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TIFF 2015 Recap: "45 Years," "Son of Saul," "Room," "Spotlight," and more

BRIAN TALLERICO: Before we even attempt to “recap” a film festival as enormous as the Toronto International Film Festival, one thing must be clear—it’s kind of like the old adage of the blind men touching the elephant. Even someone borderline crazy like myself who saw 50 films that played at TIFF 2015 can't even get to 20% of the line-up. How could we possibly say it was a “good” or “bad” fest when our experience of it is so limited? Which is one of the reasons we offer this take on TIFF 2015 from a variety of correspondents and contributors, some of whom covered the fest for this year and some of whom have written for us in the past. (And click here for all of our coverage of over 70 films!)

Despite that caveat, it is possible to notice trends even in a small cinematic statistical sampling such as mine. Actors seemed to rule this year over filmmakers. There were a large number of films that could be called “performance pieces” and few that could be considered the work of directorial pioneers. When I think of TIFF 2015, I think of actor’s faces—Brie Larson & Jacob Tremblay in “Room,” Mark Ruffalo & Michael Keaton in “Spotlight,” Tom Courtenay & Charlotte Rampling in “45 Years,” the young ladies of “Mustang,” the daring work of Ethan Hawke in “Born to Be Blue.” Even the Hollywood blockbusters were driven by their performers, including Matt Damon’s underrated work in “The Martian,” Johnny Depp’s best performance in two decades in “Black Mass,” and the double-up by Tom Hardy in “Legend.”

When it comes to voices behind the camera that resonated this year, it really felt like TIFF 2015 belonged to Charlie Kaufman. “Anomalisa” was one of the hottest tickets. Even the press screening, in the biggest theater at the Scotiabank, felt like an event. Similarly, Jeremy Saulnier confirmed his rising status as an essential filmmaker with “Green Room” while director László Nemes devastated audiences with “Son of Saul.” It was also nice to see several confidently made genre pictures, including “February” and “The Devil’s Candy.”

Which brings us back to that loaded question—“Was it a good TIFF?” It would take deep denial to not notice the lack of very strong premieres. Hit films like “Spotlight” and “Anomalisa” had played Venice and Telluride, while many of the biggest critical darlings from Cannes repeated that trend here (even Sundance seemed to filter into TIFF more than usual this year). My highest ranked TIFF premiere was actually “The Martian,” a surprisingly enjoyable blockbuster, but that feels a bit like a hollow victory for TIFF given that it’s not even in my top ten below. When one considers the grand scheme of things, does it really matter if a film played Cannes or Venice or Sundance before TIFF? Not really. It doesn’t change the content or quality of a piece of art. But it does impact the atmosphere at an event like TIFF, where we hope for a sense of discovery as much as catching up with already-acclaimed works. The fact is that the best films at TIFF 2015 had already played elsewhere, and one hopes that a sense of exclusivity returns to Canada next year. I know I’ll be there. My #TIFF15 Top Ten (including films seen at Sundance that also played at TIFF):
1. “Son of Saul”
2. “45 Years”
3. “Spotlight”
4. “James White”
5. “Brooklyn”
6. “Mustang”
7. “Green Room”
8. “Anomalisa”
9. “The Witch”
10. “Jafar Panahi’s Taxi”

NOAH GITTELL: It's hard to pick just one, so let's do it this way. “Spotlight” was probably the best film I saw at the festival, a perfect journalistic thriller with a sharp eye for character. Lenny Abrahamson's “Room” impacted me the most. I was actually late to an on-camera interview after seeing it because I needed to go compose myself. “The Martian” was the most fun I've had in a movie theater since the first “Iron Man.” My biggest surprise was “Eye in the Sky”; after “Good Kill,” I was not looking forward to another drone movie, but Gavin Hood's thriller provided a balanced view and found lots of gallows humor amidst the high tension of a drone strike. My diamond in the rough was “Closet Monster,” the first feature by Canadian filmmaker Stephen Dunn about a horror-obsessed teen struggling with his sexual identity.

Beyond the films themselves, I have to comment on the amazing, immersive experience of TIFF. This was my first "sleepaway" festival (I'd previously covered NYFF and Tribeca in my hometown), and it was energizing to meet so many critics face-to-face I had previously only known virtually. Moreover, I appreciated the opportunity to chat with producers, buyers, theater owners, entertainment lawyers, managers, and others from the side of the movie business I rarely get to see. Standing in line for an hour next to a stranger is a great opportunity to learn, and I can't help but think that my conversations with these folks will inform my knowledge of the biz, and ultimately my criticism itself. Needless to say, I'm planning on returning next year.

