Presenting around 250 features and nearly ninety short films this year, the Toronto International Film Festival is the sprawling showcase of the fall season. For some films, such as Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, unquestionably one of the most well-received titles of the fall festival marathon, TIFF is just one stop, albeit an important one, along the way to the end-of-the-year hubbub of awards and top ten lists. Having premiered in Venice and screened at Telluride and TIFF, Marriage Story will next be the centerpiece presentation at the New York Film Festival.
Other films have other destinations. Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, for example, premiered at TIFF and will open the London Film Festival on October 2. Writing for Sight & Sound, Tom Charity calls the film a “rollicking adaptation” of the Dickens classic that “announces itself as a radical and progressive reclamation of the heritage ‘lit pic’ from the off.” We’ll be taking a closer look at several of the other titles heading to London, and of course, a much closer look at each of the films in the NYFF’s Main Slate in the days and weeks ahead.
Meantime, for a festival that, unlike Cannes, Venice, or Berlin, is not built on a hierarchy of competitions, TIFF 2019 has produced quite a round of award winners. In 2015, the festival added a single competitive section to its dozen or so programs, and this year’s Platform prize winner is Martin Eden. Adapted from Jack London’s 1909 novel, the film is Pietro Marcello’s first fully fledged fictional feature, though some of his previous documentaries, such as Lost and Beautiful (2015), have branched off into strands of fictional narrative. Reviewing Martin Eden in the new issue of Cinema Scope, Jordan Cronk suggests that “one can draw a mostly straight line from the director’s early archival shorts and increasingly expansive hybrid features to the majestic storytelling sweep of this, his most ambitious project to date.”
Luca Marinelli, who won the best actor award in Venice, plays a sailor who falls for an aristocratic woman in Naples at some undefined point in the early twentieth century. Tomas Trussow draws a comparison between Martin Eden and Christian Petzold’s Transit (2018) in that “Marcello’s decision to maintain a temporal ambiguity releases the story from its novel’s period confines and gives it space to manifest itself in dialogic relation to the current moment.” Determined to educate himself and upgrade his social status, Martin becomes enamored with the individualist philosophy of Herbert Spencer. He denounces socialism and his own proletarian roots and becomes something of a literary sensation once his writing is finally published. But then he discovers that the class he’s wormed his way into is a moral and intellectual wasteland.
As Jordan Cronk puts it, Marcello and cowriter Maurizio Braucci “have fashioned the title character into an emblem of the modern culture industry, whose neoliberal particulars London predicted with startling clarity.” At In Review Online, Paul Attard notes that “Marinelli has such a distinctive presence, both psychically and emotionally, that he’s able to inhabit the screen with the same type of conflicting temperament that has defined this tragic hero type for over a hundred years, one that wavers between the nobly ambitious and the stubbornly conceited.”
Not everyone is on board the wave of praise for Martin Eden. In Variety, Jay Weissberg finds the film to be “an unwieldy intellectual sprawl whose incontestable visual pleasures distract from the shallow characterizations, all of which are representatives of varying theories rather than people of independent thought and disposition.” But what visual pleasures! Nearly every reviewer admires the work of cinematographers Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo, who have shot the film on 16 mm, as well as the unabashed artificiality of the color grading. “All along Martin’s journey,” writes Leonardo Goi in the Notebook, “Marcello scatters archival footage of the city’s banlieue and its folks, so seamlessly inserted within the film they all feel part of the same breathing tissue. A portrait of a single individual swells into a tableaux of a whole community on the cusp of a catastrophe, a world and time ostensibly long past us, but which here spring out uncomfortably close—amplifying that proximity that makes Martin Eden such a perturbing, fascinating watch.”
This year’s Platform jury—Carlo Chatrian, the Berlinale’s new artistic director; the always sharp and often very funny film critic Jessica Kiang; and director, screenwriter, and producer Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg, Chevalier)—has also awarded two honorable mentions. “Is it finally safe to say that Kazik Radwanski represents the future of Canadian cinema?” asks the Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz. “There is simply no one else today experimenting with form and character, and succeeding on both fronts, like Radwanski.”In Anne at 13,000 ft, Deragh Campbell plays a young teacher at a daycare center who’s prone to sudden and unexpected mood swings. “As in his previous films, Tower (2012) and How Heavy the Hammer (2015),” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook, “Radwanski keeps an unvarnished lens close to his arrested protagonist. The low-key naturalism of the scrutiny, with its grain-enhancing proximity and stinging little jump-cuts, paradoxically borders on the subjective: Swaying tipsily in close-up as the shallow focus turns party lights into bleary abstractions against the black background, Anne spins in an orbit of her own.”
Introducing his interview with Radwanski for Filmmaker, Vadim Rizov notes that Anne is “funny in ways that sneak out of unfunny situations.” In Cinema Scope, Josh Cabrita proposes that Radwanski has struck on a winning formula, a synthesis of two “fundamentally distinct traditions,” namely, the “staunchly materialist mode of Bresson” and “a certain school of realism—often associated with the films of Cassavetes—which seeks to reveal supposedly knowable being through an interplay of signs that indicate ‘the truth of the moment.’” And “this synthesis works so well” thanks to Campbell’s “indefatigable performance.”
