Toronto International Film Festival

Oh man, am I tired.

As if moving apartments and working a killer 9-to-5 isn’t a handful for early September, here I am covering the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for Not that I’m complaining, mind you. As many of you already know, this city is a cinephile’s wet dream, a town where a cornucopia of cinematic fellatio awaits you at every corner, stroking your celluloid desires with everything from indie hits to obscure foreign fare. The centerpiece of this silver screen Gotham is an annual festival that puts Cannes and it’s paparazzi-fucking to shame. Toronto’s fest is, and always will be, about the films, and as usual, this year’s lineup was a cut above. With the Academy’s move of the Oscars from April to late February, the TIFF moved another notch forward in prominence, marking it as the tentpole event for studios yearning to market their Oscar fare and local and international producers looking to hock their hidden gems. After 10 glorious days wolfing down cholesterol-jacking snacks in dark theatres, I’ve amassed a list of the films to see and the films to flee from this year’s fest, most of which will be released later this year for your own consumption. Enjoy.

The Good

  • “21 Grams”
    Dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu. Starring Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts

    Many films come to Toronto cruising in a hype machine yet few rarely live up to the superlatives riding shotgun. This one’s an exception. From the opening shot, where Penn sits naked over a slouching Naomi Watts in bed, Rodrigo Prieto’s succulent camera laying them bare, I knew I had found something special. As Innaritu (“Amorres Perros”) jerks his three main players forwards and back through a tight, masterful narrative filled with a depth and volume I haven’t seen in any American film this year, the body of a truly extraordinary picture takes shape. A story with soul that had even your cynical Doctor in awe. Watts is headed for her first Oscar nomination. Mark my words.

  • “Dogville”
    Dir: Lars Von Trier. Starring Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, James Caan

    Both praised and criticized for its seemingly anti-American polemic, Von Trier’s latest handheld opus is assuredly and unabashedly unique. Set in depression-era Colorado, with a stellar cast that includes Lauren Bacall, John Hurt and the ubiquitous Patricia Clarkson, the story of a mysterious runaway taking shelter in a small town is as engrossing as it is odd. Von Trier’s Dogme trademarks are in full view here, with sets that don’t exist, grainy digital video and an absence of predictability that works wonders in the film’s shocking climax. Brave, bold and butt-slappingly good.

  • “Zatoichi”
    Dir: Takeshi Kitano. Starring Takeshi Kitano

    As fans of Beat Takeshi know, there’s nothing quite like an abstract narrative dripping with existentialist angst and bloodletting swordplay. The Japanese master of well-known cult hits like Fireworks and Brother returns with his most accessible and enjoyable film to date, a winner of the festival’s Audience Award prize to boot. Served with his distinctive style and flare for the comedic, this one had the audience cheering, myself included.

  • “Elephant”
    Dir: Gus Van Sant

    Using a Slackers-style, roaming camera, maverick frontman Gus Van Sant uses multiple perspectives to illustrate a normal high-school day, which ends in horrifying consequences. The tension builds slowly and almost subconsciously as the viewer is asked to do nothing but simply “view” as students go about their day – cruising the halls, munching down stale cafeteria food, and running for their lives when the shooting begins. The result is a film as close to truth as any “fictional” cinema can strive to be and I would be hard-pressed not to say that Van Sant and crew have crated a subtle masterpiece. Most people won’t see the film, but they should.

    More Good

  • “The Saddest Music In The World”
    Dir: Guy Maddin. Starring Mark McKinney, Isabella Rossellini

    There’s more to Canadian cinema than Egoyan and Cronenberg and here’s the proof. Maddin, who until this point enjoyed minor notoriety for his obscure but engaging work, joins the folds of accessible cinema with this hilarious, dark, wonderful pseudo-musical.

  • “The Fog Of War”
    Dir: Errol Morris

    Errol Morris’ enlightening look at Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, is fascinating to watch, especially in the context of current events. The most anti-war American film you’ll see this year.

  • “School of Rock”
    Dir: Richard Linklater. Starring Jack Black, Joan Cusack

    Strange. Here’s a “Dead Poets Society” rip-off, loaded with cliches and oozing predictability, and it still kicks ass. Two reasons: Linklater (“Dazed and Confused”), who’s sense of character always astounds, and lead Jack Black, who you want to get sick of, but just can’t help liking…a lot.

  • “A Nation Without Women”
    Dir: Manish Jha

    A stunning debut from India that does not shy away from a brutal topic – female infanticide – and does it with harrowing camera in tow.

  • “Lost In Translation”
    Dir: Sofia Coppola. Starring Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson

    Coppola’s come a long way since her over-praised debut and this offbeat rom-com proves it. Murray is solid as always but Johansson is the film’s real heart.

  • “Alien: The Director’s Cut”
    Dir: Ridley Scott

    There’s nothing like sitting in a room, watching a newly-restored director’s cut of one of your favorite films and hearing the director talk about it afterwards. Scott presented this new issue of his classic space flick and it looks better then ever. Watch for the re-release this Fall.

    The Bad

  • “The Company”
    Dir: Robert Altman. Starring Neve Cambell, Malcolm McDowell, James Franco

    It could only get better after “Gosford Park,” but alas, it’s time to admit the Altman touch has waned. Techniques that made “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Nashville” and “The Player” so good do nothing to help this overdrawn story that takes us backstage at a Chicago ballet troupe. Ok, we get it, Neve used to dance for real, and she looks good doing it, but after the first hour, the shtick gets old.

  • “Out of Time”
    Dir: Carl Franklin. Starring Denzel Washington, Eva Mendes, Dean Cain

    Denzel is an exceptionally gifted actor, but not when he’s stuck in a convoluted, makeshift plot with twists and turns you can see coming miles way. I was excited when I walked in and dumbfounded when I left. Stick to directing you fool, at least then you get to control the material at hand.

  • “Veronica Guerin”
    Dir: Joel Schumacher. Starring Cate Blanchett

    Schumacher is the classic hit-and-miss director. Here, he’s struck out looking. With a riveting story (real-life journalist in Ireland who turned a country upside down and paid the price), wonderful lead actress, and more, you’d think a home- run was in the offing. Unfortunately, the result is a story whose pacing gets ahead of itself and loses the audience by its climax. I tried to like this one, really I did.

    The Ugly
    Only one in this category, but a clear winner…

  • “The Brown Bunny”
    Dir: Vincent Gallo. Starring Vincent Gallo, Chloe Sevigny

    I’ll give any film that Roger Ebert panders a chance, but I have to agree with him on this one. He called it “the worst film to ever play at Cannes” and I’ll add “worst film ever to play at Toronto” to its accolades. It’s pretentious, self-loathing and utterly meaningless. There’s an infamous fellatio scene that could have been its saving grace but even a solid 2-minute blowjob couldn’t save face.