If you have been disappointed with 2012’s cinematic output thus far, keep the faith, because I come bearing good news.
The 2012 Toronto International Film Festival was held from September 6-16, and with it came premieres and sneak peaks of some of the mostly highly anticipated films releasing in the latter half of 2012. This was my first time at the festival and I have to say, it was an absolute blast. For any cinephiles who have considered attending the festival, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It may have been due to the overall high quality of the film crop, but I can think of few events that would be as enjoyable for film lovers as this year’s Toronto Film Festival was.
I know you don’t care about my own personal experiences though and would rather hear about the movies, so let’s get down to business.
Below is my ranking, from least favorite to favorite, of the ten films I saw at TIFF 2012. As you will see from my ratings, even the lowest ranks films of the lot had aspects to admire, which just speaks to the high level of talent on display at this year’s festival. There were a few films, such as The Master, Seven Psychopaths, A Place Beyond the Pines, and Amour, that I had really wanted to see but was unable to. For the most part though I heard great things about all four of these films, and when you add these in conjunction with the films I saw, plus the highly anticipated films not at the festival (Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Lincoln, Life of Pi, and Zero Dark Thirty just to name a few), and regardless of your opinion on 2012’s slate of movies up to this point, you can’t help but feel things are shaping up nicely for the back half of the year.
Anyway, without further ado, my 2012 TIFF experience:
10. The Iceman
Telling the real life story of mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), who is believed to have been responsible for over 100 homicides (all the while successfully playing house with his clueless family), this movie has a lot of potential that it just never fully realizes. Anchored by strong performances from the likes Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, Chris Evans, and an especially good lead turn from Michael Shannon, the film is simply too eager to reach the finish line.
After a quick introduction to both the origins of Kuklinski’s family life and his homicidal day job, the film abruptly jumps a decade so it can begin chronicling the man’s unraveling. Despite the interesting subject matter and strong performances, this lightning-fast pacing keeps the audience from gaining any real insight into the man, which was already a difficult enough task given the protagonist’s unemotional, glacial personality.
Afterwards I couldn’t help thinking that director Ariel Vromen would have been better served by turning The Iceman into a mini-series, or at least a two-day TV movie on HBO, where he would have had more time to develop the character in a measured and detailed fashion. As it stands though, The Iceman is an interesting, but flawed, look into the mind of a sociopath hitman.
9. Everybody Has a Plan
This Argentine film, starring Viggo Mortensen in a double role as twin brothers, one living the respectable life of a pediatrician in the city, while the other remains a good for nothing criminal in what appears to be the Argentine equivalent to the Louisiana bayou, fails to connect as much as it should.
Firmly rooted in the crime/film-noir tradition, Everybody Has a Plan imitates the approximate look of the much better films it aspires to, but on closer inspection, is clearly a knock-off. First-time director Ana Piterbarg is competent enough behind the camera, but her laser like focus on the events of the plot only serve to magnify her weaknesses as a writer.
The film’s characters take many drastic actions throughout, but the film has nary a comment, or even much by the way of an explanation, for why the characters make the decisions they do. The result is an empty hollowness that leaves you mostly indifferent to the film’s proceedings. Produced by the people who won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film with the Argentine The Secret in Their Eyes (one of my favorite films from 2009), Everybody Has a Plan closely matches that film in tone, but can’t compete in the details.
8. The Sessions
The Sessions, a film which has changed names a few times since its successful debut at the Sundance film festival, tells the true life story of Mark O’Brien. O’Brien (John Hawkes) was a journalist/poet who was paralyzed from the neck down as a young child after contracting polio, forced to live much of his life in an iron lung.
The film focuses on O’Brien’s quest to have sexual intercourse for the first time in his life. A very religious man, O’Brien has conflicted feelings about the whole idea, but after getting the clerical seal of approval from an open-minded priest (William H. Macy), O’Brien decides to hire a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity.
The Sessions is a genial and harmless enough film, sprinkled with many light-hearted moments, but it doesn’t go much beyond that. As you might imagine, the comedy in the film basically boils down to the same repetitive joke, which becomes tiresome after awhile. The film at times comes off as a group of pre-teen boys flipping through an issue of Playboy, or an elderly couple on a “honeymoon” who can’t stop smirking because of the S&M attire their wearing.
In other words, the film thinks it’ss much edgier and naughtier than it really is. The trio of actors on top of the bill give good, if not great, performances though, and the film is entertaining enough, even if it does occasionally indulge in trite and childish behavior.
