Ten days ago, Adam Nayman and Manuela Lazic were poised to power through North America’s largest and most influential film festival; since then, stars have been born, truth has proved to be stranger than fiction, and some of the most impressive directors in the world have delivered game-changing work. Oh, and there was another Predator movie, and it was weird. Here, our critics reflect on TIFF 18’s hidden gems, buzziest performances, and most significant trends.
Best Under-the-Radar Movies
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Adam Nayman: In movies and prestige TV alike, the snaky long take has become the preeminent sign of directorial muscle flexing. Bill Hader and Hiro Murai even did it on Barry. At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, self-consciously complex tracking shots could be found in everything from Steve McQueen’s heist thriller Widows to Alfonso Cuarón’s Netflix melodrama Roma to David Mackenzie’s 14th-century epic Outlaw King to Alex Ross Perry’s backstage grunge epic Her Smell to the scabrous social-media satire Assassination Nation, whose much-acclaimed home-invasion sequence suggested that director Sam Levinson was auditioning for True Detective Season 4.
But the undisputed gold medalist of the 2018 Camera Movement Olympics—we’ll call the award “The Chivo,” in honor of three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki—was the young Chinese master Bi Gan. As its title suggests, Bi’s critically acclaimed neo-noir Long Day’s Journey Into Night follows a nocturnal trajectory, culminating in a 73-minute 3D sequence captured in an unbroken, unblinking shot that mimics the weightless sensation of guided meditation—of images to be viewed with eyes wide shut.
Watching movies for a living tends to make you jaded, but I can say with certainty that I have never seen anything quite like Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s second half, which was choreographed by the director and his cinematographer, David Chizallet, with military precision and yet never once betrayed a sense of strain. If anything, this sequence, which begins at the movie’s midpoint, seems to have been dreamed directly onto the screen. As the male protagonist pursues a mysterious woman through a variety of settings—most notably a fairground filled with singing people, sparkling lights, and countless entrancing visual details—the film comes down with a distinct case of Vertigo. Hitchcock aside, the florid, fluid visual style and swooning sense of romance owes at least as much to the Chinese grandmaster Wong Kar-wai. The combination of these lofty influences, combined with Bi’s astonishing ambition, results in a passage of pure cinema that splits the difference between trance film and Oculus Rift. It manages to make the act of sitting in the dark feel like something new under the sun, and no list of the year’s major filmmaking achievements is complete without it.
Ray & Liz; Jessica Forever
Manuela Lazic: It’s always exciting to watch debut features and discover new voices that are, if not perfectly articulate, confident and bold. Richard Billingham’s jump from photography to filmmaking is nothing short of astounding, given how assured, challenging, and compelling Ray & Liz is. Based on Billingham’s own childhood in the 1970s on a council estate in Birmingham, England, the film follows a couple of children as they fall deeper and deeper into poverty. Like the best British kitchen-sink films of years past, Ray & Liz avoids exploiting its subjects by accentuating their strong personalities and their humanity, all while making their financial struggles evident and part of who they are. The parents may not check that the kids go to school, and don’t really care much either way, but the household has its own rhythm. Billingham focuses on the exceptional performances of his cast, which are way too weird to be mere caricatures. Ben Wheatley regular Tony Way, in particular, is annoying yet endearing as Lol, bigger-than-life but repeatedly crushed by it; he truly feels like a cool but strange uncle, as he appears and reappears in the different periods that the film presents.
Far away from this sense of realism, Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel’s Jessica Forever is a dreamlike exploration of masculinity and love. Jessica (interpreted by the soulful Aomi Muyock) is a quiet and strong woman living in a dystopian version of our world, who has taken it upon herself to help young, violent men who have been abandoned and pursued by a fascist society rediscover their humanity. Her rehabilitation method sounds simple, but it might be the toughest path of all: Whatever they do—to themselves, each other, or her—Jessica gives them all her platonic love.
Clearly made on a small budget, Jessica Forever employs a minimalist yet poetic style to create an unsettling and unusual atmosphere. Pitched at the point between dread and tenderness, Jessica Forever recalls both Beau Travail and The Matrix. As the men learn to express themselves safely, the world becomes even more terrifying to them. The simple gain of their newfound compassion feels like a miracle. Jessica’s hopefulness is as absolute and determined as Poggi and Vinel’s directing, making for one of the most improbably beautiful films of the festival.
Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Nayman: Of all the conversations I had with friends during TIFF, my favorite was the one about whether or not Viggo Mortensen has ever given a bad performance in a movie. The consensus seemed to be that he hadn’t (he’s even good in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, don’t @ me), and I can happily say that Peter Farrelly’s Green Book won’t end up the answer to that subjective trivia question. If anything, this loosely fact-based period drama, which unexpectedly won the festival’s often Oscar-bellwethering People’s Choice Award, could return Mortensen to the Best Actor race for a third time—that is, if voters recognize the expertise of his comic turn as a goon-for-hire chauffeuring an African American musician on a concert tour through the 1960s Deep South. Always a brilliant physical actor, especially in his performances in David Cronenberg movies, Mortensen here offers a sly, ethnically distinct variation on his Eastern Promises badass, with a bit of A History of Violence thrown in for good measure. He thickens his body and torques his voice to play Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a borderline caricature of Italian American virility (he’s introduced winning a hot-dog-eating contest) whose ingrained reflexive racism mutates into introspection and then respect the more time he spends with Mahershala Ali’s reticent, dignified pianist Don Shirley. The film’s title refers to a Jim Crow–era guide for black travelers pointing out safe havens for Don as he’s shuttled from venue to venue. Thrust out of his New York state of mind and forced to become his client’s protector as much as his driver, Tony ends up doubling down on his own basic decency.
There’s no way to describe Green Book’s reverse–Driving Miss Daisy plot and crowd-pleasing, anti-racist sentiment without making it sound like a simplistic mainstream entertainment. And there will be think pieces: This is a movie in which a white guy and a black guy bond by having the former force the latter to taste his first piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken. (“We’re in Kentucky!” brays Tony, as if it’s the most amazing coincidence he’s ever seen.) But one of the things that makes Green Book work is how scrupulously Mortensen controls every gesture and line reading so that the character plays two ways: as both an audience surrogate and a man whose outrageous exterior belies an authentic inner life. He gives Tony a core of warmth and pathos and expresses those qualities through the kind of shameless, exuberant mugging that would have fit just fine in one of the comedies Farrelly directed with his brother Bobby back in their mid-’90s glory days. Call it There’s Something About Viggo.
Like any good buddy movie, Green Book also gets the best out of its other star. Where Mortensen leans into his part, Ali backs off, cultivating an air of melancholic mystery that balances out the film’s more antic aspects. Whether or not Green Book’s themes of tolerance and catharsis can be fully taken seriously given its broad strokes is a question that will surely be debated this awards season—and I expect that there will be no shortage of negative takes on what Farrelly is trying here—but its performances from the two stars are above reproach. Seriously, I’m hoping that Viggo becomes the first actor to win an Oscar for folding an entire pizza in half and eating it in bed.
Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Kindergarten Teacher
Lazic: Complex—or, to put it more bluntly, not politically correct—female characters are still rare in cinema, especially in leading roles. The title The Kindergarten Teacher paints a cute picture, but Mrs. Lisa Spinelli, as played by Maggie Gyllenhall, is far from your regular smiley and selfless instructor. The discovery of a poetic genius among her 5-year-old students leads Lisa to get out of her rut and once again believe in the never-ending possibility of art. But the line between encouragement and abuse is a fine one. Gyllenhaal’s turn in 2002’s Secretary, where she played the dedicated masochist to James Spader’s sadist sexual partner, proved she could play cuteness overload with tact, but as the titular educator in Sara Colangelo’s remake of the Israeli film of the same name, she gets to be depressed, deceitful, hypocritical, and regretful. Lisa has to constantly convince herself that her sponsoring of the young Jimmy (Parker Sevak) is for his own good, even as she passes his poetry off as her own; Gyllenhaal perfectly reveals this internal self-justification in her performance. Although Lisa goes to increasingly disturbing lengths to find validation of her own artistic merit, Gyllenhaal never turns her into a crazed, wide-eyed witch, instead allowing her to seem as balanced and morally irreproachable as she convinces herself to feel. The duality between Lisa’s actions and her idea of herself is where the the film’s real tension lies. Colangelo films Gyllenhaal with a particular attention to when the cracks in Lisa’s plan and in her self-worth begin to show. Playing a (self-)manipulative character who preys on a child means stepping into situations that are agonizingly uncomfortable, both for the audience and the actor. Even though Lisa makes us recoil in horror, Gyllenhaal, with her courageous vulnerability and her evident compassion and understanding for her character, turns The Kindergarten Teacher into much more than a morality tale. Lisa’s pain is that of anyone who has ever wanted to do great things, and her mistakes are only as big as her passion.
