While this critic’s average number of films taken in at the Toronto International Film Festival usually hovers around 30, the 2018 iteration delivered the highest percentage yet of selections I could recommend in good faith. (By my count, 22 of 31 total.) The past 10 days have been densely packed with indelible images: a rain of garbage on partygoers in haute couture, a close-up of a car’s rumbling undercarriage so claustrophobic it approaches abstraction, a human skull exploding in a space helmet like a rotten pumpkin in a pneumatic pressure chamber. And that’s not even including the ones with Bradley Cooper! I kid. But only kind of.
Below, you’ll find reviews for six of the highlights from the latter half of the festival. But I’ve had to omit some of my most beloved films seen at this year’s festival, due either to spatial issues or having written about them elsewhere. So, in the interest of being thorough, I’d be remiss not to advise readers to keep an eye out for Claire Denis’ High Life, Neil Jordan’s Greta, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro, Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces, and Justin Kelly’s Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy.
It’s going to be a good fall.
Has any single character in the cinematic canon ever been as on cocaine as Becky Something, the snarling rock demon at the heart of Alex Ross Perry’s latest and greatest feature? We never see her blow a line, but Elisabeth Moss plays her as a non-stop perpetual combustion engine destroying everything in her path with a narcotic abandon. With an experimental score twitching and burbling in the background, Becky talks as if her life depended on it. She sputters out mountains of dialogue, some of it coherent, some of it meaningful in an interpretive free-verse kind of way, some of it complete nonsense. She’s a living manifestation of the word “volatile,” prone to pivot from purring affection to physical violence in the space of mere seconds. Not since Dore Mann’s extended freakout in Frownland has an episode of cine-mania been so perversely arresting, so alienating and yet impossible to look away from.
Perry has said that he structured Her Smell like one of the great five-act Shakespearean tragedies, though upon closer inspection, it’s really more like an inverse. He clearly demarcates five passages, but instead of charting the classical rise-and-fall arc of Macbeth and Hamlet, it’s more of a fall-and-rise running Becky through the meat grinder of addiction before giving her a shot at redemption. Though early criticisms have already knocked the film for being “uneven,” the full shift in tone and form from Act III to IV clearly reflects a changed woman with a changed life, her hard-partying days having cooled into domestic tranquility. (The “Heaven” scene is a heart-shredder.) By the end of the film, she’s far from perfect, still throwing little barbs at her long-suffering impresario (Eric Stoltz, shockingly good). Still, she’s grown, become capable of introspection, and readied herself for the next generation that will eventually replace her. If Becky Something can get her shit together, no one’s beyond saving.
The rumors of this film’s greatness have most decidedly not been greatly exaggerated. A new feature from Alfonso Cuarón, the master of spectacle-sized stories freighted with small-scale intimacy, can put the critical corps a-titter with the mere prospect of its existence. The breathless praise from its premiere in Venice one week earlier had me anticipating a case of the Overhyped Festival Masterpiece Blues, but I should’ve known better than to doubt him. Roma is all the things its most ardent supporters say it is: a work of overflowing natural beauty offset by the bruising ugliness of humanity, a seamless marriage of the personal with the political (as if there’s a difference between the two!), a convincing argument of the continued viability of black-and-white photography at the studio level in 2018, and a return home for a talent who could have just as easily spent the rest of his days in Hollywood.
Cuarón goes back to the Mexico City of his 1970s childhood, to a home not to unlike his own. The tensions between Mexico’s working indigenous population and the Spanish-descended upper-class simmer in the household of the moneyed Sofia (Marina de Tavira), where the soft-spoken Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) holds the combined position of housekeeper and beneficiary of Sofia’s bourgeois guilt. Sofia does the rich-person thing of treating the help like family until she doesn’t feel like it, though a reversal of circumstances conspires to bring them closer together on the shared ground of womanhood. In addition to the reliable awfulness of men, sudden crises augmented by Cuarón’s immersive camerawork (a street riot spilling into a department store, a forest fire featuring a Yuletide monstrosity) vulcanize the bond between the two characters and seed empathy beneath the tide of intolerance. Though the visual splendor alone more than justifies Cuarón’s efforts; this thing’s got more gorgeous pans than a high-end kitchenware store.
There’s somebody for everyone. The adage sounds infuriating and hollow when a supportive friend offers it following a bad break-up, but Ali Abbasi’s genre-busting whatsit renews its trueness and profundity by joining two oddballs in a union so perfect that they were literally made for one another. Swedish TSA agent Tina and frequent traveler Vore (Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff, respectively) have chemistry that runs deeper than shared interests or common beliefs, all the way down to their biological makeup. Sure, they share the same deformed face, a mishmash of cranial enlargement and gnarly denture work reminiscent of Eric Stoltz in Mask. And as you will quickly learn if you decide to Google this singularly weird movie in advance, their genitals, shall we say, correspond to one another. Still, the stranger elements never fly the freak flag for its own sake, remaining in devout service to what is in essence a tender love story.
