After living like a mole for a week – mainly sitting in air-conditioned, obviously dark theaters – I can answer the most frequently asked question after returning from a festival: What did you like, what was your favorite?
Of course I was not able to catch all 288 feature films that were screened during the Toronto International Film Festival. But I did manage to watch 31 movies – I have listed my highlights below.
THE very, very GOOD.
12 Years A Slave
The movie tells the real story about a free black man from Upstate New York named Solomon Northup (the film is based on his book with the same title) who was kidnapped and then sold as a slave. Director Steve McQueen stays away from cheesy sentimentality and therefore makes this movie and the horrible historic events even more terrifying and relevant. With an impressive cast – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Sarah Poulson, Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti – 12 Years A Slave is a stunning art movie that will play a major role during the award season. Audiences will have a lot to talk about. Must-See!
NOTE: 12 Years A Slave was the 6th movie I have watched and stayed my favorite through the entire festival. At TIFF there are no trophies handed out. The highest honor is the People’s Choice Award which was granted to 12 Years a Slave – often predicting Oscar wins as Best Picture. Director Steve McQueen said in a statement: “At a festival that has shown so many brilliant films, I cannot be more thrilled to receive this award. I am deeply grateful to all the people who have worked on this film, and that their amazing work has been recognized.”
One thing is for sure: If you ever have trouble in space, make sure George Clooney is with you! In this visually stunning survival space movie, the actor plays an experienced astronaut teaching and helping his rookie colleague (played by Sandra Bullock) during a repair and space walk – and cracking a joke here and there. Then things go terribly wrong and the two try to get back to their spacecraft in a tense real time experience. Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron takes the viewer on a journey that might be the closest thing to a real space trip. Bullock even has a great “Barbarella” moment.
Catholics will probably not list this gem as their favorite: In a nut shell, nuns take away the baby of Philomena Lee and sell it to wealthy people who are looking to adopt. Dame Judi Dench plays the title character who has kept this a secret for 50 years but now would like to find her son. Journalist Martin Sixsmith (played by comedian Steve Coogan who also wrote the script) helps her with her search. At times hilarious and witty, other times just simply touching Philomena is a crowd-pleaser, directed spot on by Brit Stephen Frears . And who doesn’t love the terrific Judi Dench?
Somewhat Terry Gilliam-ish in style, another British director, Richard Ayoade tells the story about an office worker (Jesse Eisenberg in a double role) who is ignored at work and also cannot get the attention of his love interest (played by Mia Wasikowska) until a guy shows up who looks exactly like him – but a way more popular version of him. Based on Dostoyevsky’s novella Ayoade shows impressive art design and delivers a unique and corky film. He is an exciting new voice in cinema that should be watched.
THE not that BAD:
These two movies have the same director, Denis Villeneuve and also star Jake Gyllenhaal in a leading role – but could not be more different. Prisoners tells the story of two little girls disappear one afternoon while out playing. Hugh Jackman plays one of the fathers who feels the police investigations (led by Gyllenhaal) does not progress fast enough , takes matters into his own hands. The result is a dark thriller, not the usual fare you get from Hollywood.
Enemy, on the other hand, is an art film, cryptic at times, about a man who by coincidence finds another man who looks exactly like him (both played by Gyllenhaal). Both movies have their weaknesses and by all means are not perfect but are still so interesting that one should keep an eye on the Canadian director who also was able to squeeze out the most interesting acting from Gyllenhaal since Donnie Darko.
Only Lovers Left Alive
A Vampire movie? Eye roll! But not so fast: Director Jim Jarmusch made a movie about bloodsuckers that is just adorable. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton live in modern times and mostly they are very melancholic creatures who love listening to music (they are Jack White fans for god’s sake!) and talk. It is more a love story than a vampire tale and somehow you feel for these creatures who have trouble finding blood because they don’t like to kill people. Mia Wasikowska and Anton Yelchin don’t make their lives any easier. Very goth and cool.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her
Granted that 3 hours and 10 minutes are a very long time for a movie, even if it means to watch such talented actors like James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain. But the film by Ned Benson does something new: It tells the story of a couple who are going through a rough patch due to a tragedy first from his view for 90 minutes and then her version (honestly they could have cut each movie down a little). Capturing how people can experience the same event but are emotionally not on the same page, the two films together might stem an interesting conversation about the differences in gender.
We are the Best
Three Swedish teenage girls in Stockholm 1982 decide to form a punk band even though the adults keep telling them ‘Punk is dead’. Swedish director Lukas Moodysson has adopted his wife’s graphic novel and delivered a cute surprise of a film that captures the endearing essence of puberty when you just want to rebel against what your parents stand for. Sweet and entertaining.
August: Osage County
It has Meryl Streep in it. This might be a reason enough to watch this film based on the Pulitzer price winning play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the screenplay). With a massive and impressive cast (Julia Roberts, Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis to name just a few) it is the typical Oscar bait movie. Sadly, about an hour has been cut from the play to make this more of a Hollywood fare and this makes it suffer. But it still has the great dialog and watching this dysfunctional family might make you like your own mom and family more. It is a must for Benedict Cumberbatch fans: He has very little screen time but is so enchanting in his performance it is worth the admission price when he sings a song at the piano. AAWW!
Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey lost tons of weight for this role about a straight man with AIDS who starts selling HIV medicine to guarantee his own survival (but also others). It is mesmerizing to watch him since he is not only skin and bones, but delivers a very convincing homophobe who at the beginning has trouble accepting his fate. However, the big surprise is Jared Leto who looks amazing as a woman (he plays a drug addicted transsexual) in a supporting role and steals a few scenes.
THE disappointing and therefore UGLY:
The movie opens with Jude Law having a long monologue while getting his dick sucked and he uses the word cock a lot. Should be a hell of ride after that. But the thin plot about a safecracker released from prison does nothing but deliver a contrived gangster story. The movie tries hard to be witty as In Bruges but sadly never gets there. This is nothing more than a vehicle for Law to show his acting chops.
The Fifth Estate
This is painful to admit since its star Benedict Cumberbatch’ portrayal of Julian Assange is terrific in any way – but the movie itself sadly fails to impress. Told from the view of Daniel Domscheit-Berg it does no justice to the founder of WikiLeaks and his accomplishments but instead seems like the take of a sour loser (Domscheit-Berg had a fallout with Assange and wrote a book). Director Bill Condon tells the story with antiquated visuals which might have worked if it was the year 1999. If you are interested in the topic, watch the informative and balanced documentary instead: Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.
Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk is not your average director. He won the Venice Film Festival last year with Pieta and we love him for being, well, crazy. Moebius is told without any dialog and the plot goes like this: A mother tried to castrate her husband, fails and cuts off her son’s penis instead. Then she swallows the family jewel. The father rushes the poor kid to the hospital and decides to give his organ as a genital transplant. Soon after, he googles how to get aroused without a penis and finds that masturbating with a rock (rubbed on the foot until the flesh starts bleeding) gets him off. Wow! And this is just the first act! Castration, gang rape and incest – if you like the insane, please enjoy this movie anyway.