Despite this year’s smaller lineup in the Toronto International Film Festival, I’m still racing to catch one more movie before I’m out of time. Luckily, the ones I’ve seen have been good-to-great, some harder to watch than others and a few might be among my favorite movies I’ve seen in this difficult year. Not all of the movies this year may have big names or famous faces known to U.S. audiences, but they have been among the most surprising stories to enjoy.
In the “The Disciple,” Sharad (Aditya Modak) dedicates his life to the art of classical Indian music. His existence is practically ruled by his loyalty to the form, from his father’s introduction to the music when he was a boy to the guru he obsessively listens to through countless tapes. Over time and as culture evolves further and further away from tradition, he sees himself as one of the last keepers of a dying art. His esoteric commitment eventually prompts an existential crisis as his beloved music continues to lose devotees like himself. Director Chaitanya Tamhane immerses his viewers into Sharad’s all-consuming world with little context, training them to listen not just to classical music but also to his soft-spoken character as he feels his way through his own internal journey for many years.
On a completely different note, Michel Franco’s “New Order” is a punishing, cynical view of present-day uprisings and military control. Where “The Disciple” felt methodical and measured, “New Order” is bombastic and confrontational. On the day of Marianne’s (Naian Gonzaléz Norvind) wedding, a former employee of her family comes to Marianne's family to ask for help, and most of them give the bare minimum of kindness. Marianne wants to do more, but her altruism is interrupted by city-wide protests that force her to hide. The government, looking to foment more hatred between the haves and have-nots, kidnap some members of the rich, Marianne included. Almost nihilistic in its critique of military force, “New Order” portrays both sides as both innocent victims and heartless aggressors, with the rich turning to armed forces for a semblance of order and the poor protestors executing members of the ruling class with equal violence. In Franco’s bleak vision of the future, no one gets justice or peace.
Cathy Brady’s feature debut “Wildfire” also plays against a backdrop of political tension. In the midst of uncertainty around Brexit and how it will affect Ireland’s north and southern halves, Kelly (Nika McGuigan) returns home to her estranged sister Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) after a year’s disappearance. Kelly is the wild card opposite to Lauren’s responsible life with a steady job and a caring husband, but the two are united by their mother’s mysterious death and the violence their country survived. Kelly’s reappearance wreaks havoc on Lauren’s life, but Brady’s sympathetic writing and directing bring these two headstrong characters together, standing together against everyone who doesn’t understand them.
Unfortunately, there’s really no one standing up for Danielle (Rachel Sennott), the beleaguered protagonist of Emma Seligman’s brilliant comedy “Shiva Baby,” who finds herself in the most unenviable positions of an awkward social gathering. When the insecure college student shows up to a shiva with her doting parents, she runs into Max (Danny Deferrari), the older man who both financially supports her and, unbeknownst to her, is a married father who once worked for Danielle’s dad. To make matters worse, the family gathering also puts her in close proximity to an old ex, Maya (Molly Gordon), and their hot-and-cold relationship seems to have never faded away. Despite its tight confines, Seligman packs so many awkward interactions into “Shiva Baby” that it never feels like it runs out of comic potential. Sennott’s performance is equally impressive, balancing the many frustrations and pressures of making her parents proud but wanting to stand up for herself. Even in the smallest of spaces, jam-packed with family, frenemies and strangers alike, you can find the most heartfelt stories both dramatic and comedic.