FESTIVAL REPORT: TIFF 2011
The Toronto International Film Festival isn’t the most important film festival in the world, but it’s definitely in the top three and probably edges ahead of Venice for most industry people.
Because it’s not a competitive festival, the organizers aren’t tied to world premieres, which means TIFF can bring in the best from Cannes, from Sundance, Berlin and Locarno, and it has no qualms about playing Venice titles too, a week after they have played on the Lido. In that sense it’s a lot like London – a gigantic festival of festivals. But whereas the LFF is offering (I think) 12 World Premieres in its program this year, TIFF managed a whacking 123. That’s nearly half of its massive 249 feature film slate.
Admittedly not all those premieres are worth very much. Even the opening night film, Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about U2’s Achtung Baby, From the Sky Down, will be released on DVD within a month, and the festival represents the only theatrical screening for Joel Schumacher’s home invasion thriller Trespass (starring Nic Cage and Nicole Kidman), which is going straight to DVD next week in the US. If Cage and Kidman can’t guarantee a big screen release then you have to wonder what is going on with the movie business. Though the bigger mystery might be why Kidman would want to work Joel Schumacher in the first place.
So: 250 films across ten days. No, I didn’t see them all. In fact I was just in Toronto for seven days, and I am pretty proud of the 32 titles I managed to squeeze in – even if I did miss the Herzog documentary, and that Lebanese comedy that won the audience award, and Madonna’s film (actually that was on purpose)…
Needless to say what I did see was all over the map: there was a lot of good stuff from the UK, some terrific US indies, a couple of real finds from Europe and Japan, some first rate Hollywood movies and there were disappointments from everywhere.
Just because TIFF doesn’t have an official competition doesn’t mean we can’t dole out our own prizes for the best and worst of an enjoyably exhausting week in the dark.
Our Toronto Highlights
Best Picture Bet: The Descendants
TIFF has a remarkably good record for presenting Oscar winners, including Crash, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech. A Dangerous Method might be in with a shout but it’s not really a crowd pleaser. The British literary contingent (which includes The Deep Blue Sea, Wuthering Heights and Trishna) won’t appeal to American tastes either I’m afraid. Shame is too explicit and too arty. No, the strongest contenders in TIFF were American: the beautifully crafted true life baseball story Moneyball, which has a superb screenplay by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and a lovely central performance by Brad Pitt… And Pitt’s old buddy George Clooney in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. This quirky-sad domestic drama explores similar emotional territory to Payne’s Sideways and About Schmidt, but it’s a more forgiving and universal film, very funny, moving, with a subtle, grounded Clooney at its heart. I’d say The Descendants has to be the front-runner at this stage.
Best Actor: Woody Harrelson (Rampart)
In Friends with Benefits Harrelson gives probably the worst performance of his career playing a bizarrely macho gay guy. In Rampart, he gives probably his best performance. Dave Brown – nicknamed “Date Rape” by his cop buddies – isn’t a racist (he says), he hates everybody equally. He’s a proudly old school peace officer, someone who will break heads to protect and serve. But over the course of the movie he is forced to see that the Dirty Harry days really are over. It’s standard James Ellroy material (see also Cop, LA Confidential, Dark Blue, even Street Kings) except that he’s scarily articulate and even charismatic. Cowriter-director Oren Moverman led Harrelson to a supporting actor nomination in The Messenger, but he deserves another shot at best actor for his complex and compelling turn here.
Best Actress: Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene)
Yup, the kid sister to Mary-Kate and Ashley. She made her debut at five back in 1994 then retired from the screen at six – which makes this the comeback of the year. At 21 she’s the perfect age to play a young woman who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult leader (John Hawkes) but breaks free to reunite with her older sister (Sarah Paulson) and her boyfriend (Hugh Dancy). Why the perfect age? Because she still seems so young and impressionable, even if she’s also defiantly trying to assert herself. Because she is beautiful but as yet unformed, someone still open to construction. Returning to “civilization”, she is almost like a wild child – her sister isn’t sure if she belongs in a hospital, and it’s a question that the audience keeps coming back during the film too. This is the most promising performance by a young actress I’ve seen since Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone.
Runner up: Olga Dykhovichnaya (Twilight Portrait)
This low budget Russian film isn’t an easy watch. It begins with three police officers spotting a prostitute by the side of the road and raping her. It’s not long before they have picked up another victim – but this woman, Marina (Dykhovichnaya) is not so forgiving. Educated and well-connected, she decided to get her revenge, but not through the corrupt institutions of the New Russia. Instead she follows the lead cop to his home with a view to meting out her own brand of justice. The movie – directed by Angelina Nikonova and cowritten by the director and her lead actress – does not go where you expect, but never flinches either. Marina makes questionable choices, but Dykhovichnaya ensures they are compelling and brutally honest – definitely someone to watch.
Best Use of CGI: Take Shelter
Indie movies don’t usually have much in the special effects, but CGI is crucial to Take Shelter, and it doesn’t matter at all that it’s not 100% convincing. In this stark, powerful drama Michael Shannon is ideally cast as a blue collar worker who starts having trouble sleeping. He’s plagued by visions of a terrible, ferocious storm, so vivid and so insistent that he begins to lose his grip on sanity. Are these storm clouds nightmares, or are they a message, a premonition sent to warn him? How can we know? We can’t, for sure, until it’s too late.
Most Striking Imagery: Faust
Surprisingly few of the films I saw in TIFF made a strong visual statement. Nicolas Refn’s Drive was one, and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia was another. I’d add the bruising digital video aesthetic of Shinya Tsukamoto’s Kotokoro, the only movie that invaded my dreams at night, and Terence Davies’s highly stylized but stultifying Deep Blue Sea. But none of these could hold a candle to the expressionist horrors of Alexander Sokurhov’s Faust, the film that won the Golden Lion at Venice. Someone described watching it as like being trapped in a Breughel painting, which is about right, though the film’s most sublime image is actually deeply romantic: a shot regarding the impression two lovers make as they dive into a lake. It’s an image of sexual union, the price of which will be Faust’s eternal perdition.
Worst Best Picture Bet: Twixt
Francis Coppola has had his share of Oscar glory, but the wacky, partly 3D horror goof off Twixt is at best an idiosyncratic curio, at worst a shambles. Revisiting the Roger Corman/Edgar Allen Poe idiom of his first feature, Dementia 13, Coppola throws in vampires, ghosts, mass murder, Bruce Dern, Val Kilmer impersonating Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now and fighting with reallife ex wife Joanne Whalley, and the tragic death of Coppola son Gio in a boating accident… But to no avail. It simply doesn’t work on a story level, as a scary movie, a mystery, or as a personal statement.