With the release of Ben Affleck’s Argo today, what we think of as the fall prestige movie season, or Oscar season, really kicks off in earnest. Appetites were wetted last month by The Master (well, at least some appetites), but this is the real start of a three-month stretch where a major Oscar hopeful is basically being released every week. Several of the movies that will vie for audience attentions and accolades premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, and I was lucky enough to see some of them. I’ve prepared this guide to help you, the all-important ticket-buyer, best decide how to use your hard-earned entertainment dollars.
Argo (October 12)
Directed by Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, The Town)
Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman
Argo tells the unbelievably true story of a 1980 CIA rescue operation that successfully extracted six American embassy workers from Iran by posing them as a Canadian film crew on a location scout for a Star Wars-like science fiction movie. Affleck stars as the CIA agent heading the mission, Cranston plays his operations director, and Goodman & Arkin are the Hollywood power players who help him create just enough of a fake movie to sell the lie. The film is equal parts funny, suspenseful, and uplifting, and the level of tension created in the climax makes you seriously doubt a conclusion that you already know is coming. In his third outing behind the camera, Affleck proves he’s on the shortlist of the best contemporary American filmmakers.
You should see this film if… You appreciate any of the following: Hollywood satire, well-crafted political drama, entertaining history lessons, Hitchcock style suspense, and/or inspiring true stories of human triumph.
You should skip this film if… You tend to measure movies by explosions, violence, gratuitous nudity, or complete historical accuracy.
Seven Psychopaths (October 12)
Directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges)
Starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Olga Kurylenko, Abbie Cornish, and Tom Waits
Seven Psychopaths tells the sordid tale of three bungling dog-kidnappers who accidentally take the prized Shih Tzu of a local gangster, and inadvertently set off a Los Angeles crime war. At the very least, the film is never boring. The gratuitous violence is consistently over-the-top, but it never over-shadows the ridiculousness. The dialogue is generally funny, as are the characters and situations, and the great cast always seems to be enjoying themselves at such a level that it’s contagious to the viewer. But having said that, this is a slightly disappointing movie if you go into it with any level of expectation (as I did). There’s nothing here even remotely resembling the character depth of director McDonagh’s great debut, In Bruges, and there are times when the movie is a little too reminiscent of the worst of the late 90’s Tarantino wannabes.
You should see this film if… You love Pulp Fiction because it’s awesome, hilarious, and violent.
You should skip this film if… You love Pulp Fiction because it’s artistic, innovative, and groundbreaking. (Or, I suppose, you should skip this movie if you don’t like Pulp Fiction. But why would you be reading a film column if you don’t like Pulp Fiction?)
The Paperboy (October 19)
Directed by Lee Daniels (Precious)
Starring Zach Efron, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, and John Cusack
Lee Daniels’ hotly awaited follow-up to Precious, The Paperboy is a gothic redneck murder tale told through the eyes of Zach Efron, who has the hots for Kidman’s southern belle temptress. She’s trying to get Cusack out of prison because she loves him (even though they’ve only corresponded through mail), and McConaughey is the lawyer she hires to help find new evidence that acquits him of the murder he’s been convicted of. Efron is McConaghey’s brother, and is helping him with the case. Sadly, those are the straightforward elements of the story, and the second half of the movie just skips around from one terrible plot twist to another. I loved Precious, and I had high hopes for this, but it did nothing but disappoint. If you’re looking for silver linings, here’s the best I can offer: the lighting and color-tones are kind of interesting, Kidman does a good job (though she’s much better playing a similar character in the pseudo-classic To Die For), Cusack actually takes a role against type, and there’s a great scene of Kidman pantomiming a blowjob to Cusack while she visits him in prison. And I think that exhausts the good things I can say about The Paperboy.
You should see this film if… You’re willing to pay $10 to see Zach Efron in his tightie whities.
You should skip this film if… You have good taste.
Smashed (October 19)
Directed by James Ponsoldt (Off the Black)
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, and Megan Mullally
A small character-driven film about a young married couple (Winstead and Paul) who drink themselves into a stupor every night, and about the strain it puts on their relationship when she decides to go sober, but he doesn’t. Smashed isn’t a great film, but it’s an interesting one, and it wears its heart on its proverbial sleeve. Winstead is the best thing here, and she shows a depth of ability that has never been apparent before (and I’ve always liked her). Paul is good, but he just plays a slightly altered version of his Breaking Bad character, and it feels like a missed opportunity. He should be taking roles that display his range, not that increase the likelihood of his being typecast. The film is generally more redemptive than it is heavy, and at only 90 minutes, it moves by incredibly quickly. Several of the scenes have a nicely compelling gravitas, and there’s a palpable authenticity to the proceedings, but overall, it feels like the struggles are a bit too simplified and the emotional journey is a little too truncated.
