289 is...a lot. At last count, that’s the number of feature films playing this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, an undertaking so mammoth that it would be foolish to encapsulate in this space. However, as with many endeavors where prestige is involved, there are a handful of films that, through the festival’s first few days, have gathered a certain amount of collective attention from critics. The sheer size of media presence at this year’s TIFF is impressive, especially that of our Criticwire members on the ground. While not all of them have shared their response yet (some prefer to wait until at least the end of the festival rather than provide insta-feedback), we’ve listed the current average grades for the films discussed.
THE IMPENDING THEATER FARE
Although TIFF is a major buyers’ market, there is a significant cadre of films playing at the festival that have distribution and release dates already set in stone. Whether you’re averse to the very mention of the phrase "awards season" or indulge in the prospect of bestowing many golden statuettes, these are titles that are likely to remain in the conversation in the coming months.
We compiled a number of the positive reactions to “Argo” coming out of Telluride late last month and so far, successive waves of adulation seem to be in full force. Emanuel Levy highlights a common theme in reviews for Ben Affleck’s new espionage thriller, that this is an effective evolution in the director’s career (and not just because it’s his first non-Boston-based output). "What makes 'Argo' Affleck’s most accomplished and fully realized work to date is a display of a unified, personal vision (which was missing from his first movie, “Gone Baby Gone”) and a masterful technical control over every element of the production," Levy writes.
With "Dredd" underperforming and the consensus not yet reached on "The ABCs of Death," the clear standout from this year’s Midnight Madness program is Martin McDonagh’s "In Bruges" follow-up "Seven Psychopaths." The LA-set story of writing and crime has apparently captured the wit and snappiness of McDonagh’s past work in a variety of media, but those who are praising the film are pointing out a certain depth beyond the punchlines. "Each strong jab in the ribs comes equipped with a dose of creative insight," Eric Kohn writes in his Indiewire review, adding "It's less a love letter to the writing process than a satire of those obsessed with it." The film’s meta moments didn’t work everyone, but it should be an effective entry into the ever-expanding "movies about movies" genre.
David O. Russell’s latest adaptation, "Silver Linings Playbook," is slated for a late-November release. Given audience’s response to the dysfunctional family subject matter at the film’s center, making it available in time for Thanksgiving is looking like the right move. Like "Argo," it has a deep, varied ensemble helping to drive the action (sure to feature prominently in our end-of-festival performance poll). Hitfix’s Gregory Ellwood highlights Jennifer Lawrence’s turn as Tiffany, the emerging love interest to Bradley Cooper’s Pat. Ellwood also points out Russell’s ability to handle the tone in a curveball manner. "Russell takes a dramatic situation that seems too heavy to play as pure entertainment and flips it on its head by making the everyday humor in a dysfunctional family fuel the film’s storyline," he explains.
With the initial returns on Mike Newell’s screen version of "Great Expectations" somewhat middling, "Anna Karenina" has filled the best-reviewed-literary-costume-drama void for the month. Joe Wright, working from a script by the legendary Tom Stoppard, directs Leo Tolstoy’s story with longtime collaborator Keira Knightley in the title role, in a film that seems to have plenty of Wright’s visual flair. Few are claiming that the film is a flawless film reworking, but the audacity has earned some notable respect. Noel Murray’s capsule review for the AV Club singles out the highly theatrical nature of Wright and Stoppard’s setup. "The technique should heighten the melodrama inherent in Tolstoy’s story; instead, it often makes the emotions seem more abstract...That said, Tom Stoppard’s script skillfully illuminates Tolstoy’s themes, giving each of the minor characters their due so that they can play out the questions of what forgiveness means, and whether the head can overrule the heart," Murray writes. The technical work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and composer Dario Marianelli are also strong contenders for discussions in their individual categories in the months to come.
THE NOTABLE VENICE CARRYOVER
As Ontario makes up its mind about the films of the first few days, it may be helpful to note a pair of films that were galvanized in Venice but have enjoyed general sustained success on the other side of the Atlantic.
