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12 Movies We Love in Toronto

Lots of big names at the influential film festival may be Oscar contenders

Viola Davis in "Widows"

Courtesy of TIFF


(director Steve McQueen) Sensational! The thinking person’s Ocean’s 8, about the widows whose robber husbands died in a heist they must complete, but also about corrupt black and white Chicago political gangs at war, and female empowerment. Adapted from a 1991 British series by the maker of Prime Suspect, which made Helen Mirren a midlife star, it will make Viola Davis, 53, a bigger star. As her thug hubby, Liam Neeson, 66, gets an action flick worthy of his talent.

Hugh Jackman in "The Front Runner"

Courtesy of TIFF

The Front Runner

(director Jason Reitman) This phenomenally good film about the destruction (or self-destruction) of probable 1988 presidential nominee Gary Hart’s campaign by his dalliance with Donna Rice, a Phi Beta Kappa model, aboard the bad ship Monkey Business is the smartest script of TIFF 2018, based on a book by co-screenwriter Matt Bai, 50. Hugh Jackman, 50 in October, usually plays a guy whose “heart beats out of his chest,” as Reitman said at the TIFF premiere, but here he’s distant, an enigma whose response to the scandal is to demand that everyone ignore it, because it’s sleazy. Indeed, journalists sneaking down alleys like spies aren’t exactly like the Spotlight guys chasing pedophile priests. But on the other hand, does character count? Vera Farmiga burns with intelligent icy fury as Hart’s wife — amazingly, Reitman said both Mr. and Mrs. Hart thought this was a great movie — but the best performance is Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, 63 (Whiplash), as Hart’s smart campaign director, incredulous about his boss’s cluelessness. An important movie, and completely riveting.

Steve Carell, Moira Tierney in "Beautiful Boy"

Courtesy of TIFF

Beautiful Boy

(director Felix Van Groeningen) Bring your hanky. Based on a real story about Nic Sheff, the addict son of major celebrity profiler David Sheff, it’s an acting duel between agonized dad Steve Carell, 56, and meth head Timothée Chalamet, and the audience wins (plus both are definitely in the Oscar running). By now, thanks to his performance as a mad billionaire murderer in Foxcatcher, we know Carell is more than a comic actor, but this role is easier to identify with, plunging you into the heartbreak shattering millions of families. It’s more complex, showing the arc of the father-son relationship through time, from Nic’s dazzlingly promising youth — today, he’s a sober writer like his dad, and published his own addiction memoir the year David published his own side of the story in Beautiful Boy — to the ghastly day when David must coldly refuse Nic’s desperately sweaty request for money. You wince at the flashback of late-teenage Nic talking David into sharing a joint — hey, he’s a Rolling Stone writer — unaware that it’s a spark for dynamite. Maura Tierney, 53, is winning as Nic’s stepmom (and Amy Ryan, 49, is an Oscar maybe as his mom), but Carell’s performance, tightly wound but powerfully emotive at moments of crisis, is the news here, a banked fire of helpless rage facing a child blazing out of control. The soundtrack (Nirvana, John Lennon, Bowie) is the year’s best, a greatest-hits collection of genius addicts’ tunes.

Blythe Danner, Hillary Swank in "What They Had"

Courtesy of TIFF

What They Had

(director Elizabeth Chomko) The best movie ever about Alzheimer’s and its impact on families, with Blythe Danner, 75, as the afflicted one and Hillary Swank as her daughter. Robert Forster, 77, who was the best thing about Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, is fantastic as Danner’s caregiver husband, and Danner, whose late-in-life success is a total inspiration to grownups everywhere, may win her first Oscar for this.

Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges in "Ben is Back"

Courtesy of TIFF

Ben is Back

(director Peter Hedges) Bring three hankies. No thriller is more tense than this story of addict Ben (Lucas Hedges, the director’s son), 77 days sober, leaving rehab for Christmas Eve at home with his mom (Julia Roberts, 50) and the skeptical stepdad who footed the bill for his rehab (Courtney B. Vance, 58) and struggling to stay sober for 24 hours more. Julia Roberts radiates maternal concern like a sun darkened by stormy sunspots of doubt about his sobriety — because her son is candid enough to warn her, “Don’t believe me.” She can’t let him out of her sight, and seesaws between elation at seeing him apparently healthy, and terror that he’s not. Peter Hedges is great at crafting believable scenes of family life, even when he introduces a contrivance — Ben’s old drug boss kidnaps the family dog, leading to an implausible wild-pooch chase to retrieve it, and to introduce us to the bad guys who fill us in on Ben's bad past. But it still works because the whole family ensemble is totally believable, and Roberts hasn’t been this good since Erin Brockovich (and she gets to do a great Erin-esque rant at a pharmacist who won’t sell the heroin antidote Narcan). At the world premiere, I bumped into Roberts and asked, “Isn’t this a terrific movie for grownups?” She said, “I don’t understand that.” But I do: Roberts is a grownup now, not just earth’s most adorable girl but a family authority figure we can relate to. And Oscars may be calling.

