La La Land (USA, 2016): Director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to the superb Whiplash shows a filmmaker willing to explore outside his zone of comfort. Narratively, La La Land is pat, but the visuals, music and choreographies more than make up for it.
The story is pure Hollywood lore: Mia is a small town girl (Emma Stone) struggling with getting her acting career off the ground. As she makes her way through Tinseltown, she encounters a jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) with whom she falls in love with. Opportunity doesn’t have a sense of timing and their careers get in the way of a fulfilling relationship.
La La Land is visually stunning and goes from feat to feat (the opening sequence set on a freeway is one for the books), yet it remains profoundly human. Gosling and Stone are top notch, both as song-and-dance partners and in the more dramatic sequences. The film features a coda so brilliant, it practically eclipses the rest of the movie. A strong candidate to best of the fest. Four and a half prairie dogs.
Window Horses (Canada, 2016): A phenomenal animated drama that proves you don’t need millions of dollars or Pixar-like precision to trigger an emotional response, Window Horses could be the surprise of this edition of TIFF.
Rosie Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) is a young writer with little life experience who gets the surprise of a lifetime when she is invited to a poetry festival in Shiraz, Iran. It’s not entirely out of the blue: Rosie is of Persian and Chinese descent, and is curious about her absent father’s land. The culture shock is considerable, but more so the discovery of how little she knows about her craft.
An already captivating plot is further improved with the incorporation of traditional Iranian poetry and dollops of history. The film’s looks are deceptively simple (Rosie is a stick figure, but there is a good reason for that) and enables the participation of guest animators for the most lyrical sequences. There isn’t a weak link in this chain: Sandra Oh’s voice acting is on point, Don McKellar as a conceited German poet is a hoot and the narrative builds up to a powerful climax. Four prairie dogs.
Paterson (USA, 2016): Following a career apex (the superb Only Lovers Left Alive), Jim Jarmusch takes a step back and delivers a deceptively simple meditation on routine and art.
Not one to abandon his indie roots despite widespread recognition, Adam Driver plays the title character. Paterson is happy with his lot in life, a whimsical and loving wife, a pub that suits his sensibilities and a job (bus driver) that allows him to rove around his beloved city… Paterson, New Jersey. The only element that distinguishes him is his appreciation for poetry, both as a reader and as a writer.
Paterson flirts with surrealism, but never leaves the viewers hanging. For the most part, his approach is charming, like reencountering the leads of Moonrise Kingdom as teenagers with a rebel streak. Jarmusch’s attempt to achieve transcendence through repetition is daring, although the verdict on whether he succeeded or not may vary from one viewer to the next. Three and a half prairie dogs.
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