This excitement was palpable on opening night, September 5th, before the North American premiere of The Past. Director Asghar Farhadi made a surprise appearance to introduce the film. Expectations were high given the acclaim of his 2011 masterpiece A Separation. Unfortunately, after 130 minutes of depression, divorce, and domestic violence, I can’t say Farhadi’s most recent effort lived up to the hype. The genius of A Separation appeared in its close observation of human behaviour. Instead, The Past relies on contrived plot twists and high-pitched screams to engage its audience. The result just feels unpleasant and false.
I was similarly disappointed with August: Osage County, based on the 2007 Tracy Letts play. Meryl Streep plays the drug-addicted matriarch of a crumbling Oklahoma family, and has received a lot of praise for her work. I don’t think it’s entirely warranted. Streep has shown her remarkable ability to master accents and transform herself in almost every role. Here all the acting is surface-level. We never get past the cheap wig and Southern twang to understand who Violet Weston really is, what motivates her, and why we should care in the first place. Fundamentally, this is a stage play. The showy personal conflict does not translate well to the screen, where you’re missing the energy of live actors.
In sharp contrast, Gravity makes brilliant use of the screen. Integrating 3-D more skilfully than I’ve ever seen before, director Alfonso Cuarón takes us inside the helmet of an astronaut who’s been detached from her space station. We’re overwhelmed with her panic. Sandra Bullock does the most convincing work of her career. In 90 minutes, Cuarón tells a simple story with remarkable craftsmanship. There’s already talk of a Best Picture Oscar. This would be the second year in a row the Academy honours a simple, suspenseful film with its top prize. I think 2014 should reward substance as well as style.
Don Jon probably won’t even earn a Best Picture nomination, but it’s a hilarious and touching story, and without a doubt my TIFF favourite. Joseph Gordon-Levitt writes, directs, and plays the title character, a gym-obsessed porn addict who never misses Sunday Mass, or fails to provide a detailed inventory of his sins at Confession. On the outside, Jon is a caricature; but Gordon-Levitt gives him a soul and makes us care. In 90 minutes, we’re taken through two relationships and several boxes of tissues. By the end of it, some of us actually need one to deal with the tears. What makes Don Jon special is how honest it is. The laughs are never crass, and at the end, I was genuinely moved. A gem like this makes all those festival queues seem worthwhile and reminds me why I love movies.