Day 6: TIFF 2010: The Perfect Tens

Monkey Ghosts, unraveling ballerinas, going green with Mike Leigh, and a pox on the pioneers. This year there were four clear stand outs at an otherwise boring Toronto Film Festival.

Another Year (dir. Mike Leigh, 2010)

Lest you make the rookie mistake of thinking the legendary Mike Leigh's newest film Another Year is about anything so black and white, cut and dry, as being “happy” or “unhappy”, the director was clear to point out to me – during the private round table interview I conducted with him and actors Jim Broadbent, Lesely Manville, and Ruth Sheen during TIFF – that this notion is completely wrong. “I think that's twaddle – I never said that and the film doesn't say that. That's the very thing the film doesn't say, if you don't mind me saying so! Are you happy?”

Touché, Mr. Leigh.

Indeed Another Year seems to actually be pondering the point at which people realize that they have found contentment but are still surrounded by others who haven't and are far from that point. Worse: some of them, we know, will never find it. What do you do when your friends are lost, full of regret and wishes? Though ostensibly a tale of mid- to later- life melancholia with a touch of eco-friendliness thrown in, Leigh's masterful touch softens the blow and expands on themes he has previously approached with films such as the perfect Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and even Naked (1993). Reminiscent of the work of Yasujiro Ozu in both humanity and contemplative tone, Leigh chooses a seasonal theme as the film's framework “It really liberated the whole thing,” said the renowned auteur. “It seemed to make absolute sense. I then realized that the whole thing was about time passing.” Leigh then plants the viewer down smack dab in the middle of spring, where Tom and Gerri are toiling away in their perfect little community garden, enjoying life and each other.

“First of all we decide what the character is going to do,” said Sheen, explaining the starting point for her character. Tom is a geologist and Gerri is a therapist and in the first scenes, Leigh rotates in another familiar player: Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), in a tight, tense close-up. She is fraught with sleeplessness unease, with fixed, narrow black eyes. Her face is hard, yet there is something vulnerable that feels about to crack. This is not “Vera” from Vera Drake, this is an amazing transformation, a complete immersion into character, a signature of Leigh's troupe through and through.

When we met two years ago to discuss Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh told me that each character in his film was the center of their own universe, just as we are in real life. Staunton's lived-in desperation is simply further proof that Leigh sticks to this sentiment with each of the players, no matter how ancillary or supporting – they are all fully realized.

Using such richly-drawn characters, played by expertly-trained actors, Leigh asks many tough questions of his audience throughout, leaving much up to the spectator's imagination by giving them just enough information to make their own decisions. When is it too late to make changes? Can somebody truly damaged turn things around in mid-life and find peace of mind or happiness? Are we all doomed to wallow in our miserable, mundane rituals forever, or can we find acceptance from other despite our flaws and issues?

By the time we get to the summer segment of the film, we see that some people are givers and some people are takers, some are selfish, while others are selfless. The toll that giving takes on a good person before the tenuous, fragile bonds snap like spring peas is thoughtfully examined. How much are we expected to take from those who we love, who are fundamentally damaged? At what point do you pull out of these kinds of toxic relationships? Leigh suggests that these kinds of relationships go through cycles very much like the seasons that provide the film's narrative structure, and in these spaces, he experiments with different rhythms within scenes that allow characters to behave in awkward, funny, moving and natural ways that illuminate all of the questions being asked.

“Young people, young people. Everything is for young people,” grouses a character in Another Year. Thankfully, this film is not one of those things – Another Year is for adults and thank God there are still movies like this that explore everyday, relatable issues such as aging, depression, happiness, loneliness and dissatisfaction. The themes seem simple, but in Leigh's hands they are elegantly dissected, at the core these are the fundamental issues we all think about.

The company plays them out in the most beautiful, cinematic ways (with an assist from ace cameraman Dick Pope). Broadbent's eyes change so easily from mournful rue to glee with just a flutter as Tom. Sheen is a quiet marvel as the kind of woman we all know – she listens, she loves, she gives, because it is expected of her. This is a character – and a character actress – who is taken for granted.

