Well, folks, it happened again: the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival has come and gone. All of those movie stars and desperate young filmmakers anxious to sell a new project have returned home with either gigantic smiles (George Clooney) or pained expressions of disappointment (let’s face it, pretty well everyone else). It’s hard to point to any particular film that leapt out and established itself as an unequivocal masterpiece and inevitable Oscar-winner this year.
There really wasn’t one of those around to mop up all the praise. Instead audiences got a pretty damn stellar collection of small and interesting movies. The blockbusters came and went, but none of them left the same impression as the smaller movies and pleasant surprises. With that in mind, I’d like to present a list of the ten best films to appear at the festival for the genre-loving crowd. It’s a healthy mix of action, horror, apocalyptic sci-fi, documentary, foreign, and Hollywood features that’ll make your genre-loving movie brain tingle with delight. Without further ado, here is the best of the fest. Keep an eye out for these titles as they all inevitably shuffle into theaters in time for awards consideration.
1) Drive: I know, it’s a bit of a cheat to have Drive top this list when it’s already been released, but honestly people, it really is that good. Ryan Gosling stars as a movie stunt driver by day and crime driver by night, but the real star of the movie is director Nicolas Winding Refn (The Pusher Trilogy, Bronson). It’s Refn’s first American movie, and though it doesn’t quite manage the depraved intensity of his European work, Drive is a Refn project through and through. Every scene has an uneasy tension. From frame one, it’s clear something terrible will happen, and when it does we don’t get some sort of sanitized Hollywood hero nonsense. When the shit hits the fan, Gosling practically becomes a psychotic killer himself, while Albert Brooks proves that he always had a terrifying gangster inside of him that nobody knew about. This is vital viewing. See it. You will not regret it. That much I can promise.
2) The Skin I Live In: There were far more graphic movies at TIFF this year (this list entry is sandwiched between two of them), but arguable no title screened during the festival was as deeply disturbing as The Skin I Live In. Not much blood was spilled, but the psychological implications of what played out onscreen was depraved enough to stick with you for days. Antonio Banderas stars as a psychotic plastic surgeon who has a mysterious young woman locked in a room in his house, on whom he is meticulously replacing every inch of skin and creepily watches with lustful eyes through a variety of cameras. Revealing any more would be unfair, but I assure you that anything you come up with won’t be half as disturbing as the plot that Oscar-winning writer/director Pedro Almodovar whipped up. The man had never attempted a horror movie before, but hopefully he’ll do it again because I haven’t been that shaken by a movie in a long time.
3) God Bless America: Bobcat Goldthwait has developed a real talent for disturbingly dark comedy since transitioning into a career as writer/director, and God Bless America is by far his funniest and most depraved outing to date. The film follows Frank, a middle aged burn out disgusted with the current culture whose only escape is violent fantasies about seeking revenge on those who annoy him (he shoots a baby in the first scene, and it gets the biggest laugh in the movie, which should give you a sense of the tone). Then one day, while watching an episode of my “Super Sweet 16” with a particularly grating teen girl, Frank snaps. He steals a car, drives across the country, and kills the girl. Soon he befriends another teen girl who shares his cultural contempt and they embark on a cross-country killing spree, taking out the most loathsome trash culture celebrities they can find. The film is an absolutely hilarious satire that goes to dark places most comedies wouldn’t dare. Inevitably Goldthwait’s fearless comedic approach will alienate as many people as it enthralls, but for those in tune with Bobcat’s twisted sensibility, there won’t be a funnier comedy released this year.
4) Kill List: Kill List is an unpredictable cross-genre beast from British writer/director Ben Wheatley, who previously created the underrated kitchen sink crime comedy Down Terrace. His latest film is a different beast entirely: it starts off as a dark family drama with an out-of-work husband chastised into returning to work by his bitter wife. Turns out he’s a contract killer, and a bit of a nuts one at that. It’s undeniably shocking to see him slice, dice, and hammer his way through his work, but that’s nothing compared to the satanic cult who may or may not have hired him for the jobs. One of the great pleasures of the film is how incredibly unpredictable it is. Just when you think you have a grasp on what kind of movie your watching, Wheatley will turn it into something else entirely. Ultimately, it’s a horror movie and keen eyed viewers should be able to spot that from the beginning. This is the type of horror movie that sneaks up on you, lulling you into a false sense of security before dropping an intense climax. The ending of Kill List will leave viewers wandering out of the theater in a daze and with this genre, that’s how it should be.
