The 39th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, running 11 days and showcasing about 350 movies, did something a bit different this year. It officially designated Friday “Bill Murray Day.” Murray, represented in the festival with the heartwarmer “St. Vincent,” braved a downpour to pose for selfies. A fan, honoring the villain in “Ghostbusters,” dressed her baby in a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man costume.
Murray wasn’t the only comic personality here. Jon Stewart showed up with his directorial debut, “Rosewater,” starring Gael Garcia Bernal as the London-based Iranian-Canadian Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari, who was accused of being a spy and imprisoned while covering the 2009 Tehran presidential election as a result of a satirical appearance on “The Daily Show.”
Capably directed but a bit pallid, given the severity of its subject, “Rosewater” was most memorable in Toronto for Stewart’s press conference in the historic Princess of Wales Theatre. “There were times when I was directing,” he said, “when I would say to myself, ‘I am Kubrick!’ But most of
the time I would say, ‘You’re in a lot of trouble.’ ” The trouble extended to Iran’s state-run media. “They suggested that the CIA and the Zionist lobby funded the film,” said Stewart. “I guess I’m still waiting for the money.”
The Toronto mayoral election is in full swing, and several people outside the theater hoisted “Jon Stewart For Mayor” placards. Michael Moore, in town on the 25th anniversary of his documentary “Roger & Me,” declared Rob Ford’s tenure “a train wreck.”
Because of a controversial decision by the Toronto festival honchos to limit the first four days of the event, usually the most Hollywood-heavy of times, to films premièring in North America, the red carpet was not quite as frantic as in previous years. Still, stars abounded. At a studio-sponsored reception, I found myself small-talking with Channing Tatum and Vanessa Redgrave, one of those odd couple pairings that are standard at festival time. Not so odd in this case: Both appear in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher.” One of the best films I saw here – probably the best, along with the Swedish marital-discord movie “Force Majeure” – “Foxcatcher” is about billionaire John E. du Pont, well played with deadly seriousness and a prosthetic nose by Steve Carell. (Asked about the switch to a dramatic role, Carell said, “People just live. They don’t know whether they are in a comedy or a drama.”) Du Pont became a patron of the US Olympic wrestling team and ended up murdering one of its members, Dave Schultz, played by Mark Ruffalo, in 1996.
Another movie I liked was Barry Levinson’s “The Humbling,” based on a late novel by Philip Roth about a celebrated actor, played by Al Pacino, who loses his grip on life when he no longer thinks he can act. Pacino was represented here by two films actually, the other being David Gordon Green’s “Manglehorn,” at which, during its press conference, he accidentally knocked over three glasses of water and seemed quite pleased with the flourish. Pacino is marvelous in “The Humbling” – he’s not in his familiar lickspittle, over-the-top hoo-ha mode. (A scene where he accidentally ingests a horse tranquilizer and suffers the slurry consequences is a classic.) For all his antics, he’s one of the few actors of his generation who still has an avidity for acting.
A perfect complement to Frederick Wiseman’s wonderful documentary “National Gallery,” about the famous British art museum, was Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” featuring Timothy Spall’s Cannes award-winning performance as the great British painter J.M.W Turner. It’s highly uneven but with passages as mysteriously and torrentially beautiful as Turner’s own canvases. Spall’s Turner spends a lot of screen time grunting, and he explained the rationale. “They’re free-range grunts. Without the inward implosion I don’t think we would have the outward explosion – those extraordinary paintings.” The grunts, a kind of running gag, provoked laughter from the audience, prompting Leigh to comment afterward that “this is first screening where I realize we made a comedy.”
I always like talking to Leigh, who famously lacks a filter. I brought up something I had heard about “Topsy-Turvy,” his great film about Gilbert and Sullivan. Is it true that there is a factual error in the movie that makes it painful for him to watch it? “Yes,” he winced. “We made reference to Oslo at a time when it was still called Christiana.”
“Love and Mercy” is a kind of biopic fantasia about Beach Boy great Brian Wilson, starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as the young and the older Wilson. Wilson himself was in the audience for its première. It must have been wrenching for him to watch such a tortuous movie about his life. Earlier I spotted him at a crowded reception, sitting alone and silent on a couch, and nervously ventured over to say hello. I told him I remember as a boy going to one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts in New York, where Bernstein marveled at the harmonics of “Don’t Worry, Baby.” He looked at me and lit up.
Conflicted genius was a thematic thread here. Tobey Maguire, overdoing the Brooklyn belligerence, is Bobby Fischer in “Pawn Sacrifice.” In the otherwise-too-conventional “The Theory of Everything,” Eddie Redmayne is remarkable as Stephen Hawking. He allows us to grasp the afflicted scientist in his full humanity.
Benedict Cumberbatch, in the equally overly conventional “The Imitation Game,” is terrific as Alan Turing, the genius cryptanalyst who helped crack the Nazis’ Enigma code but in later years was arrested for homosexuality before killing himself in 1954 at the age of 41. Cumberbatch, who has also played Julian Assange and Sherlock Holmes, is especially good at playing bristlingly brilliant types, though he told a reporter here that “I get slightly riled sometimes that people might imagine me to only be the go-to guy to play smart people.” Is it too late to shoehorn him into the sequel for 'Dumb and Dumber'?
Old masters were also featured in Toronto, of course. At 83, Jean-Luc Godard takes his first foray into 3-D with the intractable “Goodbye to Language 3D.” Maybe I was wearing the wrong glasses. The great Polish director Krzyszstof Zanussi had “The Foreign Body,” which deals, among other things, with the consequences of capitalism in contemporary Poland. I spoke with Zanussi, expecting him to be in lion-in-winter mode, but he still battles to make the movies he wants to make. “You think your achievements give you an immunity, but they don’t.” He deplores the lack of “higher ideals” in life and in art – “we need something more spiritual” – and lectures on “strategies of life,” drawing on scenes from his own movies.
This is what I love about the Toronto festival. It gives voice to a Polish master while, a few blocks away, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man holds court. It’s all about yin and yang.