This year was a watershed for Toronto, with the opening of the gorgeous Bell Light Box, the first six stories of a new high rise with five state of the art theaters, three galleries for film art, a reference library, more than two restaurants of high quality, conference and education rooms, and a shop—all dedicated to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Every square inch is named to recognize a donor, and the whole thing is a gorgeous and uplifting tribute to film!
The industry and press screenings, which I attended, were split between the Bell Light Box and the horribly noisy, gaudy, mall-like Scotia Bank metroplex, a contrast that made the new venue even more desirable. Both were within three blocks of my hotel and I actually never ventured farther.
I clocked over 70 or 80 hours watching films and have about 35 notches on my belt (which I tightened somewhat, since there was no time for eating much). Even so, there were many "must sees" that I missed.
The "themes" this year? Several films dealt with families recovering from or dealing with the aftermath of ghastly actions done to or by their children/siblings, including Rabbit Hole (child is run over and killed), Beautiful Boy (child becomes a mass murderer), Aftershock (children caught in the 1976 earthquake of Tangshan, China), and Conviction (sister defends her brother who is accused and convicted of murder). The two post-Holocaust films I saw (The Debt and Sarah's Key) dealt with its aftermath and the impact on families of exposing a "truth". And, to be expected, the documentaries all tangle with “truth,” often in connection with family ties (Tabloid, Client 9), leaving the viewer wondering which part of what they saw was fact and which fiction. But I leave it to the critics to expound further on themes.
Let me add, however, that, as in the past several years, blood is abundant. But it had a different character at this year's festival, i.e. more clinical and less often from gun-violence: surgical blood, body parts/function, and vomit. Blood poured forth from incisions, amputations (127 Hours), and gouge wounds (Black Swan). In Three, by Tom Tykwer, a good film, we were treated to the surgical excision of a testicle from shaving prep to the gland dropping into the tray! We were also introduced to home dialysis, though it was not shocking (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives). Curiously, almost every film I saw had a vomiting sequence! Why? How does propelling the contents of the stomach propel the narrative? And did I mention defecation? That body function was also not ignored by the directors. It has been added to urination as key streams in most films. What is the director saying by putting a character on the toilet or displaying the gushing contents of the stomach?
These perverse memories will fade, I hope, as the residue of some really fine storytelling and beautiful cinematography lingers. At least I hope so. In fact, too much will fade, too soon, except for those great films we are able to show at BMFI. And there will be many, I promise.
Below is the list of films I saw, categorized as "Miss-able," "Interesting, but not for BMFI", and "Will Try to Get This for BMFI". I also list some that I missed but others said were terrific.
Will Try to Get This for BMFI
127 Hours (Danny Boyle, USA)
The most memorable film I saw, this one rises above its fact-based storyline—it follows the plight of a young outdoorsman (James Franco) stuck in a canyon crevasse who must amputate his arm to escape—with verve and visual style. 127 Hours’ score, scenery, spirit, and sensitivity immerse one in the experience as only a great film can do.
L'Amour Fou (Pierre Thoretton, France)
No doubt here that this documentary captures truthfully the life and accomplishments of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berge, through their art and furnishings collection. If you liked Valentino, you’ll like this!
Another Year (Mike Leigh, UK)
One of the best, for sure, this poignant film deeply and tenderly observes a couple’s life over the course of a year, contrasting their warm marriage with the empty or unhappy lives of friends and family.
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA)
To soak up Tchaikovsky and backstage ballet for 103 minutes is my idea of great entertainment, even if the Tchaikovsky is “adapted” and Natalie Portman is no Margot Fonteyn. Reminiscent of The Red Shoes, this film’s ballerina doesn’t have a chance against her fantasies, an overbearing and seductive ballet-master, jealous dancers, and her ballet-mama, a breed well known in the hallways of ballet schools everywhere. It is a gorgeous film that pits the White Swan against the Black Swan.
Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer (Alex Gibney, USA)
A terrific documentary about the tragic (to my mind) downfall of New York’s Governor Eliot Spitzer. Shown to be a victim of the Wall Street tycoons whose practices he tried to correct, Spitzer himself explains what he can about his weaknesses and assumes responsibility for his “downfall.” However, it looks like his moral weaknesses were minor compared with those of arrogant state legislators and investment bankers. Such a sad tale, especially for Spitzer and his wife.
