What’s hot at TIFF

Plunging into the deep end with Ryan Gosling, Tilda Swinton, Willem Dafoe, Elizabeth Olsen, George Clooney, Vanessa Paradis . . .

Here are mini-reviews of 21 films I like so far at TIFF. (Some I love.) Ten were screened in Cannes. The others I saw more recently, in advance media previews. As the festival unfolds, more favorites will be added, and the list will appear as a fixture of our dedicated TIFF page. Click on each title to read the TIFF program note and screening times:

The Artist Finally a French movie that needs no subtitles. This silent black-and-white rom-com was the biggest crowd-pleaser in Cannes.  Set in Hollywood, it’s tale of star-crossed stars: a Valentino-like silent film idol sees his career sink with the advent of talkies, while an extra flirts her way into his heart, and to stardom. A wonder dog steals the show. It’s a movie you can imagine Woody Allen wishing he had made.

Café de flore After his restrained fling with British royalty (2009’s) The Young Victoria), Quebec director Jean-Marc Vallée re-embraces the French language, and the lyrical virtuosity that made C.R.A.Z.Y (2005) such an intoxicating triumph. His daredevil drama of shattered love dances a tightrope between two far-flung and seemingly unrelated storylines—a single mother (Vanessa Paradis) struggles to raise a Down Syndrome boy in 1969 Paris; a celebrated DJ (Kevin Parent) navigates a painful divorce in present-day Montreal. Emotional dynamite.

Drive Ryan Gosling nails his first action role like there’s no tomorrow. He plays a stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver, and stumbles into a noble mission to save his neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her young son from gangland retribution. Gosling combines Zen-like grace with psychotic brutality, unleashing a virtually silent performance as an über-cool action hero reminiscent of Steve McQueen. Painting L.A. in shades of neon noir, Denmark’s Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising) plays a waiting game with sparse dialogue and hair-trigger suspense, snapped by bursts of bone-crushing violence. Albert Brooks makes a surprisingly scary villain.

Footnote Israeli director Joseph Cedar brings remarkable zest to a tale of two Talmudic scholars, a father and son whose rivalry is inflamed when one of them receives a major prize. With kinetic visuals, a stabbing score derivative of Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann, and some devastating twists, Footnote plumbs the quicksand depths of moral relativism. And sly grace notes frame Israel’s culture as an armed camp with scenarios of high security at the gates of academe’s ivory tower.

Habemus Papam What a delicious premise: a freshly elected Pope decides he’s not up to the job.  Italian provocateur Nanni Moretti (Caro Diaro, The Son’s Room) directs himself as an atheist shrink who’s hired to psychoanalyze the paralyzed Pope (Michel Piccoli) in the Vatican. Too bad that relationship didn’t take over the film. But then it would be The Pope’s Speech—not Moretti’s style. Instead, the Pontiff escapes into the streets of Rome, rides the bus incognito, and contemplates his failed ambitions as an actor. Piccoli delivers a masterful, career-capping performance in this funny, touching, and willfully underwhelming satire. Call it The Old Man and the (Holy) See.

Hard Core Logo 2  Bruce McDonald’s audacious sequel doesn’t revive the band or the actors from his cult hit, aside from the wonderfully sardonic Julian Richlings as record producer Bucky Haight. Instead, Care Failure, chick singer in a punk band called Die Mannequin, channels the spirit of rocker Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon), who put a gun to his head in the original movie. As the mockumentary filmmaker, McDonald braves camera, along with his wife and child, and serves as the lead actor in what amounts to a gonzo meditation on the search for emotional maturity. Riding a reckless, tangential narrative—a meta-movie intent on its own immolation—McDonald busts through comic post-modern posturing to find a core of  disarming candour.

Le Havre  The failure of this gem to win a prize was widely considered to be the most egregious omission by Robert De Niro’s Cannes jury. Set in a retro Gallic world that seems timeless, it’s a deft intrigue about an elderly artist and his wife who harbour an illegal immigrant, an African boy who steps from a shipping container in the French port of Le Havre. Finnish master Aki Kaurismäki directs note-perfect performances with the deadpan delicacy and painterly control that has become his signature—an unpretentious auteur stamp as distinctive as that of Cronenberg or the Coen brothers.

