It certainly helped that for the second year in a row, my first film of the festival turned out to be a masterpiece – and easily the best film I would see over the three days. This was Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan) – a masterful examination of grief, with what will probably end up being the performance of the year by Casey Affleck – who plays a character, who for reasons we gradually learn, cuts himself off from his family and everyone around him. He is drawn back in by a tragedy – when he has been handed guardianship of his teenage nephew that he does not want. The film has a masterful flashback structure that works wonderfully, as we gradually see why Affleck’s character is the way he is. Affleck has never been better – it’s a quietly devastating performance – the way he won’t make eye contact with people (looking down and to the side) – his “biggest” moment is when he quietly says “I can’t beat it”. The rest of the cast is great to – especially Michelle Williams, fine in most of her scenes, before delivering a devastating scene. The film isn’t as messy as Lonergan’s last film – the great Margaret, whose messiness is part of its charm – but is more controlled, and hits just as hard. Lonergan has only directed three films in his career – and each are great. I just hope he works a little faster now – 5 years between films is too long.
Of course, not every movie you see at TIFF is going to be great – and some will be downright awful. The worst film I saw at TIFF this year as Never Ever (Benoit Jacquot) an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist. I generally like DeLillo, but I haven’t read that one - maybe if I had, I would have understood this film, as the novel has an internal monologue for the title character that the film lacks. It is about a young woman (Julia Roy – who also wrote the screenplay) – the body artist of the title – who falls in love with an older director (Mathieu Almaric) – who immediately leaves his longtime girlfriend/leading lady, and marries the Body Artist – living in an isolated house, that makes strange noises – before killing himself. The Artist is then either haunted by his ghost, or slowly goes insane – your choice. With no monologue, and little in the way of emotion at all, the lead character comes across as a complete blank slate – so much so that you cannot get any read on her. It doesn’t help that even when Almaric’s director is alive, they lack any chemistry together – so him haunting her makes less sense. The film really is all about its surface level – which isn’t bad – but isn’t enough to compensate for the lack of character or story or anything really of interest. A stinker to be sure.
Another disappointment, but at least an interesting one was Two Lovers and a Bear (Kim Nguyen) – an arctic set romance that is both too strange and not strange enough. The film stars Tatiana Maslany and Dane DeHaan as a pair of lovers in a small, Canadian arctic town – whose life is turned upside down when she gets accepted into school “down South” – and wants to go. First he goes crazy – so much so he has to be hospitalized – and then she goes crazy, and he’s fine – and then they set out on an insane snow mobile journey – complete with ghosts, a talking bear (voiced by Gordon Pinsent) – and an old army facility. The film either to get rid of the surreal elements altogether – make something more down to earth – or (and this preferable) – go further into surrealism, and really embrace it. It also needed to pick an ending (it has more than Return of the King). The film is not as much as a departure from the Oscar nominated, African set Rebelle (War Witch) as I suspected it might be – but certainly not a step forward either. Nguyen has undeniable talent – but Two Lovers and a Bear just doesn’t really lead anywhere.
I know that LBJ (Rob Reiner) has more than its share of flaws – it is square and old fashioned – like a forgotten prestige picture from the 1980s or 1990s, in its effort to present a largely positive portrait of the former President, it completely ignores the Vietnam War, and although the film talks a lot about Civil Rights, it doesn’t feature any major African Americans characters. Not to mention the fact that it comes on the heals of HBO’s All the Way, based on the acclaimed play, with a great central performance by Bryan Cranston. Yet, in spite of all this, Reiner’s film- which basically takes place during 1960-1963, hoping around in time, remains an entertaining biopic, with a great, larger than life performance by Woody Harrelson as the profane former President and a fine supporting cast. No, it’s not a return to form by Reiner – who hasn’t really made a great film since 1995’s The American President, but it’s as good as anything he’s done since – and for those who grew up on those 1990s biopics, a refreshing bit of nostalgia.
