Notes from Toronto – Mudbound, The Florida Project, The Square, Call Me by Your Name

Now that Venice and Telluride have showcased a few of the likely and formidable frontrunners in our current awards season, all that’s left for this deluge of Oscar-friendly films before their arrival in theaters and screeners begin to stream though voter mail-slots is a final festival assessment in Toronto. After it wraps up its 41st edition on September 17th with the closing-night film, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s “C’est La Vie,” more than 250 movies will have been screened at TIFF in a span of ten days, and that’s despite festival heads Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey claim that they “cut out the fat” from this year’s edition by having 20% fewer movies in the lineup.
Okay, fine. Though this year’s lineup may be featuring some of the buzzier titles that have already made their bow at Telluride and Venice (“The Shape of Water,” “Battle of the Sexes,” “Three Billboards,” “mother!” “Lady Bird,” “Darkest Hour”), what’s most intriguing about this edition are the number of potential contenders that have not yet been screened at any festival. There’s Roman Gilroy’s “Roman J. Israel, ESQ,” Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “The Current War,” Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game,” Sebastien Lelio’s “Disobedience” and John Curran’s “Chappaquiddick,” among many more.
TIFF did have two films premiere as part of its opening night. The first being “Papillon,” a watchable remake of the 1973 classic set in the fictional prison known as “Devil’s Island.” Charlie Hunnman continues to prove just how talented of an actor he is as Henri (Steve McQueen’s original role), the falsely convicted prisoner with the butterfly tattoo that slowly, but surely, plots his escape from the deep pits of hell.
The official opener was a little on the lighter side, both in tone and execution. “Borg/McEnroe” is a dissection of the legendary tennis rivalry between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. It stars Sverrir Gudnasson, who is actually Borg’s son, and Shia LaBoeuf, in the role he was born to play, as the flamboyantly hot-tempered McEnroe. Despite their hatred on the court, the two players ended up in later years becoming friends. Borg was McEnroe’s best man at his wedding! If it’s possible to find political resonance in the “Battle of the Sexes” — an oafish loudmouth chauvinist challenging a prodigious but unappreciated talent -– there’s no subtext beneath “Borg/McEnroe.” Director Janus Metz Pedersen’s entertaining movie is basically a by-the-books account of the legendary 1980 Wimbledon finals match between the two legendary players. It’s all pure, pleasurable facade and is anchored by LaBoeuf’s performance.
Typically the first day of press screenings at TIFF is reserved for Cannes, Sundance and Berlin favorites, which has critics who didn’t have the chance to attend these fests scurrying all around the Scotia Bank theater to catch what they’ve missed.
There’s Dee Rees’ Mudbound, A complex and invigorating account of post-WWII racial tensions in 1940’s Mississippi, the film addresses with astute sensitivity the timeless racial struggles still at play in America. Rees, whose Pariah remains one of the most underrated films of this decade (Roger Ebert named it the best film of 2011), tells the story of two soldiers, one white and one black (Gareth Hedlund and Jason Mitchell), returning home to rural Mississippi, having seen the horrors of war and struggling to deal with racial injustices they must confront. They form a friendship that gets the townspeople talking. Neither man cares about the other’s skin color, they just need comfort in each other’s bruised souls,and Rees nails the touching friendship they build. “Mudbound” is truly one of the best movies of the year.
Fresh off its Cannes Triumph, Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” will screen tomorrow, no doubt to more raves. After “Tangerine,” Baker sets up his camera with an eye towards uncharted America. This time his setting is the endless rows of makeshift motels that clutter the main avenues leading to Disneyland, distilling a moist, colorful, and shimmering visual atmosphere. The film, paradoxically decadent and disenchanted, mixes what Baker himself calls “pop verité” cinema, to create a hybrid of hope and misery that feels both transcendent and groundbreaking. On summer break, six-year-old Mooney and her ragtag group of friends look for adventure as they roam through the outskirts of a rundown motel while the adults around them struggle to make ends meet. Baker shoots his own “400 Blows” with a diminutive band of insolent misfits. A touching and funny Willem Dafoe is the hotel’s concierge and an Oscar nomination for the 62-year-old actor is not out of the question. Despite the flirtations with squalor, Baker never succumbs to the sirens of miserabilism. Instead, he prefers the fanciful fantasy of the children who, in their flight forward, can glean moments of happiness for themselves from the simple light of a blue sky.
Winning the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Ruben Ostlund’s “The Square” has been met with a spirited mix of reactions. This is a movie that dares to challenge political correctness with its ferociously unhinged tackling of the human psyche. What exactly binds us to communicate and be civil with each other is the primary question its writer-director asks. In Ostlund’s world, the answer is much more complicated than one might ever expect. The brilliant moments in the film should come as no surprise to well-seasoned cinephiles, Ostlund was marked as a talent to watch after “Force Majeure,” his 2014 festival hit that put him on the mp with critics worldwide.
Although surprisingly it didn’t screen at Telluride, Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name,” continues to garner ecstatic reviews. With this love story between a seventeen-year-old Italian lad named Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and an American summer guest Oliver (Armie Hammer) staying at his parents’ cliffside mansion, Guadagnino has made one of the year’s best movies. Sensual, sexy, and touching, it’s a film that is simply told, but packs a wallop. The film is filled with intense emotions as Gudagnino lingers on the sheen of sweat that shimmers in an southern Italian summer filled with first love. Armie Hammer’s performance is a career-peak and merits every award destined to come his way this season. Ditto newcomer Chalamet who also stars in Greta Gerwig’s Telluride-crowning “Lady Bird.” This is an erotic and mesmerizing movie that exemplifies cinematic artistry in scope, theme and tone. 
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