A Glut of Good Film at Toronto’s Cinema Circus Bodes Well for NYC’s Fall Movie Season

The little festival that could

The Imitation Game features a superb Benedict Cumberbatch, center, that British upstart with the impossible name, as the mathematician Alan Turing.

The Imitation Game features a superb Benedict Cumberbatch, center, that British upstart with the impossible name, as the mathematician Alan Turing. The Weinstein Company

Another season, another reason to head for the Toronto International Film Festival (a.k.a. TIFF). Thirty-eight years ago, it was a modest neighborhood party started by three movie buffs who wanted to bring more foreign films to town. They called it “The People’s Festival,” and the smacker stuck like milk and crackers. Those were the good old days. Now in full swing, as I rub my eyes from watching 20 movies in the first five days without sleep and try to write about it, TIFF has morphed into the biggest cinema circus in the world—bloated, over-programmed, overcrowded, over the top—and not to be missed.

Cut to the chase: this year, TIFF is its own behemoth. Ten days in September crammed with 393 films from 79 countries—285 features and 108 shorts, with 150 world premieres—all showing at the same time. Factor in 500 movie stars on the red carpet (“Look this way, Jane Fonda!”; “Over here, Al Pacino!”), Channing Tatum posing for selfies, Denzel Washington fresh from his well-publicized stint in rehab, eardrum-endangering rappers and screaming mobs trampling blocked-off streets in thunder, lightning and pouring rain for a glimpse of Bill Murray, dressed for his new film’s premiere in a red baseball cap and dirty tennis shoes, and you couldn’t escape the carnival chaos even if you tried. Film festivals have become the new tractor pulls. Some years it seems like there’s one in every town with a parking lot. But for pure excess, nothing compares with TIFF. Whether they’ve been attending this nightmare for two years or 20, I didn’t find anybody who could remember a more unmanageable experience.

To make matters worse, King Street West, the central artery of all the action, has been closed to all traffic and turned into a pedestrian mall renamed “Festival Street,” causing congestion and inviting vicious critical condemnation by the Toronto press, which declared it a stupid move for no purpose except to invite gawking tourists to pose for photo ops with HAL the Killer Computer from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. People storming TIFF 2014 are oblivious to the gridlock that adds $25 to the meter of every cab ride trying to reach movies through one-way back alleys and the fact that the 2014 summer clocked in the worst box-office revenue in 13 years, the number of flops soared and ticket sales plummeted. No, TIFF is like a big garbage truck, sucking up the debris of a disastrous year and paving the way for new hopes to pry couch potatoes away from Game of Thrones. It’s a convention of an estimated half a million die-hard critics, journalists, distributors, market analysts, buyers and fans who sleep in the streets waiting for last-minute ticket cancellations, oblivious to the threats of online streaming, global marketing, marquee TV events and box-office bummers. They just want to see some new movies—and God knows this is the place to do it.

SOME OF THEM WILL BE COMING SOON TO A cineplex near you, but they won’t have Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton in a white suit with a black hat, sharing a plate of lobster tempura and drinking champagne from a paper cup, or Adam Sandler posing with a woman covered in tattoos. And you won’t have the pleasure of being stalled in miles of traffic jams that look like downtown Tehran. Mr. Murray even got his own daylong tribute that included the world premiere of St. Vincent, in which he delivers his customary performance, both obnoxious and lovable, as an eccentric, lazy, bedraggled, chain-smoking loser, this time a Vietnam veteran living in Sheepshead Bay named Vincent, who is no saint. His new neighbor, a hard-working divorced mother played by Melissa McCarthy in her first “straight” role, hires him as a reluctant babysitter for her precocious son, a smart boy bullied by schoolmates, and a schmaltzy take on the old Wallace Beery-Jackie Cooper team in The Champ begins. With Terrence Howard, Chris O’Dowd and Naomi Watts as a pregnant Russian prostitute, it’s a contrived, sentimental and totally unremarkable little time-waster, notable mainly for the opportunity to watch Ms. McCarthy prove she can act without being bounced to the pavement like a rubber Schmoo doll. It’s a nothing role, but she handles it admirably, and it’s nice to see her play something—anything!—without her usual vulgarity and shtick. Unfortunately for Mr. Murray, his big 24-hour celebration fell on the same day Joan Rivers died, so guess who got all the front-page ink.