From a director who is new to me, but I’ll keep my eye out for in the future, was Heal the Living (Katell Quillevere) a melodrama done in a more realistic tone, in which a teenage boy gets into a car accident and is left brain dead – and the expanding waves that circle out from him when his grieving parents agree to let him become an organ donor. You probably have an idea of what this movie will entail – and while you may be right in terms of plot points, but Quillevere and her universally excellent cast play things in a more muted tone. Stylistically bold and intricately structured, Heal the Living is not a great film, but it’s good enough that I think she has one in her – and I’ll be excited to see what she does next.
Then there is (Yourself & Yours (Hong Sangsoo) by a director who I came late to – and continue to increasingly admire as I get used to his unique wavelength. At first glance, Yourself & Yours seems like minor Hong – certainly not on the level of his last film Right Now, Wrong Then – but it’s a film that has stuck with me ever since it ended. The story of a relationship that ends when rumors of his girlfriend’s drinking and possible promiscuity reaches the leading man – but are the rumors true. It certainly seems like it, and yet the movie remains ambiguous about just how many women the lead actress is playing – one, two – maybe even three. The film is about relationships and the impossibility of ever really knowing someone else. The sparsely attended screening I was at – easily the least people of any I saw this year – show that Hong may never truly breakthrough in North America – but for those who like him, he continues to fascinate.
City of Tiny Lights (Pete Travis) offered minor genre pleasures – a nice little modern day noir, set in London, in a near state of constant downpour – with Riz Ahmed stepping into the Humphrey Bogart/Robert Mitchum role as a hardened gumshoe, hired to find a missing Russian prostitute – and what starts out as a simple case, gets bigger and bigger, and has connections to a dark incident in Ahmed’s teenage years. As modern noirs go, City of Tiny Lights is quite good – stylistically, director Pete Travis overdoes the ambient slo-mo shots, but generally gets it right, and I liked the multi-cultural cast, which still seems like something modern noirs don’t address very much. My only real problem is the ending – which is WAY too happy for a noir – I get it, by then, we like this extended cast and want to see them happy, but the end is almost straight out of It’s a Wonderful Life, and hits a false note.
As music docs go Gimme Danger (Jim Jarmusch) is fairly straight forward – director Jarmusch describes it as a love letter to the Stooges, and that is precisely what it is, so for fans of Iggy Pop and the rest, it is a must see. For those who don’t know much about the Stooges (I’m one of you), this acts as a nice introduction to the people involved and their (limited) rise and fall story. Oddly though, there isn’t a whole lot of music in the film – or when there is, it’s constantly in the background. I would have liked a little bit more discussion on that. Overall though, like most music docs of its kind, fans of the band will love it, and it’s of limited interest to anyone else. But hey, it’s WAY better than Jarmusch’s Year of the Horse – about Neil Young – so that’s a huge plus.
One of the most talked about films – among critics at least – was Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick). No matter what you think of Malick’s post Tree of Life work, he remains a director cinephiles and critics have to deal with. I saw the feature length (90 minute) version, narrated by Cate Blanchatt – and overall, I have to say I quite liked it. Yes, the narration plays almost like self-parody by Malick, and is best ignored – and the Dawn of Man section near the end – is downright goofy. Yet, the film is full of eye popping visuals from beginning to end – even, or perhaps especially, when you don’t know what the hell you’re looking at. Honestly, it’s probably the least interesting film Malick has ever made – and I really think that everything after Tree of Life (and for the record, I mostly like To the Wonder and Knight of Cups) is like a footnote to that masterpiece. The word is that the 45 minute IMAX version, narrated by Brad Pitt, is a better, more straight forward version – and I believe that, as the point of Voyage of Time often seems to get lost at 90 minutes, and no matter how eye popping it is, it can grow tedious as well. Still, I will continue to say that since Malick is pretty much the only major director doing what he does, he deserves respect and attention – and less people telling him to get back to work on more narrative driven films.
My biggest WTF film of the festival was The Untamed (Amat Escalante) – a crazed sci-fi/horror/drama by the Mexican filmmaker, inspired by the late Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. The film is about two women – one trapped in a loveless marriage, where her husband is cheating on her with her brother, and another who sneaks off into the woods to visit some sort of orgasm giving tentacle creature in a cabin, created by the calmest mad scientist imaginable. They cross paths, more people visit the creature – who isn’t always so peaceful. The film is unendingly strange – and beside a scene where one character explains too much, the film basically got under my skin and stayed there. It is hardly a perfect film – any film with tentacle sex would be hard pressed to be perfect – but it’s certainly not one I will forget.
