The Toronto International Film Festival, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, was bookended by controversy. As the festival opened last week, Aretha Franklin and her legal representatives sought an injunction preventing the exhibition of a long-awaited documentary about her, called “Amazing Grace.” A week later, as the festival was wrapping up, organizers had to pull another film when director Mathew Cullen demanded that “London Fields” be removed from the lineup because of creative differences with his producers.
Those dust-ups belied a festival that was notable this year for the understatement and conservative aesthetic values of the 200-plus films it showed over 10 days. (The festival ends Sunday.) Often, festivals can be counted on to shake up audiences with the kind of edgy, provocative films that would have trouble finding purchase with mass audiences. At TIFF, as the festival is called by veterans, the tone was far more soothing, gentle and accessible — even on opening night, with the quirky but warm comedy-drama “Demolition.”
In that film, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a Wall Street investment executive who has just lost his wife and wanders the wilds of the city and suburbs in a disoriented haze until he is joined by an offbeat customer service representative played by Naomi Watts. The film, which won’t open until next year, is rife with the potential to be too self-consciously out there by half. But in the hands of director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “Wild”), it winds up being an engaging chronicle of grief and resilience, its tricky tonal balance betrayed only in a regrettably sentimental ending.
Still, “Demolition” struck an early chord that was repeated throughout TIFF: cautious hopes being rewarded by surprised delight. Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” which will arrive in theaters in early October, was one such knockout, its serious marketing campaign (the solemn words “Bring Him Home” superimposed on a close-up of Matt Damon in a space suit) utterly contradicting a movie that is as funny and playful as it is science-minded. Featuring a wonderfully self-effacing, charismatic lead performance by Damon as a plant biologist stranded on Mars, “The Martian” was joined by the Boston crime drama “Black Mass” (which opened this weekend) and “Brooklyn,” John Crowley’s gorgeously filmed, deeply affecting adaptation of the novel by Colm Toibin, as favorites with audiences and critics alike, who cheered the return to old-school storytelling values and the unapologetic emotion that they represented.
Which isn’t to say that there weren’t some risks being taken in Toronto this year. After a triumphant debut at the Venice Film Festival, head-trip cruise director Charlie Kaufman brought his film “Anomalisa” to TIFF to a favorable, if slightly perplexed, response. Filmed with puppets in stop-motion animation, “Anomalisa” is a story of identity, alienation and fleeting love featuring the voices of Jennifer Jason Leigh and David Thewlis. In the similarly eccentric “Room,” Brie Larson plays a woman who has been abducted and confined for seven years in an 8-by-8-foot shed.
“Anomalisa” and “Room” may have featured unconventional set-ups, and each held potential to play up snark, style and ironic distance at the expense of sincerity. But each wound up evincing the humanism and surpassing heart that characterized so many of the films at TIFF, whether they were light romantic comedies such as Rebecca Miller’s charming “Maggie’s Room” or sober historic re-creations such as Danish filmmaker Martin Zandvliet’s elegant World War II drama “Land of Mine.”
“Land of Mine” was one of a handful of acquisitions at TIFF this year, having been bought for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics. Other high-profile titles that were picked up: “Anomalisa”; the Helen Mirren drone drama “Eye in the Sky”; John Cameron Mitchell’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”; and the Ellen Page apocalypse thriller “Into the Forest.”
At this writing, one of the most sought-after films, Michael Moore’s documentary “Where To Invade Next” had still not settled at a company. In a brief interview during a day of negotiations, Moore indicated that whoever winds up taking the film, it will be positioned for Oscar consideration. Toward that end, he joins a raft of distributors, publicists and filmmakers who came to Toronto — some of them already having premiered in Venice or Telluride — to begin the long but potentially profitable slog of awards season.
Such films as “The Danish Girl,” starring Eddie Redmayne as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, “Truth,” starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes, and “Trumbo,” featuring Bryan Cranston as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, epitomized the kind of film that came to Toronto in the hopes of being in the awards “conversation” that increases the awareness of audiences and, if it results in actual nominations, can earn a movie millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity in the form of red-carpet photos, entertainment-TV coverage and social media chatter.
If the awards conversation has begun in the waning days of TIFF, one and only one movie is positioned to dominate it: “Spotlight,” Tom McCarthy’s taut, absorbing, expertly acted dramatization of the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation into the sexual abuse scandal of the Catholic Church. Featuring a note-perfect ensemble cast that includes Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber (who plays Martin Baron, then the Globe’s editor and now executive editor of The Washington Post), “Spotlight” was the festival’s most triumphant example of films that celebrated classical values both on and off the screen — in this case, dogged shoe-leather reporting and the kind of restrained, deceptively simple filmmaking that seems increasingly threatened in the midst of special effects and superheroes. If the film’s rapturous reception from critics, industry executives and audiences is any indication, “Spotlight” promises to take the awards conversation all the way to the stage on Oscar night.