Toronto: Who Needs Actors?

Celebrity on trial in TIFF offerings

Who needs actors? Hollywood’s ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike might have hobbled this year’s edition of a usually star-studded Toronto International Film Festival, but TIFF reliably proved itself to be the real draw. Sold-out shows, serpentine rush lines, packed screenings, and crowded sidewalks were still de rigueur, as were a plethora of sharp, surprising, incisive films. Their upcoming releases over the next six months will keep multiplexes and streaming services buzzing through an awards season that may or may not be bereft of the usual fame machine.

Celebrity itself was on trial in a few movies, most hilariously Kristoffer Borgli’s Charlie-Kaufmanesque wish-fulfillment mindfuck comedy Dream Scenario. A milquetoast college professor and family guy (Nic Cage), yearning for recognition and respect, suddenly becomes the man of everyone’s dreams—literally.  He keeps popping into peoples’ heads when they’re asleep, making cameos in their phantasmagoric imaginations. Only hitch: he’s just a hapless bystander in each sleeper’s increasingly violent and surreal visions. Innocuous intellectual or unintentionally alt-right Freddy Kruger? Impotence meets viral sensation, with brilliantly original, wildly unpredictable results.

Another unintentional cultural phenomenon—this time in real life—gets the doc treatment in The Contestant, Clair Titley’s head-trip look at the bare-everything Reality TV subject Tomoaki Hamatsu. The man, nicknamed Nasubi for his eggplant-shaped lantern face, lives naked and alone for a year in a room with nothing but magazines and their sweepstakes entry forms. He can only live on what he wins. He can also leave anytime he wants, but chooses to stay voluntarily and nearly dies until, after a month of failed attempts, he finally gets a sack of rice. Nasubi also doesn’t realize that the show’s producers are broadcasting every single minute of his life in a Truman Show twist that makes Nasubi a household name—and thrusts an unexpected notoriety upon him that he spends a lifetime trying to reconcile.

Role-playing is front and center in Richard Linklater’s delightfully laid-back tall tale Hit Man, a sort-of true story about a meek New Orleans college teacher and electronics hobbyist named Gary (Glen Powell, who co-wrote with Linklater) who helps the local cops with wiretapping equipment. When one sting operation needs a last-minute substitute, Gary finds himself pretending to be a hit man. Surprise: he’s a killer filler. And the more he gets into his various alias, the more confident, romantic, self-assured and suave he becomes. Until he falls for a gorgeous woman who hires him to kill her husband. Linklater and Powell stuff their preposterously droll character study with so many plot twists that the terrific lark starts to feel like the sunniest Noir you’ve ever seen.

“I’m the world’s greatest assassin,” deadpans the a very different hit man in AGGRO DR1FT, an acid-soaked WTF trance dream from the punkish, prankish, puckish mind of Harmony Korine. “Hope you enjoy the movie,” the filmmaker told a rabid, cheering audience at the film’s midnight premiere. “Maybe it’s not a movie. Stay with it. It’s bliss.” A thoroughly on-brand invention from the reliably gonzo auteur, AGGRO DR1FT uses thermal cameras, a hypnotic aural landscape, masked actors festooned with AR digital skins, demonic imagery, and mind-numbing dialogue for its wink-wink experimental take on Miami thug life. His explanation? For the opening few minutes of his Q&A, Korine simply put a mic up to his phone and played Nestlé’s 1986 “Sweet Dreams” ad jingle.

Not surreal enough? Just imagine being Thelonious “Monk” Ellison in American Fiction. Based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, Cord Jefferson’s hilariously scathing satire follows the acclaimed but curmudgeonly professor (Jeffrey Wright) who resents being pigeonholed as a black writer even if it means working in relative obscurity. But in a bitter fit of pseudonymous pique, he types out a parody of all pop culture’s worst black stereotypes and watches it become a bestseller. A clever, furious work of comedy, American Fiction wrestles with the very concept of race conversations, offering no easy answers or simple resolutions.

Ava Duvernay advances that idea even further with the clarifying docudrama Origin, her staggeringly impressive adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s bestseller Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents which itself recasts American racism as being its own form of a caste system. Bringing a thesis-driven analysis to the screen seems like a folly, but Duvernay cracks it open and lets it grow even more fertile by reframing her narrative as a biography of sorts that follows Wilkerson’s own journey with the material—from the moment she conceives of the idea and all the conversations and considerations that inform her writing.

She also includes the true-life personal heartache of familial loss that Wilkerson had to reconcile as she wrestled with her material. The result is a film that in lesser hands would seem too diffuse in its ambitions and too maudlin in its sympathies but comes together as an unlikely dramatic symphony due to Duvernay’s steady, revelatory hands.


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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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