TORONTO -- Too much to do in too little time. That's the mantra at the Toronto International Film Festival, an embarrassment of cinematic riches that leaves attendees both exhilarated and exhausted. It's the largest and most important film festival in North America, a smorgasbord that this year includes 349 films in 10 days.
Even a brief glance at the lineup puts film buffs in fits of panic. How does one choose between the latest from Chinese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien and 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, Palm d'Or winner at this year's Cannes Film Festival? (I chose the latter because it was more logistically feasible, a decision-making process that wins out more often than not.)
Conflicts are inevitable at festival that includes new works by Dario Argento, Noah Baumbach, Catherine Breillat, Claude Chabrol, the Coens, David Cronenberg, Brian De Palma, Toddy Haynes, Werner Herzog, Hou, Jia Zhang-ke, Sidney Lumet, Guy Maddin, Michael Moore, Carlos Reygadas, Jacque Rivette, Eric Rohmer, George A. Romero, Julian Schnabel, Paul Schrader, Alexander Sokurov, Bela Tarr and Gus Van Sant.
Not that I'm complaining. Believe me, I know most of you would jump at the chance to be here.
That said, Toronto is not only about pure cinema -- it's also a pre-fall, Oscar-hype launching pad, one of the lynchpins to the commercial side of the industry. And don't forget about those small and/or difficult films hoping to land a distributor.
But enough of the preliminaries. Let's get to the films.
The aforementioned 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days kicked off my festival with an ample dose of seriousness, a theme that would remain constant. The harrowing tale of a college girl (the sublime Anamaria Marinca) who helps her roommate procure an illegal abortion in late-1980s Romania, Christian Mungiu's powerful, languidly rendered (several seemingly unedited shots last more than five minutes) film is sure to yield discussion on a touchy topic. But will it get a proper release in the U.S.? It should. Far from overtly political, 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days puts human faces on a debate that often includes anything but.
Also heralded at Cannes, Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine was an enveloping if overly melodramatic tale of a young widowed mother (Jeon Do-yeon) who must deal with unexpected tragedy. Questions of faith follow, as does a layered, devastating performance from Jeon.
Lee's unobtrusive aesthetic and deft sociological details are just as important as Jeon in creating Secret Sunshine's distinctive world.
But it's the amusing Song Kang-ho (from the recent Korean monster movie The Host) as Jeon's rebuffed but persistent suitor who gives us a way into the film's rocky psychological waters.
The Coen brothers latest is a blast. An adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, No Country for Old Men is a taut quasi-Western thriller that finds the brothers in top form after a string of lackluster efforts. (Yes, it's even better than amusing but annoyingly arch The Big Lebowski, which seems to have garnered a cult large enough to form its own nation.) The big difference this time out seems to be the presence of McCarthy's source material -- his relentlessly bleak vision and terse dialogue perfectly balance the Coen's ironic detachment and visual playfulness.
The story centers on Josh Brolin's ceaselessly convincing (a rarity for the filmmakers in question) Llewelyn Moss, a down-home Texan who finds a pile of loot after stumbling across a drug deal gone awry. Enter cold-blooded Anton (Javier Bardem, in yet another riveting turn), a relentless, oddball henchman with a bowl haircut who's hell-bent on recovering Moss' unexpected windfall. Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson and Kelly MacDonald show up in lesser roles, but it's the unlikely pairing of Brolin and Bardem that makes No Country for Old Men such a compellingly pungent ride. Note to Coens: Please call Cormac again.
Sean Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's non-fiction book Into the Wild is also strong -- the emotionally resonant true story of the extraordinary (and often naive) Christopher McCandless (played with nuance by Emile Hirsch), a 22-year-old college grad who's fed up with our overly materialistic society and retreats to the Alaskan outback. Penn employs a variety of stylistic devices to lovingly re-create the short life of a young man whose restless spirit and quest for the truth couldn't be contained.
While slightly less effective (though its aftertaste lingers longer than expected) than Cronenberg's stellar History of Violence, Eastern Promises deals with many of the same themes (identity, violence, family) as its predecessor. It feels like a natural companion piece, one that again uses Viggo Mortensen's quiet intensity to propel a seemingly straightforward dramatic thriller, this time about the Russian mob in contemporary London.
Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light is the director's latest languid look at everyday people (he again uses non-actors). Where his Battle in Heaven focused on a middle-aged cab driver in bustling Mexico City, Silent Light focuses its quiet story on a Mennonite family in the rural community of Chihuahua.
The opening shot is mesmerizing, as Reygadas' camera moves from a star-filled night sky down through the trees before resting on a horizon where a new day's sun is rising. Crickets chirp and other unseen animals grunt progressively louder on the soundtrack as the camera makes this minutes-long trek, a beautiful meld of sound and image that's a fascinating short film by itself. It's a thoroughly immersive opening (the closing is nearly as enrapturing), a shot that perfectly encapsulates Reygadas' singular talents.
Expectation was high for Brian De Palma's Redacted after the director won a prize a day earlier at the Venice Film Festival. Well, there's little to report but that it was a disappointment.
Clichéd and surprisingly flat, De Palma's attempt to say something meaningful about the Iraq War -- the story, which is based on supposedly true events, follows a group of U.S. soldiers who work at a security checkpoint -- is ultimately undermined by the real-life war photos he tacks on as a postscript, a decision that only illuminates the shortcomings of what precedes them.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor tackles a timely issue (immigration) with far more subtlety and effectiveness. Powered by Richard Jenkins' strong performance as an unhappy college professor who unexpectedly becomes intertwined with a Syrian drummer in Manhattan, The Visitor makes its point without resorting to either technical flourishes or flashy narrative gymnastics.
Craig Gillespie's Lars and the Real Girl casts a similar spell despite its odd central conceit -- a shy twentysomething (Ryan Gosling) falls in love with a remarkably lifelike sex doll. Credit goes to Gillespie for keeping the potentially outrageous tone in check, but it's Gosling's committed, seamless performance that draws us in, yet another triumph in the actor's growing gallery of memorable characters. As much as any offering at the festival, I'm intrigued to see what kind of audience this touching film might generate.
Grant Gee's Joy Division was one of the few documentaries I was able to catch, a fascinating look at the brief but vital trajectory of a band that died with its troubled frontman Ian Curtis. Gee convincingly explains Manchester, England's influence on the quartet's sound and general being: The dour city -- especially in the late 1970s -- is a character unto itself. While there are plenty of insightful talking heads (including the surviving members), it's the rare live footage of the band at their peak that gives Joy Division its emotional power.
The production notes for Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park get right to the point: "Alex, a teenage skateboarder, accidentally kills a security guard in the vicinity of Paranoid Park, Portland's tough skate park. He decides to say nothing." Van Sant infuses this simple framework with a hypnotic array of technical flourishes -- the use of ambient noises and Elliott Smith songs, among others; a non-linear, overlapping narrative technique; cinematographer Christopher Doyle's striking visuals; non-professional actors that somehow work well -- to add another impressively impressionistic film to go alongside his recent Elephant and Last Days.
Paranoid Park's strangely poetic rhythms were the perfect way to wash away another day of film festival mayhem.
FIND MORE COVERAGE OF THE TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL online at blogs.citybeat.com/ae.