The Best Movies at TIFF 2014

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We just returned from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival having watched several dozen movies, ranging from small-budget foreign films to Oscar contenders. TIFF may not have the name recognition of Sundance or Cannes, but it’s always a great way to preview some of the best films that will be released in the coming months (the last seven Oscar winners have played there). Paste’s chief film critic Tim Grierson, movies editor Michael Dunaway and editor-in-chief Josh Jackson each pick their favorite movies and performances of TIFF below.

Tim Grierson, Chief Film Critic

1. Eden

Filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve uses as her backdrop the ’90s dance music scene to explore the end of youth and what happens when some of us choose not to become adults. The songs are euphoric, but the emotions are bittersweet.

2. Still Alice

Julianne Moore gives one of her best performances as a 50-year-old author and professor whose life is shattered by early-onset Alzheimer’s. Filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland transcend TV-movie and disease-of-the-week platitudes to hit at something real about family, love and death.

3. The New Girlfriend

A kinky, sly little treat, The New Girlfriend watches what happens when a woman (Anaïs Demoustier) becomes close to her dead best friend’s husband (Romain Duris), who reveals to her a closely-guarded secret: He prefers dressing as a woman. Writer-director François Ozon (working from a short story by Ruth Rendell) eschews camp for an erotic, thoughtful drama about female friendships.

4. Two Days, One Night

The Dardenne brothers’ latest premiered at Cannes but shockingly went home empty-handed when prizes were handed out. Marion Cotillard is superb as a factory worker who must convince her fellow employees to forgo their bonuses so she can keep her job. As always with the Dardennes, Two Days, One Night is precise, stripped-down and enormously affecting.

5. The Duke of Burgundy

Filmmaker Peter Strickland proved with Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio that he’s a master of mood and sound design. Those are but two of The Duke of Burgundy’s many pleasures: It’s a story about lesbian lovers (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna) constantly trying to keep the spark through role-playing and mind games. Very droll, very sexy, very claustrophobic and entrancing.

Best Performances:

1. Julianne Moore, Still Alice
2. Félix de Givry, Eden
3. Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
4. Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
5. Judy Greer, Men, Women & Children

Michael Dunaway, Movies Editor

1. Miss Julie

Halfway through Miss Julie I realized that I should have seen this film coming. After all, it’s based on one of the absolute classics of the theater, by one of the greatest writers in history, August Strindberg. It’s been adapted and directed by Liv Ullmann, a legendary actress herself. And that titular role, which every ingenue in acting school dreams of playing one day, is being played by the greatest actress of her generation, Jessica Chastain. How could it not have been the best film of the festival? To her great credit, Ullmann doesn’t try to overly psychologize the text, or build up to the many shifts in the characters’ emotions. She simply lets them play out before you, in all their baffling whirlwind shifting and overwhelming intensity. It’s a brutal adaptation of a brutal play, and I never want to see it again. But man, I’m glad I saw it once.

2. Men, Women & Children

I know many critics spurned this moving ensemble piece; I just can’t understand why. Perhaps it’s just a cleaner storyline to say that between this and Labor Day (which I did dislike), Reitman has lost his way. But I found his examination of connection and relationships, especially but not exclusively through the lens of social media, to be
utterly compelling. It’s not primarily a look at How We Live Today; it’s more the story of a dozen or so desperately lonely people trying to find their way in the world, only half knowing what they even want, and knowing even less how to ask for it. To me it recalled
Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, one of the best films of the ’90s.

3. Song of the Sea

When your first feature film, The Secret of Kells, is a beautifully animated adventure that brings new life to the story of one of Ireland’s greatest treasures, and then it gets nominated for an Oscar to boot, it can be tricky to plan your next step. But Tomm Moore’s followup Song of the Sea is just as distinctly Irish and just as good. The new film explores the Celtic myth of the selkies, creatures who live as seals in the water but take human form on land. The intricacies of the plot are better left to the interior of the theater, although I will entice you by mentioning that the wonderful voice of Brendan Gleeson inhabits not one but two characters in the film. Suffice to say that if you enjoyed The Book of Kells (and who didn’t?), you’ll love Song of the Sea as well.

