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TIFF 2015. Correspondences #13

Our two-critic correspondences covering the Toronto International Film Festival comes to an end with two of the festival's best films.
Dear Fernando,
You are done with the festival I know, but I since I have finally caught up with Anomalisa, I wanted to answer you about it. Back in Cannes you may recall how much I enjoyed Yorgos Lanthimos's The Lobster, but wondered if the second time around it would carry such a punch—in other words, how founded the experience of that film is on the first encounter. This is the very question I asked myself again after sitting through Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman's animated puppet drama, a wonderfully unsettling viewing experience of constant awkwardness, drawn-out deadtime, halted humor, and a truly never ending awareness that at no point did I have any idea what kind of movie this was or where it might be going. Isn't that wild? So used to genres and conventions, signposts, patterns, throwbacks and homages, it often feels like few films come as a true surprise. Anomolisa is this rare thing, a true surprise.
I really feel I shouldn't tell anyone any more much more about it than you did, Fernando, in fear of spoiling not the story per se, but the passing of the audience through the experience of the story. Perhaps I can leave you with a few words about the mise en scène of the film, which is frighteningly realistic. It features a hotel room I'm pretty confident I myself have stayed in, and this level of detail is extended to all movements of the puppets (despite their bizarre faces, which have disturbing seams across them, perhaps to facilitate animation, perhaps for...other reasons), gestures and tics of behavior, and the sound design to create a sustained uncanny sensation of artifice heightened to extreme realism. It combines this discomfiting realism of space (why use puppets, one might ask...) with that of time, taking place almost entirely across real time, so we see puppets doing everyday things like disrobing, refilling drinks, walking down a hallway, talking to a cab driver, plopping on a bed, and much more in an almost-excruciating level of precision and extension. It's strangely perverse, and all the more so because of the way the story gradually turns and "why puppets" is, of course, answered in full. This all serves to set up the vulnerability of the world and of its central male character, who goes on to encounter what you rightly describe as a movingly tender and extra-human connection with another puppet. Before, of course, this being a film written by Charlie Kaufman, things go extra-strange and completely distressed. Despairing, funny, deeply observant and ridiculously contrived, watching this, this thing was one of my favorite experiences at Toronto.
A far less bizarre surprise and the one I will take home with me from Toronto as my last wonderful film was Neon Bull, which after premiering in Venice a few weeks ago has been selected to compete here in Toronto a new section the festival has begun this year. Platform, named after the Jia Zhangke film, aims to bring greater recognition to some of the more distinctive films at the festival that might otherwise get sunk or be lost among the such unexciting-sounding sections as Contemporary World Cinema. It is a juried section with a prize and money involved, and the films are rolling out in the back half of the festival which historically has a problem of attracting the same attention as the opening days when the business side of TIFF is in full swing and the major world premieres coming one after another each day. Ben Wheatley's High-Rise, which you wrote about earlier Fernando, is perhaps the most high-profile film showing in this new section, but so far Neon Bull is, I think, the ideal film for its mission. 
The second fiction feature from Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro after several documentaries, the film seems to name-check all the best qualities of the contemporary festival film without crippling those characteristics with convention, trend-courting or lack of inspiration. It immerses us in a rural lower-class milieu—that of a small group of cowhands who wrangle the bulls that are wrestled to the ground in a traveling rodeo—in a way that touches upon documentary techniques without crossing the line into the hip "hybrid film"; it is essentially non-dramatic but observant of behavior, work, habit and rest; it is shot by Diego Garcia, who shot Apichatpong's Cemetery of Splendour; and it pulls from the art world in its expected, but genuine and unfussy focus on bodies both human and cattle. It also fills a welcome gap for the Western cinephile, for whereas the two American masterpieces of rodeo cinema, Nick Ray's The Lusty Men and Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner, focus on the riders, Neon Bull gives due attention, sympathy and characterization to those behind the scenes who live their lives setting the stage for the romance of a sport that we see only in brief, underplayed documentation.
The cowhands are a quartet sketched with modest attention, low-key compassion and casual humor, a group assembled it seems by luck or circumstances (in a indicatively natural-feeling anecdote, the group's fat member is later replaced by a long-haired Adonis) and now traveling and living together in a truck that holds their cattle and doubles as their sleeping quarters. Three of them come to the forefront to serve as the main characters, a non-family family of a single mother, her piqued young daughter and the cattlemen's ostensible leader, a handsome, hard worker who has the unexpected dream of designing and tailoring women's clothing. (A dream lived out practically by him drawing designs over nude women in his co-worker's porno magazines and lived out fantastically in perhaps-dream sequences of an erotic dancer gyrating in spangled custom clothing wearing a mask of a bull.) The story is more in us spending time in their lives and routine than any kind of narrative direction, capturing the rodeo backstage spaces, the various quarters and pens worked in, the outskirts temporarily settled, and smaller details of cooking, cleaning, shaving, and so on.
Mascaro wisely and unobtrusively draws the film towards a beautiful wrangle of bodies—it would be impossible to call something so transient a culmination—bodies in life, work and play: a long, incredibly sensual and gorgeous sex scene between our cowhand and a pregnant local beauty who happens to do her night shift as a security guard at a clothing factory that makes women's panties. The quiet sensitivity of style, observation and sympathy in the film comes together and peaks in this languorous, showstopping scene that could have been executed so poorly in the hands of a less confident, less humane, or less understanding filmmaker. Instead, it condenses and releases the tensions ambient throughout the film, a respite soon over the next day when meat must be cooked and cows must be tended.
Likewise, Fernando, I must now return to New York after so many projector-lit meetings in the dark here in Toronto. Worried as I began the festival that I had seen too many of the year's best films before arriving, that TIFF despite its sprawling collection of films might not have even more opportunities for greatness—how selfish, such a worry!—I have certainly come away with a new set of experiences that moved, thrilled and inspired me. I hope it lived up to your dreams as well, Fernando. And, until next year, let's keep dreaming about the dark of the cinema.
Until then, my friend,
Danny

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