In Alice Winocour’s Proxima, the second film to score an honorable mention, Eva Green plays Sarah, an astronaut training to join the crew in the International Space Station. She has a daughter, Stella (Zelie Boulant-Lemesle), around the same age as Winocour’s. “With dialogue in French, German, Russian, and English, and shot in real space-exploration facilities in Russia and Kazakhstan, Proxima is an international co-production about international co-operation,” writes Mark Asch in Cinema Scope, adding that “the prevalence of sexist microaggressions in this ostensibly technocratic-utopian milieu is potentially another, more implicit autobiographical element from Winocour.”
At Slant, Jake Cole finds that the film too often “falls back on a reductive rumination on the balance between maternal obligation and career aspiration.” But Katie Goh, writing for Little White Lies, argues that it would “sell Proxima short to suggest the film is simply a dilemma of career versus motherhood. Rather the film is about two things from two perspectives. For Sarah it’s about saying goodbye and for Stella it’s about losing her mother. It’s a melancholic film that takes its time to get to its farewell, less showy than bigger budget parent-in-space flicks like First Man and Gravity, but no less moving.” As for Green, she’s “at a career-best as the stoic Sarah, simultaneously determined and on the edge of breaking. So often hamming it up in Tim Burton roles, you forget just how exceptionally subtle she can be.”
In her overview of this year’s edition for the Guardian, Wendy Ide points out another distinction between TIFF and the big European festivals. “Toronto screenings are famously warm and fuzzy,” she writes. “Unlike the fractious industry crowd at Cannes and Venice, the Toronto audience would sooner drop kittens from the top of the CN Tower than boo at a movie premiere.” She also points out that attendees are “reminded at every screening that the most important prize at the festival is the People’s Choice, voted for by the audience.”
This year’s winner is Jojo Rabbit, billed as an “anti-hate satire” about a ten-year-old German boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), who’s lost his father and lives alone with his mother (Scarlett Johansson) in the waning days of World War II. Jojo has an imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, played by writer-director Taika Waititi, “the New Zealand–born child of a Jewish mother and a Maori father,” as Sam Adams points out at Slate. Casting himself as the Führer is “a gesture that one can only hope will prove mortally offensive to any white supremacists who might attempt to co-opt the film for their own purposes,” adds Adams. Waititi’s Hitler is “like an anti-Semitic Jiminy Cricket, dispensing pearls of wisdom and periodic racial slurs,” but Waititi himself is no “glib provocateur, and in his remarks after the premiere, he made the seriousness of his intentions clear, likening the present moment to 1933, when the world’s ‘ignorance and arrogance’ prevented it from reckoning with an existential threat as it emerged.”
Early reviews of Jojo Rabbit are all over the map. At Slant, Keith Uhlich calls it “shamelessly offensive.” Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf finds it “breathtakingly risky but valid under scrutiny” and predicts that the film “will find an audience that gets it.” It certainly did in Toronto. In Vanity Fair, K. Austin Collins notes that “comedies about Hitler and World War II—from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be—have long proven that serious political filmmaking and comedy can actually be boons to one another. Waititi—a talented, well-intentioned director—makes the mistake of thinking that by not taking Hitler seriously, we somehow diminish his power.”
Cinema Scope’s Adam Nayman senses a “cozy smugness masquerading as cautionary humanism” and suggests that if “the juxtaposition of SNL-level gags with faux-austere renderings of death plays as powerful, it’s just more evidence (as if it was needed) about the easy, insidious mechanics of exploitation.” But Rolling Stone’s David Fear argues that Jojo Rabbit is not “just the same old treacle dressed in slapstick and deadpan, west-of-Wes-Anderson aesthetics. It’s an insane tightrope walk Taika Waititi is trying to walk here. It’s a massive gamble of his post-Thor: Ragnarok industry clout that pays off more often than not. It’s the queasy yet moral, occasionally questionable, and surprisingly tender Hitler comedy this half-Jewish filmmaker was born to make.” Jojo Rabbit now rolls on to London, while the first and second runners-up—Marriage Story and Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or winner, Parasite, respectively—are headed to New York.
Having won a slew of awards and an Oscar nomination for Last Men in Aleppo (2017), director Feras Fayyad returned to Syria to make The Cave, a portrait of a team of female doctors who work in an underground hospital as the war rages on above them. Both “an immensely humanist film, and a tough, heartbreaking watch,” according to Tomris Laffly in Variety, The Cave has won the People’s Choice Documentary Award. “Fayyad and his cinematographers and editors wield the cameras and shape the scenes in the documentary so beautifully that The Cave is both intensely real and a carefully wrought work of cinema,” writes Caryn James in the Hollywood Reporter. “A kind of counterpart to Last Men, the new film is perhaps more wrenching and even more ambitious in its visuals.”
