At the Toronto International Film Festival: Frederick Wiseman Surrounded in Queens, Charlie Kaufman Alone in a Motel Room

In_Jackson_Heights

The 2015 Toronto International Film Festival ran from September 10-20. Read Adam Cook’s previous dispatch here.

After an uneasy beginning, the Toronto International Film Festival, amidst its overwhelmingly large program of films, has revealed that it does contain some treasures. Firstly, it was veteran Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski’s 11 Minutes that shattered the monotony of the festival, at 8:45am no less, literally and figuratively waking me up in my seat as my tired eyes threatened to close. Seemingly over-conceptualized, 11 Minutes tells the stories of a handful of characters taking place during a simultaneous 11-minute period, until several of them interact in a split second in which everything lines up, rather explosively. It’s the type of material we’ve seen Hollywood make garbage out of, but in Skolimowski’s gifted hands, it’s an expertly crafted film in which every piece fits together just right. It’s not high art, but it packs a wallop.

Leave it to the old masters to set things straight. Arguably the best premiere at TIFF has been 85-year-old Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, which New Yorkers can see at the New York Film Festival in October and in theaters in November. In three hours, this remarkable documentary immerses the viewer in this incredibly diverse neighborhood (they say 167 languages are spoken there!), and we become intimately acquainted with its communities, their strength and their struggles. We meet LGBTQ support groups, praying Muslims, the lonely elderly, oppressed immigrants, dancers, soccer fans, dog groomers, small business owners, and even a taxi cab tutor teaching his students. Wiseman enters these people’s spaces and observes them in practice and in dialogue. We hear as minorities express the issues they face on a daily basis and try to take action to improve where they live. The film reveals Jackson Heights to be a complex and difficult place, full of people trying to better their lives and the lives of those around them.

French-Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée’s latest film, Demolition, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Davis, an investment banker who survives his wife in a car crash. At first he seems detached, his grief more discreet than that of those around him, but it becomes evident that he has been deeply shaken. He starts to look at the world through new eyes, and his old life stops making sense to him. Unexpectedly, a complaint letter he sends to a vending machine company leads to an intriguing relationship with a customer service rep played by Naomi Watts. His initial letter details his frustrating encounter with a machine that wouldn’t dispense M&Ms, but it’s also where he vents about his wife’s death. Meanwhile, his father-in-law/boss (Chris Cooper) is increasingly impatient with his inconvenient reaction to his daughter’s death and his lack of interest in a scholarship foundation he tries to set up in her name. As Davis tries to engage with the world, Vallée weaves an emotional tapestry through his elliptical narrative style that resonates more deeply than anything he’s made before, achieved in part because of Gyllenhaal’s career-best performance.

anomalisa

After becoming Hollywood’s most acclaimed screenwriter and making his directorial debut with the ambitious Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman fell off the map entirely. Seven years later, he returns, with, of all things, a stop-motion puppet movie. Co-directed with Duke Johnson, Anomolisa is not going to be what anyone predicts. Aside from its puppetry, this is not the quirky conceptual signature one would recognize as belonging to the man who wrote Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film is remarkable for its pace (very slow) and its scale (very small), mostly taking place on a single evening in a hotel in Cincinnati. Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) literally wrote the book on customer service, and he’s in town to give a talk. Married but despondent, he tries to reconnect with an old flame in town. What ensues is a long, lonely night that leads to a romantic discovery—but that is not where things end. The worldview here is bleak and relentlessly so, and even more disconcerting for how authentically its ideas touch on identity, sexuality, and existential futility. It’s not a film I could call a favorite of the festival, and yet it’s the one my mind keeps returning to.

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