JACKIE (Fox Searchlight – December 9): The most impressive film of the festival thus far is director Pablo Larrain’s jewel-like examination of the realities and artifices behind our perceptions of history, viewed through the prism of Jackie Kennedy, who is played by Natalie Portman in a performance that goes beyond (brilliant) impersonation to deliver perhaps the most complex work of her career. Larrain and his screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (whose previous feature work was on the YA adventures Allegiant and The Maze Runner) intercut between Jackie’s experiences in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination, an interview she gave a week after his death, and a reconstruction of her live-TV tour of the White House more than a year earlier. Larrain and cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (who’s often worked with Jacques Audiard) shot with 16mm film in a 1960s aspect ratio, largely in close-ups, and the result is so intimate and hyper-real that it can sometimes feel almost surreal. Portman’s Jackie is both grief-stricken and corrosively unsentimental, a wreck and a deliberate sculptor of her and her husband’s figurative memorial statues in American memory. All of the technical contributions are extraordinary, with Jean Rabasse’s production design and Mica Levi’s jarring orchestral score (she wrote the music for Under the Skin) worthy of special note. Jackie isn’t a conventional biography, and those looking for neat interpretations of history may be put off by it. But it’s a remarkable film, and its standing in the awards race, especially for Portman, is only in question because Fox Searchlight (which officially bought the film tonight, and which already has the complicated The Birth Of a Nation on its awards season plate) will have to move fast to mount a campaign within the next few months.
ARRIVAL (Paramount – November 11): The genre of science fiction has been debased by much of what movies and TV give us with that name, so that it’s become little more than a synonym for “CG action.” Denis Villenueve’s Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer from a short story by Ted Chiang, is the real thing, a serious piece of work that dares to offer itself up for comparison with 2001 and Close Encounters (and even Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris). Its opening reels are thrillingly concerned with characters and ideas, as linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is summoned to one of the mysterious spaceships that have arrived on Earth, and asked to find a way to interpret their non-verbal form of communication. Vellenueve’s imagery (the photography is by Bradford Young) flirts with abstraction, and there are mighty contributions from production designer Patrice Vermette and composer Johann Johannsson. Adams is superb in a role that requires a high combination of intelligence and emotion. In its third act, Arrival turns tricky, and brings in a different sub-genre of sci-fi, making the narrative less clear than one would wish, and turning the lack of character development for some of the leads other than Adams into a problem. Even with its flaws, though, Arrival is an ambitious and admirable project–so much so that Villenueve’s upcoming sequel to Blade Runner becomes something to await with curiosity rather than dread.
LOVING (Focus/Universal – November 4): The Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia is a hugely important piece of American jurisprudence that outlawed bans on interracial marriages. One would normally expect a film about Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) to focus on the lawsuit, much as the festival’s Denial focuses on the libel case brought by a Holocaust denier. Writer/director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Express, Mud, Take Shelter) has taken a different route, keeping the court case in the background for the most part and instead putting his eye on the everyday lives of the Lovings as they work, raise their children, and deal with bigotry and its repeated shake-up of their lives. The approach is interesting, and Edgerton and Negga are beautifully restrained, with good supporting work by Nick Kroll in an unusual (mostly) straight role as one of the Lovings’s attorneys, and Michael Shannon as a Life photographer who spends some time with them. Loving, though, may be too gravely respectful for its own good, detailing the quotidian lives of the Lovings while downplaying what made those lives important. It’s a smaller movie than it needed to be.
BLUE JAY (Netflix/Orchard – October 11): Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson are very much worth watching for 85 minutes, and that pretty much sums up the appeal of the tiny indie Blue Jay, which Duplass wrote and on which Alex Lehmann makes his directing debut. Duplass and Paulson are virtually the entire cast of what often feels like a play “opened up” for the movies by dividing the action into scenes played in various locations. Duplass and Paulson are high school sweethearts who haven’t seen each other in 20 years and who, once they’ve run into each other, stretch a cup of coffee into a long night of catching up. They run through the emotional stages you’d expect in a story like this: friendly, then relaxed, then goofy, then flirty, and finally reaching the inevitable fireworks about what led them to break up in the first place. Other than the curious decision to shoot Blue Jay in black and white, the movie is really all about keeping the camera on Duplass and Paulson. They’re terrific actors, and not surprisingly they’re marvelous together, so notwithstanding its structural engineering, Blue Jay is always worth watching, if not necessarily remembering.
BLACK MIRROR (Netflix – streams October 21): Toronto started programming television episodes into the festival last year, and Charlie Brooker’s amazing sci-fi anthology series, now adopted by Netflix for a new season, is a natural for film festival attention. (The first 3 episodes of the new season of Amazon’s Transparent were also screened this year.) It’s difficult to describe much about Brooker’s work without jumping into spoiler territory, but both episodes shown in Toronto were notably less acrid than the series norm. San Junipero, written by Brooker and directed by Owen Harris, could even be called sentimental, not a word usually used in connection with Black Mirror. It starts out as a story about two young women (Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) meeting in a 1980s disco/video parlor, but quickly reveals that neither the characters nor the setting are what they appear to be. Nosedive, written by American comedy experts Michael Schur and Rashida Jones (from a story by Brooker) and directed by Joe Wright, can be described as the best Terry Gilliam movie (that Terry Gilliam had nothing to do with) of the past 20 years, an increasingly frantic satire featuring Bryce Dallas Howard as a woman enmeshed in a system where instant online rankings and reviews have reached meltdown proportions. There are four more episodes due to arrive next month, and Brooker’s imagination shows no sign of slowing.
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