NOEL MURRAY: I don’t know how intentional it is on the part of the TIFF programmers, but every year they screen films that function as companion-pieces, with one commenting indirectly on the other. This year, two of those pair-ups served as a Goofus and Gallant illustration of what makes certain kinds of movies work. There’s just as much overcooked “Good journalism is a vital public service!” speechifying in “Spotlight” as there in “Truth,” but while the latter is clangingly broad throughout, “Spotlight” feels more lived-in, with performances intended to capture a moment rather than deliver a message. And both “I Saw the Light” and “Born to Be Blue” are musical biopics that dwell on their subjects’ addictions and selfishness, but the Hank Williams story is shapeless and pointless, while the Chet Baker film narrows its focus to a few years of its subject’s life and says so much more about the pleasures and pains of creative genius.

Similarly, while I appreciated the surreal excess of both “High-Rise” and “Evolution,” the sense of control in the latter appeals to me way more, because I find it easier to engage with an art-film where every single image and sound seems to have a hidden purpose. I saw quite a few films at this year’s TIFF that felt like I was half-dreaming them—Johnnie To’s elegantly spare musical “Office,” Alex de la Iglesia’s loony farce “My Great Night” and Marco Bellocchio’s bifurcated quasi-monster movie “Blood of My Blood,” most notably—but “Evolution" is the one I’ve found hardest to shake since I saw it. (Actually, my favorite film of the fest, “Anomalisa,” could qualify as a dream-movie too, but even though it’s animated and frequently absurd, it feels intensely real.)

TINA HASSANIA: TIFF 2015 was a mixed bag, both when it came to the quality of the programming and general festival experience. I had friends who suffered from personal tragedies, a cold was going around, movies were being cancelled, it seemed like no one was up for socializing most nights, and there was a weird, dour vibe in the air. At one point I lost my umbrella and Toronto turned into the rainiest city of all time. When I went to desperately replace it, I accidentally bought the biggest umbrella I've ever seen in my life, automatically turning me into a douchebag. I didn't get to see as many movies as I would have liked due to getting sick and missing almost three days of the festival.

Of the films I did see, Laurie Anderson's "Heart of a Dog," Jafar Panahi's "Taxi," Jeremy Saulnier's "Green Room" and Miguel Gomes' "Arabian Nights Trilogy" were the ones that stood out most. No one seemed too convinced by my enthusiasm for "Green Room" (even if they professed admiration for Saulnier's previous work, "Blue Ruin"), but that might be because I claimed that I came out of the screening pleasantly wanting to kill somebody. No, no, not literally. But the film did provoke the same kind of delicious excitement you get walking out of a Quentin Tarantino revenge film. That's what I really meant, I promise! 

ERIK CHILDRESS: The two best films I saw at Toronto this year dealt with a very sensitive topic. Thomas McCarthy's “Spotlight” and Lenny Abrahamson's “Room” carry on their shoulders the disturbing thought of children losing their innocence; albeit from alternate viewpoints. “Spotlight” covers the journalistic team of the Boston Globe uncovering the protection of pedophile priests, while “Room” focuses much of its perspective from the eyes of a five-year-old boy who has lived his whole life in the solitary confines of a moderated shed with only a glimpse of the sky.

At one point in “Spotlight,” a reporter asks a victim not to simply rely on the word "molested" since the details of the actual crime is far more disturbing and visceral. Though children are rarely, if ever, seen in Thomas McCarthy’s drama, the sins committed upon them and recalled in adulthood carry no less impact. One character goes so far as to warn his own kids to avoid a house in their neighborhood. “Room” and “Spotlight” are films that carry the emotional impact of wanting to restore some semblance of hope for the future. One rallies against an institution that preaches a standard of humanity that it too frequently betrays while the other hopes to reconstruct the normalcy of childhood. For victims of abuse, it is too often all they ever know. These are not just thrilling and emotionally gripping works of cinema, but provide hope that by exposing the past and then seeing the light ahead, perhaps we can say goodbye to the darkness for good.

SAM FRAGOSO: Some honestyof the three TIFFs I've attended, this year was the worst. A handful of my fellow colleagues endured personal tragedies over the past week. Family members perished, a car crashed into one of the kindest critics I know, and everyone—including yours truly—contracted some sort of illness. No one left Toronto unscathed. 

