Onscreen in Toronto: Reasons for Hope at the Movies This Fall

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TORONTO — Each year, I head to the Toronto International Film Festival to get a jump on the fall. This year, I was especially eager to attend because the festival — one of the largest in the world — shows enough good and great work that it invariably eases my anxieties about the art and industry. Surrounded by excited throngs (the event attracts hundreds of thousands), I didn’t think once about the future of moviegoing, the effect of streaming or the dominance of Disney and Netflix, whose big-footing now often seems all-consuming.

Instead, I saw “Collective,” a harrowing, masterly Romanian documentary about a national disaster, as well as “State Funeral,” a found-footage documentary about the terrifying pageant that the Soviet Union put on after Stalin’s death.

ImageA scene from “State Funeral,” which uses found footage to examine how the Soviets treated the death of Stalin.
CreditCourtesy of TIFF

I also caught “Wasp Network,” yet another good movie from the French director Olivier Assayas. It isn’t his greatest, which may be why no one seemed to be talking about it, but it is an absorbing drama filled with smart ideas, great filmmaking and actors delivering performances, not Oscar highlight reels.

Paradoxical as it may seem, film festivals — and there are thousands worldwide — feel more important in the streaming era, simply because they turn movies into events, which is effectively the same strategy Disney employs each time it releases a new movie. Home video made movies accessible to consumers — “all the hits, all the time” a Blockbuster commercial once promised — but it also made movies seem less special, more quotidian. It allowed movie lovers to control what they saw, when and where, and, as streaming has only reinforced, it didn’t matter if the image and sound were suboptimal. Home viewing is cheap and convenient, tough barriers for companies still committed to the theatrical experience, as many independent and art-film distributors are.

Festivals reinvest movies with a certain special something, often because the director and performers attend at least some public screenings. After one such showing of his terrific period drama “Martin Eden,” the Italian writer-director Pietro Marcello took the stage for a short conversation about the film, which he adapted from the 1909 Jack London novel. Set in Italy sometime later, it tells the story of a young working-class striver (Luca Marinelli in a wounded and soulful performance) who transforms himself into a famous writer, using culture — as Marcello put it through a translator — “to get ahead” and exact revenge on “those who slighted him.”

Because of both its size and its crucial position at the start of the fall — right after the Venice and Telluride festivals — Toronto effectively functions as a publicity-and-marketing launchpad for many movies. Distributors and sales companies take advantage of the international media presence, including the critics and journalists whose coverage can help bring attention to smaller movies like “Sea Fever” and “Sibyl” — two satisfying, pleasantly off-kilter movies about prickly women whose lives become battlegrounds. Word of mouth remains especially critical for small art-film distributors like Kino Lorber, which will be opening “Martin Eden” in 2020 and doesn’t have deep advertising pockets.

CreditNiko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

For Warner Bros., which can dominate a weekend with a lot of money and a multitude of multiplex screens, bringing a high-profile release like “Joker” to a festival generates loads of publicity, but it also helps establish the critical legitimacy that can boost a movie’s chances at the next Academy Awards. The director Todd Phillips is best known for self-aware, dumb-yet-sly comedies like the “Hangover” movies. But for “Joker” he’s effectively made a visually and intellectually anemic copy of a Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” movie — cue the homage taxi shot — by way of Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” The festival strategy certainly seems to be paying off: “Joker” won the Golden Lion at Venice.

Toronto has done its part to burnish “Joker” as the real deal not only by giving it a slot, but also by handing the movie’s hard-working star, Joaquin Phoenix, one of its inaugural tribute acting awards. Phoenix does a whole lot of acting in “Joker,” some memorable, and he’s predictably good at turning the Joker’s mercurial moods into a really big show, letting you see the torment erupt in a face that can seem made of rubber. Phoenix lost 52 pounds for the role, and that is reinforced each time Phillips shows us the actor’s bony back, which he does often. Weight gain and loss are part of the job, but it’s the kind of thing that denotes serious commitment and feeds awards campaigns. (Actors are the academy’s largest voting bloc.)

Tom Hanks’s performance as Fred Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” only seems less showy by comparison, though it too makes an impression. And while Mister Rogers doesn’t kill anyone in cold blood, he does slay, as evident from the cascades of tears that inundated my theater. (Yes, I pulled out a crumpled tissue.) Directed by Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”), “A Beautiful Day” uses the familiar device of the reliably unhappy journalist (Matthew Rhys), who’s been assigned to write about Rogers. What the journalist discovers is himself, of course, though he also finds a man dedicated to radical kindness, which makes this one of the more politically trenchant movies of the Trump era.

Much as Heller did in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” which folds animation into the live-action portion, she uses artifice in “A Beautiful Day” to help prevent this story from slipping into full-blown sentimentalism. It’s a modulated kind of distancing device that keeps the movie from turning into mush and dovetails with the fact that — in a somewhat bold move for mainstream narrative — Rogers remains an enigma, perhaps partly because he has willed himself into a state of grace. (Perhaps improbably, the movie made me think of Roberto Rossellini’s “The Flowers of St. Francis,” a very different film about a very different saint.)

In the independent realm, both domestic and imported, some of the most profound and obvious influences on contemporary cinema are Michael Haneke, the Dardenne brothers and Terrence Malick. Their influence is often scattershot, a matter of gestures and stylistic flourishes, like the voice-overs that run through the American indie “The Giant,” which also owes a debt to David Lynch. Another influence that flickers now and again is that of the French director Gaspar Noé, most notably in a cinema of sensory overload. “Waves” and “Uncut Gems” are among the movies that carry his DNA, although not in slavish imitation.

Adam Sandler plays the pivot point in the wild rush of sight and sounds that is “Uncut Gems,” the latest from Josh and Benny Safdie. With his leather jacket, gold jewelry and hard-pumping limbs — he’s a human piston — Sandler’s Howard Ratner looks like just another two-bit hood on the hustle. He owns a store in New York’s jewelry district, where he sells pricey flash. The retired N.B.A. star Kevin Garnett plays a customer who’s swept up in one of Howard’s outrageous schemes, the complexity of which the Safdies convey with increasingly dense, stylistic verve while ricocheting from absurdity to tragedy.

“Waves” begins with an exhilarating whoosh, the camera hurtling through time and space as it follows — and barely keeps up with — a high school student (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) whose picture-perfect life will soon turn horrendously upside down. Much as he did in “Krisha,” the writer-director Trey Edward Shults gets super-close to his characters, creating a sense of intense subjectivity that is by turns intimate and purposefully claustrophobic. Midway through the movie, and with two perfectly centered images, the story shifts to the boy’s sister (Taylor Russell), taking this story about family and profound loss into another, more meditative register. “Waves” doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s a knockout.

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