TORONTO—“Who’s ready for an old-school whodunit?” That was Rian Johnson’s question as the director took the stage at the Princess of Wales Theatre this past weekend to introduce his new thriller, Knives Out, one of the centerpiece premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival. Johnson had spent the past few years of his career on the blockbuster treadmill, making Star Wars: The Last Jedi and then enduring waves of hype, online trolling, praise, and backlash for the inimitable sequel. Johnson’s exhortation about Knives Out had a note of relief to it; no longer tangled up in franchise concerns, the filmmaker had created a classic mystery, the likes of which Hollywood used to produce with aplomb.
Knives Out, a clear highlight of the festival so far, turns out to be anything but simple. It’s a dazzlingly confident and self-aware parlor game of a film, one that gleefully undermines its own murder-mystery premise and takes a worn subgenre in strange new directions. I suspect Johnson was using old-school rather wryly. Like so many of the biggest hits at TIFF this year, Knives Out is being positioned by its studio, Lionsgate, as the kind of inviting throwback the industry has been starved of in 2019: films that are devoid of CGI, unconcerned with shared universes, and stacked with movie stars such as Daniel Craig and Chris Evans. But Johnson’s movie doesn’t rely only on the nostalgia factor, instead standing out by finding a fresh way to tell a familiar story.
I won’t give away too many details about Knives Out, which will hit theaters this Thanksgiving; the joy of seeing it lies in witnessing the creative ways Johnson sets up his plot dominoes and knocks them down. It also manages to be both fun and trenchant, telling a caustic and modern story of haves and have-nots in the style of a Poirot novel. That same, sometimes weary touch of modernity reverberated through many of the films I’ve seen thus far (the festival, which essentially kicks off the industry’s awards season, started on September 5 and runs through September 15).
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s World War II drama, is being billed by its studio, Fox Searchlight, as a return to form for a director who has been making abstract, nonnarrative work for years. Like his beloved 1998 film, The Thin Red Line, A Hidden Life is a war movie that’s thoroughly anti-war, an exploration of how conflict disrupted the harmony of the natural world in the 1940s. The film follows its real-life subject, Franz Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl), a famous Austrian conscientious objector who refused to swear allegiance to Hitler, and it bears so many of Malick’s hallmarks—dreamy montages, spectacular pastoral photography, and voice-over narration. Yet it also opens with archival footage of Nazi torch rallies, and dramatizes the xenophobia and populism of the time in ways that play like a pointed comparison to contemporary politics—an unusual departure for this director.
Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s tremendous and intimate story of love and divorce starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, recalls colossal domestic dramas of yesteryear such as Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People. A slow-motion tragedy that traces the ghastly details of courtroom battles and gutting arguments between its central couple, the film is equal parts uproarious and upsetting, and an acting showcase for its stars. But whereas the female lead of Kramer vs. Kramer was a mostly absent, villainous figure, Marriage Story begins by laying out the emotional truths Johansson’s character has realized about herself and her partnership, and then depicts how Driver’s character fumbles toward those insights more slowly. The film’s perspective shifts from the wife to the husband as it goes on, and while there’s an autobiographical streak to Baumbach’s script, the movie succeeds by avoiding simple caricatures.
Several films at TIFF thus far have focused on the creative process with winsome melancholy. Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory is a nakedly introspective tale about a director (Antonio Banderas) who’s struggling to tap into his artistry as his body begins to break down. This quietly funny piece of career reflection from Almodóvar succeeds because of its star, one of the director’s longtime collaborators. The Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda made a surprising French- and English-language film (and his first shot outside of his home nation) called The Truth, a gentle comedy that follows a retiring grande dame of film (Catherine Deneuve) as she spars with her daughter (Juliette Binoche) and son-in-law (Ethan Hawke) on the set of a movie—which itself has a fondness for the old days of true artistry. Then there’s Eddie Murphy, who has largely avoided the limelight in recent years, producing and starring in a biopic of the blaxploitation legend Rudy Ray Moore called Dolemite Is My Name, a lively, joke-packed look at the making of the cult classic Dolemite in shambolic 1970s Los Angeles.
Dolemite Is My Name is one of many smart spins on the biopic, an eternal favorite for Oscar season and fall festivals alike. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, advertised on the slam-dunk casting of Tom Hanks as the children’s entertainer Fred Rogers, is refreshing for how little it foregrounds its subject. Instead, Marielle Heller’s film follows a mordant magazine writer (Matthew Rhys) assigned to write about Rogers and trying to crack his saintly mythos; the film works because Heller knows when to lean into the saccharine and when to tilt away, acknowledging the magic of Rogers as well as the reality of his limits. A similarly bittersweet true-story film is Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes, a dramatization of the power handoff between Popes Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Francis (Jonathan Pryce). The cleverly scripted two-hander tries to wrestle with the myriad crises within the Catholic Church but does so best when boiling the popes’ debates down to a clash of personalities; it’s a witty buddy movie that struggles to dig much deeper.
Since the late ’90s, when films such as American Beauty and Life Is Beautiful spun Toronto success into Oscar wins, the festival has been a place where buzz is generated and awards narratives written. The headiest hype this year belongs to Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, which arrived at Toronto with the top prize from the Cannes Film Festival and is prepping for a national release from the young distributor Neon. Excitement about the film, which played on TIFF’s opening day, has been fevered thus far; if it manages to sneak a victory for the festival’s People’s Choice Award, it could be the beginning of a groundbreaking awards run for the Korean thriller. A domestic drama that evolves into something much more elaborate, Parasite is, like Knives Out, a tale of wealth and division that takes classic tropes and spruces them up with devilish originality. After a moviegoing summer as uninspired as this one, Parasite is a welcome reminder that everything old can be new again.