Live from the Toronto Film Festival 2014: Wrapping up

September 12, 2014

 

imitation

As inevitably must happen, my stay at the Toronto International Film Festival comes to an end. There’s an almost ceremonial feeling to the moment when I remove the lanyard with my press credential from my neck for the last time and head for home.

It is, of course, impossible to characterize the success or failure of all the films at TIFF this year (or any year), if only because you can only see so many films in one day. I tend to average four or five films a day in a good year, with one day (and occasionally two) where I see as many as six. Even if I went for the entire 10 days and watched 10 movies a day, I’d still be able to see fewer than half of the films at the festival. And the last one you missed – well, it might have been the best.

But I saw enough at this year’s TIFF to think that, while I just may have seen the best film of the year at this festival, that also may not necessarily be so.

Certainly, the first film I saw Thursday before I left town will be a major contender. Get used to hearing the title “The Imitation Game” because, between the filmmaking of Morten Tyldum and the acting of Benedict Cumberbatch, this is the film they’ll be talking about at the end of the year.

Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the man credited with breaking the Nazis’ impenetrable Enigma code during World War II and shortening the war. This film examines his selection to be part of a super-secret team of cryptologists put together by the British to figure out how to decipher an unbreakable code.

Turing’s solution is to build a machine – an early gloss on a computer – to counter the Enigma machine, which changes its encryption daily. But he has to struggle against military stubbornness and his own lack of social skills (he tends to put people off by being both blunt and literal) to reach the solution.

The film also examines Turing’s own indecipherable life: hiding the fact that he’s a gay man at a time when homosexuality had been criminalized by the British (who only decriminalized it in 1967, still sooner than a lot of the American South). It is a subplot and a subtext, enriching the drama without dominating it. Cumberbatch, as if he hadn’t already made himself a star, vaults into the contemporary top rank of actors with this exceptionally human performance as a man who sometimes wonders if he’s really a machine.

I haven’t been a fan of Ramin Bahrani’s films but he showed me something with “99 Homes,” a heated drama about the American foreclosure crisis starring a dynamic Michael Shannon and a perhaps-too-sensitive Andrew Garfield.

Not that I thought “99 Homes” was successful. The foreclosure issue – specifically, the human face of foreclosure and eviction – is not something we see on any regular basis. Bahrani uses one such family as a window into that world, even while dealing with a melodramatic business potboiler plot to craft a morality tale.

Dennis Nash (Garfield) is a guy fighting foreclosure who finds himself on the wrong end of an eviction, led by two deputies and a bank representative, Richard Carver (Shannon). Forced to move his mother and son to a motel, Dennis goes looking for Carver – and instead winds up working for him. Before long, in an effort to get his home back, he’s doing the devil’s bidding, then outdoing the devil with schemes of his own.

All of which is interestingly Faustian. But Bahrani can’t close the deal, so to speak. The ending is hard to swallow, more like wish fulfillment than dramatic climax. Still, Shannon proves once again why he’s one of the liveliest wires working today, as he all but obliterates the angsty Garfield.

“Still Alice” is the kind of issue-oriented film that used to regularly capture mass attention. This wrenchingly honest film – about a high-achieving Columbia professor and linguistics authority diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s – deserves that kind of attention.

As played by Julianne Moore, Alice wrote the textbook on the human use of language, literally. But when she finds herself unable to remember words and appointments – and then gets lost in the middle of campus while on her daily run – she consults a neurologist, who gives her the bad news.

Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, the film never milks the tear ducts because it doesn’t have to. This story – happening daily in homes around the world, generally if not specifically – is best when it’s specific in letting this articulate woman struggle for vocabulary to describe what she’s going through. With a strong cast playing her family (Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth), it becomes a grippingly tragic tale of diminishment, of a person who can’t stop herself from disappearing.

And so I’m back in New York, where the fall movie season begins in earnest and things get serious after nine months of dross. The New York Film Festival will bring more riches in a couple of weeks, with a steady stream of films culminating in the holiday tsunami at year’s end.

Stay tuned.

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