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Ranking Toronto International Film Festival Screenings


I saw a total of 45 feature selections during TIFF.  The following grades those with very brief notes under each title.  I will do longer reviews of the more significant films when they are released.  It is worth noting that the streaming giants (Netflix, Amazon) have become major players in both producing films and getting them to the public.  So increasingly, even if you do not live in a metropolitan centre with theatrical choices, more and more cinematic content is coming to your home screen.

TIFF Documentaries

Varda par Agnès (France 2019 https://mk2films.com/en/film/varda-by-agnes/)
A+
Agnès Varda, who died at age 90 this past March, is one of the great treasures of French cinema. This is both a reflection on her career and a master class in appreciation of the moving image.
The Cordillera of Dreams (Chile/France 2019)
A
From another master filmmaker, Chilean expatriate Patricio Guzmán, this memoir, alluding to his native country’s Andean spine, is the third in a trilogy exploring both landscape and a violent past.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (Canada/US 2019)
A-
The first Canadian documentary to open TIFF draws on the memoir by Canadian songwriting genius Robbie Robertson of his years in “The Band”, arguably the greatest folk-rock group of the 20th century. It reflects his perspective as one of only two surviving members of the five-man group.
Red Penguins (US/Germany/Russia 2019)
A-
A fascinating look at the NHL’s incursion into the Russian market in the wild years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the Pittsburgh Penguins bailing out the storied Red Army Team, and much else happening off the ice.
A-
Another penetrating exploration from director Alan Zweig that probes the sometimes traumatic experiences of police officers told in their own words.
Citizen K (UK/US 2019)
A-
From veteran documentarian Alex Gibney, this is the incredible story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky who went from the heights of post-Soviet oligarchy (creating Russia biggest oil company) to anti-Putin imprisonment and exile.
Western Stars (US 2019)
B+
Also the title of Bruce Springsteen’s latest album this will be a must for fans of “the boss”, the New Jersey singer-songwriter who just turned 70.