Cool It (Ondi Timoner, USA)
A response to An Inconvenient Truth, this documentary about Bjorn Lomborg (author of The Skeptical Environmentalist) raises interesting questions about the “value” of various means of combating global warming and places them in contrast to other imperatives on which the same funds could be spent. Interesting and possibly controversial.
Conviction (Tony Goldwyn, USA)
An earnest, true, and improbable story about an uneducated Boston woman (Hilary Swank) who goes all the way through college and law school in order to defend her brother (Sam Rockwell), convicted of murder. Good enough.
The Debt (John Madden, UK)
An excellent thriller, this Nazi-hunting film features Helen Mirren leading a good cast. After years of torment following the botched capture of a concentration camp surgeon, three former Israeli Mossad agents get a second chance. Again, it is the impact of the truth on her family that drives Mirren’s character and deepens our interest in this film of international intrigue.
The Illusionist (L’Illusionniste) (Sylvain Chomet, UK)
The most beautiful film of the festival, this is a work of great art that brings to life an unproduced script by Jacques Tati using hand-painted animation. It is a magical piece about the limits of magic and imagination, of innocence, and the bond of dreams unfulfilled. There is even a self-reflective moment when the character Tatischeff (Tati’s real name) views Mon Oncle at the cinema. A bit boring, but anyone who loves visual art will wallow happily in its beauty.
Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, UK)
An adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel, this film does not feel like science fiction. It is so naturally acted that its characters and 20th century setting are utterly believable… until you realize they are not. The film does not make explicit moral comments about its content, but viewers are invited to, for sure!
Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell, USA)
A fine film about a couple trying to recover and save their marriage after their son is killed by a sweet kid driving a bit too fast. Nicole Kidman plays the wife who cannot move on after this event; we ache for her even as she becomes obsessed with the teenage driver.
Sarah's Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah) (Gilles Paquet-Brenner, France)
No quarrels with this, except the utterly predictable ending. Kristin Scott Thomas is believably anguished as she realizes that her in-laws’ apartment was one from which a Jewish family was evicted during the Nazi occupation of Paris, beginning her obsession with its former tenants. Her exposure of the truth and its effect on her husband and his family structure the tale.
Tabloid (Errol Morris, USA)
A doc that makes you laugh at the saddest, craziest revelations about a beauty queen with a high IQ and an absurd history. Another take on truth and lies and the media’s construction of both, this is a hoot, even if one feels sad for the nutty lady.
Tamara Drewe (Stephen Frears, UK)
A very well-made film and one of the few comedies I saw, Tamara Drewe was thoroughly enjoyable, though not “great”. Set in the English countryside mostly at a writer’s retreat, the film includes a range of characters and comic situations to catch and hold one’s interest: impudent teenage girls and their ghastly pranks, an arrogant, successful writer and his much-wronged wife, a struggling and nerdy academic, and a herd of cows that… no, I won’t spoil it.
The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, UK)
The best comedy and one of my favorite films of the fest, this movie brings together Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, both remarkable comics and actors, on a trip through the Lake District with stops at the best inns and restaurants. It is apparently mostly improvised. I laughed so hard I had an asthma attack! Brilliant, as they say. I wish I had understood all the Brit-only allusions.
Interesting, but not for BMFI
Aftershock (Tang Shan Da Di Zhen) (Feng Xiaogang, China)
Aptly described as an epic, this film recreates the horrible Tang Shen earthquake of 1976 in which 240,000 were killed. Indeed, it is dedicated to them, but goes on to show documentary footage from the recent Cheng Du quake. At its heart the film deals with family issues, especially poignant to the Chinese: favoring sons over daughters. It is heart-rending and the earthquake scenes and footage are not for the faint of heart.
Beautiful Boy (Shawn Ku, USA)
Parents try to cope with the aftermath of their 18-year-old son committing mass murder. This is tough material and fairly well done.
