By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
It was the easiest, hardest, best, worst, perfectly imperfect TIFF ever… made more so by the fact that I am summing it up days before it even ends.
Sony, first through Sony Classics and then through the only studio doing serious TIFF junketting this year, Columbia Pictures, dominated the festival in every way. Clooney and Pitt were the cover boys, with The Ides of March and Moneyball (though Clooney got more praise for The Descendants, in part because his press-shyness did not serve him well as a director) and then with, of all things, a Roland Emmerich drama, Anonymous, which could well end up outshining both of the higher profile films in the award race as well as the box office.
And Sony Picture Classics celebrated its 20th anniversary at the festival with a parade of events for Bernard & Barker, but also a massive parade of movies already being distributed by the company. No doubt, they will add even more to their roster before the next month is through.
Magnolia added Bobcat Goldthwaite’s barn-burner of a comedy, God Bless America, while the company celebrated its 10th anniversary… which, yes, means they launched at the 9/11 edition of the festival.
(Nobody wants to say it out loud, but the 9/11 short that the festival made and ran in front of all screenings on the day was… not sensational. They had a great idea, with speaker-phoned voices of some of the New Yorkers who were at TIFF when that fateful morning turned us all upside down, but the memory of what the festival itself did dominated… and it really wasn’t about them. It was clearly a well-intended piece and meant to share with the specific TIFF family of thousands of Toronto and visiting movie lovers. But I didn’t run into a single person who wasn’t critical of it, if not aggressively hostile.
It was not the most disliked piece of the festival preview package, however. If Grace Kelly wasn’t rolling in her grave, audiences would have happily rolled her after seeing the pretentious, overlong, bizarrely conceived promo for a Lightbox gallery later this fall. At a Midnight Madness screening of a chop-socky film, the pre-show talk included the phrase “kick her in the head,” which someone then shouted out during the Kelly preview. Should have become a trend.
Last note: “Arrrrr”s are out. They removed the word “pirate” from the briefer-than ever copyright threat note to shut people up. Move on. The joke is as dead as the Uptown.)
Fox Searchlight was the second strongest studio presence, with the much anticipated Alexander Payne film, The Descendents and one of the few buys so far that means serious domestic distribution for a serious film, Shame. I have wondered what the “little festival film” strategy for Searchlight has been… and now my guess is that not only are they adding strong library titles, but that they are cultivating their next generation of in-house filmmakers.
The overall theme of the festival was “good, but not great.” I saw only one movie in about thirty that I really couldn’t stand. It will remain unnamed.
My favorites, in no real order, were:
Pina, a compelling 3D celebration of Pina Bausch by Wim Wenders. He insists that the 3D is inherent to the work and that he could never have even made the film without it. Who knows. But it is beautiful and it takes you into the idea of the dances, not just a view of them. I spoke to one “serious” critic who HATES the film, claiming it bastardizes the dance work. But he’s wrong. Besides Wenders collaborating on this for years with Bausch and sharing ideas that he then used after her death, Wenders makes a movie of live dance. They are not the same experience. And he makes a film that is accessible. And each time you go back to one of the major dance sequences, you, as an audience, recall the last pieces of it you saw and bring more context than I think most people would just watching a well-shot hour of a single dance, not matter how beautiful.
We Need To Talk About Kevin, the highlight of which is not Tilda’s inevitably beautiful performance, but Ezra Miller’s mesmerizing turn as Kevin. It’s very Lynne Ramsey. She is a strong director with an undeniable voice. The film doesn’t really satisfy as a procedural. You won’t leave with answers, But I am pretty sure that this is the point.
