Review: ‘Yosemite’ is a fine adaptation of two James Franco short stories

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“Yosemite” is a fine film playing for one week only at the Screening Room in Amherst. I gave it three stars in my Buffalo News review.

Say what you will about the ludicrously overextended James Franco, but never deny his ambition. What other young male actor would star in a re-creation of the sexually explicit deleted scenes from 1980’s “Cruising,” play himself in the “Veronica Mars” feature, and direct a movie about the creation of Tommy Wiseau’s epicly awful cult hit “The Room”?

Yes, only Franco has the chutzpah, for better or worse, to tackle such a head-spinningly diverse selection of projects. If his starring role in Hulu’s soon-to-debut Stephen King adaptation “11.22.63” is a shout, Gabrielle Demeestere’s intimate drama “Yosemite” must be termed a whisper.

Showing from Feb. 5 to 11 in the Screening Room Cinema Cafe (3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst), “Yosemite” is based on two short stories written by Franco and features the actor in a small role.

While not as emotionally resonant as 2014’s “Palo Alto,” the teen drama based on a collection of Franco’s short stories, “Yosemite” shares that film’s appreciation of the somber minutiae of adolescent life.

Set in 1985 Palo Alto, Calif., “Yosemite” is centered around a trio of fifth-graders, all in the same class, all deeply rooted in a fractured suburban existence. Hovering over the film is the hunt for a mountain lion that is on the prowl, and giving pause to every child and adult in the area.

We are introduced to Chris (Everett Meckler) on an overnight trip with his recovering alcoholic father (Franco) and younger brother. The relationship between child and adult feels suitably forced; clearly, there is a distance between Chris and his old man.

Joe (Alec Mansky) is a quiet, sullen comic book fan whose parents are no longer together after a family tragedy. He was once close with classmate Ted (Calum John), but now the two are at odds.

All three of the young leads are natural, convincing actors. Perhaps the most involving character of the bunch is Alec Mansky’s Joe, a boy clearly in search of guidance and friendship.

He finds it, to some degree, from Henry (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis and the talented lead of Gus Van Sant’s offbeat 2011 film “Restless”). This loner with a stack of comics encourages Joe to read the superhero tales aloud, and seems curiously concerned with his safety.

But like most relationships in the film, there is an undercurrent of danger. There is a definite lack of follow-through on several fronts, specifically the relationship between Henry and Joe. Is he a predator? Is his interest in Joe unhealthy? Demeestere never answers these questions, and that’s clearly intentional.

In fact, the interactions between the three fifth-graders and the adults are all fraught with tension. Even the seemingly normal relationship of Ted and his insomniac father, an early user of the Internet, is, to say the least, strange. (Pay close attention to the text on the computer screen.)

The minefields of youth are clearly of interest to Franco, and Demeestere does a fine job of showing just how difficult life is for all three kids. Even Ted, the most nondescript of the bunch, suffers the loss of a pet (possibly to the mountain lion).

For all its modest successes, “Yosemite” cannot help but feel sleight. Just 80 minutes long, the film always is intriguing, but does not lead anywhere profound. There is a spiritual undercurrent that is especially pronounced in its closing scenes, but like the Joe-Henry relationship, never quite pays off.

Still, Demeestere’s work here is impressive. This small-scale drama is visually arresting and worthy of contemplation, and shows her to be a filmmaker on the rise.

Just her first feature, “Yosemite” is a strange, involving, very quiet film, and whatever it lacks in theatrics it makes up for with mood. It is another unexpected foray for Franco, and while it may garner less press than something like the high-profile “11.22.63,” it deserves an audience.

Buffalo Film Seminars returns with ‘Pandora’s Box’ and ‘Beau Travail

 

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It’s spring semester time, so the Buffalo Film Seminars is back. Here’s the preview I wrote this week for Buffalo.com.

