TIFF: THR Critics Rank 15 Films From Best to Worst

Tiff_Halfway_Comp - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Tiff_Halfway_Comp - H 2015

As the fest hits its midpoint, THR's critics weigh in, from the most memorable dramas ('Truth,' 'The Martian') to biopics they'd like to forget ('The Program,' 'I Saw the Light').

This story first appeared in the Sept. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

1. Truth

It may be yesterday's news, but there's still plenty of juice left in this crackerjack journalism yarn: Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford play Mary Mapes and Dan Rather, who in 2004 became embroiled in a controversy that still raises partisan hackles. While the portrayal of CBS' handling of President George W. Bush's questionable Air National Guard career clearly takes the view of the protagonists, James Vanderbilt's directorial debut should first and foremost be appreciated as a superior account of the pressurized world of high-end TV reporting. Blanchett delivers another galvanizing performance, giving Mapes dynamic intelligence and human dimension. — Todd McCarthy

2. Land of Mine

It might seem hard to find a World War II tale that hasn't been told, but Danish director Martin Zandvliet comes up with a fresh and compelling approach to well-traveled territory. Based on a true story about German POWs put to work defusing land mines along the coast of Denmark, Toronto's most talked-about foreign entry brings the past to life with remarkable assurance, working as both a moving anti-war essay and a gripping thriller. — Stephen Farber

3. The Martian

Ridley Scott goes back to the future and returns in fine shape in this smartly made adaptation of Andy Weir's best-selling novel. Starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars, the film is more realistic in its attention to detail than many movies set in the present, giving the story the feel of an adventure that could happen the day after tomorrow. Upbeat and lovingly crafted, though absorbing rather than outright exciting, The Martian should generate muscular business worldwide. — T.M.

4. Eye in the Sky

A morally serious dramatization of drone warfare that also happens to be one hell of a nail-biter, Gavin Hood's new movie imagines the tremendous amount of decision-making firepower required in today's counterterrorism efforts. Globe-spanning but stripped far down from Hood's 2007 Rendition, the picture satisfies fully on entertainment terms without cheapening its real-world concerns — thanks in part to sturdy lead performances by Helen Mirren as a British colonel remotely commanding troops in Nairobi and Aaron Paul as the American drone pilot who balks at pulling the trigger for her. — John DeFore

5. Maggie's Plan

A quasi-homewrecker played by Greta Gerwig has a change of heart in Rebecca Miller's endearing relationship comedy, which takes some of its cues from vintage Woody Allen and screwball comedies. The film is also a vigorous sendup of Gerwig herself, without whose particular spirit — "so pure," as one character puts it, and "a little stupid" — this scenario might have trouble getting off the ground. Ethan Hawke plays the man that the heroine falls in and out of love with, and Julianne Moore gives a virtuosic comic performance as his intellectual diva Danish wife. — J.D.

6. The Lady in the Van

Maggie Smith gloriously reprises her acclaimed stage performance in Nicholas Hytner's witty screen adaptation of Alan Bennett's autobiographical play about a homeless woman who lived in a van outside the playwright's London house for 15 years. The uncomfortable relationship between life and art is a prin­cipal theme, dramatized by the presence of two Bennetts (one who participates in the action, the other who comments sardonically on it), both expertly played by Alex Jennings. — Frank Scheck

7. Where to Invade Next

Six years after Capitalism: A Love Story called for audiences to revolt against free enterprise, Michael Moore returns in a far more mellow mood. Fans accustomed to his harsh critiques of U.S. health care, education and gun control might be a little surprised at this almost happy film full of LOL moments: Instead of ranting over America's social failings, he finds solutions to its ills by "invading" various countries and bringing back the victor's spoils (which are simply other people's good ideas). Funny and always on point without going overboard, it's an engaging film that could broaden Moore's fan base. — Deborah Young

