As any longtime film festival-goer will tell you, at every festival there are good movie days and bad movie days.
Thursday, the opening day of the Toronto International Film Festival, was a good movie day.
The film schedule got off to an eye-opening, mind-tripping start promptly at 9:15 with a press screening of “Looper,” the science-fiction action thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis that would be the festival’s opening night film later on.
A bold, stylish throwback to the sci-fi noir of Philip K. Dick, with nods to “The Terminator” and even “Inception,” which Gordon-Levitt starred in two years ago, “Looper” still manages to carve out territory all its own. Writer-director Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom”) proves to be that rare combination of adroit technician and sensitive observer of human emotion.
Although “Looper” didn’t play to a sold-out crowd (where is everybody?), the filmgoers assembled seemed pleasantly engaged by the film, which features stand-out supporting turns from Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Jeff Daniels (as a Fagin-like futuristic gang boss) and a stunning breakout by the cherubic child actor Pierce Gagnon, who plays a pivotal role as a little boy named Cid. He’s one of the few characters in “Looper” who doesn’t have a Biblical name, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of Old Testament-worthy fury, and Gagnon delivers an astonishing performance that melds shrewdness, childlike innocence and heartbreaking vulnerability. (“Looper” opens on Sept. 28.)
Braced by such a tightly constructed, splendidly executed genre piece, I walked a block or two, and worlds away, straight into “The Gatekeepers,” Dror Moreh’s breathtaking documentary about the Israeli security force Shin Bet, which since the 1967 War has been charged with keeping terrorist attacks at bay. “The Gatekeepers” features first-time-ever interviews with several Shin Bet leaders of the past, who recount their efforts to both understand and infiltrate Palestinian society in the occupied territories, and to neutralize suspected terrorists – engaging in questionable methods and killing innocent bystanders in the process.
“The Gatekeepers,” which will be released next year by Sony Pictures Classics, is a jaw-dropping piece of history and journalism. It offers a sobering, candid look at the formation of the Israeli state, the disconnect between intelligence officials and the feckless politicians they must report to, and the squandered opportunities for peace that have vexed the region for more than 60 years. But Moreh’s film also eerily echoed themes in “Looper,” which dealt with its own issues of moral agency, preemptive violence in the name of greater good and the small human choices that can accumulate to change the world, for better or worse.
That last idea, as it happens, is precisely the central premise of “Anna Karenina,” Joe Wright’s swirling, swooning adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel. Written by Tom Stoppard (no wonder I loved it), “Anna Karenina” stars Keira Knightley in the title role, with a disconcertingly bottle-blond Aaron Taylor-Johnson playing her lover, Count Vronsky. Ingeniously staged as a series of tableaux set mostly in a jewel-box theater, Wright’s “Anna Karenina” distills the most crucial philosophical essence of Tolstoy’s story, making the movie much more than just another doomed love affair that ends badly. With movement, meticulous choreography and opulent, sumptuously appointed sets, Wright thankfully abandons stodgy literalism and takes “Anna” into light opera, with surprisingly effective – and affecting – results. (“Anna Karenina” hits D.C. theaters on Nov. 16.)
It was tempting to jump into one last screening – of “Tabu,” Miguel Gomes’s enigmatic, black-and-white drama set in Portugal. But, having watching three such strong, uncannily interlinked films, seeing a fourth felt like tempting fate (not to mention straining eyeballs). The best thing for it was a delicious dim sum dinner at the Soho Met hotel, spirited conversation with fellow cinephiles and bed – with visions of a similarly strong Day Two dancing like so many dipping and turning 19th-century Russian aristocrats in a tired commoner’s head.