Naturally not by intent or design, this year my number of films viewed actually matched the festival edition number. My main takeaway from the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival is that, despite the number of forgettable adult title driven clutter, it indeed felt like a leaner edition and provided cinephiles with bonafide offerings. It also confirmed that this year’s Venice Film Festival outdid the offerings from Cannes.
While my favorite section in the Vanguard programme has been dismantled, now in its third year, the quality offerings in the Platform section confirms this as it’s own solid fall festival launchpad (see the critics grid over at Screen Daily for proof). Surprisingly, the highly touted Molly’s Game, Racer and the Jailbird, Downsizing turned out to be total duds, while fan favorite and People’s Choice Best Film Award Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was both charming and wafer thin. Aside from the much talked about films I missed out in Sundance and Cannes, the majority of the films that make up my top ten were Lido stamped but the surprising trend is how many solid offerings there were in the comedy genre — Armando Iannucci’s sophomore film is near perfect in tone and execution.
Honorable mentions (tied with 3.5 on 5 scores) include Laura Mora’s sophomore film Killing Jesus (a revenge film which turns the young protagonist’s moral compass on its head), Jens Assur’s debut Ravens (a triage drama that pits father vs. son vs. farm lot and sees how heritage handicaps multiple generations), John Curran’s Chappaquiddick (bio exquisitely details white privilege, political greed and last born happenstance of Ted Kennedy played by Jason Clarke), James Franco’s The Disaster Artist (the filmmaker’s knee-slapper and best work to date moves away from the vexing biopic format for something that is more homage), Lucrecia Martel’s Zama (reminiscent of Embrace of the Serpent and colorfully presents colonialism as a major headache and a film that I want to revisit) and finally, Darren Aronofsky’s best work since Requiem For A Dream, with the allegory heavy mother! – the most divisive film of the year appears to have no middle ground among critics — I was absorbed and giggly by the shear insanity of what is perhaps among the best studio pics of 2017. Without further ado, my top 10:
10. The Guardians – Dir. Xavier Beauvois (France, Switzerland)
The under-appreciated and engrossing Of Gods and Men backed faith and belief into an unfathomable and debilitating corner. After skipping out on The Price of Fame, I’m glad to familiarize myself with Beauvois’ seventh feature film outing which mysteriously bypassed Cannes back in May. We return to slow cinema with what could be described as a meditative and restrained, the World War I-set drama where the women literally and figuratively, do all the lifting. Nathalie Baye, Laura Smet and impressive debut from Iris Bry demonstrate there is a force in numbers, but that there is power in defiance – it only takes time and is showcased here in a different form. ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
9. Custody (Jusqu’à La Garde) – Dir. Xavier Legrand (France)
While several films managed to land the same solid grade, it’s Xavier Legrand’s debut feature film as a director that is destabilizing empathetic towards it’s quartet of characters (Denis Ménochet and Léa Drucker offer award worthy perfs) and designed in such a way that even though you’ve been there, you haven’t really been there. Best described as a car wreck type of drama that brings you exactly where you do not want to go, I was enthralled by the denouement, the mapping, and how the set piece works until it hits the grinding halt. Think a heated cage fight a la Kramer vs. Kramer. ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
8. Jim & Andy: the Great Beyond – the story of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman with a very special, contractually obligated mention of Tony Clifton – Dir. Chris Smith (USA, Canada)
On paper, this obnoxiously long film title could be a neat Criterion collection quality level featurette for home vid, but the reality is, the doc on the man on the moon is better than the actual 1999 feature film from Milos Forman. How does a docu based on kept in the vault “rescued” footage, a doc that follows a simple timeline and interview style structure turn out to be a progressive rendering of the complicated nature of acting and performance. A doc about taking risks, Chris Smith manages to sculpt the film much in the same way the actors at hand blurred the lines. Inspired by the profound appreciation for one’s art, where our man take away is seeing the genius (Andy Kaufman) through another genius (Jim Carrey). Providing for plenty of laughs, and quite sensitive in scope, it’s the only film during this fest or this year as a matter of face that got me close to tearing up. ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
7. Call Me By Your Name – Dir. Luca Guadagnino (Italy, France)
It felt awkward to cover 30+ titles at a major film festival and irksome to have missed what was regarded as the praise worthy buzz title of the first half of 2017. This was my experience with Call Me By Your Name. The adaptation is so deceptively simple and smart, the relationships and summer “feel” so perfectly calibrated, and what Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg bring to the big screen is so nuanced that the James Ivory template is indeed like a piece of fruit — you need to wait until its ripe before picking. ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
6. Faces Places – Dir. JR/Agnès Varda (France)
Capturing hearts and portraits alike, this inventive, human, and disarmingly charming dessert topping road trip docu keeps you guessing, and keeps on giving until the final creds roll. The one title I missed at Cannes was picked up by The Cohen Media Group. Giving new meaning and plenty of mileage to the notion of being infinitely curious, JR and Agnès Varda are unrelentingly in their generosity. Faces Places is share level supreme will make you giddy for weeks on out and could be a dark horse favorite for Best Documentary film at the Oscars and Cinema Eye Honors.
