Toronto takes a tumble: 11 quick movie reviews as mixed as this year’s festival

This was not the 40th edition of the “Festival of Festivals” that Toronto was hoping for.

The 2015 Toronto International Festival began with legal issues forcing the Aretha Franklin concert documentary “Amazing Grace” to cancel its opening night slot and has pretty much ended with the withdraw of the Amber Heard drama “London Fields” after director Matthew Cullen took the film”s producers to court claiming (among other things) that they re-edited the film without his input. Considering how weak the world premieres were overall this year it was par the course for a festival”s whose opening weekend was colder and rainier than in recent memory.

Granted, There were certainly a lot of good movies that screened at the fest this year, but almost every single one of them debuted somewhere else.  That”s not good for an event that considers itself one of the premier film festivals in the world. With Venice and Telluride flexing their muscles as auteur and awards season hotspots (often without even trying), Toronto has seen the quality of debut films slide in recent years.

In 2014 TIFF was lucky enough to host the first screenings of “The Theory of Everything,” “Still Alice,” “St. Vincent,” “Beyond the Lights,” “Cake,” “While We”re Young” and “Top Five,” among others.  This year was not as kind with only “The Martian,” “Truth,” “Trumbo,” “Demolition,” “Hardcore” and “The Meddler” generating positive or lukewarm notices (“Martian” is the only true winner among new debuts at Toronto this year). As the festival dragged on the question almost everyone seemed to be asking is how does the TIFF brain trust reverse this slide?

Honestly, there is nothing wrong with Toronto turning into a “best of” festival (it”s original name, The Festival of Festivals, always insinuated that), but it”s not how the institution currently sells itself to filmmakers, corporate sponsors or the nation of Canada itself. When you talk to everyday moviegoers at the festival they are almost always immensely proud of the notoriety the festival has achieved.  They believe they talking point that Toronto launches Best Picture winners (even if the last winner to actually debut in Toronto was “Crash” in 2004) and that there is no festival more star-studded (it certainly helps when you program over 300 films).  

TIFF also has a reputation as filmmaker friendly (although I”d like to learn of one major festival that isn”t) and until this year had abstained from any sort of formal competition which could avoid unnecessary drama.  The festival has given away a People”s Choice Award since 1978, but it”s become something of a marketing exercise for studios and you never hear a director gushing with pride after winning it (at least outside of a formal press release).  This year the fest added Platform, a competition slate, but very few of those films created any buzz (we”ll touch on one of them, “High-Rise” later on).  It”s a start, but TIFF may need to do more than just dip its toe in the competition waters to remain relevant long term.

Simply put, the seasonal competition from Venice, Telluride and New York have severely damaged TIFF”s premiere slate.  Venice excites auteurs and producers over the prospect of winning the Golden Lion and is a significant publicity opportunity for Hollywood movie studios in Europe.  Telluride legitimately has more Academy members, industry and guild members in attendance providing the most cost effective petri dish for the always-lucrative awards season.  For established American filmmakers especially, New York can provide a unique creative validation from the city”s cultural elite.   

Toronto, on the other hand, has become an extension of LA”s red carpet machine serving as a mini-junket for the global media (and an expense some studios are increasingly weary of).  There are years when Toronto”s film market flexes its muscle, but, so far, 2015 has been the weakest in recent memory with many titles taking the best deal they could get before the festival began (perhaps too early).  Listen, people started noticing all of this was an issue in 2013.  It became a media story last year and in 2015 it”s simply the status quo.

How can TIFF turn the tide?  Well, taking a page out of Cannes” book and spreading the North American premieres of  “good” films (even if they debuted elsewhere) across the entire duration of the festival would be a start.  This year, the festival effectively ended on Tuesday night with the local premiere of “Room” (the closing night film, “Stonewall,” screens Friday).  By avoiding perhaps the worst weekend jam of films of any festival in the world (it makes Sundance”s opening frame seem civilized) the importance of the event would be highlighted and some of the good flicks wouldn”t get lost.  

