Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Juliet Goodfriend's Take on the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival

Toronto International Film Festival 2011
by Juliet J. Goodfriend, Executive Director, BMFI

This year, as in years past, I feel frustrated that I missed as many good films as I saw. No, I didn’t get to Shame, or Crazy Horse, or We Need to Talk About Kevin, or Le Havre, or Martha Marcy May Marlene, or Faust. All missed because of scheduling overload and conflicts. Nevertheless, I found enough good movies to keep us very busy in 2011 and saw quite a few that you will be happy not to see at BMFI.

Programming Main Attractions is rife with distributor negotiations, and my having seen a great many films helps us narrow our battleground to the territory with the most potential—artistically and commercially. Below are my take on the 33 I did catch. It has taken some time to get this written, as I came home with a dreadful cold in addition to some good film impressions. (Did you follow my tweets after each film as the festival progressed?)

16 Films I Would Like to Get for BMFI:

Albert Nobbs (d. Rodrigo Garcia)
Glenn Close played this role of a male servant on stage and we who never saw it should be delighted that the movie is an excellent translation. It is a very tender treatment of gender uncertainty, class, and the meaning of love. Need more? Nope!

Albert Nobbs

The Artist (d. Michel Hazanavicius) is a mostly silent, black and white homage to Hollywood that feels so good you want it to last longer. It seems to be true that great directors yearn to make a silent. This one succeeded in spades. And the little dog adds just the right touch.

The Awakening (d. Nick Murphy)
At last, a ghost movie that I can really endorse. As with others of its genre, this takes place in a “haunted” boys’ school in England. But it seems to me to move beyond other tales by engaging in the analysis of the source of the ghostly mysteries: in early trauma and guilt of the heroine. The methods of ghost-killing are ingenious and the whole movie is well constructed and entertaining.

A Dangerous Method (d. David Cronenberg)
Despite an annoying performance by Keira Knightley, this film passes the test because of 1) Viggo Mortenson, 2) Michael Fassbinder and 3) the interesting interplay between Freud and Jung. As with several other period pieces this year, the mise en scene makes up for a number of weaknesses. This is a must-see for spouses of psychiatrists!

Death of a Superhero (d. Ian Fitzgibbon)
Making imaginative use of graphic novel animation, this movie puts us into the head of an adolescent cancer patient. It is not sentimental, but it captures his parent’s fraught attempts to cure him and his buddies’ well-meaning attempts to de-flower him before he dies. One would not expect to be entertained by a film dealing with pediatric oncology, but this boy and this film are special and believable.

The Descendants (d. Alexander Payne) is perhaps the best movie I saw at TIFF. Pictorially vivid and real scenes of Hawaii—a setting rarely used for dramatic movies—and real emotions about the hardest experiences in life: death, marital deception, family discord. George Clooney has never been better. Hardened movie industry guys were crying on my row.

The Descendants

Flying Machine (d. Martin Clapp, Dorota Kobiela, Geoff Lindsey)
Starring Lang Lang playing Chopin, what a charming interlude for me during the hectic TIFF. The music is marvelous, the animation and live action lovely to look at but not tightly tied with a terrific plot. Instead the point is for parents to pay attention to their inner souls and creativity and to be present and inspiring to their children. A good moral, indeed. And with enough plusses that I would love to show it to our younger audiences, and I’d go again just to hear Lang play. He is voiced by another actor!

Footnote (d. Joseph Cedar) is an Israeli film that reveals and revels in a father-son schtick as only university-based Talmudic scholars could endure. Father-son issues date to Abraham and Isaac. Here the sacrifice takes a turn. A must see for male academics--both fathers and sons. I liked it very much, too.

Hysteria (d. Tanya Wexler)
OK, this goes over the top in a number of ways but it certainly tickled me! And that’s more than I would have expected from a history of hysteria. Except that it’s a history of vibrators--hence the giggles and fun. The credits alone are an education. It will captivate much of the movie-going audience, no matter their gender or age.