5) Take Shelter: Some movies are worth watching purely for a single actor. Take Shelter is certainly a compelling piece of work, but it’s required viewing for Michael Shannon’s pained performance alone. Shannon plays a rural father who starts having vivid dreams about the apocalypse and becomes convinced it’s actually going to happen. He starts building an underground shelter in his backyard, and family and friends start to freak out because they know there’s a history of mental illness in his family. Shannon is quite aware of that fact himself, and is never certain whether or not he’s having genuine premonitions or if he’s insane. This tension between reality and insanity is the strength of the piece, and the only real problem is that Jeff Nichols can’t seem to decide one way or the other himself. He tries to create an ending that has it both ways, and it feels deeply unsatisfying. Still, Nichols crafts a remarkable psychological thriller right up until the finish line and Michael Shannon delivers a performance that is sure to line him up a few awards and nominations. A must see.
6) Melancholia: Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier returns with Melancholia, a schizophrenic movie with a title that could some up his work as a whole. The films spits into two halves and honestly feels like two different movies entirely. The first half features Von Trier in mischievous prankster-mode, crafting a dark comedy about the worst wedding of all time starring Kirsten Dunst as a bride who pisses off her family and the staff, and cheats on her husband before she even takes off her gown. The second half of the movie is Von Trier in serious artist-mode, telling a dark apocalyptic tale of a planet called Melancholia crashing into Earth and destroying its inhabitants (including Dunst). I probably enjoyed the first movie in Melancholia more, but the culminative impact of the entire film is undeniable. It’s unlikely any movie on this list will depress you as much as Melancholia, but in the hands of a master like Von Trier, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
7) Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope: Supersize Me director Morgan Spurlock returns with a film about the San Diego Comic-Con and the rise of geek culture. Admirably, Spurlock doesn’t make himself the star this time. Instead he follows a collection of fans, wannabe artists, and vendors, peppering in interviews with geek culture celebrities like Kevin Smith, Edgar Wright, and Josh Whedon along the way. It’s a funny and sweet movie that succeeds primarily because it in no way condescends to the geek community. Comic-Con is presented as an event of welcoming acceptance and if, you’ve ever experienced the geekgasm of walking a convention floor, you’ll know that’s true. It’s a very sweet portrait of a growing subculture that might not add much to the discussion of why geek culture is suddenly taking over the mainstream, but it does at least present a wonderful time capsule of the current state of that nerdy world.
8) Killer Joe: The Exorcist director William Friedkin returns with a sick Southern Gothic thriller about a family of trailer park dwellers who decide to hire a contract killer to take out their mother for the purposes of insurance fraud. It all builds to a disturbing climax with acts I’d feel uncomfortable describing here, but let’s just say they invented a new perverted act best described as “fried chicken fellatio.” Matthew McConaunghey starts as the titular contract killer/police officer and delivers a terrifying performance that reminds you that he was once an actor, and not just a shirtless movie star. It’s another terrific, claustrophobic thriller from Friedkin about characters who walk the line between good and evil that proves the 70s icon can still deliver the goods when given the chance.
9) Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory: The Paradise Lost movies deserve some sort of special award for documenting a terrifying failure of the justice system that sent three teenage boys to prison for a brutal murder that they didn’t commit. The movies were directly responsible for the boys eventual release from prison in August almost 20 years after their wrongful conviction. The version of Paradise Lost 3 screened at TIFF was incomplete, since the directors completed the festival cut of the film before the surprising release. However, they’re currently finishing up a new ending, and when it’s released in the fall this will be one of the must-see documentaries of 2011. Even its current unfinished form, the doc is a disturbing update of an ongoing tale that desperately deserves attention.
10) The Incident: Finally, let’s wrap things up with one last horror movie. It was a particularly strong year for spooky outings at TIFF, and as a result, The Incident sadly slipped through the cracks for most. The film is a classic “lunatics set loose in the asylum” tale with a group of struggling bandmates trapped in a creepy mental institution with a particularly terrifying group of inmates who wouldn’t be out of place in Arkham. Two people passed out during the Midnight Madness screening of The Incident, and given the frankly insane imagery displayed, that’s not particularly exciting (ever wanted to see a taser touch an eyeball or a man bite off his own fingers? Now you finally can). It’s not exactly a sensitive portrayal of mental illness, but it is an unrelentingly intense horror ride that should have gorehounds cheering at every screening. I can’t imagine the film will be able to be released in its current form in a world of ratings boards, but if you get a chance to see this flick unrated, do it. This is a wild, goddamn ride.