Toronto 2017 Dispatch: Worldwide Faves Deliver in their Mother Tongues
Although it's often the big Hollywood awards movies that get the most column inches, TIFF is always loaded with international films. 2017 is no different with many a Foreign Language Oscar submission making its North American debut at the festival. The Square (Sweden) and In the Fade (Germany) are two of such, both films having world premiered at Cannes. While many countries have yet to submit their official selections, you can bet that when the list is final, many of those films would have played TIFF.
One notable film that has been announced as Belgium's selection is Michaël R. Roskam's Racer and the Jailbird. Roskam notably debuted on the scene in 2011 with the much-loved genre crimer Bullhead before switching over to English for 2015's The Drop with Tom Hardy. Roskam is back to his non-English roots with this French language (plus a bit of Flemmish) tale of a gangster and the race car pilot he falls in love with. Like Bullhead, it also stars Matthias Schoenaerts who is joined by the always stunning Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color). But while Bullhead (which was also Belgium's Foreign Language Oscar sub and received a nomination) was a story of a lone wolf, this new one is a total two hander with Exarchopoulos perhaps even more the protagonist than Schoenaerts. The two have a definite chemistry but it's the fantastic action sequences that really makes Racer and the Jailbird soar.
Another director to take a turn in English for the American market before returning to his mother tongue is Norwegian director Joachim Trier. His films Reprise, and Oslo, August 31 were both international faves but the reactions to his English debut Louder than Bombs were slightly more mixed. His latest, already named Norway's Foreign Language Oscar sub is the sci-fi leaning drama/thriller Thelma. The film stars Eili Harboe as a first-year university student from a sheltered upbringing who is trying to understand the hallucination-inducing seizures she is having while simultaneously coming to terms with a newfound sexual attraction to another girl in her class. Trier masterfully navigates the mystery elements of the story, dishing out just the right hints to potential supernatural elements while keeping the film grounded in Thelma's point of view. It's an excellent film that will hopefully lead to one of the most exciting directors working today staying a bit busier in the coming years.
While Five Fingers for Marseilles won't be South Africa's Foreign Language Oscar submission this year - having not yet had a qualifying run - it is hard to imagine there will be many better films coming out of the country. This Sesotho language Western shoot 'em up by Michael Matthews tells the story of a man (Vuyo Dabula as Tau) who returns to his home town after being driven out for a crime he committed as a boy. Hardened by his time away but with an admirable sense of justice, Tau finds his hometown under the control of corrupt politicians, a disgraceful police force, and a truly heinous crime boss. It's pretty clear what is going to happen next and seeing Tau kick ass is worth the little bit of a wait. Matthews has a wonderful sense for visceral filmmaking that pairs beautifully with a classical sensibility that evokes both Kurosawa and Ford. Add in some of the most stunning South African landscapes ever seen and you have a real winner of a film.
One more Foreign Language flick that still has a chance of becoming its country's entry is Chinese master Feng Xiaogang's latest, Youth. Feng has already received that honor from his country twice for 2010's Aftershock and 2013's Back to 1942, although neither was nominated for the award. His new film is another historical drama, though with a bit lighter tone due to its music, dance, and coming-of-age/romance elements. This one takes place in the 1970s in a military arts troupe as the adolescents go through all those mixed up feelings and caddy squabbles you would expect from people that age. However, this setting is quite different than we've seen before and the film is another accomplishment in realization of a time and place that Feng has become known for. It also features a pretty exhilarating battle sequence set in the Sino-Vietnamese war. Given the pedigree, scope, and subject matter, it's not difficult to see this competing for a spot with other Foreign Language Oscar contenders mentioned.
Neon will release Racer and the Jailbird and The Orchard will release Thelma in 2017. No North American distribution announcements have been made for Five Fingers for Marseilles or Youth as of yet.