Reaching for the sky, and in some cases beyond, the films at this year’s Toronto Film Festival often fell short, but only because they set themselves the loftiest of goals. Anchored by Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (reviewed on the following page), the festival’s massive slate showed off some of the year’s most eagerly awaited releases — and, inevitably, some of its bigger disappointments.
Only at Toronto could the sprawling Cloud Atlas and the intimate To the Wonder rest alongside each other in viewers’ consciousness, but reactions to the films followed parallel paths, with some swept away by their cosmic scope and many deriding their soft-headed excesses. Co-directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas remodels David Mitchell’s narrative pyramid as a time-hopping crazy quilt, remixing the novel’s six-fold story in ways both arbitrary and inspired. Casting such historically inflexible actors as Halle Berry and Hugh Grant across temporal and sometimes racial lines, the movie flirts with disaster, but if you can suppress a giggle or a groan long enough to take in the performance, Grant’s turns as a tribal chieftain and the manager of a futuristic Korean fast-food joint pass muster, and Tom Hanks turns out to make a surprisingly effective Cockney gangster. None of the movie’s directors find an equivalent for Mitchell’s languid prose, but their bold reimagining is faultless in its ambition, and often thrilling in its execution. It’s a movie of big ideas, and only a few of them are terrible.
Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder turned out to be one of the festival’s more contentious entries. A loosely structured tone poem about the search for romantic and spiritual love, the film distills Malick’s style to the point of self-parody. The on-again off-again love affair between Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko plays out with a minimum of onscreen dialogue — Affleck has perhaps a dozen lines — telling its vaguely outlined story with airy voice-over and loose choreography. Kurylenko, who like her character is trained as a dancer, goes endlessly spinning through Midwestern wheat fields, thrust toward ecstasy for reasons neither she nor we fully understand. On a parallel track, Malick follows Javier Bardem’s priest as he ministers to the rural poor, tending his flickering sense of the divine as Affleck and Kurylenko see to their wavering relationship. (In a less fractured culture, Malick would be acclaimed as a great Christian artist.) The film is, of course, replete with breathtaking nature photography, some of it apparently on loan from The Tree of Life, but there’s nothing to hold it together. It’s fascinating to see Malick finally admit evidence of the modern-day world into the frame, be it the nighttime glow of a Sonic Burger or Affleck’s job checking exurban housing developments for environmental contaminants, but it’s still hard to imagine his aesthetic making room for a cell phone or a laptop.
On the other end of the spectrum in every conceivable way, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers emerged as the festival’s cult favorite, although, as with all of Korine’s movies, it’s difficult to separate its genius from its idiocy. Starring Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens as impressionable nubiles who fall under the sway of James Franco’s dreadlocked Fagin, the movie digs through piles of crushed Coors Light cans and used condoms, finding rich, moist soil beneath. With its heroines popping a squat for a roadside pee and donning bright pink ski masks to jack unsuspecting partiers, the movie plays like a Girls Gone Wild video directed by Werner Herzog, a toxic concatenation of animal impulses and pop-cultural detritus. Scoring a violent montage to Britney Spears’ “Everytime,” Korine attacks bottom feeders while himself fouling the fish-tank floor.
Pablo Larraín’s No, which the Chilean director has called the final part of a trilogy that includes Tony Manero and Post Mortem, reads history through the lens of junk culture. Gael García Bernal’s adman, first seen pitching a spot for a soda called Free, finds his long-buried conscience when he’s asked to craft the nightly 15-minute spots urging Chileans to vote against the continuation of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Shot on vintage video cameras, the movie has a purposefully cheap and scummy look, recognizing that historical shifts often come from inglorious origins. Like a modern-day Network without the sloggy speechifying, the film recognizes mass media’s power to shift the cultural landscape while at the same time acknowledging that any expression funneled through commercialized channels is always already compromised. It’s a profoundly optimistic film and a deeply pessimistic one at the same time.
With Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell combines the handheld style of The Fighter with the amped-up performances of I Heart Huckabees, to sometimes winning, frequently enervating effect. The festival’s audience award winner, and an obvious frontrunner for the Philadelphia Film Festival’s opening night — organizers said details were still being worked out — the film stars local boy Bradley Cooper as a mental patient released into the care of his Eagles-obsessed father (Robert De Niro) and highly tolerant mother (Jackie Weaver). The combination of B-Coop’s anxious acting and Russell’s mobile camera works the nerves it’s meant to work, to the extent it’s an almost physical relief when Jennifer Lawrence turns up; beside Cooper, she’s a cool drink of water.