Unlike many other films gaining positive consensuses at TIFF, Olivier Assayas' "Something in the Air" isn’t. In fact, multiple reviews have pointed out that the young political activists at the heart of Assayas’ tale can be grating in their unlikability. But as The Playlist’s Oliver Lyttelton points out, the camerawork and writing are the true spectacle on display. "Reteaming with regular DoP Eric Gautier ... virtually every frame of the film is gorgeous in a sun-dappled kinda way, a seemingly light-as-a-feather handheld camera telling the story with immense clarity, without ever becoming showy. Structurally, it’s also wonderfully loose, effortlessly shifting away from Gilles to side-characters without ever making them feel extraneous," Lyttelton writes. The general plot is inviting comparisons to Bernando Bertolucci’s "The Dreamers," but Assayas’ touch seems to be distinguishing the political side from becoming too familiar.
David D’Arcy’s capsule review of Rama Burshtein’s directorial debut "Fill the Void" is likely the most enthusiastic that the film’s received from a Criticwire member. An Orthodox Jewish family forced into difficult decisions after a daughter dies giving birth is not a light and breezy time in the theater. Nevertheless, D’Arcy writes that the film "is shot mostly in tight interiors or in vivid, often elegant close-ups by DP Asaf Sudry that bring an intimacy to this closed world without softening its hard barriers or condemning its intolerance. The storytelling is deliberate, nuanced and memorable, but don’t expect anything reassuring." Some may quibble with the assessment of the overall look of the film, but many are in agreement that the key performances do add significant depth to the narrative, including Irit Sheleg’s, which landed in the top Supporting Performances list of our Venice poll.
THE CAREER REGRESSION
Sadly, not every festival offering can be a success. Even if a film picks up a few casual enthusiasts, it’s difficult to ignore the majority of writers discussing a film’s shortcomings. When that particular film comes from the mind of a once-celebrated filmmaker, it’s more notable still.
Often noted for the political underpinnings of both his work and public life, Robert Redford appears to have, surprisingly, made a film without a substantive agenda. "The Company You Keep," in which Redford stars as a former member of the Weather Underground on the run from the authorities, lacks the political bite that most have come to expect from him as a filmmaker, whether or not they endorse his sentiments. It’s an impressive assemblance of cast members (Susan Sarandon, Sam Shepard, Shia LeBeouf and Brit Marling round out the principals), but like the overall film, many are arguing that they aren’t given enough to do to justify any significant emotional involvement. Simon Abrams’ review for The Playlist culminates with the observation that "while LaBeouf lazily chases Redford and viewers for the film’s two painfully protracted hour-runtime, Grant (Redford) and his friends didactically bicker about what’s right and what’s wrong without ever bothering to seriously interrogate their own assumptions about ethics."
There’s an important distinction surrounding reviews of Brian de Palma’s "Passion" that centers on intent. Those who see the melodrama as a helpful guide through the story of two international businesswomen caught in a web of intrigue give the longtime director style points and an accepting tip of the cap. But for many, the film’s campiness places it in the "misfire" side of De Palma’s recent filmography. Guy Lodge’s particularly scathing review for the In Contention blog trashes De Palma for losing the traditional vibrance he brings to projects like this. "It’s with no small amount of dismay that I say that ‘Passion,’ quite contrary to its title, is an eerily bloodless (if briefly ketchup-stained) contraption, a film noir so ploddingly un-alive to its own absurdities that its peaks of bad taste are rendered troughs by virtue of sheer humorlessness,” he laments. The strains of the film's detractors are outnumbering and out-voicing its defenders.
"The Tree of Life" was certainly one of the most enigmatic critical endeavors of 2011. With the spiritual and social elements wrapped up in a cosmic package, some marvelled while others just threw up their hands. Terrence Malick’s latest effort, "To the Wonder," seems to have filed more critics into the latter camp. Collective opinion may have been preemptively soured by its inauspicious Venice premiere, but the buzz has been bland nonetheless. Javier Bardem and Ben Affleck’s performances have been singled out as worthy elements in film driven mostly by visuals, but little else from the on-screen human contributions are gaining traction against the forces (or sweeping shots) of nature. In a line that could be prompted by few other filmmakers than Malick, Jordan Hoffman ended his Film.com review with this: “I conclude with the unenviable task of giving 'To the Wonder' a letter grade. I wish I could give it a 'Q,' because this movie exists far outside of the normal parameters of critique. It is so, so gorgeous, and there are instances that soar (and not solely Bardem’s), but it doesn’t add up."
To the Wonder: C+
As always, these grades are subject to change. Festival goggles being what they are, there’s a chance that theatrical engagements will eventually sway with public sentiment. But in the meantime, keep an eye on our Indiewire review roundup for any individual developments as TIFF 2012 enters its second half.