Now in its 40th year, the Toronto International Film Festival is officially a venerable institution, but it is taking place this season at a time when the film business is undergoing more than its usual flux. Utilizing new digital technology and other advances, movies can be made more cheaply than ever before, and yet the cost of making Hollywood films has never been higher. New money sources, from Chinese high-rollers to lowly crowdfunders, have altered the financial landscape. Companies such as Amazon and Netflix are also entering the feature film arena.
Distribution outlets are different, too. Streaming services are making major inroads into the traditional theatrical release model. And television has become such a creative arena that film festivals like Toronto are for the first time also featuring TV movies in addition to feature films.
But all this was not in my mind as I raced to a screening in Toronto only to find myself barricaded by a human wall of squealing fans. Who could they possibly be clamoring for? I asked a few of them and no one seemed to know for sure. It was enough that a movie star, any movie star, was breathing the same air.
Of the 399 movies screened in Toronto – couldn’t the programmers have made it an even 400? – a fair share of them had stars attached. One such luminary was George Clooney, coproducer of the Sandra Bullock political drama "Our Brand is Crisis," who got all serious during his photo op. Referring to the imprisoned Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, Clooney pressured Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Canadian government to do the right thing. “Fahmy is a Canadian citizen and he should be here, not in jail in Egypt.” (Clooney’s wife, Amal, happens to be Fahmy’s lawyer.)
Politics, and the politics of politics, always plays a part in Toronto’s festival fare. One of the more highly anticipated movies was "Truth," a by-the-book political thriller based on the 2005 memoir by former CBS producer Mary Mapes (played in the movie by Cate Blanchett) about the controversy over a 2004 “60 Minutes” exposé charging George W. Bush, seeking reelection, with receiving a cushy Air National Guard post to avoid deployment in Vietnam. The story was officially discredited, though the movie stands up for it, and essentially ended the TV careers of both Mapes and Dan Rather, who fronted the report for CBS. Since Robert Redford stars as Rather in the movie, it’s a case of an icon playing an icon. The final shot of Redford-Rather has a saintly glow.
I spoke briefly with Rather at a reception and asked him what it was like to watch this movie-ized treatment of such a painful part of his life. “I had to watch it twice,” he said, “because the first time I was still too close to it.”At the public screening, he said that in his career, there were “plenty of things I would do over” but then knocked “the corporatization, politicization, and Hollywoodization of news, where news is trivialized.” Reportedly Redford skipped the premiere of “Truth” in Toronto to attend the U.S. Open Women’s singles final in New York.
Gender politics was also on the map in Toronto. "Freeheld" stars Julianne Moore as real-life New Jersey police officer Laurel Hester, who, while dying of cancer, requested in 2002 that her pension benefits be transferred to her partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page). Her request was denied by county officials. For all its sincerity, it’s a plodding, righteous weepie, but it did raise an interesting thought: A movie thumping for marriage equality now comes across as a period piece.
Michael Moore arrived in Toronto attempting to make a splash with "Where to Invade Next," his first documentary in six years, but the splash was more like a dribble. Because of the film’s title and the hush-hush publicity leading up to the premiere, many of us assumed we were going to watch a Michael Moore lalapalooza about the US war machine. Instead it’s a lightweight jape featuring Moore “invading” other countries, from France to that citadel of democracy, Tunisia, in order to bring home the progressive ideals he believes America has lost.
Without exception, the people he interviews all think he’s a fine fellow. One of his big causes is school nutrition. He thumps for the healthy, balanced lunch menu in French public schools, and the food on view, including prawns, farm-fresh vegetables, and Camembert, does indeed look delicious, not to mention nutritious. I saw the film with a French journalist friend and asked him if this was the norm. Shaking his head, he answered, “Well, maybe for Christmas lunch it is.” At the public screening Moore had ushers hand out applications for a Slovenian university he says provides free education to anyone, including foreigners, who qualify. He also handed out free pencils from a German company whose progressive work policies he trumpets in the film. Not exactly “Oprah”-level swag, but it’s a start.
Eddie Redmayne, here last year as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” is in another uninspiredly tasteful British film about a social outlier: "The Danish Girl," in which he plays real-life artist Einar Mogens Wegener, who, in 1930, was one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery. Redmayne does gender fluidity really well, but his performance is far better than his movie – a common theme in Toronto this year.
Another case in point: "Legend," starring Tom Hardy as identical twins Reggie and Ronnie Kray, the infamous English gangsters. Through the miracle of no-longer-modern technology, Hardy often shares scenes with himself, and each brother is singularly and vehemently realized. This is no stunt.
Certainly no stunt is the stop-motion animated film "Anomalisa," issuing from the fervid imagination of screenwriter and codirector (with Duke Johnson) Charlie Kaufman. (It won the grand prize at the Venice film festival just before its Toronto screening, and will be released at the end of the year by Paramount, which just bought it here.) Kaufman wrote “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” (two favorites of mine) and wrote and directed “Synecdoche, New York” (ugh). His new film is about a famed motivational speaker who arrives overnight for a speaking-tour stop in Cincinnati and has an affair with a fan staying in his hotel.
Kaufman once told broadcaster Charlie Rose that “I have this very adverse reaction to Hollywood romances. They’ve been very damaging to me growing up.” “Anomalisa” is like a corrective to that hearts-and-flowers Hollywood approach. Although it falls apart near the end – all Kaufman movies have third-act problems – it’s captivating, smart, and sad, and, as is often true for me of stop-motion movies, also a little creepy. How strange that a movie featuring characters made of felt should express more human longing than most movies featuring actors of the flesh-and-blood persuasion.
The very traditional "Brooklyn," set in the 1950s and directed by John Crowley from the novel by Colm Tóibín, is as conventional as “Anomalisa” is cutting-edge. Nevertheless it works as a romance without going all gooey on us. It stars Saoirse Ronan as an Irish immigrant who falls for a young Italian man (Emory Cohen), and it conveys with soft dignity the stirrings of young love and the hollows of homesickness.
The biggest surprise for me at the festival, and one of its biggest pleasures, was also one of its most improbable entries: Grímur Hákonarson’s folksy, poignant "Rams," about two rival sheep farmers in a remote Icelandic village. It did win a major prize at Cannes, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Still...
The rivals are burly, bearded brothers who haven’t spoken to each other in 40 years even though they live on adjoining farms. As romances go, the love these men have for their sheep, while entirely aboveboard, is as deeply felt as anything in “Brooklyn,” which just goes to show that, in the movies, you can create a wonderment about practically anything if you have the talent and the passion.
It’s a lesson that can’t be relearned often enough, especially while pacing oneself through 400 – I mean 399 – movies.