‘12 Years a Slave’ and ‘Gravity’ lead impressive program at Toronto International Film Festival


Benedict Cumberbatch, left, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years A Slave," director Steve McQueen’s new film that is being hailed a masterpiece and a certain Oscar heavyweight. (Jaap Buitendijk/AP)
September 12, 2013

The 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, which will wrap up this weekend, has always earned high marks for its accessibility, friendliness, ease of maneuvering and — most important of all — a well-balanced and high-quality slate of films from around the world.

But this year, nearly every attendee within earshot agreed: TIFF outdid itself, presenting the usual very good movies but also programming films that promise to restore ambition, scope and a sense of occasion to a cinematic experience that has lately been reduced to a near-constant stream of four-inch images and random visual data points.

These motion pictures not only make it safe to go back into the movie theater, they make it imperative.

That impulse was first felt last Friday, when the British filmmaker Steve McQueen brought his much-anticipated drama “12 Years a Slave” to the ornate Princess of Wales Theatre, where the audience leapt to its feet after a harrowing but magnificent immersion in the life of Solomon Northrup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. As formally elegant — even abstract — as it was historically detailed, “12 Years a Slave” immediately earned ­front-runner status in TIFF’s constant Oscar chatter; however understandable, such speculation seemed to trivialize a film that tells a crucial American story but also pushes cinematic grammar forward in important ways.

Most filmgoers were still processing “12 Years a Slave” the next day when Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón took their breath away again with “Gravity,” a stunning 3-D space adventure starring Sandra Bullock that equals “2001: A Space Odyssey” in its technical prowess and visionary storytelling. On Sunday, the boundary-pushing director Godfrey Reggio — best known for the image-and-sound collage “Koyaanisqatsi” and its successors — presented his new film, “Visitors,” a meticulously constructed black-and-white meditation on the human, natural and built environment that gained in momentum and gravitas with the help of Philip Glass’s exquisite score performed live by musicians from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Reggio’s first film in over a decade consists of a mere 74 shots (as opposed to the hundreds of edits that his “Sqatsi” films contained), which build into a trancelike essay on the notion of spectatorship itself.

The grandeur, ambition and sheer greatness of these works were so impressive and emotionally profound that they threatened to eclipse the merely very good movies, plenty of which were also on hand here throughout the week. By no means should excellent mainstream films like “Rush” (about Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda), “Dallas Buyers Club” (featuring galvanizing performances from Matthew McConaughey as an ­HIV-positive Texan in the 1980s and Jared Leto as his unlikely transvestite friend), “Can a Song Save Your Life?” (a musical charmer by the director of “Once” starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley) or Kelly Reichardt’s environmental thriller “Night Moves” be damned with faint praise simply because they’re terrific movies and not masterworks. (“Can a Song Save Your Life?” was acquired by the Weinstein Company, which was on a buying spree at TIFF this year, also picking up “The Railway Man” and “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.”)

If any of the high-profile films at TIFF deserve faint praise it’s “August: Osage County,” this year’s Oscar-bait “prestige picture” adapted from Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play and starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts amongst many others. Respectfully “opened up” by director John Wells, this poisonous iteration of Eugene O’Neill by way of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner features yet more drinkin’, brawlin’ and drawlin’ from the playwright whose last dubious film adaptation was the trailer-trashy caricature “Killer Joe.” As a movie, “Osage County” felt more like a vehicle for Actors Acting than the kind of cinematic event Toronto audiences had grown used to over the previous weekend.

One of the showiest set pieces of “August: Osage County” is a scene in which Streep’s monstrous matriarch acts as a troublesome “truth teller” at a hysterically pitched family meal. But for genuine gut-punches a dinner table, the film that really delivered was Roger Michell’s “Le Week-End,” an understated but emotionally charged (and very funny) chamber piece starring Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan and a form of human carbonation known as Jeff Goldblum. The story of a mid-life British couple confronting their 30-year marriage during a trip to Paris, “Le Week-End” joined Nicole Holofcener’s warm, sharply observant comedy “Enough Said,” the Chilean film “Gloria” (introducing the radiant stage actress Paulina Garcia to North American audiences) and “Sunshine on Leith,” a rollicking musical set in Edinburgh, in a group of films that represented something of a sub-theme at TIFF this year having to do with aging bodies and the changing parameters of love and sexual desire.

The fact that movies are still being made for grown-ups suggests an event in itself. But sometimes, a sense of occasion arrives, not by way of marquee names like McQueen, Cuarón and Reggio but of a filmmaker who seemingly out of nowhere delivers a brilliant breakthrough movie. John Ridley — who wrote the screenplay for “12 Years a Slave” — also directed a film at TIFF this year: “All Is by My Side,” an impressionistic portrait of Jimi Hendrix featuring Andre Benjamin (a.k.a. rapper Andre 3000 from OutKast) in a haunting, sensitive and altogether uncanny portrayal of the late guitarist.

Taking an oblique look at Hendrix’s formative year under the tutelage of Linda Keith (the terrific Imogen Poots), “All Is by My Side” was one of TIFF’s most thrilling out-of-left-field entries, as audacious, enigmatic and expressive as its groundbreaking subject. Ridley is an established screenwriter in Hollywood, best known for writing “U-Turn” and “Red Tails,” and he directed a little-seen movie in 1997. But “12 Years a Slave” and “All Is by My Side” reflect a bold, unconventional cinematic voice coming into its own in a bracing new way. Along with the best films at TIFF this year, they represent a great leap forward, not just for the individual filmmakers involved, but for the industry and art form they’re working in.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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