The Ides of March (d. George Clooney) is not a great movie. But it is good enough, especially as a directing effort of its star, and the acting of Ryan Gosling. My fault with it is its lack of genuine originality. We’ve seen this film before, and this treatment is very smooth and professional, but it does not offer warmth or human empathy. Nevertheless, it is engrossing and you don’t want to leave before it’s over. The ending will enrage some and delight others.

I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful (d. Jonathan Demme) is the first film produced by our aspirational arthouse model, Jacob Burns Film Center, so I went to see it out of loyalty. It tells the tale of a remarkably out-spoken and determined resident of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans following Katrina. We would all be better off with more Carolyn Parkers in our neighborhoods, that’s for sure.

In Darkness (d. Agnieszka Holland)
If two and a half hours in a sewer is not too hard on your senses, then see this film. As one friend said, it’s actually a refreshing relief when one character escapes the sewer to voluntarily go to a concentration camp! Nevertheless, this true story of the fourteen-month ordeal of a group of Polish Jews during the Holocaust is worth the stench and dampness. The “Righteous” Polish sewer worker who cared for “his Jews” experiences a genuine moral dilemma as his work endangers his family and co-workers. We still need to see these stories on film. And this director does not spare us the harsh realities. I did object to her stealing Spielberg’s red touches from Schindler’s List! A petty complaint, perhaps.

In Darkness

The Island President (d. Jon Shenk )
In this excellent documentary we follow, very intimately, the efforts of the young President of the Maldives who, at age 42, overturned a 30-year dictator and took on the task of saving this archipelago of 2000 islands from certain destruction by the rising seas of our man-made warmer climate. He has not yet achieved his goal, but watching him learn (and then teach) diplomacy and will pique the interest of all doc audiences. How his efforts are stunted by China and the USA, to name but a couple of challengers, will reconfirm our distrust of large nations’ motivations to correct the destructive direction of their societies.

The Kid with a Bike (d. the Dardenne Brothers) is just about perfect: characters you really care about, insights into the hearts of a troubled boy and a well-meaning foster mother, good pace and enough plot to keep you interested. These directors typically deal with troubled children or families, but never better than this time.

Page Eight (d. David Hare) is the smart and sophisticated spy story that one expects from this fine stage writer-director, and it doesn’t let you down. Bill Nighy is the cool spy whose every move is calculated to keep you wanting to see more. Why couldn’t this be the first of a long series? Even alone it is well worth the time. And there’s Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, and Rachel Weisz showing their best as well.

Samsara (d. Ron Fricke) Transformative and transporting photography with a message that if nature isn’t destroying the earth, man certainly is. This is an utterly beautiful movie: think National Geographic and Koyaanisqatsi combined and HD enhanced. As huge scenes of nature or of mankind are captured in seemingly horizon-less views, they are instantly deconstructed into their composite details. And the power of the moving picture to create a mind-changing perspective is proven once again, e.g. I will never eat chicken that is not from my daughter’s farm again!


14 Films I Would Not Bring to BMFI (not counting the ones I won’t even bother to list)

360 (d. Fernando Meirelles)
Almost a good movie, but not. One does wonder how there can be so many dumb women involved with bad men. And then one wonders who all these women are because it’s very hard to tell them apart.

Almayer’s Folly (d. Chantal Akerman)
Interesting to transplant Joseph Conrad’s 1895 novel to the 1950s in Malaysia. It is a beautiful but very slow-moving film that is good for a certain mood, but I am not certain what that mood would be.

Always Brando (d. Ridha Behi)
The scenery of Tunisia and the looks of the Brando double don’t compensate for the film’s weak premise and execution.

Damsels in Distress (d.Whit Stillman)
There may be some co-eds who identify with, or laugh at this, but not many, I bet. There was one very funny line (I bet it will be in the trailer) and for the rest, you have to like Greta Gerwig a lot. It was another disappointment.

Dark Horse (d. Todd Solondz)
This was one of several disappointments of the festival. The great cast had no material and poor direction (from a good writer-director) and there was no reason to expect the characters will ever grow up or amount to anything.