Of course, any love this pure must be threatened by a compromised world, and Abbasi further muddles hopeful taxonomists by throwing in Scandinavian noir and a sneak allegory about subjugated populations. There’s some ongoing business about a ring of child pornographers smuggling smut across country lines (Tina can smell their guilt, which is both hilarious in theory and supremely tense in practice) that seems like a distraction from the blossoming link between our leads until its full significance comes into view and poses a quandary for Tina, the true protagonist. Once we’ve found the one we’re meant to be with, must we cut off the rest of the world? Through Tina, Abbasi gives a decisive answer that places this foreign curiosity more closely in line with fables of old, where a simple moral could gain fresh power through its mystical context. The idea of a “soulmate,” ground into corniness by a thousand trite rom-com speeches, feels so natural and inevitable here that it goes all the way down to the cellular level.
The bad news is that Thomas Pynchon could very well spend the rest of his days hiding out in his house or meditating on a mountain or however he’s busying himself instead of releasing new novels. The good news is that we’ve got whatever the hell Diamantino is, my best shot at a basic description being “a fantastical picaresque that pins soccer, terrorism, and genetic modification to a surrealist corkboard, and connects them with the red yarn of absurdist comedy.” That only scratches the surface of a film in league with The Congress and Southland Tales in their mad fusion of popular culture with political radicalism. It is, without a doubt, the only TIFF selection that reckons with the possible dissolution of the European Union while losing itself in cotton-candy clouds filled with gigantic, bounding fluffy puppies. So there’s that.
Full disclosure: I cannot fully reconstruct the plot of this motion picture. It revolves around an international god of futbol known simply as Diamantino (a stand-in for Ronaldo, though an opening title card vehemently denies this much), and it has something to do with a clandestine conspiracy, and breast augmentation, and an androgynous adopted child. With directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, it’s best to accept the mystery and analytically make off with what you can. In this case, it’s an agenda of acceptance and tolerance towards all stripes of sexuality and gender identity promoted by the relentless kindness of, if not Diamantino himself, the world containing him. Positivity positively seeps out of the celluloid pores. It’s going to require several more viewings that I will be happy to give it before I can claim comprehension, but for now I’m content to settle for awed, befuddled appreciation.
I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
The tricky thing about anti-fascist art is that the vast majority of fascists are 1) stupid, 2) uninterested in exploring challenging works of art, and 3) very good at misinterpreting things. In this ingenious work of metafiction from Romania’s pride and joy Radu Jude, theater director Mariana (Ioana Iacob) learns each of these lessons the hard way as she attempts to mount an accurate, unsparing recreation of the Romanian army’s 1941 massacre of Ukrainian Jews at Odessa. Her noble intention is to usher a population widely in denial towards a reckoning with their own shameful past—what the Germans dubbed vergangenheitsbewältigung in the years following the Holocaust—but of course this quixotic mission is easier accepted than completed. As she faces censorship, insubordination among her crew, and hostility from the public, she philosophizes about the purpose and ethics of art that stages real-life tragedy. Among many other things, Jude’s film serves as a valiant defense of Paul Greengrass’ projects and a scathing critique of his methods.
In that respect, its cinematic lineage really runs through The Act of Killing and the recent Bisbee ’17, films that actively interrogated the role that the authors of these works play in their execution. While her eclectic array of academic references marks her as well-educated, Mariana’s not unimpeachable as a dramaturg. She sounds the refrain of “never again!” as a rationale when her overseer who wants to pull the plug questions the play’s objectives, and yet she sometimes gives the impression of someone who thinks things through while she’s already in the process of doing them. For all her careful planning, the explosive finale suggests a futility to her efforts, an inevitability to a failure she could not forestall. Jude is appropriately despairing of the efficacy of political art, or its lack thereof, in effect pessimistically effacing himself and his films. That an ideology so sobering and intelligent about self-involvement could occupy the same festival as Michael Moore’s latest boggles the mind.
The Old Man and the Gun
As the capper to a pantheon career, Robert Redford takes on his greatest challenge of all time: Robert Redford. So what if he’s “playing” (what is acting, really?) a virtuosic crook and bank robber extraordinaire by the name of Forrest Tucker? Redford and director David Lowery, reuniting following their alchemical connection on Pete’s Dragon, both know full well that his shtick of butter-smooth gentlemanly charm is pure Sundance Kid. Tucker prides himself on being a higher class of criminal; he strides into each stickup like he’s courting the teller, all smiles and friendly eye contact and assurance that it’ll all be over soon. By the time he and the other members of what the cop (Casey Affleck) chasing them deems the “Over the Hill Gang” (Danny Glover and Tom Waits) make off with the loot, the victim held at gunpoint usually takes a shine to the guy.
But Redford can’t keep doing this forever, and neither can Tucker. As Redford prepares to hang up his hat, his character continues to cling to the only life he’s ever known. There’s a melancholy tang to this diner milkshake of a movie—old-fashioned, and goes down smooth. Tucker makes time with local cowgirl Jewel (a tone-perfect Sissy Spacek), and she’s a measure more realistic about the oncoming approach of time than the fast-living Tucker. Their endearingly innocent flirtation must eventually collide with his lifestyle, and when it does, Lowery earns a morally ambiguous ending worthy of comparison to those of the ‘70s character dramas he apes through groovy font selection and ravishing 35mm photography. Lowery’s films have had a bedtime-story vibe about them as of late (the secret dragon, the ghost who couldn’t leave his wife), and this one’s no different. Redford makes a full human being out of the boy thief who never wanted to grow up.