Then there is the magnetic Manville as the Blanche Dubois-esque Mary, lost in a bottle, looking for a life preserver from her only friends Tom and Gerri.“I did research Pinot Grigio in depth,” laughed Manville, who gives a ferociously concentrated performance as a woman who has to hit dizzying heights of comedy and Giulietta Masina-like levels of naïve sadness (her final scene is breathtaking). She is completely flawless in her portrayal of a woman who has been knocked down one too many times by life and who, despite her surface optimism, is completely terrified about her grim future.

When takers can't or won't give back to the givers and nurturers, what holds them together? Is it years of fond memories that have long drifted past into a wintery snowbank? Is it guilt over enjoying one's own happiness perhaps too much? Or is it simply pity for the irresponsible takers who are left without partnerships, children or other connections? The answers to these questions about our responsibilities to non-familial relationships can be crushing and illuminating, and Leigh and company asks the viewer to be a part of the film, to bring their own experiences and training to the table.

As with any reciprocal relationship that goes bad, sometimes you have to move away from your past to embrace the future. If your friends and lovers can keep up with you – or at least tolerate you – great. If they choose not to, however, do we instead tolerate and love them unconditionally? Where does the line between friendship and caretaker blur? Another Year suggests we all have the power to make these determinations for ourselves and there is no easy answer.

PopMatters will publish the entire roundtable interview with Broadbent, Leigh, Manville, and Sheen as we near Another Year's year-end release date.

Rating: 10

Meek's Cutof f (dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

Meek's Cutoff

Though it is disappointing to know that Oscilloscope will not release Kelly Reichardt's ambitious tale of pioneers versus nature for consideration in this year's Oscar race (the film will bow sometime in 2011, despite topping Indiewire's critic's poll), it's also comforting to know that this is the company that adeptly handled the director's previous Michelle Williams-starrer Wendy and Lucy, perhaps the most poetic, brilliant dissection of the economic crisis' effect on young people out there.

It's with tremendous excitement that I report Reichardt's newest film, Meek's Cutoff. This is one of those rarities that can actually be called visionary in execution, from the first frame that features the handmade, quilt-like opening title card to the final riveting exchanging of glances between two main characters, every moment of Meek’s Cutoff is thoughtful and nuanced. Indeed, this challenging film excels in every sense, mainly thanks to Reichardt's meticulous, artistic eye. The director's purposeful use of space and themes, her command of the sparsely-populated mis en scéne, and her immaculate eye for editing add up to a meticulously-constructed piece of art.

Wendy and Lucy is an impressive, near-perfect movie, but this newest venture is simply brave. Meek's Cutoff is Reichardt stepping up her game in every sense and it is thrilling to watch.

The silent first sequence tells the viewer everything they need to know without beating anyone over the head with obviousness or regurgitating the too-familiar Western/pioneer imagery from this period. The director wisely tweaks the images and allows them tell the story from the outset: we are transported to the Oregon desert in 1845 and covered wagons are pulled across a waist-deep river; stark, natural tall grasses sway gently while the camera moves in slow, deliberate, steady pans. Women in bonnets and plain homespun muslin dresses look like cocooned moths waiting to explode from their oppressive chrysalises. The tone is beautifully set by the director as she tells the story of guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) taking three families across this treacherous terrain, claiming he knows a short cut, when in reality it seems like he is lost.

All of the actors are perfectly cast, aided by the costumes. The aforementioned bonnets that frame the faces of the women allow for mystery, as though they are hiding something. Williams channels Lillian Gish, both in Victor Sjostrom's The Wind and Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter. Her weather-beaten countenance recalls Gish's silent agony, while her expert handling of a shotgun recalls the righteous, protective and pragmatic Gish years later. Williams is fast becoming one of my favorite actresses of her generation, possessed of the qualities of a young Jessica Lange or Sissy Spacek. As Emily, she is revelatory; hard, cunning and strong.

The women in the party do most of the grunt work and are keen observers. Yet, they have no formal power in a gender-biased system where the men can lead them in any direction they'd like. This is a very interesting, unique look at how power was exchanged between the sexes during this period, and how the vicious gender politics at this point in American history were slowly being chipped away at, in many cases for the first time.

When the dialogue and score come in to replace the natural sounds, they are used with perfect economy. Reichardt's sense of this material couldn't be any more commanding and her use of diegetic and non-diegtic sound is masterful. Her use of light – starlight, firelight, burning natural sunsets – is also miraculous when in concert with the colors of the landscape: amber, indigo, sage and rich earth are the prevailing hues in the palette.

