My neck was stiff and my eyes were blurry after watching 18 movies in six days at the Toronto International Film Festival. Only bats spend more time in the dark than critics at movie festivals.
Here are my picks and pans from the event, which ended yesterday:
“The Descendants”: George Clooney stars in this dramedy about a Hawaiian real-estate baron in turmoil after his wife is severely injured in a boating accident. Alexander Payne’s first feature since “Sideways” (2004) is witty, moving and full of surprises. Clooney is terrific, and so are Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as his two difficult daughters. (I wasn’t so enthusiastic about Clooney’s other Toronto film, the political thriller “The Ides of March.”)
“Killer Joe”: William Friedkin directed this shocking black comedy about a drug dealer (Emile Hirsch) who hires a hit man (Matthew McConaughey) to murder his mother. McConaughey’s deadpan performance as the hired killer is chillingly funny. Beware of scenes involving a pumpkin can and a piece of fried chicken.
“Butter”: A satire that reminded me of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, Jim Field Smith’s side-splitting film chronicles an Iowa butter-carving contest featuring a cutthroat, super-patriotic housewife (Jennifer Garner), a foul-mouthed stripper (Olivia Wilde) and a precocious foster child named Destiny (Yara Shahidi).
“The Oranges”: Hugh Laurie and Oliver Platt play neighbors and best friends in this playful look at the seamy side of suburbia. Laurie has an affair with Platt’s college-age daughter, who is being pressured by her mom (Allison Janney) to hook up with Laurie’s son. Alia Shawkat steals scenes as Laurie’s caustic daughter.
“Rampart”: The underrated Woody Harrelson is a brutally corrupt Los Angeles cop with an unusual domestic setup: He lives with two sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), both of whom have borne him a daughter. Director Oren Moverman, who made “The Messenger” with Harrelson, captures the city’s underbelly with a neo-noirish style reminiscent of Michael Mann. The strong cast includes Robin Wright, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Sigourney Weaver and Ice Cube.
“Twixt”: Francis Ford Coppola says this gothic horror story came to him in a dream. The result is a nightmare, an embarrassing effort from the man who once made classics like the first two “Godfather” movies, “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now.” Val Kilmer plays a hack writer who, while trying to solve a small-town murder mystery, encounters Edgar Allan Poe’s ghost. Poe would no doubt wince at this travesty.
“Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding”: Sure, it’s kind of cute to see Jane Fonda playing a hippy grandmother who wears flowered dresses, smokes pot and sleeps around in -- where else? -- Woodstock, New York. But Bruce Beresford’s film about grandma’s reunion with her uptight, estranged daughter (Catherine Keener) and her two grandchildren (Elizabeth Olsen, Nat Wolff) is packed with more cliches than a freshman English essay.
They’re neither picks nor pans, but “Hysteria” and “The Skin I Live In” deserve mention as the strangest stories in Toronto.
“Hysteria” is about a young doctor (Hugh Dancy) in 1880s London who calms stressed-out women by massaging their private parts -- apparently a common practice in uptight Victorian society. The doctor eventually switches to using a vibrator on his patients, giving new meaning to a film having buzz.
In Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In,” a plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) kidnaps his daughter’s rapist and uses artificial skin to turn the guinea pig into a carbon copy of his late wife. It made my skin crawl.
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)