When I go to the Toronto International Film Festival, I’m looking for films that aren’t big enough to have a release date in American theaters this year, but not so obscure that they couldn’t fill an auditorium back home.
Reading blurbs and researching filmmakers pays off in avoiding the duds and snoozers inevitable in a festival the size of Toronto. I’ve found that a reliable way to decide whether to see a film is to consider what the director has shown at TIFF in previous years. Five films from TIFF 2014, chosen because of the director’s previous work, reinforced my hypothesis.
These are all films that you’re shouldn’t be surprised to see at your local art house, series, or film festival.
The New Girlfriend
François Ozon’s most recent film at TIFF was In The House, about a boy and his writing teacher invading the privacy of another student’s mother.
The New Girlfriend also skirts the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior. A woman is dead. Her sidekick of a best friend Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) comes to console the grieving husband and maybe help with the infant, only to find him wearing his wife’s clothes. Another director might play this setup for wacky laughs. Yet another director might make it grimly serious. Ozon walks the middle ground. David (Romain Duris) really is a depressed, repressed cross-dresser learning to come out of the closet, but the new friendship between his "Virginia" and Claire is a fun lark between the girls.
There’s a touch more drama than comedy in The New Girlfriend. Claire keeps David’s secret from her husband, which leads to suspicions on his part. Coming out as a woman to family and colleagues is still a big shock, even in 2014, and could cause problems for David and his infant daughter. And Claire’s history of jealousy toward David’s wife throws her friendship and complicity into question. After several developments — some predictable — the movie ends up being about acceptance. The New Girlfriend is probably not Ozon’s best work, but it’s a solid drama/comedy.
Ruben Östlund’s most recent film at TIFF was Play, about a group of pre-teen boys traumatizing some of their peers.
Force Majeure also plucks the raw nerves of its main characters. A Swedish family comes to a mountain resort for a ski vacation. Thomas and Ebba bring their pre-teen son and daughter. I’ll be vague and just say that "something happens" — it’s happens in a matter of seconds, but it changes the whole dynamic of the family. At first, Thomas and Ebba don’t openly acknowledge that anything has changed, but first one dinner conversation, then another, have them trying frame the event for long-term storage in memory. Ebba sees things one way, while Thomas sees them another way.
That’s a vague description, but here’s a spoiler: if you’ve seen a film called The Loneliest Planet starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg, you will probably know whence Östlund got his idea.
There are moments in Force Majeure where Östlund carries things so far that you realize he must be playing for laughs. For example, he includes a computer-animated shot of a UFO flying near the ski resort (only to explain later that it’s the toy drone of the son). And the film’s final, post-climactic scene involves an absurdly bad driver on the winding mountain road to the ski area. Sometimes the moments of levity aren’t telegraphed, and you can’t tell at first whether to be scared or to laugh. Somehow that makes Force Majeure all the more darkly tense.
Hill of Freedom
Hong Sang-soo’s most recent film at TIFF was Our Sunhi, about three men infatuated with the same woman.
Hill of Freedom also joins several longer vignettes around a single character. I’ve seen four of Hong’s films in four years of festivals (and he has made even more than that!) His style is fast and cheap, necessarily. You might notice semi-rehearsed scenes and imperfect performances. Long takes of conversations fit into that scheme too. Hill of Freedom may be Hong’s most approachable work. it’s short (66 minutes) and sweet — a Japanese man named Mori (Ryô Kase) comes to Korea looking for an old flame. He meets some quirky and friendly people during the search — at the cheap guest house where he stays, at the coffee shop that gives the film its name. If you’re not familiar with Hong’s peculiar style, you may be caught by surprise at its superficial cheapness. Nevertheless, Hill of Freedom is charming and sweet. Like Hong’s other films, it is a well-observed character study and an interesting approach to low-budget filmmaking.
Face of an Angel
Michael Winterbottom’s most recent film at TIFF was The Trip, about the culinary and conversational adventures of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.
Face of an Angel also blurs the lines between reality and film. Perhaps I should have known better than to expect a straight telling of the Amanda Knox story. My fellow festival-goers filled me in on the broad outlines of the sordid murder trial of a 20-year-old American woman studying in Italy. But Winterbottom, as always of late, goes meta. The lead character of The Face of an Angel is a film director encouraged to make a film based on the book about the Italian murder. You remember how The Orchid Thief became a neurotic self-referential writer’s opus in Adaptation; well, this is like that. Thankfully, the character’s name is not "Michael Winterbottom." It’s "Thomas," played by Daniel Bruhl with charisma and a bit of self-indulgence.
If I hadn’t been brought up to speed on the real trial by my colleagues, I might have enjoyed Winterbottom’s principled stand against using tabloid news as entertainment. Thomas isn’t sure he wants to make a movie about a crime when nobody seems to agree on all the facts. He especially doesn’t want to present yet another interpretation of events, since the world already has too many opinions. And since real lives are at stake, it seems the right thing to do to butt out. Instead, being in Italy, he wonders if he can somehow base the Amanda Knox script on Dante’s Divine Comedy (yes, really). The Face of an Angel is ponderous and discussion-provoking, and it’s probably better than a lurid exploitation flick. But it may not be what you thought you were buying a ticket for.
Two Days One Night
The Dardenne Brothers’ most recent film at TIFF was The Kid with a Bike, about a troubled orphan taken in by a well-meaning hairdresser.
Two Days, One Night also sympathizes with the down-and-out in Belgium. On Friday afternoon, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) learns that her coworkers have voted her out of the company, given a choice between a 1,000-euro bonus and her keeping her job. She’s devastated — the Dardenne brothers slowly reveal important details of her recent past that deepen our sympathy — but her best friend from work and her husband force her to "get out there" this weekend to try to convince all 15 of her co-workers to re-vote on Monday for her to keep her job.
Two Days, One Night is not the Dardenne Brothers’ best (that would be The Son). The setup sounds more like a writers’ exercise than a real-world scenario, and with the gorgeous Marion Cotillard in the lead, it’s hard not to see Two Days, One Night as a big-budget movie. Still, a middle-of-the-road Dardenne Brothers movie is better than most mainstream films, and is worth seeking out this fall.