THE DROP ★★★
A Brooklyn bartender must contend with Chechen thugs who rule his cousin’s bar, while also dealing with a local thug who appears to want to make trouble for him in Michael R. Roskam’s ‘The Drop’. The cast includes Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Matthias Schoenaerts, and the late great James Gandolfini. ‘The Drop’ is a mostly solid, gripping crime thriller with Tom Hardy in nearly every scene. The film is a slow boil and the best thing about it is being able to see Hardy peel layer after layer from his character until the movie builds to its satisfying conclusion. ‘The Drop’ will be remembered as Gandolfini’s final film appearance, and while he is great in this (as he was in everything), this is Hardy’s show all the way. What a relief it was to discover that the old-school methods of building tension and having our pulses race remain as effective as ever.
THE DARK HORSE ★★★1⁄2
James Napier Robertson’s ‘The Dark Horse’ is based on the life of New Zealand’s Genesis Potini, a former speed-chess champion struggling with bipolar disorder who becomes the coach of a chess team for at-risk youth. Actor Cliff Curtis packed on 60lbs to play Potini and does fine work immersing himself into the personality of a troubled, but gifted man. Robertson takes his time in telling Potini’s story, immersing the viewer into this world; we absorb the landscapes, the low-rent neighbourhoods, and the New Zealand vista. But, ‘The Dark Horse’ is more about the people than the place – Potini is as much at-risk as the chess players he coaches. I also love how ‘The Dark Horse’ treats it’s subject of mental illness seriously and honestly; there is a lot of love and warmth between these characters, but that isn’t what “cures” him.
HORSE MONEY ★★
Pedro Costa returns to the Toronto International Film Festival with the follow-up to his Fontinhas trilogy (‘In Vanda’s Room’, ‘Bones’, ‘Colossal Youth’). ‘Horse Money’ focuses on a sad-eyed elderly immigrant Ventura (the lead of ‘Colossal Youth’) who this time seems to be occupying some sort of dream world. In this world, past and present, interior and exterior, truth and fiction are all indistinguishable. The grainy 4:3-ratio compositions are beautiful, and the movie is lit like an Old Masters painting, but it is all surface and zero depth. The emotional states of the characters are almost incomputable. If you’re not familiar with the director’s work, chances are you’ll be lost. Even if you are familiar with the director’s work (as I am), this movie is still a challenge.
HILL OF FREEDOM ★★★1⁄2
‘Hill of Freedom’ is South Korean master writer-director Hong Sang-soo’s funniest film to date. This mostly-in-English picture is centered on a heartsick Japanese man who travels to Seoul to attempt a reunion with the woman he still pines for. The film is structured through the undated letters to his ex after failing to meet with her; she drops the stack of letters, which drives the movie’s playfully scattered chronology. A letter is even lost, resulting in a gaping narrative hole. Why should every film follow a through line? Sang-soo is the king of awkward comedy (a Korean equivalent of Todd Solondz and I mean that sincerely as a compliment); our lead character’s awkward situations are compounded by the fact that he is visiting Korea and unable to speak a word of Korean. Even with the language barrier, the characters speak more intelligently and articulately about art, literature, work, and love in their non-native English than 99% of the characters featured in Hollywood rom-coms.