The Good Stuff
9. 22 July (dir. Paul Greengrass)
A much more quiet meditation than the rest of Greengrass’s terror decade (United 93, Captain Phillips, the Bourne movies), 22 July is easily the hardest to take, as the director is unsparing in his first act portrayal of the Utøya Massacre and the screen time he gives to the actor playing the killer, Anders Behring Breivik. Yet this harrowing, close-focus look at the aftereffects of one of the most hateful acts committed this milennia is essential to understanding the way bigotry and fear build inside those who are vulnerable to its message. Greengrass treads an impossibly fine line with the time he gives Breivik, but the balance achieved by focusing on the survival of Sveinn is often enough to offset Breivik’s stomach-turning megalomania.
8. Her Smell (dir. Alex Ross Perry)
Having never liked his movies, I was prepared to write off Her Smell as Perry fundamentally making asinine, irredeemable facades out of punk musicians. And while he misunderstands the punk aesthetic (his look and feel can feel woefully stuck in the grunge era), Her Smell feels like Perry apologizing for the unrepentant characters of his past work, presenting 3/5 of a movie centered around the descent of a human into malevolent madness and 2/5 of a movie centered around her healing. Understanding addiction in a way that no other film I saw at the festival did, Perry’s frenetic camera work and genuinely stomach-turning score aid Elizabeth Moss’s portrayal of Becky Something as an addict searching for something, anything to hide herself from the world. Yet it’s not as if Moss needed much aid — she plays the Debbie Harry character with a King Lear-meets-Heath Ledger’s Joker intensity that is magnetic to watch. She commands every frame of every scene that she’s in, teetering on hysterical arch while simultaneously performing the most dazzling high wire hystrionics of her career. A momentous portrayal that (probably won’t but absolutely should) net her an Oscar nomination.
7. A Long Day’s Journey Into Night (dir. Bi Gan)
I found Bi Gan’s debut Kaili Blues slippery and furtive, afraid to expose itself to the outside world until its magnificent near-thirty minute closing unbroken take involving four ferry rides and a trip to the underworld. Yet A Long Day’s Journey Into Night finds Bi steering into the skid and coming out with a piece of magical realist art — chopping and screwing Eugene O’Neill’s seminal noir into an unrecognizable koan of short cuts through time, a dreamlike entry into the mind of a man seeking retribution and lost love, knowing he will find neither. Then, as if to say “ha, you thought that was the best I could do,” Bi closes the film on a dazzling 55-minute unbroken take (shot in 3D!) that at points involves a motorbike, a zipline, two separate drones, a spinning house, fireworks, intricately played billiards, and an entire mostly-evacuated town. It is the epitome of dreamy, surrealist filmmaking that makes you not want to blink, for fear that in blinking you will suddenly wake and realize it wasn’t ever real. In the middle of this romantic dreamscape, Bi manages to wedge in artful messages on the wreckage of China’s past being wiped away in favor of empty nothingness. A powerhouse work, if a challenging one, that is equally if not more slippery than his debut.
6. The Sisters Brothers (dir. Jacques Audiard)
Casting Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as brothers in a Western might seem odd at first glance, but that neatly sums up the gist of The Sisters Brothers, Audiard’s elegaic first English-language film. Paying homage to silent westerns as well as more modern ones, Audiard is careful to ground his story in the dirty and the surreal at the same time, presenting a world that can’t possibly be real, yet probably mostly was. Between all the stunning vistas and Deadwood-level set design, Phoenix, Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed deliver unique, differing takes on Western tropes that bash against each other and bray into the abyss of the West. A much too involved reading could see some light ribbing of Silicon Valley in Audiard’s treatment of Ahmed’s prospector-turned-disruptor, but the film’s criticism of work as the definition of a man is startling, heart-warming and affecting in equal measure.
