The Best of TIFF 2016

Did we get many great movies at TIFF 2016? I say yes but this isn’t an easy question to answer. Even though I managed to catch 28 films at the festival, this only accounts for about 9% of the entire lineup. Within this limited window, it was a terrific year – easily among the very best I’ve experienced in my years of attending the festival. Some notable films I missed (but look forward to catching up with in the fall) are: ‘Jackie’, ‘Moonlight’, ‘Nocturnal Animals’, and ‘Queen of Katwe’. Among the movies I’ve seen, here are my top picks from TIFF16. 

1  ‘Manchester by the Sea’

Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is, as of this writing, the best film I’ve seen in 2016. I’ll be astonished if it doesn’t receive Oscar nominations in the major categories. When Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart attack, his younger brother Lee (Casey Affleck) is forced to return to his hometown, the site of some very painful memories, to take on the responsibility as guardian to his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). This achingly exquisite movie of life after loss immerses us in a world of pain, segueing between past and present effortlessly, while slowly revealing the source of that pain. It may not sound like a joyous cinematic experience, but what caught me off-guard was just how funny the movie was. This superb screenplay is sprinkled with many hilarious moments, mostly between Lee and his nephew. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams will likely receive well-deserved Oscar nominations, but young Hedges is the revelation here. Affleck gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen; it’s a surprisingly physical one – his mannerisms and gestures point to the turmoil within. We feel his pain through what is not said. I think I literally heard my heart break during this one – I defy anyone to watch ‘Manchester by the Sea’ without releasing tears. Release Date: November 25th.

2.   ‘Toni Erdmann’

What if I told you one of the very best films of 2016 features a Bulgarian hair monster? The latest from German director Maren Ade is, quite simply, a masterpiece – a fearlessly entertaining look into parent/child bonding. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a corporate consultant in Bucharest who is every bit as ambitious, stressed, and humorless as her prankster father Winfred (Peter Simonischek) is impish. Imagine Ines’ discomfort when her father pays a surprise visit. If Yasujirō Ozu ever made a comedy, it might look something some like ‘Toni Erdmann’ – the family relationship dynamics reminded me of ‘Tokyo Story’. Though its focus is on the central relationship, the scope is wide enough to consider workplace sexism, the effect of a managerial culture on social relationships, generational estrangement, and how performance and role-playing can be used as devices to explore unchartered emotional terrain. It has a runtime of 162 minutes, but I promise it will be the shortest 3 hours you will spend in a movie theater this year. ‘Toni Erdmann’ is wildly funny, deeply moving, and genuinely unpredictable (especially in its climactic set piece which I wouldn’t dare spoil for you). Release Date: December 25thstateside – it should open in Toronto theaters around then.  

3.   ‘La La Land’

A lot has already been said about ‘La La Land’. It won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF16, the festival’s most prominent award which is determined by audience members and not a jury. Unlike previous years, this year’s winner was easy to predict. As I was exiting the Elgin Theater, it was clear that the movie worked its magic on us all. Never before had I witnessed so many folks submit their ticket in the voting box as they were leaving the venue. A jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) fall in love while pursuing their dreams of stardom in Los Angeles. While paying homage to Old Hollywood (‘Singin’ In The Rain’), French New Wave (‘Umbrellas of Cherbourg’), and classic Hollywood romances, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s song-and-dance musical feels exhilaratingly alive and new. ‘La La Land’ looks like the world we dream about but without masking the harsh realities that can come out of those dreams. The opening sequence and the ending are among the finest moments the cinema has ever known. The stuff in between is pretty terrific too. ‘La La Land’ is an instant classic. Release Date: December 16th.  

4.            ‘The Handmaiden’

Park Chan-wook’s ‘The Handmaiden’ draws its plot from Sarah Waters’ novel ‘Fingersmith’ about a petty thief who pretends to be a servant girl to help a con man marry an heiress kept captive by her depraved uncle. The book was set in Victorian England but Park moves the story to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s.  The film employs a three-part structure to tell the story from three different perspectives, playing with our knowledge of who is in charge and who is being strung along before doubling back in on itself again and again. It’s a vision of repression, sexuality, culture, and class that is absolutely gorgeous and unsettling – a strikingly assured piece of filmmaking on every level. I loved the imagery, the score, the performances, and the pot-boiler of a plot. What surprised me the most about ‘The Handmaiden’ (and Park acknowledged this when he introduced the film at TIFF) is how wildly romantic it is. It is certainly his tamest film to date. It is also his very best. I don’t know why South Korea submitted ‘Age of Shadows’ to the Academy nominators for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration over ‘The Handmaiden’. Release Date: November 28th.

5.        ‘Paterson’

Jim Jarmusch’s latest is a keenly observant work of poetry. We get a glimpse into a week in the quiet life of a bus driver who writes poetry. Adam Driver is the bus driver; his name is Paterson and he lives in Paterson, New Jersey – an intentional circular joke on Jarmusch’s part I’m sure. Paterson lives a life of calculated routine: awake at 6 am, home by 6 pm, chats with his wife (Golshifteh Farahani, excellent) walks the dog, and downs a beer at the local tavern. I wanted to be more like our titular character – one who is fully aware of the beauty in the world around him, and revels in life’s simple pleasures. Everything he encounters fuels his art. ‘Paterson’ makes us believe that all of us are artists of different sorts whether we know it or not and that if we look at something or someone long enough, it may become the impetus for a captivating narrative. Nearly a week after seeing this movie, I’m still parsing its beautiful text. I could have easily spent another week or two with Paterson. Release Date: December 28th stateside – it should open in Toronto theaters around then.

