There are lots of reasons why Best Popular Film is a dumb idea. The biggest may be that such an Oscar category would reinforce the fallacy that there’s a hard line separating art from entertainment. Popcorn movies can be thoughtful, finely crafted, even profound. And supposed “art movies” can be a blast. The distinction often looks especially irrelevant at the Toronto International Film Festival, where even the franchise slasher flicks and sci-fi action sequels are the work of major directors. One has to wonder where the Academy, if it went through with this hair-brained scheme, would file Widows (Grade: B+). It’s the first movie from Steve McQueen since the writer-director won Best Picture for 12 Years A Slave. It’s got a powerhouse cast, a hefty running time, and a story that pointedly comments on race, gender, and class. It’s also, as it turns out, a crackerjack and highly satisfying heist thriller, perfectly suited to the multiplex. This one, in other words, doesn’t fit any high-low, fun-or-serious binary.
If you didn’t know McQueen directed Widows, the opening scene would make it abundantly clear that someone with talent and vision was behind the camera. As we’re introduced to each of the main characters, the film keeps cutting away, jarringly, to a job gone wrong—a getaway van veering erratically into the night, dodging gunfire. (Serious shades of Reservoir Dogs, and they’re not the only Tarantino echoes.) The criminals end up dead. Our heroines are the widows they’ve left behind: wealthy trophy wife Veronica (Viola Davis), business owner and newly single mother Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and the truly out-of-options Alice (Elizabeth Debicki). When the dangerous gangsters their respective husbands ripped off come looking to collect the missing money, Veronica hatches a scheme: They’ll pull off a daring first and one last job from the deceased crew’s backburner.
The plot, which also involves a Chicago political race between two corrupt candidates (Colin Farrell and Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry, who has a memorable role in If Beale Street Could Talk, too), is sprawling and twisty. McQueen and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn adapted it from a mid-’80s British miniseries, chipping the source material into something closer to a Michael Mann crime opus, only with a sociopolitical dimension: To put their plan into motion, the women have to exploit how the world underestimates them, outfoxing the powerful, abusive men in their way. The performances are first-rate, from Davis’ co-mingling of weariness, grief, and determination to the casual menace Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya brings to the role of a merciless foot soldier. McQueen, who’s never exactly been shy about showing off his chops (Shame’s camera lunged at times with action-movie muscularity), misses few opportunities to punch up dialogue scenes, at one point shooting an exchange inside a car from the outside, his camera locked on the tinted windshield. Mostly, though, he doesn’t condescend to the pulpiness. This is a proudly mainstream movie—a fun one, even—that just happens to have been made with conviction and intelligence and craft. Its very existence exposes the absurdity of that pandering, proposed new Oscar. Entertainment this artfully done is art.
Of course, it would be silly to go to TIFF and watch only movies you could later catch at the mall down the street. Film festivals are about risks, too: the kind you might take on a radically uncommercial selection, and the kind the filmmakers take when they produce work that doesn’t conform to standard notions of how a movie should operate. Writer-director László Nemes—who, like McQueen, is back in Toronto after winning an Oscar—introduced one of the TIFF screenings of his new film by encouraging the audience to leave all preconceptions at the door. He was preparing us for an immersive, discombobulating experience. Set in Budapest in 1910, Sunset (Grade: B+) follows Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), scion daughter of the city’s most prominent milliners, who’s returned to the famous hat shop once owned by her parents in hopes of securing a job, only to find herself thrust into the soap-operatic circumstances of her brother’s life. That may sound on paper like traditional costume-drama territory, but the operative word here is follows, as the film unfolds in the same propulsive state of constant motion Nemes applied to his debut, Son Of Saul, which dragged viewers through the teeming labyrinth of a Nazi death camp.
The style is the same: Shooting in 35mm, Nemes glides around densely populated environments, lens locked close on a single figure, the depth of field shallow to mimic her limited vantage. Everywhere Írisz goes, she’s greeted like an interloper, an intruder, as though she were a virus swimming through the bloodstream of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the rest of the world circling like hostile white blood cells on the offense. I’ll confess that I never really connected to Sunset’s unearthing-the-past melodrama, to any element of its story. But that’s largely because Írisz is less a character than a single-minded avatar of pure determination, traversing an old world that’s coming apart at the seams before our eyes. (The bravura final shot clarifies the global turning point the film is constantly creeping toward.) Nemes, like Alfonso Cuarón, orchestrates grand panoramas of chaotic activity (he’s a master of blocking), but the tone here is less winsome than Roma’s, more arrestingly immediate and disorienting: history as a plunge into the choppy fray.
Speaking of disorientation, it’s also a key element of my favorite movie of the festival, which technically premiered at Berlin several months ago, though as the old rerun-selling NBC ad campaign goes, if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you. At first, Transit (Grade: A-) appears to return writer-director Christian Petzold to the WWII timeframe of his last movie, the brilliant and haunting Phoenix. Georg (Franz Rogowski, whose cleft palate and lanky frame mark him as a phantom double for Joaquin Phoenix) is attempting to flee a Europe being overrun by fascist stormtroopers; talk of camps and heavily coveted papers of transit further situate the movie in the shadow of Hitler’s war machine, as does the fact that Petzold is adapting an Anna Seghers novel set during World War II.
Almost immediately, however, anachronisms—the clothes, the cars, the televisions—begin to nag at our sense of certainty about the setting. In other words, to paraphrase the collective grind of turning mental gears in my screening: Wait, when is this movie set? The answer, as it turns out, is an indeterminate “20th century,” a then and an earlier then and maybe, by extension, a right now. The film’s liminal historical space turns out to be just one of many ways that Petzold destabilizes. Georg, who flees to Marseille and assumes the identity of a writer acquaintance who perished along the way, is drawn by his guilt to the dead man’s wife and child. Or is he? No one’s identity or relationships can be entirely trusted. Running voice-over from an off-camera third party further compounds the confusion, as the narrator offers insight into Georg’s thought processes one minute, then unreliably describes the action we’re seeing the next.
It’s basically Cognitive Dissonance: The Movie, and anyone who appreciates cinema’s underrated capacity to confound—to really sabotage our understanding of what’s transpiring —will get a rush from the way Petzold constantly shifts the ground underneath our feet. Not that he’s made some empty brain scrambler. Phoenix, which this critic regards as one of the great movies of the new millennium, echoed Vertigo to explore national identity. Transit refracts its own influences—not just Hitchcock, but also Carol Reed, and noir in general, and Casablanca—through a house of mirrors to get at the decentering truth of being nationally unmoored. Which is to say, as Georg gets caught in a Kafkaesque limbo state—unable to stay or go, to save himself or anyone else—Transit becomes a film about the maddening uncertainty and loneliness of the refugee experience. (That the voice-over occasionally trades off with or intrudes upon the dialogue, creating a muddle of expressed sentiments, feels like a pretty shrewd approximation of language barriers.) As for the Twilight Zone time frame, it, too, serves a purpose. “What’s old is new again,” Shane Black remarked last week while introducing the midnight premiere of his Predator sequel. Transit, a very different kind of genre movie, recognizes that when it comes to people without country fleeing for their lives across the globe, there is no old or new, no then or now, just an awful present tense.