5. Ash Is Purest White (dir. Zhangke Jia)
As China loosens the reins of its film industry and allows writer-directors to craft their own, powerfully unique takes on the history and deficiencies of the country, we must all hope that more movies like Ash Is Purest White will surface. Zhangke’s disparate, seventeen-year odyssey of a couple involved in the local mob traces the downfall of different industries in China, drawing direct thrulines from global warming to the coal industry to gentrification, all the while managing to tell a tightly coiled story of the complex and awful things we do to those we love. Characters walk through ruined stadiums, visit towns not unfamiliar in the Wild West, and dance to “YMCA,” all the while embracing the transitory Chinese job market and the necessities of being a crime boss in a place where police loyalty can be bought cheap. Yet as the movie’s showstopper scene denotes, White is the story of a woman’s experience in love and work, told with fascinating pathos by Zhangke muse Fan Liao.
4. High Life (dir. Claire Denis)
Probably the most divisive of the TIFF slate, High Life is a science fiction epic that is unwiling to give up any of its secrets lightly. Denis’ work has confounded many across her thirty-year career, yet the story of “convicts in space for science” is shy to the point of stillness until it bursts forth with startling displays of violence or sexual depravity. Denis doesn’t allow space the luxury of being anti-septic, instead opting for a floating cube that is pulsing and throbbing with fluid, human and otherwise. The turgid nature of the ship grants High Life a vivid character all its own, as Robert Pattison and Juliette Binoche struggle to maintain control of a science experiment that was wrong from the outset. While the scenes on Earth are some of Denis’ least-affecting, everything in the ether feels essential, dangerous and weird in a way that few science fictions epics have felt since the original Solaris.
Oh and yeah, Juliette Binoche gets in a machine called a ‘fuck box’ and turns the machine George Clooney built in Burn After Reading into a menacing, hulking bull. There’s that.
3. Burning (Lee Chang-Dong)
The Great Gatsby, but a murder mystery. Do I have your attention? Good, because that’s a tight log-line for South Korean movie with so much more attention to detail and empathy for the contemporary version of Gatsby characters than film has seen in a very long time. Lee skewers the rich in a wonderful bit of dialogue, delivered with perfunctory perfection by Steven Yeun: “I play.” More than its true-crime roots or its literary dreams, Burning is about nihilism and the things we do to fight against the ever-present feeling that we are thrown into this world for no reason whatsoever and are left to flap around until we die, at which time no one will remember us. All the while Lee manages to achieve magnificent cinematography in northern South Korea, turning magic hour into a time that feels eternal but unachievable.
2. If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins)
Jenkins introduced Beale Street as a companion piece to his masterwork Moonlight, saying the latter was a story about the parents he had, and the former a story about the parents he wished he’d had. The two movies play off of each other magnificently, each telling a triptych story of a journey through familial blackness, in all its complexities, frustrations and hard-earned moments of bliss. Sumptuously shot in rich golden tones, the period piece manages to achieve a achingly human portrayal of black love, while also laser-focusing on moments in Fonny and Tish’s relationship that highlight different sectors of society’s indifference, hatred and yes, sometimes, acceptance of them. While the narrative resists easy fixes and resolutions (why should human movies do such a thing?), Beale Street is most effective as profoundly moving portraiture, a model of a beautiful romance between two black people in a world that oftentimes sought to destroy that very thing.
1. Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
I struggle with how to even describe Roma, Cuarón’s most personal and affecting work. I could say that his portrayal of growing up in Mexico informs many of the societal conflicts that pepper his previous work (the “war birth” scene in Children of Men is given particularly sharp focus). Or I could marvel at his understanding of his mother’s struggles, his nanny’s perseverance, or his country’s turbidity given how young he is characterized in the film. Or I could laugh at the transparent reference to Gravity. Or maybe just say that, despite having very few of his signature long takes, Roma achieves deep, deep empathy through a constantly panning camera, reaching a panoramic view of a claustrophobic and expansive story that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. Or I could mention the dazzling way history and story interact, buttress each other through a narrative of woman’s work.
But perhaps the greatest compliment I could give Alfonso Cuarón and the entire cast and crew of Roma is that it is one of those rare movies that achieves a deep, affecting empathy for its world, its subjects, its viewer and its creator, crafting something that feels loving in the least cloying way. An earned love, born from understanding. A masterstroke from a master filmmaker, deserving of all the praise it hopefully will receive come award season.