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Flavorwire's TIFF 2019 Diary

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TORONTO: It never feels fair to make broad generalizations in the immediate aftermath of a film festival, simply because no single person can see enough of a single slate to make any real qualitative judgments; more often than not, what you saw is less about what was good and more about what fit into your schedule (or, if you’re press, what you were assigned). But I will say that this year’s Toronto International Film Festival felt a bit more subdued than last year’s, which seemed to see more than one major fall picture debut every day, most of them good to great; this year’s big titles (Joker, Just Mercy, Lucy in the Sky) were, more often than not, met with decidedly mixed notices. But there were a few gems – including, hahaha, Uncut Gems– so here are a few thoughts on what fit into my particular schedule in Toronto this year:

“If you’re don’t write or film, what will you do?” the beloved director is asked, and his response is blunt, simple, and honest: “Live, I guess.” Pain and Glory is clearly one of Pedro Almodóvar’s more personal pictures – his longtime collaborator Antonio Banderas stars as a filmmaker in what is usually and politely dubbed his “late period,” and the actor even apes Pedro’s signature wild hair – and I’m sure those steeped in his biography will enjoy connect the various roman à clef dots. Yet that’s not where its power lies. I’m not sure I know of a passage in any of his films as deeply felt as the sequence in which this aging protagonist reconnects with the man he once loved; they have a catch-up conversation that is simple and open, and at its end, after a proposition steeped less in lust than kindness and nostalgia, our protagonist simply stands in a doorway and watches his long-ago love leave. The things Banderas is doing, in his eyes and on his face, are simply staggering – and Almodóvar is a director who knows he can hold on that face for as long as he likes. This is the work of two master artists, both working at the height of their powers.

Bong Joon-ho’s marvelously frisky Parasite takes most persistent preoccupation – class warfare – and sifts it through the con artist comedy with the deft sleight of hand of, well, a con artist. It begins with a family of unapologetic hustlers, working a variety of low-stakes and low-reward scams, until one stumbles into a wealthy family that might as well have “MARK” posted over their front door. They each manage to worm their way into that door, and they’re ruthless about it (the director isn’t afraid of futzing with the likability factor that’s traditionally a key to con movies), and, well, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. The class commentary isn’t subtle – though there’s an argument to be made, and I’ve made it, that these aren’t particularly subtle times either – but nevertheless, the crispness of his compositions and the confidence of the camera movements makes this an unrelenting, wild, sometimes cringe-inducing ride.

Céline Sciamma’s multiple Cannes winner Portrait of a Lady on Fire was also at TIFF (I’ll see that one at NYFF), but that would’ve also made a fine title for Ema, Pablo Larraín’s structurally complex and visually stunning story of the disintegration and reassembling of a family – or something like it. Larraín lets the viewer piece this story together (and takes his time distributing information), intercutting gorgeous images and fiery dance performances, dramatizing a life of post-traumatic hedonism. It’s not always clear where you’re heading – usually to the picture’s benefit, but not always – and the bitterly candid arguments of its leads are a touch repetitive. But it’s a transporting experience, and one that delivers a dazzlingly satisfying conclusion.

“I’M EXHAUSTED,” Howard (Adam Sandler) screams, and that’s at the beginning of Uncut Gems, the Safdie Brothers’ hyper-caffeinated portrait of a guy desperately trying to hold his life together, with all the flop sweat and bullshit he can muster, and mostly failing. Over the course of a few days in the spring of 2012, this New York diamond district dealer tries to land the score of a lifetime – a giant rock of valuable, uncut black opal – and shits the bed left and right, in manners both uproarious and nerve-wracking (I scrawled “this is TENSE” in my notes on three separate occasions). This is one of Sandler’s finest performances, a tightly-coiled reconfiguration of his comic persona on par with Punch-Drunk Love, and the Safdies continue to perfect an intoxicating sense of controlled chaos, scrappily orchestrating overlapping dialogue, pulsing music, and good old-fashioned New York grit. It’s an absolute blast.

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There is something sort of thrilling about watching a truly gifted criminal at work, even when we’re not quite certain that’s what they are. Cory Finley's Bad Education offers some of that pleasure, in telling the true story of a jaw-dropping embezzlement scandal that rocked a prestigious Long Island school district in 2002. Mike Makowsky’s clever screenplay performs a bit of misdirection itself, and wraps the grift in characters that seem well-defined, while holding plenty of secrets. The cast is terrific (aside from a couple of sketchy L.I. accents), but Hugh Jackman is the standout – like last year’s (far lesser) The Front Runner, he’s clearly at his best when playing those who seem trustworthy, and take full advantage of it. Some of the subtext surrounding his character is left troublingly unpacked, but that complaint aside, this is a tightly-constructed, well-crafted picture.

