TORONTO — This wasn’t just the year that the Toronto International Film Festival was overrun with big movies about and by Bostonians. While the headlines were grabbed by predictable awards-season contenders — “Black Mass,” “Spotlight,” Matt Damon’s interplanetary star turn in “The Martian” — there were, as always, just as many smaller films worth noting. And even some of those had New England connections.
“Heart of a Dog”: There’s always one festival film that really gets to you. This year, the movie that made me laugh, think hard, and cry was Laurie Anderson’s “Heart of a Dog.” Anderson, for those who don’t know, is a multi-talented performer (do yourself a favor and dig out the 1981 radio hit “O Superman”) and sometime filmmaker. She was also married to rock star Lou Reed. This documentary reflects on Reed’s death, along with other recent losses both personal (her mother) and global (9/11). The memory of Anderson’s beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, is at the heart of it all, providing the vehicle for a stream-of-consciousness cinematic essay — mesmerizingly delivered in Anderson’s soft, melodic voice — that leans heavily on Buddhism and the wisdom of Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and David Foster Wallace. This film broke me down and filled me up, and I don’t even own a dog.
“The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble”: Another documentary, this time starring a beloved artist with deep ties to Boston. You can’t go wrong putting Yo-Yo Ma at the center of your film, as Oscar winner Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom”) clearly knows. Ma is as charming and funny as he is musically talented, and the story of how and why he created the Silk Road Ensemble, an international collection of master musicians, is both entertaining and instructive. As with “20 Feet,” Neville could’ve gone deeper. There’s much more to be said about each of these musicians and the role of their craft in today’s cultural and political landscape. But “Music of Strangers” at least begins that conversation, beautifully.
“I Smile Back”: You know about Sarah Silverman’s comedic talents. What you may not know is that she’s also a talented dramatic actress. The New Hampshire-bred performer finally gets a full-fledged leading-lady platform in this small but powerfully gutsy film, adapted from Amy Koppelman’s book, about a woman trying to hold onto her tidy suburban life while battling depression and addiction. Josh Charles costars as the husband who tries to manage his wife’s reckless behavior.
“45 Years”: Give me two hours of Charlotte Rampling and I’m happy. Throw in Tom Courtenay and I’m over the moon. In this wonderfully simple film from Andrew Haigh (“Weekend”), Rampling and Courtenay play a couple celebrating their 45th anniversary. They live in the English countryside, which makes for marvelously moody landscapes that you want to soak up and sit with by a fire. This is a subtle, sneakily layered film about relationships and jealousy and secrets and the passage of time. Plus, it has a soundtrack of groovy chestnuts to match its cast.
“Lolo”: A film by Julie Delpy. That credit alone is enough to compel me to watch (see Rampling Rule, above). And while this romantic farce isn’t as good as Delpy’s “2 Days in Paris” (2007) or even her “2 Days in New York” (2012), it’s amusing and smart and well worth your time. “Lolo” casts Delpy as a single mother. Her coddled son (Vincent Lacoste) is the title character, who sabotages his mother’s love life whenever it diverts too much of her attention. Dany Boon is adorable as the boyfriend who must put Lolo in his place, or die trying.
“Office”: Not “The Office,” as in the sitcom; this “Office” is a musical by Johnnie To, starring a singing and dancing Chow Yun-fat. No, really. From a play by Sylvia Chang, Hong Kong gangster film maestro To (“Election”) has fashioned a scathing screen commentary on corporate politics that’s awash in style even as it’s narratively and musically kind of a mess. I’m not so much recommending the film as marveling at it, which is why I think it needs to be seen. Even in To’s worst ideas, there are flashes of genius, and the promise of more.
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