Toronto International Film Festival Kicks Off 2016 Awards Season
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is one of the most consistent predictors of Academy-Awards success. Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and 12 Years a Slave all took home the festival’s People’s Choice Award and then went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. The festival has allowed highly anticipated studio films like Argo and The Departed to solidify their reputations while occasionally providing smaller films like The Artist the opportunity to gain a critical foothold among more publicized films.
That’s good news for La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s follow up to his wildly popular and justly praised Whiplash. Like his previous film, La La Land is about people devoting their lives to art, but Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) don’t just live to work. They want someone who understands and shares their respective passions for movies and jazz. Hollywood loves movies about people who make movies, and La La Land, as its title implies, has just a touch of self-deprecation even as it ponders whether anything is more important than following your dreams. A musical, the film is also a welcome antidote to the increasing darkness (literal and thematic) in the glut of comic book and action movies that clutter the film landscape. It is a delight from start to finish.
Of course, not every film or actor that comes to Toronto riding high expectations leaves with critical adulation and Academy Awards hopes intact. Here’s a quick report on how some significant entries fared at the festival.
Manchester by the Sea features Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a Boston handyman who returns home to face his demons after a family tragedy. Kenneth Lonergan’s script only gradually reveals the principal source of Lee’s despair, even if its depths are obvious from the beginning. Lee’s apartment resembles a prison cell, and the man himself fluctuates between numbed silence and aggressive surliness. Almost everyone likes a redemption story, so it is human nature to root for Lee to form a bond with his nephew, Patrick, but the film is intelligent enough to communicate that redemption and penance are two very different animals. There is grace here, but it comes in small increments that make pain bearable rather than ever fully alleviating it.
J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls positioned itself as this year’s Room. The fantasy plot of a giant (here voiced by Liam Neeson) visiting a suffering child will inevitably draw comparisons to The BFG, but the films could not be farther apart tonally. Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is trying to hold it together in the face of his mom’s cancer, his parents’ divorce, and some relentless school bullying. When a giant tree comes to life, it says it will tell Conor three stories and then require of him to explain the nightmare that has been haunting him. Some Christians may not like that the nightmare includes the ground opening up and swallowing a church, but as a metaphor for depression the dream is powerful. Grief can rob those who experience it of not only their loved ones but also their faith in the world as a place where life, beauty, and love exists. Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones each give strong performances, and it was nice to see this sort of film make the father (ex-husband) into a good guy rather than just another deadbeat. The monster’s stories are depicted through animation; the film mixes fantasy and reality in a way reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth. A Monster Calls is not the sort of major studio fare that earns a big advertising campaign, but a strong critical reception following the festival could earn it at least a nomination given the expanded field for Best Picture.
Stock Holding Steady
There is no doubt in my mind that Rooney Mara will win an Oscar some day. Some fans of Todd Haynes’s Carol were doubly miffed that it didn’t happen for the actress last year. The film garnered six Academy Award nominations but failed to win in a single category. To add insult to injury, Mara was relegated to the Best Supporting Actress category (she lost to Alicia Vikander) even though Carol featured two female leading roles. With three films showing at this year’s festival, Mara’s chances of positioning herself for Oscar glory seemed good. But critics were not kind to Jim Sheridan’s The Secret Scripture, in which Mara plays an Irish woman institutionalized during World War II by a jealous priest who accuses her of murdering her baby. The Secret Scripture is better than its early buzz, but if anyone salvages an acting nod from the film, it will probably be Vanessa Redgrave, who plays the elder version of Mara’s character. Lion fared slightly better with critics, but it is really Dev Patel’s movie. That leaves Una as Mara’s best bet. In this adaptation of the controversial play Blackbird, Mara plays a woman who was molested at age thirteen and who tracks down her abuser fifteen years later. The acting is fine, but the script and direction don’t quite manage to ever free the film from its stage roots. It’s a very talky film, and the flashbacks are awkward.
Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman earned the Iranian writer/director a screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival, so there is no reason to think it will not represent Iran in this year’s Foriegn Language Film category. Whether Farhadi can duplicate his Oscar screenwriting nod for A Separation is less clear. The Salesman is about an Iranian teacher and actor who investigates an assualt against his wife after they move into an apartment previously occupied by a prostitute. The homage to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman makes the film a little more accessible to American audiences than either The Past or About Elly, but the ending drags on a bit past when the audience is ready for the situation to be resolved one way or the other.
No film came into TIFF more in need of some positive publicity than Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. After generating huge buzz at Sundance, the film had to wait half a calendar year for awards season to kick off. In between, questions re-emerged about a rape accusation from the direcctor’s past. In one of the most awkward moments from this or any other festival, TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey used the film’s premiere to give a mini-history lesson about the Elgin Theater (there used to be minstrel shows there) and praise a Nigerian film that played at the venue the night before. In other words, TIFF programmed the film but didn’t exactly embrace it. Three years earlier, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave played at the same venue, and the atmosphere then was electric. Last week, by comparison, audiences looked and felt more like rubberneckers at a colossal smash up. An artistic masterpiece could probably overcome this sort of controversy, but Parker’s script never gives definition to any of the characters and the editing came across as haphazard. Race is an important subject, and now more than ever we need stories about America’s racial divide. It’s not that nobody gets to make another slave film after Steve McQueen’s masterpiece; it’s just that The Birth of a Nation is not a very good film. For a more topical and successful look at American racism, past and present, Raoul Peck’s James Baldwin: I am Not Your Negro is a better choice.
I have generally learned to leave Terence Malick’s films to his numerous admirers. Fans of the reclusive director speak of The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, and The New World with the sorts of hushed, reverential encomiums normally reserved for Michaelangelo or Bono. I tend to think he makes three hour screen savers – slideshows of breathtakingly beautiful images held together by the least amount of narrative possible. Even so, I reasoned that Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey was a documentary, so perhaps Malick’s poetic scenescapes would dazzle without much need for a story. I was wrong. Cate Blanchett intones flat pantheistic prayers to “Mother,” as the camera shows us jellyfish, aboriginal hunters, and volcanic explosions. If you are the sort of viewer who thinks the last twenty minutes of The Tree of Life is four times better than the last five minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, this might be your kind of movie. Then again, I am hard pressed to think of a more sympathetic audience for a Malick film than the one that would show up at the TIFF Bell Lightbox at 9:00 a.m. on a Friday morning. “Maybe,” one young woman behind me in the exit shuffle said glumly, “I just didn’t get it.”
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.