TIFF 2019 Part 3: Many More Tears, Many More Great Female Roles

Ten days have come and gone more quickly than I could ever have imagined, but my time at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival has indeed ended. I’ve seen a whopping 28 films, the vast majority of which proved well worth the time and money invested in seeing them (though even the duds are memorable in their own way). I crammed 11 of these films into my last three days in Toronto, so I’d like to take a few moments to talk about those before laying out my final thoughts on TIFF 2019 (along with Mama Mordor’s votes for the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, natch!).


Day 8

Sundance hit Honey Boy, based on the childhood and public devolution of Shia LaBeouf (written by LaBeouf and starring himself as a character representing his father) offers a stirring look at the pressures put on child stars by their own families and the way that the entertainment industry looks the other way as long as it’s happy with the results. Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges play Otis, the LaBeouf stand-in, as a child living between a motel and a film set with his alcoholic father and as an adult dealing with the aftermath of his own latest public incident involving alcohol, respectively. Coming in at a lean 93 minutes, the film zips along, which proves a bit to its detriment: there isn’t enough time to develop both versions of Otis, and Hedges gets the short end of the stick, with his time in rehab serving more as the impetus to explore different aspects of child Otis’s experience than as a story with its own beginning, middle, and end.

Similar problems plague Fargo and Legion showrunner Noah Hawley’s ripped-from-the-headlines directorial debut, Natalie Portman-starring astronaut drama Lucy in the Sky. Portman turns in phenomenal work unlike anything I’ve seen from her before, first as a barely-contained genius and then as a woman going through a psychic meltdown at light speed. Unlike many other reviewers, I have a lot of respect for the fact that Hawley chose to take a fairly sensational, too-crazy-not-to-be-true story and turn it into a deeply humanistic drama about the psychological impact of existing where no human is supposed to exist. No, the famous astronaut diapers don’t make an appearance, but I don’t think they needed to, as entertaining as that aspect of the story may have proven on film.

Rather, if there’s a problem I have with the film it’s that most of the supporting characters are mere sketches. This is, of course, Portman’s film through and through, and she turns in admirable work as freshly-home astronaut Lucy Cola, but when the other two legs of the central love triangle – Dan Stevens’ Drew Cola, the squarest of square NASA PR people, and Jon Hamm’s Mark Goodwin, a fellow astronaut and prototypical skeevy Don Juan – are so thinly drawn, it’s hard to believe a well-established, intelligent, and insightful character like Lucy would fall for either, much less both. Hawley also invests a weird amount of effort into technical flourishes like frequently-changing aspect ratios that don’t totally make sense in an otherwise visually accomplished debut.

The latest from beloved chronicler of modern China Wang Xiaoshuai, So Long, My Son, is an epic, 185-minute story of the burden placed on Chinese families by the reviled One Child Policy. It tells the story of Yaojun and Liyun, a factory-working couple with a son, Xing, and the impact on them and two other families at the factory when tragedy strikes. To say much more about the plot would inevitably spoil some of the twists and turns of the complicated fresco Wang has painted of China from the 1950s through the 1980s. This is one of those stories that grabs you and doesn’t let go. Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei took home the Silver Bears for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively, at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, and deservedly so. Their performances are uplifting and heartbreaking, full of joy and pain. If I have a complaint, it’s that even with such a generous runtime, Wang leaves a couple of major plot twists unnecessarily vague, but that feels like small potatoes in such a towering achievement.

In comparison, Diao Yi’nan’s The Wild Goose Lake feels like a slog even at only 117 minutes. This story of a manhunt in a lawless part of China ruled by pimps and gangs gets points for style, but falls apart with an almost nonexistent story that drags well past when it should end. There are several memorable scenes for fans of a bit of the old ultraviolence, and the performances are okay. Diao just doesn’t seem to know when he’s lingering for too long and a scene – or even an entire plot – has run its course.

Films that made me cry: 2/4


Day 9

The closing film of this year’s Venice Film Festival, The Burnt Orange Heresy is a lively art world thriller, in addition to one of the most memorably-titled recent films. Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki star as an art critic and the mysterious young woman he meets at a talk he gives in Milan, and the chemistry between this central couple is palpable. Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland gamely round out the cast with a pair of pulpy, scenery-chewing roles. It’s a stylish film that keeps you on your toes until the very last second, but it loses points for a rather stilted, unbelievably flirtatious script and a few major decisions by characters (especially Debicki’s Berenice) that beg you to suspend disbelief.

Another female lead that makes some very questionable decisions (though in this case they make a whole lot of sense) is Eva Green’s Sarah, the French astronaut at the heart of Alice Winocour’s transcendent Proxima, which has taken the runner-up slot for this year’s TIFF Platform Jury Prize. It is hard not to compare this directly to Lucy in the Sky, with Sarah spending the film preparing to go on a one-year mission to the International Space Station that will leave her daughter Stella in the incapable hands of her ex-husband. Green’s Sarah and Portman’s Lucy stand in stark contrast to one another, with the former full of doubt where the other is unshakeably confident in her own skills. Winocour has created an ode to the working mother, and a very against-type Green is pitch-perfect as an astronaut and mother that’s trying to figure out how to be both.

Susan Sarandon stars as a woman who was maybe never quite the mother she thought she was in Roger Michell’s new assisted suicide family drama, Blackbird. Very similar to Ira Sachs’ Frankie, Michell follows the members of a tight-knit family (and one special friend) as they navigate the last weekend of matriarch Lily’s life. With a slightly smaller cast, Michell is a bit more successful than Sachs in managing to navigate the relationships between each member of his ensemble, and Sarandon makes for a more sympathetic lead than Huppert. Blackbird fails to give either of Lily’s daughters, Anna (Mia Wasikowska) and Jennifer (Kate Winslet), much to work with, though, and seems more invested in Jennifer’s comic relief husband Michael (Rainn Wilson) and Anna’s non-entity of a girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus). If one actor comes out of the whole affair having traced a complete character arc, it’s Anson Boon as Lily’s grandson Jonathan. He’s a young actor to watch.