You should see this film if… You like your indie films to feel really, really indie, or if you’re always on the lookout for the next potentially important actor/actress/director.
You should skip this film if… You like having strong reactions to films.
Cloud Atlas (October 26)
Directed by Andy & Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run)
Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, and Susan Sarandon
Adapted from the allegedly unfilmable novel, Cloud Atlas weaves together stories from six different eras to chronicle the epic journey of a soul across the past, present, and future, and about how acts of kindness can ripple throughout time. From that synopsis (and the pedigree of directors), you should just about know whether Cloud Atlas is your kind of flick or not, but I’ll keep going just for the hell of it. If films were measured purely on ambition, there’s no question that Cloud Atlas is one of the best films of this year or most others. There is a LOT going on here, the least of which is that twelve actors play every single role in the film, across all six time periods (generally, each actor has a character in each era, but they are not the same characters). Even if you don’t ultimately fall for the grandiosity and the themes of the film, it’s still an unbelievably captivating journey that finds a heightened level of drama in the early goings and then latches on to it for nearly three unforgettable hours. And make no mistake, this is an unforgettable film, even for the people that ultimately won’t like it (and they will be legion). The people that love this film will probably spend two solid months talking about it, and the people who hate the film will hate it very loudly and publicly. But I’m in the love camp. This is a film that asks you to believe and I believed. I was swept along on the journey that is Cloud Atlas and it was an experience that deeply moved me.
You should see this film if… You’re interested in hugely ambitious works of art, you still appreciate the communal aspects of the cinema, you value being a part of the cultural conversation, you’ve ever used the phrase “go big or go home,” or if you’ve ever wanted to see Hugh Grant playing a post-apocalyptic tribal warrior with tattoos and face paint (yes, really).
You should skip this film if… You’ve ever used the word “hogwash,” you strongly dislike leaving a theater unsure of what you just saw, or you have a morbid fear of seeing Tom Hanks with a goatee.
The Sessions (October 26)
Directed by Ben Lewin (Georgia, Paperback Romance)
Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy
John Hawkes (an Oscar nominee in 2011 for Winter’s Bone) plays Mark O’Brien, the real-life poet and polio survivor who was unable to move below the neck and lived in an iron lung. Taking place in the 1980’s, this true story catches up with O’Brien as a middle-aged man who decides that, even if he never marries or finds the love of his life, he still wants to lose his virginity, and Helen Hunt plays the sex surrogate he hires to help him do so. The concept could easily have been played for cheap laughs (and to be fair, there are a lot of laughs here), but director Lewin—a polio survivor himself—prevents the films from ever going that route. Instead, we get a totally honest, and unapologetically graphic, portrayal of a man just trying to have sex. Hawkes and Hunt spend a good portion of their screen time nude, but the film never feels exploitative or gratuitous. The trick is that the viewpoint is funneled through Hawkes, who sees the beauty in every simplistic aspect of life, and who never feels sorry for himself, so we don’t either. The film doesn’t cash in on sympathy, but on the simple pleasure of an accomplished goal.
You should see this film if… you like simple movies about complicated things, you like movies that make you feel the beauty of life, you like the idea of William H. Macy playing a priest while keeping his Shameless haircut, and if you want to see the performance that will win the 2013 Best Actor Oscar (yep, you heard me).
You should skip this film if… You don’t experience human emotion, or if you’d rather see full frontal nudity clips for free on the Internet than pay to see them in a theater.
Silver Linings Playbook (November 21)
Directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings)
Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, and Julia Stiles
Bradley Cooper stars as a just-released mental patient living with his parents (De Niro & Weaver) in Philadelphia, in a story about how he embraces the road to recovery with the help of a beautiful young widow trying to cope with problems of her own (Lawrence). Treading a somewhat similar ground as As Good As It Gets, this film had ample opportunity to go off the rails and disappoint, but it amazingly never does. Cooper proves he can carry a movie whose box office won’t be driven by frat guys, and Lawrence turns in her best acting performance yet (and for anyone that saw Winter’s Bone, you know that’s saying something). There are a few minor flaws here—the film never goes for a big emotional payoff moment, a few of the comedic sequences feel a little too contrived, and the climax seems to swipe a page from the Little Miss Sunshine script—but none of these are obvious while you’re watching. It’s just too enjoyable.
