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Best of the 2019 Toronto Film Festival: There was ‘Parasite’ and there was everything else

Park So-dam and Choi Woo-shik in the movie “Parasite.”
Park So-dam and Choi Woo-shik in the movie “Parasite.”
(Neon)

The Telluride and Venice film festivals have ended and Toronto is winding down. Times film critic Justin Chang and entertainment columnist Glenn Whipp took a break between a few last-minute screenings north of the border to share their early impressions of the fall movie season.

GLENN WHIPP: Even with the sounds of the unremitting foghorn from “The Lighthouse” and Joaquin Phoenix’s incessant cackling in “Joker” still ringing in my ears, I’d say that my most lasting memory from Toronto is seeing Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece, “Parasite,” for a second time. After having viewed it several weeks ago in a small screening room in Los Angeles, I wanted to watch it again surrounded by the energy of a thousand people taking in the movie’s twists and turns. The audience — and the repeated viewing — did not disappoint.

I remember we talked last year about our admiration for Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning,” feeling certain (at least I was) that this brooding, brilliant film would finally earn South Korea its first international feature nomination. It didn’t happen. And because the motion picture academy so often disappoints, I feel ridiculous for what I’m about to offer: “Parasite” will not only put South Korea in that newly named international feature category, but it will earn a best picture nomination as well.

With “Parasite,” director Bong, whose last five films are “Okja,” “Snowpiercer,” “Mother,” “The Host” and “Memories of Murder,” has fashioned a thrilling and profoundly moving (and sometimes mordantly funny) feature about class struggle. It asks us to identify with the Kims, a family of resourceful grifters who infiltrate themselves into a wealthy family. What begins as a con-artist tale evolves into something forlorn and angry, grappling with injustice and inequality and the forces that would compel the Kims’ attitudes and actions.

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“Parasite” left the audience I saw it with absolutely gutted. It was just one of many films playing at Toronto to deal with aspiration and social status. Justin, are you leaving the festival ready to take to the streets?

“Hustlers,” with Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu.
Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in the movie “Hustlers.”
(Alison Cohen Rosa / STXfilms)

JUSTIN CHANG: I’ll join you in banging the drum for “Parasite” anyday, Glenn. And I’m thrilled to have also seen it with a packed house in Toronto, where it seemed that, day after day, Bong’s was the one film everyone couldn’t stop talking about, the one whose mastery was simply beyond dispute. Hearing audiences discover this great movie — from a director who, it should be noted, has been making great movies for more than a decade — has been one of the festival’s most consistent pleasures. I can’t say I trust the motion picture academy to get over its bizarre indifference to Korean cinema, but it is nice to think that maybe “Burning” walked so “Parasite” could run.

We can have more of an argument about some of the other TIFF titles that have tapped into a similar vein of class resentment and eat-the-rich fury. Dramatic accounts of real-world financial malfeasance have been all over this festival, from Steven Soderbergh’s Panama Papers comedy “The Laundromat” — a mixed bag, but a playful and dexterous one — to Cory Finley’s sharply written “Bad Education,” starring an excellent Hugh Jackman as the perpetrator of the biggest theft from an American school system in history. One of the festival’s more pleasant surprises was Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers,” with its career-rejuvenating turn by Jennifer Lopez as one of several strip-club workers fleecing the wealthiest members of their clientele in post-2008-recession New York.

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Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in “Joker.”
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in “Joker.”
(Niko Tavernise / Warner Bros.)

There’s even more pronounced anti-Wall Street sentiment amid the violent visions of “Joker,” which we must of course reckon with — not just now but over the next several months. I must admit that Todd Phillips’ intense (and intensely polarizing) super-villain origin story, with its mesmeric lead turn by Joaquin Phoenix, hasn’t been far from my thoughts since I saw it more than a week ago at the Venice International Film Festival, where it won the top prize and cemented its status as a likely awards contender. How will the industry and the public respond to a movie that seems not just troubling but dangerous? What happens when a movie that many see as an endorsement of male sociopathic rage courts the endorsement of Oscar voters?

“Joker’s” presence at high-profile festivals like Venice and Toronto is meant to signal its artistic seriousness, to distinguish it — rightly so, I think — from its blockbuster brethren. But the multiplex is where this accomplished and singularly unnerving movie will ultimately find its most appreciative audience — for better and possibly for worse.

Daniel Craig, Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan in the movie “Knives Out.”
Daniel Craig, Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan in the movie “Knives Out.”
(Claire Folger)

WHIPP: Appreciation for “Joker” was tepid at the gala screening I attended in Toronto, and I doubt the movie will make much headway with Oscar voters, aside from Phoenix’s all-in work. It’s not just that many academy members will be put off by the disturbing material. The bigger impediment will be the filmmakers’ cynical, superficial treatment of these issues in service of a movie that isn’t nearly as nervy as it thinks it is.

Days removed from seeing it, even Phoenix’s performance — its sole selling point — dims. All the cackling and contortions feel like desperate attempts to distract viewers from a movie that’s hollow to its core. Anyone looking to see Phoenix deliver a defining portrait of alienation would be well-served to (re)discover his work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.”

