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TIFF 2016: 'Denial', 'La La Land' and 'Jackie'

Tom Wilkinson in Denial (2016)

Best Picture and Best Actress nominees? Day 5 dipped into 20th century history for Holocaust deniers, musicals and a famous First Lady.

Part of the challenge of festivals is attempting to work out which films will pack in pass holders and which ones can be breezed into with a minute to spare. Day 5 at the Toronto International Film Festival had a bit of everything on that front, and a very high standard across three films that all dipped back into the 20th century.

First up was Denial, playing in the morning in the biggest screen. It was hardly a packed house, but those that did show got very solid entertainment. It’s the story of the trial that finally broke any remaining credibility disgraced British historian and Holocaust denier David Irving had. He brought the action, as well. After calling him out in her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1994), American historian Deborah Lipstadt found herself taken to court in London for libel. If she were to lose, the claims of Irving and those like him could have gained acceptability.

Adapted from her own account by playwright David Hare, a top draw cast assembles including Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt, Timothy Spall as Irving, and Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott as the key figures in her legal team. There are a few moments of forced drama along the way, and Lipstadt as a character struggles, given her largely passive position during the trial itself, but the court scenes are thrilling, as are several of the more intimate moments. Without being a world-beater, it’s still an accomplished work.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land (2016)

Now to a film that many expect to be a world-beater. La La Land has had people talking for some time, even more so since its triumphant premiere in Venice. It also saw people queuing around several blocks to get in, something I discovered after having to walk what seemed like half the city just to find the back of the line. There was still plenty of space for me in the theater, thankfully, because the film is a real treat.

This is Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash, and he keeps the musical theme here while creating an entirely different film. Musical is the right word because that’s exactly what La La Land is; a throwback to the golden age of Hollywood. Characters dance and sing across scenes of Los Angeles, colors pop, everyone moves in step and the camera waltzes around it all.

There’s a love story in the middle between Emma Stone’s aspiring actress and Ryan Gosling’s obstinate jazz pianist, but narrative matters little compared to spectacle. Set in the modern day, Chazelle throws in countless film references, great musical numbers backed by sterling choreography, and screwball comedy dialogue. People complain they don’t make em like they used to. Well, they can’t say that, anymore.

Natalie Portman in Jackie (2016)

The day concluded with a quick march to the main set of screening venues for Jackie, Pablo Larraín’s biopic of Jackie Kennedy. Natalie Portman brings the former First Lady to life in the days immediately after her husband’s assassination. The film is certainly appealing, but it’s no easy-going glossy Hollywood biopic. Thus, it came as something of a surprise to find the venue packed at such an early hour. In the time it took me to buy a cheeseburger from the stall a few feet away, the queue dividers filled completely. It's the only screening I’ve been to where staff forced people to stop holding seats.

Indeed, expectations for this film were certainly high, given the fight to get in, though I suspect partly this was just a lot of delegates with time on their hands following the conclusion of La La Land. Jackie is not a straightforward film. Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay, a deserving winner at the Venice Film Festival, shows her public and private sides in the immediate aftermath of JFK's death. He uses an interview with Billy Crudrup’s journalist as a framing device, and a conversation with John Hurt’s priest for similar purposes, while dipping back into her actions at the time.

The film looks as if it were shot in the ‘60s, and comes with an eerie score from Mica Levi. At the centre is Portman, who adopts Jackie’s mannerisms and voice, and draws out her carefully commanding side even while she’s wracked with grief and confusion. It’s unorthodox but good approach to telling her story.

I expect after today’s viewing we have seen Best Picture and Best Actress nominees. Mind you, I don’t have a great track record with predictions. Right now though, La La Land is a decent bet to go all the way.

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