The Buffalo Film Seminars can always be counted on for an eclectic lineup and a fascinating opener, and the latest installment of the series hosted by Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian is no exception. Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s “Pandora’s Box” screens at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 26 at the Dipson Amherst Theatre (3500 Main St.).

The silent classic stars the inimitable Louise Brooks as an uninhibited young woman who undergoes a fast rise and grim fall. The 1928 film is pre-Production Code, meaning the level of raw sexuality and violence onscreen is eye-opening even for current audiences. It’s an ideal opening selection, and Jackson and Christian should have some fascinating discussion points.

The rest of the spring series includes a number of heavyweights — Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, Sergio Leone, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa — and, in Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail,” an absolute must-see. (The latter, an adaptation of Melville’s “Billy Budd” involving soldiers in the French Foreign Legion, is notoriously difficult to track down on DVD.)

Here is the rest of the lineup:

 
Feb. 2: “Rules of the Game” (directed by Jean Renoir, 1939)

Feb. 9: “Notorious” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

Feb. 16: “Pather Panchali” (Satyajit Ray, 1955)

Feb. 23: “The Producers” (Mel Brooks, 1967)

March 1: “Once Upon a Time in the West” (Sergio Leone, 1968)

March 8: “The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971)

March 22: “Raging Bull” (Martin Scorsese, 1980)

March 29: “Ran” (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

April 5: “Malcolm X” (Spike Lee , 1992)

April 12: “Beau Travail” (Claire Denis, 1999)

April 19: “Waltz with Bashir” (Ari Folman, 2008)

April 26: “Amour” (Michael Haneke, 2012)

May 3: “The Fisher King” (Terry Gilliam, 1991)

Tickets are $9.50 for adults, $7.50 for students, and $7. They can be purchased at the theater box office or at dipsontheatres.com. For more information on the Buffalo Film Seminars, visit buffalofilmseminars.com.

‘Schobert’s selections’ for the Buffalo News

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You’re probably getting bored with my 2015 recaps (it’s almost February!), but here is one more. Each year, the Buffalo News asks me to ponder my five favorites from the films I reviewed for Buffalo.com/the News in the previous year. There is some crossover with my Film Stage list, but take a look, and if you haven’t seen these five, get on it.

(Note that when this ran in print, ‘Schobert’s selections” was used in the headline. I must admit, I found that pretty cool.)

My film reviewing year started with a nightmare (“Jupiter Ascending”) and ended with a disaster (the dull, pointless remake of “Point Break”). However, there was greatness in between.

The five films I highlight below rank among the year’s finest, and all count as bold, innovative, personal visions. Even lesser films from my list of reviews – “Creed,” “Crimson Peak,” “Everest,” “Irrational Man,” “The Assassin,” “’71,” even “Magic Mike XXL” – offered significant pleasures.

Heck, I even liked “Pan.”

Here are five of the year’s most memorable cinematic treats:

 
1. “Phoenix.” There are moments in this stunning, unforgettable post-World War II film that will, quite literally, take your breath away. Director Christian Petzold’s story of a concentration camp survivor’s attempt to reconnect with the (non-Jewish) husband who believes she is dead, and to learn whether he betrayed her to the Nazis, is a stunner. The film’s overwhelmingly emotional final scene cements the greatness of Petzold’s achievement.

2. “Clouds of Sils Maria.” The mysterious, wondrous “Clouds of Sils Maria” finds three individuals – director Olivier Assayas and stars Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart – at the peak of their powers. You have never seen Stewart be as compelling, as enigmatic and as utterly relatable as she is here. And rarely has a film about memory and its role in the creative process seemed so breathtakingly human.

3. “Breathe.” The directorial debut for wonderful French actress Mélanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”) is an astute study of the emotions and pains of adolescence. It tells a simple story, but one that should resonate with anyone who dealt with unpopularity, nastiness or troubled friendships as a teenager.

