Here Are the Best Films We Saw at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival
As TIFF comes to a close, we present a full ranking of everything we screened, including Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler, Wild, The Imitation Game, and more.
The final films of the 2014 Toronto Film Festival screen today, but by then I'll be long gone. I managed to see twenty-five films in the nine days I was at TIFF, a purposeful mix of mainstream and indie; an accidental mix of good and not-so-good. At the close of the festival, here are all twenty-five films, ranked as stringently as I can manage, along with whatever release dates are available.
1. Mommy (director: Xavier Dolan): The Cannes Jury Prize winner is the fifth feature film from the twenty-five-year-old Dolan, and I will give you all a chance to collect yourselves and decide how you want to deal with that information. With Mommy, Dolan attacks the story of a mother and teenage son, neither one of them properly equipped to deal with each other. The boy is emotionally unstable, probably bipolar; she's single and stubborn and angry. They're both angry. Dolan doesn't skimp on the style, from aggressive pop song cues to experimenting with a 1:1 aspect ratio, and that heightened state really contributes to the highly emotional payoffs of the finale. Or so says the goober weeping in the tenth row. (Me. That was me.) Release date: No American release is scheduled yet. It plays the London Film Festival on October 16.
2. The Look of Silence (dir.: Joshua Oppenheimer): I was so bowled over by Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing last year that I crammed it into my year-end top ten after the fact. Determined not to allow that to happen again, I shoved aside a screening of Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children (which was subject to terrible word of mouth all festival) to make sure I made it to The Look of Silence. I was rewarded with an emotional wallop that might be even better than The Act of Killing. Sticking with the subject of the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s, The Look of Silence follows Adi Rukun as he interviews the perpetrators of the genocide. The conversations start out in the abstract, but they focus and sharpen, as Adi confronts these people about his brother's murder at their hands. There's a spectacular build to the interviews, and the effect they have on the perpetrators is cumulative and powerful and chilling. Release date: It plays the New York Film Festival on September 30, and will most likely get a commercial release at year's end in anticipation of an Oscar campaign.
3. Wild (dir.: Jean-Marc Vallée): Reese Witherspoon takes this whole film on her back as Cheryl Strayed, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail amid a cloud of memories, flashbacks, ghosts, demons, whatever you've got. It's a step up for Vallée from the solid but unspectacular Dallas Buyers Club, and it's the best platform for Witherspoon's skills as an actress and movie star perhaps ever. Release date: December 5th.
4. Eden (dir.: Mia Hansen-Løve): The electonic/dance music scene from 1992 through 2013 is depicted lovingly by Hansen-Løve, with a story co-written (and largely about) her brother. Paul (Félix de Givry) and his friends bounce around the dance halls of Paris, and eventually to New York and back, all the while immersing the audience further into its pleasantly meandering rhythms. All that plus Greta Gerwig and Daft Punk! Release date: The London Film Festival on October 14th, but when I asked about an American release, Hansen-Løve held up two pairs of crossed fingers.
5. The Good Lie (dir. Phillippe Falardeau): Wonderfully sensitive and curious look at four Sudanese refugees emigrating to an indifferent United States. An excellent and unexpected film, but not the Reese Witherspoon-headlining beatific-white-lady story that's been advertised (thank goodness). Release date: October 3rd.
6. The Last 5 Years (dir.: Richard LaGravenese): Jason Robert Brown's cult-favorite off-Broadway musical gets the big screen treatment with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan as a young, ambitious couple tracking their relationship backwards (her) and forwards (him). Kendrick and Jordan do a wonderful job modulating the different phases of the relationship, with Kendrick a particular delight during the film's funnier moments. Release date: February 13th, a.k.a. Valentine's Day weekend
7. Still Alice (dir.: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland): Julianne Moore plays an Ivy League professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's, and her performance is one we're going to be hearing about a lot throughout the rest of the year. Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart are both impressive as well, as Alice's husband and youngest daughter, respectively. Release date: Nothing yet, but Sony Pictures Classics just picked up the film, so expect something before the year is out.
8. Foxcatcher (dir.: Bennett Miller): A slower and chiller movie than you're perhaps expecting. Steve Carell plays eccentric American billionaire John DuPont, whose obsession with American greatness as funneled through Olympic wrestlers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) turns deadly. As an acting showcase, it's aces for Tatum and Ruffalo (and maybe a bit less so for Carell). Release date: November 14th.
9. It Follows (dir.: David Robert Mitchell): Teen sex and horror have always gone hand-in-hand, and especially so in the latest from Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover). A demon (or something) is inflicted upon teens after they have sex with someone similarly afflicted, and it won't stop until they pass it on. Inventive and sadistically aware of your poor jangled nerves, starring Maika Monroe and Keir Gilchrist, who you might (should) remember from The United States of Tara. Release date: TBA 2015.
10. 99 Homes (dir.: Ramin Bahrani): Andrew Garfield plays a family man forcibly evicted from his home, only to reluctantly take a job with the opportunist realtor who did the evicting (an unusually subdued, relatively speaking, Michael Shannon). The acting is aces, even if the film can sometimes be blunt in its themes (have you heard about how we bail out bankers and not construction workers?). Release date: TBA.
11. Bird People (dir.: Pascale Ferran): An American businessman (Josh Charles) staying in a Paris hotel makes a life-changing decision. A chamber maid at that same hotel (Anaïs Demoustier) feels similarly restless, ultimately undergoing a transformative experience of her own. The film achieves an interesting, chunky balance between both stories, which intersect at odd moments, and between tones both earnest and whimsical. Release date: September 12th.
