Summer officially starts to end with the dawn of film festival season, when we critics pack our suitcases and trek to the Toronto International Film Festival to see what great, smart, small movies are going to make a run at the art house, or even the Oscars. The 10 best films from TIFF were worth the flight to Canada. They'll definitely warrant trips to the theater when they come out over the next year, starting with Room, which you'll be able to watch in mid-October.
Every morning, 5-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay, astonishing) cheerfully says hello to all the furniture in his room. But this is no Pee-wee Herman special — Jack was born here and has never left the room he shares with his kidnapped mother (Brie Larson), who's been locked in this shed since she was 17. Lenny Abrahamson's anguished drama, based on Emma Donoghue's novel, is about the strength of love and perception. To keep Jack calm, the mom has convinced him that their room is the entire world, and that the images on TV are a lie. But is she right to protect him from the ghastly truth? Abrahamson, who last directed the fantastic Michael Fassbender fable Frank, honestly measures their situation, never letting our empathy blind us to this mother's impossible choices.
Freud would have a field day with Yorgos Lanthimos' twisted romance, set in a sex-obsessed society where singletons have two options: Mate or mutate into an animal. If newly divorced David (Colin Farrell, un-handsomed by a potbelly and watery glasses) doesn't couple up in 40 days, he'll become a crustacean. (That's his own pick — other sad sacks become every beast from a dog to a parrot to a wee Shetland pony.) The absurdist sci-fi is cuttingly honest about the compromises people make to pick and keep a partner. But because this is Lanthimos, the daredevil genius of the Oscar-nominated Dogtooth, the consequences are gory, surprising, hilarious and, most shocking of all, romantic.
At the festival, filmmaker Lorene Scafaria confessed she hadn't let her own mom watch this semi-autobiographical comedy about a clingy mother (Susan Sarandon) who, recently widowed, moves to Los Angeles to rescue her daughter (Rose Byrne) from a break-up — and, when that fails, uses her inheritance to buy adoration from any stranger who's selling. Scafaria's mom might be the only person this charmer won't win over. Sarandon is radiant and obnoxious, whether springing to pay for the lesbian wedding of substitute daughter “What's-Her-Name,” shuttling a mall clerk to school or nervously accepting a date with a cop (J.K. Simmons) who could teach her it's as good to receive as to give.
Men & Chicken
At night, Elias (Mads Mikkelsen), an obsessive masturbator, dreams of raping a bird that looks like his brother, Gabriel (David Dencik). Naturally, they aren't close. After their father's death, Gabriel is relieved to learn that they're only half-brothers, even if that means trekking with Elias to the island sanitarium where their biological dad lives with three more siblings, all morons with their same harelip, who take one look at the strangers and bludgeon them with a stuffed heron. Like his best-known film, The Green Butchers, Anders Thomas Jensen's Norwegian comedy is a repulsive delight that's not about anything more than its own amusement. But if you're not amused by a movie that strongly implies Mikkelsen has sex with chickens, well, this is that movie, and it doesn't give a damn if you're offended.
Jeremy Saulnier follows up his wicked microbudget indie hit Blue Ruin with this thriller about a traveling punk band that, strapped for cash, accepts a gig at a rural skinhead rally. Like the punks they are, they open the show with a song called “Nazi Scum, Fuck You!” From there, things get even worse. Saulnier has fun contrasting his unwashed kiddie rebels with the real deal: violent thugs who've earned their red boot laces. He's also enjoying the boost of being art-house horror's next hip thing, folding his Blue Ruin star Macon Blair, his best friend and muse since middle school, into a boldface-name cast that includes Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat and Patrick Stewart (as the white-power lodge's unmerciful leader).
Murder makes for great musicals. As proof, see Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Little Shop of Horrors, Chicago and almost every tragic opera. Even so, Rufus Norris' London Road is a bold stunt. Not only is it inspired by the recent 2006 slayings of hookers in Ipswich, the lyrics are verbatim from news interviews with the locals, so word-for-word exact that the chorus includes every ungrammatical um, er and flub. (Norris also directed the stage version, at London's National Theatre.) Tom Hardy cameos as a suspicious-acting singing cabbie, but the show belongs to phenomenal comedy actress Olivia Colman (also great in The Lobster), who croons quotes the real people might wish they could take back. Hearing of the prostitute-killer's arrest, she hums, “I'd love to just shake his hand and say, 'Thank you for getting rid of them'” — a cold-blooded line that stabs us in the gut.
It's taken seven years for writer-turned-director Charlie Kaufman to follow Synecdoche, New York with his second film. Anomalisa was worth the wait. Unlike Synecdoche's sprawling ambition, this script about a businessman's one-night trip to Cincinnati is constrained, almost banal. Almost. Kaufman had to tell this story with stop-motion animation, and as the reasons why unfold, we're sucked so deep into the mind of his depressive anti-hero that we come out frightened by the knowledge that the world he has created with puppets is more like our own — and more like ourselves — than we might want to admit.
One Floor Below
In film after brilliant film, the Romanian new wave has become therapy for a nation still processing the nightmare of the Ceausescu regime. Radu Muntean's One Floor Below, a deceptively slight comic thriller about a man who suspects his neighbor of murder, wants to wrestle with the country's fear of tattle-telling, a reflex honed by decades of paranoia when people were forced to betray each other or go to jail. Muntean suggests the alternative is better, but not by much. This is the most relatable film to leave the former Soviet Bloc, both because of our own destructive culture of “Stop snitching!” and due to One Floor Below's universal scenes: an awkward fistfight, a kid obsessed with video games, the tedium of registering a car at the DMV.
Land of Mine
This elegantly cruel Danish drama stirs The Hunger Games into World War II. During the war, the Nazis seeded Denmark with 2 million land mines. As payback, the Danish military forced their captured German soldiers to defuse them. Most of the prisoners were teenage boys — toward the end the Führer was desperate for bodies — and many died trying. As the brutal film blows the kids up one by one, director Martin Zandvliet aches for both sides of these survivors who are still too raw to forgive.
The Forbidden Room
Guy Maddin's newest delirium whirls through a dozen high-drama silent serials. A nail-biter about four men running out of oxygen in an explosive submarine blurs into a woodland adventure where a posse of lumberjacks rescue their shared lady love, which in turn splinters into an exotic tribal flick, a medical romance and a weepy about memory loss. No one loves the cinema more than Maddin, even if he's spent his career chopping it up and microwaving the fragments so that the colors boil and the subtitles threaten to melt off the screen. For faithful cineastes, The Forbidden Room is like attending a Latin mass: Awed by such devotion, who cares if the words are a blur?