2013 Toronto International Film Festival Recap
One of the big standouts is Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, a film that’s so technically astounding on every level that you may set aside any negative feelings you might have towards Sandra Bullock–or maybe those are just mine after this summer’s The Heat–to fully appreciate what he’s created. You may already know the premise, which follows Bullock as an astronaut on her very first space mission when something happens that leaves her stranded in space trying to survive. We won’t say too much more about the plot because it’s one of those movies you have to see to believe, but it mixes absolutely enormous set pieces with more intimate sequences to create a fairly tight and fast-paced 90-minute thriller. George Clooney plays one of the other astronauts and the only other actor with any significant screen time, but he basically “Clooneys” his way through that role and it’s Bullock’s show for the most part as we watch her trying to survive in space. Gravity is a movie that’s going to be talked about for months and it’s going to elicit repeat viewings if only to try to figure out how Cuaron pulled off such an incredible feat of cinematography and visual FX to create the illusion of being in space.
I absolutely loved Ron Howard’s new movie Rush–you can read my full review here–as it successfully mixes adrenaline-fueled Formula 1 racing sequences with heavy drama in the form of a rivalry between Chris Hemsworth’s James Hunt and Daniel Bruhl’s Niki Lauda. Although it’s an entertaining movie that should be able to appeal to a mass audience, putting Chris Hemsworth’s face on the posters is a it deceiving since the movie really is as much Lauda’s story as we watch him get through a horrible accident to fight his way back to the race track. You don’t have to be an F1 or racing fan to appreciate what an amazing filmmaker like Howard can do with great source material, which is the case with Peter Morgan’s screenplay, and I hope that moviegoers will give this one a look.
John Wells (Company Men) directs an impressive ensemble cast in the film version of Tracy Letts’ award-winning play August: Osage County starring Meryl Streep as the cancer-stricken, pill-popping matriarch of a dysfunctional family who reassembles when her husband disappears. Even with the likes of Julia Roberts going toe to toe with her, there’s no question that Streep not only steals the movie but she IS the movie, creating a character so abrasive and outspoken in Violet it’s likely to win over even the most skeptical Streep critics (which would probably also be me). She also brings out the best in the rest of the cast with every single actor from Chris Cooper to Benedict Cumberbatch being given a great moment to shine. It’s especially great to see veterans like Julianne Nicholson and Margo Martindale having such great moments to show that they’re highly talented and underrated when compared to some of the bigger names. Of the movies we’ve seen, August: Osage County has the strongest chances for a Best Picture nomination because it’s so driven by the actors (and that is the largest branch of the Academy), putting it in a similar boat as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave(discussed below), but we think Streep (in whichever acting category she gets nominated) and the screenplay are strong enough to be serious contenders.
Stephen Frears’ Philomena starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope) is a terrific smaller film that spends most of its time with these two very different actors. Dench plays the title character, a woman whose son was taken away from her by nuns and given up for adoption fifty years earlier, while Coogan is the journalist who tries to help her find him. It almost starts out like an awkward buddy comedy with the two of them trying to find her missing son, taking them from Ireland to Washington, D.C., but as they get closer to learning the truth about her son’s whereabouts, the film gets far more poignant and moving. It’s Frears’ best movie in a long time as he did a great job making the most out of the material, probably because he was working from one of his best screenplays since The Queen. Dench and Coogan are both fantastic in a film that could easily surpass it’s potential indie arthouse potential because it does such a good job mixing the humor and drama.
One of the festival’s more pleasant surprises was Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, starring Irrfan Khan as a retiring accountant who mistakingly receives the lunchbox meant for another man and is treated to some of the most delicious food he’s ever tasted. Those lunches are made by a troubled housewife who is having marital problems, but with the help of her auntie (who lives upstairs and is heard but never seen), she assembles this meal to smooth things over, only to build a connection with Khan’s character as they exchange notes back and forth. This is a true crowd-pleaser, the type of movie that certainly can do well among American audiences and I can definitely see this getting India’s vote of approval to represent the country at this year’s Oscars. Here’s hoping that distributor Sony Pictures Classics can help this find a larger non-Indian audience.
Dallas Buyers’ Club, directed by Montreal’s Jean-Marc Vallée, is a daring look at the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s through a red-blooded heterosexual male, Texas rodeo engineer Ron Woodroof, as played by Matthew McConaughey in a performance that should turn a lot of heads this season. While McConaughey is once again playing a charming womanizer, he’s almost unreconizable, having lost dozens of pounds for the role of a guy who contracts HIV and AIDS and turns his inability to get safe and reliable prescription drugs into a profitable business as he begins to smuggle them in from other countries. Being a rare straight male with AIDS (and being quite homophobic), it takes him some time to adjust to his main clientele being gay men, one of them being Ron’s flamboyant cross-dressing partner in crime Rayon, an absolutely amazing role and performance from the rarely-seen-on-screen Jared Leto who loses himself into the part. Some of the film’s medical aspects hit a bit too close to him but it was generally well done and not as dour as one might expect from a film about AIDS with a nice supporting role by Jennifer Garner as Ron’s doctor.
