Justin Chang’s 2018 Toronto diary: Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Roma’ and other riches from Venice enthrall the festival

Times film critic Justin Chang is keeping a regular diary over the course of seven days at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. He will be writing about the movies he’s seeing, the trends he’s observing and what it all means for an event that, along with the Venice and Telluride film festivals, kicks off the fall movie season.

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Day 7: Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Roma’ and other riches from Venice enthrall TIFF

A scene from the film "Roma." (Netflix)

You could feel the excitement in the air before the packed Toronto premiere of “Roma,” the much-anticipated new movie directed by Alfonso Cuarón. A beautifully composed memory piece that conjures the faded Mexico City of the director’s 1970s childhood, the film was easily one of this 10-day event’s most breathlessly anticipated attractions. “Roma” arrived having already earned rapturous reviews at festivals in Telluride, Colo., and Venice, where, mere days earlier, it had won the Golden Lion, the top prize.

The bestower of that prize was the director Guillermo del Toro, Cuarón’s pal and countryman, who served as the president of the Venice competition jury. (Del Toro promised beforehand not to do any friendly favors for Cuarón’s film, and “Roma’s” unanimously glowing reception certainly made the choice beyond reproach.) Notably, Del Toro himself had won the Golden Lion just a year earlier for his period fantasy “The Shape of Water,” the first piece of hardware he collected en route to winning the Academy Award for best picture.

None of this necessarily means that the Golden Lion has suddenly become some hot new harbinger of awards-season glory; this is a prize, after all, that has in the past gone to more recondite pictures such as Alexander Sokurov’s “Faust,” Gianfranco Rosi’s “Sacro GRA” and Lav Diaz’s “The Woman Who Left,” none of which were made with dreams of Oscar in mind.

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Day 4: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ wraps Toronto in a loving embrace, while ‘High Life’ and ‘First Man’ probe new frontiers

Stephan James, left, and KiKi Layne appear in a scene from "If Beale Street Could Talk."
(Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures)

There are more than a few love stories being told in Barry Jenkins’ exquisite new movie, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which had its world premiere Sunday night at the Toronto International Film Festival. First and foremost, there is the romance of 19-year-old Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and 22-year-old Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James), who grew up together in Harlem and have recently become engaged, sometime during the early 1970s.

There is also the steadfast loyalty that binds family members together, even under the direst circumstances. Tish is loved most ferociously and unconditionally by her mother, Sharon (a magnificent Regina King), who intervenes forcefully on Fonny’s behalf when he is falsely accused of rape and thrown in jail, just a few months before Tish realizes she is pregnant with his child.

But “If Beale Street Could Talk” might just as well be described as a love letter to the color spectrum — to the ravishing visual possibilities of gold autumn leaves and dusky-blue New York streets. It’s about Jenkins’ love for his myriad influences, among them writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin, who wrote the 1974 novel on which the picture is based, and filmmakers such as Douglas Sirk, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-wai.

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Day 3: Steve McQueen’s ‘Widows’ blurs genre and politics into a corrosive cocktail

From left, Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki appear in a scene from "Widows."
( Twentieth Century Fox)

The British director Steve McQueen is both a master formalist and a gifted connoisseur of human suffering. Whatever you may think of his films “Hunger” (2008), “Shame” (2011) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013) individually, it’s hard not to appreciate them collectively as a trilogy on the body and soul in states of extremis, on the ways a human being can be abused, imprisoned and driven beyond the point of despair.

If McQueen’s compassion has often felt checked by a degree of sadism, it may stem from the severity of his visual style, a diamond-hard aesthetic of precisely framed compositions that has the curious effect of both exalting and mocking his characters’ suffering. There’s great beauty in his filmmaking, but the director makes sure that his audiences and his characters pay a steep price for every last drop of it.

The importance of paying one’s debts, even the ones you didn’t ask for, is the driving force behind McQueen’s gripping, corrosive and superbly acted new heist movie, “Widows,” which had its world premiere Saturday night at the Toronto International Film Festival. After the sobering dramatic rigors of his Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave,” McQueen’s first out-and-out thriller — you could even call it his first out-and-out entertainment — feels like a departure in many respects, though it might be better understood as a progression.

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Day 2: ‘A Star Is Born,’ ‘Beautiful Boy’ bring stories of love and addiction to Toronto

Bradley Cooper, left, and Lady Gaga in a scene from the latest reboot of the film "A Star is Born."
(Neal Preston / Warner Bros.)

Let it be noted that the key line in the swooning pop-rock melodrama “A Star Is Born” isn’t spoken, or sung, by either Lady Gaga or Bradley Cooper. It’s delivered by a hardened music-industry veteran played by a soulful Sam Elliott (is there any other kind?), who points out that all music is essentially a series of variations and interpretations on the 12 notes of a scale.

“It’s the same story told over and over,” he says. “All the artist can offer the world is how he sees those 12 notes.” He could, of course, be describing the movie he’s in, and perhaps offering a preemptive defense for those inclined to knock remakes on principle.

“A Star Is Born,” which marks Cooper’s directorial debut, is the latest gloss on a timeless Hollywood tragedy first told in the 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and then rekindled, gloriously, in 1954, with Judy Garland and James Mason. A 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson relocated the love story of a rising actress and a fading, hard-drinking movie star to the music biz, which is where Cooper’s version picks up.

