Any film festival that shows hundreds of movies is bound to program a few with some similarities, but each year in Toronto, I’m amazed by just how alike some of the films are. I’m not just talking about general themes. Within 24 hours in Toronto, I saw two movies in which heartbroken young people embark on dangerous solo journeys across long distances, while flashing back to what drove them into the wild. And I saw two movies about world-class talents driven to depression and madness by violent, capricious father-figures. In each case, one of the movies is a likely Oscar nominee and box-office hit, while the other will probably only be seen by specialty audiences.
Let’s start with Wild, which I fully expect to be a monster: a multiple-nomination money-maker that’s going to become some people’s favorite film of all time. Based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir—adapted by screenwriter Nick Hornby and Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée—Wild stars Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, a woman who gets so shaken up by her mother’s death that she becomes a heroin addict and a sex addict, before deciding to clear her head by hiking more than a thousand miles across the Pacific Crest Trail. The movie follows Strayed’s progress on the hike, which she begins as a frightened novice with an oversized pack, and ends as a lean, hardened adventurer who’s become a legend among the hikers. Witherspoon is winning, in a role that requires her to be prickly in the flashback sequences and a plucky feminist heroine on the trail, and while the film is engineered for maximum uplift, it’s an undeniably effective machine.
My major gripe about Wild—aside from a script that awkwardly explains pieces of Strayed’s personal past that most viewers could pick up from images and context alone—is that the “stroll down memory lane” structure is far too common for movies like this. It’s also used by Jan-Willem van Ewijk in Atlantic., the other ambitious human-against-nature film I saw at TIFF this year. Fettah Lamara stars in Atlantic. as a Morrocan windsurfer who tries to travel across the ocean to Europe on his board, all while reflecting on his aging fisherman father, the cousin everyone in his family wants him to marry, and the blond woman who stole his heart when she visited over the summer. Atlantic. isn’t as much of a crowd-pleaser as Wild. It’s slow and serene, with whispery Malickian voiceover and much less of Strayed’s “how to become a happy person” philosophizing. But the surfing footage is spectacular—even moreso than Vallée’s shots of the PCT—and Lamara’s lovesick melancholy is moving. (Again, if only the way it’s put together weren’t so overly familiar.)
Of the two films about maniacal mentors that I saw within 24 hours at TIFF, the one that’s probably not going to get a lot of attention is Love & Mercy, a two-tiered biopic of Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson. Paul Dano plays Wilson in the 1960s, slowly going crazy as he works on Pet Sounds and Smile, while still fighting old battles with his disapproving father and his more pop-minded bandmate Mike Love. John Cusack plays Wilson in the 1980s, at a time when Wilson had been out of the public eye for years, under the care of micro-managing psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy (played by Paul Giamatti at his most cacklingly maniacal). Screenwriter Oren Moverman and producer-director Bill Pohlad have a hard time finding a solid frame for this film, which gradually deteriorates under the usual symptoms of “biopicitis” (shapelessness, corny restagings of eureka moments, distracting imitations of famous folk, whatnot). Beach Boys fans will find a decent amount to like about Love & Mercy though, including Elizabeth Banks’ performance as Melinda Wilson, who saved Brian from Dr. Landy, and Dano’s joyful expression when he’s in the studio tweaking orchestral passages. The brightest idea that Moverman and Pohlad had wasn’t comparing Wilson’s domineering father and his cruel doctor, but recreating the fan-favorite recordings of Wilson happily ordering up take after take of “Good Vibrations” and “Caroline No.”
Still, if you can only see one movie this year about a gifted person at war with his overseers, make it Foxcatcher. I confess that for about the first two hours of Foxcatcher, I wasn’t sure where director Bennett Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman were going with this quiet, eerie true-crime story, about an eccentric billionaire (played with maximum creepiness by Steve Carell) who hires two champion Olympic wrestler brothers (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) to help lead the U.S. wrestling program to greatness, then begins to behave increasingly erratically. Because this is a film about a semi-famous murder, the first two hours of Foxcatcher seem mainly concerned with explaining how these three people got from their promising point A to their scandalous point Z. But the last 10 minutes of the movie, which show the crime and its aftermath, reveal that there’s a lot more going on in Foxcatcher than just explaining how two sensible men got sucked into the vortex of a rich weirdo. This is a movie about wealth, class, and aspirations, and Tatum’s performance (as a big lug who just needs to feel special) says a lot about how the American plutocracy prevails.
As as long as I’m pairing up movies, I could reach back to earlier in the festival and match Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden with Noah Baumbach’s latest comedy, While We’re Young, which is also about an artist who may be aging out of relevance. In Eden, a DJ sticks with his favorite genre long after his audience has moved on; in While We’re Young, Ben Stiller plays a documentary filmmaker named Josh who’s spent a decade making an unfinished abstract meditation on war and politics that almost no one will ever see. When Josh and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) meet the young hipster couple Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), they start to reconnect with the cool, fun, creative people they used to be—but maybe not soon enough to save Josh’s career from the Jamies of the world, who shoot and upload entire films in the time it takes Josh to decide to make one edit.
As a fan of Baumbach generally, and as a super-fan of last year’s Frances Ha—another film about the spirit of young New Yorkers—I was mildly let down by While We’re Young. It is a very funny film, packed with well-observed Baumbach moments and lines. (A typical Baumbach touch: When Josh stays over at a friend’s apartment, the friend hands him some linens for the inflatable bed, saying, “It’s two top sheets, but y’know.”) But while Frances Ha acknowledged the best and worst of “these kids today,” While We’re Young gets a little preachy about their values, and throws in a few contrived turns of plot that make the movie feel more like Woody Allen than Baumbach. The film takes an unexpectedly sour turn.
