TORONTO — After a disappointing summer at the box office, the movie industry — represented by filmmakers, critics, executives and fans — came to this year’s Toronto International Film Festival edgy with anticipation. In addition to summer tentpole movies, the awards-season push for prestige pictures defines a crucial business model for a medium struggling to keep core cohorts — adults and auteur-worshiping cineastes — coming back to theaters.
As often happens at festivals, those concerns — along with the free-floating anxieties having to do with environmental peril, dramatically disrupted U.S. politics, racism, class conflicts and lost ideals — permeated a program that didn’t quite produce a sensation on a par with last year’s “Moonlight,” but nonetheless showcased a remarkably consistent lineup of smart, entertaining, well-executed films.
“Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” made its world premiere here on Monday, with Liam Neeson starring as the FBI associate director who became the most famous anonymous source of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward during the Watergate investigation. The film, written and directed by Peter Landesman, can’t help but hark back to “All the President’s Men,” the classic and still-definitive dramatization of that episode. But as Felt does shadowy battle with a president determined to overturn Washington institutions, constitutional norms and the FBI, it also feels prescient and inescapably of-the-moment in Trump vs. Comey America.
Felt, who finally claimed credit for being Deep Throat in 2005, emerges as a hero in Landesman’s movie, an avatar for the nobility of public service and self-sacrifice. Those values were celebrated in another TIFF premiere: “The Final Year,” Greg Barker’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team during his last months in office. Focusing mostly on adviser Ben Rhodes and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, the film starts out with them preparing the ground for the Clinton administration they clearly believe will continue their work. In the film, Rhodes and Power look stricken on election night, but by Saturday, when “The Final Year” received a standing ovation, their grief had morphed into wistful nostalgia, tinged with still-raw disappointment.
“You remember what a unique opportunity and privilege it is to be able to turn up at places and represent the United States and try to make a difference every day,” said Rhodes after the screening. “And I have to say that it does make me upset that I don’t think the government representing my country is doing that anymore.”
Rhodes wasn’t the only upset person in Toronto: George Clooney, who came to the festival with his new film “Suburbicon,” had no figs left to give when he met with a small group of reporters to talk about the movie, a twisted parable of racial paranoia that curdles from a dark satire (it was co-written by the Coen brothers) into increasingly outrageous horror. The bitter tone of the film — which Clooney said he tweaked to make angrier and darker after Donald Trump was elected president — mirrors his own present mood. “We did this film not really thinking that there was going to be a violent reaction in Charlottesville, and that the president was going to compare the KKK to Black Lives Matter,” he said. “It makes me furious, furious to see that coming from the president of the United States.”
“I just feel it’s a frustrating time,” he continued. “And I feel as if everyone, even the people on [Trump’s] side, feel that there’s this black cloud hanging over all of us, mostly shame. I’m ashamed of us for electing this man, and I’m ashamed of the things I hear coming out of his mouth. And I can’t believe that this is the same White House that had Washington and Jefferson and Kennedy and FDR and Barack Obama. I’m just ashamed.”
As a film that uses horror to explore notions of white identity and impunity, “Suburbicon” joins “Get Out” and “Detroit,” which both deployed cinematic language in the same way earlier this year. Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!,” which like “Suburbicon” premiered at Venice before arriving in Toronto, also explored the genre in a queasy, unsettling portrait of family life that plays like a meditation on environmental degradation, theological questioning and human purpose (the film opens in theaters on Friday). The writer-director Paul Schrader, meanwhile, engaged those same issues in the far more controlled and finely crafted “First Reformed,” in which Ethan Hawke delivers a moving performance as a pastor struggling with faith, desire and a burdened conscience.
“First Reformed” was a high point of Toronto, in part because it marked such an exquisite return to form on the part of Schrader, best known as the writer of “Taxi Driver” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” And it was part of a diverse program of well-crafted, entertaining movies that occasionally provided tonal and thematic respite from the edgy gloom and doom on offer. Among the warmly received premieres here were Angela Robinson’s engrossing “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” about the unconventional real-life relationships that inspired the comic-book heroine; “Borg McEnroe,” about the pivotal 1980 Wimbledon final; “Molly’s Game,” Aaron Sorkin’s tightly wound thriller starring Jessica Chastain as a powerful poker-game doyenne; audience favorite “I, Tonya,” starring Margot Robbie as ice skater Tonya Harding; and “Roman Israel, Esq.,” a legal drama about a 1960s civil rights attorney — played by an almost unrecognizable Denzel Washington — whose idealism clashes with the political and cultural changes of the past half century.
As a glimpse of a man grappling with his own sense of dislocation, “Roman Israel, Esq.” earned its own place among films that, taken collectively, presented a jittery view of a world in the throes of disorienting transformation. But as a homage to the leadership and commitment of the elders who have gone before, the film was reassuring as well. Clooney’s black cloud was dissipated somewhat by movies whose sense of history offered, if not hope, at least perspective: Among the best were Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” featuring Gary Oldman in a cunning and utterly beguiling performance as Winston Churchill during the Dunkirk evacuation, and the Sundance hit “Mudbound,” a sprawling World War II-era epic about the American South.
Masterfully adapted by Dee Rees from a novel by Hillary Jordan, this story of race and class, land and legacy managed to capture and transcend its time and place, recalling the epic literary and cinematic works of William Faulkner and Harper Lee, William Wyler and John Ford. The jitters this year were understandable. But it turns out there’s no better cure than a long view of history and human nature that manages to be both sharply observant and expansive at the same time. “Mudbound” proves that a great movie can provide both diagnosis and healing.