Film festivals tend to foster hyperbole, so you may want to take it with a grain of salt when I say that I saw a timeless masterpiece at this year's Toronto International Film Festival: Alfonso Cuarón's semi-autobiographical drama Roma.
But I'm not alone in this opinion. Roma (in select theaters and on Netflix in December) won the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival a couple of weeks ago and finished third for TIFF's Grolsch People's Choice Award (just behind the winning Green Book and the second-place If Beale Street Could Talk). Mexico has already named it the country's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards — and it's probably the frontrunner to win. Cuarón is responsible for three of the best films of the last 20 years: Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, and Gravity (the last of which won him a Best Director Oscar). Yet Roma may end up being the movie he's most remembered for.
Named for the middle-class neighborhood where Cuarón grew up, Roma is a gorgeous-looking black-and-white throwback to the classic European cinema of the 1950s and '60s, with long takes and tracking shots that carry audiences from a city paralyzed by student protests to more bucolic country retreats and beachside resorts. The movie is ostensibly about the breakdown of a marriage, but it's more about Cuarón's vivid memories of his youth.
In order to keep Roma from being yet another memoir of privilege, Cuarón frames all of his anecdotal vignettes from the perspective of the family's maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who dotes on the kids, worries that she's disappointing the parents, and has her own doomed romance with a local martial arts expert. In meticulously choreographed scenes — as masterfully controlled as the best of Federico Fellini and Jacques Tati — Cuarón makes the ups and downs of a busy household as gripping as any historical epic.
Conversely, Oscar-winning La La Land director Damien Chazelle's First Man (scripted by Josh Singer, an Oscar-winner himself for co-writing Spotlight) turns the story of Neil Armstrong's trip to the Moon into something startlingly intimate. It's one long marvel at how fragile, imperfect human beings could accomplish something astonishing.
Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong: a stoic, intellectual engineer and pilot who at the start of the film is silently reeling from the death of his young daughter. In need of a fresh start, he and his wife (played by Claire Foy) set off on a new adventure, befriending other astronaut families as Armstrong works his way through the Gemini and Apollo programs. Chazelle and Singer take an episodic approach to the story, marking NASA's various setbacks — including near-fatal equipment malfunctions and increasing skepticism from politicians and the public — punctuated by nail-biting, life-or-death jaunts into the heavens.
It's those flights into the unknown — anchored by Gosling's quietly commanding performance — that will undoubtedly make First Man a huge hit and an Oscar contender when it hits theaters on Oct. 12. But what's most impressive here is how willing Chazelle is to take such an intensely subjective approach to a story that everyone born after 1969 heard in history class. This movie lets audiences feel what it's like to pile into a cramped space-capsule, with a tiny little window, and then to rocket to a place no one's ever been, relying on courage, mathematics, and family ties to find their way back home.
Any festival with Roma and First Man on its schedule is already one for the ages. Here are some more highlights from an uncommonly great year at TIFF:
As First Man proves, one of cinema's great virtues is its ability to put viewers in the shoes of people who are going through something most of us will never experience. In the 2000s, some European and American arthouse filmmakers took this "behind the eyes" idea somewhat literally, inspired by popular Belgian auteurs Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne to make jittery character studies that hold cameras close on desperate folks, studying their faces — and the backs of their heads — as they struggle through crises.
That approach to first-person storytelling has waned lately, although Hungarian director László Nemes won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar using it in his 2015 Holocaust thriller Son of Saul. He sticks with the style in the outstanding Sunset, starring Juli Jakab as an early 20th century Austro-Hungarian who returns to her Budapest hometown right as anti-aristocratic revolutionaries are launching a campaign of violence. Like Alfonso Cuarón does with Roma, Nemes stages elaborate scenes that bring the past to life, with crowds of extras, horse-drawn carriages, and elegant sets. But a lot of it is blurry in the background, as Sunset focuses more on its heroine: a well-meaning innocent dragged into a bloody class squabble decades in the making, who pulls the audience along with her.
Audiences may have a hard time handling the "you are there" qualities of writer-director Alex Ross Perry's Her Smell, which for its first hour strands viewers with a pushy, out-of-control former indie-rock star (played, utterly uncompromisingly, by Elisabeth Moss). But the endurance test has a purpose, giving way to a second half that follows the rocker post-recovery, balancing poignancy and anxiety as we wonder whether the hell-spawn we've been watching is really a changed woman. The payoff is worth the investment. Her Smell is immersive cinema at its best.
There's a very different kind of immersion at work in Free Solo, the latest mountain-climbing documentary from the husband-and-wife team of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, best-known for 2015's Meru. Their new film is about Alex Honnold's attempts to ascend Yellowstone's towering El Capitan formation with no ropes, while ignoring the distractions of a film crew and the concerns of his new girlfriend. Even knowing in advance that Honnold is going to survive, it's hard not to get sweaty palms seeing him dangling from a sheer rock face, several thousand feet in the air, with nothing but his limbs to hold him up and the ground to catch him. Just watching Free Solo is an act of bravery.
