TIFF 2014: Best of the fest, so far

From the romantic The Theory of Everything to the divisive musical The Last Five Years here are some of the standout movies at The Toronto International Film Festival, according to CBC staffers.

We've passed TIFF's midway mark! CBC staffers look back at the films seen

No matter how you look at it, there is less TIFF than we started with. Here's a look at some of the festival's standout films so far, according to CBC staffers. (Shutterstock/Kalinina Alisa)

The 39th Toronto International Film Festival is nearly half over (or half started, depending on how you look at it). So, there's no better time to take stock of some of the most notable films we've screened so far.

With nearly 400 films on the roster, it's nearly impossible to view them all — but we're trying — and as you can tell by the reviews below, we don't always agree on what we've seen.

Here are some of TIFF's standout films so far, in no particular order: 

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything achieves a perfect score from reviewer Deana Sumanac-Johnson. (TIFF )
Review: Eddie Redmayne captures why Stephen Hawking is the rock-star physicist of our times in this biopic of Hawking's younger years. Redmayne's eyes brim with Hawking's famous wit and humour, even as his body works against him. Hawking has defied all odds by writing his most famous works, including A Brief History of Time, as he struggled with Lou Gehrig's disease, which robbed him of speech and the use of his limbs. But the film's true genius lies not in its explanation of the Big Bang Theory and black holes. In its chronicling of Hawking's first marriage, it's a nod to a far bigger mystery: the power — and limits — of love. 5 stars out of 5. —​Deana Sumanac-Johnson, CBC Arts reporter.

Review: This moving biopic could be titled Stephen Hawking: A Love Story.  Based on his (spoiler alert) ex-wife's memoir, this movie contains more romance than science. But it works beautifully, showing the young genius as a Cambridge student, meeting the love of his life, then being struck with ALS but defying the odds by continuing with his life and scientific breakthroughs. No ice bucket challenge required; Eddie Redmayne is a shoe-in for an Oscar nod. 4½ stars out of 5. —Nigel Hunt, producer, CBC Arts.

Review: This is the unexpected love story of Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist with ALS. We first meet him as a young man in university, as he comes to the world-altering decision to study the history of time. He's played as a charismatic, eccentric but funny person, full of life. It's a lovely portrait of the man and the romance that develops between him and a young student of literature, even as his health quickly falters. They are all perseverance, dedication and love. Despite the tremendous obstacles they must have faced, it's a resolutely sunny story. Whether this is true to life (the credits say they remain friends to this day) it's certainly an inspiring story.  3½ stars out of 5. —Alice Hopton, producer, CBC Arts.


Reese Witherspoon takes a hike in Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild. (TIFF)
Review: Reese Witherspoon is terrific in a role that stands firmly outside her usual repertoire of all-American sweethearts. Playing a character with a past eroded by heroin and sex addiction, she's definitely charting new territory here. Based on the bestselling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, the story is a quest for self-recovery by a woman who embarks on a solo 1,000-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. The narrative has a light touch in its use of flashbacks. The character is flawed, introspective and has a sense of humour, which adds to her charm. Laura Dern is also wonderful as the single mother who ultimately teaches her daughter the importance of appreciating life, even with the struggles. 4 stars out of 5 —Alice Hopton, producer, CBC Arts.

Review: Reese Witherspoon is Cheryl Strayed, a woman on the path to redemption as she fights the elements and her own demons during a three-month hike along the Pacific Trail. Flashbacks burn brighter than the desert sun as we see the life Strayed left behind: scenes of shooting heroin, sleeping with whoever asked, and fights with her now-estranged husband. But Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée reserved his most tender shots for the woman Strayed calls "the love of her life" — her late mother, heartbreakingly played by Laura Dern. 4 stars out of 5 Deana Sumanac-Johnson, CBC arts reporter.

The Drop

Review: In case you are wondering if a pit bull puppy and Tom Hardy's puppy-dog eyes can carry a movie: the answer is yes. Hardy — as the mysterious and apparent good guy, Bob Saginowksi — commands our attention and keeps us guessing on who he really is. Bob is "just the bartender" at his cousin Marv's ​bar, the Brooklyn establishment where mobsters move their dirty money. It's difficult, yet captivating, to watch James Gandolfini as Cousin Marv in what we know is his last performance. There are a few plot twists that are too tidy and improbable, but you will definitely want to drop in on this one. 4 stars out of 5. —​Ilana Banks, CBC Arts producer.