TIFF Dramas

The Two Popes (UK/Italy/Argentina/US 2019)
A+
This Netflix production helmed by Brazilian Fernando Meirelles is truly exceptional in exploring Jorge Bergoglio’s rise to the papacy and its recent history, notably the resignation of Pope Benedict that led to Pope Francis.  Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are at the height of their powers as respectively Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio/Pope Francis.
Parasite (South Korea 2019 https://www.parasite-movie.com/)
A
For the second year in a row the Cannes festival’s Palme d’Or has gone to an Asian director.  Bong Joon-Ho skewers the gullible rich in this savage satire of how a family living in squalor connives to become employed by an affluent couple with a young son. But after discovering something else in the basement, their takeover descends into the blackest comedy with a vengeance. Class war shouldn’t be this much fun to watch!
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (France 2019)
A
Writer-director Céline Sciamma won both best screenplay and the “queer palm” at Cannes for this luminous exquisite story of a female portrait painter in 18th century Brittany who is commissioned to do a portrait of an elusive sheltered young woman for her wedding engagement and becomes drawn to her subject beyond the female gaze.
A Hidden Life (Germany/US 2019 http://www.foxsearchlight.com/ahiddenlife/)
A
Writer-director Terrence Malick’s masterwork tells the story of an Austrian peasant farmer who risked imprisonment and death as a conscientious objector during the Nazi occupation. It’s dedicated to those whose hidden lives resist evil and based on his letters to his wife and three little girls. (He was beatified as a martyr by the Catholic Church in 2007.)
Corpus Christi (Poland 2019)
A
The astonishing story of a juvenile delinquent Daniel who upon his release from detention is able to impersonate a priest in a small town riven by the fatal consequences of a recent car accident. The fallout is both spiritual and personal. 
Terminal Sud (France/Algeria 2019)
A
In an unnamed country that evokes Algeria’s bloody past a doctor tends to the casualties, is abducted, tortured, and faces a harrowing existential choice.
Clemency (US 2019)
A
Awarded the grand jury prize at Sundance, a female African-American warden of an American prison must oversee executions by lethal injection, following the protocols of bureaucratic barbarism. To call it intense is an understatement.
Sorry We Missed You
A
British master filmmaker Ken Loach tells another absorbing story of working families struggling under the pressures of contemporary capitalism—in this case those of the “new economy” driven by social media and fast delivery in which caring for people can get left behind.
JoJoRabbit (Germany/US 2019 http://www.foxsearchlight.com/jojorabbit/)
A-
I confess I voted for this winner of the “People’s Choice Award” in which anarchic Kiwi director Taika Waititi plays Adolph Hitler and mentor to the boy Nazi of the title, whose mother is hiding a young Jewish girl.  The audaciously outré “anti-hate” satire was massively acclaimed by TIFF audiences while severely dividing critics.  It succeeds in leaving no one indifferent.
Just Mercy (US 2019)
A-
A dramatization of the work of crusading Harvard-educated lawyer Bryan Stevenson who moved to the deep south to work with local advocates for the wrongly convicted, especially those on death row including the notable case of Walter McMillian.
Pain and Glory (Spain 2019)
A-
Spanish master Pedro Almodóvar delivers a semi-autobiographical reflection on the moments of a career from the maternal love of childhood onwards to other key relationships in the intersection of life and art.
The Lighthouse (US/Canada)
A-
Nova Scotia is the setting for this dark stormy tale of two men in a remote lighthouse.  Great performances by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as well as cinematic magic in the atmospheric play of light and shadow.
Chicuarotes (Mexico 2019)
A-
Actor-director Gael García Bernal (also in Ema) helms this story set amid the struggle for survival on Mexican mean streets where crime and domestic abuse are rampant. The casting of local non actors gives it a powerful authenticity.
Honey Boy (US 2019)
A-
Actor Shia Labeouf plays his own father, an abusive former rodeo clown, from a script that he developed while in rehab. Noah Jupe plays the young “Otis” at age 12, and Lucas Hedges is Otis at 22 as he struggles with the legacy of addictions.
A-
Noah Jupe also has a role in this true story about how in the 1960s ace car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) convinced the boss of Ford to take on Ferrari in the 24 hours of Le Mans race which Ferrari had dominated. The other key character is volatile ace driver Ken Miles (a superb Christian Bale looking nothing like his Dick Cheney role in last year’s Vice). 
Bad Education (US 2019)
A-
Thankfully this isn’t an American remake of the 2004 Almodóvar film but the true story, uncovered by a student reporter, of an enormous public school embezzlement scandal involving a superintendent of schools and a corrupt business manager.  Hugh Jackman is excellent as the suave superintendent who poses as a “widower” but is actually a gay man with lovers in different cities.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (US/China https://www.abeautifulday.movie/)
B+
Tom Hanks plays the much loved TV personality Fred Rogers and Matthew Rhys is the skeptical journalist Lloyd Vogel, assigned to do a magazine piece, who is also troubled by a deep estrangment from his father. The relationship that develops between Rogers and Vogel offers a welcome note of empathy and kindness in these cynical times. 
Marriage Story (US 2019, coming to Netflix)
B+
Writer-director Noah Bamubach’s searing portrait of a relationship falling apart, with an eight-year son caught in the middle, had a few too many melodramatic episodes for my taste as mercenary lawyers get involved and raise the stakes. Still Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson (also in JoJo Rabbit) are in top form as the quarreling couple.
The Report (US 2019)
B+
Based on the actual events of the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s landmark investigation in the CIA’s use of torture on detainees post 9/11, Adam Driver stars as the committee’s lead researcher on a team that pursues the truth in the face of bureaucratic national security roadblocks and pressures to suppress evidence and prevent any public release of the findings. 
It Must Be Heaven (France/Qatar/Germany/Canada/Turkey/Palestine 2019)
B+
Nazareth-born writer-director Elia Suleiman is a masterful observer of the human comedy as exemplified in this wry take on life’s absurdities which nonetheless holds out hope for the Palestinian future, even if not in this lifetime.
