Downtown Toronto is intimidatingly flat and laid out on a rhomboid grid that ensures that a visitor—especially a longtime Chicagoan like myself, used to thinking in terms of north, south, east, and west—will quickly find themselves inventing a four-way navigation method that corresponds neither to compass directions nor to the actual geography of the city. To the outsider, Toronto is an abstraction—a clean, broad city with theoretical neighborhoods and borders that a downtown visitor will never see, laid out in diagonals that one can’t help but regard as straight lines.

Fittingly, the Toronto International Film Festival is itself an abstraction—or at least it is for critics, who’ll be spending most of this year’s festival shuffling around the inexplicably space-themed Scotiabank Theatre multiplex, where most of the press and industry screenings are held. Everything about the Scotiabank interior—the neon Googie squiggles, the retro computer lettering, the Klingon Bird Of Prey that dangles over the entranceway—suggests sci-fi and simulation. It’s easy to imagine the Scotiabank as a spaceship, with the critics as its research crew, ducking in and out of various simulated environments; the cheerful, identically shirted TIFF volunteers are the robots, continually asking whether their charges need any assistance.

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There is an aspect of freeform play to navigating a festival this large and varied. Toronto’s identity as a festival—the quality that has made it one of the most important film events in this hemisphere—is that it has no set identity; the broadness of the programming ensures that every attendee ends up inventing their own abstracted version of TIFF. It is possible to spend a week experiencing a pre-awards-season showcase or a purely avant-garde festival; the components needed to create either are there. For this reason, we’re handling our TIFF coverage slightly differently this year. Instead of filing daily reports, A.A. Dowd and I will be alternating days and trying to intersect as little as taste will allow; each dispatch will find us writing about everything we’ve seen since the last one.

My first day here begins with a quick bike ride over to the badge office, where I watch in awe as Claire Denis—face locked in the same calm, determined expression she seems to wear in every production photo—struggles to push open a door marked “pull.” Badged up, with half a cup of coffee in me and the printed press screening guide—rendered mostly useless by a dozen last-minute schedule changes—stuffed into my backpack, I head into my first screening of the day: The Lesson, a contrived, slightly smug little Bulgarian number lightened by fitful bursts of suspense and black comedy, and directed in the kind of serioso handheld style that is traditionally associated with the Dardenne brothers, because they’re the only ones who know how to pull it off. (Grade: A gust of wind away from C+.) “Cool, clean, and precise” is how the festival guide describes it, presumably referring to the movie’s severely desaturated tungsten palette, absence of detail, and the fact that it contains precisely one memorable image, a wide shot of the heroine walking home past a decrepit MiG-15 monument.

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Not to rag too much on The Lesson—after all, arthouse debut features like these cling like barnacles to major film festivals—but I couldn’t help thinking that co-directors and co-writers Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov could have pulled off a tight social parable if they’d only had more faith in the camera as a tool for something more than just conveying or hiding narrative information. The movie’s double-hump structure (the stakes first get pettier and pettier, and then bigger and bigger) and continual paralleling of its middle-school teacher protagonist’s plight (she’s trying to save her house from a bank auction) with her increasingly witchhunt-like attempts at rooting out a classroom thief are both intentionally rigid. The intentional lack of artifice has the effect of making all of the movie’s deck-stacking—evil banks, bad husbands and fathers, semi-corrupt cops, sleazy loan sharks—seem even more artificial.

It doesn’t help that, for me, The Lesson was directly followed by an even more artificial and exponentially more accomplished movie about the psychological toll of having to struggle to make ends meet: Pedro Costa’s Locarno prizewinner Horse Money. (Grade: B+, tentative only because, unlike gum, Costa movies get more flavorful the longer you chew on them.) Like all of Costa’s fiction features since 1997’s Ossos, it deals with Fontainhas, a long-demolished Lisbon neighborhood that has for years existed only in Costa’s imagination and in the memories of its residents. A shantytown seemingly populated only by troubled Cape Verdean construction workers and junkies, Fontainhas is the sort of place Costa would have invented had he not found it; its quasi-reality helps to complicate the texture of Costa’s films, which are already pretty damn complex.