Susan Sarandon in "Viper Club"

Courtesy of TIFF

Viper Club

(director Maryam Keshavarz) YouTube is now in the movie business and hiring top-flight grownup talent like Susan Sarandon, 71, in this tale of an ER nurse and single mom who needs $20 million to rescue her journalist son kidnapped in Syria. The FBI is no help, so she turns to an underground activist community, and the sympathetic ear of a friend (Edie Falco, 55). It’s the dreamiest, most drifty Mideast terrorism story imaginable, so don’t expect a pulse-pounder. But the ideas are interesting, and Sarandon is always watchable.

Ken Watanabe, Julianne Moore in "Bel Canto"

Courtesy of TIFF

Bel Canto

(director Paul Weitz) The only thing that could make Julianne Moore, 57, more elegantly impressive would be if she had Renée Fleming’s opera-star voice, and she does here, playing a famous soprano whose performance at a Latin American vice president’s home is interrupted by Marxist terrorists who hold them hostage for months. Sounds unlikely, but it’s based on a real event in Peru in 1996. The hostages and captors eventually start to bond in emotionally interesting ways, and Moore is as good at acting as Fleming is at singing. Don’t expect a conventional plot — this one is structured like music, a series of rich character encounters and charged moments whose meaning lies in rhythm and counterpoint.

Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe in "Boy Erased"

Courtesy of TIFF

Boy Erased

(director Joel Edgerton) Edgerton (Star Wars’ Owen Lars) does a scary good job directing himself as the ruthless director of a kind of boot camp that tries to terrorize gay youths straight, and he doesn’t make the religious parents (Russell Crowe, 54, and Nicole Kidman, 51) of the irremediably gay hero (Lucas Hedges) look like cartoon villains — he’s respectful of people of faith, just not gay conversion. Kidman stands out as the boy’s mom, torn between her hurting son and husband, with her own brewing feminist identity crisis. An unlikely tale based on a real memoir, it has problems making Hedges’ character more than a cipher channeling audience outrage, but it has a final revelation too wonderfully stunning to reveal.

Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart in "Jeremiah Taylor Leroy"

Courtesy of TIFF

Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy

(director Justin Kelly) You can’t make this stuff up! A San Francisco phone-sex worker (Laura Dern, 51) accustomed to making stuff up, invented a character called JT LeRoy, a male child prostitute, wrote an alleged memoir about it, made the New York Times best-seller list, recruited a friend (Kristen Stewart) to pretend to be JT, convinced national magazines and big celebrities (including Courtney Love, who’s in this film) that JT was real, and got an ambitious actress-director (played by Diane Kruger) to make a movie about JT, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. It all really happened (and the actress-director is based on Asia Argento, who helped torpedo Harvey Weinstein and now has her own scandal problems). It’s not exactly a good movie, but it’s sure fascinating and speaks volumes about a time when anybody can be anybody, no matter who they are. And Dern is her usual, brilliantly subversive self.

22 July

Courtesy of TIFF

22 July

(director Paul Greengrass) Greengrass, who gave a remarkably real-life, this-is-happening feel to Jason Bourne and United 93, his film about the 9/11 flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, does the same for the 2011 massacre of 69 kids at a Norwegian youth leaders camp by bizarrely calm racist crazy Anders Behring Breivik, now in solitary confinement for life. Terrorism, especially 9/11’s, is so omnipresently familiar it’s hard to see it anymore, so it’s eye-opening to see it happen in another society. Following the entire story from tragedy to courtroom aftermath, focusing on the killer and one heroic young victim’s family, it’s utterly absorbing, done in the director’s trademark non-steady-cam style. The scariest line comes from the killer’s mother: “It’s kind of right, though, isn’t it? The way the country is going, it’s not the way it used to be.”

aaron taylor-johnson in "A Million Little Pieces"

Courtesy of TIFF

A Million Little Pieces

(director Sam Taylor-Johnson) If you want to know what it's like to be an addict going through rehab, this serviceable but not exciting adaptation of James Frey's best-selling memoir (controversially partly fiction) will do the trick. The best thing in it is Billy Bob Thornton, 63, as the surrogate father Frey finds in rehab.

Colin Firth in "Kursk"

Courtesy of TIFF


(director Thomas Vinterberg) A supremely tense, gripping thriller about the real Russian nuclear sub trapped beneath the Bering Sea in 2000, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It stars phenomenal youngsters Matthias Schoenaerts as the heroic sub commander and Léa Seydoux as his terrified wife, but grownups Colin Firth, 58, and Max von Sydow, 89, are crucially great as the British officer striving to save the deep-sixed sailors and the evil, arrogant Russian officer refusing to accept help (and national humiliation). It’s also a smart, sharp critique of Russian society akin to the 2014 Oscar nominee Leviathan