What does it mean when we say “movies are back”? I’ve seen the oft-used phrase, sometimes in jest, thrown around on Twitter. I’ve also heard it uttered in winding queues and within the bustling afterparties at the Toronto International Film Festival. Having visited the slimmed down iteration of the festival last year—where the streets were so empty that they were nearly nameless; the talent barely appeared; the premiere screenings, featuring limited capacities, were a third filled, and the empty seats reminded you of the friends not there—this year is indeed different. The people have returned; the red carpet is frying in the sun; and the movies are bigger than ever.
And yet, to really say that movies are back, a tangible element rising above a vibe must be present. The movies have to actually be good.
In the festival’s overwhelming schedule, I found three adventurous, risk-taking films that remind you of the new stories about old figures that can still be told. They do not shirk from reaching for grandiose heights, nor do they lose their common touch. They give you hope that if movies are not back, then they are surely on the mend.
One such film points out that not every Civil Rights hero marched through the streets. Some flew through the air. Jesse Brown, now little known to the general public, was such a hero. At the height of segregation, he became the first Black aviator to earn his wings through the U.S. Navy's basic flight training program, inspiring diversity through his very presence and his immeasurable skill. J.D. Dillard’s “Devotion,” a sharp-turning piece of history and an exhilarating war drama, respectfully tells Brown’s imperative story for a new generation.
We first meet Brown (a visceral Jonathan Majors, giving a physically and emotionally demanding performance) by way of his voice. Tom Hudner (Glen Powell, who also served as executive producer) enters the locker room as a new transfer to the VF-32 squadron. He arrives hearing the sound of Brown shouting vicious, racist insults at himself in the mirror. Brown, a survivor of violent prejudice within the Navy, writes down every slur ever directed at him within a notebook, so he might recite it later for courage. That detail is one of the many ways Dillard sidesteps the temptations of other Civil Rights films, which try to signify their subject’s importance through enacting bodily violence. Dillard instead weaves the travails Brown faced into the dialogue rather than turning to gruesome means.
While many people will immediately compare this Korean War flick to “Top Gun: Maverick” (that, at best, would be a shallow parallel to make), “Devotion” stands on its own. The film mostly details the close friendship that formed between Brown and his white wingman, Hudner, as they prepared for war. Christina Jackson as Brown’s wife, Nix, is a particular highlight of the film’s first half, which outlines Brown’s deep vulnerability and the love he felt for his family.
When we do arrive to the combat section of “Devotion,” we’re treated to an immersive experience where the roar within the cockpit thrills; the cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt (“Mank”) firmly establishes us in the dimensions of the skirmishes; the editing by Billy Fox (“Dolemite is My Name”) is tightly wound to gripping ends. A two-and-a-half-hour film that literally flies by, “Devotion” is a graduation of sorts by Dillard, from his smaller genre film canvas to a spectacular large-scale onslaught. His latest is as entertaining as it is potent.
Speaking of little-known historical Black figures, writer/director Stephen Williams’ “Chevalier,” a stylistically slick biopic about the creole 18th century composer Joseph Bologne, also tries to tell a story of one man’s defiance against the racist society he inhabited.
Joseph, the son of an enslaved African mother and her white owner, is first seen as a child enrolling in boarding school. His white father implores him that he must be excellent if he wants to be loved, which begins a terrible toxic cycle. Joseph takes this advice to heart. He becomes a master at fencing, composing, and violin. The film’s daring opening scene, in fact, sees Joseph challenging Mozart to a shredding violin battle that bears reminders of the oft told story of Jimi Hendrix asking to play with Cream, only for Eric Clapton to quip that he felt like going home to practice after seeing Hendrix shred. It’s a playful gambit that hints at Williams’ willingness to mix up biopic tropes by incorporating anachronisms within the film's aesthetic.
While Joseph is best friends with Queen Marie Antionette (Lucy Boynton) and holds the prestigious title of chevalier, he wants a position commensurate with his talent: He demands to be named the head of the Paris Opera. Joseph, however, has two major obstacles in his way. For one, the committee wants an outsider, Christopher Gluck (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) to head the distinguished institution. Most importantly, Joseph is Black. To get the role, Joseph challenges Gluck to a contest: Whoever can compose the best opera wins the coveted position.
From here, oddly, “Chevalier” doesn’t fly off with a story about Joseph (we barely learn any biographical information about him). Instead, it primarily acts as a forbidden romance narrative between Joseph and Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), a white gifted opera singer with a very jealous and savagely racist husband. Joseph soon discovers that while excellence matters, it will always be about the color of his skin. It’s a situation that offers a wake-up call for a Black kid with severe identity issues that need resolving.
During his and Marie’s on-again, off-again relationship, Joseph reunites with his mother (Ronke Adekolujeo), learns about his roots, and discovers that white people, no matter how friendly, should not be trusted. At points, the use of anachronisms overwhelm the drama to the point of it opening up unconsciously comical bumps. And the loose way Williams folds in the French Revolution does the plotting no favors. But the always dashing Harrison gives a wholly freeing performance, uplifting the lesser parts of this biopic for a visually resplendent and captivating take on a musical genius.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie quite like Benjamin Millepied’s “Carmen.” A modern-day interpretation of the classic 19th century opera, it’s a sumptuous, dizzying big creative swing that connects on every storytelling level.
Millepied’s bold reimagining refashions “Carmen” as a border narrative, in which, following the murder of her mother by cartels, Carmen (Melissa Barrera) traverses from Mexico to America in hopes of dancing in a nightclub belonging to a family friend (a vital Rossy de Palma). Her journey goes left, however, when a brutal border patrol agent finds her. Luckily for Carmen, she makes a narrow escape when Aidan (Paul Mescal), a soldier fresh from Afghanistan, not only frees her but goes on the run with her. In between dodging the cops, the two outlaws ultimately fall in love for a steamy romance carved out of sweat and dance.
At points, Millepied’s mix of dialogue and movement gives his film a formless feel. Thankfully, the inventive editing by Dany Cooper (“The Legend of Molly Johnson”) and the gorgeous, kinetic cinematography by Joerg Widmer (“A Hidden Life”), which often bears similarities to Pablo Larraín’s “Ema,” keeps viewers’ eyes fed with boundless wide shots of the arid desert and sweeping handheld tracking shots of evocative urban set pieces. And while Mescal and Barrera give spellbinding performances, especially Barrera’s expressive balletic form, it's composer Nicholas Britell’s grumbling strings and elegant musical interpretations of the body that is the star here. The film's final 30 minutes—a fast-paced, swooning, yet tragically romantic conclusion—is a transcendent cinematic experience whose impact is felt in the dark theater, in bright outside spaces, and in the days following the sound of its last note.