Benjamin Naishtat's neo-noir stands out in festival competition program that also included Alex Ross Perry's excellent Her Smell and Emir Baigazin’s The River
Those two titles were the top picks among Screen International’s Platform Jury, a score-keeping critics committee that included the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang, Boston Globe’s Loren King, Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf, Le Film Francais’ Vincent LeLurch, a Screen critic (who for some reason remains unidentified) and myself.
We worked through all the titles in TIFF’s only competition program, which is restricted to filmmakers who exhibit auteuristic control over their content and will perhaps have it in them to be the next Claire Denis. This also meant sorting through a lot of films flaunting form and structure, which is either becoming or has long been an art cinema cliché.
Another international art cinema cliché is how modernity affects the social structure in a rural village, which is exactly what The River is about. For that reason – or perhaps for its impenetrability – I wouldn’t discount the film’s prospects, but Baigazin’s striking imagery and nuanced approach to a tale of brothers in Kazakhstan showcases exactly the kind of strange, new voice Platform is looking to elevate.
I personally lean more in favour of Rojo, Naishtat’s supremely confident noir about a privileged and crooked lawyer whose involvement in a disappearance, a real estate deal and a labour dispute that doesn’t immediately tie together. Naistat keeps us baffled but glued until the very end.
The actual Platform jury might go in another direction. They include distinguished auteurs Mira Nair, Béla Tarr and Lee Chang-dong, whose Burning remains among the festival’s very best offerings.
The most recognizable names in Platform, as far as North America is concerned, are Alex Ross Perry and Karyn Kusama. The former’s excellent riff on Birdman, Her Smell, spins around a spectacular Elisabeth Moss performance as a burnt-out musician battling addictions. The latter directed Destroyer, a Michael Mann-esque crime drama starring Nicole Kidman (in aging make-up) that has arresting moments, but doesn’t quite come together.
As much as I didn’t care for Destroyer, I was relieved to see films in the program directed by women. We often make auteur synonymous with genius men so having Kusama, Carol Morley (Out of Blue) and Alejandra Márquez Abella (The Good Girls) in the competition was an antidote to so many male-directed films that dealt with sexual politics and gendered violence, reasoning with these issues in all the wrong ways.
The most glaring among these were Donnybrook, where Margaret Qualley’s abused character is regularly exploited for provocation instead of meaning, and Cities of Last Things, a stylish genre-mix that spends its time trying to understand and sympathize with a man who commits monstrous violence towards his cheating wife (the poor guy has mommy issues, you see). I would be deeply disgusted if either of those take the cash prize.
The Platform Prize will be announced on Sunday (September 16) and the winning film will receive a free screening later that day.
Past Platform winners include Alan Zweig’s Hurt, Pablo Larrain’s Jackie (which somehow beat out Moonlight) and Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country.