This year I went to the Toronto International Film Festival as an accredited cub reporter for the Soldier of Cinema website. By “went” I mean that I watched 16 films as part of the digital festival. You can read all my pieces here. I was most excited about seeing Jean Luc Herbulot’s Saloum and Arsalan Amiri’s Zalava, but I discovered so many more movies I want to share. There are motorcycles and musicals. There is folk horror in Ireland, Senegal and Iran and angry spirits by the river. There is satire, science fiction, comedy and romance. There are rad films from Africa and several films in multiple languages. There are guys who don’t know what to do with their feelings so they get in fights. And there are robots, hackers and teen girls in love (in varying combinations). There is apocalyptic holiday cheer and fraught dinners. There are neon colors, action, fights and social satire set in the past. I could write a whole piece on any of these films.
These are the ten films that I liked best and think about most from TIFF this year.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? / Re Dai Wang Shi (or, “Tropical Memories”) (China, 2021) directed by Wen Shipei
Though it’s gorgeously neon, Are You Lonesome Tonight? is a neo-noir that’s more like a traditional noir than many of the neo-noirs coming out of China lately. Late one night, HVAC repairman Wang Xueming (Eddie Peng) encounters a recalcitrant ox in the road. Unable to pass, he takes another route and hits a pedestrian. Because it’s Guangzhou in 1997, there are no surveillance cameras and Wang doesn’t have a cellphone. It’s easy to leave. Wang decides to dispose of the pedestrian’s body, but this isn’t the end of it. It never is. Wang sees a missing persons poster with the face and name of the man he hit, Mr. Liang. And then he encounters Mrs. Liang (Sylvia Chang) putting up the posters. Wang decides he’ll confess to her and this decision leads to noir consequences.
Eddie Peng embodies Wang’s guilt and fear well. He’s tense, silent, emaciated and curled in on himself. There’s something in him he wants to say, but he just can’t bring himself to. It comes out in sweat, anxiety, cigarette smoke and, occasionally, getting into fights. The legendary Sylvia Chang is perfect as Mrs. Liang, a woman who is not a femme fatale, but not exactly a model widow. The film’s color and lighting is gorgeous. It has a nice use of a flashlight for lighting during a confrontation on the street. And it has a dance studio sequence, which I’m starting to associate with mainland Chinese neo-noir.
Structurally, Are You Lonesome Tonight? is reminiscent of 1940s or 1950s classic noir in the revelation of Mr. Liang’s other life, Wang’s efforts to make good, and the arrival of sympathetic police lieutenant Chen (Wang Yanhui) midway through the film. Sometimes you want a straightforward noir shot in neon color and pitch black shadows. Sometimes it’s nice when a detective solving a murder isn’t corrupt, the “femme fatale” makes out okay and someone sings a torch song. Just in your own life, don’t take the bag of money.
Dug Dug (India, 2021) directed by Ritwik Pareek
Both Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (2021) and Dug Dug (2021) start with the sounds of a motorcycle. And I thought, “Hey, that’s neat,” because I watched both movies in the same day and I enjoy themes. Both movies offer social criticism and social satire but Dug Dug shows the growth of a religious movement from a memorial shrine in rural Rajasthan to temples, businesses, charitable foundations and hospitals.
Late one night, Thakur Lal (Altaf Khan), magnificently drunk and stoned, falls off his motorcycle on his way home. And thus begins a chain of events that lead to Thakur’s deification when his motorcycle re-appears at the site of his accident. People decide that a miracle has happened.
Dug Dug leans into visual design, cinematography, music, sound and set pieces to tell its story. There are characters, but Dug Dug is not a strongly character-driven film. And I am fine with that. I loved the use of light and use of color, the creeping pink and blue in the arid Rajasthan landscape. I loved the devotional art created for the film. And I’m pretty sure there’s a musical reference to Satyajit Ray’s fantasy adventure comedy, Goopy Gyne Bhagha Byne (1969), but it’s been a while since I have watched that. While I understood the criticisms of religious movements in the film, I also can’t help enjoying this new religious movement. I see the faulty basis, but I just love that motorcycle and the devotional paintings.
