The Great Celluloid North: BW/DR’s Post-Mortem from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival

With the unholy anointing of Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit as the Grolsch People’s Choice Award winner, following in the proud steps of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Green Book, that’s a wrap on the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. I matched my record for most films seen, at a whopping 33, though felt wowed by a slimmer percentage of the total than usual. Many of the wonders took place away from the screen, as in my screening of The Two Popes during which someone ripped a magnificently brassy fart during a silent, delicate moment. Or the premiere of Sound of Metal, a film with such intense auditory barrages that the sound system at the Winter Garden Theater nearly blew out and one member of the audience had to be taken to the hospital. It will go down as one of my life’s great regrets that I left Toronto prior to the official screening of the Ugandan import Crazy World, which reportedly included a live hype man and video jockey to provide a running commentary on the no-holds-barred, DIY-action picture. Experiences like these, that can’t be replicated, reaffirm why we weather the million tiny headaches—three-hour sleeps, lopsided feeding schedules, literal headaches—that attending a film festival of this scale entails. Settling in for a film nobody’s yet had the chance to suck dry with their opinions, it all feels very worth the trouble.

Below, you’ll find reviews for six of the more noteworthy films I took in during the latter half of the festival. But because other assignments have precluded me from covering them at length here, I can only give my heartiest recommendation in passing to Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, Cory Finley’s Bad Education, Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang, Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space, and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Truth. That still leaves an embarrassment of cinematic riches, so read on for a more dedicated preview of what awaits in the fall and beyond:

No. 7 Cherry Lane | Far Sun Film Co. Ltd.
Far Sun Film Co. Ltd.

No. 7 Cherry Lane

In his first feature work following a decade-long hiatus, Hong Kong maestro Yonfan blends histories literary, cinematic, and political into a fantastical romantic swirl rendered with otherworldly animation. He draws on classical film noir, Simone Signoret vehicles from postwar France, and Romantic-era romances for a dreamy love story woven into the unrest of the Chinese riots in 1967. His aesthetic techniques likewise claim an eclectic array of inspirations, spanning Japanese woodcuts to present-day anime to propaganda advertisements. (In a brief address prior to the press screening, Yonfan delineated the process by which he computer-animated first in 3D before hand-drawing in 2D, citing a desire to make “moving pictures” in the truest sense.) The director has arranged a beautiful bouquet of styles and genres, with a tripartite narrative structure allowing him to pick them one by one.

It’s not even that there’s a plot buried somewhere in here; if anything, Yonfan buries his audience in it, with enough heartbreak and rebellion and Jane Eyre roleplaying to fill an epic novel. We drift between an elite student, his tutee, her mother, and various planes of existence, wending freely through the past and a futuristic interpretation of the present. And, needless to say, a serpent has sex with a human woman. While this soupçon of symbols and allusions resists ready comprehension, allowing the madness to wash over you holds a pleasure all its own. In any case, the artistic marvels spewed forth from Yonfan’s pen can hold the line for the film’s two hours—every frame a painting, as they say.

Meryl Streep in The Laundromat (2019) | Netflix
Netflix

The Laundromat

Nobody’s making anti-capitalist films on the scale or with the finesse of a Steven Soderbergh. It’s not just that he’s mad as hell about all the dirty money in America and that he’s decided not to take it anymore; it’s that he knows how to marshal industry resources for movies that scan as big Hollywood productions commanding people to take notice. He’s got the mind, soul, and abiding sense of deep contempt for the ultra-wealthy of an indie director, and the name-brand cachet of the mainstream director responsible for Ocean’s Eleven. His latest film—a Netflick, to classify it truthfully—could be characterized as another sort of caper picture. Except this time around, the crooks aren’t lovable galoots, they’re oily shell corporation managers, and the marks aren’t obscenely rich dupes at a casino, they’re us.

Scott Z. Burns’ script gets into the nitty-gritty of the so-called Panama Papers, a massive data dump that revealed just how unsavory some of the business practices enabled by the firm of Mossack and Fonseca really were. The weaselly money-managers (played by a silky Antonio Banderas, and Gary Oldman doing the worst German accent you’ve ever heard) specialized in setting up fake business that contained fake businesses and so on and so forth. These shell companies allowed shady types to safely hold their sums in the tax-free havens of Central America, while regular folks (like the widow played by a determined Meryl Streep, more lucid than she’s been in years) can only tug on strings in pursuit of the truth. Lots of stylistic flourishes jazz up what would otherwise be dry factual accounting, as if Soderbergh’s doing his Big Short in an effort to hold the average American’s attention long enough to teach us that we’re all screwed.

Adam Driver in The Report (2019) | Amazon Studios
Amazon Studios

The Report

Scott Z. Burns pulled double duty at the festival, also claiming a directorial credit with this X-Acto blade procedural about the ugly business of torture during the American War on Terror. Adam Driver portrays the indefatigable Senate staffer Daniel Jones, who led a one-man crusade against the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation” (creepy Orwellian euphemisms are all over the place) as the members of his team gradually succumbed to the pressures of their task and resigned. He found an ally in his superior Dianne Feinstein, played with a politician’s studied manner by Annette Bening, but ultimately had to go this road alone if he wanted his scandalous report to see the light of day. Burns shaves off everything that would otherwise weigh Jones’ mission down—tangential interludes, characterization BS showing him crying in private moments—until all that remains is one remarkably intelligent, driven man doing his damn job.