The Perfect Candidate (Saudi Arabia/Germany 2019)
B+
Also from the Middle East, female Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s third feature centres on the determination of a young female Saudi doctor’s determination to run for office in local elections, underlining the contradictions of the kingdom and its oppressive gender segregated restrictions.
The Truth (France/Japan 2019)
B+
Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, who took the Palme d’Or in 2018 for Shoplifters, ventures into new territory with this story of a fraught relationship between a mother and daughter after the mother Fabienne (played by French screen legend Catherine Deneuve) publishes a memoir and is confronted by daughter Lumir (played by another great French actress Juliette Binoche). This may be a minor work but it’s a delight just to see Deneuve and Binoche together on screen.  
Workforce (Mexico 2019)
B+
The owner of a mansion under construction tries to evade responsibility for a workplace fatality. When he dies with no heirs the workers move in but there are further tragedies and complications as others arrive and try to assert squatters’ rights.
A White White Day (Iceland/Denmark/Sweden 2019)
B+
After the wife of a police chief dies in a car crash in heavy fog, he begins to suspect a local man of having had an affair with her.  His suspicions become obsessions that spiral into uncontrollable grief and threats of violence that take a toll on his loved ones as well.
The County (Iceland/Germany/Denmark/France 2019)
B+
Rural Iceland is the setting for another excellent feature, this one helmed by Grímur Hákanarson (Rams). After a farm wife is widowed she is determined to keep the dairy operation going despite the pressures brought by a powerful co-op cartel that has become a self-serving monopoly. She starts a movement for dairy producers to unite while facing the threat of bankruptcy and eviction.  She’s a woman at war with the local powers.
Lyrebird (US 2019)
B+
Based on Jonathan Lopez’s nonfiction account The Man Who Made Vermeers, in Holland in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War a wealthy artist and art dealer Han van Meegernen (Guy Pearce) goes on trial accused of collaboration with the Nazis including selling them Dutch masterworks. But an Allied soldier investigator (Claes Bang) believes in van Meergen’s innocence as a master forger who duped his Nazi clients.
The Burnt Orange Heresy (UK/Italy)
B+
Claes Bang (The Square) also stars in this art-obsessive story based on a 1971 novel. Bang plays a renowned but unscrupulous art critic who enters into a pact with a wealthy collector (Mick Jagger) for access to a reclusive artist (Donald Sutherland).  It will lead to disturbing revelations and even murder.
Seberg (UK/US 2019)
B+
Kristen Stewart plays the girl from Iowa Jean Seberg who became an acclaimed actress of the French “New Wave” after starring in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. She was also a political activist who supported the Black Panthers and was obsessively spied upon by Hoover’s FBI.  In 1968 Seberg left her husband and young son behind to take a role in the US.  After becoming involved with radical Black activist Hakim Abdullah Jamal her life was destined to take a tragic turn.
Spider (Chile/Argentina/Brazil 2019)
B+
This remarkable drama of vigilante violence goes back to the turbulent year of 1971 when three friends were part of a far-right “Fatherland and Liberty” movement (under the sign of a spider) engaging in acts of sabotage against the socialist Allende government which would be overthrown by a military coup. One, an assassin who became a “martyr”, returns from exile as the past haunts the present with shocking consequences.  
Ema
B
Chilean director Pablo Larraín moves away from his acclaimed political drama to focus on the transgressive sexual relationships of a group of “Reggaeton” dancers in a story that also involves an adopted Colombian boy.
Guest of Honour (Canada 2019)
B
The latest from veteran auteur Atom Egoyan centres on a daughter’s complicated relationship with her recently deceased father. A teacher, she has served prison time for an inappropriate relationship with a student and seems to want the maximum punishment. He was an embittered public health inspector, the terror of restaurant owners. Mal appetit?
Blow the Man Down (US 2019)
B
In this intermittently effective sea shanty set in wintry Maine, two sisters are grieving the loss of their mother as the murder of a young woman needs to be solved, with possible links to the town’s brothel known to a circle of older women.   
Uncut Gems (US 2019)
B
Helmed by brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, this is a frenetic noisy ride that ends with a bullet to the brain.  The protagonist in this swear-a-thon of mumbled dialogue is a sleazy Jewish gambler and gem dealer played by Adam Sandler in overdrive.
Endings, Beginnings (US/South Korea 2019)
B-
In this minor relationship melodrama from Drake Doremus, Shailene Woodley plays Daphne, a young woman who in the aftermath of a breakup toggles between two male lovers. Text messages appear on screen in pastel hues. There’s a dog, and later she decides to have a child on her own.
The Barefoot Emperor (Belgium/Netherlands/Croatia/Bulgaria 2019) http://thebarefootemperor.com/)
B-
In this mocking satire of far-right nationalism the last king of the Belgians gets shot in Sarajevo and is then confined to treatment on what was Tito’s private island where, triggered by the collapse of the European Union, he is proclaimed the first emperor of “Nova Europa” by a Dr. Ilse von Stroheim. An absurdity too far.
Frankie (France/Portugal 2019)
C+
Despite the presence of the great Isabelle Huppert in the title role, this minor melodrama from Ira Sachs is so low-key it quickly fades.  “Frankie” has a terminal illness when she invites family members (including current and ex-husbands) and a stylist friend to a last gathering in Portugal. A treasured bracelet has a role but not much happens before the subjects walk into the sunset. 
C+
Natalie Portman plays a female astronaut Lucy Cola (based on the life of Lisa Nowak) who is transfixed by her experience in space but then goes off the rails after having an affair with a fellow astronaut. Somehow the impact is underwhelming.
I Was Home … But
C
There are donkeys, dogs, and rabbits in this baffling narrative that appears to centre on a teenage boy and his mother.  The boy, who is performing in a school production of Hamlet, disappears for a time.  The mother has bad luck buying a bicycle through a classified ad, and gets into an argument with a filmmaker.  Make of it what you can.



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