Steeped in ritual, the ritual of marching, of making fires before sunrise, of being supremely regimented in every way, Meek's Cutoff hits a stride when a Native American prisoner joins the party and the pioneers must face the lies that have been propagated about these mysterious people. When Meek's Cutoff unexpectedly becomes a film about racism, it soars. It begs the question, “Are non-white Americans treated that much better today?” Indeed, what has changed?

Ultimately, race is but one component of an extremely complex, yet not at all fussy meditation on trust and intimacy in times of catastrophe, which make it completely relevant in this day and age, when “community” is but a buzzword for “groupthink” and people are still going through brutal struggles to find their way in a desperate time in American history. Reichardt's brilliance illuminates all of these topics in spades.

Rating: 10

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Alternately spare, contemplative and luscious, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives took home the the Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year. I spoke with director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century) in Toronto and asked him to reflect on his film's success earlier this year: “It was like a dream. It was like I'd been to Mars and now I'm back. It seemed that way because its not through. I wonder 'who was that guy who won?' (laughing) With the Palm, for me, I was thinking I was too young. When I came back from Mars, I was still struggling to find financing for a new film. In retrospect, it was like a brief flash.”

A trip to Mars is an apt analogy for a film that graciously, meditatively examines memory in the past, present and future. Striking an balance of moving comedic and dramatic themes, Weerasethakul (“Thai Joe” as he is affectionately referred to by cinephiles) follows the title character, who is suffering from kidney failure, on a mystical trek through the countryside while surrounded by those he has loved the most, whether alive or dead, including the ghosts of his wife and son, one of whom takes on a translucent spectral form, while the other looks more like a monster with glowing red eyes. Past lives, future lives, the transmigration of souls to other bodies, whether animal, human or vegetable, and the intermingling of spirits throughout time and space add an air of spirituality and emotion that feels unpredictable, new. Uncle Boonmee is a film that defies description, and must simply be experienced rather than talked about.

Drawing from an array of avant garde inspirations, from Maya Deren and Chris Marker to Andy Warhol, comic books and Thai cinema of the '80s, Weerasethakul conceived this film as a part of the Primitive project and as an homage to his home in the Isan province in the North-east of Thailand. The director calls the end result a “time machine” that richly explores tradition, destruction and deconstruction of cultures. “The past ten years have proven [for me] that when you are very honest with yourself, there's someone who can find [the work]. Its a dream to continue doing this as a diary, with my actors. We grow together. The film reflects my interests, my life at a certain age. With Uncle Boonmee, its been distributed in so many countries, which is a first for me. Its amazing.”

This autobiographical strain, and the quietly revolutionary spirit of the film's director, combined with an assured technical and stylistic grip on the imagery – including the use of still photography, light and dark to strongly punctuate the film's story – mark the daring, original Uncle Boonmee as a singular, complex object of visual art rather than just another movie. In casting aside slavish devotion to any particular mode or adherence to a particular form of cinema, Weerasethakul has created a piece that is more akin to an installation or fine work of art that is personal, political and daring without feeling outre or impenetrable.

That such a gentle, unique film rises to the occasion to arouse the viewers senses in such a tantalizing way is inspiring, even. It is unconventional, independent and experimental in every sense, and not beholden to the traditional rules of filmmaking at all, which is a refreshing change of pace in a festival environment that seems to be begging for awards.

Speaking of awards, although Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives will not premiere in the United States until March of next year, the film will be eligible for consideration in the category of Best Foreign film at the next Oscars, representing Thailand. With it's deliberately slow roll-out, look for the film to gain and sustain the level of buzz it has been enjoying since bowing at Cannes and for a warm reception from Academy voters – Uncle Boonmee would shockingly be the first Thai film nominated for this award in Oscar history. Its about time.

PopMatters will publish the full-length interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul next year to coincide with the film's release stateside.

Rating: 10

Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

Black Swan

Saving the best for last, I am actually worried to write about Black Swan because of the Matt Mazur Oscar curse. Each year I champion my favorite performances post-Toronto – usually by an actress – as 'the' one to beat. These choices are never nominated. They do, however, go on to be legendary. Kristin Scott Thomas in I've Loved You So Long is one of these choices. Nicole Kidman in Margot at the Wedding is another. Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, yet another.