I’m Your Man / Ich bin dein Mensch (Germany, 2021) directed by Maria Schrader
Sure, there are a lot of movies about people falling in love with androids, robots and AI, but a lot of them are about the risks and even dangers of people—usually men—falling in love with robots. In Ex Machina (2014), Her (2013), and Godzilla vs Monster Zero (1965 / 1970), for example, men have learned what it is to feel a love beyond computation. And there is The Companion (1993), in which a woman falls in love and experiences the perils of a smitten Bruce Greenwood android with full autonomy. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not room in my heart for one more.
Unlike Her, Ex Machina, The Companion and Godzilla vs Monster Zero, Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man (Germany, 2021) is mostly a romantic comedy. Dr. Alma Falsar (Marren Eggert) is about to publish a paper on previously undiscovered poetry in cuneiform tablets. Her museum’s administration has offered her additional funding if she’ll participate in an experiment. She’s to spend three weeks with an android designed to be her perfect partner* and then write an evaluation that will help determine whether or not robots should be allowed to marry and have other rights in society. Alma meets Tom the robot (Dan Stevens) at a special club designed to show off the romantic possibilities of androids–and holograms. Tom attempts to woo her with compliments and the rhumba, but it’s not really Alma’s thing and she seems more interested in him as a robot than a potential partner. She does, however, take Tom home and set him up with his own room.
In another film, Tom might rampage or we might discover he is more “human” than human. Another film might let Tom be hit by a streetcar for maximum pathos or to avoid the central conflict it has set up. Another film might echo the warnings of earlier science fiction that the robots will trick us by being perfect servants and then take over. I’m Your Man does not. But it does provide the possibility of Alma navigating her concerns while also, perhaps, allowing herself to love and be loved. It also navigates issues of consent well–not only Alma’s but Tom’s ability to consent.
The above might make it sound like the film is not funny, but I have to say that Dan Steven’s Tom was hilarious to me. Marren Eggert’s bewilderment, her incredulity, her absolute bafflement and exasperation at times were delightful. And Eggert is fantastic as Alma moves towards a vulnerability that she does not want to feel and that makes her feel more alone. But Alma’s integrity and her commitment to living as she thinks she should are not compromised.
(Incidentally, the Bleecker Street trailer translates Alma saying, “So that’s is the penis of my dreams” as “So that’s is the man of my dreams.” You know better, Bleecker Street).
Neptune Frost (Rwanda / USA, 2021) directed by Saul Williams & Anisia Uzeyman
Dense and ambitious, allegorical and musical, Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s Neptune Frost is a unified field theory of a film combining Afrofuturist cyberpunk science fiction, music, poetry, history, post-colonialism, critical theory, reflections on war, genocide, decolonization and resistance. And I’m going to add swank futuristic fashion and make-up as well. Neptune (Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo), an extremely fashionable hacker and intersex person, flees after being assualted and meets Matalusa (Bertrand “Kaya Free” Ninteretse), a coltan miner, in a village of hackers in Rwanda. Together in songs and discussions, the community tries to escape the Authority, realize their own power and envision a world free of war, genocide, colonialism, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, slave labor and extractive industries that contribute nothing to the people who “do the work behind their screens.”
Neptune Frost does not care about cinematic expectations. It has its own business to do. Neptune Frost goes hard for what it’s going for and does not need you to like it, but is happy to give you space to ponder till you do understand. There is a lot to think about and Neptune Frost certainly bears more than one viewing. Once more people have seen the film, I expect there to be some deep, thoughtful and compelling pieces on it that I want to read.
Saloum (Senegal, 2021) directed by Jean Luc Herbulot
If you know you like action movies with mercenaries in them, I’d suggest seeing Saloum without reading or watching anything more about it. But I also think that Saloum can’t really be spoiled.
