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From 'Widows' to 'Burning,' this year's Toronto International Film Festival offered a bounty of memorable movies

From 'Widows' to 'Burning,' this year's Toronto International Film Festival offered a bounty of memorable movies
Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki in "Widows," which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. (20th Century Fox)

The Telluride, Toronto and Venice film festivals have ended, meaning that most of the movies vying for attention this awards season have been seen and sussed. Times critics Justin Chang and Glenn Whipp, who were both in Toronto, discuss the films they saw and which movies they think we’ll be dissecting and debating for the next six months.

GLENN WHIPP: On our first full day here, I was seated in a theater, about to watch Lee Chang-dong’s provocative mystery “Burning” (which should definitely, finally, earn South Korea its first foreign-language feature nomination), when the Motion Picture Academy sent out an email blast announcing it had shelved the unpopular popular-film Oscar for this year and, hopefully, forever.

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And while we didn’t need any more evidence to know that this proposed Oscar category would have created a pointless division between “popular” filmmaking and artistic achievement, many of the movies that played at Toronto and the other fall festivals offered plenty of additional proof.

I think of the cheers and gasps and thunderous applause I heard at various points during Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” a heist thriller that superbly delivers all the tension and slam-bang action you want from this genre and then burrows deeper, examining the societal forces that propel the characters toward a desperate course of action. With a superb ensemble headlined by the incomparable Viola Davis, “Widows” is smart and entertaining and feels like it could be a commercial hit.

That’s true of several of these fall festival films. There’s Bradley Cooper’s beautifully shot, crowd-pleasing remake of “A Star Is Born” and Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” a movie that re-creates the Apollo 11 moon landing to thrilling effect. It should win many fans, provided they’re not hyper-particular about how they want to see the American flag planted on the moon. Add in “Black Panther” (and please do so, by all means), and the Oscars would have a quartet of “popular” movies from four different genres. Everyone wins, Justin … provided “Green Book” isn’t somehow nominated.

Steven Yeun in a scene from "Burning."
Steven Yeun in a scene from "Burning." (Well Go USA)

JUSTIN CHANG: I haven’t seen “Green Book” yet, Glenn, and while I always trust your judgment, any movie starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen will receive the benefit of my open mind. Certainly I’m right there with you where the smart and sinewy “Widows” is concerned, and would add that more genre filmmakers should confront issues of race, class and gender as astutely and artfully as McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn do, especially if it means giving Viola Davis a leading role this juicy.

But I’m glad you started off with “Burning,” which is easily one of the top two or three movies of the year so far, at least in my (non-green) book. As bad a joke as it is that South Korea has never received a foreign-language film Oscar nomination, here’s hoping Lee’s triumph — the latest of many, as it happens — gets due consideration across the board.

It’s worth noting that at this still-early point in 2018, we’re looking at a remarkable year for the foreign-language film race overall. Besides “Burning,” the excellent titles that have been selected to represent their countries include Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winning family drama, “Shoplifters” (Japan); Pawel Pawlikowski’s piercingly sad love story “Cold War” (Poland); and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s characteristically expansive “The Wild Pear Tree” (Turkey). All these films premiered at Cannes and made the trek to Toronto as well, one of many reasons why this festival remains so indispensable.

Meanwhile, Romania — another country that, ridiculously, has never been nominated for a foreign-language film Oscar — will be represented by one of the best (and best-titled) films I’ve seen here: Radu Jude’s “ ‘I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians,’ ” and yes, the single quotes are deliberate. It follows a theater director as she prepares to stage a massive public re-enactment that will address, among other things, the mass slaughter of Romanian Jews during World War II. It’s a vital film about historical revisionism, the horrors of nationalism and the banality of evil, and exactly the kind of rich, stimulating work one comes to Toronto hoping to see.

Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel and Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock in the film "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel and Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock in the film "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" (Mary Cybulski / 20th Century Fox)

WHIPP: Excuse me, Justin, while I deal with the pangs of festival regret, a condition heightened at Toronto, thanks to the presence of a few hundred films and a limited number of slots to see them.