Note: Silver Linings Playbook won the audience award in Toronto, which has become something of an Oscar predictor in recent years (Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech also won it), but I think the safer Oscar bet here is Jennifer Lawrence’s scene-stealing performance. In my mind, she’s the lead actress to beat.
You should see this film if… You like movie stars at the top of their game, good dramedies, unconventional romantic comedies, memorable dance sequences, or if you want to see Robert De Niro actually earn a paycheck for the first time since the 90’s.
You should skip this film if… You think serious movies ought to be serious, and that happy endings are too formulaic and sappy.
Rust and Bone (November 23)
Directed by Jacques Audiard (A Prophet)
Starring Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts
This French character drama stars Marion Cotillard (Inception, Dark Knight Rises, La Vie en Rose) as a killer whale trainer who loses both legs in an accident, and forges an emotional connection with a bare-knuckle street fighter. If it sounds heavy, it is. The acting is generally phenomenal, much of the imagery is stunning, and there are a handful of moments that are as moving and deeply affecting as anything you’ll see this year. But director Audiard, who made the incredible prison crime drama A Prophet (a 2010 Best Foreign Language Film nominee), mostly keeps the dramatic tension out of this one, and it would be a struggle for anyone to really call this film entertaining.
You should see this film if… You like really well crafted character pieces, or if you feel compelled to see every potential nominee for Best Actress.
You should skip this film if… You generally don’t like walking out of a theater feeling as though your soul has been given an anesthetic.
On The Road (December 21)
Directed by Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries)
Starring Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Sam Riley, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss, and Viggo Mortensen
Jack Kerouac’s generation-defining novel finally makes it to the big screen courtesy of Brazilian director Walter Salles, who has previous experience making a good road trip film with the Che Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries. The lead roles are played by two talented young actors, Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) as the decadent Dean Moriarty and Sam Riley (Control) as the Kerouac stand-in Sal Paradise, and both do a fantastic job bringing the legendary characters to life. Kristen Stewart (Twilight) costars, and goes what has to be described as all-in on her first real adult role, playing a sex-object version of the manic pixie dream girl archetype. But even if the individual elements of the film—acting, pacing, photography, and energy—all ring true, it’s the feeling that’s missing. The enduring appeal of the novel isn’t necessarily the characters or the story, but the language, and short of having the characters simply read the novel on screen (which actually does happen a fair amount), the film just can’t recreate that despite a damn good effort.
You should see this film if… You’ve always been interested in the idea of reading “On The Road.”
You should skip this film if… You’ve actually read “On The Road.”
Of course I missed a few movies in Toronto that would have made this preview had I seen them (Anna Karenina, The Impossible, Hyde Park on Hudson), and there are also a number of notable films arriving in theaters this fall that opted not to go to Toronto (Django Unchained, The Hobbit, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty)… But that’s the great thing about loving movies: you’ll never run out of more to see.
And lastly, here are five wonderful films I saw in Toronto that won’t be hitting U.S. theaters until 2013, but which you should definitely put on your radar:
How To Make Money Selling Drugs—A scathing look at U.S. drug policy and why dealing appeals to so many people, this documentary succeeds on every level; It’s funny, succinct, informative, thorough, and thought-provoking.
Kon-Tiki—The true story of Thor Heyerdahl, who spent the summer of 1947 floating 5,000 miles from Peru to Polynesia on a raft made of balsa wood in an effort to prove that the Polynesian islands were originally colonized by South America. One of the greatest film adventure stories I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Lore—The poetic tale of a 14 year-old German girl at the end of World War II, who must care for her young siblings when their Nazi parents are arrested for war crimes. Filled with powerful imagery and portraying a unique perspective, I was deeply affected by this film.
The Sapphires—The true story of four Aboriginal girls in the 1960’s who formed a Supremes-like soul group and left Australia to go to Vietnam and sing for U.S. troops. This is the best music film I’ve seen in years, and Chris O’Dowd (the cop from Bridesmaids) kills it as their Irish manager.
Thanks For Sharing—A sex addiction dramedy by Stuart Blumberg (the writer of The Kids are All Right), starring Mark Ruffalo, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Tim Robbins, which is equal parts funny and heavy.
And that’s it, happy viewing!