Also Great: ‘Aquarius’, ‘Arrival’, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, ‘Loving’, ‘Sand Storm’

Jason Bourne

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Grade: C

The 2016 summer movie season has been a big disappointment so far and ‘Jason Bourne’ fails to rise above the dreck. I take no pleasure in reporting this dear reader. I’m a big fan of the first three Bourne films and of director Paul Greengrass (‘The Bourne Supremacy’, ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’, ‘United 93’, ‘Captain Phillips’, and the wildly underrated ‘Green Zone’ among others). If the creative reunion of Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon was meant to serve as a corrective to ‘The Bourne Legacy’ from 2012 (the Bourne movie without Jason Bourne), then I’m afraid to say the retrogression continues.    

For those of you wondering what former CIA operative and assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has been up to in the nine years since ‘Bourne Ultimatum’, you’ll be glad to discover that he has been off the grid making a living by earning betting money from street fights. Remember Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) from the earlier Bourne pictures? If not, you’ll be lost. She hacks into a CIA database and uncovers some files regarding a number of black ops programs, including ones about Bourne’s past, particularly the details around what really happened to his father.

CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) can’t let that happen so he uses CIA Special Ops specialist Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and a hit man known only as “The Asset” (Vincent Cassel) to contain the situation. Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse enswathe the movie with topics of the now: cyber terrorism, surveillance state concerns, tech companies colluding with government agencies. Sadly, it’s just a veneer.

Jason Bourne has found himself in ‘Groundhog Day’ – he is having the same adventure over and over and over again. The first three Bourne flicks (‘The Bourne Trilogy’ as it is called on the most recent Blu-Ray edition) took the title character’s identity crisis about as far as it could go. In ‘The Bourne Identity’, he has no idea who he is, but with each sequel, he learns more and more about himself. By the end of ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’, the search for his identity is over and the character’s storyline reaches a proper conclusion. Gone are the revelations about Bourne and the program he emerged from. But, this movie has to give the character another reason to resurface after all these years. The impetus for the character’s return isn’t convincing and because of this, the film lacks the dramatic center found in the earlier Bourne pictures. 

This leads me to the biggest problem of ‘Jason Bourne’ – Jason Bourne himself. This isn’t a character that has felt the effects of the aging process in the last nine years. Nor is there a vulnerability to him. If anything, he is more of a super-soldier than before. As a man without a past in ‘The Bourne Trilogy’, he would engage in violence without knowing why – he didn’t derive any gratification from his actions. Here, it’s participatory – he luxuriates in the vehicular carnage with zero care for civilian life and law enforcement. Any rooting interest I once was possessed for this character went out the window. 

Matt Damon and Tommy Lee Jones do exactly what the role requires of them – Damon effectively conveys information to the viewer in a largely wordless performance, and no one plays the world-weary SOB better than Jones. Alicia Vikander who makes every movie better just by being in it is reduced here to a plot device. Greengrass finds a way to turn Vincent Cassel’s asset-character into a liability by taking an intimidating screen presence and having him glower through a sniper scope.  

The only actor who comes out of this unscathed is Riz Ahmed as the CEO of a social media giant. There is a sense of desperation to his character’s predicament – this importunateness doesn’t exist elsewhere in ‘Jason Bourne’.

Don’t be fooled by all the yelling, running, fighting, and scowling. This is a case of much ado about nothing. Greengrass, presumably aware that the arc of the Bourne character was complete, was satisfied with hitting the reset button and adhering to an existing format so mechanically with less energy and skill. 

I don’t think action purists view Paul Greengrass’ filmography favorably. I’ve long defended his trademark style. In ‘Jason Bourne’, however, I found myself unconvinced that violently shaking the camera was the best way to achieve visual urgency. The cinematographer here is Barry Ackroyd and his visual approach is much more chaotic than Oliver Wood’s work in ‘The Bourne Trilogy’. Christopher Rouse, the editor on all of Greengrass’ films, cuts very quickly – I’d be hard pressed to name a shot that remains onscreen for more than three seconds. To some degree, this style is appropriate. ‘Jason Bourne’ will be very hard to follow if you haven’t seen its predecessors. At the same time, it functions as a table-setting chapter for the next wave of Bourne films, which essentially makes it a teaser for Bourne 6 and beyond. For ‘Jason Bourne’ to be truly satisfying as a whole, I think it needed a filmmaker who was able to orchestrate the big set pieces with more clarity. QED.

The Invitation

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Grade: B+

I really hope none of you have ever attended a dinner party like the one in ‘The Invitation’. Director Karyn Kusama, whose varied filmography includes ‘Girlfight’, ‘Aeon Flux’, and ‘Jennifer’s Body’ has crafted an elegant slow burner that asks us to be patient in the early stretches. But, that patience will be greatly rewarded and you’ll be treated to one of the most enthralling final shots in recent memory.