The Hunter  Willem Dafoe’s wild-eyed intensity finds razor focus in his role as a mercenary who’s hired by a biotech company to bag the elusive, and perhaps extinct, Tasmanian tiger. Rooming in a hippie household with a mysteriously bereft mother and her two untamed children on the edge of the jungle, Dafoe’s character makes enemies among the redneck locals as he stalks his prey. But his real battle is with himself. Based on the novel by Julia Leigh, and directed by Australia’s Daniel Nettheim, The Hunter builds suspense in a breathtaking, febrile landscape. And as a backpacking hit man setting traps on the wild, Dafoe is mesmerizing.

The Ides of March It’s this year’s Social Network—a smart backroom intrigue about diabolical ambition, dirty tricks and betrayed loyalty In his finest directing effort to date, George Clooney casts himself as a progressive governor campaigning in a Democratic presidential primary. But the movie belongs to Ryan Gosling, who plays his hotshot press secretary, a golden boy whose ideals hit the wall in a game of hardball involving sex, lies and interns. With Gosling in peak form, and Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman cast as sparring campaign managers, Ides is a slice of acting heaven.

In Darkness  Just when you thought you could never watch another drama about surviving the Holocaust, veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland unearths an astonishing saga from a subterranean past. Based on a true story, In Darkness is about the Jews who spent 14 months hiding out in the labyrinthine sewer systems of Lvov as the Nazis liquidated the Jewish ghetto. The protagonist is a Catholic sewer worker and petty thief who became their reluctant Schindler. But Holland avoids Spielbergian constructs of good and evil to create a shaded portrait of prejudice and opportunism, empathy and self-sacrifice. With much of the action artfully shot in the lantern glimmers of an underground maze, she lends new meaning to “the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The Kid with a Bike  The latest film from Begium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is shaped with the same raw, fluid realism that has won them the Palme D’Or twice in Cannes (for Rosetta and L’Enfant). It also features their favorite theme: imperiled youth. A renegade 11-year-old boy, abandoned by his parents, is rescued by a hairdresser (Cécile de France), who agrees to be his guardian as he strays into delinquency. The hard edges of the drama are bevelled with more sentiment than the Dardenne brothers usually allow, but the drama meets their gold standard: it’s gripping, visceral and always believable.

Lucky  Here’s another tale of an abandoned boy, a Dickensian odyssey about a 10-year-old Zulu orphan who flees his South African village to seek refuge in Durban after his mother dies of AIDS. Escaping a wicked uncle, he forms an unholy alliance with an elderly Indian woman, whose racist phobia of blacks gradually cedes to compassion. Ever-resourceful, the boy  ricochets through a harsh post-apartheid landscape of violence and prejudice, determined to find his father and get an education. Lovingly shot by British director Avie Luthra, this quiet gem is fired by two superb performances—as the boy, Sihle Dlamini, who’s in virtually every frame, undercuts his beguiling innocence with riveting gravitas; and Jayashree Basavaraj‘s fearful dignity speaks volumes.

Martha Marcy May Marlene  Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of those tabloid twins)  launches her film career with a star-making tour de force as a Martha, a woman recovering from a sexual-religious cult. Winning best director at Sundance for this, his first feature, Sean Dirkin navigates potentially lurid terrain with a poetic eye, shuttling between flashbacks to the cult’s hellish paradise and scenarios of naked disinhibition as Martha disrupts family values at her sister’s cottage. John Hawkes (A Winter’s Bone) is profoundly creepy in the role of the cult leader.

