The 2008 Toronto International Film Festival has ended, for me, with a sad whimper. There was no single film that took my breath away, proving, I think, that truly superlative achievements are very hard to come by these days. While there was a lot of passion, and a dazzling array of star power shining on the Canadian red carpets, there was a lack of quality, overall and a feeling of slight disappointment in the eyes and on the lips of industry folks I chatted with as well as the ticket-buying public.
I managed to get in a few truly great viewings (The Wrestler and Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale were two of the finest of the fest), several middle-of-the-road tedious films, and only a couple that were truly atrocious. But nothing can beat the overall “festival experience” of being where the celebrities are, where the buzz happens, and where other film fans from all over the world convene to wait in line for hours and hope for a miracle. Sometimes seeing some of these peculiar little films can be an eye-opening occurrence (I’ve Loved You So Long was my biggest surprise this year), while others still can be a total bust.
So, to wrap up my second consecutive year of covering the fest, I have compiled a list of the best and the worst of this festival (not just the films, either!), and ended it all with a spate of five mini-reviews to give you all the low-down on what you should keep an eye out for and others that you should avoid like the plague, as well as a top ten list of what was hot and a quick mention of what just absolutely sucked. Thank God for coffee, Diet Coke, and energy bars.
First, some short takes:
“I was afraid of betraying the prison experience,” said the radiant Kristin Scott Thomas of her role as a woman released from prison after 15 years, in director/author Philippe Claudel’s moving feature debut. The actress talked at the film’s premiere of “fears of being overwhelmed by my own emotion, of having done some terrible crime. I was afraid my own feelings would get in the way of playing the role”. Thomas was nominated for an Oscar 12 years ago for her part in Anthony Minghella’s epic The English Patient, and in a just world, she will be back for her tour-de-force French-speaking portrait of a woman stilted in her grief and regret (Claudel talked of her “delicious little accent”). “I think we all have a fear of isolation and abandonment,” she added. “It’s our job to use it, that’s my job.”
The biggest let-down of the entire festival. What should have been a knock-out, with a pedigree to die for (Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Notes on a Scandal director Richard Eyre), was like watching a train wreck in slow motion, even though the film was barely 90 minutes long. Eyre was on hand to talk about how the film was just finished last week, and it shows. Neeson blusters and barks and guffaws with a hammy ridiculousness (“Gucci loafers!” he furiously bellows in one over-the-top scene), and Linney is barely there, but its co-star Antonio Banderas that got the biggest (unintentional) laughs as a playboy who Linney is cheating on Neeson with. He likens himself to “fellow cosmopolitans and fashionistas” in one particularly hysterical scene, as he befriends Neeson’s character, who is out to meet the man who is schtupping his woman. This flop crawls at a snail’s pace and is hopelessly stage-bound, off-kilter, and badly-written and directed. By the time the ludicrous, emotionally-manipulative “twist” happens at the end, I was numb. “How did you find out about me,” whines a transparent Banderas. “You were on a file called ‘love’,” retorts Neeson. Shoot me, please.
Kings and Queen, which also starred Christmas players Mathieu Amalric, Catherine Denueve, and Emanuelle Devos, is one of the most underrated, emotionally-complicated films of the last few years, so it is no surprise that French master Arnaud Desplechin has crafted a film of supreme emotional maturity, familial tensions and pure invention that gorgeously tells each of the film’s character’s stories and allows for a spectacular acting showcase for each of them. The narrative juggles a towering cast, moments of hilarity and tender, moving drama, that all plays out with surgical precision. As the Vuillard matriarch, Denueve gets her best role in years, while Amalric proves that he is one of the finest working actors in the world. Alternately cathartic, dysfunctional and compelling, American family sagas need to start taking on this modern French sensibility that Desplechin has become so adept at executing. This will be released in theaters by IFC in January, and there is no other way to experience this cinematic magic than on the big screen, so seek it out!
Poor Sophie Okonedo. She’s given two capable performances in two of the biggest duds of the fest, The Secret Life of Bees (which she was the single good thing about), and this tedious small-scale drama set in apartheid-ridden South Africa. What could have been a canny entry into the discussion on gender, race and class, instead devolves into a hot mess of histrionics (courtesy of the over-blown presence of Sam Neil as Okonedo’s white father). Based on a true story of Sandra Laing, and her fight to be classified as a white woman, even though her skin was brown (due to something called “polygenic inheritance”), this film fights to be relevant despite its predictable African inspirational music and long gazing shots of the countryside that we’ve seen a million times in a million better movies. This would be right at home on Lifetime Television, where Okonedo might have at least gotten a little bit of positive attention.