TIFF also has to be tougher in which films it allows to screen in any program.  We understand audiences want to see big stars, but it”s gotten to the point that the media (and some festival attendees) can smell the misfires the minute they are announced and there are simply too many of them.  Less films could mean less revenue, but in the long run it should generate a better overall experience.  Moreover, if TIFF can find a way to encourage studio films and filmmakers to enter a more significant competition the fest could end up with just as exciting an event even if it means less legitimate starpower on those must-have red carpets.

Change is hard.  About 10 years ago Sundance along with its host city, Park City, Utah, began to do everything possible to discourage the exorbitant gifting suites and festival crasher parties that had turned their event into a paparazzi haven.  Considering much of this attention helped increase the festival”s profile in the late ’90s this strategy could have diminished the festival”s importance on the global festival scene. Instead, the opposite occurred.  Sundance only continues to grow in stature and significance among the global filmmaking community. 

TIFF can stem the tide. The question is whether the festival realizes they have legitimate problems that need to be solved.

Keeping that in mind, we”re guessing you”ll be able to comprehend what a disappointing year it was for brand new flicks by reading the following mini-reviews.

(Premiered at Berlin)
Hands down one of the best films of the year, Sebastian Schipper has directed a one-shot film that is truly a captivating cinematic experience. It begins and ends with Victoria (an incredible Laia Costa), a twentysomething Spanish woman living in Berlin. When she leaves the local dance club she runs into Sonne (an impressive Frederick Lau) and his friends.  Sonne is entranced by Victoria and unwittingly pulls her into a sketchy job his buddy Boxer (Franz Rogowski) desperately needs his help with.  Things take a very dramatic turn, but Schipper and his actors make it feel incredibly real with an intensity so strong you may be squirming in your seat.  The idea that Germany did not select this film as its official submission for the Foreign Language Oscar is a true crime.*
In theaters: Oct. 9 (limited release)
Grade: A

*It appears there was not enough German spoken in the film which is why it wasn't selected. Still a crime.

“Closet Monster”
(World Premiere)
It”s a compliment to call Stephen Dunn”s directorial debut a very good gay movie. There haven”t been many over the past half-decade and while much of the subject matter is overtly familiar (Connor Jessup of “Falling Skies” plays an 18-year-old coming to terms with his sexuality) Dunn demonstrates an impressive ability to bring his unique interpretation of the coming out process to life.  
Grade: B

(World Premiere)
Director Fabienne Berthaud gets lost with this drama centered on Romy (Diane Kruger), a French woman who leaves her husband (Gilles Lellouche) in the middle of a vacation to try and find herself in the American South West.  Norman Reedus plays her love interest looking like he”s walked right off the set of “The Walking Dead” and Lena Dunham portrays his sister-in-law, a white trash stay at home mom with a missing tooth.  And, yes, she”s the most memorable part of the movie and for all the wrong reasons.
Grade: C-

“The Meddler”
(World Premiere)
A movie your mom and dad will simply adore, Lorene Scafaria”s “The Meddler” follows a retired widow, Marnie (a fantastic Susan Sarandon), who moves to Los Angeles to be closer to her only daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), as writer who is trying to get her first TV series off the ground.  As you can guess by the title and much to Lori”s dismay, Marlie isn”t good at understanding boundaries. The film”s secret weapon is Scafaria”s skill at conveying Marnie”s loneliness and keeping things entertaining at the same time.  Granted, Scafaria includes a few too many endings and the jokes sometimes fall a bit flat, but a fantastic cast (which also includes Lucy Punch, Cecily Strong and J.K. Simmons) help transform into a true crowd pleaser.  Well, let”s just say your mom and dad (or grandparents) will love it.
In theaters: 2016
Grade: B

“The Program”
(World Premiere)
Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) tackles Lance Armstrong”s rise and downfall like the crime thriller it was giving the true story an initial energy you might not have expected.  Ben Foster plays the disgraced Tour de France winner and his performance is just a bit too forced for comfort (some comically bad hair styles don”t help).  The good news is Chris O”Dowd as reporter David Walsh (who initially attempted to break the story of Armstrong”s doping) and Jesse Plemons as Floyd Landis are much better. “The Program” works when it has you questioning how on earth this secret could be kept so quiet for so long when so many people knew exactly what was going on. Unfortunately, Foster”s Armstrong descends into a one-note egomaniac that would make Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant cringe and it all ends with a resounding thud.
Grade: C+

