Critic's Notebook: Toronto Confirms It — 2016 May Be a Good Year for Movies After All

Tom Ford proves he's the real deal, a Chilean director nails Jackie Kennedy's grief, no one can resist 'La La Land' and a new film about a young Barack Obama is a very pleasant surprise.

At last all the moaning and groaning — my own included — about the dismal film year 2016 can be put to rest, at least for the moment. All it took was a cascade of fresh creations, shown over the past couple of weeks, beginning at the Venice and Telluride film festivals, then in Toronto, to mercifully make us forget a spotty Cannes and an atrocious summer. And quite a few of them came from unexpected sources.

Always an enormous smorgasbord where no one can hope to see more than a small fraction of the offerings, the Toronto International Film Festival nevertheless continues to grow ever-bigger, as there were nearly 300 features on display this year. But despite the desperate juggling act required to fit in all your priorities and the constant dashing from one cinema to another in the impersonal environs of downtown Toronto, a mellow mood prevailed, instigated in some of us by a handful of films we had just seen either in the Rocky Mountains or on the Lido: Damien Chazelle's La La Land, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, Pablo Larrain's Jackie, Barry Jenkins' Moonlight and Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals.

Whether you embrace all of these films or not, the least you can say is that they are very different, individualistic films of incredible stylistic control made by directors who, with the exception of Villeneuve, have been on the scene for a decade or less. Of them all, La La Land is by far the most unexpected — who makes an original American musical anymore that pays homage to the classics of the genre and can stand with them?

Then again, how would anyone have guessed that an arty Chilean helmer would make a sensitive and insightful film about Jacqueline Kennedy's experience at the time of her husband's assassination? Or that the young man who's been introducing films at the Werner Herzog Theater in Telluride for the past few years would burst forth with such a distinctive film about growing up gay and black in the South? Or even that one of the world's leading fashion designers could switch to directing with such confidence and acumen? Or that a French-Canadian would vault into the inner circle of technically accomplished sci-fi directors? None of this had ever happened before, and the odds were against all these films.

Surprises of a more modest kind came from pics about which one knew or expected nothing. After the Sundance hit and box-office flop Southside With You, Indian director Vikram Gandhi delivered the second biopic of the year about the young Barack Obama, Barry, a well-observed and generally convincing account of the 20-year-old's identity-challenging first year at Columbia University. What's next? An R-rated comedy about his high times in a “choom gang” at his Honolulu high school? A film focusing on his first political involvement, spearheading the anti-apartheid movement at Occidental College? Speculative fiction about his days and nights with the Weather Underground's Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn in Chicago? Already there are more films about Obama than most presidents have had.

Most critics seem to have had their razzies out for Walter Hill's no doubt intentionally disreputable (Re)Assignment, a sex-change noir with no end of insidious, outrageous, low-down delights. It's the first modern film in a long time that actually feels like an old-time B movie, where real talent behind and in front of the camera applies itself to material that conventional viewers consider beneath them. Most (but definitely not all) critics, especially younger ones, didn't seem to buy into the game, but anyone who appreciates the Sam Fuller of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss would likely be inclined to embrace this as the work of a sometime master who knows how to play nasty subversive tricks with genre.

On the downside of the Toronto experience this year, I have a special place in my heart for the most egregiously manipulative emotion-tugger of the festival season, Australian director Garth Davis' Lion. Elaborately calculated to the nth degree (The Weinstein Company, no surprise, is the American distributor), this decades-leaping yarn — about an Indian lad who, separated from his family at age five, devotes himself as an Australia-based adult to tracking down his mother — gives the GPS its the greatest plug it could ever hope for in a movie. It's a crowd-pleaser and a big-time weepie, to be sure. Many respected critics loved it. I couldn't bear a single one of its 129 minutes.