TORONTO — Every movie has its own sense of time. Specific scenes can be edited to specific rhythms, of course — legato, con brio, agitato, what have you — but, overall, every film revolves around its own narrative. Its minutes, hours, days, and years are its own.
At an event like the Toronto International Film Festival, then, one’s inner clock can take a beating. For instance, when I went from the rambunctious whodunit “Knives Out” straight into Wayne Wang’s hushed and contemplative “Coming Home Again” — and from there into the manic Nazi coming-of-age comedy-drama “Jojo Rabbit” — the experience was enough to give me triple whiplash. The first film is paced at a brisk and clever trot, fast enough to make the audience work to keep up. The second appears to move not at all, or not when you’re looking at it directly. The third takes off like a Roman candle toward the sun, where it explodes or implodes, depending on your point of view.
“Knives Out” first, and not just because it’s the most purely pleasurable. Writer-director Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) has long loved to goof around with genre, and here he revs up the classic drawing-room murder mystery by retrofitting it with the engine of an Alfred Hitchcock suspense thriller.
And, oh, that cast. Imagine a game of Clue with Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Christopher Plummer (in flashback as the victim), and Daniel “James Bond” Craig, slicing a big slab of Southern glazed ham as detective Benoit Blanc, who could be Hercule Poirot as rewritten by Tennessee Williams.
Goofy and delightfully smart, “Knives Out” both honors the spirit of movies like “Murder on the Orient Express” and sends them up, with the actors playing true to their character types while caroming off each other, riffing like nimble, self-aware billiard balls. It opens in theaters at Thanksgiving and it is a blast.
“Coming Home Again” couldn’t be more different: an oblique and bittersweet story of a young man (Justin Chon) who quits his job and moves back to San Francisco to care for a mother (Jackie Chung) dying of cancer. Wang, who began his career in 1982 with the indie comedy-drama “Chan Is Missing” before taking on studio projects like “Maid in Manhattan” (2002), is back in art-house land here, and in comments before the Toronto premiere, the director spoke of wanting once more to make movies that breathed.
The new movie breathes at a pained and meditative pace. The son is carrying an unspoken burden of love, hurt, and guilt; the mother has her own issues, with how her life has gone and how it’s ending. Wang’s camera stands at a remove, watching the two perform a complicated emotional dance while preparing a series of Korean meals that make you wish the movie had an accompanying cookbook. The film’s a hard watch, and a few more dots might have been connected, but you have the sense that Wang, at 70, is making exactly the movies he wants to.
To jump from that film to the high-wire act of Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” is to go from the sublime to the self-consciously bonkers. The manic New Zealand filmmaker has a cult following for the comic eccentricities of movies like “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (2016), and he picked up a whole new army of fans with “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017).
“Jojo” shows him reaching for the brass ring: a World War II farce about a naive young German boy (Roman Griffin Davis, fantastic), whose all-in love for the Third Reich is complicated by the discovery that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl, played by Thomasin McKenzie, the find of last year’s “Without a Trace.”
One other thing: The boy’s imaginary best friend is Adolf Hitler, played with vaudevillian gusto by Waititi himself. “Jojo Rabbit” wants to be demented and melodramatic at the same time, and the director has the hyperactive talent to give it a go. I laughed at many of the gags even as I felt increasingly queasy about where it was all headed.
There are comparisons to be made to “Life Is Beautiful,” the 1997 Roberto Benigni film that many people love and others actively despise. Like that movie, “Jojo Rabbit” finds first comedy, then tragedy in the Holocaust; like that movie, the jokes may seem less offensive to some viewers than the sticky sentimentality underlying the whole thing.
Does this movie exploit and cheapen an unparalleled historic calamity, or does it freshen a 21st-century audience’s understanding of the horrors? The conversations around “Jojo Rabbit,” which opens theatrically in October, stand to be inflamed. Maybe that’s all to the good. Every movie may have its own sense of time, but it also has its own set of moral values, and it’s up to us to figure out how much weight they hold in the real world.