This dinner-party-from-hell plot will be at its most appetizing if it remains unspoiled so I’m going to keep plot details to a minimum. Bearded hipster Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) receive an invitation to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). Will and Eden haven’t seen each other since their relationship disintegrated two years ago as they struggled to cope with the accidental death of their young son.

The guests are mostly old friends of Will and Eden though Will does notice a couple new faces. Approximately 94% of the movie takes place in and around Eden and David’s jazzy mid-century modern home (which used to be Eden and Will’s home); the city of LA looks beautiful through their windows. The food looks great. The couple appears to have expensive taste in wine. It looks as if Eden is back on her feet and Will can’t understand just how she was able to undergo such a transformation following their shared loss.

If you want to find out what her secret is, you’ll have to see ‘The Invitation’ for yourself. I can’t go any further. Credit screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi for the picture’s inscrutable structure – this screenplay is populated by characters in varying states of bewilderment, bereavement, and cynicism. We put our faith in a character that has been established as a sensible frame of reference only to realize that he or she has been discredited in terms of providing a reliable perspective. The credits for these two writers include ‘Ride Along’, ‘Ride Along 2’, ‘R.I.P.D’, ‘Clash of the Titans’, and ‘The Tuxedo’ – ‘The Invitation’ suggests that there are better days ahead for these two if they continue to churn out screenplays of this quality. 

Kusama uses this simple setup to establish a sense of mounting dread that will linger for the duration of the picture. She expertly maintains the perfect tone throughout – the entire film vibrates with understated tension.

The real star of ‘The Invitation’ is cinematographer Bobby Shore who makes striking use of interior spaces – in the early scenes, the couple’s home is warm and alluring but as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly claustrophobic and daunting. Conversations are shot in intense close-ups concealing key pieces of visual information that exist just outside the frame. Phillip Blackford’s atmospheric sound design is crucial – pay close attention to the sounds coming from outside of the house; all your questions will be answered by the film’s last shot.

Your mileage may vary. Some viewers won’t respond well to a thriller that shamelessly exploits a sensitive subject like the death of a child and its messy aftermath, especially one that seems to be lacking an emotional center. Others may find that the picture spends too much time establishing the setup. But if you’re willing to accept the movie on its own terms, you’ll find that ‘The Invitation’ is a skillfully executed slow-burn thriller.     

For whatever reason, ‘The Invitation’, which opened stateside in April, didn’t receive a theatrical release here in Canada. It is, however, currently streaming on Netflix Canada, and it will be released on Blu-Ray July 26th. Though 2016 hasn’t been a particularly strong year for cinema, there have been some very intelligent chillers: ’10 Cloverfield Lane’, ‘The Conjuring 2’, ‘Green Room’, ‘The Wailing’, ‘The Witch’ – ‘The Invitation’ is every bit as good as those terrific titles. QED.

Love & Friendship

Ross McDonnell

Location images of Love & Friendship, a Jane Austen film adaptation starring Kate Bekinsdale and Chloe Sevigny, directed by Whit Stillman. CHURCHILL PRODUCTIONS LIMITED. Producers Katie Holly, Whit Stillman, Lauranne Bourrachot. Co-Producer Raymond Van Der Kaaij. Also Starring: Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell & Morfydd Clark

Grade: B

Remember the last time characters from a Jane Austen story hit the big screen? It wasn’t that long ago – on February 5th, 2016, ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ opened nationwide. Whit Stillman’s ‘Love & Friendshp’ returns to a more traditional adaptation of Austen’s work. But, unlike ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Mansfield Park’, and ‘Emma’, most viewers will be unfamiliar with this story of an 18th century high society schemer. Rather than tackling one of Austen’s masterworks, Stillman opted to adapt ‘Lady Susan’, an epistolary novel that was published in 1871, more than a half-century after her death.

It’s the late 1790s and Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is recently widowed and broke. What makes her unique among the author’s protagonists is her immeasurable cantankerousness. She is an egotistical, contriving blabbermouth whose main goal is to find fittingly opulent and susceptible husbands for herself and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Lady Susan has her eyes on Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel) and believes Fredrica should marry Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a man she does not reciprocate feelings towards. She confides all of this to her American friend, Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), whose husband (Stephen Fry) keeps threatening to move back to America for “business” reasons that, of course, would have nothing to do with wanting to get as far away from Lady Susan as possible.

Austen initially wrote ‘Sense and Sensibility’, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in epistolary form before converting them to traditional narratives in later drafts. ‘Lady Susan’, however, remained in its epistolary state, which means Stillman uses the characters and plot from Austen’s fictionalized letters to conceive a lot of this sharply penned dialogue filled with witty zingers.

This is the role of Beckinsale’s career and she is clearly having a blast wearing the garb of the time, and gushing some deliciously unsparing dialogue. Sevigny, however, is completely out of her depth – she looks like someone from 2016 that just stepped out of a time machine. A largely unknown actor named Tom Bennett steals the show. He is outstanding, and his Sir James Martin is one of the most gloriously dimwitted characters the cinema has ever known – he is right up there (or down there) with Harry and Lloyd from ‘Dumb and Dumber’. This is a star-making performance. Hollywood – please give Tom Bennett some major roles!

