For decades, Toronto was a strictly noncompetitive film festival: Rather than pit movies against each other like race horses, it simply gathered them all together in one place and let audiences vote on an overall favorite. But that changed three years ago with the introduction of Platform, a dozen-movie competition lineup, featuring films from all around the world, alike only in their strong “directorial vision.” Platform started soft in 2015— one had to wonder if this experiment would last—but it asserted its importance in 2016, when the program included such major works as Moonlight, Jackie, and arguably the best theatrical release of this year, Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama.
There’s nothing quite of that caliber competing this year. And I can say that with certainty, because I’ve seen all 12 of them. Screen International, which has been running a critics’ poll out of Cannes for the last two decades (a small group of writers from different publications assigning zero to five stars to the festival’s competition titles), has now spearheaded a similar poll for the Platform competition—and I’m honored to report that I’m one of the critics participating. Perhaps expectedly, the selections range from very good to atrocious, with a lot of well-meaning movies somewhere in between.
One of Platform’s best films, and probably its most high-profile, is opening night selection The Death Of Stalin (Grade: B+). The latest uproarious political comedy from Veep creator Armando Iannucci, it shares with his other films and television shows a vision of government as a magnet for the weak, petty, stupid, incompetent, and amoral. In this case, the viper’s nest is Soviet Russia, directly before and after Joseph Stalin was found dead in his office circa March of 1953, when a gaping void of leadership opened up and several members of the tyrant’s inner circle began scrambling to consolidate power.
Iannucci assembles a terrific cast of mostly American and British actors (including Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, and Simon Russell Beale) and demands none of them adopt Russian accents. Beyond a certain pardoxical integrity (it’s not like Russians walk around Russia speaking English in a Russian accent, so why bother with the half-measure?), this oddball choice only underlines the parallel Iannucci is drawing between these literally cutthroat politics and the less murderous (but still deceitful) kind his London and Washington characters practice. The Death Of Stalin isn’t quite as pointed or rat-a-tat funny as In The Loop (or Veep at its best), but its application of his signature barbed comic voice to such grim history (executions are a constant source of gallows humor) packs its own punch.
Politics weave their way through a few of the program’s selections. They’re there, tangentially anyway, in Mike White’s intentionally exasperating Brad’s Status (Grade: B), starring Ben Stiller as a discontent dad accompanying his teenage son on college visitations. (The film begins its theatrical rollout on Friday; we reviewed it earlier this week.) And they’re sort of in the program’s worst selection, Razzia (Grade: D). Relocating the tedious we-are-all-connected ensemble drama to modern-day Casablanca, the latest from Moroccan-born writer-director Nabil Ayouch pointlessly, gracelessly entwines the fates of five thinly sketched types (a woman contemplating an abortion; a Freddie Mercury wannabe; etc.) whose aimless arcs don’t so much climatically intersect as reach the same Hail Mary non-ending simultaneously. You could call the film Haggisian, but a Queen-set montage of all the characters looking sad suggests that Magnolia may have been the specific model.
In the grueling What Will People Say (Grade: C+), a Westernized teenager (Maria Mozhdah) living in Oslo is caught fooling around with a boy by her traditional Pakistani parents; deeply concerned about what this will mean for the family’s reputation, her father (Adil Hussain) sends her against her will to Pakistan for a new life under crushing fundamentalist law. The performances are strong, and the situation itself presumably carries a harrowing veracity, but an ordeal is about all the movie offers. Shaking your head over and over again is the only suitable reaction.
One could potentially say the same about the French domestic drama Custody (Grade: B), which mainly exists to truthfully, painfully depict the horror of coping with a different kind of tyrannical father. Here, though, the nightmare unfolds with a queasy neorealist urgency, escalating a bad situation scene by scene. The opening, an uncivil custody hearing, seems to tease split sympathies, denying the audience an immediate rooting interest (shades of A Separation) in the legal spat between recently divorced parents. Soon, however, it becomes clear that there is a villain in this particular broken marriage, and he’s the petty, self-pitying, abusive husband (Denis Ménochet), putting his shell-shocked adolescent son (Thomas Gioria) in the middle of things and generally terrorizing the family with the unspoken threat of violence. Again, Custody doesn’t do much more than plunge the audience into this hellish situation, but it shrewdly understands the bad dad’s pathetic pathology, and the film may resonate for anyone who’s grown up under the unhealthy supervision of a mean bastard. Take that as a sobering recommendation.
Alicia Vikander and Eva Green are wasted as estranged sisters, reuniting after years apart when one of them comes down with terminal cancer, in the pretentious, contrived Euphoria (Grade: C-); set at a soothing commune for those looking to call it quits on their own terms, the film exhibits almost nothing that resembles recognizable human behavior. One of the siblings’ sources of strife—that Green’s dying sister cared for their dying parent years earlier, while Vikander’s couldn’t even be bothered to attend the funeral—is also a key plot point of Clio Barnard’s elegantly shot, dramatically inert Dark River (Grade: C+). The Affair’s Ruth Wilson plays the prodigal daughter, back to run the family farm with her hotheaded brother (Mark Stanley), if only they can get over the childhood trauma that drove a wedge between them. Barnard, who made The Arbor and The Selfish Giant, has an impeccable sense of grubby pastoral space, and her performers locate some truth in cliché. But this is a kitchen-sink drag. A little better, but not by much, fellow U.K. selection Beast (Grade: B-) unfurls a misfit romance between a sheltered, troubled young woman (Jessie Buckley, excellent) and the mysterious rebel (Johnny Flynn) who may or may not be the serial killer police are hunting on the secluded island where the two live. This psychodrama didn’t go exactly where I expected it would. It didn’t go anywhere particularly interesting either.
Several of the Platform selections are more forgettable than anything else, from the wispy Indonesian tone poem The Seen And Unseen (Grade: C) to the elliptically accomplished but half-baked crime drama If You Saw His Heart (Grade: C+) to handsome but unremarkable 18th-century biopic Mademoiselle Paradis (Grade: B-), about the blind Viennese pianist. But the programmers did manage to save the best for last. A soulful outback oater low on action and music, closing-night selection Sweet Country (Grade: B+) follows the manhunt for an aboriginal stockman (Hamilton Morris) who killed a vicious white veteran in self-defense and thus finds himself fleeing across the harsh Australian countryside of 1929, a posse in hot pursuit. Poetically directed by Warwick Thornton, whose Samson & Delilah also threw a spotlight over aboriginal characters, Sweet Country has a shaggy, digressive eccentricity common to Ozploitation cinema, not to mention a humane understanding of its characters that seems informed by the inclusive empathy of the local preacher (Sam Neill). In one of Thornton’s more stylish touches, little silent flash-forwards tease events that are to come, giving the whole thing a fatalistic charge. The film would make a worthy winner here, assuming the fact that it premiered at Venice doesn’t work against it—a fate Moonlight may have suffered last year.