4. “Goodnight Mommy.” This Austrian horror-thriller is one of the most chilling films in recent memory, a fiercely compelling story of creepy, blonde-haired twins and the woman who may (or may not) be their mother. It repels and intrigues in equal measure, and there are moments in the film that make you gasp in astonishment. Featuring fascinating performances from its three leads, it is an off-kilter nightmare that dares you to not look away.

5. “What We Do in the Shadows.” An inspired, riotous mockumentary and future cult classic as sharply funny as any release this year, the film co-stars and was co-directed by “Flight of the Conchords” genius Jemaine Clement. Think vampire movies and mockumentaries have grown stale? “What We Do in the Shadows” will make you think otherwise.

My top 10 films of 2015: Carol, Phoenix, The Force Awakens and more

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It was a strong year in cinema, so strong, in fact, that I could not include many of my 2015 favorites on my top 15 list. Consider a few of the films that did not make the cut: The Duke of Burgundy, What We Do In the Shadows, ’71, While We’re Young, Eden, Paddington, Saint Laurent, It Follows, When Marnie Was There, Timbuktu, Love & Mercy, Brooklyn, Sicario, Creed, The Martian, Inside Out, Tangerine, Amy, The End of the Tour, Mistress America, Goodnight Mommy, Breathe, James White. (If I’d seen The Revenant in time, it’s possible it would have made my top 10. At the very least, it’d be in the top 15.)

Here’s what did make the cut — my top 10 list as submitted to The Film Stage, along with five honorable mentions. My top 15 films are followed by the write-ups I contributed to the site’s top 50 list: The Look of Silence, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Phoenix.

Individual Ballot:
Honorable Mention: Ex Machina, 45 Years, The Tribe, Straight Outta Compton, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
9. Anomalisa
8. Clouds of Sils Maria
7. Room
6. Son of Saul
5. Mad Max: Fury Road
4. The Look of Silence
3. Phoenix
2. Spotlight
1. Carol

Top 50 write-ups:
19. The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Calling Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence the year’s finest documentary is not inaccurate; the film certainly deserves that crown. Yet it’s hard not to feel like such a classification does Silence a slight injustice. The film is, after all, an overwhelmingly emotional modern classic. Like Oppenheimer’s 2012 masterpiece The Act of Killing, this stunning follow-up features the actual perpetrators of the Indonesian killings of 1965–66. With shocking openness, these men discuss and even demonstrate how they killed. Killing was one of the most powerful films of the last decade, but The Look of Silence is even stronger. This time, Oppenheimer narrows his focus to one man’s tale: an unidentified (for safety reasons) Indonesian eye doctor who talks to the men responsible for the horrific death of his brother. He and the audience discover terrifying truths together. The result is extraordinarily upsetting and startlingly moving. – Christopher S.

8. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Full of mystery and unforgettable imagery, the wondrous Clouds of Sils Maria finds three individuals – director Olivier Assayas and stars Juliette Binoche & Kristen Stewart – at the peak of their powers. As the cocky, wise-beyond-her-years assistant to a veteran actress, Stewart is more compelling, enigmatic and utterly relatable than ever before. Meanwhile, Binoche is typically enchanting as star Maria Enders. With its attention to character development and simmering emotional complexity, Clouds of Sils Maria is Assayas’s best film to date. At the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where Clouds made its North American debut, Assayas called the drama “a reflection on the past,” one written as an homage to Binoche. As Maria states near film’s end, “I think I’m lost in my memories.” Rarely has a film about memory and its role in the creative process seemed so breathtakingly human. And rarely has one film featured performances as strong as those of Binoche and Stewart. – Christopher S.

4. Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
There are at least three moments in the stunning, unforgettable post-World War II film Phoenix that will quite literally take your breath away. Two occur near the midpoint of director Christian Petzold’s story of a concentration camp survivor’s attempt to reconnect with the (non-Jewish) husband who believes she is dead and learn whether he betrayed her to the Nazis. Another is the film’s overwhelmingly emotional final scene. When the latter moment occurs, the greatness of Petzold’s achievement is cemented. Phoenix is one of 2015’s finest films and a gloriously complex conversation-starter. Its focus on the intersection of identity and memory brings to mind a number of very good films, from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, but this tackles the concept with its own ingenuity, emotion, and verve. For stars Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Nina Kunzendorf, Phoenix is a triumph. And for director and co-writer Petzold (here scripting alongside the late Harun Farocki), it is a masterpiece, one that elevates him to the upper echelon of international filmmaking. – Christopher S.

Review: ‘The Assassin’ will intoxicate fans of cinema

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I missed “The Assassin” at TIFF15, but I jumped at the chance to review it for Buffalo.com. Here is my three-star review.

There are moments during Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin” in which it seems reasonable to call the film one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous in cinema history. Some of these shots – two figures on a mountaintop, mist over a gray pool of water – deserve to be paused, printed and framed.

This is not hyperbole. Hou’s film earned him the best director prize at last May’s Cannes Film Festival over the likes of the already acclaimed and soon-to-be released “Son of Saul” and Todd Haynes’ “Carol.”

Did Hou deserve the honor? Hard to say, but watching “The Assassin,” it’s easy to see why the Cannes jury flipped for the latest effort from the director of 2007’s lovely“Flight of the Red Balloon.”

The director’s fellow visual master Wong Kar-wai went martial arts with 2013’s stunner “The Grandmaster,” but Hou’s first film to dabble in that genre is a much different affair. The slow-paced “Assassin” will simply not work for filmgoers anticipating unrelenting, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”-style action.

The setting is ninth century China, the era of China’s Tang Dynasty. It is a time of sudden, unpredictable violence and rigidly defined social structure. Perhaps that is why the assassin of the film’s title is such an intriguing, unpredictable figure.

This mysterious individual is named Nie Yinniang, and she is well played by Shu Qi, star of Hou’s 2001 treat “Millenium Mambo.” As a 10-year-old, this daughter of a prominent general was taken by a nun and trained to kill without mercy.

Years later, Yinniang emerges from exile on the nun’s orders, tasked with returning to the land of her birth to murder her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), the governor of the powerful Weibo province – and the man she was once set to marry.

Intriguingly, it is widely known that Yinniang has returned, and the sight of her lurking in the shadows, while causing some discomfort, is seemingly greeted with acceptance. This makes for a complex and often hard to follow story, one filled with long pauses and furtive glances. It is no exaggeration to call the film, at times, confusing.

Quite honestly, the film’s plot feels like an excuse for the visuals – but my goodness. The visuals. Indeed, enjoying the film requires a complete immersion into the ravishing scenery and beguiling setting.

Really, Hou’s visual mastery cannot be overstated. Even if the film’s languid pacing and head-scratching plot confound, it is impossible to turn away.

Also effective is the character of Yinniang. Unlike the governors, their families and their protectors, she is free to travel in the shadows, strike quickly and disappear again. It’s refreshing to see a female – in ninth century China, no less – who is dependent on no one.

In addition, despite the difficulties of the story, there are lines of dialogue in the Hou co-authored screenplay that linger in one’s memory. “Your mind is still hostage to human sentiment” is one. But the dialogue that most startled me with its somber simplicity comes from Tian Ji’an: “When I was 10 I had a serious fever. The doctors were no help. A small coffin was prepared.”

Hou is undoubtedly a visionary. While this Taiwanese master has made a film that will surely alienate audiences, those with a deep appreciation for cinema will find the world of “The Assassin” to be intoxicating.

Hope you caught ‘The Look of Silence’ …

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“The Look of Silence” is, unquestionably, one of 2015’s best. My friends at Cultivate Cinema Circle brought it to town for one-night only, so I hope you were there! Here is the preview I wrote for Buffalo.com.