If you’re an Oscar junkie such as myself, then you no doubt know the buzz that Ben Affleck’s third attempt behind the camera has been getting. Declared the clear front-runner for Best Picture at this point of the game (which usually isn’t a good thing, just ask Up in the Air), Argo tells the timely, and recently declassified story of how the CIA, with the help of the Canadians, managed to successfully smuggle six Americans out of Iran during the hostage crisis. How did they do this you ask? By posing as Canadian filmmakers scouting locations in Iran to shoot a “movie” by the name of Argo.
Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, the “exfiltration” specialist responsible for the creation and execution of the cockamamie scheme, while a solid cast including Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin play either CIA or Hollywood types who help Mendez pull off the piece de resistance of exfiltration missions.
Does the film live up to the hype though? My answer: not exactly. Now don’t get me wrong, Argo is a well made, proficient piece of filmmaking, but it’s a little too proficient. Aflleck has thus far proven himself to be a competent helmer of films, and Argo is his best outing yet, but all his films at this early point in his career have been too conventional, adverse to taking any significant risks that would declare his movies as “Aflleck films”.
Argo starts off well with a sharp, terse scene of the angry mob storming the embassy, but after this it quickly brushes through the development of the fake movie (without much character development), so it can spend most of its time in a “will they or won’t they make it” third act which keeps coming back for one more thrill no matter how contrived the scenario. That’s not to say that none of this is effective, but it’s a little hollow and typical given the level of kudos being bestowed upon the film. Argo is absolutely worth seeing, but if you go in expecting the stars and the sun and the moon, be prepared to be disappointed.
6. Cloud Atlas
This was one of the most pleasant surprises of the festival. The Wachowski Bro– excuse me, Siblings– haven’t done much to endear themselves to film fans after exploding onto the fanboy scene with the original Matrix all the way back in 1999. The Matrix sequels and Speed Racer failed to garner the Wachowskis much praise, but given the pure audacity of this film’s synopsis, which is based on the novel by David Mitchell, curiosity got the better of me. Even if it was an absolute train wreck, I figured it would have to epic wreck, but luckily for me, Cloud Atlas is far from a disaster. In fact, it’s one of the best sci-fi films I’ve seen in the last few years.
Cloud Atlas tells six parallel, era-spanning narratives, ranging from around the 1840’s all the way to some years after “The Fall” (some apocalyptic event that is alluded to). All these stories are loosely connected to one another, exploring interesting themes of how individual’s choices can effect disparate parts of the world throughout centuries of time. The connections are compelling, but never contrived (ahem, Crash), as each narrative thread easily holds up under its own weight.
The real achievement of Cloud Atlas though is its seamless integration of the six different narratives. If this somehow misses out on a Film Editing nomination, it will be a travesty, because the pacing of the film is a gargantuan accomplishment that the Wachowskis, as well as co-director Tom Tyker, should be proud of.
Giving each narrative its due time does stretch out the length of the film (it clocks in at 164 minutes), and the predictable emphasis on action in the second half prevents the film from being the masterpiece it might have been, but Cloud Atlas is still a darn good movie that should excite any fans of science fiction.
5. The Paperboy
As divisive as I expect Cloud Atlas to be, given its epic scope, I think The Paperboy will be even more so, but for completely different reasons. The Paperboy, based on the novel by Peter Dexter (who co-wrote the screenplay with director Lee Daniels), tells the tale of Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), a reporter for the Miami Herald in the late 1960’s who comes back to his backwoods hometown in the Floridian Panhandle to investigate a murder that put Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) on death row.
Ward feels there’s more to the story than was allowed to be released during the trial, and he, along with his African-American writing partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), his college-dropout, sex-deprived younger brother Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), and strumpet Charlottle Bless, the white-trash pen pal lover of death-row inmate Van Wetter, try to dig out the truth of the case.
Now the reason the film is likely to be so controversial is because this is one lurid movie. These are not likable characters. Practically everyone of them carries some dark, twisted secret, and they all partake in very unseemly behavior. Even worse (or better depending on your point of view), the film appears to revel in the graphic depiction of their deprived acts, which is why I suspect one review I read gave the film a grade of F.
The thing is though, Mr. Daniels establishes this film from the outset as belonging to the crime/noir genre, a pulpy genre that has always exaggerated both the good, and especially the bad, side of human nature. This is not a docudrama, and the sooner you realize that, the more fun you will have with the film (just think of it as a sleazy version of In the Heat of the Night).
The cast in the film is terrific, from Matthew McConaughey, to Nicole Kidman, to John Cusack (who I’ll never view the same again after this role), to even Zac Efron, who does a decent job playing the lovesick puppy. The film will undoubtedly turn off many (one Jackass-esque scene between Kidman and Efron involving bodily fluids especially seems to be catching a lot of flack), but if you sit back and enjoy the ride for what it is, The Paperboy is a ghastly good time.
