In my first dispatch from Toronto International Film Festival, a selection of six films offered a diverse taste of the hundreds of films screened at the 2018 edition (which officially runs through the 16th). While a few of the films stumbled to hit their mark, more than one in that first batch—I’m looking at you, A Star Is Born—managed to impress. More than that, many of the films making their debut in Toronto this week are poised to open big through the end of the year and make a run at the Oscars, too.
In this second go-round of films seen in Canada, that awards buzz is stronger than ever, as Steve McQueen (Best Picture winner for 12 Years a Slave), Damien Chazelle (Best Director winner for La La Land) and Barry Jenkins (Best Picture winner for Moonlight) all premiere their latest work and two filmmakers hit the ground running with impressive debuts.
Damien Chazelle has come a long way from his first feature film, the no-budget hipster indie musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (it’s in black and white, for Pete’s sake). First Man stars Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong, following the first man to walk on the moon from his application to NASA through the aftermath of that world-changing moment. As grand as it is, with rocket launch sequences so visceral your teeth will shake in their sockets and select scenes shot on IMAX film (the largest on the market), Chazelle’s real accomplishment here is the intimacy with which he recounts the life of the man responsible for a moment the whole world remembers. This is not the story of the U.S. space program or even of the crew and scientists who made the Apollo 11 mission possible. This is Armstrong’s story, and the film’s focus on his most personal moments, his motivations, successes and failures with such tenderness—from Gosling’s stoic performance to Josh Singer’s (The Post, Spotlight) taut adaptation of James R. Hansen’s biography—turns humankind’s monumental achievement into a strikingly approachable account of greatness. First Man opens in Chicago on October 12
Two years ago, the Chicago International Film Festival featured filmmaker Steve McQueen in an evening conversation and award presentation to honor his work to date. Back then, word on the street was that he and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, “Sharp Objects”) were in town to scout locations for their next project. Fast forward to TIFF 2018 and sure enough, Widows—based on a British television drama from the mid 1980s—premieres with the city of Chicago cast in a supporting role. The heist flick boasts an impressive ensemble cast, including Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert Duvall, and Colin Farrell. The updated script sees Neeson’s Harry Rawlings and his gang of criminals fall victim to a robbery gone bad; Davis, as Harry’s now widow Veronica, barely gets time to grieve before her dead husband’s debt collectors come calling at her door. There’s no disputing the powerhouse performances here, Davis’s top among them; she’s a woman at sea, lost in a world of crime, deception and violence that she’d been blissfully ignorant to during her husband’s life, now determined to find her way through it. If only the film could do the same, twisting and turning as it does through convoluted plot points (and holes) all in an effort to keep the tension at eleven. Widows opens in Chicago on November 16
If Beale Street Could Talk
If you haven’t seen Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s masterful coming of age story that deservedly won Best Picture last year, please put down whatever it is your reading this on and go do that. Go. Now. I’ll wait. Wonderful, no? Now marry Jenkins’s expert craftsmanship behind the camera with one of James Baldwin’s most stirring, evocative narratives and you might have an idea of the perfection in store for you in If Beale Street Could Talk. Kiki Layne stars as 19-year-old Trish, pregnant by her 23-year-old boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) and determined to build a life for their young, new family. But this is 1960s New York, and the path is not easy for young African Americans trying to mind their own business and pursue a bit of happiness. When Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, Trish and her family put every ounce of their energy into proving him innocent against a rigged system. Through every heartbreak and triumph, every tragedy and achievement, Jenkins, in a script he adapted himself, effortlessly channels Baldwin’s unmistakable style, a combination of anger, optimism, anguish and honesty, to harrowing effect. If Beale Street Could Talk opens in Chicago on November 30
