Punch-Drunk Films & Ebertgate: A Toronto Int’l Film Fest Wrap

The curtains have finally dropped on the 27th Toronto International Film Festival, considered by many, myself included, as one of the best editions ever. After an exhausting 10-day celluloid bash which featured 345 films, 180 of them world and North American premieres, from 50 countries, my retinas have closed down while caffeine has found a permanent home in my body.

Alas, after the A-list parties, Hollywood galas and jaw-dropping vixens jettison out of my beautiful hometown, I’m left with a storage bin full of wonderful, original, daring cinema in my mind, some films sure to win fame and glory, others, sadly, to disappear into the celluloid sky, never to be seen from again.

The folks at the fest handed down their major awards today, giving Peter Mullan’s controversial film, “The Magdalene Sisters,” the top prize. The UK production, about the experiences inside a shocking Irish Catholic convent, has received much criticism from the Catholic Church and was booed in Venice. This is exactly the type of film TIFF audiences embrace so it’s a natural fit. The City Award for Best Canadian Feature went to David Cronenberg’s “Spider,” a story that follows the slow descent into madness of an insane man returning home. The film’s lead, Ralph Fiennes, is already getting Oscar hype for this role.

The People’s Choice Award went to the charming Kiwi film, “Whale Rider,” which tells the story of a New Zealand girl finding her roots. Runners-up include Michael Moore’s “Bowling For Columbine” and UK smash-hit “Bend It Like Beckham,” directed by Gurinder Chadha. The Independent Film Channel’s Visions Award went to the brilliant “Russian Ark,” from master filmmaker Alexandr Sokurov and the FIPRESCI Prize went to Gael Morel’s “Les Chemins De L’Oued.”

As for your humble doctor, it was a glorious week finding gems and follow-ups from international masters. Here, from the endless vault that is my celluloid mind, are my most memorable films for the 27th annual TIFF:

1) “Punch-Drunk Love”: Simply extraordinary, in every sense of the word. P.T. Anderson’s surreal romantic-comedy comes out of left field but delivers and unexpectedly poignant, original and mind-boggling performance. Sandler is good, very good, but P.T. is the star here. As usual, his soundtrack, both music and aural, is phenomenal, and his neat narrative devices keep the film rolling. Many will hate this one, as Sony has already began screwing up their marketing for the film, but for those of you who love to be slapped in the face silly by a filmmaker, mark this one down – [US release date: October 11].

1.5) “Talk To Her”: While Almodovar’s “All About My Mother” has been hailed as his greatest work ever since he took home an Oscar for it, I dare say this latest film from the flamboyant Spaniard tops them all. While “AAMM” looked at women and their desires, “Talk To Her” explores men and how they love. The story is funny, tragic, and bold, everything a film like this couldn’t be in Hollywood, full of beautiful moments touched lightly by Almodovar’s wonderful sense of compassion. I would be shocked if a Foreign Oscar nomination doesn’t follow.

2) “Stevie”: Largely credited for pushing the documentary genre into a newfound renaissance, “Hoop Dreams” director Steven James brought another story from rural America before his thoughtful eye and the result is my pick for best find at this year’s fest. “Stevie” is a complex yet engaging look at Stevie Fielding, the troubled young boy James became Big Brother to while attending college. James returns many years later to find the naive young boy has become a misguided orphan, prone to bouts of violence and sexual abuse. In my many years of watching documentaries, I cannot remember a filmmaker who has taken the stakes this high. Not content to merely let the camera roll, James turns the cameras on himself and becomes an active participant in the life of Stevie, and in so doing, the film itself. I dare say you won’t find a more honest movie this year, and sincerely hope Oscar takes notice.

3) “Far From Heaven”: Todd Haynes has established himself as one of the preeminent voices in American indie cinema, never one to shy away from edgy, boundary-pushing material. “Far From Heaven” certainly continues in this tradition and goes even further then Haynes was willing to go before. Borrowed from the pages of Douglas Sirk’s 50s cinema, Haynes’ looks at the implosion of a perfect, happy home and the consequences that follow. Haynes is not afraid to deliver tragic results, preferring to play his narrative through honest, unflinching eyes.