Melancholia, the latest reminder that Von Trier is an artist, not a marketing stunt. (He is Banksy to a world of Mr. Brainwashes) Easily the best work of Kirsten Dunst’s career. In some ways, this is an answer to the best Dogma 95 film, The Celebration, which wasn’t Lars’. But its almost as though he finally found the perfect cast of English speaking actors for his voice… each distinct and flawed enough to be human, borken, and yet iconic. Charlotte Gainsbourg is even better here than in the brilliant Antichrist because she doesn’t have to strain to carry as much of the movie, while Dunst is the perfect human doll for Von Trier, overshadowing past “dolls” like Nicole Kidman and Bryce Dallas Howard. Like his breakthrough starlet, Emily Watson, Dunst is beautiful but mushy-faced. Even more so, she has very strong angles on her face from one camera angle while another makes her look soft-featured. As she is spun by the tale, Dunst is anything… everything… all at once. Her dimples and her breasts are like shields when there is danger, yet she seems to be sincere in her pleasure when they turn up. In one scene she gives up her vagina but not her breasts or nudity… which seems to be the ultimate Von Trier metaphor of going right for the hard core, but being ever protective of real vulnerability.
Take This Waltz is “Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret” for 29-year-old women. Sarah Polley’s second feature feels more like what you would expect as her first… I guess, primarily because the characters are in her age group. It is a tiny slice of a moment in the life of Michelle Williams’ Margot, who is married to a nice guy, but is restless. She meets a guy who pursues her, even as he keeps saying he won’t pursue a married woman. What should she do? What is the “moral” choice? What is the best choice? Where does she stand after she makes a choice? Add to that a bunch of really lovely side elements, including the now-tabloid-famous full-frontal nudity of our three leading ladies, including Sarah Silverman. But what makes that nudity lovely isn’t that we are seeing a celebrity naked, but that we are seeing human women in a normal, daily, unintimate intimacy. It’s the other three naked women in the scene that really make it so powerful. It’s one of those movies that women will watch over and over and over again… an intellectual Bridget Jones. And there is one visual sequence, on a carnival ride, that will be one of those images quoted in clip packages for the rest of movie history. It is not only sensational in the movie, it is a true work of art unto itself… shot in 8 hours… and as visceral as anything you will ever see on film.
Chicken With Plums – A piece of art. It’s less currently political than Persepolis, but it’s like one of those Mother Goose books with lush, beautiful imagery and weird 3D panels that are endlessly fascinating. This is a beautiful fable about love and honor and passion and loss.
God Bless America – Bob Goldthwaite, of all f-ing people, is turning out to be the Frank Capra of our crass, self-involved, disconnected era. He would probably lean to Sturges… and I get that… his humor is closer to Sturges’ than Capra”s. But there is a sturdy wholesomeness to Bob, kinky as his notions may be. In this case, it’s a Regular Joe who is pushed to the edge by the basic rudeness of modern America. As a result, he ends up on a killing spree, ending up with a teen girl by is side who is also repulsed by the idiots of populism. Of course, everyone has a different notion of who deserves punishment and at what degree. And that is the tricky subtext of this film… Goldthwaite draws audience applause for his attacks on familiar rudeness and stupidity, but then has you asking yourself about how complacent you are in continuing the cycle. I’d cut 15 minutes or so of the third act… he goes in some circles… but a movie that audiences will have a lot of fun with and then quote amongst their friends for years to come.
Paul Williams Still Alive – It helps to be a person who is touched by the songs of Paul Williams… though many people seeing this film will be surprised by how many songs he wrote to which they know all the lyrics. Williams is a fascinating character… incredibly ingratiating… self-mocking… filmmaker-mocking… but so appreciative to be here and working on new and exciting things while so many of his comrades in arms have fallen to many of the things to which he exposed himself. A real must-see.
Killer Joe – William Friedkin might come after me with a gun for telling you that he’s 76 years old… but I have a point. He just knocked out the kind of movie you might expect from a college graduate who wants to emulate Tarantino or Joe Carnahan. I love the fact that the guy is still relevant (even if this play is 20 years old… feels like it could have been written last year). And when you see him fondle our condo lamp in the DP/30 – while noting that it couldn’t be serious, as he is still married – you’ll laugh and be stunned by his energy and the pleasure he still takes from all of this.
