10 Best Things We Saw at 2015 Toronto Film Festival - Rolling Stone
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10 Best Things We Saw at 2015 Toronto Film Festival

From muckraking journalists to marauding skinheads, the highlights of this year’s premier film festival

Toronto

We came, we saw, we saw some more: Having sifted through the big fall-movie Oscar-courting releases, the foreign-language flicks, the wooly-and-wild midnight films, the music-related docs and everything else in between at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, we've emerged with a Top 10 list of favorites from our week of cinema-sampling-in-Canada bliss.

Before heading to the Great White North, we'd put together a list of 25 films we were dying to see while at the fest a few weeks back. Having returned, it's interesting to see how our initial picks fared. Many of the picks were good enough to make us feel our time wasn't wasted, if nothing to blog home about. Some were disappointments (how you broke our heart, Legend). Others were outright travesties (let us never, ever speak of London Fields again). And a small handful of left-field choices — movies that were only peripherally on our radar — ended up ranking very high on our final round-up. It was a good year for genuine weirdness. It was a great year for child-actor performances. And it was the perfect reminder that when all is said and done, sometimes you need a big-name, big-studio film to deliver that old-time hooray-for-Hollywood thrill — and sometimes you just want to see a skinhead get blasted with a shotgun in the guts.

Red eyes, full heart, can't lose.

Room
10

‘Room’

"It's like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt but done seriously" was the common pre-TIFF refrain about Lenny Abrahamson's adaptation of Emma Donohue's Booker-nominated novel. But that's giving this tale of a kidnapped woman (Brie Larson) and her son (Jacob Tremblay) trying to escape their personal prison seriously short shrift. The way the Frank director continually ratchets up tension is almost literally breathtaking; there's a sequence at the halfway point that's so unbearably tense that the producers may want to keep paramedics on-hand in theaters. And though the last act starts to tiptoe into Lifetime-channel territory, the performances of Larson and the eight-year-old Tremblay — where the hell did they find this kid? — more than make up for any minor maudlin missteps.

The Club
9

‘The Club’

A group of priests live together in a house by the beach, away from the general public. There's a sense that these men have done something very bad to earn their stay here — and when both an unexpected visitor and a church official respectively show up on their doorstep, viewers slowly begin to realize just how tainted this environment is. Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain (No) takes a hot-button subject and uses it as the starting point for a psychological character study rendered in actual shades of gray. Few people do feel-bad movies as well as he does. Trust us, this is a compliment.

Men and Chicken

Mænd og Høns Kirsten Lehfeldt & David Dencik Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen Produced by Tivi & Kim Magnusson M&M Production Photo Credit Rolf Konow

8

‘Men and Chicken’

Imagine the opposite of TV's most dapper cannibal (R.I.P., Hannibal), and you'll have a good idea of what Mads Mikkelsen's character is like in this Danish feature — his seedy-looking compulsive masturbator is a complete 180-degree turn from the good doctor/gourmet he played on Bryan Fuller's baroque, much-missed horror show. But this negative creep is just the tip of the oddball iceberg here; once this gent and his brother (David Dencik) go off to a remote sanitarium to meet the step siblings they never knew they had, things truly genuinely off the rails. There's usually no shortage of film-festival offerings full of strained, self-conscious weirdness. Anders Thomas Jensen's look into family ties is the real deal: a cringe-comedy that turns into something completely unclassifiable and disturbing. Cult-film fanatics, start your engines.

Evolution
7

‘Evolution’

Let's say you once uttered the sentence, "Gosh, I love Eraserhead, but I wish it had more of a feminist bent and included evil sea nymphs." Someone has now answered your prayers. French filmmaker Lucile Hadzihalilovic's cryptic, fairy tale-like story concerns a group of young boys looked after by red-haired women. They spend their days swimming and playing, though their maternal figures seem to have some sort of mysterious agenda at play. Featuring some of the most incredible imagery and indelible body-horror moments in recent memory, this parable of parental paranoia pivots on a single reworked notion: Hey guys, remember how one gender has been responsible for sustaining the species? Guess whose turn it is now?

