For 41 years the Toronto International Film Festival has attracted the world’s best films and built and audience. At the 2016 festival, 480,000 film lovers filled seats, screened movies and experienced the festivities.
Credit TIFF’s Artistic Director Cameron Bailey and his discerning team for assembling a high quality and culturally diverse program that includes African heritage films, films with Black artists and other excellent movies that will be released this fall and next year. Check out the best of the best.
The Birth of a Nation (****) History reveals itself in this uncompromising retelling of the country’s most heralded slave rebellion. Actor turned director Nate Parker assembles a stellar cast and tech crew that takes viewers back to when Nat Turner led a revolt in Southampton County, Va. on August 21, 1831. Brutal. Uplifting. Informative. Deeply emotional. Haunting. The best scene is when Turner comforts his battered wife (Aja Naomi King) after she’s been severely beaten. Superb acting. Deserves Oscar nominations for Best Film, Actor (Parker), Supporting Actress (King), Screenplay and Direction.
I’m Not Your Negro (***1/2) Just in case you need a reminder that racism is not dead, James Baldwin, the intellectual and award-winning author who died in 1997, has left behind some biting and enlightening words about the subject. His poignant thoughts and searing words were included in an unfinished book that’s the basis for this documentary by director Raoul Peck (Lumumba). Baldwin had turned his attention to his friends and fellow activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., pointing out their differences and similarities. Peck links the ‘60s with civil unrest today by covering the four iconic legends.
I Called Him Morgan (****) It doesn’t really matter that Lee Morgan was a trumpet player in the ‘60s and ‘70s that most people have never heard of. This documentary stands out because it follows the life of that talented trumpeter who led a tragic life, fought drug addiction and met an untimely death. Reconstructing his bio, through interviews with jazz greats like Wayne Shorter, photos, footage and a cassette tape of his common-law widow’s recollection brings the world of jazz to life, circled around a gruesome event on a cold New York winter night. Swedish director Kasper Collin and the splendid cinematography by Bradford Young (Selma) show that music survives even when love kills.
Loving (***1/2) Kudos to writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud) for retelling the true-life story of a Black woman (Ruth Negga, World War Z) and a white man (Joel Edgerton, The Gift) who married and were jailed for it in Virginia, in 1958. His approach is low-key and natural; few theatrics, lots of personal drama with a controversial case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The subtle performances by Negga and Edgerton are filled with grace. The ensemble cast is augmented by Christopher Mann as her dad and Sharon Blackwood as his mother. Sweet.
The Magnificent Seven (***) The original 1960 The Magnificent Seven was a homage to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai. This 2016 version, directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), respects old Westerns, but adds a modern day sensibility. The seven culturally diverse gunslingers who attempt to save a town from a tyrant (Peter Sarsgaard) are led by a strong black man (Denzel Washington). Lots of bullets and well choreographed gunfights. The characters are somewhat shallowly written. However, there’s thrill a minute, and what’s on view is fun to watch.
Moonlight (***) With just his second film, director Barry Jenkins teams up with writer Tarell McCraney to tell a story about sexual repression and ambiguity through the eyes of Chiron, a young, overly passive and emotionally abused boy, who becomes a teen and then a young man in inner city Miami. His mom (Naomie Harris) is a crack addict. The closet thing he has to a father figure is a warm-hearted drug dealer (a restrained and superb Mahershala Ali). Artfully directed and photographed with indelible images. Topical subject. Unique location. Pity the protagonist’s angst is so internal it becomes monotonous. Reminiscent of Precious.
Queen of Katwe (***1/2) The true story of a Ugandan girl who becomes a champion chess player is inspiring and charming all at the same time. Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) deftly balances drama, whimsy and humor as she puts the novice actor Madina Nalwanga through her paces aided by David Oyelowo who plays the coach and Lupita Nyong’o her mother. Shots of shanty towns in Katwe have a Slumdog Millionaire feel. Even with all the poverty on view juxtaposed by upper class neighborhoods, Africa looks very inviting. Written with great insight by William Wheeler (The Reluctant Fundamentalist).
A United Kingdom (***1/2) Amma Assante, the director of the thoroughly romantic interracial love story Belle, is not through with that ebony/ivory subject matter. She turns her sights to the true story of a young Botswana king, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, Selma), who falls in love with a white working class girl (Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl) in 1940s London while he’s attending law school. He’s determined to bring her back home and make her his queen. His uncle and the British government are equally determined that he doesn’t. Historical. Political. Romantic. Dramatic. Keeps you entranced almost from beginning to end. Gorgeous shots (Sam McCurdy cinematographer) of Botswana.
Vaya (***) We’d call them country bumpkins. Three not so savvy people board a train to the bustling city of Johannesburg. Pimps and con artists await. One traveler is looking for a job. Another brings a young girl to meet her mother. The last one has come to retrieve his father’s corpse. Nigerian-born actor turned director Akin Omotoso follows the three stories as the characters lives intertwine. It took seven screenwriters to concoct this urban drama and one judicious editor (Vuyani Sondlo) to keep the proceedings totally comprehensible. Set in South Africa but could have played out anywhere in the world.