5. I, Tonya – Dir. Craig Gillespie (USA)
If the Triple Axel is regarded as the benchmark for excellence in the figuring skate world, then the folks at Neon (who paid big bucks for this crowd-pleaser) should be reaping in some medal worthy acknowledgement come awardage time. No amount of clairvoyance was in place to predict just how solid this Blacklist screenplay mentioned comedy. From the onset you’d think the Errol Morris styled confessional meets Martin Scorsese and Fargo would utilize a cheap shot approach in defiguring this skating persona – but instead, veteran filmmaker Craig Gillespie jazzes this up and sets the right tone and look, while Margot Robbie and Allison Janney add depth, sharp tongued delivered humor to what would have normally been simple caricatures. This is a perfect “hit job” twisted surreal larger-than-life tale of the skating ages.
4. The Death of Stalin – Dir. Armando Iannucci (France, United Kingdom, Belgium)
Deceptively smart, generously scaled beyond simple slapstick humor, there is an mordant quality about how this film remains in character and it’ll hopefully it’ll be recognized as one of the best ensemble film items circa 2017. From the onset, you’d think that Armando Iannucci would have backed himself into a corner tackling Soviet era material, but instead, the Platform section selected The Death of Stalin sees Iannucci flex all sorts of muscles and Jeffrey Tambor and Steve Buscemi are tit for tat generous with their Englishization versions of historic figures. ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
3. First Reformed – Dir. Paul Schrader (USA)
Cats and string are a bad combination, so is personal demons under theocracy. At 71 years young, veteran filmmaker Paul Schrader graces us with a divine piece of cerebral infused existentialism. There are at least a half dozen film history references (I had Doubt, Mean Streets, The Last Temptation of Christ in mind) but you’ll relate First Reform to new auteur cinema; vivid, aware, sharp, topically in the moment, nouveau The Diary of a Country Priest. A Killer Films production, the highlight in this thinking man’s piece is the intimacy, lack of trimmings and perhaps this decade’s best career move for Ethan Hawke. ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
2. Foxtrot – Dir. Samuel Maoz (Israel, Germany, France, Switzerland)
War is hell but bureaucracy is purgatory. Not unlike an effective pull of the rug, Samuel Maoz’s perfectly calculated three act tragi-dramedy baits its players and viewers in a rewarding manner. Gleefully you’ll feel the wrought mental state and exasperation in Lior Ashkenazi’s brilliant perf, but its satirically and sombrely infused text becomes a cleverly designed sophomore message film and immersive piece of cinema with abruptly savvy tonal shifts. The film gods gave us Lebanon in 2009 and Foxtrot is definitely worth the wait. Just picked up by Sony Pictures Classics and Israel’s Oscar pick for Best Foreign language film, this is must see cinema. ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
1. Hannah – Dir. Andrea Pallaoro (Italy, Belgium, France)
There is a special group of actresses who regularly churn out golden performances. Alongside Binoche and Huppert we once again are privy to the subtle gravitas of Charlotte Rampling. Rampling already took home Best Actress from the Venice Film Fest, but true credit is due to the solid direction from Andrea Pallaoro. Nuanced, layered and loaded in subtext, this true masterwork makes for a riveting insularly presented character study. Hannah shows the titular character deal with another person’s guilt, but more importantly displays in subtle manner and a camera free from overt style, that unshakable feeling of culpability, desperation and denial. Remarkably no distribution deal has been put into place yet for the US market. ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