toronto 2012

Toronto Wrap-up: The Fifteen Best of the Fest

(L-R) JENNIFER LAWRENCE and BRADLEY COOPER star in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
(L-R) JENNIFER LAWRENCE and BRADLEY COOPER star in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK Photo: JOJO WHILDEN/The Weinstein Company.

That’s a wrap on the Toronto Film Festival, one of the major events of the fall movie season thanks to its melting-pot lineup of Oscar bait, foreign films, heavy-hitter documentaries, and random odds and ends. With the Vulture team now back from our trip up north, we thought it time to close things out with a salute to the fifteen top films we saw at the festival … and boy, is it an eclectic bunch. Some of these movies are about to come out, while others you’re likely to see next year, but all of them are worth earmarking now. To the list!

In this extremely likeable Noah Baumbach film, Frances (Greta Gerwig) becomes a New York City nomad when Sophie (Mickey Sumner), her roommate and bosom buddy, decides to room with another friend … and as Frances putters from one living situation to the next, the friendship drifts in that sad way friendships sometimes do. The mostly effortless script captures a certain twentysomething experience that will resonate with many New Yorkers, and Gerwig is charming and quite funny in unexpected ways. Her humbling, bumbling shtick is so much more entertaining when it’s not in service of a male lead’s fantasy (see Greenberg and Arthur).
After the brainless sci-fi of Total Recall, what a relief to visit the engaging future world of Looper, Rian Johnson’s new sci-fi spectacle. The central conceit is complicated enough — Joseph Gordon-Levitt, under prosthetics, must find and kill his future self, played by Bruce Willis — but Johnson bravely takes his cue from Inception and keeps complicating things, albeit in the most clever ways possible. It’s an action movie where the biggest muscle is its brain. Photo: Alan Markfield/? 2012, Looper, LLC. All rights reserved.
God bless Ben Affleck for resisting the siren song of the superhero movies they continue to offer him over at Warner Bros.; Affleck has instead carved out his own niche as a dependable director of well-cast, mid-budget dramatic thrillers, a genre that would otherwise be in danger of disappearing from most studio slates. Argo is his best attempt yet, as well as his most selfless, since he’s the putative lead of this fact-based film (about a seventies attempt to rescue hostages in Iran by concocting a fake movie production to shuttle them out of the country), but so clearly enamored of his strong ensemble that he gives Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, and Scoot McNairy plenty of prime time to shine. Photo: Claire Folger/?2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Directors Justin McMillan and Christopher Nelius follow big-wave surfers Tom Carroll and Ross Clark-Jones around Australia in search of the continent’s angriest swells. Thanks to the gorgeous 3D cinematography, this is as close as you’ll ever come to feeling the exhilaration of big-wave surfing without doing it yourself. And unlike other surf docs that tend to focus on surfers in their twentysomething prime, Storm Surfers alights on these two men — both in their late 40s — who are refreshingly candid about how age has tamed their sense of adventure. Not that there’s anything remotely tame about their stunts. This is the sort of movie that the third dimension was made for. Photo: Andrew Chisholm
In David O. Russell’s crowd-pleading dramedy, Bradley Cooper stars as a barely reformed mental patient intent on wooing his wife back after a violent breakdown, though he meets his match in Jennifer Lawrence’s equally unhinged widow, who convinces him to enroll in a dance competition with her. Russell strikes a perfect balance between wacky and sincere as their relationship evolves into a sweet, playful, and peculiar romance. Robert De Niro is better than he’s been in years as Cooper’s obsessive-compulsive father, and Lawrence continues a winning streak that began with Winter’s Bone. Photo: JOJO WHILDEN/? 2011 THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY
Just sit back and enjoy the sheer spectacle of this beautifully assembled 164-minute epic from the Wachowski siblings and director Tom Tykwer. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, and more each play different roles in six different storylines spanning 500 years; our favorites are a future rebellion in Neo Seoul and a present-day uprising of old folks in a nursing home. You’ll be surprised at how quickly time flies when you’re playing “Spot the A-lister,” and since the actors perform different genders and ethnicities (black actors in whiteface, white actors in Asianface), it’s harder than you think. Bonus points if you can figure out a grand unifying theory behind the six stories. Photo: Reiner Bajo/? 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Is there any better director to make a documentary about Michael Jackson than Spike Lee? This look at the making of MJ’s Bad album, pegged to the 25th anniversary of its re-release, may go down as one of the most definitive music documentaries ever made. Instead of myth-making, Lee teases out details about the man through talking with people who were part of his creative process, then quizzing others who were influenced by him, like Questlove, Mariah Carey, and Kanye West. The film is filled with poignant insight on a man imprisoned by fame and immersive, rock-the-house musical moments.
