The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), founded in 1976 and an event that I have now attended twice in a row, this year ran September 5-15. Just before the festival began, I offered my recommendation of 20 films for which I had high hopes, including some that I knew I would be unable to see, given that I was only in attendance from the night of Thursday, September 5, through late afternoon on Monday, September 9. Now that the festival has officially ended, here is my list of 10 favorites – 5 documentaries and 5 narratives – from among the many more that I watched (24 in total). Just one of them – Jojo Rabbit – was among the award winners (it took the “Grolsch People’s Choice Award,” otherwise known as the audience favorite), but that’s OK. The films, below, are all exceptional, I promise. Here they are, in alphabetical order, by category.
Top 5 Documentaries:
On the night of October 30, 2015, a fire broke out at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania, killing 27 and injuring an additional 180. More would die in the days and weeks ahead, many from injuries that could have been better treated in other countries, if only they had been sent there rather than kept home out of national pride. Romania, over 15 years since the fall of communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, was still mired in corruption and cronyism, and the state health system was unable to cope with the disaster, leaving many patients in unsterile hospital environments where they were overcome by deadly bacteria. If that sounds gruesome and a terrible way to die, it is. Even more than the fire, itself, this scandal led to the resignation of all top government officials, leaving a provisional government of technocrats in charge while the country readied for new elections the following year. In this remarkable new documentary, we are right there, a witness to an unfolding disaster.
“Heimat” means homeland, though I understand, after talking to some real live Germans, that it also means more, perhaps connoting comfort and sense of self. In this particular treatment of the subject, we journey through time – the very medium of the moving image – to the end of World War I, meeting Heise’s grandfather Wilhelm. From there we travel slowly towards the present, meeting the grandmother, then her children, and then, finally, Heise himself. He narrates, though until the very last scenes the voice we hear is always reading letters and documents, rather than speaking his own words. It’s an epistolary film, where the thoughts of Wilhelm, eventual wife Edith, their son Wolfgang (Thomas’s father) and his wife Rosie, then Thomas’s brother Andreas, and then … Thomas Heise, who closes out this long odyssey. Accompanying the audio are archival photographs, drawings, official papers and modern-day shots of locations referred to in the voiceover. It is slow, meditative and profound.
Leila and Sahand have a son, named Mani. He is the titular “love child” of the new documentary by Eva Mulvad (The Good Life), born out of wedlock to parents each married to someone else. While adultery is usually problematic for those involved, it is not generally life-threatening, though that depends on where one lives. Leila and Sahand are from Iran, where this transgression could lead to their execution, by stoning or by other methods. What to do, then? Flee. We meet them in medias res, packing up and leaving for Turkey, separately – Leila and Mani together, Sahand alone – and there reuniting once across the border. It is 2012, and for the next 6 years Mulvad and her crew will follow the threesome as they struggle to build a life in their new home. Will they succeed? Watch on. The twists and turns may surprise you.
Who knew that there could even be such a thing as a “deported veteran”? How is that possible? It seems self-evident that, irrespective of initial legitimacy, anyone who has risked their life defending a country should be made an instant citizen, especially if they have been promised as much. Well, yes and no. As director Andrew Renzi explains, following the cases of two veterans, in particular – Miguel Perez and Hector Barajas – the problems arise when individuals run into post-service trouble with the law. Many vets suffer from some form of PTSD or other psychological trauma, or injury, or are unable to readjust to life as civilians, and turn to drugs and/or alcohol, which leads to bad decision-making and more. Once arrested, if they are not yet full citizens, they can be deported and then these highly trained veterans become targets for recruitment from the drug cartels, eager to put their military skills to use. Underlying the entire documentary is a sense of quiet outrage, as Renzi outlines one reason after another to fix this broken system.
British journalist Robert Fisk has been around the block, if not around the entire globe (though he has certainly traveled a good deal), having reported from the Middle East since the late 1970s, first for The Times of Londonand then The Independent. Firmly embedded in the region – he lives in Beirut – he takes his position as a member of the Fourth Estate very seriously, never afraid to speak truth to power, no matter who wields it. As he puts it succinctly, towards the end of this fascinating documentary profile of him from Yung Chang (China Heavyweight), “This is not a movie.” Meaning life. Meaning the stakes of what goes on in this world are not illusory, but affect us all. From his reporting on the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, where Israeli forces allowed a Lebanese Christian militia to execute large numbers of Palestinian refugees, to his current-day accompaniment of a displaced Palestinian man as he visits his long-since erased family estate, to his ride-along with Syrian forces to the frontlines of conflict, Fisk has never played it safe. We need voices, however much in the wilderness they may seem, like his, and thanks to Chang’s gripping portrait, Fisk’s voice is now beautifully recorded for posterity.
