It’s a bit like poutine. The central ingredient of the Toronto International Film Festival, an annual deluge of movies rich and poor, is an assemblage of mesmeric Oscar bait flicks. To get to these, though, you’ve got to get your hands a little dirty—rummaging through a plethora of gooey, star-driven studio films and pretentious, subtitled rubbish.The 2014 edition of TIFF boasted a whopping 393 films and 143 world premieres, and kicked things off with the disappointing Robert Downey Jr. vehicle The Judge. It made waves earlier this year when Toronto’s artistic director Cameron Bailey effectively declared war on the competing Telluride Film Festival. You see, Telluride has a longstanding policy of hosting “sneak preview” screenings of juicy awards-friendly films, thus leaving the “premiere” designation to TIFF. But last year, Telluride’s 40th anniversary lineup was packed—Gravity, 12 Years A Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Nebraska all played there the weekend before Toronto—so Goliath became jealous of David and instituted a policy wherein no big opening weekend premiere slots at TIFF would go to movies that played Telluride first.
TIFF’s anti-Telluride policy backfired. Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, Reese Witherspoon-starrer Wild, Harvey Weinstein’s Oscar horse The Imitation Game, Jon Stewart’s directorial debut Rosewater, and many others sided with the Colorado mini-fest. Still, all of these replayed in Canada, and were joined by plenty of other films you’ll be hearing a lot more of come February.As far as its Oscar history goes, films like American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, Silver Linings Playbook, Dallas Buyers Club etc. have all debuted at TIFF and rode the wave of buzz all the way to the Academy Awards stage.
So, without further ado, here are the best films, performances, and moments of TIFF ‘14.
BEST FILM (Tie): While We’re Young & Mommy
Flawed but bursting with cultural insight, Wes Anderson protégé Noah Baumbach’s eighth feature film, While We’re Young, is his best yet. Ben Stiller is a failed documentary filmmaker and Naomi Watts is his producer and the daughter of a Frederick Wiseman-type, played by Charles Grodin. As a unit, they’re a husband-and-wife pair of limp, childless forty-somethings overcome by regret. When they randomly befriend a twenty-something couple (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried), they begin loving life again, going to Brooklyn street BBQ’s and, in one hilarious sequence, an Ayahuasca ceremony. But generational differences soon creep in, threatening to pull the two couples apart. Of all the films at TIFF, Baumbach’s seems the most present and of the moment—an engrossing study of cross-generational scorn and Millennials’ fascination with co-opting culture. And the score, courtesy of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, is killer.
Mommy, meanwhile, is the fifth film by 25-year-old (!) Quebecois child actor-turned-filmmaking prodigy Xavier Dolan, who wrote his debut feature at just 16. Set in a future Montreal where law dictates that parents must take care of their emotionally disturbed children or ship them off to detention centers, the film tells the tale of a trashy, middle-aged widow (Anne Dorval) who struggles to control her hyper, hot-tempered, sexy son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). When a neighbor (Suzanne Clement) takes a shine to the family, a strange ménage-a-trois of sorts forms. Like all of Dolan’s works, Mommy is beautifully rendered—a captivating mixture of close-ups and wide-frames that correspond seamlessly with the characters’ expanding or contracting prospects. This is awe-inspiring, vibrant cinema.
Before unraveling a bit in the final 20 minutes and slowing to a crawl, the latest film from Frenchwoman Mia Hansen-Løve is a pulsating chronicle of the rise of electronic music from ‘90s Paris (see: Daft Punk) to ‘00s New York, as seen through the eyes of Paul (Felix de Givry), one-half of a DJ duo called Cheers. The performances are naturalistic, the pace is fast, and the music is bumping. Plus, Greta Gerwig pops in to steal a few scenes.
BEST ACTOR: Channing Tatum, Foxcatcher
Much ink has been spilled by awards pundits concerning Steve Carell’s chilling, against-type turn as demented heir John du Pont, and he is brilliant, but the most welcome surprise here is the work of Tatum as Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz—the morose wrestler who’s slowly suffocated by his grip. While Tatum has risen to become a viable leading man adept at drama (Magic Mike) and comedy (21 Jump Street), he hadn’t met the expectations that came with his mesmerizing turn in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Until now. With his physicality, simmering rage, and protruding jaw, Tatum delivers a career-best performance as a brutish sap corrupted by avarice. No other actor could pull off this character. Tatum wears the shame(s) of a nation on his face in this quietly devastating portrait of the American dream run amok.
