The most startling of the festivals official premieres was Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnsons Anomalisa.
There are years when a single movie takes ahold of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) with such force that the rest of the festival seems to bend around it, as if warped by its gravity. And there are TIFFs like 2015s, where, for all the great movies on display, nothing lands with quite the same impact. You could call it an off year, but when youre choosing among more than 300 films from many of the worlds greatest directors, some of the blame has to lie with the person doing the picking.
Toronto had a few consensus hits: The Martian, an adaptation of Andy Weirs engaging but amateurish novel, replaced workmanlike prose with movie-star charisma, as Matt Damons stranded astronaut gave the red planet a second sun. Spotlight, about the team of Boston Globe reporters who uncovered the Catholic Churchs cover-up of sexual abuse in the priesthood, was gripping despite, or maybe because of, its attention to the nuts and bolts of investigative journalism. (Never has the use of a ruler and a ballpoint pen been so thrilling.) Spotlight was a striking change of fortunes for director Tom McCarthy, whose Adam Sandler fable The Cobbler was roundly pummeled at last years TIFF: From festival goat to proclaimed Best Picture frontrunner in 365 short days.
Room, which won Torontos audience award, was a solid if unspectacular adaptation of Emma Donoghues novel about an abducted young woman (Brie Larson) and the boy she raises in captivity (Jacob Tremblay). Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) cant find an analogue for the terrifying lyricism of the novels first half, told in the voice of a child whose vocabulary has been customized by his mother to protect him from learning hes imprisoned. But its also less fatally jarring when the movie moves into its second half: Compared to the novel, its a more whole whole, with less high highs.
The most startling of the festivals official premieres was Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnsons Anomalisa, which even in Torontos packed lineup had some viewers going back for seconds to further savor its uncanny atmosphere. Kaufmans first movie in seven years (some of which he spent making a failed TV pilot for FX) is the story of a regret-riddled self-help authors overnight in a lonely Cincinnati hotel. Shooting in stop-motion animation with figures whose fleshy textures deliberately trouble the uncanny valley Kaufman mines existential dread from the process of navigating the inexplicable pictographs on a hotel-room phone. The sense of isolation his protagonist (David Thewlis) feels is compounded by the fact that all the people he meets seem to look the same and, in fact they are, all built on the same model of puppet and voiced, with precious little variation, by Tom Noonan. The only exception is a woman, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose name and significance are embedded in the title, who well, to say more would be to provide bearings for a film that never wants you to find your balance. (Although sales were slow at this years festival, Paramount acquired Anomalisa for distribution, with a release planned for the end of the year.)
Now in its 40th year, TIFF began as The Festival of Festivals, and it still serves as a North American beachhead for movies that had their European premieres in the spring. Andrew Haighs 45 Years and Jeremy Saulniers Green Room werent new to anyone who was, respectively, at Berlin or Cannes, but they were still the best movies I saw in Toronto and about as far from each other as two movies could be. 45 Years is a hushed, almost ghostly examination of an outwardly stable marriage that begins to unravel when a long-forgotten secret from the husbands resurfaces. Tom Courtenay is wonderful as a vaguely doddering man who discovers that the feelings he thought hed buried were merely waiting to be thawed, but the movie belongs to Charlotte Rampling, as a woman who slowly discovers that the foundations of her marriage werent what she thought them to be. Although Haighs style is scrupulously naturalist, Rampling pulls the film into territory approaching François Ozons Under the Sand; her doubts take on an almost supernatural quality, as if theyve moved into the house along with them. At this point in her career, Rampling has so internalized technique that she can forget most of it and still make her intentions acute; in the last scene, her face is a mask, but her hands speak volumes.
Jeremy Saulniers Green Room, which went over big with Torontos always-engaged Midnight Madness program audience, expands on the promise of his previous film Blue Ruin, which he admitted before the new premiere was a calculated mixture of art-house and genre designed to prevent him from being pigeonholed. With Green Room, hes creating his own categories, mixing a gory siege thriller with a well-observed portrait of the hardcore punk scene.
Toronto can be as much an endurance test as a temple of cinema, and with Green Room being my seventh film of the festivals first day, the chances of a mid-film nap were better than even. That is, until the blood started flowing onscreen, at which point I was wide awake. Both funnier and darker than Blue Ruin, Green Room expands Saulniers palette in both directions, and if its a less controlled piece of work, its also a more viscerally thrilling one. I spent the rest of Toronto waiting for something to top it, and nothing did.