Toronto Film Festival closes with a whimper

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch attends a private cocktail party for "The Imitation Game" hosted by Elevation Pictures during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival at the Calvin Bar on Sept. 8, 2014 in Toronto.
(George Pimentel / Getty Images)
Los Angeles Times Film Critic

Say, did you catch Cumberbatch? What about Downey and Duvall? Or Dano? Don’t forget Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Or Reese unwashed — that was wild. Could Winslet get any earthier? Who knew Wiig would find another level of crazy? Can Bill Murray get more saintly? Chris Rock more raucous or raw?

Everywhere at the Toronto International Film Festival’s 2014 edition, whose final bell rang Sunday, the conversations have been about people and performances. Words of praise piling up to Everest levels. Audiences brought to tears and laughter by subtly and hysteria alike.

Actor after actor tackled life, love, betrayals of body and mind as well as friends and enemies. It made the festival feel rich and sweet. So why wasn’t it as satisfying?

Because the movies themselves were another matter — tough to pick a favorite among the 400-plus vying for attention, hard to fall in love completely. I found myself in agreement with the festival crowd, which crowned “The Imitation Game” king. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the Nazi code-cracking Cambridge genius Alan Turing, whose efforts helped shorten World War II and whose homosexuality was later used to prosecute and condemn him. Screenwriter Graham Moore constructs it as a challenging game of truth-or-dare that director Morten Tyldum keeps spine-tingling, whether it is the Nazis or sexual attitudes Turing is fighting. As good as Cumberbatch is, this performance reaches new heights.

But “The Imitation Game,” as compelling and as well drawn as it is, cannot overcome the current movie malaise.


The problem is larger than any one event. It has been all of 2014, frankly. If Toronto seemed lukewarm, keep in mind that Venice was tepid, Cannes was muted and Sundance, which usually sizzles even in the snow, was a little cold. But that sensibility is not unique to film festivals; it’s been playing out weekend after weekend in a theater near you.

Even in lesser years, usually by the time the Toronto fest closes, new classics have emerged, movies that the mainstream and most of cinemas’ various tributaries will embrace in the coming months — films like “The King’s Speech,” “Precious” or “Argo” that will be mentioned years later, cited for something, anything.

This year, you could feel the void in Toronto — from the festival’s opening-night film, “The Judge,” with Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. playing a father and son battling their way toward rapprochement, to its closing with “A Little Chaos” on Saturday night and Kate Winslet tilling Louis XIV’s gardens with a feminist fervor.

There was no “Gravity” to lift us up. No “12 Years a Slave” to leave us weeping. No “American Beauty.” No “Slumdog Millionaire.” No “Silver Linings Playbook.” No handful of movies that you just know will take hold, capture the imagination of filmgoers, if not the awards (though Toronto has certainly been a bellwether when it comes to Oscar, which bodes well for “The Imitation Game”).

If ever there has been a year looking for a dark horse, 2014 is it.

Think not? Quick, name five films you’ve loved this year. How about three?

As much fun as “Guardians of the Galaxy” is, it somehow feels a shame that its sci-fi snark remains the year’s primary breakout — in terms of entertainment and financial return, if not insight.

It’s likely your list held smaller gems. “Boyhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Calvary” and “Love Is Strange” are among the crew that’s been out winning hearts and minds all year long. But in smaller numbers, and I don’t mean box office. With the exception of “Boyhood,” they are unlikely to get a foothold in the collective consciousness, provoke much water-cooler conversation or mine the cultural ethos in the way “12 Years a Slave,” “Nebraska,” “Her,” “American Hustle,” “Wolf of Wall Street” and others did last year.

How does it happen that a film can have standout performances yet not quite win the day? It’s easier to get at what works. A great film is the sum of many, many parts. The story must be there from start to finish, so that individual scenes, even exceptional ones, don’t overpower the narrative. The dialogue must be as clever in what it doesn’t say as what it does — a rule of thumb, if the audience can see it on-screen, the actors shouldn’t say it.

The cinematography must be surprising, reflecting the mood of the piece and the distinctive eye of the director. The editing should underscore the mood too, accelerating and decelerating with the finesse of a Le Mans driver. The musical score should lift the film to another level, never overstating the case; no need for melodrama if everything else is right. So it goes for costume and design.

It’s not that the many marquee films that played Toronto were a disaster. But for the most part, the acting itself proved to be greater than the sum of the other parts.

Murray has never been crankier or sweeter than he was in “St. Vincent.” Rock left all of his acerbic wit and Hollywood angst on-screen in “Top Five.” The fine Julianne Moore became even more Moore, fighting back against Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice.” Kristen Wiig proved to be insanely charming in “Welcome to Me,” mentally unstable with lottery money to burn. Paul Dano channeling the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson was as thrilling as he was eerie. Reese Witherspoon found her footing again in “Wild.” Redmayne was rather unforgettable as Stephen Hawking. And the list goes on.

Indeed, standout performances, one after another, glistened and glowed throughout the Toronto International Film Festival.

But finding films to end 2014’s dry spell, that was a tougher hill to climb. Falling in love with the movies themselves was even harder.