Another Toronto Film Festival has come and gone. Hundreds of films screened and hundreds of film critics didn’t sleep for weeks.
I was one of them, trudging through over 40 screenings, a dozen interviews, countless articles, and I think I slept at some point in there, but I can’t be sure. Now that the madness has subsided, I thought I’d share a collection of awards honouring the finest geek-friendly entertainment to slide onto screens during the long festival with you fine readers. Genre movies were surprisingly well represented at a festival that typically launches Oscar contenders for the year. Those movies sadly don’t get awards when the gold statue season comes around, so it’s time for us to right that wrong. Without further ado, enjoy this year’s Geeky TIFF hits, courtesy of your friendly neighbourhood C&G film critic.
Best Sci-fi Film: Looper
The time travel head-scratcher Looper from burgeoning writer/director Rian Johnson opened TIFF this year, and frankly, not many of the hundreds of films that followed could top it. The concept involves a future world in which the mob sends people back in time to be killed where no one could possibly be arrested for the crime. This past-killers are called Loopers because eventually they will have to kill their future selves to avoid traces and then have 30 years of living left, knowing they will eventually be sent back and killed by their past self. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the main Looper in this tale and when he flinches at killing his future self (Bruce Wills), he escapes and soon Levitt is chasing himself while being chased by other Loopers trying to set things straight. Sounds complex, but it’s surprisingly easy to follow and one hell of an action/thriller. Filled with knowing humor, clever ideas, bloody action (don’t be surprised if it earns an R), and fantastic performances (Levitt’s Bruce Willis impression is eerie), this is the intelligent thrill ride we were waiting for all summer. They say they don’t make big budget entertainment with brains like this anymore, but guess what? Someone just did.
Best Horror Film: Lords Of Salem
Though very clearly a Rob Zombie movie, this is more of a slow burn horror that ratchets up tension until a nightmarish satanic climax. Rob Zombie has long been underrated as a director. Sniffy critics dismiss him as a trash merchant who revels in gruesome imagery for the sake of it. That’s unfair and you need only to look at the fact that his characters from House Of 1000 Corpses/The Devil’s Rejects were the only genuine horror icons to emerge in the 2000s as proof of his impact on the genre. The fact that he even had a film play at a major film festival was a surprise and a nice sign of long overdue respect. Watching Lords Of Salem, it’s easy to see why. The movie ditches the gruesome grindhouse aesthetic of his previous work in favor of a more arty, even European style of horror. Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon stars as a late night radio host in Salem who plays a mysterious record one night that awakens demons and witches who start terrorizing her in waking life and dreams. Though very clearly a Rob Zombie movie, this is more of a slow burn horror that ratchets up tension until a nightmarish satanic climax. It should please Zombie’s rabid fanbase and hopefully attract some new converts as well. After a battle with a studio over his Halloween remakes, this is clearly a film made by a director given complete artistic freedom and it also just might be his finest feature to date.
Future Cult Classic: Seven Psychopaths
When your film wins the Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award at TIFF, chances are you might have a new cult classic on your hands. Never was that more true than this year with Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. The longtime playwright and Oscar nominated writer/director of In Bruges is normally known for his tightly wound and written projects. Oh sure they can be violent, but are always very carefully constructed. Seven Psychopaths is a glorious free for all about an alcoholic screenwriter (Colin Farrell) struggling to write a movie about, you guessed it, seven psychopaths. His out-of-work actor friend (a delightfully unhinged Sam Rockwell) offers help and when refused, involves Farrell in his dognapping business with Christopher Walken. They accidentally take a gangster’s dog and soon end up in their own action/adventure that Rockwell continuously encourages Farrell to work into his script. What follows is an insane concoction of exploding heads, meta-movie commentary, and gut-ache funny crime comedy. Like an unholy union between Charlie Kaufman and Quentin Tarantino, you’ve really seen nothing like this before and might never again. A wild and viciously violent dark comedy sure to find a place on DVD shelves alongside flicks like Reservoir Dogs, Crank, and Being John Malkovich for years to come.
