Despite the fall movie season looking like a rather weak one, the Toronto International Film Festival really tried their mightiest to make the best of a sordid creative problem when it comes to artistic integrity within the big studios, not just this year, but this decade as well. Hell, TIFF was so adamant at packing their lineup of 300 films with quality cinema that I managed to find 10 very good movies (not including Cannes and Sundance entries) to make my own best of TIFF list:
1) Uncut Gems
The Safdie Brothers, Josh and Benny, confirm their immaculate talents by making the most visceral and, yes, cinematic of the American movies I saw at TIFF. Their “gutter poetry” is amplified in “Uncut Gems” with the casting of Adam Sandler as a New York Diamond District dealer who is in over his head in gambling debts. It feels like a 21st century “Mean Streets” – no wonder then that Martin Scorsese is credited as the executive producer.
Scorsese’s DNA can again be found in Todd Phillips’ Venice-winning “Joker,” a portrait of a man losing his sanity as the divided country he lives in loses its identity. Joaquin Phoenix delivers the performance of the year as Arthur Fleck, a man who can’t stop laughing at the outrage.
3) Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach’s indelibly personal and immaculately written film features career peaks for Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a couple going through divorce. It’s better than it sounds. Credit must go not just to the actors, but the supporting players as well: Alan Alda, Ray Liotta and, especially, Laura Dern all shine as the lawyers caught up in this couple’s divorce proceedings.
4) Knives Out
Don’t dismiss Rian Johnson’s brilliantly constructed film as nothing more than an Agatha Christie ripoff. No, what Johnson has done in “Knives Out” is turn the cliches of the genre over their head. It’s a whodunnit, despite us knowing who did it. A mosaic of characters invade “Knives Out,” but it’s the way it is all put together that makes Johnson’s film a triumph.
5) Ford v Ferrari
Star turns from Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Excellent direction from James Mangold. “Ford v Ferrari” is a movie-movie. One that may be using familiar tropes to tell its story but nevertheless feels fresh and immaculately designed for the viewer to delve deep into its surroundings. At 153 minutes it may be a tad too long, but the racecar driving scenes are some of the best ever put on film.
6) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Marielle Heller’s sweet, simple and joyous ode to Mr. Rogers is something to behold, especially when Tom Hanks (as Rogers) is featured. In fact, the film suffers whenever he isn’t on-screen and Matthew Rhys’ character’s family problems take the front seat. Hanks overshadows everybody in his path here. Despite all the great on-screen personas he has given us over the years, this may very well be the role Hanks was born to play.
7) Bad Education
One of the best movies I saw premiere at TIFF will also never be released on the big screen. Cory Finley’s “Bad Education” is based on the true story of a Long Island school superintendant, his “assistant superintendent for business” and the embezzlement scheme they concocted. The film features the best performance of Hugh Jackman’s career, not to mention a darkly hilarious turn courtesy of the always-great Allison Janney as his assistant.
Trey Edward Shults not only directed but also wrote “Waves,” and his camera, much like in his masterful debut “Krisha,” inventively leads us through the narrative in a bout of sheer sensory overload, but it never feels overwrought. There’s great artistry behind it as the writer-director gives us one breathtaking shot after another in this exploration of male toxicity and the ramifications that come with it.
9) Sound of Metal
Riz Ahmed has never been better. Playing a metal drummer who starts to lose his hearing, Ahmed turns “Sound of Metal” into a heartbreaking tale of redemption as it goes along, culminating in a final shot that is both necessary and absolutely perfect. Kudos to Nicolas Becker’s landmark sound editing which deserves an Oscar nomination.
10) Western Stars
Bruce’s Springsteen’s live concert of his “Western Stars” album not only proved that The Boss has still got it, but that he can easily still keep up with the pulse of relevance happening today in the music industry. The formula for success is quite simple: create and perform songs with the most luscious of melodies and the most indelibly crafted lyrics you will listen to all year. It’s a triumph of musical and, yes, cinematic artistry that deserves to be seen on the big screen.