During a coup in Guinea-Bissau, three mercenaries extract Mexican narcotraficante, Felix (Renaud Farrah), and escape with him, his drugs and his gold. They are Baguin’s Hyenas: Chaka (Yann Gael), the red-gloved brains of the operation; Rafa (Roger Sallah), the more hot-headed and straightforward “brawn”; and the white-dreadlocked Minuit (Mentor Ba), who knows the spirit world and uses gris-gris on their missions. En route to Dakar, they discover their plane is leaking fuel and land in the Sine-Saloum delta in Senegal. The men go to a nearby holiday camp and hide out until they can fuel and repair the plane. At Camp Baobob, Chaka, Rafa and Minuit meet the genial Omar (Bruno Henry), who runs the camp, and his guests Sephora (Marielle Salmier) an artist; Youce (rapper Canabasse), Sephora’s ex-partner and current artistic collaborator; Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), a deaf woman who knows a lot about the Hyenas; and Cap. Souleymane Fall (Ndiaga Mbow) of the Dakar police. Things, as they so often do, go to hell after dinner, but only on the second night. And Saloum takes a turn. One I absolutely did not expect.
Saloum is a deft mix of influences and genres–crime, action, horror, maybe even fantasy. The action is good. The performances are solid. It’s well-written and well-crafted. And Saloum seamlessly integrates the particular history of the Sine-Saloum, both in the story and in exposition. The breathtaking shots of the landscape use the whole screen as well as Westerns do and I love the filmmakers for that.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be watching Herbulot’s Sakho & Mangane on Netflix.
Silent Night (UK 2021) directed by Camille Griffin
Of all the films I’m writing about, this is the one I least want to spoil. If you don’t mind getting something different than it appears to be, I suggest going into Silent Night blind.
Camille Griffin’s Silent Night was not the cozy British Christmas movie starring Keira Knightley I was expecting. Sure, it starts with a range of well-off couples singing along to a Michael Bublé Christmas song as they drive to a beautiful house in the English countryside. Tony (Rufus Jones), Sandra (Annabelle Wallis) and their daughter Kitty (Davida McKenzie), James (Ṣọpé Dìrísù) and Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp), and Bella (Lucy Punch) and Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) all seem to be in good spirits as they reveal comedically charming cracks in their relationships. But they are gamely trying their best for a Happy Christmas among old friends. Meanwhile, Nell (Keira Knightley) is madly trying to finish dinner in time for everyone’s arrival with the help of her son Art (Roman Griffin Davis from Jo Jo Rabbit (2019)) while her husband Simon (Matthew Goode) corrals their other two sons, Thomas (Gilby Griffin Davis) and Hardy (Hardy Griffin Davis), into the bath and lays down the screen time and swearing rules for the night. I think Roman Griffin Davis’ Art will rightfully get a lot of attention, as will Davida McKenzie’s performance as the imperious Kitty. But I just want to share my love of Hardy and Gilby Griffin Davis’ delivery as the very chill twins.
Of course, there are problems with dinner preparation. There are only enough potatoes for each person to have one. Nell didn’t get the sticky toffy pudding promised to Kitty this year. And Art cuts himself and bleeds on some of the carrots. This is where little things start to accumulate. Sure, it can be hard to calculate how much food is enough for 12, but why doesn’t Nell throw out the carrots? Why do her friends still eat the carrots even after seeing blood on them? And when Sandra and Nell send their husbands to the store for sticky toffy pudding, why do they suggest throwing a rock through the store window?
Silent Night is set at Christmas, but it’s also a dark, sly and subversive comedy—an apocalyptic one, even. It’s also another entry into the genre of white people dinner parties–terrifying whether it’s unpleasant interactions with awful people in period pieces or the hosts are pleasantly or passive aggressively planning terrible things, as in You’re Next (2011), The Invitation (2015) or Get Out (2017). Silent Night involves a lot about class and maintaining appearances, both personally and socially. Made before the pandemic, Silent Night has a lot of unintentional resonance right now, but seems very much like it has deliberate things to say about Brexit.
