10 days. 29 movies. The Guardian’s Natalie Tran returns to Toronto for the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
My journey across the Canadian border for the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival entailed surviving almost exclusively on granola bars and Tim Hortons, listening to “The Adventure Zone” podcast while waiting in block-wrapping lines, and of course, watching movies. Oh so many movies. My dad had warned me beforehand that I’d see enough to throw up. I realized one day, as I fought past screaming fans and photographers to get to my fourth screening of the day, that his joke wasn’t far from the truth. In the 10 days of the festival, which ran from Sept. 5 to Sept. 15, I saw 29 films. Here are my personal highlights.
The “Who’s Cutting Onions in a Movie Theater”: “The Friend”
There were many tearjerkers at TIFF (my screening of “Just Mercy” had someone uncontrollably sobbing), but “The Friend” takes the cake. Not twenty minutes went by without people around me sniffing and blowing their noses. Dakota Johnson, a terminally ill cancer patient, Casey Affleck, her husband, and Jason Segel, their best friend, are touching, funny, and tear-inducing. Based on a true story that explores common dynamics like the dysfunctional family, “The Friend” doesn’t reinvent the drama genre. Nonetheless, as an intimate look at mortality, forgiveness, and love, the film is content with telling a very honest, very human story — while pulling at some heartstrings.
The “Most Likely to Give You a Stroke”: “Uncut Gems”
Exiting the theater, I was concerned. Was my heart racing because of this unrelenting, anxiety-ridden rollercoaster of a film, or because Adam Sandler and Idina Menzel just autographed my ticket? “Uncut Gems” stars Sandler in one of his few “serious” roles (and perhaps his best role to date): an unlucky diamond jeweler running a long tab in unkind New York City. I can’t say I technically enjoyed a movie that was loud, ugly, crude, and depressing, but I admit that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the hypnotic decay and destruction onscreen. Sandler’s strong talent along with Benny and Josh Safdie’s stylish direction keep an uncomfortable movie experience from becoming an unpleasant one. That’s a pretty remarkable feat, and I must give credit where it’s due.
The “SHE’S in This?”: “Knives Out”
Hold up: Jamie Lee Curtis, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Toni Colette, and several other “wait, I recognize that person” actors, all playing potential culprits in a murder mystery movie? Watching beloved stars go at each other’s throats and battle for the best one-liners is like witnessing the Hollywood version of an MMA match. The stellar cast, eccentric energy, and witty humor make this modern whodunnit plenty worth watching, but the mystery at the center of the film is disappointingly tame and predictable in its buildup and reveal. In the post-screening Q&A, I asked director Rian Johnson if, when making the movie, he had other culprits in mind for the film. He said no, but I wish he had.
The “I Need to Google Everything”: “Parasite”
Writer-director Bong Joon-ho, behind “Snowpiercer” and “Okja,” returned to the festival circuit with the hit Korean thriller, “Parasite.” For fear of spoiling the movie’s twists, the only thing you should know about this movie is that it’s about what happens when two socioeconomically disparate families meet. When you’re thinking, “What the hell happened?” afterward, go venture onto Google and read up on the film’s richly layered symbolism and thought-provoking messages of economic inequality, materialism, technology, and family.
The “Cinematic Equivalent of a Lap Dance”: “Hustlers”
Smart, sexy, and funny, “Hustlers” is a ridiculously satisfying romp of a movie. Its dazzling, female-led cast features Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez as strip club dancers scamming CEOs and Wall Street traders. With an Oscar-buzzing performance by Lopez, a bopping soundtrack that includes both Britney Spears and Frédéric Chopin, and a surprisingly sharp and hilarious script, “Hustlers” stylishly and successfully combines the best of comedy and heist drama. But don’t mistake it for being all flash and no substance. “Hustlers” engages with biting social commentary on capitalism and the strip club industry, all while putting on a good show. Just throw your money at it already.
The “It’s Good, But…”: “Joker”
If you’ve been following film gossip, then you’d know that hotly debated controversy surrounds “Joker” regarding its release potentially sparking real-life violence. But stepping away from the social analysis that could fill this whole page, “Joker,” judged simply as a film, is not as groundbreaking as it has been hyped up to be. On one hand, it’s what you expect: a dark character backstory with brilliant acting, score, and cinematography. But underneath an Oscar-friendly veneer is yet another underwhelming comic book origin story that doesn’t add much to a market already bloated with superhero movies. But, hey, this one’s slow and serious, so it has to be good, right?
The “This Belongs in a Museum”: “Weathering With You”
The much-anticipated follow-up of director Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name” is another beautifully animated film. A rain-drenched Tokyo provides the backdrop to a love story that, unfortunately, is a little too simplistic and underdeveloped. However, stunningly gorgeous animation and a lovingly composed score make this film an escapist experience, one best seen on the big screen with a few tissues on hand.
The “Missed Potential”: “Lucy in the Sky”
Its world premiere at TIFF, a few days before my showing, was critically slammed. But walking into the theater, I held hope that Natalie Portman’s acting would save it. I was right — almost. Portman’s acting as an emotionally distant astronaut is solid, and for the film’s first two acts, I enjoyed the emotional exploration of Portman’s character and the unique visual and audio flares. However, all plot and character development unraveled in the jarring, messy third act. Of the 29 films I saw, this was the only one that didn’t receive any applause. It’s a shame that poor writing let down an otherwise decent cast and concept. Funnily enough, the climax of the movie was set in San Diego. As “Lucy in the Sky” was my last film at TIFF, it was a fitting end to my trip.
Images courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival, Indie Wire, Den of Geek