On the completely opposite end of things was Loving (Jeff Nichols) a quiet, sensitive subtle film that sneaks up on you, and stays with you long after the credits role. Nichols film is about the Loving couple – who in the 1960s got married, and were eventually convicted of a crime and sentenced to leave the state of Virginia, simply because he was white and she was black – their case eventually going all the way to the Supreme Court. If this sounds like a typical, prestige drama – you’re right, it does – but the way Nichols and his cast handles it is anything but typical. Played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, the couple at the heart of the film are quiet, and understated – he can barely express himself verbally, and she goes from being scared to having an iron will – all the while she stays fairly quiet. Not even the eventual Supreme Court case gives the film phony dramatics – it’s basically an afterthought – and what remains is a film about this couple who loved each other deeply, and just wanted to be left alone. For Nichols, this is probably his least complex film to date – and yet, like all of his films, he treats his Southern characters with respect and dignity, and doesn’t go for easy stereotypes. To be honest, it was a little strange that through Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special, Nichols had spent so much time down South, and hadn’t addressed race yet – Loving corrects that brilliantly. Two days after having seen it, this is probably the film that has stuck with me the most of any of my TIFF films aside from Manchester by the Sea. My appreciation for it keeps growing.
The central relationship in Una (Benedict Andrews) could not be more different than the one in Loving. David Harrower adapted his own play Blackbird, about a young woman (Rooney Mara) confronting the man (Ben Mendelsohn) who she had a “relationship” with 15 years earlier – when she was just 13, and he was middle aged – that ended with him in jail. He’s now rebuilt his life – and she hasn’t – and so she shows up- at his work to confront him – angry and what happened, and hurt by his abandonment of her. Harrower and Andrews work very hard to ensure that the movie isn’t just a filmed play – with mixed results. The flashbacks – with Ruby Stokes as a young Una, are mostly brilliant – but the added subplots and location moves in the present are more distracting than anything else. Still, this is mainly a performance piece, and Mara, Mendelsohn and Stokes are all brilliant. Mara continues to be one of the best, most fearless actresses around – making Una both terrified and terrifying – dangerous, and of course sympathetic. She kills in this role. Mendelsohn is equally good – mainly because he makes his character seem like kind of a nice guy – when he explains his actions, you want to believe him – even though it’s very clear he is, at least at times, manipulating the whole situation. What’s real, and what’s a lie? Una will disturb most audiences – as it should. Be prepared to talk about this one afterwards.
The same could be said for Christine (Antonio Campos) – it is a film that demands to be discussed and debated after you’ve seen it, no matter what you think of it. The film stars the wonderful Rebecca Hall as Christine Chubbuck, the Florida news reporter who killed herself on live TV in the 1970s. The biggest asset the film has is Hall herself, who plays Chubbock like a wounded, frightened animal – she is principled to be sure, but she is also delusional, and Hall captures that wonderfully. It isn’t just a showpiece for her though – Michael C. Hall is great at the dimwitted anchor – a personification of the I’m Okay, You’re Okay 1970s, and Tracy Letts continues his acting hot streak as her chauvinistic boss. From a narrative standpoint, Campos and company are able to show both the specific mental issues that contributed to Chubbuck’s suicide, as well as take a macro view of the sexism faced by women in the TV industry – which given the revelations about Fox News and Roger Ailes are still very much relevant. I was surprised by Campos – known for provocations like Afterschool and Simon Killer, who crafted a sympathetic film that is deeper than you would expect. It makes me even more curious to see Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, about the same woman, which like this premiered at Sundance this year (and got the stronger reviews). Even if that film ends up being better, this one is great.
So that’s it for me and TIFF this year. Will I be back next year? Probably, although I have to admit that my annual TIFF illness that befalls me after the festival is worse this year than ever before – I put myself through too much over those days, with little sleep and nourishment, and my body is becoming less forgiving with age. Perhaps fewer films over the same number of days next year will be the right mix. But for now, count me in.