Critic's Notebook: Lots of Good, But Not Great, at Fall Film Festivals This Year

Courtesy of Films
'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' (left), 'Joker'

Venice, Telluride and Toronto offered good (especially docs), bad ('The Goldfinch') and lots of mixed bags, including two of the most popular premieres, 'Joker' and 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.'

Two of the most popular films of the fall festivals this year were Joker, which won the top prize at Venice, and Toronto world premiere A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, about the late folksy and philosophical TV personality Fred Rogers. Both are fronted by outstanding performances, from Joaquin Phoenix and Tom Hanks, respectively. But other than that, they're polar opposites; Rogers could have had "L-O-V-E" spelled out on his knuckles, while Joker would certainly sport "H-A-T-E."

Even though it's set around the early 1980s, Joker feels like a film of the moment, which is what's scary about it. Phoenix's searing work elevates the supervillain origin story into a seething, uncompromising horror show that has already alarmed numerous critics and pundits about how it will play into the desperate sensibilities of the already disenfranchised. As he does in the film, Joker could become a malignant hero to some.

By contrast, where is anyone following in Mr. Rogers' shoes these days to spread the gospel of love, regard for others and common sense? Would even Rogers himself, if he were still alive, be able to compete with the the modern world's rabid spewers of hate?

Whatever else you want to say about them — and they have definite shortcomings — both of these pics are attentive to human nature, and how readily individuals can be swayed in both directions.

Certainly the preponderance of serious works among the 300-plus movies unveiled over the past couple of weeks in Venice, Telluride and Toronto reflected versions of the Joker's nasty world far more than any semblance of Rogers' cheery neighborhood. But from a filmmaking point of view, there was some very good, if not often great, work on display; as usual, several documentaries shone as brightly, or more so, than the much more uneven dramatic features.

Two of the very best films I saw were exquisitely shot in black-and-white, very long and unceasingly downbeat. First was Mexican veteran Arturo Ripstein's unsparing, brutally honest and thoroughly perverse look at the sexual lives of an old couple in Devil Between the Legs; good luck tracking this one down. Then there's Czech director Vaclav Marhoul's merciless adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski's novel The Painted Bird, which chronicles the odyssey of a young boy through the horrors of World War II in Eastern Europe — quite an achievement in its unblinking honesty. Joker would love this one. Both pics are tough sits, but pay great dividends.

On the other end of the scale, the undoubted feel-good film of the fests, the work that produced the most genuinely warm response I witnessed, was The Two Popes, about the unlikely but lively relationship between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and his successor, the eventual Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), from Argentina. I was expecting merely a pic about two old guys sitting around talking but, while there's plenty of that (courtesy of Anthony McCarten's sparkling script), Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles has made a real movie out of the two men's growing relationship, one fueled by vitality, mobility and momentum. Not only that, but he's somehow made it look as though much of it was actually shot at the Vatican.

Three fine commercial films on view were Rian Johnson's pretty darn ingenious murder mystery Knives Out, an original-but-old-fashioned genre piece with lots of good actors and a lively sense of narrative surprise; Tom Harper's The Aeronauts, a snappy and exciting look at a record-breaking 1862 hot air balloon flight in England that reproduces the voyage in a way that is adroitly tailored for contemporary sensibilities; and James Mangold's Ford v Ferrari, a pretty much ideal commercial entertainment fronted by excellent stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale, auto racing excitement, flavorsome supporting characters and a story arc so good it easily sustains the two-and-a-half-hour running time.

Then there was Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, which was rapturously embraced at all three of the season's major festivals and looks poised to strike a chord with a choice bit of the public, as well as awards voting bodies. Also making an appearance was Uncut Gems, with Adam Sandler in his best-ever performance as a diamond district wheeler-dealer who never knows when to stop or take stock. The Safdie brothers are now almost single-handedly continuing the tradition of gritty New York streets filmmaking.

The audience in Toronto also fell for Taika Waititi's nutty Jojo Rabbit, in which a little German kid during World War II is kept company by his own special edition of the Fuhrer himself, sort of like Jimmy Stewart's invisible pet rabbit Harvey. However, this was a case where audience huzzahs didn't necessarily translate into critical enthusiasm. The film is funny/weird rather than funny/ha-ha; I laughed out loud maybe just once or twice, and eventually turned against it when I'd had enough of the director's gung-ho self-regard and manipulations. 

Meanwhile, in Waves, a very serious-minded account of intense emotions and tragedy within a black family in Florida, writer-director Trey Edward Shults builds a good deal of empathy for his characters and one becomes deeply involved with their predicaments. But at a certain point, it begins to feel like the filmmaker is being led by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' elaborate musical score, by his unceasing circling and spinning camera moves and by a structure that, while provocative, finally weighs the whole thing down.

Two studies of mid-century entertainers who eventually succumbed to personal demons, the pressures of stardom and the demands of others didn't quite cut it. Judy centers upon Judy Garland's erratic final London concert stand, and while Renee Zellweger considerably surpasses anything I would have expected in a sometimes uncannily good performance, the dramaturgy is often maddeningly unsatisfactory. Meanwhile, Seberg looks at where things went wrong for actress Jean Seberg, thanks to her involvement with the Black Panthers in the late '60s, harassment by U.S. authorities and insufficient attention to her acting career. One can only imagine that Kristen Stewart might have made something of the character under different circumstances.

Other disappointments included Edward Norton's ambitiously conceived but insufficiently focused '50s noir Motherless Brooklyn and Noah Hawley's tonally uncertain Lucy in the Sky, about a female astronaut's troubles once she returns to Earth.

But neither of those was as much of a loud belly-flop as Warner Bros.' adaptation of Donna Tart's dazzling novel The Goldfinch. Almost from the get-go, the film feels like Hollywood's final farewell to adapting prestige novels for the screen, for a simple reason: If the writing is good, big stars will be attracted to such material when it can be done right over many hours for television, which is now the only way to deal with the challenges presented by a long and ambitious book like this one.

Finally, Toronto and Telluride both offered a welcome taste of Mark Cousins' epic, 14-plus-hours documentary Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. I only had time to sample about three hours of this probing, much-needed work, which focuses upon movies made around the world since the beginnings of cinema by more than 180 female directors. But every moment of it was revelatory, with clips and narration calling attention to some extraordinary-looking films. The experience inevitably leaves a pang due to all the other works that might have come from these women but never did. Hopefully this eye-opening series will find its ideal platform to reach all interested parties post-haste.