Rex Reed’s Top Picks from the 2023 Toronto Film Festival

If the dazzle was at an all-time low, the razzle was at an all-time high.

The gloom and doom persistently pumped out of Hollywood in the middle of the Writers Guild and SAG-AFTRA strikes cast a predictably shadowy pall over the just-ended 48th Toronto International Film Festival (a.k.a. TIFF). Red carpets with no stars, independent films for sale with no buyers, opening nights with no cocktails or late-night dinner parties. The result was a mellower, more laid-back TIFF than the world has come to expect. Local restaurants, hotels and limo companies were on the record complaining about disastrous revenues and wondering how business could survive a festival that used to account for $170 million in economic impact but was now reduced to half of the usual profit, while a diminished circus of fans and gawkers was guaranteed. The biggest restaurant booking this year was reportedly for 230 guests, down from the typical opening night parties of 500 last year. The streets were still closed to traffic and open to rock bands, but when the Hollywood stars don’t show up, neither do the photographers, the fans and the press.

But if the dazzle was at an all-time low, the razzle was at an all-time high. With more than 400 films from 43 countries projected over 10 days of screenings, lectures, discussions, workshops and special events, there was still plenty to see

A still from The Zone of Interest. Courtesy Film at Lincoln Center Press

‘The Zone of Interest’ is the first Holocaust movie of its kind

Stories about the horrors of the Holocaust have kept the movie industry energized for years. Every footnote to World War II about what the Nazis did to impact world history has been turned into a dramatic film as soon as it is discovered, revealed and reported, and this year’s TIFF program included no fewer than a dozen new ones, all received with positive critical and audience approval, proving the season ahead has plenty of seriousness for filmgoers to look for. At the top of the list, from the U.K. and Poland, was British director Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, a somber focus on the domestic life of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, his wife Hedwig, and their five children, all striving to maintain a semblance of “normalcy” in an idyllic home built on the edge of one of the most heinous concentration camps of the war. 

We forget the Nazis had homes, too, even if they were secluded behind bars. Filmed in Poland where the action took place, the movie eschews the usual scenes of torture and mass murder as the lumbering Höss (Christian Friedel) goes to work each day as though he’s on his way to a dull office job, while Hedwig (beautifully portrayed by rising German actress Sandra Hüller) gains weight preparing meals of meat and potatoes while ignoring the muffled screams on the other side of her garden wall. You don’t recoil from the violence you know is happening nearby, but you wince with the knowledge of what you don’t see, as Hoss and his business “associates” conduct conversations on how long it takes to burn a quota of 700 Jews a day and dispose of the ashes in an orderly, cost-effective manner.

You see Hedwig teach her children the names of flowers in their garden, fertilizing and cutting bouquets of phlox, dahlias and fragrant roses, and accompanying the family on a peaceful picnic to a bucolic lake, paying no attention to the smoke rising from chimneys in the distance. In one particularly disturbing scene, Hedwig tries on clothes and cosmetics, thrilled with excitement over a new mink coat. It takes a moment to realize the new acquisitions have been confiscated from freight cars depositing new arrivals marked for massive exterminations. The icy style, penetrating musical score and calm, straightforward camerawork make for a cold, masterful experience. Nothing startling in the way of action ever happens, and the film, based on the 2014 novel by the late Kingsley Amis, is slow as Christmas. Still, the realization that this is the first time, as far as I know, that the subject of the home life of Nazis posing as dull, ordinary citizens against a backdrop of war has ever been the subject of a major motion picture is probably one of the reasons The Zone of Interest won this year’s grand prize in Cannes and will follow its appearance in Toronto with next week’s New York Film Festival. I didn’t love it, but I consider it one for your must-see list. 

Nothing turns out as you expect it to in ‘Irena’s Vow’ 

Another major achievement on a similar note was Irena’s Vow, a well-documented but still hard-to-believe true story by Canada’s Louise Archambault, also filmed in Poland. In 1939, after Germany invaded Warsaw, the hospital where a dedicated nurse named Irene Gut Opdyke worked was bombed and she was assigned by the occupying Nazis to domestic duties in the home of a high-ranking German commandant, played with unexpected charisma by Dougray Scott. In a tough, demanding, non-stop centerpiece role, the marvelous young actress Sophie Nélisse from the hit TV series Yellowjackets demands undivided attention for two hours as an apolitical maid so devastated after witnessing the brutal murders of a baby and its mother that she makes a silent vow to save 12 Jewish refugees from their cruel fates by hiding them in the cellar of the Nazi colonel’s house where she lives and works. One harrowing narrow escape after the next creates hair-raising obstacles to her mission, further exacerbated when one of the Jewish refugees becomes pregnant and Irena refuses to allow an abortion as part of her vow.

