Not that I doubted my trusted sources (aka, anyone who’s ever been to it), but now that I’ve experienced the Toronto International Film Festival for myself, I can confirm that everyone was right. For such a gargantuan event, TIFF coasts by like a casual, breezy charmer. Perhaps this has to do with its location. I’m not just talking about Toronto. I’m talking about Canada. This was my first time there, and it delivered on its stereotype gloriously well. On my very last night, I witnessed a situation that summed it all up in a few passing seconds:
EXT. STREET – NIGHT
TWO SECURITY GUARDS are carefully escorting a VERY DRUNK MAN out to the curb. While Security Guard 2 comforts the man silently, literally rubbing his shoulder like he would a buddy who just lost his wife, Security Guard 1 admonishes him.
SECURITY GUARD 1 (gently, softly): If ya keep comin’ back we’re just gonna have ta keep bringin’ ya back oot here. I’m sore-y, I really am, butcha can’t keep doin’ this.
As if aware of the trouble he has caused, Very Drunk Man bows his head in apologetic shame.
As for the festival itself, the only problems I encountered were those caused by attendees from south of the border—i.e., my proud, arrogant American brethren! I still haven’t wrapped my brain around the question of how any human being who has ever attended a film festival would show up one minute before a buzz-worthy press/industry screening, discover there are no seats left, and throw a fit about it. Really? The sense of entitlement exhibited in all-too-frequent bursts at film festivals makes me ashamed of my profession, of my country, of the human race to which I belong. Grow up, babies! You’re not important! None of us are.
This year, and for this festival in particular, since there wasn’t a bombardment of American narrative films produced for under one million dollars, I decided to take less risks and either catch up with Cannes films that I’d been dying to see, or watch new films that I trusted would deliver in some way, shape, or form. Though I contributed letter grades to the kids at indieWIRE for their Toronto Critics Poll, I’d rather not do that here. I’m simply going to list, alphabetically, the TIFF films that I either saw in Toronto or viewed beforehand/afterward and give my honest reaction to them (at the risk of redundancy, I’m going to repost earlier writing when applicable so that everything is included in one post here). Fortunately, I didn’t see anything that I outright hated, though my levels of appreciation certainly wavered.
Antichrist — I will say this about Lars Von Trier’s latest act of provocation: I believe that it was made with complete sincerity—or at least as much sincerity as the Danish weirdo can muster. While I highly recommend Antichrist to anyone who believes in challenging, visceral cinema, I also confess to not ever really taking the film seriously. This is all subjective, but if you want me to really feel the pain of losing a child, don’t shoot that child’s fall from grace like an expensive jewelry commercial. But one cannot deny the sheer virtuosity of Von Trier’s wildly disturbing vision. In a perfect world, this movie would have been the multiplex romp of the summer.
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans — Based on the reactions coming out of Toronto at least, I appear to be the only person who found this movie to be disappointingly lazy (in this way, I’m calling it Herzog’s Gran Torino). Of course, there are many flashes of retarded genius to behold, but by the 90-minute mark, I began wondering if Herzog bothered to shoot any second takes (the friend I watched it with asked the same thing midway through the film). It is also quite evident that there wasn’t much directing of actors going on. It’s like he simply tossed all the elements that were assembled into a pot of loony gumbo and let it cook all by itself. Ultimately, I found this to be an undergraduate course in how to make a b-movie, Cinemax 4-style messterpiece.
City of Life and Death — If I hadn’t just revisited Come and See on the big screen a few weeks ago, my reaction to City of Life and Death would have been all the way through the roof. That said, I look forward to visiting it again when my palate has no lingering aftertastes and I can appreciate Lu Chuan’s historical nightmare for the achievement that it is. Chuan doesn’t flinch in revisiting the brutal 1937 Rape of Nanking, in which Japanese soldiers invaded the Chinese capital and proceeded to rape, pillage, plunder, and slaughter innocent citizens into stacks and piles of human destruction. The Oscars could do much, much worse than to pick this as the Best Foreign Film winner next year.
Cleanflix — This is an instance of a film that I thought was fine but don’t know if it needed to take almost 90 minutes to make its point. It’s also unfair to the filmmakers, but I’ve become so conditioned to believe that if someone is preaching a religious agenda with an abnormal amount of venom and force, dark secrets are lurking just around the corner. The legal and ethical battle surrounding the outbreak of home video retailers in Utah that rent and sell illicit, edited-for-content Hollywood movies is an interesting one, to be sure, but my thumb is up only slightly for this one.