At the turn of the millennium, Russian filmmaker Vitaly Manskiy was hired by government officials to document the first weeks and month’s of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, a position he was appointed to when his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, passed the office to him on December 31, 1999, in advance of democratic elections. In the months leading up to the vote, Manskiy was granted what amounts to a carte blanche to film meetings, events and conversations at the Kremlin, commissioned to make a television documentary the campaign would air in lieu of ads and political debates. When the election arrived, he simultaneously filmed Putin and his campaign staff watching the returns from their headquarters and Yeltsin anticipating them from his home, surrounded by his wife, grown children and grandchildren. Now, nearly 20 years later, Manskiy revisits this footage with the perspective of hindsight, adding context through his own narration to Putin’s every strategy and tactic of the time. He recounts where those in Putin’s inner circle then are now (most deserted to the opposition or worse), and shines a stark light on the depth of the man’s sinister genius and its ramifications. Putin’s Witnesses does not yet have a Chicago release date
What They Had
This year’s TIFF lineup included so many titles featuring “boy,” “man,” or a man’s name I lost count, and despite a concerted effort to change, a majority of its selections were written and directed by men. So Elizabeth Chomko’s debut feature What They Had stood out to me immediately, eager as I was for a different perspective and, perhaps, a strong script (as indicated by its winning the Nicholl Fellowship, the Academy’s screenwriting competition). Starring Blythe Danner, Michael Shannon, Hilary Swank and Taissa Farmiga, the film centers on Bridget (Swank), called home to Forest Park (that near west-side suburb) to help her brother Nick (Shannon) convince their father (Robert Forster) that their mother (Danner), in declining health with dementia, needs long-term and round-the-clock care. Dealing with her own crumbling marriage and a college-aged daughter (Farmiga) with attitude to spare, Bridget is quickly in over her head, the emotional toll of it all too overwhelming to navigate. Sure enough, Chomko’s script is so polished it shines, as the family dynamic hits its stride from scene one and every beat propels the drama forward. Swank turns in her best performance in years, bolstered by a reliably amazing Shannon and Danner, while Forster and Farmiga more than hold their own. What They Had opens in Chicago on October 19
Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy
I went into Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy knowing literally nothing about the scandal upon which the film is based, that of a writer (Laura Albert) who published a best-selling “memoir” under the pen name JT LeRoy and then paraded her sister-in-law around as the made-up literary phenom. All I knew was that it stars Laura Dern (as Albert) which, let’s be honest, is and always should be enough to get you to see a film. Written and directed by Justin Kelly (not the American Idol runner-up, I checked), the film is based on an actual memoir by Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart), the woman who played JT LeRoy at Albert’s direction. Beyond that, I’m not exactly sure what happens in this messy, pointless narrative where the dialogue is more concerned with pithy, inspirational cliches than actual character and plot development. Sure, Savannah’s ride from couch-surfing to walking the red carpet at Cannes is sexy, but the film is too confused about just whose story its trying to tell to let us enjoy (or care about) any of it. Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy does not yet have a Chicago release date
Goofball actor Jonah Hill steps behind the camera to make his directorial debut with Mid90s, from his own script. Set in Los Angeles in the middle of that decade, the film follows thirteen-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic, who doesn’t look a day over ten), a latch-key kid who falls into a new circle of friends at a skate shop. Soon, and in an effort to fit in, he’s boozing, getting high and skating anywhere there’s a hard flat surface, right alongside the older kids (Na-kel Smith as Ray, the emotional center of the film, and Olan Prenatt as, and I’m not making this up, Fuckshit, a stoner who manages to make all the wrong decisions). Hill’s script is so male-centric it’s both enlightening (one feels a bit like Jane Goodall observing these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat) and infuriating (as one who was about the same age during this era, I kept thinking, “what were my friends and I doing while the boys were up to all this? Where’s that movie?”). But it’s also beautifully vintage, presented in an uncommon 4:3 aspect ratio and filmed on Super 16mm film; even the language is vintage, as some of the slang, completely unremarkable twenty years ago, lands like nails on a chalkboard to contemporary audiences. Mid90s opens in Chicago on October 26