Greatness eludes ‘Love & Friendship’. The movie doesn’t offer any insights on love or friendship. ‘The Art of Deception’ would be a more fitting title. Structurally, the plot resembles something of a caper, but the question as to whether or not these characters will be swindled by Lady Susan isn’t an entirely compelling one (though it is amusing). The period details aren’t as lush as one would wish for a picture of this sort. ‘Love & Friendship’ doesn’t have much resonance. I saw it Saturday afternoon, and haven’t given it a moment’s thought until I wrote this review. Nevertheless, the dialogue and the performances from Bennett and Beckinsale are more than enough to give ‘Love & Friendship’ a qualified recommendation. QED.

Dheepan

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Grade: A

Every now and then, a movie comes along that transcends standard categorizations. We share the identities of the characters onscreen. We’re reminded of people we know in our own lives. Their story bears a close resemblance to that of our families’. We respond to the experience on personal terms. Jacques Audiard’s ‘Dheepan’ is an example of such a film for me.  

The opening image is that of a burning Sri Lankan village in the bloody aftermath of civil war. The film then cuts to a crowded refugee camp with people trying to flee in a panic. In order to secure political asylum, a man, a woman, and an orphan child pose as a family using three passports found on dead bodies. Assuming the identities of these casualties, Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan), Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and young Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) get on a boat bound for Paris (though Yalini would prefer to go to England, where she has relatives). Essentially, they have borrowed a life from the dead. These three complete strangers are now father, mother, and child in the eyes of everyone else.

Dheepan, a former Tamil soldier haunted by the war and the death of his real wife and child, finds work and accommodation as a caretaker in a rundown housing project in a northeastern suburb of Paris. He keeps his head down and works hard cleaning up after the drug dealers who occupy one of the buildings. Yalini finds good-paying work taking care of the disabled uncle of the local ganglord Brahim (Vincent Rottiers). Though she isn’t Muslim, she wears a hijab to blend in with the other immigrants. Illyaal enrolls in what appears to be a good public school. She does amazingly well, all things considered. These three are more like roommates than a family but they make strides in finding a new life.

Though the film’s title is ‘Dheepan’, the focus is on all three central characters and there are many lovely scenes involving these three. They rarely talk as a family – conversations seem to take place in twos about how they need to commit to their prescribed roles, treat each other better, communicate more, and about not getting French humor.  

Given the horrors Dheepan has suffered and inflicted on others, he is looking for peace and quiet and a chance to leave his former life behind – he makes the greatest effort to assimilate. Yalini is slower to adjust; she struggles to pick up a new language and feels no responsibility for Illayaal or anything else (perhaps because she never had a family of her own). Illayaal doesn’t feel much for her fictional mother.

All three of the central performers are newcomers, and the acting here is outstanding. Antonythasan, a terrific actor, appears to be acting out of his own life story. In his teens, he joined the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a terrorist organization that fought for a separate Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka. He left the group at 19, fleeing for Hong Kong, then Thailand, before finally ending up in France. We don’t get flashback sequences to Dheepan’s past – everything we need to know can be found in Antonythasan’s expressive face. Srinivasan is a captivating screen presence – she can do comedy, warmth, fear, and distress. They, along with the very fine Vinasithamby allow us to see what they see and feel what they feel.

Dheepan’ arrives in theaters here in Toronto almost a year after its Palme d’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival. It hasn’t lost any of its timeliness. The argument can be made that it is even more relevant now. With the threat of terror and civil war, huge numbers have fled the Middle East and Africa and as a result, Europe is experiencing one of the most significant influxes of migrants and refugees in its history. This is a movie that is committed to understanding displacement.

Audiard tackles the immigrant experience head-on. The characters may have fled danger in Sri Lanka. But, the threat of violence only transfigures itself. When they arrive in France, they continue to long for home. Though Audiard’s films have a gritty quality, he has a great deal of warmth and is sympathetic to the plight of his protagonists.

There is a tonal consistency for about 90 minutes of the film’s 115-minute runtime. Audiard likes changing the movie he has been making into something else. He effortlessly switches genres mid-movie – ‘Dheepan’ jumps from being a war movie to an immigrant drama to an action thriller and ends with a dreamlike epilogue. There are going to be some viewers who find that the picture takes a jarring left turn. Not me. The jaw-dropping violence in the final act serves as a brutal commentary of France’s immigration policies. This is a family who left one warzone only to enter another; the drug war within the complex triggers Dheepan’s hardly suppressed PTSD. In spite of its controversial ending, this is a masterfully plotted motion picture.

I’m Sri Lankan. Both my parents are Tamil. Watching ‘Dheepan’, I found it next to impossible to find the boundary between art and life. I knew I loved the movie when I first caught it at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, but I wasn’t sure if it was because I was too close to the subject matter. So, I revisited ‘Dheepan’ recently (at the Human Rights Film Festival) only to discover that it appreciated in value on second viewing. This movie is for anyone who empathizes with the immigrant experience. That should be all of us. ‘Dheepan’ is one of the best films of 2016. QED.

 

Midnight Special

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Grade: A-

‘Midnight Special’ is not an easy movie to review. Like ’10 Cloverfield Lane’, the best way to approach this movie is with as little foreknowledge as possible. I will keep plot descriptions to a minimum, and won’t get into any reveals or spoilers. I certainly won’t take offence if you get a ticket to ‘Midnight Special’ and read this review after seeing the movie – you won’t be sorry you saw it.