The question of whether or not Costa aestheticizes poverty is somewhat irrelevant, because, first of all, he obviously does, and, second, because in doing so he transforms the experiences of his characters—all non-actors who play fictionalized versions of themselves—into tragic, plainspoken, often funny poetry that records the specifics of the impoverished immigrant experience while making it part of a larger cycle of social exploitation. An opening montage of Jacob Riis snapshots of life in the New York slums in the late 1800s is echoed by a later statement from one of the characters—“We always lived and died this way—this is our sickness,” where the “we” could either be interpreted as referring to Cape Verdeans specifically, or west- and northward bound immigrants in general. Costa’s work is beautiful because of how it frames and paints emotional and mental states that are the result of difficult lives, not because it pretends that social tragedy is inherently beautiful.

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Horse Money finds Costa’s King Lear figure, the retired bricklayer Ventura, institutionalized and seemingly unable to distinguish between the past and the present and the dead and the living. Wandering around a purgatorial asylum, interacting with characters both visible and invisible, Ventura speaks in repeated riddles which become more lucid and more complex as the movie goes on. (The elderly Ventura’s claim to be “19 years, 3 months old” when asked his age early in the film connects directly to a later scene in an abandoned factory; mentions of a revolution that at first seem like science fiction are eventually revealed to be memories of the mid-1970s intruding into the present. So on and so forth.) Shot—like Costa’s 2006, Ventura-starring magnum opus Colossal Youth—on grainy 4:3 video, and lit like an Old Masters painting, it’s the most overtly surreal of Costa’s Fontainhas films.

After taking a lengthy break to lunch, write, and walk in circles, I headed into one of four simultaneous press screenings of the opening night film, The Judge, a ’90s throwback, Grisham-esque weepie that stars Robert Downey Jr. as a hotshot Chicago lawyer who takes it upon himself to defend his semi-estranged dad—a hardass small-town judge played by Robert Duvall—against a murder charge. (Grade: A C+ if I ever saw one.) A combination of two very codified genres, the courtroom drama and the small-town homecoming movie, it’s better than one would expect from the director of Shanghai Knight and Fred Claus, without being especially interesting in any regard.

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Aside from Janusz Kaminski’s smoky, handsome camerawork, the biggest pleasure the movie has to offer comes in the form of watching good actors play stock types from different genres: Billy Bob Thornton as the smarmy local DA; Vera Farmiga as the ex who still lives in town; Vincent D’Onofrio as the athlete who could’ve been, but wasn’t; Dax Shepard as the well-intentioned, but ineffectual, small-town lawyer. The Judge frames its central mystery—that is, whether or not Judge Palmer (Duvall) intentionally ran over a man he’d once convicted for murder—as a father-son bonding story, but aside from a handful of scenes, it comes across as bathetic; this is, after all, a movie that uses Bon Iver’s “Holocene”—on which a moratorium should have been placed sometime in 2013—not once, but twice, and ends with an acoustic cover of “The Scientist.” (Performed by Willie Nelson, but still…)

Afterward, I headed into an appropriately late screening of David Robert Mitchell’s ingenious horror flick It Follows (Grade: B+, bordering on A-), which various in-the-know folks have described as a highlight of this year’s Cannes (it premiered at the parallel Critics’ Week festival), and which I’m happy to report is just as good as everyone says. The premise involves a shapeshifting monster that stalks its targets until they have sex, passing on the curse to someone else, and though a generation ago, this would seem like a fairly clear-cut AIDS metaphor, Mitchell (The Myth Of The American Sleepover) makes it at once more complicated (for instance, after killing a target, the titular It begins stalking the previous one again) and more primal, a locus for all kinds of sexual and social fears that horror movies tend to express more clearly than any other genre.

The most interesting of the movie’s many unspoken subtexts involves the monster’s shapeshifting ability. Invisible to everyone except its past and present targets, the monster usually takes the form of a stranger in a crowd, but seems to take on the appearance of discomfiting sexual fantasies—pervy neighborhood boys, battered rape victims—as it gets closer and closer to its prey; in all three instances where the monster is shown within reach of its prey, it has made itself look like a vicious, sexualized version of one of the target’s parents. However, despite all the fun-to-unpack ideas swirling around Mitchell’s premise, this is first and foremost a showcase for his considerable talents as a widescreen visual stylist, which are most apparent in the movie’s deftly choreographed, virtuoso 360 degree pans.

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