Prestigious, no? I pray this year will be the first time this awful curse is lifted and Natalie Portman will be up for the gold and actually win it in a walk. Her performance is that good. But more on Natalie later. In a just world each of the film's principals – Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Mila Kunis – would also occupy space on the nominees lists in the supporting categories. As a cast, they work like a finely-tuned muscle.

They are a pure thrill to watch in director Darren Aronofsky's dark, visionary Black Swan. To say this film was my favorite is a gross understatement. Thank you, Mr. Aronofsky for reminding us that cinema is not reality but a sick, perverted mirror of it that triggers a process in our brains that turns us on. Black Swan is cinema that the spectator can really get off on, in a strictly scopophilic sense, that is.

This is my second time enjoying the work of Aronofsky at TIFF, where two years ago I attended a press screening for The Wrestler in a theater that did not have a single open seat. The place went wild for the director's brilliant handling of the film's complex tones and for the resurrection/legitimization of Mickey Rourke's career. This year, naturally, the entire town was buzzing about Black Swan. I saw the film while nestled safely in the front row of the most state-of-the-art, perfectly-designed-for-cinephiles movie palace I have ever been in: the TIFF Lightbox, where the furious sounds in the opening sequence rattled my body as two starkly rendered dancers perform Swan Lake with abandon in the opening sequence of Aronofsky's best film to date.

Right off the bat, with a dark magic dream sequence, the energy is unpredictable. Within moments, several tricky themes are introduced: Nina's infantilization by her unstable mother, Lee (a triumphant Hershey), narcissism, ageism, competition. Perfection. Women's relationships to other women . The most interesting theme to me was how one sees oneself, both in the mirror and metaphorically. Looking and being looked at, your every move being scrutinized is something that ballerina Nina (Portman) must learn to live with in the cutthroat world of professional ballet. In the film, she sees herself and her doppelganger dark self in the mirror, as ballet director Thomas Leroy (Cassel) decides which of his ladies will replace the former prima ballerina Beth (a delicious Winona Ryder) as the Swan Queen. Will it be the virginal pipsqueak Nina or her smoldering rival Lilly (a bravura Kunis, channeling her inner Anne Baxter)?

The duality of the role is reflected in the mirror motifs that Aronofsky pulls off flawlessly. The camera movements in the first scene capture the dizzying, agonizing movements of the dancers and establish an operatic, grand guignol tone for Nina's paranoia and complete unraveling over the next two hours.

“I just want to be perfect,” whinges Nina, and this sad refrain will be her undoing. In the world of professional ballet, everything must be perfect and the dancers strive for total precision, often to the point of obsession. A parallel can be drawn to actors and their craft, writers and writing, directors and directing, and just about any trade that requires a substantial amount of concentration and creativity. Creative people are capable of reaching great heights, but what is the price for this perfection? How deep do these obsessions with being the best run?

For Nina, these issues are a bottomless well and Portman's audacious commitment to the role, both physically and mentally, is impressive. This is a performance that is bound to become legendary. Aronofsky selects little girl motifs to indicate that Nina is a lost child at the beginning – a room full of pink, butterflies and ballerina music boxes meant for girls half her age are among the 'treasures' that help us understand Nina's arrested development.

The actresses' vocal work is also of note here. Cooing “mommy” to Hershey's Lee in a sickly sweet way, the brittle whining directed towards Leroy – Portman attacks this aspect of her character voraciously, like a singer, using her voice as a tool that assists in her character's many transformations. By the end, it is as though she is a completely different person altogether.

The demands of the role are enormous but Portman flawlessly pulls it off. It's almost unbelievable what her body can express not just in the nightmarish broad strokes but also in the haunted close-ups during each of her excruciating chaînés and fouetté, as reality becomes more and more elusive for the very troubled Nina. By the time we get to the actual performance of Swan Lake, we just don't know what is real anymore and it is a complete cinematic thrill to watch the madness spinning out of control to a pulse-pounding finalé.

What happens to the mind when the body betrays it? Aronofsky definitely touched on this discourse with Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, but with Black Swan he places himself in an entirely different league as a director of supreme confidence and bravado who knows how to balance style with substance. This is a winning film on every level.

Rating: 10

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