Cinephilia: TIFF takeaways

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Photo courtesy of rogerebert.com.

After arriving at my hotel, picking up my press pass, and standing in line at the public screening of Son Of Saul, it occurred to me that this is nothing like the film festival experience to which I’m accustomed. People outside are howling at the slightest glimpses of celebrities, drivers are barking at the congested traffic, and a man in line at Subway growled at an employee because they only had flatbread left. Toronto has been turned into a zoo, and sometimes it’s hard not to be an animal.

These three films were the highlights of my time at the Toronto International Film Festival.

3. Sicario

Although not mutually exclusive by any means, I think Denis Villeneuve would prefer to consider Sicario a political statement more than a run-of-the-mill thriller. Without a doubt, exploitive genre movies can be political, but oftentimes what makes Villeneuve’s films distinct is their approach to violence. A gunshot, a corpse, a suggestion of torture: violent elements associated with genre are not to “thrill” but to meditate on their psychological and social impact.

Kate Macer (played by the fantastic Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent who volunteers to join a task force to stop drug cartels from laundering money and distributing drugs. The desensitized Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and enigmatic Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) head the team while Macer, moral and by-the-book, struggles to justify their illegal and violent techniques that perpetuate the cycle of violence, which allegedly is a deplorable means to a worthwhile end.

From the opening moments, in one of the most disturbing set-pieces I can remember, Sicario starts with taut intensity and never lets up until its tragic and perceptive denouement. The action sequences are deftly conceived from all technical standpoints: the soundtrack’s deafening brass score is haunting, and Roger Deakins’ rapturous anamorphic cinematography ominously hints at the characters’ dead conscience with shots of dead landscapes.

2. Anomalisa

This new film from Charlie Kaufman is about life’s tediousness: the constant struggle to open a hotel door, the nuisance of generic interactions with strangers, and love found but quickly lost. Slowly tracking Michael, a motivational speaker who talks at conferences for customer service workers, the film moves with the levity, slowness, and heartbreak of Lost In Translation — but with inventive surreality. When Michael arrives in a luxurious hotel to do a talk the following day, every person he encounters has exactly the same face and generic male voice regardless of whether they’re male or female. After quickly chatting with his wife and son, Michael fails to reconnect with an old girlfriend and decides to get drunk. But then there she is: Lisa, someone new, different, an anomaly with a unique face and a distinct female voice.

Not surprisingly, Anomalisa has no distributor. The commercial prospects of a droll claymation film with a slow pace and cerebral tone are slight, but Kaufman, who wrote some of the best movies of the last decade, is deeply observant and attuned to Michael’s loneliness and alienation. Although smaller in scope than Synecdoche and New York, his last opus, Anomalisa is still brutally effective, finding the yearning in awkward exchanges and subtle details.

1. Keeper

A couple of French 15-year-olds have to make life-changing decisions when they find out they will be having a child. I shed my first, second, third, fourth, and fifth tear of the festival at this warm and unforgettable film.

Shot and edited like Guillaume Senez’s fellow Belgian countrymen the Dardenne brothers, Keeper has an unobtrusive visual style where every cut and camera movement feel natural. There is never a flashy moment or an instance where style trumps substance. Sometimes long takes are used to give the audience an immediate window into the world, but other times there is a montage or a shot/shot sequence. Senez is like a carpenter, always choosing the right tool for the job.

We view his characters from without yet always understand them from within. Keeper’s subversive and novel point of view, which follows this teen couple’s pregnancy from the powerless male perspective, could have been controversial if it was rigid or condescending. But Senez doesn’t judge the girl’s mother who wants to seek an abortion just as he doesn’t get behind the boy and his parents who prefer to keep the child. He simply views the heartache of two babies who have to decide if they want to raise another.