The first runner-up is Garin Hovannisian’s I Am Not Alone, a chronicle of the 2018 Armenian revolution that Michael Sicinski, writing for Cinema Scope, calls “a fascinating look at the contemporary structure of power and protest” that “reveals a bit more than it probably intends to about what it takes to bring about mass political change in the age of social media, neoliberal branding, and shifting global ideologies.” The second runner-up is Bryce Dallas Howard’s Dads, which blends a portrait of her father, Ron Howard, with more general thoughts on fatherhood from famous comedians as well as portraits of non-celebrity dads around the world.
In the Midnight Madness program, audiences have voted up a top prize for Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s The Platform, a dystopian vision of a prison whose cells are stacked vertically according to social status of the inmates inside. A smorgasbord is laid out at the top, and as the platform loaded with leftovers is lowered, level after level, the prisoners at the bottom are left with crumbs—or less. “Blatant ideas and symbols are underlined” and “political pungency is diluted with religious implication,” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook. “The film is not without bursts of grungy, visceral energy, but as a Ballardian scald it is as bare as the elevator banquet once it finally reaches the basement.” In Cinema Scope, Angelo Muredda suggests that The Platform may nevertheless appeal to “fans of high-concept science fiction such as Cube and Snowpiercer.”
In Variety, Amy Nicholson notes that first runner-up The Vast of Night, Andrew Patterson’s “startlingly confident micro-budget indie,” won the audience award at Slamdance back in January. In a tiny town in New Mexico in the 1950s, a radio DJ (Jake Horowitz) and a switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) pick up a mysterious frequency. Adam Nayman finds that Patterson “and his skilled cinematographer M. I. Littin Menz have given The Vast of Night a polished, professional look, punctuated by sinuous tracking shots and featuring better-than-expected acting, both by its leads (whose mutual geekiness is believably yoked to the gee-whiz period) and a cast of voice actors whose seen-but-not-heard performances are tremendously effective.”
The dead don’t die in second runner-up Blood Quantum, written and directed by Jeff Barnaby. An isolated Mi’gmaq community discovers that its people are immune to the contagion of a sudden zombie plague and must decide whether or not to take in non-natives fleeing the outbreak. As Luke Gorham writes at In Review Online, the film harnesses “both the anti-immigration fervor of the present and the colonialist aggression of the past as fodder for role reversal fantasy.” But Gorham would agree with Dennis Harvey, who writes in Variety that Blood Quantum is a “zombie movie that keeps you interested in things that are usually incidental—cultural differences, problematic relationships—yet falls down when it comes to the basic ‘Boo!’ factor.”
Out of over fifty films screening as Special Presentations, the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) has selected Coky Giedroyc’s How to Build a Girl as its prize winner. Caitlin Moran’s screenplay is based on her own 2014 autobiographical novel in which a teenage working-class girl becomes a star writer D&ME, a fictionalized version of NME, the British music magazine that became one of the country’s top tastemakers of the late twentieth century. “American star Beanie Feldstein plays nerdy, friendless sixth-former and bibliophile Johanna Korrigan, and moreover does so with a pretty decent Wolverhampton accent,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “Johanna is based mostly on Moran, but also a bit on Julie Burchill, who famously made the journey from Bristol to London to work for the NME in the earlier punk era of the ’70s . . . The ghost of Burchill could almost be the Mr. Hyde to Johanna’s basically nice Dr. Jekyll, the smoking sodium fragment of nasty-genius which sparks her career in its sensationally wicked early stages. But Johanna’s zingers and gags are pure Caitlin Moran, brilliant one-liners such as her enigmatic pronouncement: ‘“I love doors; they make the outside stop.’”
In Variety, Amy Nicholson notes that “major details rush by in a blur and some gags are cranked up way past eleven,” and overall, the film feels as if “the greatest musician in the world tried to write a classic in fifteen minutes. Yet, How to a Build a Girl dares to argue that reinventing yourself doesn’t make you a poseur—the lowest of all insults, especially in the mid-’90s, when the film is set. It’s a young person’s jam that will hit the right teen like a thunderbolt.” For Kelley Dong, dispatching to the Notebook, How to Build a Girl is “a wonderfully tasteless and swaggerless film, overexposed and packed with pop-rock interludes without a whiff of sarcasm and little inhibition.”
FIPRESCI’s prize for the best film in the Discovery program goes to Heather Young’s feature debut, Murmur. Shan MacDonald plays Donna, a woman in her sixties estranged from her children and serving out a sentence of community service at an animal shelter. “Young keeps it simple,” writes Mallory Andrews for Cinema Scope, “less interested in plot than in the minute details of the care and tenderness Donna gives to her growing household. The film is methodical but never plodding or unengaging, working as both a character study and a procedural documentary about the day-to-day of shelter caretaking.” At Seventh Row, Alex Heeney asks Young about shooting in the 4:3 aspect ratio, her sound design and color scheme, and working with nonprofessional performers. “I just encourage them to be themselves and not worry too much,” says Young. “We can do this as many times as we want; there’s no pressure.”
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