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Trapped in the Bubble – Highlights from Toronto Film Fest ’14

When you’re at a film festival, you’re in a bubble – a cinema-wide bubble that includes only the story playing out on the screen in front of you. Walking out of my second film of the fest, the bubble was popped by the news of Joan Rivers’ death. But hurrying off to catch another film on the oh-so-tight schedule meant there was only time for a few quick obit reads and celeb tweets before it was time to go back into it.

And so my bubble grew, screening after screening, bigger and bigger, until I was deep inside a world where Jake Gyllenhaal was a entrepreneurial maniac and Minnie Driver the mother of a pop-star. 

While the rest of the world was buzzing about the new iPhone launch, I had just come out of 99 Homes, disturbed the greed today’s day-and-age justified in Michael Shannon’s character, and headed for an exploration of scientist Stephen Hawking’s love life in The Theory of Everything. It was only hours later I learnt exactly how big the new models are and that U2 had surreptitiously deposited their latest album in everyone’s iTunes account.  

But my TIFF bubble this year wasn’t as exciting as last year’s.

Most of the stand-out films I’d already seen – Whiplash at Sundance, Foxcatcher at Cannes. Three of my favourite films were ones I missed at Cannes, because I had to leave a little earlier than usual this year. The ones I loved the most had sub-titles, but I did really like a few others, and there were some stand-out performances in okay films. 

Of the 25 or so films I saw, these were my highlights…

The Films I’d Recommend Without Hesitation

Mommy - Canadian director Xavier Dolan has a reputation for being a film-making wunderkind, who at the age of 25 has become a Cannes darling, having premiered 4 movies there. This year he won the Jury Prize for Mommy, a film I heard nothing but praise for.  It deals with the mother of a teenager who has ADHD and the neighbour who helps them find some kind of normalcy in a world where parents can drop off children they can’t deal with into the hands of the state. The music (standout use of Celine Dion’s On Ne Change Pas), the actors (Dolan’s frequent collaborator Anne Dorval as the Mommy and Antoine-Oliver Pilon as her son), the cinematography (aptly mirroring moments of exuberance and sadness) – all come together to create a moving slice of life with characters who are just trying their best to make a life for themselves and those they love.

Timbuktu - the power a film holds to bring a story to life off the pages of a newspaper or on an Internet screen is held within these 97 minutes from Abderrahmane Sissako. It’s one thing to have read about the militant Islamic occupation of the Malian city, but it’s another to see people oppressed for artistic expression. It’s something made even more poignant by being at a festival, enjoying movies and the natural right to see them.

Girlhood - you’ll have heard of Boyhood, and while this film isn’t as long in length and it didn’t take over a decade to shoot, it still offers deep insight into the traditional coming-of-age story – but from the point of view of a girl. A French teenager tries to find her place in a gang that she yearns to be accepted by, but also wants to stand out from. Again, there’s another fantastic music scene in the film, where Rihanna’s Diamonds is given a semi-alternative music video – one I think works even better than the original!

Wild - Cheryl Strayed’s writing is gorgeous enough on its own. The way she articulates her experience of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is one of those stories that makes you wonder how a film would be able to capture the internal back-and-forth’ing that goes on in her mind and is captured so well in her autobiographical novel. Jean-Marc Vallee does an admirable job, together with Nick Hornby who wrote the screenplay and Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl. You experience the journey with her, and how she learns to put herself “in the way of beauty,” as Vallee’s eye creates it. Hopefully the Oscar buzz around Witherspoon lasts, because she deserves it.

The Theory of Everything - Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones play British scientist Stephen Hawking and his first wife – a woman who signs up for a lifetime of care-giving, patience and love. She is a rock throughout this film, and Redmayne shows the humanity and comedic moments that aren’t always seen on screen in people with disabilities. I was moved me to tears. But leaving the cinema, I had to wonder why the film didn’t really show us much of the hardships Hawking must’ve faced at the onset of motor neuron disease, and how ugly things must have got when he divorced the wife who’d stood by him for 30 years for a nurse. That aside, Redmayne and Jones make a stellar pairing.

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I also saw and liked…

Nightcrawler - Jake Gyllenhaal is terrifyingly good as a model prospective employee who uses all the right words and catchphrases – in all the wrong ways! He’s a poster-boy for the TMZ/Vice generation, and it’s more his character than the actual story of how he goes about breaking into the biz itself that kept me hooked.

99 Homes  – Michael Shannon impresses in this story of our times, and how desperate people make desperate money. He plays alongside Andrew Garfield, who flexes his non-superhero muscle in this film by playing an everyman evicted from his family home. It’s topical, urgent and begs for empathy.

The Drop - Tom Hardy and a puppy, what more do you need to enjoy a film? (Between Hardy’s dog and Bill Murray’s cat in Saint Vincent, four-legged friends got decent screen-time at TIFF this year.) Hardy is an unassuming Brooklyn bar-tender caught up in a scheme involving James Gandolfini’s character’s bar. The two, together with Matthias Schoenaerts, are a treat to watch onscreen together.

Saint Vincent - Bill Murray is the best-kind-of-grumpy-old-man-who-grows-on-you while newcomer Jaeden Lieberher wins you over instantly with his kid wit. Naomi Watts as a Russian stripper is an inspired choice in this sweet dramedy.

While We’re Young – Noah Baumbach has stitched together a humorous take on all the things we admire and dislike about being young and getting older in the time we live in right now – sharing versus stealing, what success means, having kids versus having experiences. I thoroughly enjoyed this – added bonus in seeing Ben Stiller try to become a hipster!

Beats of the Antonov - a fascinating documentary about how music plays a part in the identity and cultures of people living in Sudan, where planes flying overhead with bombs is a daily reality.

Films I Heard Good Buzz About But Didn’t See…

Still Alice, in which Julianne Moore plays a woman with Alzheimers and The Imitation Game, in which Benedict Cumberbatch brings the little-known story of scientist Alan Turing’s cracking the Nazi Enigma Code but being persecuted for being gay.

Other Fab Festival Moments…

Interviewing Al Pacino, who had two films he was promoting Manglehorn and The Humbling, in which he is a washed-up theatre actor who falls in love with the lesbian daughter of family friends, played by Greta Gerwig, and finding him to be a lot funnier in real life than I expected. No more so than when he said he was afraid of heights and then walked over to the edge of a large window and started playing around about said fear.

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Bill Murray Day!

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Seeing the promos for TIFF’s upcoming Kubrick exhibition – a reason as any to return to T.Dot very soon!

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