Toronto Film Festival: Day 4-6

Wed, Sep 19, 2007

Traditionally, my colleague Dave Filipi and I travel to the Toronto International Film Festival together, but outside circumstances caused me to arrive in Canada for the second half of the festival—just as Dave was leaving. As a result, my screening schedule felt out of synch with my peers' itineraries. I didn't have an opportunity to see some of my most anticipated films (including Jacques Rivette's The Duchess of Langeais, Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Flight of the Red Balloon, the Coens' No Country for Old Men, or Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg). Instead I had the luxury of discovering a number of exciting films that were overlooked by most festivalgoers, and of seeing Todd Hayne's remarkable I'm Not There, one the most discussed films of the festival and, happily for me, saved for the second half of the event.

Festivals such as Cannes and Sundance are aimed more exclusively at press and industry attendees, but Toronto prides itself on being as geared towards the general public as it is to those audiences. If the idea of watching three to six films a day (often introduced by the directors or stars) sounds like a great vacation to you, you should look into attending the Toronto festival some year. The weather is usually lovely, and Toronto is filled with diverse restaurants, museums, and shops (perhaps in future years the exchange rate will once again allow for great shopping deals). I know of a handful of Columbus residents who make the trip annually, and each one says that it's one of the highlights of the year.

Here are brief notes on the stand-out films from my visit to the festival:

Before I Forget (Jacques Nolot, France)

A wry, unsentimental portrait of an aging hustler and his milieu of Parisian johns and gigolos, both young and old. The film is pitiless in its austere depiction of the ways that the social relationships that have supported the main character for so long begin to crumble around him at the same time that his body begins to slide towards entropy. Nolot is a veteran actor in the French film industry (with multiple appearances in films by Andre Techine and Claire Denis), and Before I Forget seems even more dangerously bold when you discover that many of the characters are thinly veiled references to famous French stars who are either in or out of the closet. The images that bookend the film are among the most affecting in recent cinema. The fearless Strand Releasing acquired the film for a U.S. release during the festival, so look for it to appear Stateside in 2008.

I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, USA)
Even under the best of conditions, a person should not attempt to write about this film until they've seen it at least twice. And I'm afraid that I hit a wall of festival fatigue during the screening. The late night screening ended around 1 am and I spent the last 20 minutes or so fading in and out of consciousness. But people who saw the film first thing in the morning reported something similar, as the film seems to build to some sort of fugue state. By now you've surely heard how the singular Todd Haynes has created an unconventional bio-pic of Bob Dylan by having six different actors (including Christian Bale, Richard Gere, and, most notably, Cate Blanchett) portray Dylan at different stage of his career. While this high-concept description is essentially true, it doesn't convey what Haynes is really up. The film almost seems to require footnotes for complete comprehension (and it's target audience seems to be Greil Marcus), but it ultimately becomes a statement about so much more than Bob Dylan. It's hard to imagine a meatier American film to sink into at this moment. Although not everything works, it's difficult to recall a film this ambitious where that wouldn't be the case. In fact, the film is so radical in form that if it weren't for the cast and the eternal appeal of Bob Dylan, it would surely be box office poison. And Poison is the Todd Haynes film that I'm Not There might closest resemble—the trajectory and consistency of his career is surely one of the most extraordinary achievements of American independent cinema of the past 20 years. The Weinstein Company is opening the film in New York and LA on November 21, and it should expand to the rest of the US later in the fall.

Toronto Film Festival: Days 7-8

As the 2008 festival came to a close for the press and industry, most attendees seemed quite pleased with the slate of films this year. And I'll agree that it was easier than usual to find enough good or interesting films to fill up an entire schedule. The number of lousy films that I saw was a much lower percentage than usual. Beyond making for a good festival, this is good news for moviegoers locally, as these are many of the films that will be passing through town in the coming year.

Beyond the films and the social opportunities (This year I discovered the best bar on Younge street. If you're ever in Toronto, you should try to end your evenings at Volo.), finding the time to have regular, proper meals is the biggest challenge that a festival on the scale of Toronto provides. Luckily, most of the festival's press and industry screenings are held in a multilevel mall/business center that is decked out with grocery stores, restaurants, and book stores—so it's easy to subsist on take out groceries and overpriced sandwiches (with as little crunch as possible so that they can be eaten discreetly during a movie).

If you go to a film festival for any length of time, you'll learn that it's a marathon—not a sprint. This year I had the endurance to see 26 feature films and one program of shorts in five days (and saw parts of four other features). Here are brief comments on two more of the best or most essential of those 27 programs:

To Each His Own Cinema (various)

This past May, the Cannes Film Festival marked its 60th anniversary and to celebrate commissioned 35 world-renowned filmmakers to make three-minute short films based on the theme of the movie theater. The result is this compilation. Any collection of 35 short films is going to have some insufferable entries, but this one has surprisingly few (and at least the couple of downright disasters are only three minutes long). The ones that are great are breathtaking. The shorts by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne and Hou Hsiao-hsien are devastatingly beautiful (it's probably not a coincidence that both pay tribute to Robert Bresson). The Coen Brothers and Nanno Moretti have charmingly amusing entries; David Cronenberg and Lars von Trier provide bitterly amusing ones. Raymond Depardon supplies the most elegant contribution, and Atom Egoyan and Manoel de Oliviera, the most visionary. None of the directors are identified until the end of the short, so some of the fun of the program is supplied by guessing who is responsible for each. (An Aki Kaurismaki film is easy to spot; a Jane Campion, not so much—especially when it's as buggily bizarre as this one.) The Weinstein Company has the US rights to the film but there's no word on the release plan.

In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerin, Spain/France)

This year's trip to Toronto was worth it just to encounter In the City of Sylvia, which will surely be among my favorite films of the decade. It's such an exquisite, small little film that it's simultaneously impossible to ruin by describing and best seen knowing as little as possible about in advance. I was hooked from the opening scenes, when a writer and artist visiting Strasbourg idles around a café sketching in his journal and people watching. Even though, on the surface, nothing is happening, Guerin's mastery of mood, sound, composition, and editing makes every scene engrossing. I began to worry that eventually a plot would develop and ruin what I was loving about the film; thankfully Guerin is able to add emotional weight through a skeletal backstory without tipping the scales too heavily in that direction. It's a film that's made up almost entirely of grace notes. A stopover in a bar (“L'Aviateur,” perhaps a reference to Eric Rohmer's The Aviator's Wife) is so lovely that it's one of the two moments in the festival when a film brought a tear to my eye. (Alexander Sokurov's Alexandra is the other.) The film heavily recalls one of Bresson's most unknown and underappreciated films, Four Nights of a Dreamer, minus the Dostoevsky story that serves as that film's source material. It could also be described as a flaneur's Playtime. Below is the Spanish trailer for the film, it consists of one shot from the film and should give you a sense of the remarkable pleasures and framings that can be found within. Right now the film has no US distributor, but I expect it will catch the eye of receptive filmgoers at the New York Film Festival next month and then hopefully begin to travel through North America's more rarified film circuit of museums and cinematheques.

Popout Other recommended film that I saw (in order of preference): The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen, China), Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov, Russia), Angel (François Ozon, France/UK), Mad Detective (Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai, Hong Kong), Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, US), You, the Living (Roy Andersson, Sweden), Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico), The Romance of Astrée and Céladon (Eric Rohmer, France), A Girl Cut in Two (Claude Chabrol, France), It's a Free World… (Ken Loach, UK) — Chris Stults, Film/Video

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