TORONTO — “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
That’s a quote from “Joker,” which made its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this week. But the quip, uttered by Joaquin Phoenix in a bent, bravura performance as the DC Comics villain in his early years, could easily be a tagline for the festival itself.
A bewildering outside world — and how best to diagnose and deal with it — was the cardinal theme of a festival dominated by filmmakers who, however far-flung and temperamentally disparate, repeatedly attempted to meet a political and cultural moment so confounding that it defies traditional genres and categorizations.
Deeply serious issues weren’t just the stuff of sober biopics and staid period pieces but of uproarious comedy. Portraits of male-female relationships and power differentials took he-said, she-said to new levels of introspection and acute insight.
Most notably, the recent and not-so-recent past was revisited again and again, not to exploit simple nostalgia but to illuminate present-day realities that hovered over nearly every movie — whether fiction or nonfiction, polemic or pure escapism.
Rather than garden-variety revivals, the festival’s most spectacular comebacks — from the likes of Renée Zellweger (“Judy”), Jamie Foxx (“Just Mercy”) and Eddie Murphy (“Dolemite Is My Name”) — felt like exceptionally timely reinventions. Jennifer Lopez doesn’t just strut her formidable stuff with disarming brio in the frisky caper flick “Hustlers”; she helps deliver a convincing — and thoroughly entertaining — denunciation of Wall Street malfeasance, misogynist impunity and wealth inequality. In stilettos and a G-string.
Similarly, “Joker,” which became Toronto’s hottest ticket after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, plays like more than just another comic book origin story, becoming a gritty urban allegory about the pent-up rage of aggrieved young men that can easily ignite into a destructive, nihilistic movement. “Knives Out,” Rian Johnson’s witty whodunit featuring a wonderfully game all-star cast, isn’t just a delightful update on Agatha Christie but an unveiled critique of President Trump, from his nativist immigration policies to his dubious claims of being “self-made” despite a million-dollar loan from his father. Even “Ford v Ferrari,” James Mangold’s propulsive drama about a pivotal Le Mans motor race in 1966, had an indie-versus-corporate subtext, which co-star Matt Damon described as a “one to one comparison” with filmmakers battling risk-averse studios when he answered questions after the film’s premiere.
Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” which stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a divorcing couple, plays like an uncanny bookend to Norwegian director Maria Sødahl’s “Hope,” in which the same narrative — of an embittered wife who has sacrificed her creativity on the altar of her husband’s career — feels like a continuation of countless recent conversations about thwarted female ambition and uncomprehending male privilege. Even “Judy,” in which Zellweger channels a middle-aged Judy Garland with startling ferocity and vulnerability, contains flashbacks of studio chief Louis B. Mayer gaslighting the actress as a young girl, in what can only be described as a proto-#MeToo moment.
The most audacious Toronto premiere by far was also the most divisive. “Jojo Rabbit,” a comedy written and directed by Taika Waititi in which he appears as a goofy (yes, goofy) Adolf Hitler during the waning days of World War II, was seen by some critics as crossing the line in its sendup of anti-Semitic tropes at their most ludicrously deranged. But its protagonist, a young German boy who worships the Fuhrer, also serves as a vivid reminder, not just of the dangers of blind devotion to a demagogue, but of the human capacity to reclaim one’s moral center.
In both its irreverent tone and sharp satiric eye, “Jojo Rabbit” most closely recalled the work of Armando Iannucci, who debuted a similarly revisionist flight of fancy in the form of “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” an exuberantly pluralistic reimagining of the Charles Dickens classic. Just as inventive — and gently meaningful — was “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” beautifully directed by Marielle Heller to evoke both the imaginative world and deep spiritual work of children’s television host Fred Rogers (convincingly played by Tom Hanks).
If those films took their share of formal risks in bringing figures from the past to life, others — such as “Just Mercy,” about criminal justice reform leader Bryan Stevenson, and “Harriet,” about Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman — played it straight and somber. Edward Norton looked to film noir and the career of the ruthless urban planner Robert Moses as inspiration for his adaptation of “Motherless Brooklyn,” while screenwriter Scott Z. Burns addressed different forms of corruption in “The Laundromat” (about the money-laundering schemes revealed in the Panama Papers) and “The Report,” about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of the CIA’s use of torture in the war on terror.
Even though these narratives took place in the past, each one felt pointedly focused on the anxieties and aspirations of today, a fact that Burns — who makes his directorial debut with “The Report” — readily recognized. “We’re surrounded by a world that has changed a lot over the last couple of years,” he explained during a brief interview at the festival. “The themes of accountability in government and transparency are in both of those movies, and without them, we’re going to keep going down this really unjust, corrupt path. I can’t say that those were conscious choices, but obviously those are things I’ve been thinking about.”
The state of things was clearly also on the mind of Matt Tyrnauer, whose documentary “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” examines the life and career of the notorious attorney as a critical lens on his most famous protege, who now occupies the Oval Office. Introducing “Letter to the Editor,” a swiftly moving collage composed of more than 1,700 New York Times photographs, filmmaker Alan Berliner explained that he decided to pay tribute to his cherished hometown newspaper after “struggling to find the role and responsibility of the artist” at a time when daily journalism is undergoing both technological upheaval and political attack.
Even Truman Capote, who died in 1984, had something relevant to say. In the graceful and revelatory documentary “The Capote Tapes,” first-time filmmaker Ebs Burnough — who served as deputy social secretary and senior adviser to the first lady during the Obama administration — used hours of interviews recorded by the late George Plimpton to create a hitherto unseen portrait of Capote. The late author emerges as the charismatic talk-show guest and gifted but troubled artist many will recognize, but also as a devoted father figure to Kate Harrington, who lived with Capote during her teenage years.
“It’s a story about addiction,” Burnough said after “The Capote Tapes” premiere. “It’s a story about survival. It’s a story about how you can be a very small, gay man born in a Southern town in the 1920s and really become who you want to be. I think so often we get caught up in telling stories that are current, and it’s not that those stories aren’t important. But we have to go back and learn from our past. I love going back and excavating those bones and those stories, because people have already lived what we’re going through. It’s not new. They can show us the way.”