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Toronto: Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest Don’t Live Up to the Hype; Best Director Race Wide Open

Last week, I unveiled my first Oscars Power Rankings of the season — largely sight unseen, of course — and I was high on two international films in particular — Anatomy of a Fall and The Zone of Interest. Both films earned great reviews at Cannes, where Fall actually won the Palme D’Or, and both hail from top indie distributors (Neon and A24, respectively) that know how to navigate the choppy waters of awards season.

However, after seeing both movies on Day 1 of the Toronto International Film Festival, I will have no choice but to downgrade them in my next edition of Power Rankings, as neither film proved to be the knockout I was expecting.

We’ll start with Anatomy of a Fall, which was good — don’t get me wrong — but hardly the masterpiece that some critics have made it out to be. The film investigates the suspicious death of a family man who fell off the balcony of a snow-covered chalet. Evidence points to foul play and his wife, the only other person who was home at the time, is eventually accused of murder.

Now, Sandra Hüller is quite extraordinary in this film. Like a German cross between Cate Blanchett and Carey Mulligan, she absolutely commands the screen, and will most certainly be in the mix for a Best Actress nomination come January. Likewise, Swann Arlaud is compelling as her attorney, and Milo Machado Graner is affecting as her visually impaired son.

But this is a flawed film, not to mention a challenging one. There are no easy answers here, let alone definitive ones. Instead, theories take the place of facts. Which, to be honest, is a little frustrating. I don’t necessarily need to know what happened, but I wanted to know, and I feel like Triet kind of copped out, preferring to let the audience make up their own minds, much like an actual jury.

This may have been a miscalculation. What some critics may see as a feature, I saw as a bug. Even the way the actual verdict is delivered, there’s no real drama to it. I’ll give this movie credit for holding me in its grip as long as it did, but as the credits rolled, I could understand some of the criticisms I’ve read online that liken this movie to an extended episode of Law & Order.

Here’s how I know this film didn’t fully work. The festival’s P&I screening for The Zone of Interest immediately followed Anatomy of a Fall, and many critics, including myself, left their seats a few minutes early to stand by the exit doors and beat the rush out of the theater, catching the final scene while standing up. Well, imagine the closing shot of Call Me By Your Name. If you’ve vibed with that film, you’re staying in your seat and watching that entire shot until the movie is over. If Anatomy of a Fall had truly, truly worked, every single one of those critics would’ve stayed in their seats, including myself. Instead, as soon as the credits hit and it was clear that we would be given no further clarity, everyone bolted from the theater to get in that next line. It spoke volumes, and what it said was that Anatomy of a Fall wasn’t fully satisfying.

As for Triet, she obviously does a nice job here, and I look forward to her next film, but I’m not sure Anatomy of a Fall has the sense of authorship as Christopher Nolan‘s Oppenheimer or Greta Gerwig‘s Barbie, or that I expect from other films this season, such as Michael Mann‘s Ferrari or Martin Scorsese‘s Killers of the Flower Moon. As a result, I’ll be downgrading her in the next edition of my Oscars Power Rankings.

On the other hand, Jonathan Glazer‘s The Zone of Interest has no such authorship problem. It is very much a Jonathan Glazer film. The question is whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. In this case, I think the truth lies somewhere in between.

Again, expectations are everything, be it at a film festival or elsewhere. The Zone of Interest premiered at Cannes and earned strong reviews, though a close reading of them seemed to indicate that the film holds the viewer at a distance — which it does.

There was a curious phenomenon that I witnessed online following the film’s Cannes debut. It seemed like half the critics in attendance referenced the phrase “the banality of evil” in their tweets or reviews. And now, I get it… because there’s really not that much to say about this film. It’s not that it’s bad, per se, it’s just disappointing, as it’s really just about a Nazi commander (Christian Friedel) figuring out his place in the party’s pecking order as he tries to climb the “corporate” ladder — each rung representing half a million dead Jews — all while his wife (Hüller again) worries about whether she’ll be able to keep their home if he keeps being promoted.

The Zone of Interest
Sandra Huller in The Zone of Interest/A24

Glazer delivers some stunning images here, as he always has. In this instance, the images will haunt you. A Nazi blowing ash out of their nose — the ashes of my ancestors. The contrast of the smoke billowing from a train carrying thousands of Jews to the constant smoke billowing from the ovens of Auschwitz. A casually delivered threat about spreading one servant’s ashes over a field. These are the moments I left the theater thinking about.

But it wasn’t enough. My chest never stirred. I suppose that’s what happens when you make a Holocaust movie from the perspective of the Nazis. It’s not that you lose sight of the victims, but there’s something missing. So while I respect Glazer for making a different kind of Holocaust movie — one that tells the story from the other side and isn’t focused so much on suffering — I was expecting something stomach-churning, and I left feeling that the film was rather hollow, empty, and pretentious.

I think there’s a reason A24 hasn’t released a trailer for The Zone of Interest — not only is it a tough sell that will need immense critical support to get any traction, but right now, it almost exists better as an idea for a film than an actual film. I get it — killing Jews was just another job to the Nazis, and they really didn’t think much of living next door to a concentration camp, listening to the non-stop screams and gunshots — but I never felt the queasy horror I should have. Instead, to paraphrase Roger Friedman, it’s a well-intentioned bore that belongs in a museum.

I’m a big fan of Sexy Beast and Birth, and the bizarre Under the Skin has grown on me a bit, but The Zone of Interest is Glazer’s worst film yet and I can no longer see him being nominated for Best Director. It’s really that simple.

Tomorrow brings Grant Singer‘s thriller Reptile starring Benicio Del Toro, as well as the Boston-based crime drama Finestkind, so stay tuned for our interview with writer-director Brian Helgeland

Neon will release Anatomy of a Fall in select theaters on Oct. 13, while The Zone of Interest will begin its own limited release on Dec. 8.



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