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The Highs (and Lows) of a Crowd-Pleasing Toronto International Film Festival

With showcases for Steven Spielberg, Rian Johnson, Darren Aronofsky, Joanna Hogg, and more, this year’s TIFF was perhaps the glitziest installment in history

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The first fully in-person Toronto International Film Festival since 2019 was sold as a return to form, with arguably the glitziest recent world premiere in TIFF’s recent history in Steven Spielberg’s richly self-referential The Fabelmans. Chasing relevance and leaning into celebrity branding harder than ever before, this year’s lineup also featured appearances by people even more famous than Spielberg who could, to varying degrees, be called filmmakers: Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, Taylor Swift.

But there were also significant glitches. Online ticketing issues stymied accredited journalists trying to arrange their viewing schedules in advance, and two movies had their screening invitations revoked for very different reasons. The European coproduction Sparta was disinvited following allegations of onset abuse toward underage actors, while an angry letter from Warner Bros. scuttled the trans-themed supervillain satire The People’s Joker. The film, directed by On Cinema’s Vera Drew, riffs satirically on the characters and iconography of the DCEU, seemingly under the protection of fair use law; it ended up playing in Toronto just once, at midnight, thanks to the heroic efforts of programmer Peter Kuplowsky, en route to inevitable legal battles and likely future cult-favorite status.

Controversy makes for good conversation when you’re standing in line (or scrolling Twitter). Navigating the long and winding queues that routinely freeze downtown traffic and turn the city’s entertainment district into the cinephile equivalent of Jurassic Park was, for those of us cozy with such rituals, a bit of a time warp. If anything, the unevenness of the movies on offer at TIFF 2022 was, itself, a kind of tradition: the inevitable byproduct of a festival that has always tried to be all things to all people. Under such circumstances, consensus or consistency are impossible: How do you reconcile a magisterial, philosophical three-hour mood piece like Albert Serra’s Pacifiction with a made-for-Roku biopic of “Weird Al” Yankovic? (Note: I got shut out of the latter after taking too long to get to the theater; disappointed, I watched “Amish Paradise” on my phone as I walked away.) In the words of the great Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, whose long-gestating sequel to the great 1990s cult television series The Kingdom was the most purely entertaining thing I watched all week, it’s important to “take the good with the evil.”

On that note, the very best and very worst features I encountered at TIFF were essentially mirror images of one another—such as Scottish director Charlotte Wells’s heartfelt, semi-autobiographical drama Aftersun and Darren Aronofsky’s award-baiting stage play adaptation The Whale. To get the latter out of the way, it features—as you’ve doubtlessly heard by now—a tour de force lead performance by Brendan Fraser as a massively overweight and fatalistically depressed English teacher who’s trying to reconnect with his estranged teenager daughter (Sadie Sink) during what he expects to be the final week of his life. Stranded variably on his couch or a double-wide wheelchair, grading papers and eating his feelings, Fraser’s Charlie is a surpassingly tragic figure; for Aronofsky, drawn always toward characters in the grip of their own excessive vices, he’s the ideal protagonist.

Seemingly drawing on aspects of his own public personal traumas and refusing to be swallowed whole by the make-up effects that swell his body to convincingly gargantuan proportions, Fraser is above reproach in his comeback vehicle: His acting is carefully measured and affecting. But the pummeling, manipulative, and ultimately bogus nature of the filmmaking betrays him. Beginning with its Melville-quoting title, The Whale unfolds as a series of heavy-handed metaphors in search of realistic dramatic shading. They don’t find it, and Aronofsky’s trademark grandstanding sadism, disguised here, as in Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, and Mother!, as a form of hard-edged empathy for damaged outsiders, crushes the characters and the audience alike beneath its oppressive weight. Back in Aronofsky’s best film, The Wrestler, the pain and suffering of a man coming to terms with his broken body transmuted into real catharsis. Mining a similar strain of physical suffering and father-daughter pathos but without anything resembling realism (or restraint) this time out, the director flails. He can’t engineer anything more at the climax than simple, exasperated relief that the whole prestige-minded ordeal is over.