The Bigger Picture
Netflix Takes Over
Nayman: Where the cultural gatekeepers at Cannes took the hard-line position that the only worthy movies are the ones that will show on a big screen, TIFF welcomed the wide-scale miniaturization of cinema. If seeing the streaming giant’s logo flash on-screen in a 3,000-seat theater was a bit weird at the beginning of the festival, it felt like business as usual by the end. Looking over Netflix’s lineup, I thought of the moment in David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King when Stephen Dillane’s malevolent monarch Edward I shows off the destructive power of his brand-new trebuchet, laying waste to a castle hundreds of yards away with a well-placed medieval-style firebomb.
Putting eight movies in TIFF half a year after the Cannes scandal was unmistakably a show of force. As David Sims wrote in an excellent report from the front at The Atlantic, TIFF’s embrace of what has become arguably the most influential Hollywood studio-slash-distributor of all time, combined with the festival’s own self-branding as the starting gate for the Oscar race, could result in some paradigm-shifting consequences. Not only does Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma look like it has a chance to become the first fully subtitled Best Picture winner. Roma may also be the movie that forces Netflix to reconsider its formerly rigid day-and-date release mandate.
I’m sure critics would have responded to the film’s formal mastery and emotional punch just as strongly at Cannes, but if Roma’s rapturous response in Toronto leads Netflix to deposit it in theaters before uploading it to subscribers (which is apparently Cuarón’s preference), then TIFF is going to get credit for being the site for a possibly tectonic creative and industrial shift. As for the quality of all those Netflix films, there will be more to say when they’re released, but whatever I actually thought of David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King and Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark, it’s clear that giving gifted directors basically unlimited resources to realize their visions without worrying about whether there will be paying customers to take them in has yielded ambitious, uncompromised work.
Boy Problems (Ben Is Back, Beautiful Boy, Boy Erased)
Lazic: Coming-of-age movies have been all the rage lately, from Call Me by Your Name to Lady Bird and Eighth Grade. At TIFF, it seemed that the latest round of those films decided to spice things up by adding more concrete and dangerous problems to the already volatile mix of confusion and self-doubt that goes along with puberty. Drug addiction is at the center of both Peter Hedges’s Ben Is Back and Felix Van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy, two films that, coincidentally, each cast one of the two rising stars of the genre as their lead.
After appearing together in Lady Bird, Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet are reunited; the latter as the titular beautiful boy, the former as the hero of his father Peter’s film. (Hedges also appeared at the festival in Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, playing a violent older brother to the film’s protagonist.) The teenagers in these films go through similar experiences; both are good but drug-addicted sons whose wealthy families try their best to help, paying for rehab after rehab.
The difficulty in “curing” addiction is front and center in both Ben Is Back and Beautiful Boy, as Julia Roberts and Steve Carell, respectively, play the optimistic and unconditionally devoted parent who can’t believe their child would lie to them just to get high. In those films, the family heartbreakingly realizes how powerless they are to help their son, while in Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased, the family has to accept that the problem lies with them and not the boy. In what amounts to a dark twist on his Lady Bird character, Hedges here plays a young gay man sent to a conversion program by his preacher father.
All of these movies are as much about children as they are parents. Of the three, Boy Erased might be the most fully realized, since its central dilemma isn’t a borderline unexplainable illness, but the much more universally relatable and heartbreaking issue of tolerance. In the Hedges-Chalamet fight, it is Hedges that, in this writer’s opinion, shows the most range by a little margin. He recalls a young Tom Hanks—versatile and realistic in every role. But who’s to say whether this comparison will remain relevant as the two actors grow up and the distress of youth (however violent) stops defining them on screen?