Nothing turns out as you expect it to, and the ultimate challenge arrives when the Nazi colonel discovers the Jews and demands a sexual partnership from Irena at the same time in order to save everyone’s life. The story seems fantastic, but as the facts compile, actual postwar records reveal that Irena was imprisoned by the Soviets as a German collaborator. But the story didn’t end there. Now it was the Jews she saved whose turn was to save her.

I cannot wait to see ‘Lee’ again

Happily, among the pointless and pretentious drivel that plagues every film festival, Toronto 2023 was enhanced by several exemplary films of superior quality about real people challenging the world they live in that promise strong months ahead come awards season. I really loved Lee, a mesmerizing chronicle of highlights in the life and career of the great photojournalist Lee Miller, played with depth and passion by a sensational Kate Winslet. Among her many unparalleled triumphs that still inspire and educate younger generations about the truths of World War II were the liberation of Paris, the horrors of the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps, and the powerful faces of allies and enemies alike who changed the chapters of history. In scene after scene of staggering glory guided brilliantly by director Ellen Kuras, Lee captures the essence of a time and showcases a talent that never ceases to compel and captivate.

Among the odds she defied, she electrified astounded followers with the only photos ever taken of Hitler’s private living headquarters in the Berlin bunker, including the famous shot of herself in Life magazine, stripped naked and soaking in the hot water of the Fuehrer’s bathtub, holding up for the camera his favorite photo of himself for the world to see. Filmed in the U.K., Hungary and Croatia, Lee is one of the most profound films of the year, so crammed with information and revelation that I cannot wait to see it again.  

Tears were shed in the ‘One Life’ press preview

A triumph of equally moving value was One Life, the amazing true story of Sir Nicholas Winton (featuring another triumphant centerpiece performance by Anthony Hopkins), a mild-mannered London stockbroker who enjoyed a privileged life until 1938, when he read the news of the impending war and what was happening to hundreds of homeless Jewish children in Prague, arrested and facing annihilation by the Reich. Resolving to take whatever action he could, he and his mother Babette (Helena Bonham Carter) joined forces to devote their lives to years of fundraising and fighting bureaucracy to transport children to safety in England.

The story of his struggles and triumphs, framed by the letters and photos discovered when his wife (Lena Olin) asked him to clean out his old files and scrapbooks in the 1980s to make space for a forthcoming grandchild, the story unravels through 40 years of memory, culminating in a long-delayed BBC celebration attended by all 6,000 surviving family members of the children he saved, all of whom became a new family to the forgotten Sir Winton until he recently died at age 106. Many tears were shed in the press preview of this resurrected story and newly relevant film (marking the feature debut of television director  James Hawes) about the difference one person can make in a time of global crisis.

‘NYAD’ won me over—don’t even think of missing it

In a different context, another deservedly and widely applauded success won me over with the world premiere of NYAD, starring Annette Bening in a spirited, showstopping and award-caliber achievement as revered marathon swimmer Diana Nyad who, on September 20, 2013, after four exhausting, life-threatening failures and 35 years of retirement from sports to become a sportscaster, swam non-stop for 60 hours and miraculously became the first woman to cross the 103-mile shark-infested waters from Cuba to Miami without a shark cage, at the age of 64.

The film, boldly co-directed by husband-wife team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, frames Nyad’s perilous voyage through the Florida Straits with years of facts, but it is the passion and physical ardor of Bening, who does all of her own swimming, and co-star Jodie Foster, as her loyal, dedicated coach, best friend and former lover Bonnie Stoll, who keeps the narrative moving, compelled by the courage of the human spirit. Playing lesbians without a trace of makeup, both stars are all muscled arms, weathered lines and wrinkles. But their incredible talents bring Nyad’s story to life with overwhelming force. More about this amazing film when it opens commercially in theaters and Nov. 3 on Netflix. Don’t even think of missing this one.