8. Demolition

After a series of punishing lead roles, Jake Gyllenhaal changes gears for a film that once again puts his character through the wringer — though in ways offbeat, exuberant and occasionally hilarious. Jean-Marc Vallee's dramedy tells the story of a Wall Street financier whose wife dies, leaving him to pick up — or tear apart — the pieces of his life. It's a unique take on what otherwise could have been a depressing tale of grief — dishing out energy and devilish humor, even if the whole is not entirely greater than the sum of its parts. An underused Naomi Watts co-stars. — Jordan Mintzer 

9. Our Brand Is Crisis

A vital Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton play rival political consultants embroiled in a Bolivian election in David Gordon Green's wildly uneven fictionalized take on the 2005 documentary of the same name. An oddball outing that feels halfway between a studio movie and an indie — as well as something between a farce and an exposé — the film is offbeat and appealing on some levels, but is neither as funny nor as trenchant as it could have been. This won't be one of Bullock's biggest hits. — T.M.

10. Trumbo

Starring Bryan Cranston as famous blacklisted scribe Dalton Trumbo, who stood up to Congress, went to jail then wrote films like Roman Holiday, this rather hastily made period piece is boosted by a few welcome stabs at humor — notably from sidemen Louis C.K. and John Goodman, who play two industry members who saw Trumbo through the worst years of the Red Scare. Otherwise, the film is far from subtle and tends to wear its righteous politics on its sleeve, making it play like an elevated TV dramedy. — J.M.

11. Freeheld

Julianne Moore plays a dying New Jersey detective battling to leave her pension to her partner, played by Ellen Page, in Peter Sollett's ennobling, rather pedestrian fact-based drama. Affecting work from the leads provides some emotional juice, but this is a film that adheres to expectations every step of the way. One might expect something a little less staid from Sollett, who brought so much heart and intimate character observation to Raising Victor Vargas and put his own sweet spin on the teen movie in the flawed but pleasurable Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist. — David Rooney

12. About Ray

Elle Fanning brings emotional honesty, strength and urgency to this film about a transgender teenager, Ray, who was born into a female body but has long been certain that he's a boy. The irony in director Gaby Dellal's fluffy feel-good movie is that Ray's story is trapped inside what in the old days might have been called a "women's picture." It's involving but seldom affecting, with the core drama continually shoved aside to examine more commonplace matters of parenting, abandonment and broken families. Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon play Ray's mother and grandma, respectively. — D.R.

13. The Dressmaker

After an 18-year hiatus, director Jocelyn Moorhouse again is behind the camera, though it would be a stretch to say her new film, based on Rosalie Ham's novel, is a comeback. That doesn't mean this incorrigibly silly, screwball Western noir about a '50s fashionista (Kate Winslet) who wreaks havoc on her Outback hometown isn't fun; much of it is, in that what-were-they-thinking way. Little in the film "works," but it boasts enough manic energy and straight-up weirdness to keep you guiltily entertained until its tiresome final act. Judy Davis gobbles scenery as the heroine's cranky mom. — Jon Frosch

14. I Saw the Light

Carried by an uncanny turn from British actor Tom Hiddleston, this disappointing biopic of country singer Hank Williams features the usual ups, downs, binge-drinking and womanizing. Lots of screen time is devoted to Williams' rocky marriage to wife Audrey, played with zest by Elizabeth Olsen — but it's unfortunate that the film feels so concerned with showcasing the life behind the music, rather then showing how and why Williams became one of the most iconic American musicians of the last century. Marc Abraham directs in a slick, somewhat academic manner. — J.M.

15. The Program

Lance Armstrong's rise and fall is ploddingly chronicled in Stephen Frears' long-awaited docudrama. Ben Foster plays the disgraced cyclist with a tiresome lack of nuance — and, unable or unwilling to probe the subject's psychology in any depth, the film becomes a glib rehash of old news. Ultimately, the core issues that make Armstrong's story so compelling — drugging in sports, institutional corruption, the destructive nature of competitiveness, the debasing influence of celebrity — are only superficially explored, making this a disappointment on nearly every level. — Leslie Felperin