Additionally, there was a general lack of excitement that permeated the air this year. Attendees appeared less energized by the festival and its offerings. And perhaps that's where TIFF's greatest shortcomings came—the programing. As I bumped into fellow writers, industry folk, and everyday TIFF-goers, hardly anyone was ecstatic about what they had seen. Some consistent recommendations: "45 Years," "Anomalisa" and "Green Room." But TIFF lacked some of the sleeper hits that make festivals worthwhile. A good film festival is about discovery. Are we really surprised that the new movie by Charlie Kaufman or Denis Villeneuve is good?

This isn't some elegy for a festival that's gone the way of populism, but the selections did seem uninspired, driven by star-power. There's always another year, and if any festival is capable of bouncing back, it's TIFF.

ALEXANDER HULS: "This is your year," says a father to his son in the TIFF film, “Sleeping Giant,” and it's an apt way of describing my experience this year at the festival. With the exception of two genuinely bad movies (sorry, “The Final Girls” and “Hellions”), there were very few films I didn't enjoy on some level.

It certainly helped that for a horror movie lover like myself TIFF had more than a handful of fantastic tension-filled and blood-soaked genre entries to offer—most notably “Green Room,” “The Witch” and “The Devil’s Candy.” But interspersed between the gore, many of my favorite films—“Anomalisa,” “Louder Than Bombs,” “Sunset Song,” “Sleeping Giant,” “45 Years”—were ones that in their ambition to capture day-to-day life with realism and empathy, made me feel more than I've felt in quite some time at TIFF.

But nothing made me feel more—as a human being or a film nerd—than the masterful “Victoria” (the best thing I saw at TIFF), which I'm still swooning over for its technical accomplishments and how it works perfectly in service for its dramatic accomplishments. A thrilling piece of form meets content. Plus, its opening shot of Victoria (Laia Costa) enthusiastically dancing in a club may as well be how I feel now that TIFF is over—rapturous with the intoxicating emotion of sound, movement and lights experienced in darkened rooms.

SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: The immensity of TIFF—11 days, 289 features, 28 screens—practically guarantees that no two fest-goers will have the same experience. It all depends on not just what titles you see, but also the venue, the time of day, whether it is a press and industry showing or a fancy-schmancy gala premiere complete with talent in attendance. 

I doubt that I would have enjoyed “Where to Invade Next” quite as much without a loquacious Michael Moore chatting up his first documentary in six years before and after the screening. I also was lucky enough to receive my only movie graft: a pencil made by the German factory featured in the movie. Seeing Helen Mirren in the flesh at the Roy Thomson Hall only added to my enjoyment of the drone-strike thriller “Eye in the Sky.” And, as an added bonus, there was Barkhad Abdi of “Captain Phillips” fame, still acting as if he were in charge of the ship, exhorting those in charge at the festival with a “Let’s get going” so he could see his film for the first time.

But there were disappointments, too, stars notwithstanding. Despite a committed performance by Elle Fanning as a teenage girl transitioning into a male, “About Ray” failed to do the one thing it promised to do—be about Fanning’s Ray. The reaction by the Weinstein Co., who pulled the movie from its original opening date this past weekend, says it all. “Freeheld,” with Julianne Moore as a lesbian cop with terminal cancer who fights to give her benefits to her life partner, also floundered. “Stonewall,” about the start of the gay rights movement, was met with negativity. Yes, “The Danish Girl”—about one of the early recipients of a sex-change operation—earned plaudits for Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander but was, for me, less than an overwhelming narrative success.

If any movie got an Oscar boost at TIFF, it was “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s dogged coverage of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal and one of several truth-based thrillers that seem to be the result of “Argo’s” success in 2012. 

Leave it to a trio of veteran British actors to provide my best memories of TIFF 2015. When you can—run, don’t walk— to “45 Years,” with Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a cozy married couple whose world is rocked by a blast from the past. It is probably the best acting you will witness all year, if not this decade. And when “The Lady in the Van” is Maggie Smith, who plays a crotchety crone who spends 15 years living in said vehicle in a tony London neighborhood, you are compelled to attend.

Any film fest that allows me to observe Elisabeth Moss from "Mad Men" chatting up Dan Rather, confess to Tom Hiddleston my adoration of his performance in “Only Lovers Left Alive," or meet a lovely filmmaker named Louise Osmond (whose doc “Dark Horse” should be on your radar), can only be considered a success.

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