inability or refusal to pick a side in a situation as black-and-white as his film stock. (The grainy gorgeousness of the film is an undeniable plus; the fact that it also happens to be generously funny is another.) He waffles back and forth, setting up the clear Woody Allen avatar played by John Malkovich as a lecherous predator, then suggesting he’s not all that bad. There’s a solid premise at the heart of this—“Woody Allen apologist rethinks his behavior when his daughter starts seeing Woody Allen”—but the devil’s in the details, as C.K. makes miniature compromises left and right. Glen (C.K.) condescends to his daughter (played by Chloe Grace Moretz, doing a Lolita routine for the ages), then apologizes for “mansplaining,” and then does so again later. C.K. himself uses the N word at one point, in a purely explanatory context, but it still smacks as if he’s searching for a circumstance that’d allow him to push that button. C.K. takes interest in provocation for its own sake, failing to put forth a lucid idea, let alone do the right thing and condemn that which needs condemning.