They say to write what you know, and Shia LaBeouf certainly took that advice to heart. His screenplay for Honey Boy, the new feature by the great documentary stylist Alma Har’el, is intensely personal and offhandedly powerful, the story of (unsurprisingly) a former child actor who’s going to ruin his career if he can’t get clean and healthy, which means finally grappling with the years he spent in fear of his casually racist, casually abusive good ol’ boy father (played by LaBeouf himself). This could have been navel-gazing, or misery porn, or both; LaBeouf and Har’el wisely ladle out tragedy, comedy, and humanity in roughly equal proportions, and as a result, their movie is as dazzling and unpredictable as the life it reinterprets. A tender movie, and funny, and almost unspeakably sad.

Lucas Hedges does some impressive work as the older version of LaBeouf’s avatar; he also turns up in Trey Edward Shults’s Waves, as part of a tricky but ultimately successful perspective shift that tilts the narrative away from its initial focal point, changing it up from a tightly-constructed character study into a more expansive interrogation of victimhood and collateral damage. As evidenced in his earlier Krisha and It Comes at Night, Schults has a real talent for manipulating sound and image to untether the viewer, and those skills are on full display here; Waves drags a bit towards the middle (it runs two-plus hours and could use a trim), but aside from that, it’s another step forward for this gifted, idiosyncratic filmmaker.

It wasn’t just performers that were recurring this year; I only saw a sampling of the line-up, but my viewing included two different films about women with terminal cancer, gathering family and friends to say goodbye. Both Ira Sachs’s Frankie and Roger Michell’s Blackbird feature plenty of familial noodging, strained mother/daughter relationships, and brave facing of mortality; Frankie feels slightly less formulaic, centered as it is around the talents of Queen Isabelle Huppert, who has a real way with co-writer/director Sachs’s witticisms. The film’s other standout is Marisa Tomei, sunny and superb as a longtime friend who finds herself reexamining her romantic priorities. Chatty, sophisticated, and urbane, Frankie is a laid-back treat, if a bit languidly paced; the same low-key approach occasionally makes Blackbird feel a bit inert, though again the performances (particularly the wonderful Sam Neill) bring it home.

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Steven Soderbergh’s most valuable quality is his openness to experimentation – he’ll try just about anything – which can result in some thrilling successes, and the occasional misfire or mixed bag. There’s so much to admire in The Laundromat, so many clever ideas and snazzy little tricks, that it’s tempting to overlook its flaws. But they are undeniable, long stretches where it’s not quite clear what the hell he’s doing, or why. But it’s still worth seeing (and it’ll be easy to do so – it’s on Netflix in December); Meryl Streep is wonderful, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas are deliciously villainous (and funny), and Soderbegh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns prove as adept as Adam McKay at breaking down complex financial concepts in manners both amusing and approachable.

“It’s not really about Mr. Rogers,” Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) says. “I mean it is, but…” She’s talking about the magazine article her husband Lloyd (Matthew Ryhs) writes at the conclusion of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, but she may as well be talking about the movie, which was branded at its announcement as the “Tom Hanks Mr. Rogers biopic,” and isn’t that at all. It does what the smartest personality-based docudramas do: it focuses not on who they were, but what they were about. In this case, that means seeing this icon through the eyes of the cynical magazine writer profiling him, and who finds Fred Rogers’s worldview affecting his own. Director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me) gets thankfully weird with the material, painstakingly recreating the original series’ low-fi aesthetic and even, on occasion, the bleary look of its remote segments. Some of it is corny, and some of it is obvious. But it’s a lovely movie all the same.

What’s striking about Armando Ianucci’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, right off the bat, is its speed. This is no starchy literary adaptation or staid costume drama, but a picture running closer to the pace of a good screwball comedy, which makes sense; Ianucci’s shows and films have always concerned fast talkers (and thinkers), and perhaps the highest compliment one can pay to this frankly unexpected picture is that it feels both like his work, and like Dickens’s book. Handsomely mounted and inventively staged, it’s got a wild, semi-chaotic spirit and a lot of good lines, some old and some new. It’s an absolute delight, and one of the nicest surprises of the festival.