The fall season of Cultivate Cinema, the cinephile-friendly screening series that began in June, ends with three great films over the next few weeks. The first is a 2015 release, but make no mistake, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Look of Silence” qualifies as a modern classic. It screens at 9:30 p.m. Nov. 24 in the North Park Theatre.

This is the companion film to “The Act of Killing,” Oppenheimer’s stunning documentary that featured the actual perpetrators of the Indonesian killings of 1965–66. With shocking openness, these men — many of whom are still in power — discussed and even demonstrated how they killed.

“Art” was one of the most powerful films of the last decade, but “The Look of Silence” is even stronger. This time, Oppenheimer narrows his focus to one man’s tale: an unidentified (for safety reasons) Indonesian eye doctor who talks to the men responsible for the horrific death of his brother.

As Cultivate director Jordan Smith puts it, “Watching ‘The Look of Silence’ is to bear witness to Indonesia’s past, to internalize the struggles of living with the horrors of previous generations, and in spite of it all, facing it with heart-wrenching, unfathomable courage.”

Tickets for “The Look of Silence” are $7 at the door, or $8 presale at northparktheatre.org.

Far lighter are the final two entries in Cultivate’s fall season, a free Orson Welles double feature on Dec. 5 in the Mason O. Damon Auditorium at the Buffalo Central Library. “The Lady From Shanghai” is shown at 1 p.m., followed by “Touch of Evil” at 3 p.m.

Visit cultivatecinemacircle.com for more information.

Review: With ‘Breathe,’ the great Mélanie Laurent directs a wonderful film

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I have adored actress Mélanie Laurent for years now, and was intrigued by the idea of her moving behind the camera. “Breathe” ranks among her finest achievements; I gave it 3 1/2 stars in the Buffalo News.

“Breathe,” the directorial debut for wonderful French actress Mélanie Laurent, is an astute study of the emotions and pains of adolescence.

Laurent is best known in North America for her role as revenge-seeking Shoshanna in Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist WWII extravaganza “Inglourious Basterds.” It was the film’s finest performance, and one that deserved award consideration. She also has appeared in films such as “Beginners,” “Now You See Me” and the 2009 French hit “Le Concert.” (She even released a fine album in 2011.)

“Breathe” tells a simple story, but one that should resonate with anyone who dealt with unpopularity, nastiness or troubled friendships as a teenager.

Charlie (Joséphine Japy) is a quiet, thoughtful teen who forms a strong friendship with a girl who might be considered her opposite. Sarah (Lou de Laâge) is outspoken and impulsive, a new kid in town with a mysterious, slightly questionable past.

This air of mystery makes Sarah seem slightly exotic, and to Charlie, wondrously fresh. With Charlie’s parents on the verge of splitting up, the arrival of this new friend could not seem better.

However, a few comments hint at a fracturing relationship between the two, and after Sarah joins Charlie on a family trip, things take a dark turn. Soon, Sarah is leading an effort at school to harass Charlie, who grows increasingly somber and despondent.

The scenes of Charlie’s treatment at school are breathtakingly sad, an indictment of bullying and the power of calculated persecution. Laurent and her young stars make it all believable and even understandable. Only with a melodramatic turn in the final few minutes does “Breathe” make a wrong turn.

Despite that conclusion, the film is both harsh and heartbreaking, a story of teenage wildlife as strong as the recent French classic “Blue is the Warmest Colour.”

 

Photo courtesy of Film Movement

 

Review: Alison Brie shines in ‘Sleeping With Other People’

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Can one actor make a movie worth watching? In the case of Alison Brie, absolutely. The film “Sleeping With Other People” has some great moments throughout, but it is Brie who steals the show. I gave it three stars in the Buffalo News.

“Sleeping With Other People” is a romantic comedy for people who generally dislike romantic comedies. This very funny, tart-tongued film does not quite break from the conventional rom-com formula. But with a killer lead pairing – former “Saturday Night Live” star Jason Sudeikis and “Community”/“Mad Men” star Alison Brie – and a nicely naughty script, “Sleeping” qualifies as a modest success.