12. The Imitation Game (dir.: Morten Tyldum): This biopic of British genius and WWII codebreaker Alan Turing doesn't feature a whole lot of filmmaking style. And the complicating factor of Turing's homosexuality, which leads to his persecution by the British government, is handled perfunctorily and uncourageously. But while the team-of-codebreakers story is chugging along, it's quite an engaging and exciting film, with a strong ensemble including Benedict Cumberbatch (a contender for a Best Actor nomination), Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, and Mark Strong. Release date: November 21st.
UPDATE: More good news for The Imitation Game:
Your Grolsch People's Choice Award for 2014 goes to THE IMITATION GAME #TIFF14— TIFF (@TIFF_NET) September 14, 2014
13. The Theory of Everything (dir.: James Marsh): The Year of the British Genius Biopic rolls on with this portrait of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) that focuses largely on his relationship with his wife (Felicity Jones). More artful than The Imitation Game, though less focused and thus more prone to the familiar biopic rhythms. Redmayne's an Oscar contender, and Jones probably is as well. Release date: November 7th.
14. Trick or Treaty? (dir.: Alanis Obomsawin): Illuminating but fairly staid documentary about the sinister Treaty 9 between British/Canadian settlers and the First Nations of Canada. Release date: TBA.
15. Rosewater (dir.: Jon Stewart): The Daily Show host's directorial debut is a good bit more interesting than the Middle-East-by-numbers that it had appeared to be. Funnier, to be sure, but also prone to some directorial amateurism. Gael Garcia-Bernal is very solid in the lead role of Maziar Bahari, who was jailed and tortured by the Iranian government in the days after the controversial 2009 elections. Release date: November 7th.
16. Nightcrawler (dir.: Dan Gilroy): Jake Gyllenhaal gives his best strung-out madman as a freelance crime reporter whose ambition has long since trampled any scruples, and who finds himself a bit too good of a fit in the amoral world of TV news. The film isn't quite the audacious statement about Our Culture that it thinks it is, but in all its lurid insanity, it demands attention. Release date: October 31st.
17. Manglehorn (dir.: David Gordon Green): The better of Al Pacino's two films at TIFF, and one of the conceptually stranger films of David Gordon Green's career. Pacino plays a lonely locksmith drifting through a dreamy world and struggling to connect to anything beyond his cat. Worth watching, but I'll guarantee nothing. Release date: TBA.
18. While We're Young (dir.: Noah Baumbach): Sporadically funny, though neither as hilarious nor as insightful about its characters as it needs to be to justify its bah-humbug attitude towards anyone under 30. Ben Stiller continues to deliver good work with Baumbach, after the much-better Greenberg, though good performances by Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried are wasted. Release date: TBA, but a distribution deal with A24 should ensure it makes it to screens sooner or later.
19. Clouds of Sils Maria (dir.: Oliver Assayas): An Assayas movie written specifically for Juliette Binoche, wherein she plays an older actress facing the ghosts of her youth and confronted by youngs Kristen Stewart and Chloe-Grace Moretz all added up, on paper, to one of the most-anticipated films of the festival. Too bad the film that results can't stop re-underlining its own themes and detracting from some very good Binoche/Stewart scenes with stylistic flourishes that don't add up to much. Release date: After further festival stops (including Chicago and New York), the film settles in for a December 1st limited release.
20. Top Five (dir.: Chris Rock): Rock's story of an actor/comedian struggling to balance the demands of fame, talent, and sobriety. It's funny, and it gives the kind of showcase to Rosario Dawson (as a reporter interviewing Rock) that more films should give, but for something so topical, it doesn't resonate very much. Release date: TBA.
21. Madame Bovary (dir.: Sophie Barthes): Disappointingly conventional literary adaptation features a solid lead performance by Mia Wasikowska and some truly wonderful costumes (the true stars of the narrative), but not much else. Release date: TBA, but it plays the London Film Festival on October 11th.
22. The Riot Club (dir.: Lone Scherfig): The director of the promising An Education (and the horrid One Day) does not have much use for subtlety in this story of an Oxford secret society that revels in the misbehavior of the elite. There are good performances, particularly by Max Irons, Sam Claflin, and Natalie Dormer, but any kind of subtextual symbolism of class issues becomes thunderously, embarrassingly textual in the film's final third, where the themes are not only spoken but shouted. Release date: Nothing in the United States, but it bows in the UK on September 19th.
23. Miss Julie (dir.: Liv Ullman): Astoundingly, fantastically awful. Gather round your friends to watch Jessica Chastain prostrate herself, Colin Farrell scrunch up his face for some twice-baked line reading, and Samantha Morton suffer in a series of increasingly hysterical cut-backs (there she is, again, all alone, again). Strindberg never had it so loud. Release date: It opens the Chicago Film Festival on October 9th, but no U.S. release date yet.
24. The Humbling (dir.: Barry Levinson): Al Pacino gives a remarkable and atypical performance as an actor recovering from a nervous breakdown, but this Philip Roth adaptation might actually be vile and morally repugnant. Certainly in the way it others lesbian and transgender characters. Release date: TBA.
25. Black and White (dir.: Mike Binder): Tonally all over the place, and in possession of the very best of intentions, but this story of a grandfather (Kevin Costner) fighting for custody of his granddaughter against her paternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer) actually presents as incredibly suspect on the subject of race. Release date: TBA.