His cast is perfect… and even when you think they may not be, wait a few minutes and you’ll find out why they are. Emile Hirsch plays a wired scumbag, Gina Gershon the second wife slut, Juno Temple the glistening innocent-ish, Thomas Haden Church the not-so-bright pater familias, and owning the screen with a ferocity I’m not sure we’ve ever seen from him before, Matthew F-ing McConaughey. He kills. They all kill. The third act of this film will leave you with your jaw on the ground and barely enough time to try to pick it up so you don’t get the popcorn kernels rolling around on the floor in your mouth.
Shame – Steve McQueen is this year’s ultimate embodiment on what we also see in filmmakers like Von Trier, Ramsey, Wenders, Moverman, and even Goldthwaite. “I am a film artist and I’m here doing my work… you make like it, you may hate it, but it is MY work.” Huzzah.
This film will generate more ink in the months to come than any other. I have already gotten into a Twitter battle over the facts and function of the film… not because people aren’t smart or working their way through the material… but because, clearly, they don’t have experience in the arena McQueen is working. Sex addiction is the first issue, but it is complicated by a sibling who is suffering through a different-sex variation of the same childhood. The responses have been almost as interesting as the movie, from those who don’t seem to believe (or care) that sex addiction is a real mental illness to fantasies about the brother and sister in the film being connected by incestuous sex. At least one person who I know suffers from some of the same issues that are in the movie is pushing away hard. And I suspect that some men think that Fassbender’s character isn’t really doing that badly. In some ways, he isn’t. McQueen chose to show a slice of an addict’s life that isn’t the bottom, isn’t the pure high, and is really mid-struggle. This surprised me, as it is less dramatic than the other choices. But the choice is beginning to settle in for me… that there is more to learn in the gray. Shame isn’t really meant, I don’t think, to be a “teachable moment.” But I would love to come out of the run of this film seeing people thinking about how people make the kinds of choices made in this film. You don’t have to be as lost as these characters to relate to their struggle. I hope that critics and audiences alike can get over Fassbender’s penis and Mulligan’s pubic hair and get on to the things those moments really represent.
Rampart – Oren Moverman & James Ellroy have done the real sequel to Bad Lieutenant. It’s not as much fun as Herzog’s insane homage, but it’s much more to the point. It’s Los Angeles. It’s 20 years later (in real time). It’s a world that’s drawing attention because of the Rampart scandal. (I like the title, but it’s not really a movie about the Rampart scandal at all and may suffer from that confusion.) Woody Harrelson plays Dave Brown – nice boring name – a veteran cop who embodies all the things a bad LA cop with a self-indulgent moral streak is. Too many women, too many drugs, too much violence… and now, they are watching him. What happens when this epic fuckhead – who the (sick) ladies love – is faced with his world as he knows it going away. The responsibilities have piled up. His manhood depends on his performance, in so many arenas. And he just can’t stay ahead of the wave.
Harrelson is spectacular here. I don’t know if they can get older Academy voters to watch the film, but with good clips and enough SAG screenings, he has a real shot at a Best Actor nomination. The part looks a lot easier than it is. He is managing our perspective of him, much as he is managing the overloaded world around him.
There is some Shame and Killer Joe in this movie too. All three movies have an unstoppable force meeting an object that isn’t in a hurry to move. People behave badly, as people do. The real question for all three films is whether audiences want to get into the weight of it all. It’s not pretty. And we are sometimes implicated.
I saw a lot of movies that I really liked, from the big studio movies to docs like Gibney’s The Last Gladiators to the lovely My Sister’s Sister… even the high-style Damsels in Distress, which makes earlier Whit Stillman films seem like cinema verite. And there are films like Coriolanus that I liked but need more time to percolate or films that have been around for a while, like Take Shelter or The Artist. In other words… I retain my right to add to my list of favorites and to think more about what’s already on the list.
More TIFF reflections to come… including a look at all the young actors who lost their on-screen-maturity cherries this year…