It’s a wrap: Toronto International Film Festival 2009

[28 September 2009]

By Moira Macdonald

The Seattle Times (MCT)

The Toronto International Film Festival ended last week, after 10 days of frantic activity that included hundreds of movies, filmmakers, actors, publicists, cellphone-clutching fans and an endless army of waiters, all of whom might well have had a screenplay tucked away in their aprons.

The entire city goes movie-mad during the festival (I even saw a church sign that said “A TIFF Tribute: Hymns and Hollywood”), and much of the fun of attending is walking the streets and hearing the festival chatter, seeing the movie-themed store windows and marveling at the number of people waiting outside Toronto’s fanciest hotels in hope of a star sighting.

This year’s edition, which I attended for its first six days, didn’t lack for movie stars. George Clooney attended with two films: the satire “Men Who Stare at Goats” and the warmhearted comedy “Up in the Air.” The latter was a big hit at the festival for its snappy banter between Clooney and Vera Farmiga and for its well-timed theme of downsizing. Drew Barrymore, with an oddly black-tipped hairstyle, bopped into town with her likable girl-meets-roller-derby directing debut, “Whip It.” The Colins — Firth and Farrell — were everywhere, with new films from Tom Ford and Neil Jordan, respectively; Ricky Gervais charmed the media at a press conference for “The Invention of Lying”; Julianne Moore looked smashing in green at the opening of the erotic thriller “Chloe”; and the sun shone nearly every day, competing with the red-carpet wattage.

And yet, the festival’s big prizewinner was a film with little glamour: Lee Daniels’ “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire,” a moving if not exactly subtle drama about a miserably abused Harlem teen in 1987, won the audience-voted People’s Choice Award, following in the footsteps of a then-little-known movie last year called “Slumdog Millionaire.” “Precious” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it won both the audience and grand jury awards.

It’s smoothly sailing into Oscar season, with its star Gabourey Sidibe (making her film debut) happily along for the ride. I interviewed Sidibe at the festival; she’s a charmingly direct young woman with a ready giggle who told me that she almost didn’t go the audition because she didn’t want to miss class (at New York’s City College). Despite the potentially head-turning acclaim, she’s still kept her day job.

Bruce Beresford’s “Mao’s Last Dancer,” based on the true story of Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin, was runner-up in the awards; with “Micmacs,” the latest film from fantastical French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Amelie”), behind it. The documentary award went to “The Topp Twins,” a portrait of a New Zealand lesbian country-and-western sister act, followed by Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story.”

In between racing from one theater to another and eavesdropping while standing in line (my favorite: mishearing the title “I, Don Giovanni” as “I Dodge Your Vomit,” which I was thinking was perhaps some sort of misguided “Exorcist” sequel), I spent much time this year in interviews.

Clooney, alas, wasn’t available, but I enjoyed talking to Sidibe, Farmiga, Jane Campion (whose “Bright Star” was a festival highlight), Clive Owen, Penelope Cruz (here with Pedro Almodovar’s twisty drama “Broken Embraces”) and British writer Nick Hornby, whose screenplay for the coming-of-age tale “An Education” was another favorite. Asked why he didn’t do the screenplays for his own novels (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy”), his answer was to the point: “You’ve just spent five years putting everything in, why would you want to spend five years taking it all out again?”

Of course, the most unforgettable moments were on the festival’s big screens. Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” was a wildly uncontrolled rollercoaster of a film — but worth a watch for the poignant experience of seeing Heath Ledger’s final screen performance. Kristin Scott Thomas dazzled as a modern-day Lady Chatterley in the French film “Leaving.” The Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” was both funny and heartwarming, with the splendid stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg at its center as an unfortunate fellow who’s just trying to be a mensch.

And documentary master Frederick Wiseman’s “La Danse” was a glorious immersion into the art and commerce of the Paris Opera Ballet, done in the director’s trademark fly-on-the-wall style and reminding us that dance — and dancers — is all the more beautiful for its fleeting quality. “Jumping is not as important as launching something,” a choreographer tells a dancer. It’s a series of moments captured on film, even as they slipped away.

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