One thing you can count on each year with the Toronto International Film Festival: It will be a treasure trove of cinema from around the world. Approximately 300 movies from all corners of the globe are screened each September over the course of a week and a half, including everything from this year’s big Oscar hopefuls to documentaries to comedies that show the lighter side of life in North Korea.
This year marked the tenth time I’ve covered the festival, and from what I saw there are a few real treats in store for movie lovers later this year and in 2013. One of my favorites was a Chinese version of Dangerous Liaisons, which transplants the story to 1931 Shanghai and stars the stunning Zhang Ziyi of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame in the Madame de Tourvel role so memorably played by Michelle Pfeiffer in director Stephen Frears’ popular 1988 adaptation. This take, directed by Hur Jin-Ho, is visually ravishing and cleverly scripted.
Another unexpected surprise was The Silver Linings Playbook, which opens nationwide in November. It stars two of the most employed stars of the year, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, and gives them deliciously challenging roles. Cooper plays a high school teacher in Philadelphia who returns home after a stay in a psychiatric hospital; he went off the deep end after he caught his wife cheating on him. Lawrence plays a strong-minded widow who has been living the wild life since her husband’s accidental death. Both of them have serious difficulties relating to people and to each other, but what makes The Silver Linings Playbook such a success is the way director and screenwriter David O. Russell has surrounded the couple with marvelously drawn characters, such as Robert DeNiro as Cooper’s football-crazed dad and Julia Stiles as a nouveau-riche wife and mom who doesn’t understand why people aren’t impressed by the fact that she has an iPod dock in every room of her sprawling home. It’s a terrific comedy with an appealingly bitter edge.
One of the most talked about movies at the festival was writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which casts the always on the mark Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, the cryptic, charismatic leader of a movement known as The Cause in the late 1940s. Think of Dodd as a stand-in for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The movie is exquisitely shot and often compelling, with a subtly chilling performance by Amy Adams as Dodd’s quietly controlling wife. But I felt Anderson was telling the wrong story by focusing on an almost deranged Navy vet, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who goes back and forth between embracing the Cause and fighting Dodd’s hold on him. Phoenix shoots the works here, piling on exaggerated angst and irritatingly repetitive gestures and tics. It’s like Finals Week at the Academy of Overacting. Thankfully, he tends to squelch the showiness in his scenes with Hoffman, many of which are fascinating. While The Master is a movie with many flaws – including a lack of a real pay-off and a pace that sometimes seems unnecessarily deliberate – it is definitely a conversation-starter.
So is Cloud Atlas, which opens nationwide on October 26. This is a gargantuan mash-up of science-fiction, philosophy, drama and humor, which casts Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and Susan Sarandon in multiple roles. It’s a compendium of stories that unfold in the Pacific in the 19th century, in 1930s England, in 1970s San Francisco and in the far-reaching future. The movie’s central idea is that the actions of someone in one era can have ripple effects on the destinies of others decades later. It was co-directed by Tom Tykwer, who’s best known for Run Lola Run, and the Wachowskis, who triumphed with the first Matrix movie and crashed and burned with Speed Racer, which was the cinematic equivalent of a bubble gum machine with a migraine. Cloud Atlas is all over the board, sometimes woefully silly and just as often electrifying.
The festival’s biggest loser? That would be director Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, which redefines what it means to be pretentious and ponderous. It stars Ben Affleck as an a guy from Oklahoma who brings home single mom Olga Kurylenko as a souvenir of his trip to France. His new lady love then proceeds to spend her days dancing through supermarkets, spinning around on city streets and crawling around the house, although you can’t tell if she’s overcome by passion or suffering from stomach cramps. The story is told out of order and is tied together by laughably ludicrous voice-overs in French and Spanish. No wonder Affleck looks utterly embarrassed.
A few other movies from the festival that I would recommend would include the true-life drama The Sessions, with its marvelous performances by John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy; The Perks of Being a Wallflower, an exceptional comedy-drama about growing up in the early 1990s, with solid work from Logan Lerman and Emma Watson; Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright’s innovative reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s tragedy, with Keira Knightley and Jude Law leading a strong cast; and The Impossible, a heartbreaking yet ultimately uplifting thriller about the 2004 tsunami and its aftermath. The movie stars Naomi Watts and Ewen McGregor as the heads of a British family caught up in the calamity and it features several nightmarish visions of disaster that will haunt you for days afterward.
No matter how long you stay, you’ll never get to see everything you want to at the Toronto Film Festival. But if you’re lucky, you’ll go home having seen some of the best that cinema has to offer. This festival certainly made me feel great about what’s coming up in theaters.