In an age of sequels, reboots, and shared universes, it is just thrilling to see a self-contained motion picture traverse multiple genres seamlessly as it wears its cinematic influences proudly on its sleeve. ‘Midnight Special’ is a bravura sci-fi thriller, a taut fugitive-on-the-run picture, and a beautiful film about faith and fatherhood.

An Amber alert sets this plot in motion. An 8-year-old boy, Alton (Jaden Lieberher), has been kidnapped. And just like that, without any exposition, the film opens with a set piece. We see a beat-up Chevy racing down an empty country road. The driver of this car is Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy (Michael Shannon) is in the passenger seat, and Alton is in the backseat wearing his protective goggles. I felt I had entered the picture during the film’s second act. Three minutes into ‘Midnight Special’ and we are already deep into this story.

We learn that there is a cult who believes that Alton is their saviour (the invaluable Sam Shepard is the cult’s leader, and Kirsten Dunst is a former cult member). The government sees Alton as a weapon and they attribute electrical disturbances and disruptions in satellite communications to the boy (Adam Driver, excellent, is the NSA specialist who tracks Alton’s course).

Something big and mysterious is going on. What that something is I cannot say. You’ll have to discover it for yourself. What I can say is that the tone is incredible: the movie is tense from the very beginning. You may think you know where it is going, but it keeps changing and surprising you, and, most importantly, it trusts that you are intelligent enough to keep up with it.

This is director Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature (he also directed ‘Shotgun Stories’, ‘Take Shelter’, and ‘Mud’) and his first studio production, backed by Warner Brothers. This is an example of what I call the “independent” studio film – Warner Brothers gave Mr. Nichols complete artistic control of the project, letting him have the final cut with zero studio interference. This model makes sense to me – why hire gifted filmmakers and tell them what they should do?

Mr. Nichols was raised in the American South and all of his movies feature working-class people in rural America. Here, as in his previous work, there is a vivid sense of place. No easy feat given that the movie’s characters are constantly on the move from one location to another and the events surrounding them are increasingly fantastical.

In terms of filmmaking, ‘Midnight Special’ feels like a John Carpenter movie, from the ominous electro score by David Wingo to the empty visual spaces in interior and exterior shots (empty highway roads, empty landscapes, empty interrogation rooms). Thematically, the film’s biggest influence is Steven Spielberg (specifically ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, and ‘E.T’). Still, Mr. Nichols is no cover artist – this is a very much a product of its own distinctive vehemence.

Adam Stone’s cinematography is beautiful – the scenes set in dark settings are surprisingly easy to follow; we know where all the characters are, and what they’re doing (even if we’re not sure why they’re doing it). Julie Monroe’s editing is razor-sharp; there was a moment in this movie where I almost jumped out of my seat in surprise and a lot of it had to do with how that scene was cut.

Michael Shannon has been in all four of Jeff Nichols’ films thus far. He brings the sort of off-centeredness to the role that he is known for at this point. But, Mr. Nichols always casts him as an everyman caught in extraordinary circumstances and this is a terrifically understated performance.  Edgerton is equally impressive delivering a very believable Texas accent.

I’d be lying if I said ‘Midnight Special’ is going to appeal to the masses. Mr. Nichols may not answer every single question you have, but he isn’t going to leave you without a resolution. There is a literalism to what happens in the third act that some viewers may wish had remain unseen. Some viewers may not like how ‘Midnight Special’ isn’t in sync with what they have come to expect from studio sci-fi pictures – after all, this is a movie that resides in the same genre as the elegantly titled ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’.

Okay, ‘Midnight Special’ isn’t a very good title and we don’t hear the Creedence Clearwater Revival song it is named after until the end credits (or more accurately, a slowed down cover of it), but that is just one minor quibble in an otherwise engrossing piece of moviemaking. The ideal double bill for this would be to pair it with Alex Proyas’ wildly misunderstood ‘Knowing’ from 2009. QED.

Top 5 Films of All-Time (April Fools’ Edition)

In recent days, I’ve been asked to name the movies that had the greatest influence on me – the ones that made me want to write about cinema. Of the thousands of films I’ve seen, these are my definitive top five:

  1. ‘The Last Airbender’ (2010, M. Night Shyamalan)

The best use of 3-D I have ever seen, subtly employed by master filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan of ‘The Happening’ fame.

2) ‘Ishtar’ (1987, Elaine May)

It’s as epical a film as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ but with Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty supplying the soundtrack.

3) ‘Catwoman’ (2004, Pitof)

Many say the golden age of superhero movies began in 2005 with ‘Batman Begins’. Actually, it began a year earlier with ‘Catwoman’.

 

4) ‘Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace’ (1999, George Lucas)

This is the one that began it all. This is why we love ‘Star Wars’, right? Right?

5) ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ (1978, Meir Zarchi)

An uplifting, life-affirming experience!

Happy April, folks!

Zootopia

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Grade: A

With the 88th Annual Academy Awards out of the way, we can now start talking about the 89th Academy Awards. It’s only March, and generally films released prior to October are outside the attention span of the Academy nominators but I’m willing to bet that they’ll nominate ‘Zootopia’ for Best Animated Feature.

