Toronto International Film Festival 2014

TIFF 2014: ‘Foxcatcher’ a dark spin on the American dream laced with engrossing uses of sound and performance

With Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) directs a tragic tale of American ambition gone awry. It’s a grave and stately undertaking that’s based on the real story of John du Pont, heir to one of the richest families in America, who dreamed of building a wrestling team around the talents of two gold medal wrestlers that came from modest means. The inequality of power pushes the tension between the three over the edge. Although the film isn’t an awe-inspiring achievement as a whole, the performances and atmosphere stimulate the senses and hold a firm grip on the viewer’s attention.

TIFF 2014: ‘Pasolini’ is overambitious but nonetheless compelling

With the release of two films in 2014, Abel Ferrara has had one of the biggest years in his long and rich career. Welcome to New York, which premiered at the Cannes film festival, was a confrontational splash that divided audiences and critics alike. As the Toronto International Film Festival was underway, the film jumped back into the headlines too, as Ferrara began a media fight over the negotiation of an R-rated cut of the film, which he refused to endorse. This revelation came at a particularly apt moment, as Toronto presented Ferrara’s second film of the year, Pasolini. It seemed only appropriate that, while waging a public battle over censorship, Ferrara’s new film about a man rumoured to have died because of his art would be premiering.

TIFF 2014: ‘Still Alice’ values performances above all else

Based on a popular novel by Lisa Genova, Still Alice is a weepy portrait of a linguistic professor, Dr. Alice Howland, battling early onset alzheimers shortly after turning 50 years old. Boasting a cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Kirsten Stewart, Kate Bosworth and the always electric Julianne Moore, above all else this is a film that leans on strong performances. This is not a film about script, ideas or even direction, it is about the intimacy of faces and the passion of performers.

TIFF 2014: ‘Tusk”s production more interesting than the final product

Kevin Smith’s early work, guerilla-style films about disenfranchised geeks and losers, helped gain him a strong and dedicated audience. While many of his most dedicated fans seem to find the best in even his weakest films, Smith has never found the same success in critical circles. The negative critiques of his films has only been exasperated by Smith himself, who seems to struggle with dissenting takes on his work, leading him to withdraw into podcasting. Though this was not a strategic choice on Smith’s part, it seemed to pay off as his audience only grew and he is now among the most influential people in the ‘Twittersphere’. This allowed Smith to distribute his 2011 film Red State himself. He described the entire process as “Indie Film 2.0.”; it was no longer about just making the film yourself but distributing it as well.

TIFF 2014: Jon Stewart’s ‘Rosewater’ is a cogent, entertaining commentary on an isolated hell and the power of information

Rosewater, the directorial debut of The Daily Show host and stand-up comedian Jon Stewart, is a modest retelling of one man’s prolonged imprisonment for honestly reporting about Iran. It’s an engaging exercise about political transparency made possible by the modern media that’s obviously close to Stewart’s heart. This is serious content interlaced with sporadic interludes of comedy that in Stewart’s hands sails smoothly along without seeming inappropriate or misplaced.

TIFF 2014: ‘Bird People’ is an unconvincing take on personal liberty

There’s no easy way to write about Bird People without spoiling the ostensible magic and surprise it so valiantly strives for. Cut almost dead in the middle between depicting the mundane and the thrilling occurrences between two people at a modern and disconnected hotel in Paris, Pascale Ferran’s (Lady Chatterley) film aims to be ambitious and magical, but never quite comes together as it should, often feeling incomplete and insubstantial in the process. Opening with a playful prologue that includes different people on a commuter train, we quickly eavesdrop as they play on their phones, listen to music, and engage in conversation. It’s a curious way to start things off as it suggests the random importance of these brief human snippets that we drop in on but never revisit.

TIFF 2014: ‘Two Days, One Night’ another humanizing powerhouse from the Dardennes

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) spends the majority of Two Days, One Night knocking on the doors of her co-workers and modestly pleading with them to decline a significant pay bonus so that she can save her job and her family. Some are instantly receptive to her request while others blow her off and even resort to violence. It’s an episodic structure that is executed with measured precision and tension from master Belgian auteurs and critical darlings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Kid with a Bike, L’Enfant). Acting as the antithesis of the hardworking, stubborn, and desperate titular character from the directing duo’s immaculate Rosetta (1999), Sandra’s glowing and unwavering empathy towards those who stand in opposition to her is the crux of her character and the streamlined grace that runs through this humbled marvel of a film.

