By Jim Slotek, Kim Hughes, Liam Lacey, Karen Gordon, and Bonnie Laufer
Right now, at the conclusion of the 44th annual Toronto International Film Festival, we feel like we’ve seen one big, long movie about Nazis, lesbians, divorces, the perils of fast fashion, and eccentric Latin Americans. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
We at Original-Cin have dashed from film to film for the entire 10 days of TIFF, alerting you on a daily basis to gems and must-avoids (you do subscribe to our daily newsletter, right?). Now it’s time to collect our thoughts and give you our picks for best and worst of the 2019 festival.
For the most part, we all saw different movies – the better to expand our coverage – so what follows is a highly personal list from each critic’s viewing experience. You heard it here first.
Best Thing I Saw: Parasite, by Bong Joon-Ho, which already won the Cannes Palme D’or. It’s about a family of con artists on the poor side of town, who connive their way into the lives of an obscenely rich family. The movie is darkly hilarious in its first two acts, and then takes a violent and disturbing turn when other shysters are in play. Underscoring the entire film is the barely suppressed disdain of the rich for the poor and almost murderous resentment the other way around.
Runner Up: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Everyone already assumed it was a good choice to cast Tom Hanks as the late Mr. Rogers. But he brings unanticipated soul to the role of the most decent man in America — here, dedicated to saving the soul of the bitter magazine journalist (Matthew Rhys) who’s interviewing him. Devices that might have come off as hokey (like rendering big cities into the miniature-landscapes that Fred Rogers used on his show) are endearing and contribute to the mood of this ode to caring and kindness in cruel times.
Worst Thing I Saw: It’s a testament to the quality of everything I saw (and to warnings not to see The Goldfinch), but Just Mercy was a great story (about a crusader against the wrongly convicted on Death Row) tepidly told. As the lead condemned man in particular, Jamie Foxx did the least acting possible.
Oscar Bait Performance: Renée Zellweger in Judy. No actress has emerged from this kickoff to awards season with more glowing reviews that she has for her affecting performance as the late-career Judy Garland. The movie itself hasn’t been as warmly received. But it wouldn’t be the first time an actress has shone in a movie that didn’t.
Razzie Bait Performance: Luke Wilson as a priest in Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour. Usually a comic actor, he seemed at a loss in every scene as to what a priest would say or do in consoling a bereaved daughter (and doesn’t even blink when he breaks the confidentiality of the confessional). I mostly liked the movie, but was gobsmacked by this casting.
Biggest Surprise: David Thewlis as a lead in Egoyan’s Guest of Honour. I love to see a consummate character actor get a chance to play leading man (he’s a restaurant food inspector who goes rogue). He delivered with pathos, a certain amount of creepiness, and a performance that was impossible to turn away from.
Biggest Surprise 2: Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield is actually sweet and gentle in its humour, this from the guy who gave us Veep and the scabrous and dark comedy The Death of Stalin. Loved it, but I hope he’s not going soft on us.
Biggest Disappointment: For those who thought Robert DeNiro could play anything, I didn’t buy him for one second as a late night talk show host in Joker.
Memo to TIFF Programmers: Please bring back the Sunday awards ceremony (TIFF decided this year to make their announcements via email). Filmmakers get little enough validation in their careers, and deserve their chance to get up in front of a theatre full of industry, press, and friends and enjoy their moment. A little champagne on a rooftop patio to celebrate is not a bad thing either. We’ve been hearing rumbles that TIFF’s numbers are not what they used to be, but of all the things to cut…
Best Thing I Saw: A Hidden Life by Terrence Malick, about Austrian farmer (Franz Jägerstätter) who is a conscientious objector to Nazism. Though I felt the film went into holding pattern at the two-thirds mark, much of it was transporting. A tie with Parasite, by Bong Joon-Ho, which was serious and funny portrait of scenes of modern class warfare, Korean-style.