While you were watching that expressively titled “ ‘Barbarians,’ ” I was across town checking out “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” Marielle Heller’s charmingly low-key, true story portrait of Lee Israel, a writer dealing with middle age, declining prospects and self-loathing. She’s played with sublime confidence by Melissa McCarthy, a tip-off that this movie is more fun than it sounds. The story follows Israel’s unlikely second career as a forger of celebrity letters. The marvelous Richard E. Grant is on hand as a broken-down bon vivant, and he and McCarthy have a crackling chemistry, making this one of my favorite acting pairings at the festival.

And, let me add, another was Ali and Mortensen in “Green Book.” I have nothing but respect for the way they elevated a conventional “inspired by true events” drama about racial division in the 1960s and turned it into a poignant and funny update to “Driving Miss Daisy” by way of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” That sounds iffy, right? But Ali and Mortensen really sell it. “Green Book” could be a huge hit. But the box office should be reward enough. It’s not best picture material, though I wouldn’t begrudge accolades for its leads.

Stephan James and KiKi Layne in a scene from "If Beale Street Could Talk" from director Barry Jenkins.
Stephan James and KiKi Layne in a scene from "If Beale Street Could Talk" from director Barry Jenkins. (Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures / TIFF)

CHANG: I experienced some festival FOMO myself, having missed “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and several other films that, happily, will soon be making their way into theaters. One much-anticipated fall release that I did make time to see was “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to “Moonlight.” Adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, it’s an intensely felt love story that brings luminous truth — and intoxicating beauty — to an avenue of black life too often subjected to easy assumptions and general indifference.

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The idealism of young romance in “If Beale Street Could Talk” is inextricable from its tough-minded stance on issues such as racist policing and the mass incarceration of African Americans. It was hard not to think of these matters and more while watching “What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?,” a richly immersive documentary focused on oppressed black communities in Louisiana and Mississippi, and their attempts to fight back through organized protest. It’s a tender yet galvanizing work and a bit of a stylistic departure for the Italian-born, Texas-based director Roberto Minervini (“The Other Side”), shooting in gorgeous black-and-white.

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From "A Star Is Born" to "Halloween" to "Widows," Times writers Justin Chang and Jen Yamato discuss the standout films at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

Speaking of which: What is it about monochrome images that can turn a story, whether documentary or narrative, into pure realist poetry? For many, the film of the festival was “Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s exquisitely and exactingly sculpted memory piece about his childhood growing up in 1970s Mexico City. This movie, of which we will be hearing much more in the months to come, may be a look backward, but in every way it feels like a remarkable step forward for Cuarón, merging his instinctual humanism and his virtuosic camerawork in ways we haven’t seen him do before.

I haven’t even yet mentioned the uneven yet arresting pleasures of “Vox Lux,” Brady Corbet’s blistering satirical history of a fictional pop diva played by Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman. Or, for that matter, Alex Ross Perry’s superbly written and directed “Her Smell,” starring a ferocious, never-better Elisabeth Moss as a rock star gone to hell and back. These two would make a brilliant musicians-behaving-badly double bill.

But I’ll end with a question: Was there something you saw and loved at Toronto this year that flew a bit under the radar — or, to put it in crasser terms, has no shot in hell of winning an Oscar?

Robert Pattinson in Claire Denis' sci-fi oddity "High Life."
Robert Pattinson in Claire Denis' sci-fi oddity "High Life." (TIFF)

WHIPP: I fell hard for “High Life,” French filmmaker Claire Denis’ English-language debut, a subversive sci-fi film that examines what it is to be human in a spectacular, savage and shocking manner. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’m thankful that it sold to A24 at the festival. If any distributor could find an audience for this audacious effort, it’s the lauded studio behind movies like “Moonlight,” “Hereditary” and “Good Time,” which, like “High Life,” features the most-excellent Robert Pattinson. What about you, Justin? You’ve already highlighted so many noteworthy films. Did anything else pierce your heart or get it pumping?

CHANG: Glenn, you took the answer right out of my mouth, and I couldn’t be happier. “High Life” is a stunner, the kind of speculative fiction that blows your mind and galvanizes your senses in ways the genre rarely affords. And it couldn’t be more exciting coming from Pattinson, fast becoming one of his generation’s most adventurous actors, and Denis, a modern master who has long deserved a more appreciative audience abroad. She got that in Toronto, and with any luck, she will get it in art-house theaters, too.

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