Future Camp Classic: Passion
Brian DePalma is consistently revered as being one of the great American directors for his work on classics like Carrie, Scarface, and The Untouchables. However, whenever he delves into his brand of gleefully perverse thrillers like Dressed To Kill, Body Double, or Raising Cain, he tends to suddenly become one of the most divisive mainstream filmmakers in Hollywood. The reason is simple. When DePalma makes thrillers, he makes camp. He knows what’s inherently silly, trashy, and melodramatic about the genre and plays those notes for knowing laughs. His latest movie Passion is a battle of wits, humiliation, and murder between two feuding ad executives (Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace) that’s just as stylish and knowingly ridiculous as anything in the filmmaker’s back catalogue. It will split audiences between those wowed by his acrobatic camera moves and left giggly by his campy exaggeration and those who just claim its garbage. No filmmaker who has been around this long and been this successful doesn’t know what they’re doing. If you’re in tune with DePalma’s bizarre approach to thriller-making, this is a future camp delight to laugh along with for years to come.
Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix/Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)
Divorced from any geek-centric classification, The Master was easily the finest film of TIFF 2012 and another masterpiece for director Paul Thomas Anderson to slide under his belt. However, if there’s one category I can’t slip this one aside for in favor of genre fair, it’s the acting (and even then, it’s got to be a tie). Joaquin Phoenix is all elbows and rage in a remarkable, career best performance as recent WW2 vet Freddie who wonders around lost, alcoholic, and possibly insane. He’s found and cared for by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s thinly veiled L. Ron Hubbard stand in as a man who has created his own religion. As wild and unpredictable as Phoenix’s performance can be, he’s matched in every scene by Hoffman’s controlled, yet equally disturbed turn as the egomaniacal faux religious leader. The film can be a visually arresting period epic, yet its greatest scenes come when Phoenix and Hoffman engage in two-handed games of mental manipulation and wits. It’s a perverse love story and a battle between an unstoppable force and an immovable object (just without the costumes and action scenes). The Master will be loved n’ loathed and the most discussed movie this year. One thing all the haters and admirers will share is glowing admiration for these two remarkable performances. May as well just give these guys their Oscars now. No sense in wasting time.
Best Actress: Amy Adams (The Master) and Rachel McAdams (Passion)
But for those who love DePalma’s camptacular genre games and picked up on McAdams winks to the camera, she delivered the most deliriously entertaining performance by any actress at TIFF this yearThe conventional choice for this award is Amy Adams in The Master, who matches the stellar work of the central men as Hoffman’s manipulative wife who might have far more control over the religion than it initially seems. It’s probably her best performance to date and well worth a mention. However, I was also equally tickled in a very different way by Rachel McAdams in Passion and think she deserves a little acknowledgement. Now, it’s not a great performance in the way that Amy Adams’ turn clearly was. Nope, McAdams (like the movie) delivers a devilishly campy turn as an evil businesswoman pitched on two levels. Viewed in a straight-forward manner, she’s a vamping evil lady more concerned with disposable income than her conscience and the performance is a little over the top. Seen as comedy, McAdams is a hilarious deadpan parody of that role in movies who delights in chewing the scenery for the sake of joyous evil and belly ache giggles. Inevitably, not everyone will see it that way. But for those who love DePalma’s camptacular genre games and picked up on McAdams winks to the camera, she delivered the most deliriously entertaining performance by any actress at TIFF this year.
Best Supporting Player: Hugo Weaving (Cloud Atlas)
The Wachowski Siblings (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer’s (Run Lola Run) metaphysical sci-fi/action/fantasy flick Cloud Atlas was probably the most ambitious movie of the festival and one that didn’t quite pull off its noble intentions. Though interesting, many of the grand ideas on display simply didn’t hold together, particularly the stunt casting that saw one of a handful of actors play every role on screen to underline the film’s themes of reincarnation and repetition. Folks like Tom Hanks and Halle Barry could handle a few of their roles, but not all of them. The lone, wonderful exception was Hugo Weaving. The man who played Agent Smith in The Matrix portrayed the primary villain in most of the intertwined stories, including a sort of evil leprechaun magical figure, an assassin, and an evil female nurse at an abusive retirement home. The roles were varied, but Weaving gave them all the appropriate level of menace in their own unique way. He stole the show several times over and deserves attention for being the one unimpeachable element of a film plagued with problems. It’s still very much a movie worth taking a look at for genre fans come the October release, but expect flaws. Well, other than anytime Weaving is onscreen being delightfully evil of course.