Free Solo was easily the most popular documentary at TIFF this year, but not the most talked-about. That honor — perhaps dubious, in this case — goes to American Dharma, Errol Morris' feature-length conversation with Steve Bannon, in which the right-wing revolutionary talks to the director about his favorite movies, his years editing the controversial Breitbart website, and his work with Donald Trump.
As with Morris' similar The Fog of War (about Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara) and The Unknown Known (about Iraq War steward Donald Rumsfeld), American Dharma is intended to be more explanatory than accusatory. Some viewers may be annoyed that Morris doesn't really "nail" Bannon, but rather lets one of the heroes of the alt-right come across as charming, sage, and more or less "normal." This movie may be hard for many to watch at this particular moment, but it will be essential viewing years from now, for anyone who wants to understand what led to the rise of Trump — and what may happen next.
For those who can't stomach Steve Bannon, but are fascinated by cocky jerks who overstep their bounds, Billy Corben's doc Screwball might be a fine compromise. As with Corben's earlier Cocaine Cowboys and The U, this look back at Major League Baseball's Biogenesis doping scandal is a zingy cautionary tale, about corner-cutting types who were unprepared for the phenomenal success they'd have either using or selling illegal performance-enhancing drugs. These are accidental criminals, not masterminds. Hearing them sheepishly detail their rises and falls produces delicious schadenfreude.
TIFF's Grolsch People's Choice Award is subdivided into three categories, with special prizes also given to favorite documentary and favorite Midnight Madness film. This year, Free Solo won the doc award, while the people's midnight fave was The Man Who Feels No Pain, a wildly offbeat but indomitably delightful Bollywood action film, with Abhimanyu Dassani as an acrobatic martial arts hero who chases down his enemies while suffering from a condition that renders him incapable of physical sensation. Director Vadan Bala throws in the requisite musical numbers and over-the-top fight sequences — both underscored with a synth-heavy '80s-style score — but what makes this movie a future cult-classic is its heart. Ultimately, it's a movie about overcoming personal challenges and standing up to bullies.
The best genre films at TIFF this year put unusual spins on tried-and-true material. Writer-director Christian Petzold's Transit takes Anna Seghers' Nazi-era novel Transit Visa — about various refugees in limbo in Marseilles, waiting for paperwork to flee France — and sets it in the modern day, without changing any of the references. The result is another of the Jerichow and Phoenix director's studies of people who need each other for not-so-noble reasons, yet with an added layer of social commentary, as Petzold describes what could be Europe's future, if recent trends toward populist nationalism continue.
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a cross between a chamber drama and a macho B-movie, with a charismatic James Badge Dale playing an ex-cop turned anarchist, who gathers with his fellow militia members in their heavily armed warehouse to try and figure out who among them might've opened fire on a bunch of policemen at a funeral. Writer-director Henry Dunham's film is talky and twisty — both to a fault — but the dialogue's punchy, the cast is terrific, and the story cuts to the heart of a 2018 America where people have more allegiance to their political tribes than to their country.
Veteran French filmmaker Jacques Audiard has dabbled in multiple genres, from prison drama (in 2010's Oscar-nominated A Prophet) to earnest romance (in 2012's arthouse hit Rust and Bone). But he's never made anything quite like The Sisters Brothers, an offbeat western coming to select theaters this Friday. John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play the title characters: two vicious bounty hunters who set out on a mission to track down a detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) and an inventor (Riz Ahmed), but then decide to join their prey and become gold prospectors. Slow-paced but lovely to look at, The Sisters Brothers is an American story filtered through a European sensibility, with the emphasis less on triumph than on anti-heroes reconsidering their sense of purpose.
Lastly, The Old Man & the Gun (in theaters Sept. 28) is about as charming a movie as anyone could've made about an unrepentant career criminal. Based on the true story of senior citizen bank robber Forrest Tucker and his "Over-the-Hill Gang," writer-director David Lowery's adaptation of a 2003 David Grann New Yorker article stars Robert Redford in what he's said will be his last role. Casey Affleck co-stars, as a burned-out police detective who rediscovers his passion as he investigates this happy-go-lucky crook.
There's not much to The Old Man & the Gun. It's short and light on plot. Lowery mostly seems interested in recreating the look and feel of the early '80s. But as Redford trades wrinkly smiles with Tucker's love interest (played by a luminous Sissy Spacek), it's a reminder of how wonderful the movies can be, when legendary stars are given a warm, inviting space to inhabit — now and forever.
This is the second article in a two-part series on the buzziest movies and biggest themes of this year's Toronto International Film Festival. You can find the first installment here.