To Kill The Beast / Matar a la Bestia (Argentina / Brazil / Chile) directed by Agustina San Martín
Agustina San Martín describes her film, To Kill The Beast as like an “exorcism” in her introduction to the film at TIFF. I have thoughts on what the film or its main character, Emilia (Tamara Rocca) might be exorcising, but those are thoughts probably best shared after a general release. 17-year-old Emilia has traveled from Buenos Aires to a town on the border of Argentina and Brazil in search of her brother, Mateo. We don’t know much about why they are estranged or why she is looking for him. As in life, we are not presented with a backstory–just what we can piece together. Emilia stays at her Aunt Ines’ (Ana Brun) boarding house where there is no connectivity and even the phone cord has been cut. Aunt Ines’ boarding house is contemporary, but also Gothic. It contains secrets and resentments. Lit up at night, the house appears as if it were on a Gothic book cover. And the film itself is contemporary, but also Gothic.
No one will help Emilia find her brother. People stare silently when she asks about him. The townsfolk are pre-occupied about a beast that might be the spirit of a bad man that has come out of the forest. The townsfolk seem most concerned about the stretch of forest behind Ines’ house and Ines drives them off with all the aplomb of Betty Davis or Lillian Gish with a shotgun. Emilia is distracted, too. Though maybe “distracted” is the wrong word. She has more in her life than Mateo not returning her calls. Emilia is interested in several of the other teen girls in town, especially Julieth (Julieth Micotta) who also comes to stay in the boarding house–conveniently in the room next to Emilia’s.
To Kill The Beast is an evocative film with beautifully shot cramped interiors and expansive exteriors. And in an era when so much film is plotted down to the minute, I appreciate its looseness and its trust in the audience to accept ambiguity.
Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (Indonesia, 2021) directed by Edwin
In Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, Marthino Lio plays Ajo Kawir, a guy who likes fighting because, as an ad informs us, “Only a man who can’t get it up can face death without fear.” Fighting is all Ajo wants to do until he gets into a fight with Itueng (Ladya Cheryl), a woman proficient in martial arts paid to be a bodyguard to a sleazy construction company owner. After their tussle, Itueng goes to work in a carnival. Ajo and Itueng fall in love, but for Ajo, love seems impossible if he can’t maintain an erection. To complicate matters, there is a rival (Reza Rahadian) and there is Uncle Gembul (Piet Pagau), who prefers not to have his past as a general mentioned. Uncle Gembul wants to hire Ajo to erase a man named Macan. And everywhere there’s always something to remind Ajo that he cannot have an erection, even clams spitting at a restaurant when he is trying to eat with his sweetie.
Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash was adapted from an eponymous novel that is available in English. Director Edwin co-wrote the screenplay with author Eka Kurniawan. Part of the reason I mention this is not just to help promote Indonesian literature, but because the film has a unique, novelish feel. It has action, dark comedy and drama, but I think some people might walk into Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash expecting something different than they will get. As Edwin says in his introduction, the film is grounded in Hong Kong cinema and b-movies popular in Indonesia in the 1980s, but it’s not a nostalgic movie and it’s not a movie that is neutral about its violence. Even if you don’t know about Suharto’s dictatorship, I don’t think you can’t help but notice the anxiety about the military, the police, men’s rage, and the violence all around. The film’s violence is effective and well-choreographed. Cecep Arif Rahman has a small role, but he does some nice fighting in it. But the characters’ motivations for their violence range from understandable, but likely a mistake, to the cold-blooded and calculating disappearance of other people. Even the most understandable killing in the film doesn’t heal anything. It’s the telling of stories–telling the truth about what happened–that helps the people in the film the most. You might be prepared for an exploitation film or b-movie fights and gore. And you do get all that. But behind all the fighting and humor is a look at toxic masculinity and a painful history.
You Are Not My Mother (Ireland, Kat Dolan) directed by Kate Dolan
You Are Not My Mother has it all: Irish folk horror! Fraught family dinners! Teen girl drama! Possible Lesbianism! Ostracism! Halloween/Samhain! These are things that I normally have a lot to say about, but I will restrain myself and wait.
