Even if you checked out of real life and did nothing but see four films a day for 10 days, you’d be in a position to describe only a fraction of what was served up at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival. A global cinematic smorgasbord of 298 features — 132 of them world premieres — Toronto is like the proverbial elephant people claim to know just from having touched it in one spot.
Still, with several critics on the ground and glued to the screen, our team saw virtually everything new the festival had to offer this year. The consensus is that, as Cannes suggested back in May, it’s rather an off year, with quite a few disappointments among the most keenly awaited titles, but with some nice, unanticipated surprises popping up as well.
Given the political developments of the year and the massive news coverage of LGBT civil rights, the numerous dramatic films relating to sexual identity issues were eagerly anticipated, only to widely deflate expectations upon their unveiling. Gaby Dellal‘s About Ray and Peter Sollett‘s Freeheld, both with starry casts, were dramatic fumbles, and Roland Emmerich‘s Stonewall, slipped in at the very end after most press had left, also fell well short of the mark in its capturing of an historic moment. Tom Hooper‘s tony, highly touted, biopic of a transgender pioneer The Danish Girl revealed itself as a dreary or, at best, respectable affair, with Eddie Redmayne‘s oh-so-delicate moist-eyed posing looking quite mannered and unrevealing of character by the second half.
All these high-profile entries paled in comparison to two very small and enterprising gay-themed films that popped out of nowhere to wow audiences at other festivals the week before: Irish director Paddy Breathnach‘s Viva in Telluride and Venezuelan first-timer Lorenzo Vigas‘ Golden Lion-winning Desde Alla (From Afar) in Venice, the latter of which subsequently did turn up in Toronto.
Among the high-profile galas, the producers of Ridley Scott‘s vividly realistic space-rescue drama The Martian, Gavin Hood‘s tense terrorism thriller Eye in the Sky, and, to a lesser extent, Jean-Marc Vallee‘s loopy opening-nighter Demolition, undoubtedly felt the trip to Toronto was worthwhile, given the largely encouraging reactions these star-laden productions received.
The same could also be said for James Vanderbilt‘s debut feature, Truth, which stars Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford to very good advantage in a densely written and inevitably partial account of the big news story that ultimately got Mary Mapes and Dan Rather bounced off the CBS Evening News.
Viewers were taken aback when Michael Moore didn’t deliver his standard bill of fare in Where to Invade Next, but instead served up a pungent, more soft-spoken comparison of how other countries do certain things well that the U.S. could learn from. Another filmmaker who took viewers by surprise was Jason Bateman, whose incisively dramatic and humorous The Family Fang snuck up on everyone who saw it and marks a strong return to form for Nicole Kidman. For her part, director Rebecca Miller lightened up to deliver the pleasingly comic Maggie’s Plan, with good turns by Greta Gerwig and especially Julianne Moore.
There were solid, traditional pleasures to be had from the likes of Nicholas Hytner‘s adaptation of Alan Bennett‘s play The Lady in the Van, dominated by Maggie Smith, and Jay Roach‘s straightforward but undeniably meaty biopic Trumbo, which crammed in plenty of good blacklist drama and dirt.
Serious dramas from a variety of sources that went down well included Patricia Rozema‘s intimately apocalyptic Into the Forest, with Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood; Tom Geens‘ disturbingly mysterious Couple in a Hole from the U.K.; Spanish director Cesc Gay‘s poignant end-of-life drama Truman; and a surprising Norwegian disaster film, Roar Uthaug‘s The Wave.
The breakout film of the edgy Vanguard section was unquestionably Osgood Perkins‘ debut feature, the fresh and scary February. Other titles in the category that snared some attention were Lucile Hadzihalilovic‘s artsy aquatic horror item Evolution and Anders Thomas Jensen‘s seriously sick Danish hit Men & Chicken, starring Mads Mikkelsen.
This year saw the launch of a competitive section to the festival called Platform, which offered a $25,000 prize. The decisive critical favorite to debut here was Danish director Martin Zandvliet‘s Land of Mine, an unnervingly tense and original post-World War II drama about German soldiers forced by the Danes to find and defuse landmines planted by the Nazis along the coast. Two other well-received Platform titles were Joachim Lafosse‘s The White Knights from Belgium, about child trafficking in Africa, and Dutch director David Verbeek‘s bracing war-on-terror thriller Full Contact.
Top-notch documentaries seemed in short supply this year, as nothing stirred up must-see attention, and Toronto’s long-hallowed Midnight Madness section was basically a wash-out.
And no matter how enthusiastically the Toronto catalog extols the virtues of all the festival entries, any number of undeniable disappointments were to be found littered throughout the various sections. These included Catherine Hardwicke‘s best-friends-bonding tale Miss You Already with Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore, Jonas Cuaron‘s well made but impossibly simplistic Mexican migrants thriller Desierto, Ben Wheatley‘s unruly apocalyptic class strife drama High-Rise, Marc Abraham‘s traditionalist Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light, which does offer the compensation of a very fine lead performance by Tom Hiddleston, Deepa Mehta‘s lightweight gangster farce Beeba Boys, Wayne Blair‘s conventionally earnest Jews-stuck-in-revolutionary-Iran drama Septembers of Shiraz starring Adrien Brody and Salma Hayek, Matthew Brown‘s overly familiar mathematics genius biographical drama The Man Who Knew Infinity with Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons, and Florian Gallenberger‘s unconvincing thriller set in Allende’s Chile, Colonia, starring Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl.
Lenny Abrahamson‘s Room, an adaptation of the popular novel about a woman in captivity with her young son, took home the top People’s Choice Award. Coming off its well-received premiere at Telluride, the film likely will be in the awards conversation in the coming months — particularly for leading lady Brie Larson.
With contributions from John DeFore, Leslie Felperin, Jon Frosch, Jordan Mintzer, David Rooney and Deborah Young.