In that sense, maybe While We’re Young pairs better with The Last Five Years, Richard LaGravanese’s adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s cult favorite Off-Broadway musical of the same name. Anna Kendrick plays an aspiring actress, while Jeremy Jordan plays a writer. Over the course of the film, the two meet, fall in love, get married, have fights, and get divorced. The twist is that the story is told through both characters’ eyes, via alternating songs, with Kendrick’s Cathy telling the story backward, and Jordan’s Jamie telling the story forward. Like Adam Driver’s Jamie in While We’re Young, Jordan’s Jamie is a careerist, and though he has his own songs to explain his point of view, he still comes off as selfish. But maybe that’s because Kendrick is so overwhelmingly delightful as Cathy, singing conversationally as well as any screen actor has since Rex Harrison. Brown’s more upbeat, comic songs are catchy, but his ballads are harder to distinguish from hundreds of other modern showtunes. And LaGravenese doesn’t do enough visually to distinguish the two storylines, or to give The Last Five Years the more open look of a classic movie musical. Yet the film works anyway, because of the cleverness of its conceit, the earnestness of the overall production, and the magnificence of Kendrick.
My favorite movie of this year’s TIFF though (so far) has been Peter Strickland’s The Duke Of Burgundy, which doesn’t fit naturally alongside any other film—except maybe for Strickland’s 2012 thriller Berberian Sound Studio, which I saw in Toronto two years ago. Where Berberian Sound Studio used Italian giallo thrillers as a way to explore the human mind’s ability to turn sounds and thoughts into threats, The Duke Of Burgundy considers the complications of romantic relationships, via a deconstruction of 1970s softcore Eurotica. Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna play Cynthia and Evelyn, variations on the classic kinky lesbian lovers from old French and British sexploitation films: the kind who dwell in an opulent mansion and spend their time binding and spanking each other behind ornate wooden doors. After playing out one of those typical Eurotica scenarios in its first 15 minutes, The Duke Of Burgundy starts to show what happens to these two women when they’re not actively engaged in their sex-games. They get bored with their roles, they attend lectures on entomology, they meet with the local designer of torture devices, and the argue over whether they can take a night off from bondage and water-sports.
Like Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke Of Burgundy is a stunning-looking and -sounding film, which occasionally digresses into pure avant-garde texture. But it’s also a film about recognizable human beings, with real emotional reactions. Even though the movie seems to take place in an alternate universe where there are no men, and where the economy and social lives of the citizenry are all based on insect-collecting and sadomasochism, Cynthia and Evelyn don’t come off like puppets for Strickland to manipulate. Through their facial expressions and subtle gestures, The Duke Of Burgundy’s cast helps establish the fine distinctions between controlled humiliation and actual humiliation, and between a punishment delivered erotically and one delivered out of spite. Strickland also ponders whether in a dominant-and-submissive sexual relationship, the dom is really being controlled by the sub, or whether the giver and the taker need each other. The Duke Of Burgundy is endlessly fascinating, and lovely to look at, with a surprisingly tasteful approach to a subject some might find distasteful. It’s one of the damndest love stories I’ve ever seen on the big screen. The power couple of TIFF isn’t Love & Mercy and Foxcatcher or Wild and Atlantic. It’s Cynthia and Evelyn.
Also seen: Speaking of movies with striking similarities, I went through a little run over the last few days of seeing movies about people stranded in mountains, deserts, and forests around the world, facing mortal peril. Outside of Wild, the most entertaining of this batch would be Big Game, written and directed by Rare Exports’ Jalmari Helander, and starring Samuel L. Jackson as The President Of The United Motherfuckin’ States, who gets shot down over Finland and escapes the people hunting him with the help of a 13-year-old local. The premise is silly, and there’s not much of a plot, but everyone involved with the movie seems to be having a great time, and their fun is infectious. At the least, Big Game is better than the underbaked The Reach (starring Michael Douglas as a rich prick who makes a fatal mistake while on an illegal hunt, then tries to bury the problem by killing his young guide), the overly serious Backcountry (about a boyfriend and girlfriend who discover the cracks in their relationship while on a hiking trip, shortly before they’re literally torn apart), and the curiously flat Cub (which wastes a fun premise about Cub Scouts being simultaneously stalked by a feral boy and a clever serial killer).
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I walked out of The Reach and Cub after 45 minutes and one hour, respectively, because I figured I could make better use of my time. I also bailed on Cut Bank after about half an hour, finding its sub-Coens tale of complex criminal plots in rural Montana to be annoyingly populated by characters who are cartoonish, but not that funny.
I haven’t seen that many documentaries at TIFF this year, but I’m glad I made time for Red Army, Gabe Polsky’s film about the rise and fall of Soviet hockey, which focuses especially on what happened in the decade after the event that the Russians do not call “The Miracle On Ice” (at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics). Red Army is a straightforward talking-heads-and-file-footage documentary, but Polsky has some great interview subjects, and some stirring clips of the Soviets in action at their peak.
I’ve also seen Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, Rosewater, but I’m going to stew on that one for a couple more days and write about in Friday’s coverage, perhaps in conjunction with The Look Of Silence, which is looking like it’ll be my final film of the fest.