Runner-Up: Partly to reward myself for having sat through it, I’ll pick Thomas Heise’s 218-minute, mostly black-and-white poetic documentary, Heimat Is a Space in Time, an examination of nearly 100 years of German history through family letters, diaries, and other documents. The subject of how civilization descends into violent totalitarianism is, as they say, “trending.” Though I missed the much buzzed-about black comedy Jojo Rabbit, I had a lot of Nazi-time at this year’s festival.
Worst Thing I Saw: While it wasn’t lacking in competence, ambition or good intentions, I found The Friend repellent. Adapted from an Esquire magazine article by Matthew Teague about his wife’s cancer death, the film stars Dakota Johnson as the dying Nicole, Casey Affleck as her journalist husband, and Jason Segel as Matthew, their cuddly, funny, best friend. The film’s time scheme jumps back and forth, pre- and post-diagnosis, in a way that it seems like we’re killing Nicole repeatedly, just to wring out all those possible tears and smiles.
Oscar Bait Performance: Adam Driver and possibly Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story. Noah Baumbach’s divorce dramedy. The critical hyperbole aside (this is a lot closer to Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer than Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from A Marriage), Marriage Story is designed as an actors’ showcase, with long speeches and scenes, opportunities for emotional range — rage, tenderness, broad comedy — and lots of interactions with a cute kid.
Razzie Bait Performance: While it’s probably below the Razzie radar, in the Spanish Civil War drama While at War, the performance of Spanish actor Eduard Fernández as José Millan-Astray, known as Glorioso mutilado ("Glorious amputee") is basically Freddy Krueger in a fascist uniform. To be fair, this may be an entirely accurate representation of the ideologue who championed Steve Bannon-like views of Christian militarism who coined the cheery slogan ¡Viva la Muerte! ("Long live death!")
Biggest Surprise: Armando Iannucci (The Death of Stalin, Veep) is a master of comic invective but he takes a different turn in The Personal History of David Copperfield, which has something of a Terry Gilliam affectionate silliness to it. This is essentially a cinematic love letter from Iannucci to Charles Dickens as another great comic writer.
Biggest Disappointment: I’m annoyed that promises in human cloning are still lagging so I could only see one film at a time.
Memo to TIFF Programmers: Not that it concerns me directly, but I have misgivings about the new “Tribute Award Gala,” handing out unnecessary awards to Meryl Streep and Joaquin Phoenix in an effort to lure sponsors, at $2,500 a ticket, into paying for TIFF’s year-round activities. This isn’t new. In the early eighties, the fledgling Toronto festival, desperate for Hollywood attention, launched “tributes” to Martin Scorsese, Robert Duvall and Warren Beatty (the Beatty tribute almost bankrupted the event), hosted by American television critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.
The event felt tacky then and still does. At least try to pitch these events with some sense of dignity and proportion. This year the TIFF Ebert Director Award (huh?) was given to Thor: Ragnarok filmmaker, Taika Waititi “for a director who has exceeded greatness in their career.” Jesus wept.
Best Thing I Saw: A solid tie between Bong Joon-Ho’s hilarious/freaky Parasite and Pietro Marcello’s sumptuous Martin Eden, both already award winners and likely foreign-language Oscar forerunners. A reminder, if one was needed, that so much amazing filmmaking happens outside the oxygen-sucking Hollywood machine.
Runner Up: Calm With Horses, Nick Rowland's brutal yet weirdly tender crime drama hit many emotional buttons and cemented Ireland as a nation of extraordinarily strong and varied cinema… see also A Bump Along the Way, another TIFF 2019 highlight.
Worst Thing I Saw: Uncut Gems, which will make me very unpopular indeed — also possibly in the minority camp — but I am sticking to it. An over-loud, obnoxious, and profanity-spewing Adam Sandler didn’t strike me as some kind of transcendental acting miracle. More like a scene from Bay St. at 5 o’clock on any given Friday.
