Editor's Note: We can't all make it to the Toronto International Film Festival (which is too bad, since it's where some of the best films of the next year will be shown). But CT has the next best thing: daily updates during the Festival from our critic Ken Morefield. Stay tuned for the next week for capsule reviews and reflections on some of the world's most important movies.

Watermark, directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky
Can a Song Save Your Life? directed by John Carney
Belle, directed by Amma Asante

If Saturday was about some minor disappointments, Sunday was one of those TIFF days where the magic happens.

Every year at TIFF you can count on going into some film or another relatively blind—because it fits your schedule, because of a last minute cancellation or sell out, or perhaps because you hear something intriguing in a line—and end up falling in love, as much with the serendipity as with the film itself. This year that film was Can a Song Save Your Life?, a valentine to artists (particularly musicians) and New York City. (The film is directed by John Carney, who also made the breakout Irish musical-film Once, starring Glen Hansard and his Swell Season partner Marketa Irglova.)

A summary makes it sound utterly conventional. Mark Ruffalo (Dan) is a burnt out, recently fired recording studio executive; Keira Knightly (Greta) is one half of a music team who just got dumped by her boyfriend right as he hit it big. A friend takes her to an open microphone night to get over her depression and Ruffalo's character wanders in just as she performs to a lackluster and unenthusiastic crowd. You know the rest.

And you do. But you also don't. Because it's not that movie—it's not the adolescent revenge fantasy about hitting it big and gloating at all the people who didn't believe in you and your talent, while also finding true love and getting back at those who hurt you. Greta's passion is music. Dan loves her song. After banging his head against a car dashboard in despair after hearing the umpteenth bad demo he's been pitched, he is intoxicated not by a pretty girl but by the sounds he hears in his head when he imagines what her music could be. Mostly they are in love with the feeling of purpose that working on creating something gives to those who genuinely love doing so.

There are, of course, subplots involving the wife and daughter Dan separated from and boyfriend who, double of course, comes to realize just how big a mistake he made in letting Greta go. But every time you fear the film will descend into bad romantic comedy formula, it turns in an unexpected direction. Even the end is one of those conclusions that you don't realize is perfect until it happens and feels both inevitable and unexpected.

Article continues below

Also, if there is a more consistently interesting actress than Keira Knightley working today, I'm not sure who it is. She listens, her timing is impeccable, she makes interesting choices with her body language, and her emotional register is fine tuned to perfection. Because it's about music, Can a Song Save Your Life? will probably be marketed as a movie for young adults or teens. These aren't kids, though. They have adult problems, adult mileage. It's just that like many kids, and unlike many adults, they haven't yet totally lost ability to be passionate about the things that they were passionate about when they were young.

Amma Assante's Belle is one of those movies that is a little manipulative, but where you cry anyway—and don't resent it—because . . . well, because sometimes you should cry. It tells the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mulatto born of a white admiral and Caribbean slave, who is raised by her uncle (Tom Wilkinson), Lord Mansfield. The film suffers, but only slightly, from an overstated understatedness that mistakes the lack of histrionics for subtlety. But then slavery in the eighteenth century was hardly a subtle matter. Still, one wishes that there wasn't a speech explaining the significance of every action to us or that Assante didn't so always underline the film's most dramatic moments as though we might miss them otherwise.

She benefits from casting a great deal, however, especially from Tom Wilkinson. All the actors are quite good, including Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle, but Wilkinson is given the hardest task, that of being credible both as an inheritor of racism and an eventual agent of its change.

At the Q&A, Wilkinson spoke eloquently of the way in which the film reminded him that what people care most desperately about can change very quickly in a relatively short period of time. Assante choked up just slightly relating that she had always dreamed as an actress of being in a quintessential historical costume drama, only to despair that there could ever be a such a story with a place for a Black woman in it. This is "our" history, she insisted, and it seemed to me she meant that inclusively.

Article continues below

Watermark will no doubt have a more limited audience, consisting of those who seek it out. Like the last collaboration between Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky (the incredible Manufactured Landscapes), Watermark is filmed in and around the areas in which Burtynsky is photographing. I've never been much of a still photography fan, but Burtynsky's work is simply breathtaking. If anything, he seems one of those artists who is undervalued because he is so good he makes it look easy. Manufactured Landscapes was about scale, about human's becoming powerful enough to not just withstand the environment, but also change it. Watermark is about water. Particularly it is about the ways in which humans try to control water and the evidence of that change in the landscapes photographed by Burtynsky.

The film was not quite as powerful as Manufactured Landscapes, in part because it was a bit more meditative and a bit less focused on the photography. What's there, though, is so amazing to look at that it would be worth sitting through twice as much philosophizing for even half of these images. Of all the films at TIFF that I've screened so far, this is the one to try to see on the big screen if you possibly can. (Oh for a world in which a Baichwal/Burtynsky collaboration would play on IMAX!).

Finally, here are a few second-hand reports about some films I missed due to scheduling conflicts. Anders Bergstrom reports on the opening night film, The Fifth Estate, over at Three Brothers Film. Apparently the film can't make up its mind what to think about Julian Assange. Anders also reports that Hirokazu Kore-Eda's Like Father, Like Son is another gem from one of our most consistent directors.

On deck: The Devil's Knot; Night Moves; The Dark Matter of Love.
Day 1: Closed Curtain
Day 2: The Last of the Unjust and Mission Congo
Day 3: The Past, Violette, Young & Beautiful, The Double

Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.