Brian D. Johnson picks TIFF’s Top 10

The best of the Toronto International Film Festival as chosen by our film critic … plus! a booby prize

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As the TIFF circus folds up its tent, here are my 10 personal favorites from the festival. It’s a subjective list. I watched more than 50 features programmed at the festival, some in Cannes last May. But with so much to see and so little time, there are still bound to be some great movies that I missed. Note that four films on the list are documentaries:

1. The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer’s shattering documentary about Indonesia’s 1965 genocide is without precedent—a portrait of mass murder by the perpetrators, proud gangsters who re-enact their crimes for the camera.

2.  Stories We Tell
Boldly putting her entire family on camera, Sarah Polley unwraps the riddle of her parentage with exquisite craft. Deconstructing as she goes, she turns the home movie, real and faux, into new genre of investigative memoir.

3. The Master
Acting doesn’t get any better as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, cast as a L. Ron Hubbard-like cult leader and his unstable acolyte, play truth or dare. Paul Thomas Anderson’s gorgeous 70-mm period epic decants extra-virgin snake oil of the highest order.

4. Amour
In a far more subtle fashion, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva give an octogenarian master class in acting. Michael Haneke, best known for visions of human cruelty, gears down with a dire, delicate chamber piece about an aged couple facing their mortality in a Paris apartment. It won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and will likely lead the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film.

5. The Hunt and Beyond the Hills
I’m calling a two-way tie between these European dramas about intolerance, which (like Amour) I haven’t seen since Cannes. Directed by Denmark’s Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), Mads Mikkelsen gives an intense, finely calibrated performance in The Hunt, as a divorced man whose life is ruined after a young girl falsely accuses him of sexual abuse. And in Beyond the Hills, Romania’s Cristian Mungiu tells a horrific but true story of an exorcism performed on a young woman who tries to liberate a nun from a monastery.

 6. Silver Linings Playbook
Football, mental illness, dance and romance mix with Altman-esque chaos in an off-kilter crowd pleaser from David O. Russell. Bradley Cooper is pitch-perfect as an ex-mental patient who goes off his meds and moves back home to an OCD dad played by De Niro. Jennifer Lawrence steals the movie so deftly we don’t even realize we’re watching a romantic comedy until we’re hooked by the plot’s Hail Mary pass.

7. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tom Ungerer Story
A documentary portrait of the artist as an old man tracks him from his origins as a Nazi-scarred child in Alsace through his various American lives as magazine illustrator, best-selling children’s author, anti-war propagandist and S&M freak. Computer graphics bring his subversive art magically to life.

8. Leviathan
The documentary camera goes where it’s never gone before in this action painting that takes us into a churning, real-time whorl of fish, men, birds and water from the deck-level POV of a fishing boat at sea. This documentary views industrial slaughter with ferocious intimacy. It also batters the optic nerve with dizzying syncopations of light and dark. So it’s hard to watch, but equally hard to forget.

9. Anna Karenina
Reunited with director Joe Wright (Atonement), and his adoring gaze, a radiant Keira Knightley brings more depth to Tolstoy’s heroine than you would ever expect. An ingenious adaptation, scripted by Tom Stoppard, frames lush visuals with a trompe l’oeil theatrical setting that, has trains thundering across a proscenium stage.

10. Rebelle
Quebec writer-director Kim Nguyen spent a decade bringing this harrowing drama of African child soldiers to the screen. Shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it’s the tale of a pregnant 14-year-old girl (Rachel Mwanza) who is forced to kill her parents and become a child soldier. Nguyen’s camera shies away from depicting atrocities, finding moments of tenderness and humour in a story of authentic horror.

Honorable Mentions
hit home with an unlikely road movie about a downed Israeli pilot and a Palestinian boy; Spike Lee went beyond the call of duty with Bad 25, a rich made-for-TV doc about the making of Michael Jackson’s follow-up to Thriller; Marion Cotillard was mesmerizing as an amputee in Rust and Bone; Helen Hunt and John Hawkes made the festival’s oddest couple in The Sessions,the true story of a sex therapist treating a man paralyzed by polio; and Deepa Mehta deserves kudos for directing the magisterial Midnight’s Children, although it’s a shame screenwriter Salman Rushdie wasn’t more ruthless with his own novel.

The Clunkers
These films didn’t deserve to be in this festival, or any festival: At Any Price, a lugubrious father-son farming melodrama starring Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron; Writers, a vapid story of a famous novelist (Greg Kinnear) stalking his ex-wife and wrangling the literary egos of his kids; Yellow, in which Nick Cassavetes sullies his father’s good name with a dumpster load of white-trash exploitation, and cruelly casts his mother, Gena Rowlands, in a hideous role.

The Booby Prize goes to Argo.
I have to admit Ben Affleck’s caper movie—in which he stars as a CIA guy who  Hollywood to rescue six Americans hiding in Tehran’s Canadian embassy during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis—is massively entertaining. It was the joyride of the festival—this year’s Moneyball.  Alan Arkin should get, and deserves, a supporting actor Oscar nod. But we can’t forgive Argo‘s roughshod rewrite of history, which robs credit from Canadian hero Ken Taylor, while pacifying Canada with an ingratiating slap on the back. Not that America will care.