Melancholia  Lars Von Trier just could help kicking over the Cannes sand castle. And the media scandale of his “I’m a Nazi” logorrhoea overshadowed his film, just as the rogue planet on a collision course with Earth overshadows the wedding reception at the seaside chateau in Melancholia. Which is ironic, because this may be Von Tier’s least controversial film. Operatic visuals and vibrant performances—led by Kirsten Dunst as the depressed bride and Charlotte Gainsbourg as her sister—compensate for a slender narrative with Elsinore echoes of Festen (The Celebration), another Danish tale of dynastic doom.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.  With a stunning documentary debut, veteran Quebec director Léa Pool (Emporte-moi, Lost and Delirious) mounts an eloquent and alarming argument that the massive pink-ribbon campaign against breast cancer has become tainted by a malignant breed of corporate opportunism. Adapting Samantha King’s incisive book, Pool shows how research into the causes of breast cancer has become sidelined in the race for a cure, and how corporations that peddle carcinogens use the charity to  “pink-wash” their reputations. But going beyond exposé, Pool gives a human face to those swept up by the populist pink-ribbon movement, and to those terminal cases who feel marginalized by their failure to win the “heroic fight” against cancer.

Pariah  It’s not surprising that this spirited first feature by American director Dee Rees made a splash at Sundance, where it won an  award for cinematography. Filmed as candy-coloured, hot-blooded verité, Pariah is about a resilient 17-year-old girl in Brooklyn (Adepero Oduye) who is struggling to come out as a lesbian. Oduye gives a beautifully nuanced performance on this coming-of-age roller-coaster that takes her through high school, clubland and family melodrama . The heroine’s harshly conservative parents (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell), who marriage hides its own closet intrigue, are dimensional, not demonized. Despite an earnest agenda of sexual liberation, Pariah steers clear of stereotypes, sparking with humour and pathos as it rockets toward emotional truth.

A Separation  It was the big winner at the Berlin festival, taking its top prize, the Golden Bear, plus the best actor and actress awards. The accolades are deserved. Set and shot in Iran, this story of domestic strife in a middle-class home begins with a woman filing for divorce after her husband refuses to emigrate to create a better life for their daughter. In the wife’s absence, the husband hires a woman, who is secretly pregnant, to take care of his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. A chain reaction of calamities ensue, triggering legal action. Director Asghar Farhadi torques each twist of the intricate narrative with jewelled precision. Right under the noses of the theocratic regime, he has made a family drama inlaid with a sly critique of Iran’s obdurate patriarchy.

Take Shelter  Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road), wears psychosis like a second skin. Here he unleashes a bravura performance as a construction worker in the rural Midwest who is plagued by visions and nightmares of an apocalyptic storm looming on the horizon. While his patient wife (a saintly Jessica Chastain) fears for his mental health, he builds insanely well-appointed storm shelter in his backyard.  I was never entire convinced by the story, and felt duped by the ending, but Take Shelter takes some exhilarating risks. And as a grim portrait of a marriage cracking under the weight of man and nature, it makes a curious companion piece to that other Chastain movie, The Tree of Life.

Take This Waltz  Canadian director Sarah Polley’s second feature marks a bold departure. It’s as expansive, reckless and flamboyant as her debut feature (Away From Her) was intimate, restrained and sombre. Michelle Williams stars as Margot, a Toronto woman whose cosy marriage to Mr. Nice Guy—a cookbook author played with stoic sincerity by Seth Rogen—is threatened as Margo tiptoes into a slow-burn summer romance with the dreamboat next door (Luke Kirby). With its giddy spirit of hometown rapture—throwing Sarah Silverman into an aquafit class scored by the Parachute Club—Take This Waltz lacks the discipline of  her Alice Munro adaptation. But Polley braves some highly charged personal terrain, plunging into the deep end of marital angst, as her heroine is torn between domestic comfort and adulterous fantasy.

This is Not A Film Smuggled out of Iran for its Cannes premiere, this clandestine self-portrait of a banned filmmaker plays as an inspired absurdist documentary. For months Jafar Panahi has been confined to his high-rise apartment with his pet iguana, awaiting the results of an appeal against a six-year jail term and a 20-year ban that prohibits him from writing a film, shooting a film, or leaving the country. Co-director  Mojtaba Mirtahmasb shoots Panahi on video, and sometimes just leaves him alone in his apartment with the camera running. Blocking off scenes with masking tape on a Persian carpet, Panahi acts out a movie he’s been forbidden to make, about a girl whose family has imprisoned her in her house to stop her from going to university. With his nose pressed up to the perimeter of his house arrest,  Panahi colours inside the lines to create a priceless piece of tragi-comic protest.