In St. Vincent, Melissa McCarthy, left, fits into her first “straight” role, and it’s nice to see her without her usual vulgarity.

In St. Vincent, Melissa McCarthy, left, fits into her first “straight” role, and it’s nice to see her without her usual vulgarity.

TIFF is always an acknowledged Oscar launching pad (7 out of 10 Best Picture winners for the past decade have premiered here). It’s a great window on the best of the year to come, and a perfect place for trend spotting. Grim films about incest, drugs and sexual depravity are in short supply this year, and if there is a common thread to be found, it’s movies about noble or challenged people braving the odds to make heroic statements about the human experience in a global world where everything is fast, digital and soulless.

The two best films I’ve seen so far are The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, a masterful work of heartbreaking artistry and perfection about Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge graduate-student genius whose Ph.D. in quantum physics expanded Einstein’s theory of relativity and led to historic proof of the existence of black holes in the universe. He was just beginning his career as one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century when he was stricken with paralyzing Lou Gehrig’s disease and given two years to live. The movie traces the triumphant ways he defied the odds, fathered three children and continued his work even after he could no longer move or speak. The amazing award-winning British actor Eddie Redmayne is absolutely sensational in what I consider the best performance of the year as Professor Hawking, with lovely Felicity Jones as his loyal, long-suffering wife Jane, who stayed by his side in his fight for survival. The Theory of Everything is one for your must-see book of forthcoming movies to jot down in red ink.

The Imitation Game, starring that British upstart with the impossible name, Benedict Cumberbatch, superb as Alan Turing, the brilliant but doomed mathematician who famously broke the Nazi codes in World War II for the government, accelerating Hitler’s surrender, then suffered public disgrace at the hands of that same government after the war, simply because he was gay. This compelling biopic chronicles his education, his personal life and the suspense surrounding his secret war mission, then follows his postwar activities from hero to outcast, culminating in his 1952 arrest on charges of gross indecency after an affair with a 19-year-old drifter. To avoid prison, he volunteered to accept government mandated libido-depressing hormones that were stupidly believed at the time to cure homosexuality, but 18 months later, committed suicide by cyanide poisoning.

These are two sober and gripping films that left me saddened and shaking, and I’ll expand further on the reasons why, when The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game both open in November.

More highlights in the opening days at TIFF: from Germany, Labyrinth of Lies is a powerfully documented, carefully written, forcefully directed and skillfully acted debut feature by Giulio Ricciarelli about Germany’s apathy during the search for Nazi war criminals who escaped detection and melted into the roles of solid citizens after the war. In the labyrinthine research conducted by idealistic lawyer Johann Radmann (played by German heartthrob Alexander Fehling from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) to expose the German conspiracy to cover up Nazi crimes, even the police refused to cooperate because some of Hitler’s best henchmen found postwar jobs as cops. Radmann’s obsession with the atrocities committed by his country impacted his relationships with his friends, fiancé and even his family, but eventually led to the 20-month trial in Frankfurt that resulted in the conviction of 17 SS officers who worked with Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. Labyrinth of Lies is a devastating chapter in the history of justice, more relevant today than ever.