Casino Jack (George Hickenlooper, Canada)
Kevin Spacey plays Jack Abramoff well, but the movie is not sure if it is a comedy or a tragedy. As with most historical fiction, it does not announce its deviations from the fact, but I admit it kept my interest.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, USA)
The caves of Chauvet in 3D! This is a Herzog travelogue about an area twice as old as Lascaux. The art and anthropological paleontology are more exciting than the 3D, but that technology reveals the contours of these remarkable caves as 2D could not. Everything Herzog does is worth seeing, including this, in whatever dimension you find it.
Confessions (Kokuhaku) (Tetsuya Nakashima, Japan)
This film proved to me that wearing uniforms, even in socially-considerate Japan, will not make nice kids out of destructive middle school bullies. The teacher’s vindictiveness after these kids murder her child drives the movie’s plot and morality. Gadzooks, it was a film that made me want to call my kids and tell them to pull the grandchildren out of school to keep them from evil!
I Wish I Knew (Hai Shang Chuan Qi) (Jia Zhangke, China/The Netherlands)
A personalized history of Shanghai from the 1930s to now with many excursions into the history of Chinese film, this is too long and too slow to capture most viewers, but it contains many interesting scenes of China over the past 70 years. The film is all told through interviews with mostly elderly Shanghainese whose indomitable spirits are so inspiring. For those with an interest in China, this is worth sitting through.
Mamma Gogo (Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, Iceland)
A self-revealing satire about Icelandic film and finance industries that form the backdrop for an odd homage to his recently deceased mother. The narrative is held together by his mother’s steep decline into dementia, even as Iceland’s economy does much the same.
Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
Very dry, dour, and slow, so I left.
Norwegian Wood (Noruwei No Mori) (Tran Anh Hung, Japan)
I did not see enough of it to comment, but it looked promising.
Special Treatment (Sans queue ni tête) (Jeanne Labrune, France/Luxembourg/Belgium)
Isabelle Huppert shows her verve and acting style in this odd film that pits psychoanalysis against prostitution as therapies for bourgeois angst. A very funny premise.
Three (Drei) (Tom Tykwer, Germany)
The director of Run Lola Run, Tykwer has put together an entertaining love triangle—first a wife and then her husband fall in love with the same man. It has some very funny plot twists, clever cinematography, and for probably the first time in the history of narrative feature film, the surgical excision of a testicle! I would show it, but who would come see it?
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Boonmee Raluek Chat)
(Apichatpong Weerasethakul, UK/Thailand/France/Germany/Spain)
This prize winner left me wondering “Why?” What was it about and why did it win? Yes, it has a gentle touch and a lyrical spirit, but is it worth the prizes it got in Venice and Cannes? Someone help me.
Curling (Denis Côté, Canada)
Character transformation through the very odd game of curling? Well maybe for Canadians, but not for me.
Everything Must Go (Dan Rush, USA)
I didn’t see enough of this to comment, but Will Ferrell does “sad” at least as well as he does “funny”. However, I wonder why he is shown peeing and then wiping the drips from the toilet? Are we meant to think he is caring? Oh well, at least he did not vomit during the footage I viewed.
It's Kind of a Funny Story (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, USA)
This film totally missed its potential to be really funny and clever and therefore it is rather painful, despite some good acting. If nothing else were showing, you might go see it.
Last Night (Missy Tadjedin, France/USA)
I did not make it through the end, but many folk liked it.
Miral (Julian Schnabel, UK/Israel/France)
A monumental disappointment! Following The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which won numerous international awards, this film shows that Julian Schnabel can make really bad movies, too. Often filmed out of focus with a palsied, hand-held camera, it is visually unwatchable. The script is clumsy, pedantic, and one-sided.
Passion Play (Mitch Glazer, USA)
The question on everyone’s lips as they left this film, even before it was over, was “How did this film get made and why was it admitted to TIFF?” It is pretty dreadful. Mickey Rourke, Megan Fox, and Bill Murray don’t save it; the premise is ridiculous. It offered me some time to nap.
What's Wrong with Virginia (Dustin Lance Black, USA)
Nothing nice about this flick, not the characters nor their actions. Okay if you are in the mood for a downer about religious crackpots in the guise of the law who take sexual advantage of the mentally ill! If this is small-town America, keep me in the cities, Lord!
Movies I wish I had seen:
The King’s Speech
Little White Lies