And those viewers looking for something lighter that still manages to skewer privilege and entitlement should find Rian Johnson’s juicy whodunit “Knives Out,” another film that, like “Parasite,” built momentum through the Toronto festival. It’s a superbly structured mystery that weaves in its indictment of social inequality in unexpected, satisfying and very funny ways. Its cast is full of stars, but it’s Ana de Armas, playing the beloved nurse of the movie’s dead man, who leaves the most lasting impression. This film should make her a star.

And my favorite discovery in Toronto might too be a shrewd indictment of capitalism, though Josh and Benny Safdie’s kinetic character study “Uncut Gems” scrambled my brain so thoroughly that I’ll need a second viewing just to regain my bearings. No movie has ever used Adam Sandler’s volcanic rage to better effect, and I say this as someone who rarely turns the channel when stumbling across “The Waterboy” or “Big Daddy” on cable.

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Adam Sandler in the film “Uncut Gems.”
Adam Sandler in the film “Uncut Gems.”
(A24)

CHANG: Not to dwell on “Joker,” but it is fascinating to see both Adam Sandler and Todd Phillips, longtime standard-bearers of the mainstream male-idiot comedy, becoming darlings of the festival circuit. Are they progressing as artists, or are we regressing as a culture? The answer is surely the former in the case of Sandler, who indeed gives a marvel of a performance in “Uncut Gems.” And I continue to cherish the Safdie brothers for how wholly they embrace their antihero protagonists and the gritty, chaotic underworlds in which they move. These are not filmmakers who follow their protagonists through tidy arcs of redemption.

Which is not to say that redemption need always be tidy. It is anything but tidy in “Waves,” Trey Edward Shults’ wrenching, formally dazzling drama about a Florida family weathering a profound crisis. You don’t just watch these characters being put through their usual narrative paces; you feel caught up in their moods, their anxieties and, eventually, their hard-won moments of grace. Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” may be a much gentler piece of filmmaking, but it’s equally tough-minded in the way it pushes its characters toward an emotional reckoning. It also features a performance by Tom Hanks as the beloved Fred Rogers that never feels like a flashy biopic stunt.

Tom Hanks stars as Mister Rogers in TriStar Pictures’ “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
Tom Hanks stars as Mister Rogers in TriStar Pictures’ “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
(Lacey Terrell / Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Speaking of performances: Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson give us one hell of a marital meltdown in Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” surely one of the best things playing in Venice, Telluride and Toronto. Kristen Stewart brings her signature magnetism to “Seberg,” Benedict Andrews’ conventional but affecting portrait of Jean Seberg while she was being targeted by the FBI. And Eva Green is superb as an astronaut preparing for her first trip into space in Alice Winocour’s “Proxima,” which would be an ideal movie to watch before Noah Hawley’s inferior but not uninteresting “Lucy in the Sky.” That based-on-true-events movie stars Natalie Portman as an astronaut having trouble readjusting after her return to Earth, which is sort of how I feel every year after Toronto is over.

Glenn, as another long awards season gets underway, are there any other Toronto gems, uncut or otherwise, that you’d like to single out?

Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver in the movie “Marriage Story.”
Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver in the movie “Marriage Story.”
(Netflix)

WHIPP: You mentioned Driver and Johansson who, quite deservedly, are receiving most of the attention for the heartbreaking “Marriage Story.” Laura Dern and Alan Alda are wonderful in that film too, playing the attorneys representing the splitting parties. Dern has a spectacular speech about societal expectations placed on women that prompted an ovation at Toronto, and Alda is just pure comic perfection as the rumpled lawyer defending Driver.

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And as bruising as things get in “Marriage Story,” it can’t compare to the calamities that befall my other favorite festival movie couple, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, in Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse.” I hadn’t read the reviews out of Cannes, so I was surprised by how funny this movie is as it descends into madness. Stuck together on a lonely forbidding outpost, this cabin-fever tale affords its two superb leads the opportunity to sing and dance, bond and brawl. The look on Dafoe’s face when Pattinson tells him he hates his cooking cuts to the bone. “You’re fond of me lobster! Say it!” might have been my favorite line from Toronto.

How about you, Justin? You had an extra day at the festival. What else caught your eye?

Luca Marinelli in the movie “Martin Eden.”
Luca Marinelli in the movie “Martin Eden.”
(TIFF)

CHANG: I’ll throw in a quick but enthusiastic word for “Saturday Fiction,” Lou Ye’s wholly mystifying, then wholly riveting World War II spy thriller starring a fantastic Gong Li in her first big-screen role in years — and what a role! As a theater actress turned gun-toting secret agent slithering through the shadows of a black-and-white Japanese-occupied Shanghai, she reminds us that, with apologies to Godard, all you really need to make a movie is a Gong and a gun. I could barely keep track of the plot and couldn’t have minded less.

“Saturday Fiction” has a slot at the upcoming New York Film Festival, which is where audiences can also catch “Martin Eden,” Pietro Marcello’s Naples-set adaptation of Jack London’s semiautobiographical novel. Winner of the top prize in Toronto’s Platform competition, “Martin Eden” is gorgeous, intellectually rousing classical filmmaking (it was shot on 16-millimeter film), with a star-making performance from Luca Marinelli as London’s uneducated sailor turned literary superstar. Like so many of Toronto’s finest, from “Parasite” on down, it’s a movie in which the political is achingly personal.


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