By John H. Foote
For better or worse here are the 10 major happenings on screens at TIFF 2019 this year. The first festival without Piers Handling at the helm, Cameron Bailey has assumed the mantle, clearly ready to be the top gun.
A remarkable 10 days of movies.
Here are the 10 biggest happenings, good and bad.
Clearly Netflix has arrived as a major movie making entity. After their film Roma (2018) racked up 10 Academy Award nominations, winning Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography, all three Oscars won by one man, Netflix is clearly going for gold. With a very strong slate of films nearing their release dates, all of Hollywood is holding their collective breath waiting to see the quality. On the horizon in Martin Scorsese’s three and a half hour crime epic The Irishman, which could be the film of the year. If not, their guns are still fully loaded with several movies ready to step in. Marriage Story is a stunner, Uncut Gems could land Adam Sandler a Best Actor nomination, while The Two Popes is well liked and could be a limited nominee, Jonathan Pryce in particular. Their juggernaut is The Irishman, but like all strong studios they have more than one film in play. Safe to say, like it or not, streaming has arrived and is going to impact cinema. The Academy will see to it these films must play in cinemas in L.A. and New York in the calendar year to qualify for Oscar attention, but then it is straight to streaming. I struggle with what will become of film as a collective experience, but that is out of my hands. Netflix has made films that deserved to be celebrated, and awarded.
2. JOKER and JOAQUIN PHOENIX
The packed press screenings were abuzz with excitement as the Best Picture winner from Venice played on the massive silver screen before us. Two hours after the film started two things were clear, Joaquin Phoenix became the front runner for Best Actor and Joker was a dark, insane masterpiece. Paying homage to Seventies Scorsese, it is electrifying cinema with Phoenix the eye of the hurricane. Dark, perverse and twisted, Joker is unforgettable. Feeling like a film from the seventies in its look and tone, obvious homage is paid to Scorsese, but there is some Lumet in there too. Never in the shadow of Oscar winner Heath Ledger’s dark performance, Phoenix makes this character entirely his own, his descent into madness a showcase of brilliant acting. A deeply troubled young man, we watch fascinated as he descends into his own hell to become Joker, a chaos inducing homicidal maniac. An absolute stunner. Bravo Todd Phillips, bravo. One of the years very best best films.
3. RENEE ZELLWEGER IN JUDY
Miss Zellweger delivers a performance for the ages as Judy Garland in the last year of her life. Broke, unemployable because she is too difficult and unreliable, an alcoholic and drug addict, she accepts work in London, England because that is the best offer she has. Frankly she needs the money. The film moves back and forth in time, showing a younger Garland bullied and abused by Louis B. Mayer, fed drugs to keep her awake, to help her sleep, to help her lose weight, everything they do to her impacts who she is in the late sixties. Zellweger is miraculous in the role, looking like her, capturing the odd body shape and movements of Garland in her later years, and her singing! This is where Garland comes alive, singing for her fans. The actress does the finest work of her career and strokes our souls with her remarkable, Oscar bound performance. Positively luminous.
4. JO JO RABBIT
Blackly funny, subversive, often hilarious but ultimately heartbreaking and deeply tragic this wildly original film is a merging of the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks and Monty Python. Seeing Hitler as a child’s imaginary friend, smiling, giddy, gleeful, even, um, zany is shocking at first but very quickly becomes perfect for the film. Jo Jo is a ten year old Nazi youth, a zealot who blindly follows Hitler because of the cool knife he gets to wear along with his uniform. How can you not like this guy? This Hitler? Playful, fun, a jokester, leaping through the air with Jo Jo, his joy for life is infectious. Though the film has elements of satire, I consider it a black comedy because it remains true to that genre, it’s darkness holding true right through the end. I laughed out loud, stifled giggles, but by the end was watching the film through tears. When it goes dark, it is the sight of a pair of shoes, and realization that a much loved character has been killed. Instantly, this comedy becomes filled with heartbreak. A comedic masterpiece, that I hope the Academy has the courage to award.
5. TERRENCE MALICK’S A HIDDEN LIFE.
A man refuses to swear allegiance to Hitler or fight for the Nazis, and through the lens of Terrence Malick we see the beauty of his life. Living in the Austrian mountains with his beloved wife, their children, his mother and sister in law, he has a fine life. Farmers, they work the fertile earth, becoming one with the land, growing their food, they are hard working people, decent people. When it becomes known in the village he will not fight, or support Hitler, he is ostracized by the community, then jailed, beaten, tortured and finally sentenced to death. Through it all his wife supports him, understanding his decision, proud of his humanity, even though it will cost him his life. The reclusive Malick has directed masterpieces before such as Badlands (1974), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005) and the divisive The Tree Of Life (2011) but his last three films have been pretentious, self indulgent works of artistic masturbation. Not this time. This might be his finest work. August Diele is superb as the young farmer who loves life enough not to take it and is ashamed of Hitler, everything he stands for and what has been done to his country.
