Audrey Fox / October 22, 2019
Another year of the Toronto International Film Festival has come to an end, and as usual it was packed full of films that will now be considered major Oscar contenders, if they weren’t already. Of course, some hotly anticipated movies took the opportunity to crash and burn on a global stage and were widely panned in early reviews (The Goldfinch and Harriet, we’re looking at you), but, for the most part, TIFF 2019 has given us every indication that we’re poised for a wonderful fall season of cinema.
Here are my favorites from the festival.
With the incredibly intimate Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach has created what may be the next great American drama. As theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) and actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) begin divorce proceedings, their amicable relationship and desire to keep things civil devolves into tense hostilities. They’re convinced that they don’t want to hurt each other but can’t seem to help themselves as they turn to scorched earth tactics, their own pain and resentment leading them to pursue victory above all else. Driver and Johansson are at their best here, bringing such nuance and humanity to two flawed and traumatized people. The broken relationships are hardly new territory for a director with The Squid and the Whale (2005), Margot at the Wedding (2007), and While We’re Young (2014) under his belt, but Marriage Story feels more intensely autobiographical than anything Baumbach has attempted before.
Comparisons will inevitably be made to 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), the Oscar-sweeping family drama revolving around divorce and a contentious custody battle. But where the earlier film took on larger themes of stereotypical gender roles as they pertain to custodial parenthood, Marriage Story is simultaneously simpler and more complex. Baumbach focuses on the inner lives of the characters, exploring in heartbreaking detail how a relationship and once stable family unit can topple—as easily as a house of cards.
Marriage Story opened to universal acclaim at Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and the New York Film Festival, proving that Netflix’s confidence in it was not misplaced. Despite the entertainment industry’s reluctance to embrace streaming platforms, Marriage Story may prove to be an unstoppable force, with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson squarely in awards contention alongside supporting actors Alan Alda and Laura Dern.
When word first got out that Taika Waititi, the Maori director of the widely-beloved vampire spoof What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017), was going to make a World War II satire starring himself as Adolf Hitler, posited here as the imaginary friend of a young Nazi boy, plenty of eyebrows—and moral hackles—were raised. Luckily, Jojo Rabbit is a thoughtfully constructed banger of a satire that perfectly balances humor and sentimentality.
It eagerly makes a mockery of Nazis, who are depicted as incompetent and possessing a unique sort of malicious gullibility. But it also takes serious aim at the racist ideology of hate itself through the bond that develops between Jojo (a fragile yet strong-willed Roman Griffin Davis in his stunning film debut) and Elsa (a catty and mischievous Thomasin McKenzie), the Jewish teenager he discovers hiding in his walls.
Despite imaginary Adolf’s best efforts at indoctrinating the young boy, even a ten-year-old who once accidentally blew himself up with a grenade and has never quite got the hang of tying his own shoes can see that maybe Nazi ideology isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. Waititi’s Hitler is perhaps the point at which critics may suggest that the actor-director has crossed a line, but without this Hitler, a playfully malevolent, cripplingly insecure megalomaniac, the full absurdity that is absolutely essential to the satire’s effectiveness wouldn’t have come through.
How can things be so utterly and earth-shatteringly normal while balanced on the edge of disaster? 1982 revolves around this question in the form of Wissam (Mohamad Dalli), a fifth-grade boy growing up in Beirut, whose priorities would probably fall in the following order: his all-consuming crush on classmate Joana (Gia Madi), who he sneaks anonymous love notes to despite it being strictly forbidden; his friendship with Majid, all the more fragile now that girls have entered the picture; and his exams, which will determine whether or not he graduates from fifth grade.
And then, somewhere far below, almost completely disregarded in Wissam’s ten-year-old mind: the threat of impending war with Israel. But regardless of Wissam’s priorities, war inevitably hangs heavy over 1982, a coming-of-age drama out of Lebanon from writer-director Oualid Mouaness in his feature film debut. There’s a palpable tension that permeates the film as the school valiantly tries to carry on as normally as possible.
Although Beirut was no stranger to armed skirmishes during the 1970s and early 1980s, there’s a sense that this new tension is different, and no matter how hard the students and teachers try to push through with exams, the outbreak of deadly violence is inevitable. The focus may be on the day-to-day life of a country at peace—a childhood crush, a game of soccer, a family squabble—but a darker reality forces itself in.
Mouaness uses his tight-knit school community to great effect, creating moments where the mask falls and the stubborn determination to maintain normalcy gives way to a panicked helplessness. Teachers sneak away to get news from portable radios, while the school secretary tirelessly answers frantic parental phone calls and oversees the painstaking process of ensuring that each child is accounted for. With these small but significant touches, 1982 creates a deeply moving snapshot of a country teetering on the brink of inveterate crisis.
There are moments in Atiq Rahimi’s Our Lady of the Nile that make the film feel like a 19th century novel, something written in England about eligible young women finding suitable husbands. It is, after all, set in an elite boarding school where only the most influential are able to send their daughters; and as in any Victorian novel, appearances and reputation are everything. But Our Lady of the Nile takes place in 1970s Rwanda, and accordingly infuses this classic coming-of-age story with Rwandan culture, superstition, and ethnic conflict.
As much as the devoutly religious institution would like to Europeanize its students (the girls are only permitted to speak French, and must conform to Christian traditions), there are inescapable elements of their identity as Rwandans that, inevitably, cause strife. Most of the students are Hutus with just a few of the minority Tutsi ethnic group, and these differences define their interactions with one another, exposing a deep wound from Rwanda’s colonialist past that shows no sign of healing.
Our Lady of the Nile is filmed with hazy romanticism, juxtaposing images of the innocent schoolgirls in long, pure white nightgowns with the ugliness and violence of a bigotry fundamentally linked to the early Rwandan nationalist movement. In doing so, it takes an unflinching look at the conflict that would prove to be a predecessor for the devastation of the Rwandan genocide twenty years later. But it also tells a story that is uniquely Rwandan, and one that is beautiful in spite of its tragedy.
Sometimes you can tell that a writer is truly letting you in, laying themselves bare, trusting the audience with their vulnerability. In Honey Boy, Shia LaBeouf puts his career, his childhood, and his entire psyche on display. The result is an intimate drama that sparks with anger and restless energy.
Otis (played by Noah Jupe as a child and Lucas Hedges as a young adult) is a thinly veiled version of LaBeouf himself. A former child actor, he is sent to court-mandated rehab after a history of drug abuse and several run-ins with the law. It’s only there, while in therapy for anger management (amongst other things), that he’s forced to confront his past. Otis’s childhood was dominated by a very conflicted relationship with his dad (Shia LaBeouf, essentially playing his own father in a frenetic and powerful performance), a former drug addict who served as his on-set chaperone while he worked on a kids’ television show.
The greatest strength of Honey Boy is in the lead performances from Jupe and LaBeouf: how each actor seamlessly expresses the truth and intimacy in this abusive yet strangely codependent father-son dynamic. Jupe, so mature yet vulnerable, plays Otis as a gifted young actor who is forced into the role of financial and emotional caregiver to his father, despite deeply yearning for the stability of having someone to take care of him.
And LaBeouf puts in one of the performances of the year as James, a man whose extroversion and larger-than-life personality hides a fundamentally broken individual. He’s impossible to turn away from, and although it’s difficult not to hate him for the things he’s put this son through, you can’t help but pity him a little bit too.
Audrey Fox is an ex-film student, which means that she prefers to spend her days in the dark, watching movies and pondering the director’s use of diegetic sound. She currently works as an entertainment writer, joyfully rambling about all things film and television related.