Disney, as a singular entity, disassociated from its Pixar and Studio Ghibli subsidiaries, hasn’t released anything this great in decades. ‘Zootopia’ is an instant classic – a movie many families will have as part of their video library.

I didn’t expect an animated movie about anthropomorphic animals that dress and behave like humans to be anywhere near my list of the best films of 2016. But here we are. I greatly admire movies that create their own world and the world of ‘Zootopia’ is truly something to marvel at. It is an all-animal world in which the creatures are relatively scaled to their real-life counterparts. Its districts range from rural Bunnyborrow to the opulent Sahara Square to the gelid Tundratown to the titular city, a bustling metropolis where predators and prey live together more or less harmoniously. The very idea of this world is fascinating and I’d like to see other movies set in this world.

The predators account for a very small proportion of the population, but they appear to be highly ranked in their selected field. For example, the chief of the Zootopia Police Department’s 1st Precinct is a cape buffalo named Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), and the Mayor of Zooptopia, Lionheart, is a – you guessed it –noble lion (J.K. Simmons). Are you noticing parallels between this world and the one we occupy?

Judy Hopps (a country bunny wonderfully voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) has long wanted to be the first bunny cop in Zootopia. Though her parents don’t exactly support her in this avenue, she fulfills her dream and is ready to make the world a better place! But, none of the officers seem excited to see her there. Chief Bogo assigns her to parking-ticket duty, and the rest of the cops investigate cases involving missing mammals.

While frenetically writing tickets, Judy comes across Nick Wilde (literally a sly fox voiced by Jason Bateman). She ends up needing his help when Chief Bogo gives her 48 hours (movie reference!) to find Mr. Otterton, the missing husband to Mrs. Otterton (a river otter voiced by Octavia Spencer) and if she doesn’t, she’ll be forced to resign. Nick and Judy bicker like crazy early on, but slowly develop a friendship as they delve further into the missing mammal epidemic.

If this sounds like a bunny, I mean buddy-cop movie, that’s because it is, and its one of the very best examples of this subgenre. It’s also sweet, it’s funny, it’s action-packed, it has mystery and intrigue, it’s got moxie, it’s filled with positive messages – you name it, this movie’s got it.

Watching this movie unfold, I couldn’t help but think that this was some sort of a sharp metaphor for racism. It could have been didactic, preachy, and heavy-handed, but it’s none of those things – it is honest, and it forces us to acknowledge that we can all be a little racist, whether we choose to accept it or not. About two-thirds through the picture, there is a section where the characters are dealing with the ramifications of other animals’ prejudices – the lump it leaves in your throat feels earned because it is so truthful. I don’t think many viewers will feel as if they are being preached to, and the movie will incite many interesting conversations when it’s over.

The screenplay by Phil Johnston and co-director Jared Bush is fantastic – it has its share of silly, slapstick moments to keep the kids entertained, but it sparkles with sharp, savvy humour for adult audience members to relish. It’s a fast-moving story that only slows down when Judy and Nick make a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles, operated by an all-sloth staff. We’ve all had personal experience with regulative incompetence and incapacity, so it’s largely satisfying to see this story take a break from its rapid-fire delivery to roll this sequence out sloowwwwly.

The animation and the world created within this picture are amazingly detailed and visually spectacular. All of it – the city of Zootopia, the miniature city populated by tiny rodents, the trains, the doorways, Judy hopping around to write up 200 tickets in a matter of hours – it just pops right off the screen vibrantly.

The voice work here is brilliant. Bateman and Goodwin have such great chemistry together – all the more impressive considering their readings had been recorded separately.

‘Zootopia’ finds the perfect balance between enlightenment and entertainment. I am amazed that an animated film had the courage to have us accept our inherent shortcomings and have us admit that we could do better. This is one of the best films of 2016. QED.

Only Yesterday

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Grade: A-

‘Only Yesterday’ will likely go in the books as one of the better films of 2016 as far as North American release dates go. It is actually a 1991 Japanese animated film that has sat on the shelf for the last 25 years. GKids has released both a new English dub (with Daisy Ridley from ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, and Dev Patel), and the original subtitled version (which is the one I saw).

‘Only Yesterday’ is Isao Takahata’s follow-up to his World War II masterpiece ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ from 1988. It’s hard to believe he didn’t get an Academy Award nomination until just last year for ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’ (which ultimately lost to ‘Big Hero 6’).

Takahata’s story is as universal as life itself. A 27-year-old Tokyo woman, Taeko, vacations to the country to work on her cousins’ small farm. The trip brings back grade-school memories. An early 1990s Hollywood picture of this sort would be dripping with sentimentality. And yet, ‘Only Yesterday’ unfolds at its own deliberate pace, inviting the viewer into a contemplative world. Takahata finds the pathos in moments of self-discovery and ordinary moments.

The plot shifts between 1982, when Taeko stays at the farm with her host family, and 1966, when she’s a fifth grader. The 1980s scenes pop out of the screen with expressive detail. The 1960s scenes, by contrast, consist of unoccupied backgrounds and washed-out colors. It’s as if we are prying into someone else’s childhood memories, which explains the lack of detail – what we mentally catalogue isn’t entirely absolute.

