TIFF 2014: American standouts

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the recent 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Previous installment here!

In high school, Hal Hartley was my first cinematic battle. On paper, his existential themes of truth, his French New Wave references, and the stilted dialogue he favored seemed like they would align perfectly with my sensibilities. Like many film students of the era, I gobbled up The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990), and Surviving Desire (1993) multiple times. But as Simple Men (1992), Amateur (1994), and Flirt (1995) graced art-house theaters, I found Hartley’s films to be more and more like fingernails shrieking down a neverending chalkboard.

Late-night arguments over Hartley films became full-fledged deal breakers. At least one friendship was destroyed (I apologize, John Powers). And then came the climactic scene in his career-defining opus Henry Fool (1997). I felt like Hartley had finally shed his farcical facade for just one moment, allowing me to feel an overwhelming sense of insecurity.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNKU8Jf3eEA

Unfortunately, he went digital shortly thereafter, and wallowed in a series of “mass-media” rants. But after an interesting return with the Parker Posey vehicle Fay Grim (2008), a sequel to Henry Fool, Hartley has concluded the trilogy with perhaps his most accessible and enjoyable film: Ned Rifle (US). Aubrey Plaza is downright hilarious as a suspicious and obsessive fan of writer Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), perhaps tying all the characters together for one big clusterfuck. What is most refreshing about this return to form is Hartley’s self-effacing humor about his own issues; it’s also elevated by rapid-fire snappy dialogue and enough Robert Bresson references to satisfy his fans. It’s a joy to watch Hartley regulars like Posey, Ryan, James Urbaniak, and Martin Donovan give it one last (?) go in this cinematic universe. In fact, Ned Rifle might even muster up some new Hartley fans … which will hopefully result in a new generation of late-night disagreements.

Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (US) sports Oscar-bait performances from its stellar cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum (yes, that Channing Tatum), and Mark Ruffalo. But it is clearly Miller’s sparse and surprising steady direction that gives this based-on-a-true-story flick its gleam. As its theme of loneliness is hauntingly accentuated across the board, I am curious if repeat viewings will enhance or detract from the film’s purposeful tone?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOVDmHmisQw

In my opinion, every year should be the year of exploitation pioneer Abel Ferrara’s comeback. Taking Toronto by storm with two feature films, as he did in 2014, is definitely the way to do it. His long awaited tribute Pasolini (France/Italy/Belgium) showcases Willem Dafoe as infamous Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. While the film is not the epic extravaganza that many were perhaps hoping for (it chronicles the final days of his life), this is most definitely a personal allegory for Ferrara’s own career and should be treated as such. Beautiful cinematography by Stefano Falivene (who shot Ferrara’s overlooked 2005 Mary) gives the film a distinctly classic feel that seemed to baffle some critics. Along with Dafoe’s pitch-perfect Pasolini, Maria De Madeiros fleshes out a wonderfully campy part as Laura Betti, one of the director’s best friends.

At a crisp 86 minutes, Ferrara’s film attempts to communicate with Pasolini’s uncompromising drive and artistic endeavors. There is a stunning scene in which Pasolini, amid an interview with an Italian TV reporter, gives a 10-minute soliloquy about the importance (and difficulty) of holding onto one’s artistic vision; every student of film should watch it on a daily basis.

Ferrara made headlines beyond TIFF with his other 2014 entry: Welcome to New York (France/US), which gives Gérard Depardieu his meatiest role in years. Based on the true story of French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, infamously charged with the sexual assault of a hotel maid during a visit to New York City, it contains a monster-like performance from Depardieu (who hasn’t been without his own controversies of late). It’s bound to invite direct comparisons to Harvey Keitel’s balls-to-the-wall role in Bad Lieutenant (1992).

The film has garnered ecstatic write-ups, along with downright repulsed responses. The real Strauss-Kahn has announced he will be taking legal action against the film, but what’s most baffling is that according to an Indiewire report, “IFC Films wants him to deliver an R-rated cut” to American audiences. And Ferrara is livid (see the Indiewire article for his colorful quotes). Luckily, Toronto’s Royal Independent Theatre was screening the uncut, international version; as is, it’s one of the best films of the year. Transgressive cinema with a soul has always been Ferrara’s modus operandi. It’s your duty as a film lover to refuse to watch IFC’s censored version and seek out Ferrara’s original cut.

With While We’re Young (US), Noah Baumbach delivered a more sophisticated take on what is fast becoming an Y2Teen sub-genre: white yuppie 40somethings vs. white hipster 20somethings. What started with surprise PG hit Grown Ups 2 (2013) was reconfigured into an R-rated success with Neighbors. Baumbach’s spin on this story pits Ben Stiller and his iPhone against Adam Driver and his laid-back, vinyl collecting, vlog artist. The film works wonderfully on most levels as the aging couple (Stiller and Naomi Watts) find themselves caught in limbo land between adolescence and would-be parents. But with a surprisingly lackluster final act that discards the younger perspective as easily as an unaware 45-year-old might, it felt for the first time like Baumbach has actually lost a step himself.