4. Foreign Body

Legendary Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi is back with his first narrative feature in five years, and it’s a doozy. The story of a man caught between two women—his virtuous love, who has decided to become a nun; and his nihilistic boss, who has decided to corrupt him. The performances are uniformly excellent, cinematography alternates between rich darkness and bright light, as befitting the duality of the subject matter, and the score is absolutely haunting. At times the film even recalls the best work of Zanussi’s other longtime and dearly departed friend, fellow Polish master Krzysztof Kie?lowski.

5. Foxcatcher

It’s difficult to judge the long-awaited Foxcatcher as simply a movie, coming as it does with such Oscar-buzz baggage in a year where the Best Picture trophy seems to be up for grabs. It doesn’t reach that level of achievement to me, but there is much to love here. I wish Channing Tatum had been given more to do as Mark Schultz, but he is touching as the sullen, confused, frustrated younger wrestler. Mark Ruffalo is brilliant as his older brother David. And it’s hard to discuss Carell’s transformational performance as John du Pont without using the overused word “unrecognizable”; you really do forget it’s him. And the story, based of course on a real life situation, is undeniably compelling and dramatic. I just wish the script had more to say.

Best Performances:

1. Jessica Chastain, Miss Julie
2. Al Pacino, Manglehorn
3. Rosemarie Dewitt, Men, Women & Children
4. Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
5. Adam Sandler, Men, Women & Children

Josh Jackson, Founder/Editor-in-Chief

1. Still Alice

Sarah Polley’s Away From Her set a high bar for any examination of Alzheimer’s, but directorial team Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland ( Quinceañera) have created a beautiful portrait of a woman losing the things that are most precious to her, her intelligence and ability to communicate. Julianne Moore gives the performance of the festival as a professor of linguistics and mother of three, coping with an early-onset form of the disease.

2. While We’re Young

Noah Baumbach gives Ben Stiller an opportunity to do more than his usual woe-is-me schtick, though he gets to that as well, in While We’re Young. Stiller and Naomi Watts play a couple of married, 40-something documentary filmmakers who encounter a younger hipster couple and rethink how they’re living. Adam Driver is full of his uniquely irresistible Adam Driver charisma, like a pied piper leading his older friends down a hilariously path that takes unexpected turns.

3. This Is Where I Leave You

This Is Where I Leave You was not the most original film I saw at TIFF this year. It’s a dysfunctional family dramedy, and lord knows you can find at least six of those in any festival line-up. But the source material from Banshee creator Jonathan Tropper and consistently stellar performances from the ensemble cast buoy this film well above the rest of director Sean Levy’s filmography (The Pink Panther, The Internship). Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda and Adam Driver all inhabit characters you come to care deeply about in a seriously funny movie.

4. Dearest

This heartbreaking true story of child abduction in China grows more complicated with each passing frame. Writer Ji Zhang and director Peter Chan offer up no villains and no tidy morals as they explore what it means to be a parent and the effects of China’s one-child policy. The movie features some of China’s biggest stars, but Huang Bo stands out as a father who’ll do anything to find his only son.

5. Two Days, One Night

Belgium’s Dardenne Brothers have twice won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for their naturalistic films about the struggles of their country’s working class. Their latest stars Marion Cotillard, the first time they’ve worked a true A-list actor. But Cotillard dissolves seamlessly into her character, Sandra, a factory worker fighting for her job as she battles depression. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are optimists at heart, and the hope for humanity they share is a beautiful thing.

Best Performances:

1. Julianne Moore, Still Alice
2. Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
3. Adam Driver, While We’re Young
4. Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
5. Huang Bo, Dearest