Being unmarried, Taeko faces pressures to find someone (“27 is too old to be picky.”) but Takahata keeps the film locked in her self-examination, as she can’t escape the feeling that her fifth-grade self has joined her on the trip. Her childhood memories, which we see in flashbacks, aren’t that different from our own memories of childhood: the impressionable school play that she starred in, the awkwardness of her first crush, her first taste of pineapple, her relationship with her demanding father, the intense student council debates over lunchroom rules, the time she failed her fractions test (dammit, Takeo, when you divide A by B, you take A and multiply it by the reciprocal of B!).

‘Only Yesterday’ reminded me of my favorite movie of all-time, ‘Tokyo Story’. Even the opening credits are similar – with Japanese characters set against the simple background of a tatami mat. In ‘Tokyo Story’, an elderly couple takes a long train ride from their village in southwestern Japan to post-war Tokyo to visit their grownup children. In ‘Only Yesterday’, an unmarried woman takes a long train ride from Tokyo to the countryside in northern Japan. There is a simplicity to the surface qualities of both pictures but underneath it all lies an economic, ecological, psychological, and socio-political commentary that transcends its time and place and approaches something universal.

Though Walt Disney has released a number of Studio Ghibli features over the last twenty-plus years, it isn’t hard to understand why they didn’t release this one. This meandering story about a young woman trying to figure out what she wants out of life and how she wants to live will leave many children feeling restless. There is also a long segment in ‘Only Yesterday’ where fifth-grade girls learn about menstruation – not the sort of stuff a studio like Disney wants in their family-friendly movies.

Takahata’s breathtakingly beautiful and keenly observant film, which was based on an autobiographical manga series by Hotaru Okamoto with art by Yuuko Tone, sneaks up on the viewer and leaves a major imprint. Taeko hits a point of realization about her childhood behavior and where it has brought her and every moment leading up to this registers as a real lived-in experience – so much so that you may forget that you’re watching an animated feature. ‘Only Yesterday’ is no longer “the best Studio Ghibli film you haven’t seen”. You owe it to yourself to see this one. Currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox. QED.

2016 Oscar Predictions

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The 88th Academy Awards take place Sunday, February 28th. Included below are my predictions for all 24 categories.

Best Picture 

‘The Big Short’

‘Bridge of Spies’

‘Brooklyn’

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

‘The Martian’

‘The Revenant’

‘Room’

‘Spotlight’

Will win: ‘The Revenant’

Should win: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

 

Best Director


Lenny Abrahamson, ‘Room’

Alejandro G. Iñárritu, ‘The Revenant’

Tom McCarthy, ‘Spotlight’

Adam McKay, ‘The Big Short’

George Miller, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Will win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, ‘The Revenant’

Should win: George Miller, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

 

Best Actor


Bryan Cranston, ‘Trumbo’

Matt Damon, ‘The Martian’

Leonardo DiCaprio, ‘The Revenant’

Michael Fassbender, ‘Steve Jobs’

Eddie Redmayne, ‘The Danish Girl’

Will win: Leonardo DiCaprio, ‘The Revenant’

Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio, ‘The Revenant’

 

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, ‘Carol’

Brie Larson, ‘Room’

Jennifer Lawrence, ‘Joy’

Charlotte Rampling, ‘45 Years’

Saoirse Ronan, ‘Brooklyn’

Will win: Brie Larson, ‘Room’

Should win: Brie Larson, ‘Room’

 

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale, ‘The Big Short’

Tom Hardy, ‘The Revenant’

Mark Ruffalo, ‘Spotlight’

Mark Rylance, ‘Bridge of Spies’

Sylvester Stallone, ‘Creed’

Will win: Sylvester Stallone, ‘Creed’

Should win: Sylvester Stallone, ‘Creed’

 

Best Supporting Actress

Jennifer Jason Leigh, ‘The Hateful Eight’

Rooney Mara, ‘Carol’

Rachel McAdams, ‘Spotlight’

Alicia Vikander, ‘The Danish Girl’

Kate Winslet, ‘Steve Jobs’

Will win: Alicia Vikander, ‘The Danish Girl’

Should win: Rooney Mara, ‘Carol’

 

Best Foreign Language Film


‘Embrace of the Serpent’

‘Mustang’

‘Son of Saul’

‘Theeb’

‘A War’

Will win: ‘Son of Saul’

Should win: ‘Mustang’

 

Best Documentary Feature


‘Amy’

‘Cartel Land’

‘The Look of Silence’

‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’

‘Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom’

Will win: ‘Amy’

Should win: ‘Amy’

 

Best Animated Feature


‘Anomalisa’

‘Boy and the World’

‘Inside Out’

‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’

‘When Marnie Was There’

Will win: ‘Inside Out’

Should win: ‘Anomalisa’

 

Best Original Screenplay

‘Bridge of Spies’

‘Ex Machina’

‘Inside Out’

‘Spotlight’

‘Straight Outta Compton’

Will win: ‘Spotlight’

Should win: ‘Spotlight’

 

Best Adapted Screenplay


‘The Big Short’

‘Brooklyn’

‘Carol’

‘The Martian’

‘Room’

Will win: ‘The Big Short’