I’ve been a Metallica fan for quite some time but even I did not realize how much I’d love Metallica Through the Never, which is way more than your typical 3D concert movie, as we get to see the band–now ten years after the inner band turmoil depicted in the doc Some Kind of Monster–at a new peak as they run through some of their most popular tunes. What makes this film so unique is that there’s a concurrent narrative storyline that runs through the film as it follows Dane DeHaan as a roadie on a quest from the band who encounters abandoned city streets, riots and a horse-riding visage of death, all images that go beautifully hand in hand with Metallica’s music. And then there’s Metallica stage show that has been greatly enhanced just for the 3D cameras and is quite amazing to watch as well. I had a chance to sit down with drummer/co-founder Lars Ulrich while up in Toronto an interview I hope to share soon, and we’ll have lots of stuff leading up to the movie’s September 27th IMAX 3D release.
I’ve already written a review of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, which you can read here, but as one of my most anticipated movies of the festival (and year), I have to say that I wasn’t disappointed by the way that Villeneuve and his cast realized what ended up being an intricate and complex mystery about two missing girls and how it affects those looking for them. Hugh Jackman plays the father of one of the girls who kidnaps and tortures the prime suspect (played by Paul Dano in another creepy role) while Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki is on his own quest to find someone who knows the girls’ whereabouts. It’s the latter part of the movie that’s really riveting to watch, almost like David Fincher’s Zodiac as you watch Gyllenhaal’s character trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Look for my interviews with Jackman, Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve very soon, since the movie opens nationwide on September 20.
Some of the biggest buzz going into the festival and at nearly every screening came from Steve McQueen’s third movie 12 Years a Slave, a tough and relentless documentation of one man’s journey through the Southern slave system during the mid-19th Century. Based on the autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, McQueen’s most ambitious film follows this free black man as he’s tricked into slavery by a couple of unscrupulous men and proceeds to witness and experience some of the most horrendous atrocities at the hands of a ruthless slave owner played by Michael Fassbender while trapped in the system. While Ejiofor’s performance will get a lot of awards attention, I was more impressed by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, whose performance as a slave named Patsy who is degraded and humiliated by both her master and his jealous wife that leaves a lasting impact. We have little doubt this will be in the Oscar conversation although I personally had a few problems with the movie, more in the writing and the manipulative recycled score by Hans Zimmer, but there’s no denying that it’s quite an engrossing achievement to bring light to one of the biggest blights on American history.
Jason Reitman returned to TIFF with his fifth movie Labor Day, an adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel with the A-list casting of Kate Winslet as a single mother with a 13-year-old son, played by Gattlin Griffith, whose lives are disrupted when an ex-convict, played by Josh Brolin, decides to use their home as a hideout for the long Labor Day weekend. With none of the dark cynicism that’s often permeated Reitman’s work, this period piece set in the suburbs in 1987 is essentially a romantic drama as we watch the relationship between the three characters unfold. Winslet’s performance is as terrific as ever, but I’m wondering if the material will connect with the audiences that liked Reitman’s previous films Juno and Up in the Air, because this is so different. While it was a beautifully-made film it wasn’t entirely my cup of tea, so I was more mixed on it than some of Reitman’s past work.
The same can be said for Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, a look at the formation of WikiLeaks by Julian Assange, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is likely to get two SAG nominations by virtue of being part of the ensemble casts of August: Osage County and 12 Years a Slave. His portrayal of Assange is quite eerie and the film offers another strong role and performance by Rush‘s Daniel Bruhl as Assange’s long-time collaborator on Wikileaks but the story is only interesting until it gets to the part of it that we already know i.e. the leak of thousands of military documents and then it doesn’t offer anything that new except to cut away from the two leads to less interesting characters within the FBI and media. As hard as the movie tries to be The Social Network, it just doesn’t work as well, but you can look for our full review and interviews sometime before the movie opens on October 18.
It wouldn’t be a Toronto International Film Festival without the premiere of a new movie from Toronto’s other son Atom Egoyan, and this year he debuted Devil’s Knot, an adaptation of one of the many books about the 1993 West Memphis Three case of three teenagers accused of murdering three younger boys. This one is concurrently told from the viewpoint of Pam Dobbs, the mother of one of the murdered boys, as played by Reese Witherspoon, and an investigator for the defense played by Colin Firth, who is trying to find new evidence to keep the teenagers from going to jail. Anyone who knows the story will realize that those efforts failed as they spent 18 years in jail, which makes you wonder what the point of this movie was, especially since there have been four excellent docs about the subject that seemingly covered all the bases. This was one of the films I saw that didn’t have distribution but Witherspoon and Firth’s presence should help it find that fairly easily.
Of course, there were a lot of movies I wanted to see that I just didn’t get a chance due to my limited schedule—Idris Elba’s performance in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom received a fair amount of buzz–but hopefully the ones without distribution like Villeneuve’s other film Enemy will come out sometime in the next year and I’ll have another chance.