Elles (d. Malgorzata Szumowska)
Too much deviant kiddy porn as Juliette Binoche examines female sexuality among young prostitutes for an article she is writing. Binoche is always a pleasure to watch, but did I really want to see her masturbate? As we sometimes tell our exploring toddlers, “Not in the living room, in your own room,” and that goes for theaters, too.

Into the Abyss (d. Werner Herzog)
Not his best and who wants to get inside these dreadful characters anyway?

Keyhole (d. Guy Maddin)
Canada’s favorite experimental filmmaker muddled up some aspects of the Odyssey with his family’s home and his memory of growing up. Neither evocative nor interesting to me, though I liked his My Winnepeg.

Neil Young Journeys (d. Jonathan Demme)
Not very interesting, but lots of good lyrics (bad tunes) and whiskers.

Rampart (d. Oren Moverman)
I loved this director’s The Messenger, but this film was too raw and harsh. Woody Harrelson is excellent, but I could not watch it for very long.

This Side of Resurrection (d. Joaquim Sapinho)
Good surfing photography. End of story.

Trishna (d. Michael Winterbottom)
Moving Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy) to current day rural and urban India made this movie a sure-fire travelogue but a dull tale. Another disappointment.

Twixt (d. Francis Ford Coppola)
This teaches the lesson that really great directors can trip and fall. Coppola inserts 3-D only twice in his return to the horror story genre. While that’s fun, it doesn’t help. Nor does it help that there is a connection in the plot and his personal family life. The master misses.

The Woman in the Fifth (d. Pawel Pawlikowski)
Another big disappointment from Kristin Scott Thomas and Ethan Hawke, both of whom seem dead in this film. Nothing to recommend it, though a lot of the audience waited till the end to leave and moan rather than bolting half way through.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Labor Day Movies

By Zoe Portman, BMFI Intern

In honor of Labor Day, here are six films that all reflect pride in the power of the common laborer and their ability to organize. Celebrate the end of summer and the return to work by recognizing the sacrifices of workers across the years.  

1) The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Based on John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath stars Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, a migrant worker during the Depression, traveling from Oklahoma to California with his family. Despite overwhelming poverty, the Joads manage to keep their family together, because they are “the people.” Both John Steinbeck and director John Ford were later investigated by Senator McCarthy due to the pro-union stance of the film.

2) Salt of the Earth (1954)

This story of Mexican miners living in New Mexico who go on strike for humane working and living conditions was made by workers who were blacklisted from Hollywood due to Communist leanings. Starring few professional actors, actual miners appeared in Salt of the Earth, which was purposefully suppressed and shown in very few theaters at the time of its release, due to the controversial subject matter. (This film will be shown as part of BMFI's Film History Discussion Series: 1945-Present later this fall.)

3) On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront stars Marlon Brando at his glowering best as dockworker Terry Malloy who confronts a corrupt labor boss Johnny Friendly. Friendly controls the docks and all dockworkers, and no one is willing to tell the police about his crimes, until Terry finds the courage to speak up. This film is always "a contender."

4) Matewan (1987)

John Sayles's Matewan depicts the struggle of West Virginian coal miners in the 1920s. A union organizer comes to town, attempting to unite workers of different races while struggling against a union infiltrator who attempts to incite violence. The mythic tone of the story is underscored by the realism of its characters, and the film is praised for its strong performances.

5) Harlan County, USA (1976)

This documentary chronicles a nearly year-long miners strike in Harlan County, Kentucky. Told through interviews with miners and their families, Harlan County, USA is unremitting in its images of poor working conditions, while the presence of the camera crew at the strike is credited with limiting the violence enacted against the striking miners.

6) Norma Rae (1979)

Sally Fields won the Best Actress Academy Award for portraying Norma Rae, a textile worker who attempts to unionize her mill despite the riffs it causes in her personal life and the dangers of antagonizing the factory.

BMFI will be showing regularly scheduled main attractions this week, but if you're in the mood for a more topical film, you can check these out.

Zoe Portman is a Film Studies student entering her fourth year at Hampshire College. She recently completed an internship at Bryn Mawr Film Institute.