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Day 1: ‘Outlaw King’ and ‘Non-Fiction’ bring winds of technological change to Toronto

Chris Pine in David Mackenzie's "Outlaw King."
(David Eustace / Netflix)

There were a fair number of “oohs” and “aahs” at the Toronto opening-night premiere of David Mackenzie’s “Outlaw King” on Thursday — not for the movie, which hadn’t started yet, but for the bright and shiny new Netflix logo that preceded it. Rather than the familiar white screen and jarring musical thunderclap — you know, the one that immediately puts you in a living-room state of mind — the movie kicked off with a more artful, discreet treatment, simply positioning the red letter “N” against a black screen.

It’s a sign that the streaming giant, a formidable presence here at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, might be trying to distinguish its workaday product from its prestige fare. It’s also an acknowledgment, deliberate or not, that “Outlaw King” belongs on the big screen and nowhere else. An unofficial sequel to “Braveheart,” the film stars an excellent Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce, the Scottish warrior-king who effectively took over for William Wallace in casting off the shackles of English rule.

It’s been a while since a picture actually spurred me to think “They don’t make ’em like this anymore,” which I mean less as an index of quality than a simple acknowledgment of “Outlaw King’s” size and scale, the lavish on-screen evidence that no expense was spared. Gorgeously filmed on location in Scotland with an enormous ensemble — the standouts include Stephen Dillane as the viciously calculating King Edward I, Billy Howle as his feckless but monstrous son and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as one of Bruce’s most loyal allies — the movie is a juicy slab of cinematic red meat, a symphony of mud, blood and viscera set to a soundtrack of thundering hoofbeats and howls of vengeance.

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A look back at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," which went on to win two Academy Awards.
Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which went on to win two Academy Awards.
(20th Century Fox Films)

With the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival set to kick off Thursday, it’s time to take a look back at the big stories and films to come out of last year’s edition. In this wrap piece, film critic Justin Chang reflects on “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “The Shape of Water” and many more.

Two days before the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival got under way, the news broke that Colin Trevorrow would no longer be directing “Star Wars: Episode IX,” marking the latest high-profile split between Lucasfilm and a filmmaker hired to steer one of its most closely guarded properties. One week later, it was announced that Trevorrow would be replaced by J.J. Abrams, a known franchise quantity who successfully steered 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

As my colleagues Josh Rottenberg and Daniel Miller noted in a report last week, these twin industry bombshells are the latest signs of a Hollywood business model that, in pursuit of brand consistency and franchise longevity, increasingly devalues the role and creative vision of the director.

This is hardly a new phenomenon; it’s merely the latest manifestation of a risk-averse paradigm, an art-versus-commerce divide, that is as old as the movies themselves. But it nonetheless threatens to leach these industrial products of the very quality that made the original “Star Wars” movies worth treasuring in the first place, and that’s the human factor.

All of which made it a relief to be able to tune out the industry chatter and steep myself, along with several thousand other Toronto festival-goers, in a welcome weeklong bath of auteur-driven, blockbuster-free cinema.

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Which films from Cannes are heading to Toronto

Joanna Kulig appears in a scene from the movie "Cold War," which was helmed by Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski.
(Amazon Studios)

Several films that first made a splash at the Cannes Film Festival in May are looking to do the same at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Before the festival kicks off Thursday, here’s a look back at Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang’s early takes on those repeat performers.

“3 Faces”: “‘3 Faces’ may be modest and low-key on the surface, but its surprises are worth preserving, its insights casually profound.”

“Ash Is Purest White”: “Fierce, gripping, emotionally generous and surprisingly funny.”

“Birds of Passage”: “The widescreen desert vistas are strikingly beautiful; the performances, even the live-wire ones, are superbly restrained.”

“Burning”: “A character study that morphs, with masterly patience, subtlety and nary a single wasted minute, into a teasing mystery and eventually a full-blown thriller.”

“Cold War”: “A work of exquisite self-containment.”

”Everybody Knows”: “The gorgeous look and feel of the place initially lends the story a leisurely, almost touristic vibe quite different from anything the director has achieved in his previous work. But the writer in [Asghar] Farhadi can’t keep his narrative engine idling for long. Tragedy strikes, the stakes escalate, and before long, a series of emotional discoveries arrive as if on cue.”

“Girls of the Sun”: “Representational merits alone can’t distinguish this movie’s clumsy farrago of good intentions, ham-fisted story choices and cloddishly on-the-nose dialogue.”

“Shoplifters”: “A tender ensemble piece whose skillful performances dovetail into a perfectly symphonic whole, ‘Shoplifters’ is a work of such emotional delicacy and formal modesty that you’re barely prepared when the full force of what it’s doing suddenly knocks you sideways.”

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Which films from Sundance are heading to Toronto

Keira Knightley stars as Colette in "Colette."
(Robert Viglasky / Bleecker Street )

Several films that first made a splash at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in January are looking to do the same at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Before the festival kicks off Thursday, a look back at Justin Chang’s early takes on those repeat performers.

“Colette”: Keira Knightley does “her strongest work in quite some time.”

“Monsters and Men”: “Directed with impressive restraint and assurance by the first-time filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green.”

“Wildlife”: “An exquisitely calibrated marital drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, directed with complete assurance by Paul Dano.”