One of the toasts of this year’s TIFF, just as it was of Telluride where it premiered a few weeks ago, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave has quickly established itself as a critic’s darling and, for those who care about such things, an early awards favourite. It’s easy to see why: the film, which might be described as Django Unchained’s graver, wiser sibling, is a powerfully acted, skilfully made prestige picture. It’s history with a very human face.
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August: Osage County
USA, 2013—Dir. John Wells
Snorting, cackling and speaking in scary low tones (with impeccable—natch!—Oklahoma twang to boot), Meryl Streep puts on a show in August: Osage County, John Wells’s film adaptation of Tracy Letts’s play, which premiered at Toronto Film Festival on Monday night. As Vi, the bewigged, pill-popping, cancerous matriarch who’s at the centre of the drama, Streep goes all out, delivering a juicily theatrical turn that’s consistently lively and surprising.
Wells has surrounded the mighty Meryl’s scenery-chewin’ exploits with a bunch of big names also doing their thang: there’s Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson as her three daughters, Ewan McGregor as Roberts’s spouse, Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as her sister and brother-in-law, and Benedict Cumberbatch as their son. Not to forget a brief bonus cameo from Sam Shepard as Vi’s husband, the character whose suicide sets the drama in motion by contriving to bring the extended clan together at the family homestead for a hearty round of ructions and revelations.
Can a Song Save Your Life?
USA, 2013—Dir. John Carney
John Carney‘s Can a Song Save Your Life? offers more winsome (if tediously foul-mouthed) music-based uplift in the mold of the director’s overpraised Once, though glossier and with the dubious added bonus of Keira Knightley grimacing and gurning away in one of the lead roles. Knightley plays—or, in her usual manner, has a game go at playing—Greta, an English girl in New York who gets dumped by her musician boyfriend (Adam Levine, of Maroon 5, in a creditable film debut) and finds herself dragged along to an open mic night where she’s talent spotted by Dan (Mark Ruffalo) a down-on-his-luck music exec who hears potential in her fey folky warblings. The film follows the pair as they collaborate on an album, its tracks recorded live in different locations in the city.
Wałęsa. Man of Hope
Poland, 2013—Dir. Andrzej Wajda
More consistently than any other Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda has dedicated himself to presenting the social, cultural and political life of his country on screen. Despite the odd eccentric excursion into meta-moviedom (check out 1968’s Everything for Sale and 2009’s Sweet Rush for that) and prestige literary adaptation (the well-meaning but fumbled Pan Tadeusz(1999)) there’s no denying that Wajda’s most enduring work has been his dramatizations of Polish history and/or current events, from his seminal War Trilogy of the 1950s (A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds) through Man of Marble (1976) and Man of Iron (1981) to 2007’s phenomenally successful Katyn.
USA / United Kingdom—Dir. Alfonso Cuarón
It’s not very often that you find yourself tearing up behind your 3D glasses at a movie - unless it’s in sheer despair at the lameness of the effects-laden gimmickry that’s unspooling before you. But in Gravity, his first film since 2006’s Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón succeeds in crafting a sci-fi extravaganza that’s as richly emotional as it is visually dazzling. Setting Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s astronauts adrift in space, and challenging them to make it back home under the most difficult circumstances possible, Cuarón’s movie is heart-pumping mainstream cinema infused with a healthy dose of existentialism.