Top 5 Narratives:
Norwegian director Maria Sødahl’s Hope, loosely based on her own autobiographical experience, tells the story of a fortysomething woman – a professional theater artist who is a mother of three and step-mother to another three – as she receives what seems like a devastating, fatal cancer diagnosis. What makes it even worse is that this comes just before Christmas and barely a year after a previous cancer was deemed to be in remission. To top it all off, neither she nor her romantic companion – father to all six children – feel all that romantically towards each other, anymore. The stage is set for a horrific drama where bad things happen to good people and we wallow in the misery of their grief. Fortunately, Sødahl, despite her personal stake in the narrative – or perhaps because of it – understands that the tragedy of death arises out of the joy of life. In her mission, she is aided by two searing performances from leads Andrea Bræin Hovig (An Affair) and Stellan Skarsgård (HBO’s Chernobyl). By the end, no matter the outcome, we recognize that we have spent time in the company of people worth knowing, and of a director who values our time spent watching her story.
Though attacking fascism, whether through satire or polemics, may have seemed, after World War II, like going after a soft target, that once-hard truth has recently seemed, itself, to soften. If we’re living in the upside down, let’s right the ship and restore sanity to the world. It’s okay to take down Nazis, in other words, so do so with gusto and pride, and by any means necessary. Or, even better, with comic brio, as does screenwriter/director/actor Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) in his newest farce, Jojo Rabbit. Based on the novel Caging Skies, by Christine Leunens, the movie follows 10-year-old Johannes (or Jojo) Betzler as he enters the glorious ranks of the Hitler Youth. The place is a small town in Germany and the time is 1944 (or so). Where Roberto Benigni’s 1998 Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful too often wallowed in the sentimentality of its earnest premise – a father protecting his son by pretending that the Nazi barbarity is one big prank – here Waititi treats the reality with the gravity it merits, even while casting ridicule on all fascists and would-be fascists, striking hard and fast with vicious and very funny barbs. Bullies deserve to be laughed at, and with Jojo Rabbit, they get their due.
Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska’s first film in English takes the viewer on a disturbing journey both geographic and metaphysical, following a cult as it slowly descends into madness. Or rather, even more madness than usual, for a cult. This particular group is made up exclusively of women, save for the leader, a man called “Shepherd.” Played by Michiel Huisman (The Invitation), coifed in flowing Jesus-like locks, Shepherd acts as polygamous priest, alternating between sermons and seduction, sampling his subjects at will. There are two categories of women: wives and daughters. While the daughters all seem victims of a situation they didn’t choose, the older wives are first-generation cult members, having chosen this life to escape misfortune or other, never-specified, trauma. Among the daughters is one, Selah (Raffey Cassidy, Vox Lux), who at first appears deeply enamored of Shepherd, happy to be one among the many worshippers. Slowly, however, as she watches his behavior and recognizes its full import, not only for her future but for that of the entire group, she begins to question the construct in which she has been steeped.
Though Maryam is a licensed physician, she has trouble earning respect from some of her patients. She’s also distressed that every day, on her way into work, she has to walk over an unpaved road that has lately turned into mud, which also prevents ambulances from getting close to the hospital entrance. The reason for the first issue is that Maryam practices in Saudi Arabia, a country with a mandated strict separation between the sexes, and some older and/or conservative men find the idea of a female doctor abhorrent. The reason for the second problem is that her municipal district, for whatever reason, neglects her clinic, the only one that serves patients in her area, leaving it almost impossible to approach. While Maryam cannot solve the first situation, she can do something about the other, and so decides to run for local office. Making her first cinematic return to her homeland since Wadjda (released in the U.S. in 2013), director Haifaa al-Mansour shows the best kind of tough love a prodigal offspring can, offering honor and criticism, intertwined, in a thoroughly engaging mix.
A delightful, sometimes clumsy but always intriguing adaptation of Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel, David Copperfield – full original title “The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account)” – director Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield offers a spirited performance by Dev Patel (Lion) in the titular role and a rousing ensemble to back him up. As good as Patel may be, he is almost overshadowed by newcomer Jairaj Varsani as his younger self, so engaging is the boy’s incarnation of “Master Davey.” Irrespective of who is on screen when, however, the film is a rousing good time, though at intervals inconsistent in its application of Iannucci’s trademark irreverent nuttiness. Those expecting full-bore manic folly à la his Veep (the HBO series) or last year’s The Death of Stalin may come away wishing he had not pulled some comic punches here, but there is still enough mayhem to entertain, and more. Like his modern-day namesake, this David Copperfield delivers plenty of magic.
And that’s it! See you next year!