The Lobster

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6

‘The Lobster’

In the future, everyone must be paired up with their ideal romantic equal — and if they aren't, they have 44 days to find a mate or be turned into the animal of their choice. The really unlucky ones, however, are hunted down for sport. Anyone who's seen Dogtooth knows that Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has a slightly cracked way of looking at the world, and this dystopic satire comes at its future-shock scenario with a killer deadpan face. Colin Farrell is so good as the schlumpy lovelorn hero that you can almost forgive him for that last season of True Detective (almost). Also, bonus points for the best sight gag involving a random pony ever.

Beats of no nation
5

‘Beasts of No Nation’

Do yourself a huge favor and try to catch Cary Fukunaga's devastating take on child soldiers in Africa on the big screen if you can. Yes, the Netflix-produced venture will be on the streaming site the same day as its theatrical release, but this is the kind of movie that benefits from a big canvas. Following a young boy (the amazing Abraham Attah — it's been a great fest for child-actor performances) who's recruited for killing by an anti-government rebel named Commandant (Idris Elba), this adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala's book takes a familiar story of innocence lost then flays viewers' sensibilities raw. As with his debut film Sin Nombre, Fukunaga in cultural-immersion mode here, and balances a sense of first-world curiosity with a dedication to doing justice to this story that's beyond compelling.  

Spotlights

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4

‘Spotlight’

People could not be blamed for thinking that Tom McCarthy's A-list drama about the Boston Globe breaking the story on Catholic Church cover-ups of pedophilia cases might be the sort of seasonal gruel that rhymes with "schmoscarbait." Banish those thoughts now: Despite the namebrand cast (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery) and a single moment of nomination-clip–ready histrionics, this is anything but prestige pandering. Instead, McCarthy and co. focus on the journalistic dot-connecting done in order to get the story print-ready; the result is shoe-leather cinema at its finest, and the sort of smart, rock-solid American drama that people simply don't make anymore. And while it's tough to pick an MVP among the actors, attention must be paid to Michael Keaton, whose subtlety and underplaying here suggests that he has only begun to show us what he can do with good material.

Anomalisa
3

‘Anomalisa’

Charlie Kaufman's first feature film in seven years features sex, heartbreak, and a Japanese automaton that sings. Did we mention it's also a stop-motion animation movie and pretty much a masterpiece? Using only the voices of three actors (David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan) and a host of dolls, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson bring to life a world of chatty cabbies, convention-hall ennui, absurdist humor, explicitly detailed hot puppet-on-puppet action and a bone-deep level of sadness. This was the closest thing to a critical consensus that emerged out of T0ronto this year, and it's easy to see why: There's more humanity in this small, painstakingly moved and manipulated figures than in most of the live-action movies on display.

45 Years
2

’45 Years’

On the verge of celebrating over four decades of marriage (see title), an elderly couple starts to come apart at the seems when the husband receives news regarding a long-deceased old flame from his younger days. There's screen acting, and then there's what the legendary Charlotte Rampling, is doing: creating a symphony of doubt, pain, vulnerability, worry, petty jealousy and unfathomable rage by simply twitching the corner of her mouth and glancing around. It's not an exaggeration to say that this is a career highlight for the 69-year-old actress, or that her costar Tom Courtney's generosity as as a performer enables her to take center stage in a way that's simply divine, or that writer-director Andrew Haigh (Weekend) proves he can do quiet desperation and contained domestic meltdowns with the best of them.

GreenRoom
1

‘Green Room’

The crown jewel of the Midnight Madness programming and a first-rate siege thriller, Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to Blue Ruin pits a hardcore punk band (led by Anton Yelchin) against white supremacists at a backwoods Portland, Oregon gig gone very, very wrong. From its airtight approach to exploitation filmmaking to its gritty, gory set pieces and perfectly calibrated work from cast — especially Patrick Stewart as the resident racist-in-charge — this movie stood skinhead-and-shoulders above virtually everything else we saw at the fest. If it seems crass or crazy to compare something like this to the major fall releases that were also unspooling in Toronto, then you haven't seen what an director like Saulnier can do with a no-bones premise, in-sync collaborators and a perfectly executed idea — as well as a boxcutter, some pitbulls and a shotgun.

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