Best Body Count: The ABCs Of Death
TIFF’s Midnight Madness program is always filled with plenty of blood splattering, but this year one movie offered something special. The ABCs Of Death is an anthology horror film in which 26 directors from around the world were given a small budget and a letter of the alphabet to turn into a short film of bloody murder. Varying from a surreal Japanese entries like the oddly heartwarming “F for Fart,” to British director Ben Wheatley’s POV vampire chiller, and Adam Winguard’s self-conscious comedy about shooting a duck for lack of any other appropriate entry for “Q”, no movie offered more big screen deaths at the fest this year or did it with such charm and humor. You could say it’s all senseless violence without a purpose beyond reveling in the gory red stuff. You’d be right as well, but when the results of that much carnage are this giddily entertaining, it’s hard to complain.
Best Documentary: Room 237
The best and also by far the strangest documentary to screen at the festival this year was Room 237. A documentary for lack of a better term, Rodney Ascher’s film details the fascinating and downright insane theories of a few particularly obsessive fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The one thing that they all agree on is that Kurbick was too ingenious of a filmmaker to possibly make something as disposable as a simple horror film. Their personal theories vary widely, suggesting the movies is about America’s cruel treatment of the Indians, a veiled exploration of the holocaust, or Kubrick’s way of expressing the guilt he felt over staging the moon landing and the how it shattered his family. It ranges from intriguing to hilariously insane with Ascher never showing his subjects, only allowing their voices to play over footage from The Shining (and other movies) to illustrate their points. It’s all backed by a creepy synthesized horror score and edited to genre rhythms to make the movie feel like a conspiracy thriller unearthing deep secrets. The whole thing might sound pretentious, but it’s actually incredibly entertaining and rather hilarious. Ascher’s techniques ensure the movie never feels academic and overbearing. It’s instead an entertaining look at how fans (geniuses, nutcases, and both) can turn any movie into their own personal playground of ideas and interpretations.
The “Finally Got It Right” Award: Dredd 3D
Judge Dredd has been delivering harsh totalitarian justice in the pages of 2000 AD for decades. In Britain, he’s a comic book icon. In North America, there’s still a cult audience for the books, but the character was irrevocably harmed by the god-awful Sylvester Stallone adaptation that couldn’t even be bothered to keep the character in his iconic mask. Fortunately, some kind folks in the Dredd motherland got the character another crack at the big screen and prove why this one man judge, jury, and executioner is so good at carrying out the law his way (aka with bullets). Led by writer/producer Alex Garland and starring Karl Urban as an appropriately gruff version of the title character, Dredd almost feels like pages from John Wagner’s original books projected on a big screen. Made with a fraction of the budget of the original, the film feels exactly like one of the short 2000 AD stories with all of the vicious violence, sci-fi social commentary, and general bad-assitude that you’d want from the material (along with some incredible 3D photography for good measure). Only the occasional moment of wonky writing, overly stylized direction and unfortunate similarities to the infinitely superior The Raid drag the film down slightly. Thankfully the flaws are minor and the nasty approach to action is a welcome callback to the 80s action movies that spawned the character in the first place. If you’ve never delved into the books and always wondered what all the Judge Dredd fuss is about, this is as good of a place to start as any.
The WTF Award: John Dies At The End
If you’ve ever seen Bubba Ho-Tep or one of his Phantasm films, you’ll know that writer/director Don Coscarelli is one of the most unique and delightfully cracked minds working in horror movies. His latest feature John Dies At The End, just might be his strangest movie to date (and considering his resume, that’s really saying something). The movie follows a twenty-something named Dave who sits down with Paul Giamatti’s reporter to explain his life story. It involves a sentient drug that leads to cross-dimensional travel, giant monsters made of meat, doorknobs turning into genitals, and that’s just the first ten minutes. This horror/comedy/sci-fi/fantasy/adventure crosses more genres that should be possible in 99 minutes and even though you might have a hard time figuring out exactly what’s going on, you’ll certainly never be bored. The book this film was based on was written by a current cracked.com editor to give you a taste of the humour, but it all comes filtered through Coscarelli’s brilliantly insane sensibilities. It will make you wish the filmmaker didn’t take so much time off between projects, while at the same time make you happy that the long gaps ensure he never has to compromise. This is one of the strangest movies you will ever see and almost has to be sampled just to confirm that it actually happened.