“The Family Fang”
(World Premiere)
Jason Bateman”s directorial follow up to the R-rated comedy “Bad Words” is a somewhat dour adaptation of Kevin Wilson”s popular novel.  Bateman and Nicole Kidman play Annie and Duster Fang, the now grown up children of performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang (Christopher Walken and a superb Maryann Plunkett). Having been recruited to participate in their parents” art projects at a young age, Annie and Duster have been dealing with the psychological ramifications for most of their adult lives.  The movie wants to make a statement about the intersection of art and family, but it”s all too muddled to add up to anything that astute. Moreover, when the “surprise” revelation rolls around in the third act it makes the entire movie as hard to believe as one of the Fang”s staged art pieces.
Grade: C+

“London Road”
(Released in the United Kingdom earlier this summer).
A musical culled from the actual statements of London residents that discovered a serial killer was in their neighborhood? Intriguing, for sure, but this one might just work better on the stage.  Many of the performances are very good and you get to hear Tom Hardy sing (he”s not bad), but there is only one song that really stands out  (“Everyone is Very, Very Nervous”) and it all becomes just a bit too repetitive for its own good.
Grade: C+

“Hyena Road”
(World Premiere)
Perhaps one of the worst films at this year”s festival, Paul Gross” action drama centered on the Canadian military”s efforts in Afghanistan is filled with forgettable and/or terrible performances, a melodramatic script and some jaw-droppingly weak production values (nothing like seeing blood splatter like it”s out of a 1950″s B-movie). Imagine that whole concoction through a conservative Fox News-esque lens and you wonder who would actually want to see this in the first place (actually, don”t answer that).
Grade: D

“The Lady in the Van”
(World Premiere)
Nicholas Hytner”s had a spotty record bringing great stage plays to the screen.  He crafted a compelling film partially thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis and Joan Allen with “The Crucible,” but his take on “The History Boys” felt entirely too theatrical.  With Alan Bennett”s semi-autobiographical true story he knocks it out of the park. Bennett (played by Alex Jennings) is settling into a North London neighborhood when he soon meets an elderly squatter, Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith).  She”s crank and not very friendly to do anything nice for her even when Bennett begrudgingly agrees to let her keep the van she lives in on his property. But as the years pass he begins to discover the secrets of her incredible life.  It”s simply a very well movie that features Maggie Smith”s best work in years (and, yes, she”s better here than any of her years on “Downton Abbey”).
In theaters: Dec. 11 (limited)
Grade: B+

(World Premiere)
Ben Wheatley”s adaptation of J.G. Ballard”s novel is a massive misfire.
The movie wants to make a statement about social status constructs in modern society, but it”s not as profound or shocking as it wants to be and pales in comparison to Bong Joon-ho”s “Snowpiercer” which tackled these same ideas with more zest and creativity. An impressive cast including Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller and Luke Evans do their best to make it work, but when your director barely has a grasp on the material it”s pretty much for naught.
Grade: C

“Our Brand Is Crisis”
(World Premiere)
“Suggested by” the 2005 documentary of the same name, David Gordon Green”s political dramedy finds Jane (an already underrated Sandra Bullock) and Pat (Billy Bob Thorton doing his Billy Bob thing) as dueling strategists recruited by two major candidates in a pivotal Bolivian presidential election (no joke: the genesis of the story is actually true).  The film is at its best when the storyline gets dangerously real and Bullock”s character struggles to justify the back room king making of a campaign with the needs of the country”s poor majority.  The campaign”s, er, movie”s more comedic elements (some of which are scarily true) are humorous at times, but not enough to make you wish it had struck a more serious tone overall.
In theaters: Oct. 30
Grade: B

For more reviews from Toronto check out the following:

“The Danish Girl”
“I Saw The Light”
“Land of Mine”
“The Dressmaker”