TIFF 2014: ‘Manglehorn’ is David Gordon Green’s most daring film to date

David Gordon Green has never allowed himself to be easily pinned down as a filmmaker. After making his name with dreamy independent films about relationships and growing up, he moved onto big budget comedies of varying quality. While even his most dire efforts bring a certain amount of style (even the awful Your Highness had a compelling visual softness not usually associated with medieval stoner comedies), many have mourned the direction of his career. His newest effort, Manglehorn, feels like a bastard child of these two worlds. In many ways it’s his most visually adventurous film since his career began, but it’s hardly a return to his early work in terms of feel, theme or style.

TIFF 2014: Adam Driver dominates Noah Baumbach’s ‘While We’re Young’ and Saverio Costanzo’s ‘Hungry Hearts’

Once again, Noah Baumbach’s taken to contemporary twenty-something culture. With Frances Ha he painted an apt portrait of a meandering young woman struggling to identify herself in a sea of expectation and pressure. Now, the gloves are off, as Baumbach zeroes in on the terrible and vaguely infectious character traits of the Me Generation. Narcissism and pretention are the order of the day, and we’re not talking about flippantly calling your ‘frenemy’ a narcissist: actual, clinical narcissism.

TIFF 14: ‘3 Coeurs’ is not a credible romance

French filmmaker Benoît Jacquot often crops up in discussions of overlooked auteurs of contemporary French cinema. His work is quiet, understated, and rarely finds a wide audience. Yet, efforts like Farewell My Queen, A Single Girl and The School of Flesh are heralded as among the best French efforts of their respective years. However, for every effort that wins the heart of niche audiences, the rest of his films are divisive and alienating. While a lack of consistency is perhaps working against him, many of his contemporaries are even bigger gambles: François Ozon is responsible for some beautiful films but more of his efforts are outright misses, and even heavyweights like Olivier Assayas deliver as many misses as successes. Perhaps it is the quietness of Jacquot’s style that works against him, his best efforts coming across as understated and his worst as dull.

TIFF 2014: ‘Luna’ is a dark and surreal exploration of grief

While Mirrormask has become something of a cult movie, Dave McKean is still better known for his work in illustration than his directorial efforts in film. McKean’s groundbreaking style consistently raised the bar in comic art; his contribution to the 1989 release of Arkham Asylum, written by Grant Morrison, helped change our understanding of the artform. McKean’s style seemed uniquely suited to the mind space of an asylum, his layered mixed media style reflective of thoughts and emotions in conflict. Perhaps his best known work is his contributions to the cover art for Neil Gaiman’s iconic Sandman series, once again cementing the phantasmagoric quality of McKean’s work. His collaboration with Gaiman highlighted the obscured landscape of nightmares which he frightfully recreated through superimposition, collage and drawing.

TIFF 14: ‘Spring’ is a flawed but vibrant romantic-horror film

Spring can most easily be described as a romantic-horror: a monster movie with a heart set mostly in a small tourist destination in Italy. After the death of his mother, Evan(Lou Taylor Pucci) loses his job and gets himself in a fight that causes him to be pursued by police. With nothing left in California, he hops on the first available flight, which brings him to Italy. This adventure leads him to meeting the beautiful and mysterious Louise (Nadia Hilker).

TIFF 14: ‘Heaven Knows What’ is an authentic and devastating portrait of addiction

While some spectators may roll their eyes at the thought of another indie film about drug addiction, Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What is a horrifying and remarkable piece of cinema that feels both alarmingly alive and alien given its subject matter. Bold, raw, and severely emotive, the Safdie’s latest is another one of their standard New York tales. Far more emotionally affecting and aesthetically brazen than their first two narrative features, The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008) and Daddy Longlegs (2009), Heaven Knows What is one of the few films of its kind that thrives on a new kind of detail and specificity regarding its characters and their milieu.