Teenager Char Delaney (Hazel Doupe) lives with her mother, Angela (Carolyn Bracken), and grandmother (Ingrid Craige). Angela suffers from depression. One morning, Char asks her mother to drive her to school. After a near accident with a folk horror element leaves them sitting in the car in the village green, Angela tells Char, “I can’t do this anymore.” Frustrated with her mom’s inability to, well, mom, Char walks the short distance to school alone. And then Angela disappears. Char and her Uncle Aaron (Paul Reid) are worried, but Char’s grandmother is certain that Angela will return. And Angela does late that night, but something’s not right. It’s just hard to say what. Is it her new meds? Is it manic-depression? Is it something else? She’s manic and not careful with her own body or others’ bodies. Char’s grandmother is also acting suspiciously. She watches Angela and interferes with Angela’s attempts to repair her relationship with Char. And Char is alone. Her family is ostracized by the community. Her schoolmates at her local Catholic school (*cough* Brigid *cough*) bully her. This time it’s ostensibly because they worry that she’ll rat them out as they plan a bonfire for Halloween / Samhain. Except for Suzanne (Jordanne Jones) who bullies Char, but also seems kind of into her. And what’s up with this impending school field trip to a site with pre-Christian stone carvings?
You Are Not My Mother has a suitable moody, Gothic look at night. In the daytime, the cinematography and blocking emphasizes Char’s isolation, especially in the lighting of her school. As Char, Doupe does a tremendous amount of work with just her eyes, which always impresses me, as she tries in the beginning to maintain a front that everything is fine and later maintain an appearance of calm to avoid setting off cruel classmates, her family and ultimately her mother. Bracken does a remarkable job as Angela swings from bone-crushing guilt, weariness and love to manic joy, confusion at Char’s fear and, in the end, a monstrous love.
Zalava (Iran, 2021) directed by Arsalan Amiri
In 1978, Zalava, Kurdistan there is a demon among the people. Is it a djinn or is it the people’s fear? The townsfolk believe a djinn can only be controlled either by capturing it in a jar or by wounding a possessed person below the waist “so the blood spurts.” A young woman has been possessed and the villagers have summoned Sgt. Massoud Amhadi (Navid Pourfaraj) to help them. Massoud confiscates the villager’s rifles to prevent them from hurting the girl. But after Massoud, his sidekick / underling Younes (Baset Rezaei) and the rest of the local gendarmerie return to their station outside Zalava, the girl’s father draws his knife to do what he believes must be done. Unfortunately, as she backs away from him on the village walls, she falls to her death. The local people complain to the government and Massoud receives orders to return the rifles and resign. The day before his retirement, Massoud wears a very 1978 suit and goes to turn in his badge. He doesn’t say good-bye to the woman he clearly loves, Dr. Maliheh (Hoda Zeinolabedin). But the villagers return to the station demanding that something be done about the demons. Instead of telling the new commander it’s his problem now, Massoud dons his uniform and returns to Zalava. They have called an exorcist, Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam), to capture the demon. And now the real suspense begins.
Like a lot of folk horror, Zalava relies on the fear of what people might do based on beliefs rooted in things from long ago that modernized people might no longer understand. But Zalava also reminds me of Val Lewton’s psychological horror movies. The demon’s presence or absence is less important than the destructive power that people themselves are capable of. While watching Zalava, I couldn’t help thinking about Emir Ezwan’s Roh / Soul (Malaysia, 2019), another film with another demon setting people against each other. But as that demons says, “All we do is whisper.” In Zalava, our own fear and panic is far more destructive than any demon could be by itself.
I assume there are social and political implications in setting the film before the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution more apparent to others than to me. I appreciate Amiri’s point that this kind of panic can happen anywhere anytime. Simultaneously, I am not entirely comfortable in setting it among an ethnic minority, Kurdish Romani. I don’t know enough history about the area or of Iranian film to say more about whether the people of Zalava are even read as Kurdish or Romani. All that aside, Zalava is an excellent film. There are some beautiful shots of Massoud’s tan jeep driving through arid, rocky mountains. Hoda Zeinolabedin has fantastic chemistry with Navid Pourfaraj’s Massoud. Like Hazel Doupe, Pourfaraj conveys so much with his eyes alone.
And we are wise to remember that, yes, these panics can happen anywhere and we should watch out for them not just in others, but in ourselves because it always feel righteous.
Carol Borden has seen so many movies. So many.
This essay was originally published by the Cultural Gutter on Sep. 30, 2021.