Notes from TIFF

A strong showing at Telluride and TIFF can build important awards buzz for foreign films. That’s happened for Son of Saul, still the best film I’ve seen at this fest, as well as another international offering frequently buzzed about, Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. Telluride has yet again assembled a concise, essential lineup. Most of the big films getting buzzed about here first premiered at Telluride (Beasts of No Nation, Anomalisa, Room, Spotlight) but several essential movies were left to open at TIFF.
Here are some notes about TIFF’s fourth and fifth days:
1) Spotlight is the real deal
Add Spotlight to the shortlist of best of the fest. Nobody expected it to not do well at TIFF, but the standing ovation it got at last night’s premiere was the icing on the cake. This is very much a movie to be reckoned with and the one American movie that has succeeded the most so far this festival season. It doesn’t have the dark, stylized musings that David Fincher brought to Zodiac or Michael Mann to The Insider, but this is a movie’s movie with a strong screenplay, by Josh Singer and McCarthy, and moments that demand your complete attention. If there was anything that this movie taught us over the last few weeks it’s that there still is a demand for newsroom dramas, but more importantly well-made 1970’s cinematic era inspired dramas.
McCarthy’s previous films, Win Win, The Station Agent and The Visitor are among the best movies of their respective years and deal with characters that are as fleshed fully out and humane as any out there. It helps that McCarthy is a part-time actor and understands the craft. His obvious knowledge of the acting brings out one great performance after another in this movie. Best of all is Michael Keaton, who’s having a hell of a comeback and giving the Academy another good case for Best Actor acknowledgement.
2) The Program is actually a very good movie
The range of reviews for Stephen Frears’ Lance Armstrong movie have been perplexing, but there’s no doubt in my mind that The Program is a fantastic artistic statement. Frears directs a never better Ben Foster, who plays the controversial cyclist who ran a doping program for the entire U.S Postal team. Armstrong beat testicular cancer and ended up winning seven straight Tour de France titles, albeit doped. Instant hero worship followed and a massive Nike campaign to fight cancer blinded people of his sins. Foster is a towering force of nature that owns every scene and builds a menacing presence in every frame of the film. He deserves best actor notices, and carries the film which is helped by Frears’ subtle direction that recalls his other true life story work in The Queen. The Program tries to get to this fascinating man’s psyche and Foster creates a complex cinematic villain for our times. We knows the story very well and Frears knows that, so he decides to build a character study that focuses on a man that at times even convinced himself that he was telling the truth.
3) The Meddler is Susan Sarandon’s best performance in 20+ years
You heard me right. Sarandon’s performance as a middle aged, eccentric, neurotic, Jersey mom that moves to L.A. is hilariously spot on. The premiere had many industry people eating up every line delivered by Sarandon. When was the last time you can truly say she’s had a role that fit her immeasurable talents? 1995’s Dead Man Walking — in which she was directed by then husband Tim Robbins — comes to mind. That was 20 years ago, but this performance is bound to get some heads turning if handled properly and Sony Pictures Classics knows what kind of brilliant performance they have here. The character study that director Lorne Scafaria deftly handles with comical hand-held shots is an all out showcase for Sarandon. The film has just been screened today for the press and is expected to have a 2016 release, that is unless the studio decides to gives Sarandon the much-needed awards push this year.
4) Freeheld and Maggie’s Plan have put Julianne Moore back in the race
Moore is again sublime in Freeheld, the true story of New Jersey police officer Laurel Hester, who fought to have her pension benefits transferred to her domestic partner (Ellen Page) after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Why wouldn’t she be great? There is no surprise that she delivers emotional nuance and definitely helps invigorate the film. She also steals the show for her supporting role in Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan. Moore plays an uptight danish oddball that divorces Ethan Hawke’s elusively perplexing writer, after he meets and cheats with Greta Gerwig’s much younger Maggie. The role for Moore is pure deadpan, recalling Maude in The Big Lebowski, but a little weirder/crazier. It really is the sign of a great actress when you can switch back and forth between drama and comedy and make it look so effortless. Moore is utterly fearless and we are lucky to have such a talent to behold.
5) Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) is the under-the-radar movie that has everyone talking
This is a movie that gave me the same vibe as the first time I saw Larry Clark’s Kids. A dozen or so sexually promiscuous high school kids decide to take advantage of a friend’s parents being out of the town and organize orgy parties they nickname “Bang Gang”. Director by Eva Husson, the film is unflinching and mesmerizing. It’s got people talking here and that is quite the achievement given the fact that more 300 movies are being screened in 10 days. It truly is a modern love story showing us how sexually liberated today generation is and their misguided attempts at finding love or some kind of freedom. I find it’s better than Larry Clark’s movies, more subtle in fact, and can sometimes encompass a world of emotions in a single frame.