6. MARRIAGE STORY
After 20 years of indies and art house films, Noah Baumbach, who directed and wrote the superb The Squid and the Whale (2005), scores what should be a major Oscar contender with Marriage Story. The breakdown of a marriage between a narcissistic playwright and his wife, an ambitious young actress, is explored in detail, allowing Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson to give the performances of their careers. Dark, full of pain, as divorce is, the film is based on Baumbach’s own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. In flashbacks we see what brought them together, that there was a time being apart was unthinkable, but now they can barely look at each other without contempt. Expect many critics awards and for this film to be a major player come Oscar time.
7. SCARLETT JOHANSSON
Arriving with two films, her performances could make her a double Oscar nominee this year, Best Actress in Marriage Story, and Best Supporting Actress in Jo Jo Rabbit. After an impressive turn in Lost in Translation (2003), and some fine work for Woody Allen, especially as the doomed femme fatale in Match Point (2005), she has been caught up in the Marvel Universe for nine films, as Black Widow, though with these two pictures flexing those artistic muscles and reminds us of what a great actress she can be. Compelling and heartbreaking in Marriage Story, determined, decent and funny in Jo Jo Rabbit, her range is on display and she is sensational. It seems as an actress, she has arrived. Oscar awaits.
8. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND WESTERN STARS
The Boss directs his first film, a documentary, sort of as well as live concert film, sort of that explores the creation of his latest album “Western Stars”. Having come clean about his constant war with depression, Springsteen talks freely about it here, but more gives insight into his creative process and how his pure poetic mind works. Often breathtaking, especially when singing these new tunes live with an orchestra in an old renovated barn, the film is enormously enjoyable, as he takes on the rugged look of a western star himself. The 69 year-old has become a rock God, the greatest poet in the history of rock and roll, and an American legend. His lyrics have spoken to four generations of hopes and dreams, cars and girls, success and failure, about working in a car wash where all it ever does is rain, or saying goodbye to youth and Bobbie Jean. Truly from the moment he strapped on a guitar, Bruce Springsteen was born to run. One thing missing? My brother mentioned this and he was right. Imagine this film with the E Street Band? Perfection. Though as it is, well, you will see.
9. JUST MERCY
A surprising courtroom thriller that tackles, amongst other issues, the death penalty, police corruption, and Civil Rights in the South, where racism still exists in all its ugliness. A young Harvard educated lawyer who could make a fortune anywhere else, secures a Federal grant and heads South to aid anyone who cannot afford him. He targets men unjustly sitting on Death Row and with the help of a pretty young mom and housewife disgusted by racism, digs in. Based on a true story, the film is electrifying and maddening as he hits one obstacle after another, each set up by the very corrupt police department and District Attorney. Yet he continues, refusing to quit, finally finding the evidence he needs to get a man off Death Row and home to his terrified family. Michael B. Jordan steps into the Oscar race as a black Atticus Finch, while Jamie Foxx is superb as a man unjustly condemned to die. Hovering in the background, ever loyal is Brie Larson, excellent in a supporting role. Tim Blake Nelson shines in a supporting role as a man who has all the right answers but is terrorized into lying. Brilliant.
10. THE CRASH AND BURN OF THE GOLDFINCH
One of the most hotly anticipated films of the year, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book, arrived here as a major Oscar contender. It leaves out of the race, like a dog with its tail tucked between its legs. It is not the first highly touted film to arrive with great hopes, visions of Oscars dancing in the heads of the producers, nor will it be the last. It is just the latest. Huge expectations that simply do not pan out. All the King’s Men (2006) all over again.
And two more for good measure….
Finally a biography of Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman, the greatest abolitionist in American history, hits the screen, directed by the gifted Kasi Lemmons, toast of TIFF 1997 with her film Eve’s Bayou. Arriving as a major Oscar contender, the picture is undone by a wildly overwhelming score that tells the audience how to feel, and a villain so cliched we could predict his every move. So many times we have seen this sort of entitled, wealthy, vile, slave owner, and nothing new is brought to the film. Cynthia Erivo is superb as Tubman, fierce, imperious, fearless she is the reason to see the film. Watch her little hop over the border, and the manner she embraces danger to bring freedom to others. Janelle Monae is outstanding in a small role as a free, business owning woman who becomes best friends with Harriet, helping her navigate the maze of suddenly being free. Disappointing, and the score is the worst since that overpowering mess in The Color Purple (1985).
HUSTLERS KNOCKS THEM OUT
A Jennifer Lopez picture is critically acclaimed? Oscar talk swirls around Hustlers? Yes. Now to be clear, I doubt the film will land in the Oscar race, but crazier, worst films have, some winning, so I am not saying never, just that I doubt it. Lopez is commanding as the den mother of a group of strippers who get organized and decide to fleece the men they call customers. The lead in the film is not Lopez but the wonderful Constance Wu, a fine actress who is terrific as Lopez’ best buddy and partner in crime, breaking out with a great performance. Relax guys, there is very little nudity, though Lopez gives a pole dance that will become a YouTube sensation for young boys hitting puberty. Female empowerment, however criminal, is on full display here, firing on all cylinders and we find ourselves cheering for the girls. A very surprising film, never again will I attack Miss Lopez as an actress. But Oscar? Let us not lose our minds.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”