A RECURRING THEME IN THIS YEAR’S TIFF IS career resuscitation, with known actors who haven’t made a good movie for years tossing the dice to win back audiences in challenging new roles nobody expects to see them play. Even in the flawed failures, strong performances dominate. Veteran playwright Israel Horovitz, making his debut as a film director with the sublime My Old Lady, teams a triptych of talent. Kevin Kline jump-starts his patchwork quilt of a movie career playing Mathias Gold, a dyspeptic and bankrupt New York loser with nothing but three ex-wives and a box of unpublished novels who inherits an apartment in Paris from a father he never loved. Arriving in the posh Marais arrondissement to sell the real estate and pay off his debts, he discovers to his horror a 92-year-old hag named Madame Mathilde (the indomitable Maggie Smith) and her miserable, hard-boiled spinster daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott-Thomas) who got there first. Under a curious French law, he not only is forbidden to evict them, but he owes them back rent. Worse still, he learns the old lady was his father’s mistress and he’s named after her. His depression fortified by bottles of French vintage from the wine cellar, he nevertheless describes watching his mother’s suicide and growing up unloved by a cold, indifferent father in scenes of deeply effective acting prowess. Such candor eventually melts the two women’s resistance, and love begins to bloom between the hopeless American and the unhappy Chloe, but just as they move closer to each other for comfort, another catastrophe raises its ugly head: could it be possible that Mathias and Chloe are brother and sister? What a trio of seasoned, delicious pros, with Mr. Kline rising again like cream to the top of his career.

Wild is a rugged outdoor drama starring Reese Witherspoon, stripped of makeup, manicures and all the superficial

Wild is a rugged outdoor drama starring Reese Witherspoon, stripped of makeup, manicures and all the superficial trappings.

The same kudos apply to Kevin Costner’s change of pace in the intelligent, touching and riveting Black and White, as a tough but tender alcoholic New Orleans attorney fighting a fierce court battle for custody of his mixed-race granddaughter against the child’s African-American grandmother, played by the garrulous, colorful Octavia Spencer. Hiding festering, racist prejudices under feelings of rage, helplessness and grief for his dead wife and daughter while struggling to appear mature and responsible, Mr. Costner gives a fully balanced performance that surpasses anything he’s done before.

In The Judge, Robert Downey, Jr. gives the best performance of his own career as a Chicago defense attorney who returns home for his mother’s funeral and rekindles old hostilities toward his estranged father, a grumpy, hateful judge, magnificently etched in bronze by Robert Duvall. Before he can get back to his big-city life, the judge is accused of a hit-and-run killing and the son is forced to reluctantly defend him in a murder trial. In a series of fiery and passionate exchanges that move the plot along like shock waves, Mr. Downey has never looked fitter or been so camera-ready, and Mr. Duvall is dazzling. In the rugged outdoor drama Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyer’s Club), Reese Witherspoon returns from obscurity (it’s been eight years since she won an Oscar for Walk the Line) to unexpected heights of glory as a sluttish, ravaged heroin addict who decides to clean up her act and save her own life by hiking 1,100 miles from California to the Washington State border, in an act of valor, danger and self-discovery. It’s a tour de force with a brand new actress stripped of makeup, manicures and all the superficial trappings, rising like a phoenix from the flames of Hollywood to tap into her undiscovered talent for truth in acting.

From China, Coming Home reunites the great director Zhang Yimou with his muse, the fabulous Gong Li, as a wife and mother going mad in the cruelty of the Cultural Revolution. When her husband escapes from prison after 16 years, he returns home to a wife who no longer recognizes him.  Posing as a friendly neighbor, he reads aloud the letters her husband never mailed, and they develop a bond that deepens as the years pass and her Alzheimer’s grows. Every week he dutifully takes her to the train station to wait for her husband, who will never return, but content to spend the rest of his life as somebody else. The sight of Gong Li, the Bette Davis of China, with her mind gone and the snow gently falling on her wheelchair, left few dry eyes in the house.

I’d like to tell you more, but I’m on my way to Tina Brown’s dinner party for Michael Douglas, followed by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hot ticket comeback in a WiFi battery-charging art house career shift called Maggie, in which he plays a battered, bearded and unrecognizable Midwestern farmer with fatherly compassion for his teenage daughter (Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin, no less) who is turning into a meat-craving zombie.

It’s dirty work, but somebody’s gotta do it.

A Glut of Good Film at Toronto’s Cinema Circus Bodes Well for NYC’s Fall Movie Season