The time is certainly right for a comedy with two delightfully realistic protagonists, the type who make mistakes constantly, joke about HPV and chlamydia, and somehow can’t seem to figure out why they’re perennially dating (or sleeping with) the wrong people.

Director Leslye Headland’s second feature (after the 2012 Kirsten Dunst comedy “Bachelorette”) starts in the early 2000s, as college students Jake (Sudeikis) and Lainey (Brie) meet-kinda-cute, and realize they have something major in common: They are still virgins.

A nicely fumbling first sexual experience follows, and soon we skip to the present day, in which both characters have gone their separate ways. Single Jake is a likable womanizer whose married-with-children business partner Xander is in a very different place. (Xander calls his friend “the biggest slut in the world.”)

Lainey is a serial cheater whose most recent boyfriend (a very funny Adam Brody) doesn’t take the news of her outside dalliances very well. She also is struggling with the news that her old boyfriend, a doctor played by Adam Scott with a weasel mustache, is soon to be married.

Jake and Lainey run into each other outside of a sex addiction meeting – of course – and slowly begin to realize they have too much in common not to be great friends. They quickly become confidants for each other, all while fighting the obvious attraction they (still) have for each other.

These characters, especially Lainey, are prone to utterly foolish feelings and decisions, and while that can be annoying for the viewer (it’s hard to tell why she is so hung up on Scott’s off-putting character), it lends a feeling of real-life silliness to the proceedings. Real people have these sometimes inexplicable problems, and that means Headland’s film often takes a sledgehammer to rom-com cliché.

That’s why it’s a tad surprising the film ends on the type of happy note that’s not unlike all manner of Hollywood romantic comedy. It is perhaps an earned ending, yet something as acidic as the rest might have better fit the characters.

Sudeikis is more appealing here than he has ever been on screen. He has not distinguished himself much outside of “SNL,” whether the films have been hits (“We’re the Millers,” “Horrible Bosses”) or flops (the underrated “Hall Pass”).

The real star of “Sleeping With Other People,” however, is Brie. She was a consistent highlight on “Community” and made the most of her small role on “Mad Men.”

On the big screen, however, she has been wasted in such tripe as the Will Ferrell disaster “Get Hard.” It took a writer-director as canny as Headland to show how adorably off-kilter and wildly funny Brie can be as an actor. It won’t linger long in your consciousness, but for its 90 minutes, “Sleeping With Other People” is an entertaining anti-rom-com. You’ll never look at an empty bottle of green tea the same way again.

TIFF turns forty: Buffalo Spree recap

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Each year, I write a Toronto International Film Festival recap for Buffalo Spree’s November issue. Here is the latest, out now.

 

“We’ve been coming to TIFF for all forty years,” says the husband of a truly lovely couple at the 2015 Toronto International Film festival. “It’s changed, for sure. Remember? The Uptown, the Cumberland …” I nod and smile, not admitting that those venues were long gone by 2007, when I started attending the annual September extravaganza. The wife talks of having vouchers the first few years, with no movie titles on the tickets, and lining up for hours to gain entry. While there is clear nostalgia for the days when the likes of Henry Winkler were considered the festival’s top celebrity guests, they are not critical of the eleven-day, nearly 300-feature TIFF of today.

You don’t have to be a four-decade attendee to see that the Toronto International Film Festival has evolved dramatically. It’s changed since last year, for example, in ways both interesting and odd. The 2014 festival was, memorably, the installment that saw TIFF brass allow only films making their world or North American premieres to screen during the first four days. This was a calculated response to the increased prominence of the earlier fall festivals in Venice and Telluride, both of which have stolen some of Toronto’s Oscar-tastemaker thunder in recent years. For attendees and media, this meant that TIFF’s opening weekend did not feature some of the year’s biggest films. However, the approach was softened for 2015, likely a response to the bad press and film critic grumbling the move received.