Whiplash2014

TIFF 2014: ‘Whiplash’ is expertly paced and fueled by exquisite tension

What began as a short film seeking funding at last year’s Sundance has come to fruition as one of 2014’s best films. A must-see at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Damien Chazelle’s magnificent Whiplash offers stellar performances and a powerful, morally ambiguous plot. It concerns young Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is in his first year at the top music institution in the country. Picked for one of the school’s most competitive bands by its relentless conductor, Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), Andrew finds himself desperately fighting to prove his worth.

Shrew's Nest 2014

TIFF 14: ‘Shrew’s Nest’ and ‘Spring’ tackle the complex nature of femininity and love, in their own twisted ways

Over the years, TIFF’s Midnight Madness programme has lost some of its grit. Once upon a time, a film as bodacious as Shrew’s Nest would have graced its lineup. Now, the Vanguard programme seems to have stepped up to take its place. Where Madness highlights trendier, more easily digestible content, Vanguard takes on the more obscure. Sexy, gritty, dirty, and horrific, Vanguard’s content is far more outlandish than its older, now slightly more restrained, cousin. Odd when you consider both programmes are curated by the jovial horror fanatic Colin Geddes.

TIFF 2014: ‘Tu dors Nicole’ a surreal portrait of millenial ennui

Tu dors Nicole is the newest feature film from Quebec filmmakers Stephane Lafleur. The film premiered at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, a section specifically focused on emerging auteurs of the screen. Nicole (Julianne Cote) is 22 years old and is house sitting while her parents are on vacation. She spends most of her days wandering aimlessly with her friend Veronique. The atmosphere of ennui though is loudly interrupted when her brother and his band arrive, setting up shop in the family living room. The film explores the aimless summers of youth and the seemingly directionless future that awaits the young Nicole. She is withdrawn and sullen, but through a quiet surrealism Lafleur peels back the layers, evoking a sense of phantasmagoria, where reality and dream exist simultaneously.

Map to the Stars

TIFF 2014: ‘Maps to the Stars’ is a huge disappointment

There’s something theatrical about this new version of Cronenberg. Not in the way we think of Stratford or Shaw. More like pseudo-artistic interpretive theatre that happens during one’s experimental phase in University. Maps to the Stars is a colossal disappointment, offering stilted performances, a disjointed and predominantly ineffectual script, and bewilderingly bad sound design. What appears on the surface to be an interesting dialogue on child stars, the vapid, all-consuming and destructive nature of celebrity, and the superficial nature of Los Angeles very quickly reveals itself to be something else altogether – the tired, lazy half-measures of an auteur riding on his own coattails.

TIFF 2014: ‘Maps to the Stars’ never quite comes together

Hollywood could easily be the perfect fantasy world of Cronenberg’s obsessions. The themes associated with body horror, from the fascination with decay to the battle between body and mind, are staples of the torrid extremes of Tinsel Town. In 2012, David Cronenberg’s son, Brandon, tackled these ideas with his feature debut Antiviral. That film explores a dystopian future in which the obsession with celebrity is taken to extremes of consumption. In Antiviral, the masses purchase meat grown from their favourite celebrity’s cells and head to a special clinic in order to be infected with the same venereal strain as their Hollywood Idol. The film externalizes the growing cultural obsession with fame, and concentrates that obsession through corporeality and sex.

TIFF 2014: ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ a muddled misfire from Olivier Assayas

“Everything is hitting me at once,” announces Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), just minutes into director Olivier Assayas’ English-language Clouds of Sils Maria. It’s a subtle line that quickly introduces us to the frazzled female headspace that Assayas and Binoche have jointly crafted in this Bergman-esque melodrama.

TIFF 2014: ‘Force Majeure’ is a searing and knotty satire of masculinity

The folly and arrogance of masculinity is harshly scrutinized in Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, an intense and intelligent domestic drama that asks some cutting questions about modern gender roles. High up in the French Alps, a family of four slowly crumbles after an instant of cowardice manifests itself and continues to marinate over the course of five days. That the act takes places in just the first 10 minutes and slowly festers up until the last few scenes speaks volumes about Östlund as a stylist.

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