Far be it from me to speak for the entirety of my profession, but it feels pretty close to a universal film critic thing, this feeling that comes over you when a festival is winding down and you realize how much you didn’t see. It’s the nagging sense that major movies must have slipped past you over the preceding week, that you missed the transcendent in favor of the not. My own festival FOMO is especially acute this year, thanks to the number of titles virtually unavailable, the space operas and Spike Lee-endorsed car sex fantasias that played the big screens of Toronto but not the small ones of anyone covering TIFF remotely. Still, after a week of watching and weighing in and watching some more, and with another year of the fest passing into history, maybe it’s best to remember that no number of movies is ever enough for the voracious or just self-flagellating cinephile. We will always want more, like little piggies squealing for another bucket of slop.
There were good meals in the trough this year. You’ll find my five favorite below. As for the ones I couldn’t get to, maybe there’s a bright side to that, too: The next few weeks are going to offer a bounty of riches. See you on Arrakis, in Sandringham House, and wherever the hell Titane is set. [A.A. Dowd]
1. A Hero
A young man (Amir Jadidi), imprisoned for a debt he couldn’t pay, gets two days on the outside and becomes determined to settle with his creditor somehow, someway. Into his lap drops a literal bag of gold. But who does it belong to? Asghar Farhadi’s latest drama about the conflicts boiling to the surface of contemporary Iran has the setup of a moral parable, but it’s much more dramatically complex than that; from an act of apparent altruism that might, at heart, be closer to shrewd self-preservation, the filmmaker weaves another web of dizzying complications, which in this case even involve the fickle nature of public adoration in the internet era. It might be Farhadi’s most gripping film since his Oscar-winning masterpiece, A Separation; coming from this massive fan of his work, that’s very high praise.
Exhilaratingly confounding. Writer-director Ramon Zürcher (The Strange Little Cat) abstracts a legible life experience—someone moving out of her apartment and into a new one—into a flabbergasting emotional mystery, where the relationships among the characters are as challenging to parse as the source of the free-floating hostility that seems to define them. Not to every taste, for sure; there’s a reason the film was relegated to TIFF’s avant-garde program, Wavelengths, despite its nominal narrative. But for a certain breed of confusion fetishist (we know who we are, and that’s all we want to know), the film’s numerous elisions—of introductions, of backstory, of motivation—create an alien language worth learning.
Can Terence Davies just keep making biopics about morbid, sharp-tongued poets? On the heels of his wonderful A Quiet Passion, which examined the often hermetic life of Emily Dickinson, comes this decades-spanning portrait of English soldier, writer, and socialite Siegfried Sassoon (a tremendous Jack Lowden), who exposed the world to the horrors of WWI and spoke out against the superiors prolonging and capitalizing on it. Though the bloodshed casts a shadow over the whole plot, Benediction is often marvelously funny, confirming Davies’ late-blooming talent for withering bon mots. It’s as witty as it is, in the end, rather crushingly sad.
4. Petite Maman
A.K.A. Céline Sciamma’s Back To The Future. That may sound like a dumb joke, but this latest slice of childhood life from the director of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire finds its own time-bending device to answer the question Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale asked some 35 years ago: What were my parents like when they were my age? At just 70 minutes, it’s a lovely wisp of a movie, using carefree playtime as a young girl’s conduit into her mother’s complicated adult emotions during a particularly difficult rite of passage.
5. The Humans
A horror movie inside a domestic drama inside another story about a young woman moving into a new apartment. Stephen Karam brings his own Tony-winning stage sensation to the screen, preserving its claustrophobic single setting and timeframe—a moldering Manhattan duplex on Thanksgiving—while building on its general unease with a whole grab bag of creak-and-groan atmospheric genre tricks. There’s time, later, to debate whether all that creeping camerawork is overkill. For now, just get excited for uniformly, exceptionally prickly performances from Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, and Steven Yeun.
Somehow, I’m as bleary-eyed as if I spent the last 10 days hopping from a hotel to a screening to a coffee shop and back. It’s probably that impulse Dowd was talking about, an attempt to ward off that nagging little spirit whispering in your ear that there are a few titles still left on your list, oh and did you see the tweet about that under-the-radar film that looked kind of interesting? Apparently, it’s actually quite good... I’ll be hanging around for the last few features to premiere at TIFF on a quiet closing weekend (they always are), so imagine me with a broom pushing piles of virtual ticker tape for the rest of the day. It’s all right, I can fit in a couple more movies this way. (It really is a sickness, isn’t it?)
With the caveat that I have one more title left to screen—Zhang Yimou’s One Second, which arrives at TIFF with Neon as its American distributor and a minute of footage missing after a run-in with Chinese censors—here’s my top five of a TIFF that was invigorating and frustrating in equal measure. [Katie Rife]
1. Petite Maman
In my review, I described Céline Sciamma’s latest as “a loving hand gently stroking your hair until you fall asleep.” A week after watching Petite Maman, tender moments from the film linger in my mind: When young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) gives her mother a snack and a sip of her juice box, for example, or when Nelly’s new friend Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) looks up at her mother, beaming, and asks her to sing “Happy Birthday” again. Folding into my consciousness as if they were my own, these sunlit little snippets say so much about Sciamma’s ability to capture the essence of both love and memory through cinema.
Here’s a reason to stick around ‘til the bitter end: Late-festival fare like Midnight Madness title Saloum, a low-budget genre hybrid out of Senegal that has the potential for a big-budget American remake, but in a just world would become an international box-office surprise just as it is. Throwing a trio of well-dressed, machete-wielding mercenaries into a tightly wound scenario with a suitcase full of stolen gold and a detective on their trail, Saloum is an exciting action Western with charismatic leads and intriguing hints of the supernatural. Then something snaps, and the film you thought you were watching becomes another film entirely.
A bemused little confection about how silly it is to turn the work of Ingmar Bergman into a tourist attraction would have been satisfying enough, but there’s a shift midway through Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island that converted me. At first, it’s not clear if Chris (Vicky Krieps) or her husband Tony (Tim Roth) will be the protagonist of the film; all we know is that Tony is a famous director who’s been invited to Fårö Island, the summer resort where Bergman is everything and everything is Bergman, as a visiting artist. The specter of capital-G Great Men hangs over the first half, but when the story pivots to a film within a film Krieps—and, by extension, Hansen-Løve—steps out of the men’s shadow and into the light of her own creative process.
How often can you really say that you’ve seen a movie that’s unlike anything you’ve seen before? That’s certainly the case with Medusa, a film that establishes its world—the best way I can put it that Medusa is set in a neon-bubblegum Brazilian Christian fascist sect—with startling style in its opening scenes, then pulls back and makes you wait to see how all these elements are going to come together. It does so by cutting damning condemnations of misogyny and hypocrisy within the church with dark wit and heightened aesthetics, for a cathartic, original take on the coming-of-age tale.
An argument both for and against just letting people like what they like without apology, Listening To Kenny G establishes director Penny Lane as a top-notch documentarian. Lane has a talent for picking subjects that not only push buttons—her last feature, 2019's Hail Satan?, is about The Satanic Temple—but reflect the larger themes being explored in the film. One might expect this to be a celebratory documentary rubbing Kenny G’s success in the face of “the haters,” but Listening To Kenny G presents the best-selling instrumentalist both as the normal, happy guy all tortured artists secretly hate, and as an appropriative hack getting rich off of a musical tradition that he appreciates only on a surface level. It’s a Rorschach test disguised as easy listening.