Fast forward to the opening weekend of TIFF15 and it’s clear early-festival madness is back, in a big way. The several-blocks-long area of live performances and tables known as Festival Street is hopping, public lines for the films are long, and even two solid days of hard rain don’t seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm.

Nor should it. Minus a couple notable films missing in action—specifically, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs and Todd Haynes’s Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara—the lineup for 2015 is stacked with high-profile winners. Many have previously played spring’s Cannes Film Festival or debuted days before in Venice or Telluride, but their presence is wonderful news. And, of course, TIFF has some world premieres of its own, including Ridley Scott’s big-budget sci-fi epic The Martian, starring Matt Damon. I skip the latter, Johnny Depp’s Black Mass, and the drug cartel drama Sicario since I know the trio are soon making their way to screens in Western New York. Scheduling concerns mean I can’t see the Catholic Church child-abuse storySpotlight, Brie Larsen in Room, or Jake Gyllenhaal in Demolition.

Still, there are real gems among the fifteen films I see during my three-day visit, as well as among the dozen screeners viewed before and after TIFF15’s opening weekend. László Nemes’s Cannes hit Son of Saul(opening in late 2015/early 2016) is an emotional stunner about a concentration camp inmate’s attempts to give a young boy (who may or may not be his son) a traditional Jewish burial. Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa(likely due for release this year) is a hilarious and moving stop-motion comedy that equals the power of hisSynecdoche, New York. Hitchcock/Truffaut, about the famously insightful book that director Francois Truffaut authored after interviewing Alfred Hitchcock, is a cinephile must. Scary “New England folk tale” The Witchproves why it was one of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival’s most buzzed entries. And Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster is a strangely moving, wildly funny bit of quasi-sci-fi featuring a career-best performance from Colin Farrell. Set in a time when singles must find a partner or be turned into animals (!), the film features TIFF’s most memorable love story.

More highs: Fifties-set immigration drama Brooklyn cements its status as a) a sure-fire Oscar nominee and b) a film that is nearly impossible to dislike, so strong is star Saoirse Ronan’s performance and so heartfelt its message of finding a new home on the other side of the world. Canadian writer-director Andrew Cividino’s three-teens-and-one-hot-summer drama Sleeping Giant is a startling debut. A number of less high-profile international entries, including Homesick, Magallanes, Girls Lost, Keeper, and London Road (Tom Hardy sings!)  are smart and interesting. Plus, Tom Hooper’s flawed The Danish Girl features strong performances from Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne. (Oddly, the film seems to focus less on Redmayne’s Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of sexual reassignment surgery, than on her former wife, Vikander’s Gerda Wegener.) And the rather overblown Youth is a swirling visual powerhouse with awards-worthy work from Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Jane Fonda.

It seems each year there is at least one moment when I’m reminded of not just why I love TIFF, but why I love movies. At TIFF15, it’s the world-premiere screening of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, a J. G. Ballard adaptation the Kill List director introduced to the packed Visa Screening Room house as follows: “It’s a big building, there’s lots of sex, violence, swear words, adult content, dancing, and it’s J. G. Ballard.” Starring Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans, and Jeremy Irons, the Kubrick- and ABBA-infused film is a compelling stew of sex, violence, and class warfare, all set in a strange apartment building in 1970s Britain. About ten minutes in, I say to myself how exhilarating it feels to adore a movie this much. That’s a glorious feeling. Whenever the film is set for American release, it’s a must-see.

High-Rise is screened as part of TIFF’s new Platform program, a new juried section featuring twelve fascinating films from unique filmmakers. Unlike the TV-focused Primetime program—I understand there is amazing television around the world, but I come to TIFF to get away from TV—Platform feels fresh and thrilling. If it can unleash something like High-Rise on the world, clearly the Toronto International Film Festival is a healthy forty.        

Photo courtesy of TIFF