TORONTO – After three years of attendance, here’s the thing I’ve learned about the Toronto International Film Festival: you just have to accept that you’re not going to see everything you want to see. This is a gigantic, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink kind of festival, in which star-driven studio Oscar hopefuls and undistributed foreign indies are vying for the same eyeballs, and there are all kinds of joys to be found there – from discovering an unknown talent to soaking in the much-anticipated latest releases from one of your faves. I tried to do both this year, though I ended up doing much more of the latter; I’ll catch up with some of the most-buzzed about titles when they hit the New York Film Festival next month, and you can read my full reviews of more from TIFF here. But these are some quick thoughts on a few films worth seeking out (and a couple to dodge).
Nicole Kidman first appears in Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer clunking down the road to a crime scene, winded and dragging; she’s bruised and battered, and sports a low, quiet voice with a hard, brittle edge. She is at the center, if memory serves, of every single scene of the movie, and up to the task; this is a taut, muscular performance, playing a cop who, perhaps unwisely, goes rooting through the skeletons in her closet. Kusama moves her star, and her camera, through these silky L.A. nightscapes in a style reminiscent of Michael Mann; between the visual aesthetics and the dazzling bank robberies and shoot-outs, Kusama basically remade Heat, but with Kidman in both roles. If that doesn’t sell you, I don’t know what will.
Bowling for Columbine was, in retrospect, both the best and worst thing to happen to Michael Moore. It won him the Oscar, and boosted his public image; it also departed from the editorial discipline of his earlier features to adopt a shambling, shotgun-blast approach, in which several topics are held together primarily by the bond of Moore’s interest in them. He essentially made that his primary filmmaking modus operandi, and the major films that have followed – Sicko, Capitalism: A Love Story, Where to Invade Next, Fahrenheit 9/11, and now its pseudo-sequel Fahrenheit 11/9– have scenes of tremendous visual and rhetorical power, surrounded by flimsy sidebars and anecdotal divergences that soften the overall impact. See it for the devastating and infuriating material about the Flint water crisis, which finds Moore at his angriest (and, thus, best); had he stuck with that material, this could’ve been one of the year’s best documentaries.
“The hand that holds the pen writes history,” it is said (more than once) in Colette, Wash Westmoreland’s dramatization of the life of the most popular author of turn-of-the-century France – more accurately, his wife, who wrote the wildly popular “Claudine” novels and, in the process, began to live the kind of bawdy adventures she wrote. It’s a frisky piece of work, asking challenging questions about monogamy and art (there’s a wonderful scene where its protagonists air their grievances by discussing the actions of their on-page avatars), while reveling in the considerable charm of stars Keira Knightley and Dominic West. Sure, “European literary biopic” has the potential to be a slog. This cheerfully ribald picture is anything but.
Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki, based on the short story “Jambula Tree” by Monica Arac de Nyeko, is a vibrant, pulsing piece of work, keying off the joy of young love and unexpected discovery. It’s set in Kenya, in the neighborhood of Slopes, and concerns the budding romance between Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), daughters of local politicians. They’re a study in contrasts, the tomboy and the wild child, but tenderness and tentativeness between them is undeniable – and dangerous. For this is a country where homosexuality is forbidden, and the speed with which things get scary could’ve toppled a lesser filmmaker. But Kahiu pulls off that shift with ease and grace, and manages to find a conclusion that does right by both the characters and the reality they must face.