4) “City of God”: Another sure bet for Foreign Oscar territory, this Brazilian opus set in the urban slums of Rio is both shocking to watch and impossible to ignore. Part “Boyz In The Hood” in its eye-for-an-eye reality, part “Kids” in its documentary-style camera, “City of God” is an epic film that still feels small, the way it should. Most of the actors are real slum kids and give the film its ultimate authenticity. As viewers, it is easy to walk away after the credits roll, but hard to forget that those actors are still living the slum life today. Brutal yet stylish, tragic yet funny, “City of God” proves there’s more to Brazilian cinema that warm, feel-good fare like Central Station.

5) “11′ 09″ 01”: Although IMDB lists it as a documentary, I’d go so far to say this is an experimental film, not because a collection of shorts hasn’t been composed before (which it has), but because the goal was original and overwhelming in its scope. Technically, the collective whole succeeds on many levels, with numerous narrative styles and aesthetic possibilities used. Beyond the film vices at hand, the collection is eclectic at best, horribly misguided at worst. While fragmented failures bring the film down a notch, it is still a brave accomplishment, simply because it does not row down expected lanes. As for Anti-American, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The film’s true message is that there’s no black or white in this world, even though Dubya insists “you’re either with us or with the terrorists.” Through this collective vision, you come to realize most of the world lies in a relative grey zone, bounded by our common humanity and grief for the victims. You may not like the film, but you should watch it. Few films will go this far.

Other Notables

“Phone Booth”: Perhaps the best of the mainstream fare this year. Schumacher’s action-thriller is tight, exciting and original. Colin Farrell is about to become a very big star.

“8-Mile”: I hate to say it folks, but Eminem, aka Slim Shady, aka one of the most annoying media figures today, is actually damn good in his debut feature. You can thank director Curtis Hanson for that.

“Russian Ark”: This is probably the most talked-about film that may never get released this year. Alexandr Sokurov’s fascinating look at Russian history inside the famous St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum is an unbelievable spectacle. One, 96-minute steadycam shot that never bores. Unreal.

“The Good Thief”: Neil Jordan’s caper flick is above and beyond its Jean-Pierre Melville’s original. Nick Nolte gives a career performance worthy of Oscar. That is, if he’s not in jail when the nominations come.

“Rabbit-Proof Fence”/”The Quiet American”: Aussie-born Phillip Noyce is an American director with international sensibilities. He brought two films to the fest and both garnered heavy praise, “Rabbit-Proof Fence” for its unnerving portrayal of ethnic cleansing in 30s Australia, and “The Quiet American” for exploring the dark days leading up to the US involvement in Vietnam.


Finally, the biggest story at this year’s festival was not the movies nor the celebrities, but rather one obese egomaniac millionaire known as Roger Ebert. As the story goes, Mr. Ebert arrived very late for a press screening of “Far From Heaven” and no seats were left. Upon learning of this, Ebert demanded someone vacate their space so that he, of the ultra-important Chicago Sun-Times, could attend. When TIFF staff refused, Ebert popped a button, and a few veins, and proceeded to berate everyone within his sights, including a hapless popcorn boy. A Canadian critic turned around and yelled “Why don’t you go back to America and start your own film festivalr” (Editor’s Note: Yes, we know Ebert does indeed have a “Forgotten Films” every year in Urbana. Spot is reporting what happened and what was said.)

Nevertheless, the exhausted, overworked TIFF Staff managed to put on a special screening for Mr. Ebert later that evening, who still managed to criticize the fest in next day’s paper, urging fellow US critics to do the same.

What Ebert failed to point out is that no festival in the world is as accommodating as Toronto, with volunteer staff willing to bend over backwards so that everyone, including us common folk, can watch movies on par.

It is your good doctor’s opinion that the next time Ebert shows up late for a screening, he should give his own ass a thumbs up.