TORONTO — When it comes to the Toronto International Film Festival, there are certain reliabilities. During the 11 days of TIFF, we’ll probably be treated to the year’s eventual Oscar winner for best picture. The mile-long escalators in the Scotiabank multiplex will go on the fritz. And we’ll get our annual update on how Hollywood and the rest of the world see Boston.
Previous festivals have presented films like “Spotlight,” “Mystic River,” “Black Mass,” “The Town,” and “Manchester by the Sea.” Despite 2017 being fairly low-profile for filmic representations of greater New England — Harvard does get a shout-out in “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” and “Brad’s Status” takes a college tour of that university and Tufts — we’ve been gifted this year with “Chappaquiddick” and “Stronger.” The first is about exactly what you think it’s about. The second is the other Boston Marathon bombing movie, the one some of us were hoping would be better than “Patriots Day.”
Rest easy; it is, with caveats. Where “Patriots Day” tried to tell the whole story of the events around April 15, 2013, “Stronger” is stronger for sticking to one man’s story: Jeff Bauman, the Chelmsford native who was in the crowd to root for his girlfriend and who lost both legs in the blast. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Bauman, the hard-to-pin-down David Gordon Green directs, and “Stronger” is at its best, ironically, when it fights against inspirational uplift and simplistic notions of heroism. The message is that no one knows, or can claim to wax sentimental about, what it was like to go through Bauman’s particular hell.
To make that point, though, the film’s Bauman has to push uphill against the most shrieky, strident gang of Bahston-area relatives since Micky Ward’s sisters dragged him out on the street in “The Fighter.” Granted, maybe Bauman’s family is actually like this. I still say Enough Already to dialogue like “We’re gonna have a pahty, I gotta get you a bee-ah” used as a banner of regional authenticity, with great British actresses like Miranda Richardson (as Bauman’s barfly Ma) proving their bona fides by nailing the accent and the working class bathos, with the notion that every family gathering from Rhode Island to Aroostook County has to be a Force 10 gale of dropped Rs and F-bombs. The best scenes by far in “Stronger” concern Bauman’s coming back to the surface of life in his own time and manner. The worst scenes are parodies of how people actually live and talk here.
For all that, “Chappaquiddick” will probably offend more people, even if it shouldn’t. Directed by John Curran, it’s a dramatization of the events of May 18, 1969, when political aide Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) drowned in a car driven off a Martha’s Vineyard bridge by Senator Edward Kennedy (Australian actor Jason Clarke).
True believers, of whom many remain in these parts, will bristle at the invented conversations and behind-closed-doors confabulations dramatized here. But the movie sticks to the facts where it can, and its central dramatic idea is a good one: that the one surviving Kennedy son in 1969 — the Great White Hope of liberal America — was the baby of the family, a man who was both terribly entitled and terribly insecure, and who responded to a crime of his own making by shutting down and wishing it away with the help of his father’s and brothers’ brain trusts. “Chappaquiddick” is a guilty pleasure in just about every sense of the phrase.
“Stronger” opens in theaters on Friday; “Chappaquiddick” has no announced release date. Both films were well received but neither made an outsized splash at this, one of the quieter Toronto fests in recent memory. Some of the most avidly awaited movies went off like damp fireworks, including Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” with Matt Damon shrunk down to doll-size and embarking on an allegorical journey that loses its way. Nor did Damon fare better in “Suburbicon,” a comic 1950s satire from director George Clooney and writers Joel and Ethan Coen that received withering reviews here.
The usual awards calculations failed to calculate. “The Current War” casts Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison and Michael Shannon as his rival George Westinghouse, but while the movie’s entertaining Classics Illustrated hokum, it’s no one’s idea of an Oscar bell-ringer. “Battle of the Sexes” has Emma Stone and an inspired Steve Carell as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs but can’t decide whether it’s about tennis or King’s coming out of the closet. In “The Disaster Artist,” James Franco plays a marvelous freak-show Tommy Wiseau, director of the cult bad movie “The Room,” but the film itself (which Franco directed) lacks the sharpness and insights of “Ed Wood.”
Every TIFF has a few movies that stick to the ribs, though, and for me there were four. Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” — his best film since “Pan’s Labyrinth” — arrived in town having just won the top prize in Venice; it’s a heart-stopping cross-genre fusion that wonders what you’d get if you remade “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” as a musical love story. (Answer: cinematic bliss.) “First Reformed,” a startling return to form for writer-director Paul Schrader, casts Ethan Hawke as a small-town minister undergoing a crisis of faith that takes on increasingly apocalyptic dimensions; the connections to Schrader’s long-ago screenplay for “Taxi Driver” are daring and only half-submerged.
In “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” playwright-turned filmmaker Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) comes of age as a director with a rudely hilarious, ultimately transcendent tale of small-town grief and comeuppance; career peak performances from Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson, and some of the most dramatically satisfying character evolution you’ll find outside a biology class.
And then there’s “The Death of Stalin,” which I need to see again to catch half the stuff I missed the first time. It’s from Armando Iannucci (“Veep,” “In the Loop”), who does bilious political invective better than anyone alive, and who treats the conspiracies and cabals of 1953 Russia not with historical realism but as lethal British farce.
Which is to say: Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale as backstabbing members of the Politburo and Steve Buscemi in clover as a wily Nikita Khrushchev. The absurdist laughs come fast and hard in “The Death of Stalin” and every one of them sticks in your throat. That alone makes it the perfect political film for our era and the most relevant movie in Toronto.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TyBurr.