The Drop stars Tom Hardy and the late James Gandolfini. (TIFF )
​Review: Tom Hardy is the perfect brooding bartender with a soft spot for family and wounded puppies. His character, Bob Saginowski, is part of a clandestine operation that funnels money through a bar, run by his cousin Marv (played by the late James Gandolfini). When a carefully planned robbery takes place, pressure builds to find the culprits and no one is who they seem. A gentle pit bull serves as a symbol for the fine line between love and danger. Gandolfini's final performance as the shady bar owner adds to the film's darkness and mystery. 3½ stars out of 5. Zulekha Nathoo, CBC Arts reporter.

Love & Mercy

Paul Dano plays a younger Brian Wilson in the Beach Boy biopic Love & Mercy. (TIFF)
Review: Love & Mercy is the story of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, the creative genius at the centre of the group responsible for their pop-symphonic sound, but who also famously battled mental illness and drug abuse. In an effort to avoid the familiar trappings of the biopic, director Bill Pohlad focuses on two key moments in Wilson’s life: Paul Dano plays Wilson in the '60s, during the recording process of the Beach Boy’s masterpiece, Pet Sounds, while John Cusack plays Wilson in the '80s, at the peak of his mental illness and infamous seclusion under the repressive control of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). With a soundtrack full of Beach Boys hits, the film sounds as incredible as it looks. 4 stars out of 5. —Jesse Kinos-Goodin, associate producer, CBC Music.

The Wanted 18

The Wanted 18 tells the true story of the Israeli army's pursuit of 18 cows. (TIFF)
​Review: This film is a wonderful look at the circumstances around the first intifada in Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem. A group of Palestinian activists decide to create a cooperative dairy farm, purchasing 18 cows from an Israeli kibbutz and transporting them to the West Bank — a move that triggers a national security threat for Israel. The story is told in a mixture of clips from the major players of the day, archival news video, and animation. The anthropomorphising of four cows achieves humorous results. 4 stars out of 5. —Ed Macdonald, video producer, CBC Arts.


Jake Gyllenhall is "magnetic" in Nightcrawler, says Eli Glasner. (TIFF)
Jake Gyllenhall sinks into Lou, an amoral go-getter in this wild ride set in world of Los Angeles' local cable news scene.  Exploiting an opportunity, Lou leaps into action as a freelance video news cameramen, chasing ambulances and hunting death and tears like a bloodhound.  Simultaneously charismatic, comedic and repulsive, Gyllenhall is magnetic. 4½ stars out of 5. —​Eli Glasner, CBC Arts reporter.

And proof that film review is truly subjective territory:

The Last Five Years

Review: This musical — about the rise and fall of the romance of a young, beautiful couple — is done almost entirely through singing, which doesn't quite work. The fact that the story isn't told chronologically is a nice touch, but emotionally there's more heft in an episode of television's Glee. Early and astounding success for the husband as a writer, as his wife struggles to gain a foothold as an actress and singer, gets in the way of continued happiness for the couple. The roads to success in creativity and in marriage could make for interesting subject matter, but here it feels trite. 2 stars out of 5. —Alice Hopton, Producer, CBC Arts.

Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan can't please everyone in The Last Five Years. (TIFF)

Review: Clearly, it will take yet another failed screen musical for filmmakers to realize that a mediocre plot doesn't get better just because you sing it for 90 minutes. This conventional tale of a New York City couple struggling with success (one has it, the other doesn't) is told unconventionally (its only plus point). It jumps back and forth through time over a five-year period: Actress Cathy tells the story of the relationship from end to beginning and writer Jamie, from beginning to end. Anna Kendrick elevates this film nominally, with a decent voice and a few well-placed jokes. Perhaps if the soundtrack was the least bit catchy, the film might have stood a chance. 2 stars out of 5. —Zulekha Nathoo, CBC Arts reporter.

Review: Judging from the outbursts of laughter ricocheting around the Ryerson Theatre, The Last Five Years is something of Broadway legend. But beyond the winks for musical theatre nerds, this a blast of cinematic Viagra — a fusion of sound and filmic fury marked by a roving lens and full palate of emotions. A non-linear tale of love and woe starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, The Last Five Years proves Kendrick's "Cup Song" was no fluke and the movie musical art form ain't dead. 4½ stars of of 5—Eli Glasner, CBC Arts reporter.