4. To the Wonder
As much as I liked this film, as expressed by its ranking at the number four slot, this is likely to come off as a negative review, because in a lot of ways it was the most disappointing film of the festival. To put this in proper context, let me give you an idea of my expectations going in. Terrence Malick’s last film, The Tree of Life, was far and away my favorite film of last year. I felt the highly unorthodox, polarizing film which dealt with such esoteric issues as the creation of the universe, the nature of existence, and the life-defining relationships between parents and children, was an out-and-out masterpiece, a film that would unquestionably land on my personal top 100 movies list. Needless to say then, I was highly anticipating Malick’s follow-up.
To the Wonder, is stylistically the EXACT same movie as The Tree of Life. The always moving camera, the shots that last no more than 2.5 seconds, the hushed prayer-like narration, are all present again as Malick bizarrely goes back to the same well just a year later. Part of what made these techniques work so well for The Tree of Life was their uniqueness and the fact that they fit so well with the themes being explored in the movie. This time around, instead of life, death, and childhood, Malick tackles the themes of life, love, and marriage.
Ben Affleck plays (and by plays I mean says no more than five words and has his back to the camera most of the time) Neil, an American who falls in love Marina (Olga Kurylenko) while visiting France. Marina, along with her daughter Tatiana, move back to America with Neil, but from there the relationship goes up and down as mother and daughter go back forth about their feelings towards Neil. There is also a side story with Javier Bardem as a priest losing his love for God, which is interesting but feels totally disconnected from the main “narrative”, and there is yet another small sojourn involving Neil reconnecting with an old flame (Rachel McAdams) that feels strangely out of place as well.
Despite all these negatives, it speaks to Malick’s genius that the film is as good as it is. To the Wonder is absolutely beautiful to look at, and no filmmaker in history can capture the reality of a single moment, the here and now, as well as Malick can. No other director could make a grocery store feel like the ethereal gates to heaven as Malick does in this film. Olga Kurylenko, who is the real star of the film, gives a wonderful performance and manages to connect the film’s pieces together better than the film’s script does. The moments between Neil, Marina, and her daughter Tatiana also work very well and feel incredibly realistic. It is these powerful moments that let you (or at least let me) look past the film’s glaring weaknesses. The end result then works well enough this time around, but Malick is definitely pushing his luck.
3. Rust and Bone
If you read a plot synopsis of Rust and Bone, it will undoubtedly come off as an overtly, melodramatic tearjerker. And in fact, if you break down the plot points of the film, its events do appear to be calculated attempts to pull at your heart strings. However, what Rust and Bone proves is the power of style, for as contrived or unlikely as the film’s events may be, not a tad bit of disingenuousness is felt.
The film’s story is one of the relationship between Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a whale trainer in whatever the French equivalent to Sea World is, and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a blue-collar, down on his luck brute who, with his young son in tow, moves into his sister’s house. The two meet in a chance encounter at the bar where Ali serves as a bouncer. Ali ends up walking Stephanie home and gives him his number, which appears to be the end of their relationship until a freak accident during one of the daily killer whale shows causes Stephanie to have both her legs amputated. Looking to reach out to someone, Stephanie calls Ali out of the blue, and the two slowly forge a close friendship. His no-nonsense tough guy attitude helps her overcome her overwhelming sense of self-pity, while her softer caring side helps him from going down the shallow punch-drunk road his life is inevitably following.
It’s a touching relationship that is told with expert restraint from French director Jacques Audiard, the man behind The Prophet (a film that many critics went goo-goo eyed for, but personally left me a little cold). What I love about the film is that, unlike most American films tackling similar subject matter, Rust and Bone doesn’t make a big deal about the tragic “turning point” events. It treats these moments with an almost eerie distance, and instead focuses its dramatic goodwill on the smaller moments between the two characters. Anchored by two strong lead performances (especially Cotillard’s), and with an interesting use of varied music (ranging from Katy Perry to Bruce Springsteen), Rust and Bone is without a doubt one of the best films of the year.
2. Silver Linings Playbook
Silver Linings Playbook was easily the most pleasant surprise of the festival, and given the fact that it won the TIFF‘s coveted People’s Choice Award, many others in Toronto felt the same way I did. This was another film that, like Cloud Atlas, I decided to see more on the players’ reputation than my actual excitement for the film. I’ve never been the biggest fan of director David O. Russell, whose last smash hit The Fighter I found to be cheesy and overrated, despite that film’s strong performances. Then there was the fact that the film is a dramedy, a genre I usually dislike.
