TORONTO — At a major film festival like Toronto, where almost 250 movies unspool over the course of 10 days, the choices can carry an almost existential weight. Are you going to get a ticket for the starry Hollywood Oscar bait that will be opening Stateside in a month or two or for the obscure labor of love you may never see again? Do you follow the crowds or your inner compass? Is it better to tack to mid-festival buzz and follow the hot titles or stay the course and stick to the plan?
“All of the above” is how it usually ends up playing out — and yet, for me, the most electrifying movies at the 2019 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival are the ones flying in under the radar. “Waves,” for instance, arrived as a largely unknown quantity, yet it serves notice that writer-director Trey Edward Shults has arrived as a major American filmmaker with his third feature. (His first, 2014’s, “Krisha,” was a startling psychological melodrama; 2017’s “It Comes at Night” was a fascinating but sluggish post-apocalyptic follow-up.)
An epic tale of a modern American family, “Waves” is a film of two parts. The first half follows a gifted high school wrestler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), pressured by a perfectionist father (Sterling K. Brown of “This is Us”), who comes undone after an injury; the second half charts the family’s slow return from a horrific tragedy to an incandescent state of forgiveness and grace, keyed to the wrestler’s younger sister (Taylor Russell).
Shot, scored, acted, and edited with staggering immediacy — the cinematography and sound design often seem to erupt in real-time — “Waves” plays a little like a black “Ordinary People,” a little like Terrence Malick (with whom Shults has worked), and entirely like a Trey Edward Shults movie.
Other unknown pleasures at TIFF 2019 have included “Blow the Man Down,” which may be the first Down East feminist neo-noir and is certainly the only one with on-camera sea chanteys performed by a chorus of fishermen and a brothel operating out of the local B&B (run by Margo Martindale, no less). Written and directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, it follows two sisters (Sophie Lowe and Morgan Saylor) involved in a twisty murder plot; it’s not quite “Fargo” with lobsters, but it’s close, and it’s about as good as regional filmmaking gets.
As the premiere North American fall festival, Toronto gets its share of big debuts and A-list stars. Saturday night Tom Hanks graced the stage of Roy Thomson Hall before and after the first screening of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” in which the most beloved actor in Hollywood plays the most beloved man in television history — Fred Rogers — in such a way that you forget the former and see only the latter.
It’s a remarkable disappearing act, abetted by the skillful acting of Matthew Rhys (as a journalist whose daddy issues are soothed by Mr. Rogers) and especially by director Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”), who finds a way to tell the story with originality and emotions that feel genuine rather than canned.
That’s a harder trick than it appears. A movie like “Just Mercy” can dramatize a gripping true story of a Harvard-educated lawyer (Michael B. Jordan of “Black Panther”) freeing an innocent man (Jamie Foxx) from Alabama’s death row, but the film’s committed performances can be undercut by a flat-footed, generic screenplay that doesn’t trust the audience to connect the dots.
“How to Build a Girl,” based on Caitlin Moran’s autobiographical novel, can hand a rich part to actress Beanie Feldstein (“Booksmart”) as a British teenager who becomes a rock critic, but the film’s feel-good “Almost Famous” vibe can run aground on forced whimsy and a heroine who blurs the line between charm and obnoxiousness in ways both intentional and un-.
One useful aspect of the Toronto festival is teeing up festival hits from earlier in the year. The Cannes Grand Prix winner is here: “Parasite,” from the playful South Korean genius Bing Joon Ho (“Snowpiercer,” “Okja”) — a darkly hilarious class-war comedy about a family of grifters who infiltrate the home of a naïve upper-class family. It arrived on wings of hype and lived up to them.
Other Cannes favorites at TIFF: “Pain and Glory,” in which Spain’s Pedro Almodovar fictionalizes the late-career crisis of a legendary film director (movingly played by Antonio Banderas) with warmth and rambling focus; and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Celine Sciamma’s astonishing 18th-century period piece about the relationship between a woman artist (Noemie Merlant) and her upper-class model (Adele Haenel). “Portrait” works simultaneously as drama, as a love story, and as academic theory about who gets to gaze at who and to what end; tellingly, it’s a film almost entirely without men.
Toronto has its own premieres, of course. The festival’s opening night salvo was “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” a Dickens adaptation that appears to be director Armando Iannucci’s idea of a vacation; after seven seasons of “Veep” and the brilliant 2018 feature film “The Death of Stalin,” why not tackle one of Charles Dickens’s most discursive and character-heavy novels? Because Iannucci loves oddballs and mountebanks, cowards and martyrs, he’s right at home in Dickens-land, and so is his cast: Dev Patel as the adult Copperfield, Tilda Swinton kicking donkeys as Aunt Betsy, Peter Capaldi as Micawber, Ben Wishaw as sniveling Uriah Heep, and Hugh Laurie as the gently mad Mr. Dick — perhaps the first realistic schizophrenic in literature.
“The Personal History of David Copperfield” is much of a muchness, and it lurches from side plot to side plot with charm, skill, and not a great deal of focus. But it also has moments of pure joy, and the blind casting in matters of race has the effect of enfolding all of England and the world in a visionary’s warm embrace. This may be the least cynical thing Iannucci has ever done and, as such, a fitting opener for a festival that, year after year, somehow manages to make one feel optimistic about the future of movies.