If there’s one thing documentarian Alex Gibney had a gift for, it’s taking a subject that’s already been covered exhaustively in the media and presenting it to you as though you’re seeing it for the first time. In this case, the subject is sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and the focus is St. John’s School for the Deaf in Wisconsin, where Father Lawrence Murphy abused boys for over two decades. Gibney speaks to those who stepped forward and fought to get Murphy defrocked, then were systematically shut down by the Vatican. The agony of the yearslong battle is evident as the victims vent their frustration through sign language, and the emotion behind their gestures and facial expressions conveys more than words could ever say.
Sometimes, a film festival can become choked with hoity-toity awards season wannabes. Sometimes, you just need a palate cleanser like Spring Breakers. Harmony Korine’s T&A crime comedy is a total blast, casting jailbait actresses like Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens as bad girls in bikinis who hook up with James Franco’s utterly insane rapper/crimelord in sunny Florida. They shoot guns, they do drugs, and they cavort with each other in montages set to Britney Spears. What’s not to love?
It’s the summer of 1980, and an East Berlin doctor (Nina Hoss) arrives to her new job at a provincial hospital amid whispers of her recent arrest for having tried to obtain a travel visa. This restrained, austere drama (Germany’s foreign-language Oscar candidate) by writer-director Christian Petzoldt, follows Barbara through her daily life, from surprise raids on her flat to a budding friendship with the clinic’s mysterious, handsome head doctor, who’s been tasked with keeping an eye on her. Hoss proves to be a transfixing anchor as a woman whose compassion becomes at odds with her urge to escape. Photo: Photographer: Hans Fromm/Copyright: Hans Fromm www.hansfromm.de
A “bestiaire” is a medieval French encyclopedia of animal drawings, and this experimental documentary from Canadian filmmaker Denis Cote is just that: a picture book in motion. There’s a rich sonic landscape but few spoken words in this exploration of the gulf between humans and animals observing one another in Quebec’s Hemmingford Parc Safari. Viewers who can get past up-close scenes of taxidermy, or panicked cattle banging repeatedly against metal gates, will be rewarded with memorable images of twitching antlers, or an ostrich’s head popping in and out of a static frame, or a water buffalo staring straight into the lens. It’s a film of powerful, plaintive beauty.
Our critic David Edelstein saw and loved this sensitive high school film, which opens imminently, and Toronto audiences flipped for it as well. Logan Lerman and Emma Watson star in the story of a troubled kid who finds a bond with his fellow outcasts at the most pivotal time of his life. The real revelation is live-wire Ezra Miller as the proud and loud proto-queer Patrick, who throws off sparks like a young Robert Downey, Jr. Photo: ? 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
The most controversial film of the festival, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary about Indonesian gangsters struck Werner Herzog and Errol Morris as important enough that both jumped on as executive producers. The film catches up with the gangsters 40 years after they’ve committed mass genocide and are now revered members of their communities. Instead of traditional interviews, though, Oppenheimer asks the gangsters to make a film reenacting their crimes, and they’re excited to deliver, even meticulously critiquing dailies to make sure the killing looks authentic. Remorse is scarce, but toward the end, one among them begins to feel guilt when playing the part of a victim. Surreal, disturbing stuff.
Even if it can’t quite compare to the bite of Stephen Frears’s 1988 classic or the original French novel, this Chinese adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons is proof that a great story can transcend all cultural barriers. And it sure is pretty to look at. Set in thirties Shanghai (aren’t all opulent Chinese movies?) it casts firecracker Ziyi Zhang against type in the prim role of widow Madame de Tourvel, and she manages to have scorching chemistry (though Chinese cultural watchdogs keep them from showing much skin onscreen) with Korea’s Clark Gable, Dong-gun Jang, as Valmont. Also great is Cecilia Cheung as the scheming Miss Mo (Glenn Close’s character in the 1988 version). The relatively happier ending is a disappointing cop-out, but it’s a very enjoyable ride getting there.
Some were stymied by this indie comedy’s mainstream vibe, but better to think of it as a studio movie that just happened to get made with Mark Ruffalo in the lead and a thorny subject — sex addiction — as its raison d’etre. Ruffalo is a five-years-sober addict of the flesh who finds himself tempted by Gwyneth Paltrow in a series of spectacular lingerie scenes; meanwhile, Tim Robbins (a decades-recovered addict) butts heads with his son, a ne’er do well trying to get sober; while Josh Gad and Pink (yes, the singer) make for an unlikely platonic pair struggling through the ten steps. Against all odds, it’s a fun one.
Toronto Wrap-up: The Fifteen Best of the Fest