Something about throwing in a couple of cheap lines of broad humor, only to manipulate the audience into getting the waterworks going a few moments later, has always felt like having your cake and eating it too. On top of this, throw in Bradley Cooper as the film’s star, and in all honesty, I was seeing Silver Linings Playbook more out of duty than anything else, but then I saw the film, and my tune did a complete 180.
This is THE model for how to do a dramedy. The film is wickedly funny (one of the funniest of the year), but is also very moving, in an extremely natural way, when it needs to be. David O. Russell’s script is pitch perfect, somehow managing the difficult tightrope act between balancing comedy and drama (I suspect its secret lies in leaning more heavily towards the comedy side of things than many of its peers).
The film’s story, based on the novel by Matthew Quick, centers around Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a bipolar middle-aged man recently released from a mental institution. The event that caused Pat to be institutionalized was his finding his wife in the shower with another man, leading Pat to beat the living daylights out of the cheating man. Despite his wife’s infidelity, Pat is still obsessed with winning her back, even as his father (Robert De Niro) and his mother (Jacki Weaver) beg Pat to move on with his life. In order to get his wife back, Pat reluctantly ends up partnering with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a woman who recently lost her husband and is a bit of a mental case herself.
Along with the script, the film has a huge asset in the performances from the cast. As I alluded to before, up to this point, I have not been an admirer of Bradley Cooper’s acting prowess, but in this film, he blew me away. I seriously did not think he had this in him, but he easily gives the best performance of his career, and one of the best, if not the best, performance from a lead actor this year.
Almost matching him stride for stride is Jennifer Lawrence, who also gives a career best performance in the movie. She has been fairly impressive in her short career already, but nothing in her filmography prepared me for her in a role like this, and she pulls it off and shines brightly doing so. Robert De Niro, playing the gambling-addict Eagles fan, also gives his best performance in years (probably since Jackie Brown), finally taking a break from the auto-pilot his career has been on the last decade or so.
The thing that makes Silver Linings Playbook so special is that it’s stylized and edgy enough to appeal to more hardcore cinephiles, but seemingly normal and broad enough to appease the casual moviegoer. What this means then is Silver Linings Playbook is a film many will be able to agree on, and I expect the box office to reflect that. If Silver Linings Playbook is a success and a big time awards player at the end of the year, I will be content, because this is a movie that deserves the kudos.
1. Frances Ha
I swear this movie just materialized out of thin air, and in fact, during the Q and A afterwards someone even asked director Noah Baumbach how he had kept the film’s production hidden (to which he replied along the lines of, “No one asked”). Regardless of its lack of hype or even pre-notice, I’m glad its here because this is one good movie. Co-written by director Baumbach and the film’s star Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is an undoubtedly more niche and less accessible movie than say Silver Linings Playbook, which is a shame, because it is just as funny and brilliant in its own quirky way. And while Argo may be getting the political points for being the prescient film of the moment (given the riots in the Middle East), Frances Ha is really the film with its pulse on the zeitgeist.
The film’s plot centers on Frances (Greta Gerwig), a woman in her later twenties whose life is going nowhere fast. Living in a small apartment in the Big Apple with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), she “works” as an apprentice in a dance company which she has been trying to become apart of for the last five years. In reality though, Frances is essentially a grown-up kid playing around the metropolitan playground of New York City. This is all fine and dandy until Sophie decides she wants to grow up, moving in with her long time boyfriend, which leaves Frances to bounce around from friend to friend (each new residency is stylistically announced with a title card giving the full address) as she tries to find solid footing for her life.
The movie is shot in a beautiful black-and-white, which, being set in New York City, can’t help but recall Woody Allen’s Manhattan. In reality though the film is a little more akin to some of the French New Wave films, such as Francios Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, because while it is extremely funny, the humor derives from the brutal honesty of observation, capturing the awkward moments between human beings. Given these film references, Francis Ha is definitely the most cinematic movie of the films I saw at festival, which is a huge part of why I love it so much.
The thing that interests me most about Frances Ha though is how it perfectly captures a younger generation that is adrift in limbo. Frances lives on a day to day, no strike that, a moment to moment basis, and while she gets a lot of enjoyment out of life, this narrow focus on the present eventually catches up with her. As her friends begin moving on, she is left behind with nowhere to go as she tries to find a direction for her life. All this is beautifully played out by Gerwig’s terrific performance, who, like the film, manages to poke fun at Frances, but never in a mean or spiteful manner. The film is ultimately a very loving and humanistic film, while at the same time hilarious and energetic, which is why Frances Ha ranks as my favorite film of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
That wraps up my coverage of TIFF 2012. Whenever these films reach a local cinema near you, I hope you enjoy them as much as I did, because just given the film’s I saw at this year’s festival, I’d say 2012 looks to be a good year for cinema.