Before being swept away in the galas and high-profile premieres, the opening day of the Toronto International Film Festival offers something of a last-gasp chance to play catch-up with movies I missed at past festivals.
The trio of films I saw all deserve to be in the awards season conversation in one way or another.
“The Kindergarten Teacher” (Oct. 12, Netflix)
Sara Colangelo’s psychologically complex portrait of a wounded woman obsessed with a gifted student premiered at Sundance, and it features a lead turn from Maggie Gyllenhaal that will floor you.
Gyllenhaal’s teacher, Lisa, is loving and patient in her Staten Island classroom and trying, perhaps too late, to realize her own artistic ambitions by taking a weekly poetry class in Manhattan. Her classmates find her work “derivative.” Her own children, older teenagers, see her as judgmental, when they do see her at all. So when Lisa notices one of her 5-year-old students, Jimmy (Parker Sevak), going into a trance-like state, reciting vivid poetry that would make the gods weep, she takes him under her wing. And her actions are desperate and darkly funny and increasingly inappropriate.
Like her brother, Jake, Gyllenhaal makes movies that are a little too weird to find favor with the academy. She has but one Oscar nomination, for her supporting turn in “Crazy Heart,” a role that’s nowhere near her career best.
What Gyllenhaal does in “The Kindergarten Teacher” is daring and also deeply moving, a depiction of a woman searching for the sublime and willing to go to great lengths to find it. And as odd as it sounds, it’s also deeply relatable (maybe I’m projecting) for anyone bucking up against the narrowing horizons of middle age.
“Monsters and Men” (Sept. 28, Neon)
No, Drake didn’t turn up to introduce the movie as promised. And the crowd at the TIFF Bell Lightbox groaned and booed (politely … this is Canada).
But “Monsters and Men,” an intimate triptych about the corrosive effects of police brutality on a community, seemed to satisfy the audience on its own considerable merits. Since its Sundance premiere, John David Washington, who plays a principled police officer, has become a star for his lead turn in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” He’s quite good here too in this understated movie, written and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green with sensitivity, offering anger and hope in equal measure.
With “BlacKkKlansman” a strong possibility to earn Lee his first Oscar nomination as a director, expect to see Washington out and about in the coming months. Hopefully his presence will bring more attention to “Monsters and Men” as well.
“Burning,” (Nov. 2 in Los Angeles, Well Go USA)
South Korea has submitted 29 movies for the foreign language feature Oscar. None of them have been nominated. Hell, not one has even made the short list.
“Burning” is the third feature from acclaimed filmmaker Lee Chang-dong to be submitted, following “Oasis” in 2002 and “Secret Sunshine” in 2007. And maybe the third time will be the charm, as Lee’s provocative mystery took the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes this year and scored the highest mark ever on a prestigious Cannes international critics’ poll.
The movie investigates class conflict in contemporary Seoul, following a jobless introvert Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) who unexpectedly meets and falls for a woman from his childhood, Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), only to have the relationship complicated by the appearance of a wealthy new friend Ben (Steven Yeun, from “The Walking Dead”). Jongsu likens Ben to Jay Gatsby, mysterious and careless. And Lee uses the character to keep the audience off-balance, creating a love triangle that evolves into a study of envy, resentment and modern alienation. It’s scorching and brilliant and should definitely, finally, earn South Korea a historic Oscar nomination.