Oscar Bait Performance: I was flattened by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story. The scene depicting their characters’ climactic, knock-down, drag-out final argument — where all that highly intimate married-people knowledge becomes weaponized — gave me literal chills. Anyone who has been through a divorce was in that room with those two, cowering inside their skin. Perhaps not coincidentally, I was also floored by Annette Bening and Bill Nighy as another pair painfully uncoupling in Hope Gap.
Razzie Bait Performance: Adam Sandler for Uncut Gems. So sue me.
Biggest Surprise: Unrelated to programming but impactful to the film-going experience, I thought the people-herding at ScotiaBank Theatre was much, much better than in year’s past. Volunteers seemed to actually know where queues were forming and, with one exception (a screening of Knuckle City on the first Saturday night that was delayed by about 40 minutes as lines sloooowly snaked through neighbouring cinemas), everything ran pretty smooth. Even the escalators worked throughout!
Biggest Disappointment: Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. I liked it, and thought the look of the film and the acting was sensational. But I also would have preferred a less ambiguous ending, even as I commend the fact that everyone who saw it seemed to shuffle off with a unique interpretation.
Memo to TIFF Programmers: It’s been said before, but I really believe having fewer films would, paradoxically, offers viewers more choice. The sheer volume — 333 titles this year comprising 245 features, 82 shorts, and six series — is almost impossible to digest mentally much less navigate physically. Fewer titles would mean more available screening opportunities for what’s playing. You could start by scrapping the programming of TV series...
Best Thing I Saw: Waves. It may not be everyone's cup of tea but Waves is going to garner plenty of attention. The hard-hitting drama written and directed by Trey Edward Shults follows Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a kid living in north Florida who seemingly has it all... until a major tragedy strikes. It’s a slow burn but just going with the rhythm and flow of the film makes you completely understand and accept its title. I was extremely moved by this story, and the look and sound of the film (score is by Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) gives the film power. Performances by Kelvin Harrison and Taylor Russel, who plays his younger sister Emily, are riveting and unforgettable. Waves could very well be this year’s Moonlight.
Runner Up: Knives Out. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, Knives Out was a breath of fresh air during a festival filled with heavy dramas and tear-jerkers. This cleverly written whodunit with a star-studded cast was a crowd-pleaser from beginning to end! Extra bonus points seeing Daniel Craig ham it up as the witty and charming private investigator Benoit Blanc with an excellent southern drawl. He stole every scene he was in.
Worst Thing I Saw: Africa. Slow-moving and just plain boring, the filmmaker puts his aging parents in front of a camera for 90 minutes and I am still trying to figure out why!
Oscar Bait Performance: There were plenty of Oscar-bait performances at this year’s Festival so I have a three-way tie here. I am going with Cynthia Eviro as Harriet Tubmann in Harriet; Renée Zelwegger as Judy Garland in Judy; and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. The first two films are biopics about extraordinary women in just OK movies. Zelwegger, who has been out of the spotlight for six years, probably will get more love since she’s been around longer and Hollywood loves a comeback story. Phoenix is absolutely brilliant as the psychotic and demented Joker. His slow descent into madness saves the movie and is glorious and riveting to watch from beginning to end.
Razzie Bait Performance: I know I am going so get some blowback for this but my vote goes to Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems. I SO wanted to love this movie AND his performance but man, did it give me a massive migraine. I completely get what directors the Safdie Brothers were trying to do here but it was a frenetic roller coaster that never stops, even after the movie is over! I wish I had taken some gravol before the film began. Sorry Adam, but this performance was way too over-the-top for my liking.
Biggest Surprise: The Friend. This one hit hard and was probably one of the most memorable films I saw this year. The movie is based on the award-winning Esquire article about a man played by Jason Segel who puts everything on hold and moves into his best friends’ (Dakota Johnson and Casey Affleck) home to support them and their two young daughters through a terminal cancer diagnosis. Strong performances all around, it is clear that Johnson wants to put those Fifty Shades behind her. She plays the dying mom with dignity and grace and Segel is the best friend we all wish we had. This was a film that really makes you think about the people in your life and it was a hard one to shake.