Also begging comparison to an Isabelle Huppert film, Ina Weisse’s Nina Hoss-starring second feature, The Audition, could just as easily have been called The Violin Teacher. Hoss plays Anna, a violinist whose life is already well on the way to self-destruction when she meets Alexander, a young violinist in whom she sees much more potential than anyone else does. Where Anna differs from Huppert’s tragic piano teacher Erika is that she has what should be a supportive and fulfilling home life in which she seems to take absolutely no interest. There is none of the bite and brutality of Haneke’s film, but as a character study this is top-notch. Nina Hoss continues to carve out a place for herself in the upper tier of modern international actresses.

Coming off of stellar reviews and a Jury Prize at Cannes, Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ Bacurau is a tense and often hilarious dystopian sci-fi spaghetti western satire. Mendonca Filho and Dornelles shift between genres deftly, and create a rich and diverse cast of supporting characters along the way, including Sonia Braga’s scene-stealing Domingas, a lesbian doctor in a tiny rural village in Brazil. I mention her sexual orientation specifically because this remote village in a country that is veering towards neo-fascism is an accepting, loving haven in the middle of the desert. No one would argue that the satire in play here is subtle as a group of white murder-tourists (“We only use vintage weapons!”) compete to rack up kills in and around Bacurau, but what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for with style. Bacurau is a wild, fantastic ride.

Films that made me cry: 2/5 – not bad!


Day 10

Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency premiered to rave reviews at this year’s edition of Sundance, and they were very much deserved. Alfre Woodard stars as the warden of a prison in a death-penalty state who, after a recent botched execution, must carry out a controversial death sentence in which the convicted very well may not have committed the crime that earned him his punishment. Woodard wrings every last drop of emotion out of a meaty role that seems sure to put her in the Oscar conversation come January. Her Bernadine is duty-driven, and struggling with the dissolution of her marriage at the same time that the ethical implications of her profession are catching up to her. She’s surrounded by great character actors, but this is Woodard’s film. This comes at the expense of the plot, with great actors like Aldis Hodge and Richard Schiff doing a lot with a little. At the end of the day, you come and stay for a masterclass from Alfre Woodard.

I closed out TIFF with a screening of Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s instant classic new movie that tells the story of a vibrant marriage from the point of view of its end. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver turn in career-best work (as does Baumbach) as Nicole and Charlie Barber, the lead actress and director of a small New York theater company that gets its big Broadway break at the same time that Nicole is offered a TV pilot in Hollywood. This film has absolutely everything – believable, epic monologues; a centerpiece argument that will go down as some of the finest writing and filmmaking of the decade; welcomed comic relief from Merritt Wever, Alan Alda, and the especially genius work of Laura Dern… I cannot point out a flaw in Marriage Story. It will be on Netflix soon enough, but if you get the chance to see this in theaters, do yourself a favor and jump. You’ll thank yourself.

Films that made me cry: 2/2 – ending on a high (low?) note!

Tom Hanks (Finalized)

Mama Mordor’s selections for TIFF’s Grolsch People’s Choice Award:
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, dir. Marielle Heller
Parasite, dir. Bong Joon-ho
The Personal History of David Copperfield, dir. Armando Iannucci

These are the three films my mother saw that really stood out to her. I can’t disagree with her selection – they were all great films. I voted for one of these three, along with several other films that will be sticking with me for a good long while. Below I’ve ranked all 28 films that I saw on a five-star scale. If these scores seem inflated, I promise you they’re not. This edition of TIFF was chock-full of outstanding selections: the programmers absolutely outdid themselves this year. For comparison, the only other film of 2019 so far that has received a five-star rating from me is The Farewell, and the only film I caught at TIFF last year that did was Vox Lux.


How to Get Away with Mordor’s Definitive Ranking of TIFF 2019 Films:

Jojo Rabbit, dir. Taika Waititi
Marriage Story, dir. Noah Baumbach
Parasite, dir. Bong Joon-ho
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, dir. Celine Sciamma
Bacurau, dir Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, dir. Marielle Heller
The Personal History of David Copperfield, dir. Armando Iannucci
Proxima, dir. Alice Winocour
So Long, My Son, dir. Wang Xiaoshuai
Clemency, dir. Chinonye Chukwu
Coming Home Again, dir. Wayne Wang
Honey Boy, dir. Alma Har’el
The Lighthouse, dir. Robert Eggers
Two of Us, dir. Filippo Meneghetti
The Audition, dir. Ina Weisse
The Burnt Orange Heresy, dir. Giuseppe Capotondi
How to Build a Girl, dir. Coky Giedroyc
Judy, dir. Rupert Goold
Lucy in the Sky, dir. Noah Hawley
Blackbird, dir. Roger Michell
Color Out of Space, dir. Richard Stanley
Harriet, dir. Kasi Lemmons
The Laundromat, dir. Steven Soderbergh
Endings, Beginnings, dir. Drake Doremus
Frankie, dir. Ira Sachs
Wasp Network, dir. Olivier Assayas
The Wild Goose Lake, dir. Diao Yi’nan
Ema, dir. Pablo Larrain

Thank you all for following TIFF 2019 along with me. I hope you’ve picked up some interesting recommendations along the way, as this is shaping up to be a truly memorable and outstanding year in film. Next stop: the Oscars!