Collapse — One week later and I can safely say that Chris Smith’s Collapse has genuinely scarred me. A perhaps silly way to describe it is to call it “Errol Morris’ Winnebego Man.” In essentially filming an extended interview in a bunker-like room with independent reporter Michael Ruppert, Collapse instead plays more like a deeply unsettling monologue, in which Ruppert lays out a compelling, convincing, and terrifying argument that the recent faltering of the world’s economy is only the beginning of our problems. Years ago, he predicted that economic collapse. Now, his primary focus is the problem of “peak oil.” That said, Collapse isn’t just about the collapse of our society, and that’s what adds an even sadder layer to Smith’s already disturbing film.
La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet — I have so much to say about this work of sheer excellence, which I plan to do in conjunction with its theatrical release at the Film Forum in November. Suffice to say, Frederick Wiseman has officially helped me to see the light when it comes to ballet. I never got it before. Now, I get it. Contrary to what I expected, Wiseman does build his film in a narrative sense, albeit subtly so. But that’s how I knew that I had been learning a valuable lesson along the way. When I watched the on-stage performances later on, I had an understanding of the moves that kept me riveted and rooting for the dancers. With La Danse, Wiseman proves that he’s as great as he ever was.
Dogtooth — It isn’t just the letters “d-o-g” in the title that made me think of Ulrich Seidl’s Dog Days while watching Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth. Something about the Grecian heat and the blackly comic tone reflected a Seidlian spirit. This is another film that everyone appears to be in full support of. My only question after watching it was what statement was it trying to make? Was it really as simplistic as: “Dear parents/society, if you try to overprotect your children, you’ll only end up making things worse?” Whatever the case, Dogtooth is the type of film that I would probably have flipped out over five or ten years ago. At this moment in time, I dug it, but I didn’t dig it.
An Education — I saw this movie back at Sundance and while I thought it was above average and very well executed—and agree that Carey Mulligan is, indeed, enchanting—I didn’t have the urge to write about it then, and I don’t have the urge now. But I am confident that this has the potential to find a sturdy niche in the marketplace, and wish it well.
Fish Tank — It ain’t the story, it’s how you tell it. In different hands—and by “different” I mean a director with testicles—this coming-of-age drama about a young girl who finds herself being drawn to her mother’s new boyfriend would have become an exploitative piece of “kitchen sink statutory,” but Andrea Arnold manages to avoid those trappings by using her camera and sound design to sensitively, yet frankly, convey her young character’s sense of budding confusion. Newcomer Katie Jarvis is worthy of the hype, but Michael Fassbender’s uncreepily tender performance adds a disarming amount of believability to the proceedings. Read my conversation with Arnold here.
The Happiest Girl in the World — It’s a shame that this film appears to have gotten lost in the Romanian shuffle (Police, Adjective, Tales From the Golden Age), because Radu Jude’s feature film debut strikes a lovely, bittersweet note. This is a small film in the best sense of the term, as a mother and father drive their contest-winning daughter into the city to appear in a television commercial. Though comically understated, the quiet resolution makes one feel a genuine flush of sadness. The Happiest Girl in the World is about how the crushing force of reality almost always tends to spoil one’s dreams and fantasies, especially during those fragile teenage years.
Life During Wartime — Much has been made of this film being a gigantic leap forward for Todd Solondz in a maturity sense, and while it certainly looks great (thanks, Ed Lachmann!), it felt like another Solondzcom to me. While there’s nothing wrong with that—a distinct filmmaking voice is to be commended—I still had the thought several times that I’d rather be watching Happiness again. This is a compliment and criticism in equal measure.
The Most Dangerous Man in the World: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers — Removing the “recreation” footage from the equation, I found this to be a top-notch recounting of a very important—and very timely—chapter in 20th century American history. Read my full review here.
La Pere De Mes Enfants — I think it’s important to be able to acknowledge when festival fatigue plays a role in one’s appreciation (or lack thereof) of a film. In the case of Mia Hansen-Love’s Father of My Children, my appreciation was unexpectedly full. But here’s the thing. I know it’s only my second day in Toronto, but I’m already suffering from sleep deprivation. Add to that a very big beer and a glass of wine before the 7:30 start time, and that was a recipe for disaster. Of course, when the film took a shockingly dramatic narrative turn around the midway point, I found my eyelids getting heavy. After that turn, the film’s rhythm appeared to change. Or was my own personal rhythm changing? After conferring with the trusted Tom Hall as the credits rolled, I realized that I hadn’t, in fact, missed anything. And while I admired Hansen-Love’s decision to let her film begin to breathe differently, I was so in love with the film’s first half that the second half threw me off balance. I look forward to revisiting this film in conjunction with its official theatrical release. Suffice to say, it’s a lovely companion piece to Summer Hours and it is certain to charm many hearts. It charmed mine.