Runner-Up: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game.
As Alan Turing, the British math prodigy and cryptanalyst responsible for breaking the German’s indecipherable Enigma code and helping to win WWII, Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a riveting performance worthy of its subject. From his days at Bletchley Park to his persecution for “indecency” (homosexuality), the Brit takes us on a journey from icy, Aspergers-y genius to tragic hero, imbuing the character with a quiet, indefatigable dignity and spirit.
BEST ACTRESS: Julianne Moore, Still Alice
This Oscar-ready turn may finally give Julianne Moore a long-deserved gold statuette. Yes, she should have two Best Supporting ones by now for Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski, but the Academy is a ridiculous committee of geriatrics. Alas, I digress. Moore’s turn as Dr. Alice Howland, a cognitive psychologist at Columbia University whose mind and motor skills gradually deteriorate due to the rapid spread of Alzheimer’s disease, is perhaps her best ever—a subtle, lived-in rendering of a brilliant linguist stripped of her ability to think and communicate. It begins with forgetting lines in lectures and losing track of where she is on a jog, and gets worse. Along her journey, she meets with friends, family, and colleagues, trying to prepare everyone, including herself, for a time when she’ll no longer be in possession of the sharp mind they know and admire. With all due respect to Julie Christie and Away From Her, Moore, along with filmmakers Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, have created the definitive onscreen portrait of Alzheimer’s.
Runner-Up: Naomi Watts, While We’re Young.
If only Tupac was alive to see one of our finest actresses shakin’ what her mama gave her to “Hit ‘Em Up.” I could honestly watch a feature-length film of it. In this, Watts has effectively recovered from her awful ’13 (see: Diana, Movie 43) and reminded us why she’s one of the best in the biz.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Adam Driver, While We’re Young
The Girls and Star Wars Episode VII star was ubiquitous at TIFF, featuring in three films. Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young was the best of the bunch. Driver plays Jamie, a hipster filmmaker who befriends Ben Stiller's tight-assed documentarian. It's a wonderfully playful, zesty turn that sees the 30-year-old dominate every scene he's in.
Runner-Up: Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
There’s been a lot of talk (already) that Carell will be entered as a lead for the Academy Award, which would be a huge mistake on the part of distributor Sony Classics. Regardless, his turn as wealthy heir/sociopath John du Pont is never less than utterly transfixing and unsettling. He’s like a modern-day Norman Bates.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria
As the dedicated (and beleaguered) assistant to Juliette Binoche’s diva, Swanson-esque movie star, Stewart is bold, brash, and brilliant. With more like this, she’ll make us forget about those melodramatic Twilight flicks and properly laud her impressive turns in Adventureland, Panic Room, Into the Wild, etc.
Runner-Up: Pauline Etienne, Eden
I could not take my eyes off this immensely talented Belgian actress. She has a timeless beauty and presence reminiscent of a ‘40s screen siren. A true talent to watch.
MOST OVERRATED: Nightcrawler
Dan Gilroy’s film boasts an impressive gonzo turn by Jake Gyllenhaal as yet another borderline autistic nutball (see: Donnie Darko, Zodiac, Prisoners), but the film’s final half-hour lays it on far too thick. The movie, about freelance news cameramen chasing tragedy, thinks it’s a cross between Network and Collateral—a timely, neo-noir/social commentary—but comes off as heavy-handed sensationalism.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Top Five
Chris Rock’s filmmaking output has been a pretty mixed bag. Head of State was prescient, but hollow; I Think I Love My Wife was bland; and the documentary Good Hair was fascinating fun. But the comedy Top Five, which follows a day in the life of a fading movie star (Rock) who’s being profiled by a New York Times writer (Rosario Dawson, excellent), is a witty satire brimming with hilarious jokes and worthwhile cameos. Rock has found his cinematic voice, and it’s a doozy.
Disclaimer: Both While We’re Young and Top Five were financed by IAC Films, a subsidiary of IAC, which owns The Daily Beast.