With the caveat that I have, to date, seen 22 out of 393 films screened, and with the second caveat that I have lined up today (my last day, sniff) Reese Witherspoon in Wild and Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, two of the most talked-about performances at the Toronto International Film Festival, I present to you my picks for the fifteen best performances I've been fortunate enough to see here at TIFF.
(in rough chronological order...)
Al Pacino in The Humbling (and Manglehorn): For the first few days of the festival, Pacino's presence in Toronto was the celebrity story. Where was he? Who was he with? What was he saying? It's an odd thing for a 74-year-old man to become such a hot property. The real story were the performances, though, both of which featured a resurgent Pacino, seemingly invigorated and ready to prove that he's not willing to simply fade into self parody. The films don't entirely keep up — Manglehorn is an interesting but overly odd tone poem from David Gordon Green that you should definitely seek out for yourselves once it's released; The Humbling is an actively loathsome Philip Roth adaptation with some choice sentiments for women, gays, and transgender people — but don't be surprised if this Indian summer in Pacino's career gets him some kind of awards push.
Anaïs Demoustier in Bird People: To look at her, she's like a little French Shailene Woodley. To watch her act in Pascale Ferran's delicate, lovely film about isolation and curiosity in modern-day Paris is to see just how far an open face can take you.
Félix de Givry in Eden: As the main character Paul, de Givry is the throughline for Mia Hansen-Løve's ode to electronic music. He plays a character who could so easily fall into the trap of being a self-obsessed pretty-boy jackass, but de Givry gives him enough relatable earnestness and untainted joy for his music that you stay firmly on his side.
Sam Claflin in The Riot Club: Say what you will about his suitability as Finnick Odair in The Hunger Games (you could start by saying that his Riot Club co-star Max Irons might have made for a better casting choice there), but Claflin is unnervingly perfect as a privileged Oxford lad whose weaknesses get swiftly papered over with a galvanized sneering hatred of those lower on the food chain.
Rosario Dawson in Top Five: Chris Rock's statement on celebrity and authenticity is a funny movie, but about half as funny (and a third as wise) as it thinks it is. The one unambigious victory it achieves is that it gives a showcase for Rosario Dawson, as a Times reporter digging below the surface of Rock's actor/comedian/tell-it-like-it-is-er. She's not doing Cordelia in King Lear, but her performance is an excellent reminder to dull-witted casting directors everywhere that she's one of our most naturally captivating and charismatic actresses, and she gets nowhere near the amount of work that she should.
Anna Kendrick in The Last Five Years: I keep saying that Anna Kendrick in Into the Woods is going to be 2014's version of Anne Hathaway. It's partly a troll tactic meant to rile up Kendrick's growing legion of haters, but I do think it's a real possibility. I kind of hope it doesn't happen, though, because it would definitely burn people out before they get to see her lovely, accomplished work as one-half of the doomed couple in Richard LaGravenese's adaptation of the Jason Robert Brown cult musical.
Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher: I've already written about the Oscar prospects of Channing Tatum and Steve Carell, but I think my favorite performance in Bennett Miller's chilly, deliberate American grotesque is Ruffalo's. Particularly because he gets so much done with the physical language of his character, from his hunchy gait to the way his face turns up like he's going to say something, before thinking better of it and sticking with what he knows, like a headlock or a half-nelson.
Anne Dorval in Mommy: A film like Xavier Dolan's Mommy is created seemingly with the purpose of getting you to rave about its lead character. There's a combination of strength and trash, of bawdiness and shocking moments of vulnerability, that are utterly irresistible. The film's strengths lie in how Dorval's nothing-held-back performance is pitched for audience satisfaction — the way her Diane will tell someone to fuck off or strike a defiant posture with her wild, barely controlled son — only to be peppered with moments where we're hauled back to earth and Diane is left unable to deal with the simple reality that she can't handle her own darling child.
Benedict Cumberbatch, Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley, and Mark Strong in The Imitation Game: There's a lot about The Imitation Game that will not be able to hold up to any kind of excess of awards-season praise. It's not a terribly elegant film in its execution (there are many a missed opportunity to make the code-breaking sequences pop). It's not a terribly courageous film in its narrative of Alan Turing, code-breaking defeater of the Nazis ultimately betrayed by his country for his homosexuality, an aspect that is relegated to glorified post-script. But a large part of the credit for the fact that it remains quite the enjoyable moviegoing experience should go to its cast, and in particular these four, whose interplay and magnetism carry the day.
Julianne Moore in Still Alice: Just when it seemed like TIFF wasn't going to produce a heretofore unforseen Oscar contender, out came Julianne Moore. Just when we'd resigned ourselves to the twin facts that Julianne Moore is consistently great, and Julianne Moore might very well never win an Oscar for that greatness, comes Still Alice. It would be a disservice to boil things down to "Julianne Moore might win an Oscar because she's playing Alzheimer's," but as a simple description of the draw of Still Alice, it kind of applies. It's a movie that does a great many small things exactly right, including wonderful supporting performances by Kristen Stewart and Alec Baldwin, but the story here is Julianne Moore's performance as a Columbia professor falling down the rabbit hole of a disintegrating mind.
Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon in 99 Homes: I remarked on Twitter yesterday that it's too bad the Independent Spirit Awards have come become such mimics of the Oscars, because these two performances are the stuff of what used to be classic Spirit-bait. This is a strong, muscular little film that few people will end up seeing (feel-bad stories about homeowners getting foreclosed upon don't sell tickets, is my guess), featuring Garfield getting a semi-rare chance to flex what are his considerable acting muscles, and Shannon managing to restrain the bug-eyed, slobbering-maniac routine to excellent effect.