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” By Sapphire — (Note: This was written when I saw the film at Sundance this past January.) Truth be told, I was excited for this movie because it sounded like a trainwreck of legendary proportions. And though it certainly started with a ridiculous bang, it sobered me up rather quickly. I’m not here to say that Push is a work of perfection, for there are many tonal meanderings in Lee Daniels’ vision that make one feel as if they’re watching several different movies at once. But as the film progresses, it starts to congeal unexpectedly, building to a genuine gut-punch of a climax. It’s not even February, and I’m ready to hand out my Best Supporting Actress award to Mo’Nique. This is one of those performances that cannot be praised highly enough. It’s beyond acting. More to come on Push, but for now, all I can say is that I think I really admire it.
A Prophet — Jacques Audiard is one of the few directors who I am confident won’t ever disappoint me, and A Prophet only reinforced that assertion. All I can say to those of you who saw A Prophet at Cannes and reported back with a shruggish “meh,” you need a soap-in-a-sock kiss to the forehead. Midway through Audiard’s masterful, hyper-charged chronicle of one young man’s rise from scared young prisoner to budding crime lord, I started daydreaming about what would have happened had Audiard been hired to direct an episode (or several) of The Wire. This movie makes Michael Mann’s Public Enemies look like mid-grade mumblecore. But A Prophet isn’t just a prison drama/crime film thrill ride. It’s a provocative statement on France’s long-running, ingrained racist behavior towards to its Arab population. It’s also one of 2009’s most unequivocally great works of cinematic virtuosity.
A Serious Man — The latest Coen Brothers movie is more Jewish than Woody Allen, Philip Roth, the language of Hebrew, and Israel combined. Yet for anyone who was raised with religion in their household but found that religion to be more confusing than comforting (mine was good ol’ Catholicism), it will feel painfully familiar. Although A Serious Man is microscopically specific in its depiction of a Jewish family living in the Midwestern suburbs in 1967, it nonetheless strikes a deeply universal chord. As filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen are peerless; unlike just about every other aging, I-produce-a-new-movie-every-year type of director, they actually continue to improve with age. Their frisky vision still feels fresh every time around and has yet to devolve into self-parody. Perhaps that’s because they are always looking for new stories to tell. This time around, they’ve tapped directly into their past to tackle two genres at once: the midlife crisis comedy and the religious quest drama. Because of that, A Serious Man isn’t like any other midlife crisis movie you’ve ever seen. It is hilarious and bizarre, and it concludes with a punchline of a climax that will make you smirk before wondering if the wrath of God is whispering down your own neck at that very moment.
She, A Chinese — The opening of Guo Xialou’s film immediately calls to mind Ry Russo-Young’s You Won’t Miss Me. Though that comparison doesn’t always stick, She, A Chinese remains a spellbinding, rock-and-roll charged portrait of a young woman trying to find her place in the world. When we first meet her, Mei (Huang Lu) has never even left her small Chinese village. But at the end of this odyssey, she’s not only traveled long distances, she’s suffered through humiliations that would break a weaker person. Xialou’s film works better when it focuses on Mei as an individual. When it starts pressing the metaphor by threatening to elevate her into a symbol of abused, manipulated femalehood, it becomes a little too blunt for its own good (Mei taking a job as a human anatomy specimen in an English college class, for example). But overall, I came out on the positive end of the stick with this one.
Trash Humpers — In the hands of an artist who is less directly in touch with his or her own voice, Trash Humpers could have been a debacle. But in creating a pseudo artifact of a group of grisly, reckless Southerners who are out to turn their destruction into a work of art—think: the family from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre watching a marathon of Jackass and grabbing a VHS camcorder to document their own misadventures—Harmony Korine has delivered what very well may be his purest and freest act of creative expression. Certainly not for everyone, Trash Humpers is nonetheless a defiantly singular creation.
Valhalla Rising — Walking out of Valhalla Rising, it struck me: Nicolas Winding Refn, Lars von Trier, and Gaspar Noe really need to get it over with and start their own European fight club. Veering towards self-parody but never quite crossing the line, Refn’s film nonetheless pushes the bounds of seriousness vs. silliness as its super-slow-motion third act reaches its apex. But a grin is a grin, and talent is talent, which makes Valhalla Rising consistently intriguing.
Videocracy — This movie makes America’s own obsession with television and pop culture seem clean and tame. Erik Gandini’s creepy expose of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to political power through his dominance over the Italian media creates a genuine sense of distaste—akin to Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public. Along the way, he introduces us to an aspiring television star and a greedy paparazzi who becomes corrupted by his own flirtation with the spotlight. Gross, gross, gross, but good, good, good.
— Michael Tully