Biggest Disappointment: The Goldfinch. I would truly like that two hours and 45 minutes of my life back. What a dud! I loved the book but trying to turn the almost-800 page novel into a film? What were they thinking? The story of young Theo Decker spans over two time periods — one as a young boy (Oakes Fegley) who loses his mom in a horrific bombing and the other as a 20-something (Ansel Elgort) with self-medication issues and criminal dealings. Performances were good enough by stars Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort but my major regret was not seeing it closer to the end of TIFF so that I could have had a nice snooze.
Memo to TIFF Programmers: Please try to avoid screening ALL the movies we want and NEED to see at the exact same time — 8:30 am! Spread them out during the day and evenings! So many of my afternoons were wide open as the Press & Industry choices were far and few between. On the bright side, it forced me to see a few films I had no intention of seeing so maybe that’s a good thing?
Best Thing I Saw: Impossible to pick just one. Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s dramedy about an awkward 10-year-old member of the Hitler youth who discovers his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their house, is a beautiful little film that touches on so many themes. Ultimately, it’s an anti-racist, life-affirming movie that believes that we are all capable of shaking off the forces that seek to divide us, and instead choose to see the truth through our open, loving hearts. Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s story of a couple working out their divorce, is the full package. Funny, sad, insightful, engrossing, with terrific performances all around, but especially by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. And Parasite, Bong Joon-Ho’s carefully crafted story about a family of con artists moves seamlessly from humour to something darker.
Runner Up: Joker. Todd Phillips dumps the usual camp treatment of this Gotham villain for a grim and terrifying movie that goes deep and dark into a disturbed mind whose outre actions inspire anarchy.
Worst Thing I Saw: Judy. Ironically, it has one of the best performances of the year so far in Renée Zellweger’s portrayal of Judy Garland in what were her last couple of years. The movie is adapted from a stage play and the transition hasn’t resulted in a well-focused movie that delivers on the reasons why the superstar was struggling. In spite of Zellweger’s superb powerhouse performance, the movie falls flat.
Oscar Bait Performance: Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Unlike many A-list actors, Phoenix doesn’t take on roles guaranteed to make audiences love him. Rather, he’s drawn to playing complicated, even repellent characters who aren’t necessarily redeemed or made more beautiful by the “journey.” He’s a careful actor who goes all-in every time. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story. Beautifully calibrated performances. Matthew Rhys in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is being overshadowed by Tom Hanks. But Rhys’ performance, as a man quietly helped through a crisis by Mr. Rogers, is perfection. Also Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse.
Biggest Surprise: Sound of Metal. One of the pleasures of TIFF is that last screening of the day when you tag along with a fellow critic to something that you may not have heard about. In this film, Riz Ahmed is, as always, outstanding playing a drummer who has to learn how to deal with the fact that he’s going deaf. First-time feature director Darius Marder takes his time for a movie filled with such grace that it stuck with me long after I left the theatre.
Runner Up: On my last day at TIFF I took a flyer on a small movie from Argentina called The Good Intentions by first time director Ana Garia Blaya. The semi-autobiographical movie is set in the 90s and follows a man who loves his three school-aged kids madly but who is still living life as if he was a college student. In tough economic times, his ex-wife and her new husband decide to move to Paraguay for a much better job. But the eldest daughter decides she wants to stay with her father and works to make it happen. A lovely, heartfelt sweet movie.
Biggest Disappointment: True Story of the Kelly Gang, about the life of the 19th century Aussie outlaw Ned Kelly. A great cast including Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hault, George MacKay and Essie Davis set my expectations high. But the movie felt like two halves that didn’t quite make a whole.