Actors directing is never a good idea, but Michael Keaton did well with ‘Knox Goes Away’

With the strikes subverting jobs and creating cancellations throughout the industry, it’s been quite a year for actors turning into directors of their own projects (never a good idea, if you ask me). But it provided TIFF with the opportunity to invite a few artists to promote their films in a category approved by the acting unions. Best of the batch was Knox Goes Away, a fresh, clever and complicated new twist on crime and psychology starring and directed by Michael Keaton about a sophisticated and highly educated professional hitman named John Knox, diagnosed with a rare neurological disease that hastens dementia and leads to incurable mental collapse. With a prognosis that gives him only a few weeks to live, he starts making plans to tie up loose ends before he “goes away” forever, but his condition worsens when his estranged son (James Marsden) kills his 16-year-old daughter’s abusive boyfriend and turns to his Dad to cover up the crime.

With an impossibly short amount of time before his own end, the film follows Knox on his complex rituals, but it’s hard to do your old job right when your memory is fading fast. It doesn’t matter how many more bodies he has to add to the growing police confusion. His career is over and Knox is going away for good, so who cares? Marcia Gay Harden and Al Pacino head a stellar supporting cast, and although Keaton has been absent from the screen for a few years, he has forgotten nothing about holding a film together with centrifugal power and precision. 

Chris Pine, on the other hand, doesn’t know where to put the camera

I had just the opposite reaction to Poolman, an abhorrent gumbo of amateurish drabble that marks the dire directorial debut of Hollywood heartthrob Chris Pine, who also wrote a screenplay that appears to have been dictated on a rusty phone with a broken receiver. He plays a loony pool cleaner in a broken-down trailer with grandiose plans to re-design Los Angeles while directing an incomprehensible documentary and writing his daily dementia in fan letters to Erin Brockovich. He goes to bars and orders egg creams with cinnamon sprinkles, believes he’s being stalked by a tree, talks to and holds daily conversations with a lizard, and somehow uncovers a plot about city corruption and incest that is nothing more than a rip-off of Chinatown.

The film doesn’t make one word of sense, and I’m not exaggerating. As a director, he doesn’t know where to put the camera and his visuals include closeups of a bare foot. As a writer, his screenplay seems to have been scrawled with purple Crayolas. Almost every line in the script is moronic, but the worst line of the year has to be “People like me eat people like you. But you’re not even an appetizer. You’re an amuse-bouche.” With hair down to his navel and an ugly white beard, he even looks like a fool. Think Santa Claus in a bikini.

TIFF lived up to its promise of something for everyone

There was much more, including Ezra, a disappointing film with Robert DeNiro as a grandfather coping with the proper way to raise an autistic child, Sir Ian McKellan in The Critic as a fired London theater critic who commits murder to save his job on the aisle, Jessica Chastain as a lost and desperate member of Alcoholics Anonymous in the dreary, depressing Memory, and 24 vital documentaries about Sylvester Stallone, Paul Simon, the unexplored wilderness of Norway, the private life of the recently deceased spy novelist John LeCarre, the war in Ukraine, the Women’s World Cup, a summer camp for queer kids, and my favorite: the mercurial jazz legend Artie Shaw, whose swinging big band music made history and whose life was equally syncopated with high drama. (He was married to Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Jerome Kern’s daughter, and Kathleen Windsor, the author of Forever Amber.)  With a fascinating cast of friends and observers including Mel Torme, Helen Forrest, Buddy Rich and Evelyn Keyes, Artie Shaw: Time is All tackles enough material for several films instead of just one and leaves no chapter unfinished.

So in retrospect, TIFF lived up to its reputation for size, variety, and the promise of  “something for everyone”.  From a documentary about Sylvester Stallone 47 years after Rocky to a Stanislavski western about syphilis by Viggo Mortensen, you could safely call it a gauge of what to expect at the movies in the coming year. Considering the unprecedented crises that made it one of the most challenging festivals in TIFF history, they did the best they could and provided plenty to write home about. In the end, things may have collapsed at the movies from coast to coast, but at TIFF it was business as usual. 

Rex Reed’s Top Picks from the 2023 Toronto Film Festival