By contrast, I didn’t want Aftersun to end—and the desire to preserve and extend moments into infinity is what the movie is all about. On holiday with her dad in Turkey around what seems to be 1998 (with Aqua and Bran Van 3000 ascendant on their all-inclusive resort’s PA playlist), 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) fools around during their down time with a video camera. Most of the time, Calum, who’s conspicuously young to be the father of a preteen, plays along happily, but there are things he’s concealing from his kid: His wariness and fatigue emanate from somewhere beyond jet lag. As played beautifully by Paul Mescal, Calum is a fascinating study in physical strength interlaced with spiritual frailty. He loves Sophie and dotes on her, but doesn’t seem fully capable of caring for her, or himself. About halfway through the film, after Sophie drops a pair of goggles in the ocean during a scuba excursion, Calum dives down to get them and Wells holds for a small eternity on the waves while we wait for him to resurface. From there on, the film’s relaxed, sun-dappled reveries become suffused with a tense, ambiguous dread, as if something vital were slipping away. A late shot of a slowly developing Polaroid serves as the emblem of a movie that is, finally and devastatingly, about the passage of time, and how rather than healing all wounds, it deepens them.

There’s a similarly exquisite ache at the heart of Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, which finds the playwright decamping back to his ancestral roots in Ireland after his polarizing, Oscar-winning critique of American culture in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDonagh specializes in elaborately mean-spirited banter, and he’s back on good form in Banshees, using the 1920s setting as a pretense for all kinds of linguistic gamesmanship (no movie has used the word “fecken” so many times). The theme is the same bickering, posturing masculinity that defined McDonagh’s breakthrough hit man saga In Bruges; staring down late middle age with nothing to show for it, amateur fiddler Colm (Brendan Gleeson) decides his best shot at self-improvement is ridding himself of his well-meaning but thick-skulled pal Pádraic (Colin Farrell). This strident act of unfriending takes the form of an ultimatum: His pal needs to shut up and leave him alone, no exceptions, or Colm will self-mutilate, one finger at a time.

In a remote coastal village whose main currency seems to be gossip, this abrupt and seemingly one-sided feud becomes a topic of conversation at the pub and beyond. The locals support Pádraic on the grounds that he’s “one of the good guys,” and the question of goodness—and more specifically, whether being “nice” as a personality trait has any intrinsic spiritual value—gets interrogated in deceptively broad ways. Colm, whose contempt for his friend is clearly tied to self-loathing, believes that art endures apart from and above considerations of morality; he’s McDonagh’s bleakly realist mouthpiece. The movie’s soul, though, is supplied by Farrell, whose incomprehension at his former friend’s contempt plunges him into deep reservoirs of self-pity. What keeps Pádraic (and the movie) afloat is a buoyant, humane sense of comedy, with Farrell gracefully walking the line between being a jester and a punch line. His recent Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival looks like an award-season harbinger, and if it comes down to Farrell’s resonant, minor-key work in Banshees versus Fraser’s abjection in The Whale, it’d be nice if voters recognized that sometimes, less is more.

With its mix of murder-ballad melancholy and bawdy, picaresque slapstick comedy, The Banshees of Inisherin is a contradictory sort of crowd-pleaser. Elsewhere at TIFF, two glossy and thematically sympatico comedies went straight for the audience’s jugular. There’s a wittily sinister Ralph Fiennes performance at the center of Succcession director Mark Mylod’s The Menu, about an exclusive dinner party that devolves into brutality at the expense of its jet-setting guests: The pitch is a millennial, American version of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, seasoned with a bit of Saw-style torture porn. Fiennes’s sociopathic master chef is fun, but the plot twists are predictable and the eat-the-rich subtext is labored. At this point, skewering Instagram-snapping foodies is hardly trenchant social commentary, and Mylod fails to generate the kind of terse, percolating rhythms he’s mastered with the Roy clan on Succession. A late turn involving the integration of a diner-style cheeseburger to the high-end cuisine on offer is meant as a righteous salvo against overly refined palates, but it only succeeds in making you wish there were something meatier to chew on.

Like The Menu, Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery gathers a group of 1-percenter deplorables on a remote island and puts them though an elaborate murder mystery. The master of ceremonies here is an Elon Musk–y tech visionary (Edward Norton) who’s gathered together a coterie of “disruptors”—including a progressive politician (Kathryn Hahn) and an alt-right Twitch streamer (Dave Bautista) and his former creative partner (Janelle Monáe)—for a game night that turns deadly. Also on hand, of course, is Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, now the cornerstone for what seems to be an honest-to-goodness thriller franchise that’s been lavishly underwritten by Netflix and feels engineered for the long haul. The appeal of Craig’s magnanimously verbose super-sleuth is real, as is Johnson’s ability to craft—and execute—a multilayered suspense plot whose solution is, as per the Beatles-derived structure of the title, visible in plain sight.

