Views From the Toronto International Film Festival

Leaving the Toronto International Film Festival a year ago, multiple films seemed primed to start their Oscar race. La La Land seemed like a clear frontrunner and a smaller film called Moonlight was starting to get a lot of attention. Those films ended up duking it out all awards season, culminating in the most dramatic ceremony of all time.  This year, no film in particular has pulled ahead of the rest of the pack. It is odd to leave the festival with little clarity on how the rest of the year will pan out. I, Tonya, the Margot Robbie starring Tonya Harding biopic, and Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin’s Jessica Chastain starring directorial debut, were two of the buzziest premiers of the festival. However, neither seem primed to take it all the way to Best Picture. Darkest Hour, which features Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, seems to be a sure thing nominee in the Best Picture and Best Actor categories. As evidenced last year with Moonlight’s surprising Best Picture win, the new class of younger and more diverse Oscar voters may not respond as strongly to a traditional prestige release. The People’s Choice Award was given to Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The film stars Frances McDormand as a mother who calls out local law enforcement via billboard for dropping the ball on the investigation of her daughter’s murder. McDormand will likely receive a Best Actress nod, but the film itself is not guaranteed a Best Picture slot. With most films on the fall schedule having been screened at this point, it will be interesting to see what films will dominate the awards conversation in the next couple of months. 

Brad’s Status

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” This could be the thesis statement of Brad’s Status. Written and directed by Mike White (School of Rock, Beatriz at Dinner, the HBO series Enlightened) and starring Ben Stiller in one of his signature sad sack roles, Brad lives a comfortable upper-middle class life with his government worker wife and their son. However, Brad’s college friends went on to become billionaires and political pundits. Seeing the public, glamorous lives of his former classmates undermines any happiness he finds. When Brad takes his son to visit colleges, his wife drops them off at the airport with the parting words of “Be present!”. Brad is rarely present, constantly narrating his current life from somewhere in the future. He is always either romanticizing or lamenting how he has been held back from “selling out,” all accompanied by a tense, minimal score by Mark Mothersbaugh. Despite his often cringeworthy commentary, Brad is often relatable. Holding up a mirror to his audiences’ worst behaviors and insecurities is a Mike White trademark.

In theaters now

The Florida Project

The Florida Project is director Sean Baker’s follow up to his breakout film, Tangerine. That film followed 24 hours in the lives of two transgendered sex workers, shot completely on iPhone 5s. Baker has traded in the iPhones for stunning 35mm to shoot the story of people living in budget motels in Orlando, Florida. What sounds like a bleak premise is actually a joyful, yet realistic portrayal of who Baker calls “the hidden homeless.” A different film could have followed one of the adults living in the motel or focused on Willem Dafoe’s motel manager and reluctant guardian of the residents. Baker chooses to follow Moonee, a six-year old girl who lives in the Magic Castle motel with her young mother Halley. Moonee and Halley are played by Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite, both first time actors that Baker draws incredible, realistic performances out of.  There isn’t really a plot to The Florida Project, just a series of adventures that Moonee goes on with her friends. Their environment is a mixture of Florida wilderness and brightly painted stores designed to attract Disney budget tourists. Baker shoots the garish setting beautifully. I found myself just as taken with the imagery here as I was watching Dunkirk. Instead of fighter jets soaring through a pink sky, it’s Willem Dafoe leaning over the balcony of his pink motel, lighting up a cigarette as the sun sets and the motel lights flicker on. The Florida Project is an ode to a joyful, but complicated childhood. It reminds me of one of my favorite films of last year, American Honey, which also depicted the often difficult lives of the lower class of America. These are important films to watch, but that doesn’t mean they have to be only depressing or difficult. There is plenty of joy to be found in the unglamorous.

In wide release November 3rd

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the the Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow up to last year’s The Lobster, which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Lanthimos has kept the same blunt manner of speaking from The Lobster as well as his star, Colin Farrell. Farrell plays a surgeon named Steven Murphy who has taken a teenage boy, Martin, under his wing out of guilt for losing his father on the operating table years ago. Martin eventually reveals his longtime grudge with Steven. His plan for revenge puts Steven’s entire family at risk of dying a slow and painful death, unless he can bring himself to kill one of them first. The family try pleading with Martin, but when they realize that he sees this as the only way to even the score, they turn against each other to stay in the life or death good graces of their father. Nicole Kidman is a highlight as Steven’s wife. She somehow makes Lanthimos’ stilted dialogue sound natural. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is much darker than The Lobster, but still has much of the same humor. The audience at the screening I attended often laughed out loud. The Lobster made its metaphor for society’s focus on romantic relationships much more clear than any themes in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It could be seen as a metaphor for the fragility of family ties in the face of any true crisis, but Lanthimos has no desire to spell anything out. He seems to know that half the fun of watching his work is trying to parse out meaning yourself.

In wide release November 17th


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