Burns knows full well that the details of this particular job will have no trouble sustaining a gripping investigation. The seedy underbelly of America’s effort at “global peacekeeping” contains hypocrisies, semi-truths, and human rights violations shocking in their number as well as their severity. We learn that legal loopholes created a baffling circumstance in which torture becomes unlawful only if it doesn’t work; if useful information can be extracted, then the Geneva Convention ceases to apply. Unqualified sadist contractors, black sites like something out of a hardcore horror movie, and highly creative interpretations of the Constitution exempted America from taking responsibility for one of its most shameful chapters. Burns’ fury comes across through the screen, in part because Jones shares it, and in part due to the final title cards confirming what the film makes abundantly clear: there’s no justice to be found here, not in the film and not in its country.

Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems | A24
A24

Uncut Gems

Josh and Benny Safdie have returned to follow up Good Time with another run-all-night saga of New York desperation mapping a two-bit chiseler’s mad dash in pursuit of money. Like Robert Pattinson’s peroxide-blonde hoodlum, Howard Ratner (played by an all-time-best Adam Sandler as a curdled version of his usual harried family man) lives a life in which the almighty dollar means the difference between life and death; he’s a jewel retailer and compulsive gambler, the former business and latter addiction bound in a complicated financial symbiosis enabling one to pay for the other. The Safdies wrote the script with their longtime pal Ronald Bronstein, whose dizzying directorial effort Frownland matches this film’s unceasing razor’s-edge intensity pound for pound. Howard keeps moving forward like a Jewish Great White, assured in the knowledge that he will literally die if he doesn’t keep up the hustle.

Among the issues weighing on his mind: his gangster brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian) wants to collect the cash Howard owes him before it’s time to break some legs, he lent Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself, surprisingly ably) an ultra-rare Ethiopian opal and needs to get it back, his wife (Idina Menzel) wants a divorce, and his side-piece (Julia Fox) may or may not be hooking up with R&B crooner The Weeknd (also playing himself—the 2012 setting is strong with this one). Howard’s got a lot of loose ends to tie up, and we share in the stress he can barely stave off. That’s how he does everything, barely, whether it’s getting places on time or paying debts or evading men that would like to drop him out of a window. The Safdies have spun a hair-trigger classic from the hectic bustle of the Diamond District that Howard surveys like a savvy scavenger, in which the stakes get a little higher with every scene.

Waves | A24
A24

Waves

The Safdies gave a masterclass in setting tension at a high burn and successfully keeping it there. Trey Edward Shults, meanwhile, provided the Goofus counter to their Gallant exemplar with his overreaching assault on our feels. He sets the dial at a 10 and only goes up from there, but fails to complete the crucial prepwork of establishing characters in which the audience can be willing to invest. From the first moment he introduces the African-American family at the center of the film, Shults expects his viewers to muster the maximum quotient of sympathy for people we’ve only just met. Every scene could be the climax of its own movie, requiring a boundless capacity for heart-opening that the film never goes through the trouble of earning. 

Between the ill-considered musical selections betraying the film’s creator as a 30-year-old white man (his concept of hip-hop is limited to Kendrick, Kanye, Rocky, and Tyler), and the tin-eared racial sermonizing that accomplishes the same, a lot of this painfully earnest movie rings false. Shults steers the family, and in particular wayward son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), from one tragedy to the next, often literally, with the camera unceasingly careening off the walls on a Steadicam gone wild. He maxes out his maximalism with flips, zooms, pans, and wall-to-wall noise alternating between the many soundtrack cuts and a deafening score from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. It all comes to feel like distraction from Shults’ weakness for writing dialogue and sketchy racial characterization, all of which hides behind his tendency to jackhammer on pathos above all else. Not to quote Jonathan Franzen, but, as Jonathan Franzen says: You have to love before you can be relentless. 

Shia LaBeouf in Honey Boy | Amazon Studios
Amazon Studios

Honey Boy

A late-in-the-festival surprise (for me, at least—crowds attending this film’s world premiere at Sundance back in January had largely positive things to say) came from Shia LaBeouf, writer and featured player in this fictionalized look at his younger years. Farming out direction work to Alma Har’el, with whom he previously worked on a Sigur Rós music video back in 2012, LaBeouf pulls no punches in depicting his life during the Even Stevens days or the post-adolescent dysfunction that landed him in handcuffs on the side of the road and eventually in rehab. As a child (Noah Jupe), avatar Otis Lort chafes under the influence of an abusive yet charismatic rodeo clown father (LaBeouf himself, full throttle on a role that demands a lot of him), and then as a young adult (Lucas Hedges), staves off the man’s specter. Har’el and DP Natasha Braier (who brings the same eye for modern-art wide shots to this that she did to The Neon Demon) exert their own authority over the finished product, shooting with long takes that emphasize the intimacy of the performances. 

The parallel strands both provide plenty of meat for the thespians to gnaw on, calling for the type of sensitive glowering that baits James Dean comparisons. LaBeouf, for so long prone to high-concept dabbling in the vein of a James Franco, re-debuts as a powerhouse actor capable of reining himself in for vulnerability, viciousness, and a country-boy magnetism. (The thick, drawling Texan accent he’s doing can’t even detract from his chaotic feral-hog energy.) Whether he’ll ever decide to commit himself to being a Great Actor is a conversation all its own, but this film makes the exciting suggestion that LaBeouf’s got it in him, a wellspring of untapped potential just waiting to burst.