Glass Onion is confident and precise, except when Johnson’s Online-Guy piety gets the better of him. The lines stridently calibrated for audience applause land with a thud. Beyond that, the idea of a glossy, expensive Netflix product advocating for “smashing the system” is pretty rich—if only there were a filmmaker who wanted to make a satire about that.

More credible attempts at insurrection were on view in a few of TIFF’s buzziest titles, including Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, an incendiary, ticking-clock thriller about a group of self-styled insurgents with echoes of Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves and Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama. Beginning with that self-consciously provocative title (carried over from Andreas Malm’s notorious bestseller), How to Blow Up a Pipeline invites sympathy and complicity with a group of young, by-any-means necessary activists whose off-the-grid machinations—culminating in an attempted act of industrial sabotage—are unraveled in precise, almost forensic detail, couched in revolutionary rhetoric. The film displays a sense of outrage and urgency that distinguishes it from the vast majority of insular, apolitical independent American cinema. More obscure but no less absorbing—and also extremely funny—Swiss director Cyril Schaublin’s 19th-century comedy Unrest plays out in the lush Jura Mountains, where wristwatches are manufactured en masse and the workers are being radicalized by anarchist organizers. Presented in TIFF’s experimentally minded Wavelengths program, the film is an acquired taste, but it is juicy. The whirring, deadpan comic tone is a thing of wonder, and no film at TIFF played more thoughtfully (or humorously) with framing and perspective: Schaublin’s direction keeps things hushed, off-center, and mysterious, perfect for a story about the risky, intricate process of political organizing.

Given its focus on distaff factory workers and their burgeoning solidarity versus the male management, Unrest could have been titled Women Talking had director Sarah Polley not already claimed it. A native Torontonian with a massive civic cheering section, Polley had the festival’s biggest home-turf advantage for her adaptation of Miriam Toews’s fact-based bestseller, which focuses on a Mennonite community whose female members are planning an exodus away from an oppressive, predatory patriarchy. (The real events the story is based on took place in Bolivia.) Taking off from Toews’s claustrophobic conception, Polley structures Women Talking as a chamber piece, with characters meticulously listing off the pros and cons of their own potential emancipation: leaving is one thing, figuring out where to go is another. The material bristles in a post-MeToo moment, and for a while, the electricity of the interplay among the actresses—including Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, and two former Girls With Dragon Tattoos in Rooney Mara and Claire Foy—holds your attention. There’s also a superbly timed and wholly unexpected needle drop that generates a Shyamalan-ish sense of temporal confusion; the audience I saw the movie with gasped.

Women Talking is grim and visually desaturated and serious, as it should be. Where it ultimately loses its footing is in the balance between specificity and allegory. What holds up on the page as a sociologically loaded thought experiment about complicity and forgiveness is undermined by Polley’s monotonous cornering of her own arguments, some undisciplined filmmaking choices including an overbearing musical score, and some incongruously Malickian magic-hour lyricism.

Less pushy—and more beguiling—was The Souvenir director Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter, set entirely inside a fog-shrouded English manor turned hotel and featuring her eternal collaborator Tilda Swinton. The actress plays a dual role as a middle-aged filmmaker as well as her elderly mother, whose joint vacation together takes an existential turn. In the post-film Q&A, Hogg talked about Victorian ghost stories as an inspiration, and the genre elements are nicely spooky: There are a couple of shivery, blink-or-miss-them images that lodge into the viewer’s subconscious. But Hogg’s mandate isn’t really out to terrify; like all the best films at TIFF, The Eternal Daughter offers an invitation to contemplation. There’s something mesmerizing about watching Swinton expertly lobbing her dialogue back and forth between alter egos: Call it Woman Talking to Herself. Her uncanny talent suspends disbelief and keeps it hovering where it belongs, en route to a perfect, gorgeous final shot.

It’s an image of departure that mirrors the coda of The Fabelmans, and if Spielberg’s and Hogg’s films speak to each other about family and fate, they also remind us of how deeply movies can draw us in by providing such sublime moments of release.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.