One of Tennessee Williams’ “lost” screenplays has been brought to (surprisingly) vivid life by director Jodie Markell (HBO’s Big Love, Joshua and the underrated indie Sweet Land). Markell has a flair for staging the material, and star Bryce Dallas Howard channels her inner Vivien Leigh, but male co-star Chris Evans, unfortunately cannot act his way out of a paper bag. This doesn’t really tread any new ground -– Williams’ milieu is fraught with melodramatic, mentally-unstable Southern Belles, but if you are a fan of the playwright, this isn’t a bad attempt at conceiving his work for a more contemporary audience and very nicely shot. Howard’s temperamental, sarcastic performance definitely is one of the more exciting actresses of her generation, who keeps choosing great material like this, Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay and As You Like It. Ellen Burstyn, Mamie Gummer, and Ann-Margret co-star as random Southern women with some sort of panic-stricken dilemmas they must face.
01. Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler
In what could have been an offensive joke of a performance, Rourke captures hearts with his tender, tough portrait of a man coming apart. Will he capture the Oscar?
02. The Burning Plain
You either love the styles of writer-director Guillermo Arriaga or you hate them (he is responsible for the equally polarizing Babel and 21 Grams), but you cannot deny he is writing more expansive women’s roles than just about any other writer-director out there. He should be applauded, as should Charlize Theron and a career-best Kim Basinger.
03. Cultural Hybridity
Almost all of the films I saw, whether they were period pieces, biography films, or simply daring original works, explored the intersecting themes of borders opening; of lines on the maps being erased. They were beautifully humanist takes on what it’s like to live in a world where everyone’s concept of home is shrinking, and where cultures are bleeding into one another. It’s comforting to see that our modern master filmmakers are perceptively mirroring this global, transient realism onscreen.
04. Star Wattage and Accessibility
Where else are you going to be two feet away from Viggo Mortensen but at TIFF? More than I have seen before, the big guns were brought out for promoting films, for selling films, and for getting the word out there. Be it in the form of press conferences (where I sat directly in front of powerhouses like Queen Latifah stumping for Secret Lifes of Bees), or just walking down the street, there were actors and directors practically littering Yonge Street. Also, the graciousness of these actors and directors to do question and answer sessions with large festival audiences, as well as the frenzied red carpets, and just being present in general at screenings is unparalleled.
Alors! Staggering in their artistic consistency and integrity, the films from our great French directors at TIFF this year (Olivier Assayas, Phillip Claudel, Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, and Agnes Varda), proved that the country sets the bar much higher for their popular entertainment than we do here, they have a standard of excellence that needs to be emulated. The French directorial vision is typically beautifully art-directed; stunning acted and has, across the board, an emotional pull that is sorely lacking in the American entries this year.
06. Volunteers and Employees
Mostly all friendly and knowledgeable, these tireless enthusiasts had to wrangle not only the public, but the celebrities and the press and industry crowd. A thankless job, where they are paid nothing, but they do it with a smile on their face, for the love of film.
07. Talking to Strangers
Whether it was in line, or on the street to get directions, Canadians are friendly. You are standing in line sometimes for hours to get a decent spot, and are forced, in many ways, to chat up your neighbors. The shocker? They are usually extremely pleasant, excited, and just as knowledgeable about film as you are. A refreshing element to the proceedings that can sometimes be more fun than the films themselves.
08. That Blindness Did Not Stink
People tore this adaptation of Jose Saramago’s novel to pieces at Cannes, and critics had their knives sharpened for it here in Toronto, but Fernando Meirelles pulled it off. Don’t be fooled by those who would dissuade you from seeing it; Blindness is brutal, yet powerfully undeniable filmmaking. And between this and Savage Grace Julianne Moore shows (again) that she is the bravest American actress working.
09. The Queen Mother Restaurant
Canadian food is hit or miss, and that’s being polite (poutin, anyone?). Thank god for the Lao-Thai fusion at this quaint café in the best neighborhood in the city. Affordable, delicious, fresh food and no-nonsense, friendly service (inside or out on the patio) makes this the go-to spot for all visitors. Of note, particularly is their phenomenal brunch. I am not even going to tell you how many times I ate there this week.
10. The Return of Debra Winger
She was only in about four scenes of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, but in her scant screen time, she conducted a master class in scene-stealing as the mother of the title character and Anne Hathaway’s noxious Kym. Yes, it may be the “mother” role, but Winger is understatedly elegant, and rock-solid. Here’s to hoping this high-profile release gains her some traction on the awards circuit, in tandem with Hathaway. It’s a small, quietly fuming turn that should be lauded for its poetic simplicity.
01. Jerks on BlackBerrys and I-Phones
Since everyone at the press and industry screenings are apparently so important they couldn’t turn off their phones for five seconds, other people, who were actually trying to work during the festival got treated to a sea of tiny illuminated screens that never went off and, when in combination, produced an obnoxious glow that distracted everyone from everything. At one especially terrible session, a young woman sitting next to me was actually texting on an I-Phone with one hand, and scrolling through her favorite web content with her other hand. This is not an exaggeration.
02. The Lack of Prestige Films
Toronto has been unquestionably known as the launching pad for Oscar nominees. Last year they showed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Juno, and Atonement (among a score of others), to smashing success and a parade of little gold men. In previous years, they brought out such Oscar war horses as Chariots of Fire, and American Beauty and led the way to glory. This year, none of the movies shown here look primed to be contenders. No one really loved the line-up.
There’s always hope for next year.