BLACK ARTISTS IN FILMS
American Honey (**1/2) Writer/director Andrea Arnold steals a page from the Larry Clark/Harmony Korine school of voyeuristic teenage filmmaking, as she traces the footsteps of an adolescent (Sasha Lane) who joins a crew of young people who roam the Midwest in a van selling magazine subscriptions while they rob and steal. Shia LaBeouf is a ringleader. The reckless spirit of the film, with nudity, sex and some violence is not quite enough to warrant its three-hour length. Will be more digestible on cable TV,
American Pastoral (**) Why did actor Ewan McGregor decide to mark his directing debut with the screen adaptation of an esoteric Phillip Roth novel that will leave viewers cold? In the tumultuous ‘60s a man (McGregor) runs a quality leather glove factory in Newark, NJ, in the middle of civil rights uprisings. The mayhem outside his windows is not nearly as stormy as his relationship with his radical teenage daughter (Dakota Fanning) who runs off and disappears. Not a bad first film. Just a bad choice and a story that is never affecting despite strong performances. Jennifer Connelly plays the wife. Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black) is the loyal factory manager.
Arrival (***1/2) Quebec director Denis Villeneuve is famous for his thrillers (Sicario, Prisoners). Now he will be noted for his creation of a compelling sci-fi movie, thanks to Eric Heisserer’s evocative screenplay about aliens who arrive in massive floating pods in 12 locations around the world. A linguist (Amy Adams) tries to communicate with them. She is helped by a mathematician (Jeremy Renner) and guided by a military Colonel (Forrest Whitaker). Very little action and special effects. Tons of suspense, dread and brain-numbing science. Rarely less than riveting.
La La Land (***1/2) This tricky movie starts off with an MTV-looking musical number on a traffic-jammed on-ramp to an L.A. highway. It gets better when it focuses on a romance between a broke jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling, The Big Short) and a struggling actress (Emma Stone, Birdman). This quirky follow-up film by writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) gets more whimsical by the minute. Characters break into song and dance in an instant. It’s wistfully appealing. Gosling is totally charming. Ditto Stone. Though neither is an expert dancer or singer, it doesn’t really matter. John Legend also co-stars as a guitarist and bandleader.
Message from the King (***) Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz (Calvaire) brings life to Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell’s (Unknown) gritty revenge thriller screenplay that follows a man from South Africa (Chadwick Boseman, Get on Up) who comes to Los Angeles looking for a sister (Sibongile Mlambo) who disappeared. A tip from a neighbor (Natalie Martinez) leads the man down a trail of drug deals, blackmailing, child selling and murder he hadn’t fathomed. Gruesome violence, a smart script, streetwise performances and very savvy direction make this a nail-biter.
Snowden (*1/2) Parker Sawyers (Southside With You), Jaymes Butler and Lakeith Lee Stanfield have supporting roles in this chronicling of a controversial geek who stole government data. According to director/writer Oliver Stone, Edward Snowden is a whistleblower hero. As the NSA’s illegal surveillance habits get exposed, you can partially see his point. What’s on view would be more believable if there was a second viewpoint. But there isn’t. If a film makes Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s acting look dull and comatose, it’s a bad film. Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Nicolas Cage also star in a dry film that doesn’t deserve their talent.
OTHER FILMS OF NOTE
Denial (****) A Jewish historian (Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardner) gets sued by a sleazy Holocaust denier (Timothy Leonard Spall, Mr. Turner) and goes to London to fight the case. Turns out U.K. law assumes a person’s guilt and not innocence. A solicitor (Andrew Scott, Spectre) and a barrister (Tom Wilkinson, Belle) take up her case, which she could lose. The script, by David Hare (Plenty), provides tight and tense courtroom drama. Great performances all perfectly orchestrated by director Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard).
Jackie (****) It must have been three to four days of pure hell. That’s the blueprint Noah Oppenheim provides in his woeful screenplay that follows First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman, Black Swan) as she deals with the aftershock of her husband’s assassination and the planning of his funeral. Chilean director Pablo Larraín (Neruda) takes on a dauntless task and aces his exam. He perfectly manages a skillful tech crew (cinematographer, Stéphane Fontaine; editor Sebastián Sepúlveda; costume designer Madeline Fontaine). Portman’s impressive portrayal carries the movie. She will likely win the Oscar for Best Actress.
Lion (****) After getting lost on the streets of Calcutta, a five-year-old boy named Saroo gets adopted by white parents in New Zealand (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham) and grows into a young adult (Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire) haunted by his past and the mother and brother he left behind. Constant yearning takes a toll as the adopted son must decide on how he will find a home he barely remembers. The premise is enough to make any viewer run through a box of Kleenex. Sunny Pawar as the little Saroo is a wonder to watch. Luke Davies’ screenplay delves into reasons why people adopt even though they are capable of conceiving their own children. Heart-wrenching.
Manchester by the Sea (***1/2) Dealing with a death in the family is so much harder when you’re a hopeless alcoholic (Casey Affleck in an Oscar-worthy performance) who’s divorced and running away from a tragedy. Kenneth Lonergan (screenwriter/director for You Can Count on Me) meticulously sets the blue-collar characters in motion, giving them everyday dialogue that unearths hurt and feelings that run deeper than the sea. He directs the cast with stark realism, akin to a John Cassavetes film (A Woman Under the Influence).
Nocturnal Animals (**1/2) Fashion guru turned director Tom Ford has a thing for high-end production elements. This drama/crime/thriller’s cinematography, art direction and set design are exquisite and way over the top, like a multi-million dollar Chanel commercial. Amy Adams plays a wealthy art gallery owner who reads a book her ex-husband wrote about a family who is hijacked by three killer/rapists. That story is visualized on the screen and Jake Gyllenhaal plays the father who is brutalized and Michael Shannon a rogue law enforcement officer. Scenes of dark highways are so David Lynch it’s as if you’re watching a sequel to his Lost Highway. The story-within-a-story format gets farfetched at times and is ultimately emotionless.
Keep a look out. These movies and artists, fresh from their premieres in Toronto, will be on a screen near you before you know it.