TORONTO — In recent years, the Toronto International Film Festival has become reliable one-stop shopping for critics, distributors and movie fans eager to sample the year’s best films, most of which would go on to win Oscars: Toronto, after all, is where a little Iraq war movie called “The Hurt Locker” got its start; so did “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan,” “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave.”
Excellence was just as much on display in the 39th edition of TIFF, which ends Sunday, even though inter-festival politics was as much a subject for discussion as the films. Because Toronto follows closely behind festivals in Venice and Telluride, Colo., it has historically been known as a convenient place to catch up with movies that already premiered at those festivals, as well as at Cannes and Sundance. This year, though, TIFF organizers issued a new rule: If a film had already played in Telluride by the time it got to Canada, it would not be shown during the first four days of the festival, thereby reserving the first weekend for genuine world premieres, giving Toronto festival-goers the frisson of seeing something brand spanking new and the festival valuable ink in trade publications and Web sites.
The new policy meant that some of the season’s most highly anticipated titles — including “Wild,” “The Imitation Game” and Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater” — didn’t play here until after the first Sunday. (And some, including “Birdman,” “Gone Girl” and “Inherent Vice,” didn’t play at all.)
But filmgoers didn’t go wanting over the weekend. After a ho-hum debut of the Robert Downey Jr. courtroom drama “The Judge,” TIFF enthusiastically thumped the tub for one of its highest-
profile premieres, declaring Sept. 5 “Bill Murray Day,” in honor of the star of “St. Vincent,” a formulaic but winning seriocomedy about a kid and a curmudgeon, written and directed by Ted Melfi with crustily endearing contours perfectly suited to Murray’s gonzo charms.
The insistently heart-tugging “St. Vincent” was a rare, unapologetic feel-good movie within a roster of films that seemed singularly attuned to the anxieties — domestic and global, personal and political — of our era. Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children,” starring Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer and Jennifer Garner, tackles the ubiquitous, unsettling issue of parents, teenagers, sexuality and the Internet in a drama that, while schematic, is sure to resonate with anyone who has grappled with changing social mores in the social media age. Those tensions also surface in the far fuzzier — but similarly socially attuned — “While We’re Young,” Noah Baumbach’s fleet, observantly funny comedy about a 44-year old filmmaker (Ben Stiller) forced to confront aging, career doubts and insecurity when he takes on a 25-year-old protege, played by Adam Driver.
One of the most impressive films at TIFF dealt not with social or emerging media but their mainstream counterpart in the form of local TV news. “Nightcrawler,” Dan Gilroy’s queasily realistic portrait of a self-styled journalist chasing lurid crime footage on the streets of Los Angeles, stars a gaunt, sickly looking Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role. The film, which combines the mood and stylistic flourishes of “Taxi Driver” and “Collateral” with a modern-day version of “Network,” took its protagonist into outlandishly reckless territory as he sought increasingly sensationalistic footage. Viewers who might have thought “Nightcrawler” overstated its case for dramatic purposes only had to watch “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” an hour or two later to see Gilroy’s premise disquietingly confirmed.
“Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” by documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield, chronicles a series of murders of black women that plagued a south-central L.A. neighborhood for decades before being solved, all the while being ignored by local police and news media. Coming on the heels of recent protests in Ferguson, Mo., the film underscores a lamentable chasm between communities of color and the law enforcement services nominally meant to protect them. It also proves, with sickening, graphic detail, “Nightcrawler’s” central point about the racial politics of crime and which victims are missed, let alone mourned.
Issues of class threaded through several other films here, often intersecting with race, gender and sexual orientation, including Chris Rock’s comedy“Top Five,” the subject of one of the festival’s most lively bidding wars. (It ultimately went to Paramount.) In Matthew Warchus’s rousing historical drama “Pride,” the alliance between gay activists and British coal miners during the Thatcher era had the infectious, touching brio of a Mickey Rooney musical. Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes” examined the economic downturn; Mike Binder’s “Black and White” starred Kevin Costner as a white man trying to gain custody of his African American granddaughter; and Lone Scherfig’s “The Riot Club” was a richly drawn but ultimately one-note portrait of the decadence and entitlement that attach to being white, male and grotesquely amoral in the British aristocracy.
Together with “Two Days, One Night,” “Leviathan” and “Wild Tales” — all of which played at Cannes before arriving here — the overwhelming impression was of a global community of filmmakers eager to unpack and critique the economic, political and social forces that have defined and, in many cases, constrained and distorted life in the early 21st century.
Some of the most memorable films at TIFF, however, weren’t necessarily of this time: “The Keeping Room,” starring Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld and a terrific newcomer named Muna Otaru, is an absorbing Civil War-era drama in which two white women and an enslaved servant find solidarity in fending off rogue Union soldiers during the first days of Sherman’s March. A similarly strong female-driven movie, “Wild,” stars Reese Witherspoon in an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of coming to terms with her past while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Two of the strongest movies in Toronto this year also featured strong women, albeit in traditional roles: In “The Theory of Everything,” Felicity Jones delivers a quietly focused portrayal of Jane Hawking in a drama about the physicist Stephen Hawking. Although Eddie Redmayne goes to uncanny lengths to play Stephen — starting out as a gawky young Cambridge student and ending up as a middle-aged man contorted with motor neuron disease — Jones’s steady, quiet steel is every bit as impressive, as Jane seeks not only to fight for her husband but also for her own identity and self-fulfillment.
Melinda Ledbetter Wilson is another fighter in “Love & Mercy,” Bill Pohlad’s extraordinary, even visionary chronicle of the musician Brian Wilson. Pohlad, who has financed and produced films by Sean Penn and Terrence Malick, focuses on the years when Wilson was producing the Beach Boys’ seminal album “Pet Sounds,” jumping ahead to when he first met his second wife — played by Elizabeth Banks — in the 198os. That was also the era during which Wilson battled mental illness and came under the dubious care of psychiatrist Eugene Landy, played in the film by Paul Giamatti.
Paul Dano delivers an astonishing performance as the younger version of Wilson, with John Cusack playing him in later years, a gambit that pays off handsomely in a production that reflects Wilson’s blazing imagination with its own ingenious structure, visual approach, sound design and poetic sensibility. (The film was written by Oren Moverman, who also wrote the oblique Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There.”) Among the many smart, sophisticated, deeply moving films that have become TIFF reliables, “Love & Mercy” — which just sold to Lionsgate on Wednesday — was an unexpected, undisputed triumph.