Should win: ‘Carol’

 

Best Cinematography


‘Carol’

‘The Hateful Eight’

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

‘The Revenant’

‘Sicario’

Will win: ‘The Revenant’

Should win: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyling


‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

‘The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared’

‘The Revenant’

Will win: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Should win: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

 

Best Original Score

‘Bridge of Spies’

‘Carol’

‘The Hateful Eight’

‘Sicario’

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

Will win: ‘The Hateful Eight’

Should win: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

 

Best Film Editing

‘The Big Short’

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

‘The Revenant’

‘Spotlight’

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

Will win: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Should win: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

 

Best Production Design

‘Bridge of Spies’

‘The Danish Girl’

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

‘The Martian’

‘The Revenant’

Will win: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Should win: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

 

Best Sound Editing

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

‘The Martian’

‘The Revenant’

‘Sicario’

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

Will win: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Should win: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

 

Best Sound Mixing

‘Bridge of Spies’

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

‘The Martian’

‘The Revenant’

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

Will win: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Should win: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

 

Best Visual Effects

‘Ex Machina’

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

‘The Martian’

‘The Revenant’

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

Will win: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

Should win: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

 

Best Costume Design


‘Carol’

‘Cinderella’

‘The Danish Girl’

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

‘The Revenant’

Will win: ‘Cinderella’

Should win: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

 

Best Original Song

Earned It (The Weeknd), ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Manta Ray (J. Ralph), ‘Racing Extinction’

Simple Song #3 (David Lang), ‘Youth’

Til It Happens To You (Lady Gaga), ‘The Hunting Ground’

Writing’s On The Wall (Sam Smith), ‘Spectre’

Will win: Til It Happens To You (Lady Gaga), ‘The Hunting Ground’

Should win: Til It Happens To You (Lady Gaga), ‘The Hunting Ground’

 

Best Live Action Short


‘Ave Maria’

‘Day One’

‘Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)’

‘Shok’

‘Stutterer’

Will win: ‘Ave Maria’

Should win: ‘Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)’

 

Best Animated Short


‘Bear Story’

‘Prologue’

‘Sanjay’s Super Team’

‘We Can’t Live without Cosmos’

‘World of Tomorrow’

Will win: ‘Sanjay’s Super Team’

Should win: ‘World of Tomorrow’

 

Best Documentary Short


‘Body Team 12’

‘Chau, beyond the Lines’

‘Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah’

‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness’

‘Last Day of Freedom’

Will win: ‘Body Team 12’

Should win: I plead the fifth!!

 

When I saw ‘Spotlight’ at TIFF15 in September, I was certain that it was the frontrunner for Best Picture. It probably was until just recently. This small-scale film now faces stiff competition against ‘The Revenant’, the $135 million art film that has grossed $365 million worldwide and is still going strong in its ninth week of release. It won the top award at the DGA, which is a strong indicator. In recent years, the Best Picture winner has taken home 3-5 Oscars; this year, I predict there will only be two movies that will accomplish this: ‘The Revenant’, and ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’.

Yes, Alejandro G. Iñárritu won the Best Director and Best Picture Oscar just last year for ‘Birdman’. He is going to pull it off again this year with ‘The Revenant’. If ‘The Revenant’ wins Best Picture, it will be the first time in Oscar history that a director has won for the second time in a row. If Iñárritu takes Best Director, he joins two others (John Ford for ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, and ‘How Green Was My Valley’, and Joe Mankiewicz for ‘A Letter to Three Wives’, and ‘All About Eve’). I don’t think Academy voters are checking up on their Oscar history (even as recent as last year) when submitting their ballots, so Iñárritu’s recent win isn’t going to work against him.

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ was my (easy) choice for the best film of 2015, so I would love to see it win Best Picture, and would love to see George Miller win Best Director for actualizing the demolition derby of his wildest dreams. The probability of this occurring is very low. ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ will, however, dominate the technical categories and I anticipate it will win more awards than any of the films it is competing against (5 Oscars for ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ – but it deserves 4 more, and 4 for ‘The Revenant’).

There are only two sure bets this year: Leonardo DiCaprio will win Best Actor for ‘The Revenant’, and the Best Animated Film Oscar will go to ‘Inside Out’. The Best Actress Oscar will go to either Brie Larson (‘Room’), or Saoirse Ronan (‘Brooklyn’) – if I were an Academy voter, I’d pick Larson. The Best Supporting Actor category is difficult to predict. Everyone loves a good comeback story – Sylvester Stallone, a Razzie favorite, winning an Oscar for reprising his role as Rocky Balboa, the character he created back in 1976, sounds like a good one. But, the fact that he wasn’t nominated for a SAG means that Mark Rylance could snag this one. The Best Supporting Actress category is equally confounding. My guess is it is between Oscar-veteran Kate Winslet, and first-timer Alicia Vikander (I wish Vikander got the nomination for ‘Ex Machina’ rather than ‘The Danish Girl’). The Best Foreign Language Oscar will likely go to the Grand Prix winner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, ‘Son of Saul’ (good as the movie was, I’d like to see ‘Mustang’ win this one). The Best Documentary Oscar will go to ‘Amy’ – it was the best of the bunch, and the most widely viewed of the nominees. QED.