TORONTO — As any major film festival settles into its second half, individual opinions start coalescing into consensus, consensus into buzz, and buzz into hype. The hype then comes out the back end and is used by the film industry to curry nominations and build expectations, usually out of proportion by the time it gets to the average moviegoer. It’s an established process — one to which I and every other critic contribute every time we come out of a Toronto screening and tweet our thoughts — and for the studios it has the potential to maximize profits for awards-season films that are either challenging or (more often) pretend to be.
By the sixth day of this year’s just-concluded Toronto International Film Festival, certain films were starting to break out of the pigpile. “Top Five,” from writer-director-star Chris Rock, delighted audiences with its acid screwball take on modern stardom, and sparked a major bidding war which Paramount won for a hefty $12.5 million. It won’t turn up in theaters until 2015 but the buzz-on-the-street logline quickly firmed up as “Chris Rock’s best movie to date.”
“Noah Baumbach’s best movie since ‘Greenberg’ ” was the phrase many festivalgoers attached to “While We’re Young,” a pointed middle-age-blues farce in which drifting marrieds Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts get a friend-crush on a younger couple (Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver, who with three films here is this year’s TIFF poster boy). Last Sunday, all anyone could talk about was Eddie Redmayne’s performance as British physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” On Monday, all anyone could talk about was Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as British mathematician Alan Turning in “The Imitation Game.”
Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” arrived in town the same day and proved as brooding and powerful as reports from this May’s Cannes festival indicated. A meditation on the American Dream gone awry, it stars an almost unrecognizable Steve Carell as John E. DuPont, the wealthy eccentric and wrestling aficionado who sponsored the 1988 US Olympic team before shooting to death wrestler-coach Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) in 1996. Carell’s eerily still performance has now been the talk of two festivals, but at Toronto there was a rising tide of praise for Channing Tatum, who plays muscle-bound lost boy Mark Schultz, torn between his big brother and his demented mentor. Once you see “Foxcatcher” — and it’ll be hard to avoid come awards season — it’s clear that Tatum has the central role and earns it with a performance of internalized pathos.
What we didn’t see much of at this year’s Toronto were break-out performances by actresses; even Felicity Jones’s incandescent work as Jane Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” has been slightly lost in the hoopla over Redmayne. With two films at this festival, Reese Witherspoon seems actively trying to change that, but only “Wild” qualifies as a lead turn. (The other, “The Good Lie,” focuses more on Witherspoon’s Sudanese refugee costars.) Based on Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir, “Wild” gives Witherspoon a showy role as a former hellion who hikes 1,100 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail to cleanse her soul.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyer’s Club”), it’s an able but not especially inspired film, although it grows in power and becomes quite affecting by the final scenes. While the star gives a sympathetic performance as Strayed, Laura Dern commandeers her scenes as the heroine’s mother, whose innate optimism is shaken but not destroyed by years of bad breaks. It’s hard to remember the last time a film was so unfussily devoted to a female perspective of life. A lot of women will see “Wild.” A lot of men should.
One of the more intensely awaited movies at Toronto has been “Rosewater,” the writing-directing debut of “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. Would it be funny? Well, no, it’s the true story of Maziar Bahari (played in the film by Gael Garcia Bernal), a London-based correspondent for Newsweek who was detained and beaten by the Iranian government for 118 days in 2009. Would it be an earnest political drama? The surprise of “Rosewater” is that it’s deadly serious with an undercurrent of life-affirming humor, as Bahari clings to the brutal absurdity of his situation and ultimately rises above it.
The movie represents a solid first step for the newbie filmmaker, and at a Q&A session after the premiere screening Monday night, Stewart — accompanied onstage by Bernal and Bahari — juggled his comic and serious sides, expressing newfound shock that Bernal was actually Mexican while reminding the audience of the perils faced by journalists around the globe.
Some movies, like “Rosewater,” take chances and succeed. Others risk everything and fall flat. Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy” is a rock biopic about the life of head Beach Boy and legendary recluse Brian Wilson, and the gimmick is that it casts Paul Dano as the younger Wilson, creating sonic masterpieces in the studio before receding into madness, and John Cusack as an older, more damaged iteration of the singer, under the spell of his unscrupulous therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti in a fright wig).
One half works, the other doesn’t. Because Dano is a chameleon of an actor, he slips easily inside the young Brian’s skin, and the scenes where Wilson treats the studio as an orchestral palette to create singles like “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” are alive with energy. And because Cusack is a very good actor who can never not be John Cusack, the imposture just doesn’t take, and the more modern scenes devolve into hamfisted movie-of-the-week melodrama. Chalk this one up as a major disappointment.
Chalk up “The Last Five Years” as a real surprise: a chamber musical that works. Jason Robert Brown’s 2002 off-Broadway show comes with a gimmick: The love, marriage, and separation of Jamie and Cathy are dramatized both forward in time (his songs) and backward (hers), with one rapturous duet when they cross in the middle. Director Richard LaGravanese brings the play off the stage and into movie “reality”: The songs are sung in Manhattan living rooms and by the shores of lakes, on subways, street corners, in bedrooms, and at book readings.
Jeremy Jordan puts across both Jamie’s likability and self-absorption, but Anna Kendrick emerges from the movie as something potentially unique: the first bona fide movie-musical star of her generation. Those few of us who saw the actress in 2003’s “Camp,” looking like a drowned Yorkie and nailing “The Ladies Who Lunch” to the wall, knew she was going to be something, and her Oscar-nominated performance in “Up in the Air” established her dramatic credentials. But “The Last Five Years” will let older audiences finally get what the nation’s teenage girls already know from “Pitch Perfect” — that Kendrick truly comes alive when she sings.