History has demonstrated that it’s never a good time to mourn the death of cinema — a ridiculous canard that gets trotted out every couple of years, usually by journalists whose definition of cinema begins and ends at the multiplex. Yes, it was an abysmal summer; yes, risk aversion and franchise mania have largely turned Hollywood into a creative wasteland.
But the latest obituaries could scarcely have seemed more premature arriving so soon before the Toronto International Film Festival, a massive 11-day confluence of art and industry that, now in its 41st year, continues to testify to the rude good health of a truly global medium.
Certainly it’s hard to make a persuasive case for the death of movies when a new big-screen musical — a genre that Hollywood rarely invests in with any seriousness anymore — comes along with the stylized verve and melancholy resonance of “La La Land,” a dazzling labor of love from director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) that arrived in Toronto having already seduced audiences at the Venice and Telluride festivals. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the movie completed its festival hat trick by winning Toronto’s audience award, which has in the past recognized such movies as “Room,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” and has thus acquired a reputation as an Oscar bellwether.
Awards talk is, of course, one of the scourges and the sustaining lifelines of this festival, where trophy-seeking world premieres — like Ewan McGregor’s lumpy directorial debut, “American Pastoral,” and J.A. Bayona’s highly effective tear-jerker “A Monster Calls” — pray for the sort of movie-of-the-year hosannas that have deservedly greeted the likes of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” (arriving at Toronto after Sundance and Telluride) and Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” (via Cannes and Telluride).
For now, the question of whether “La La Land” is now positioned for awards-season glory seems far less consequential than the film’s ability to renew your faith in the system — a system that, at its best, can pay tickling homage to the glories of cinema yesteryear even as it fashions them into something sophisticated and new. Perhaps it was no coincidence that so many of the films I saw in Toronto, whether they hailed from far-flung locales or Hollywood shores, were themselves so replete with images of death and rebirth — of earthly decay followed by intimations of transcendence and renewal.
Several of these films were documentaries, like Terrence Malick’s “Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey,” a visually glorious, verbally overwrought slab of cosmic eye candy that screened in both a 90-minute feature version and a 45-minute IMAX version. (The latter opens Oct. 7 on a giant screen near you.) The talk was better and the imagery no less striking in Werner Herzog’s volcano odyssey “Into the Inferno,” which harnesses the spectacle of lethal, life-giving lava flows and shows how they have given rise to — and at times been co-opted by — the human myths and cultures that have flourished in their wake.
On the fictional side there was Denis Villeneuve’s highly touted “Arrival,” an emotional science-fiction thriller that, its focus on alien invaders aside, could scarcely have been more humanist in the way it bent ideas about time, memory and perception into a meditation on the circle of life. No less otherworldly — and a richer, stranger movie all around — was “The Ornithologist,” a spellbinding, unclassifiable new work from the Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues (“The Last Time I Saw Macao,” “To Die Like a Man”).
A decidedly unorthodox retelling of the life of St. Anthony of Padua, a 13th century man of the cloth, “The Ornithologist” follows a handsome bird watcher named Fernando (Paul Hamy) into the wilderness, where he is beset by various frightening, erotic and hilariously surreal misadventures that beat out Adam Wingard’s “Blair Witch” (which premiered at Toronto days before its theatrical release) for sheer lost-in-the-woods insanity.
At once a subversively gay take on a religious icon and a cheerfully blasphemous chronicle of death and resurrection, “The Ornithologist” offered as pleasurable and fully sustained an immersion in pure cinema as any film in the festival.
A resurrection of a more traditional yet no less exalted sort awaits in “Heal the Living,” a wrenching, formally impeccable third feature from the French director Katell Quillévéré. It’s centered around two families intertwined by a fatal car accident and a potentially life-saving heart transplant. What sounds like the stuff of a middlebrow medical weepie is instead infused, through Quillévéré’s exquisite sense of film craft, with an almost spiritual sense of compassion for patients, their loved ones and the professionals who look after them. Happily, the film was acquired by Cohen Media Group during the festival and will be released in U.S. theaters next spring.
“Heal the Living” was one of the highlights of Toronto’s Platform competition, now in its second year and more than living up to its reputation as one of the festival’s most vital destinations. Here was where audiences could experience the emotional highs and lows of “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’ lyrical stunner about a young black man (played by different actors in each of the film’s three narrative segments) and the social and sexual alienation wrought by his tough Miami upbringing. Here too was where festival-goers could experience the unnerving real-world charge of Bertrand Bonello’s Paris-set terrorism thriller, “Nocturama,” or discover the dark pleasures of William Oldroyd’s debut feature, “Lady Macbeth.”
The worthy winner of the Platform competition was Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie,” which had already scored a hefty prize in the form of a Fox Searchlight distribution deal that will ensure its place among the year’s awards-season hopefuls. A psychologically intricate, feverishly cinematic portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the days immediately following her husband’s death, the film offers a profound look at a woman whose legacy often has been relegated to the shallows of history, brought to life by a performance from Natalie Portman that goes well beyond actorly mimicry. (It also offered a welcome antidote to another Portman-starring title, Rebecca Zlotowski’s tedious “Planetarium,” which steadily drained away all magic and wonderment from its mystical premise and 1930s Paris setting.)
Larraín, in attendance with both “Jackie” and his Cannes-premiered “Neruda,” has arguably done more than any filmmaker this year to reinvigorate the biographical drama as an art form. Happily, he wasn’t alone in Toronto. A relative newcomer named Vikram Gandhi gave us “Barry,” a tender, wonderfully inquisitive look at Barack Obama’s junior year at Columbia, while a brilliant veteran, Terence Davies, arrived with “A Quiet Passion,” starring Cynthia Nixon as a marvelously tetchy and deeply soulful Emily Dickinson.
From Finland came Juho Kuosmanen’s “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki,” a sly, seriocomic portrait of a boxer who just can’t get his head or his heart in the game. Beautifully filmed in black-and-white, it's a movie so engagingly loose-limbed and quick-witted, it scarcely mattered whether or not you went in knowing that Mäki, played with battle-scarred soul by Jarkko Lahti, is in fact a real person (and still with us at age 79).
Speaking of battered champions: There was also “The Birth of a Nation,” Nate Parker’s flawed, searing dramatization of Nathaniel Turner’s slave rebellion, which arrived here seeking a measure of media redemption after recent, scandalous headlines concerning Parker’s college rape accusations.
The Fox Searchlight drama played well in Toronto, drawing standing ovations and no uncomfortable questions from a festival audience admittedly known for its generosity. Whether that augurs a rebirth, so to speak, for this vital yet embattled movie, it was scarcely the festival’s only promising example of a medium still nowhere near its death throes.