Picks from this year's flicks at the Toronto International Film Festival
courtesy of TIFF 2011
TIFF is long over at this point, and so is the New York Film Festival and the AFI Fest. So we’re starting to have a sense of who the big Oscar players are. I’m happy to say The Descendants deserves to be on that list; it lives up to the film fest hype. I had a chance to see it last week and came away impressed with the depth of emotion, and the overall subtlety. It is straight drama, unlike Sideways, but laced with humor, and real feeling. Three others that I missed—Drive, Moneyball, and Pearl Jam Twenty—were also striking. I still haven’t had a chance to catch The Ides of March, Martha Marcy May Marlene, 50/50, or Restless, all of which have either played Buffalo or are still showing. Herzog’s Into the Abyss opens Wednesday, and we’re still waiting on several TIFF biggies: The Artist, Rampart, Albert Nobbs, Miss Bala, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Tyrannosaur. And while many major players did not screen at the festival—Carnage, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, War Horse, The Iron Lady, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close—TIFF remains the starting point for awards season. Hopefully this piece demonstrates why that’s something we should care about. —Christopher Schobert
Each year, the cine-media attempts to spin the latest installment of the Toronto International Film Festival as the “Year of [blank].” For this writer, 2011 was the Year of Implosion: individual, collective, literal, metaphysical. Considering the state of the world, no surprise there. And sure, the fest can always be counted on for all-encompassing dramas. But it was personally an atypical TIFF in many ways. This was year five for Spree co-worker Jared Mobarak and me, and it was the first year in which we decided to go our separate ways, so to speak. I opted for mainly press screenings during the day, meeting up with Jared in the evening for some public showings. It meant that we were able to see a diverse cross-section of works, but it also took some of the fun out of waiting in line and wandering out of the dark ready to discuss.
In other ways, this was my most satisfying journalistic experience yet at the festival. For the first time, I had the chance to do some interviews, with Friends With Kids stars Megan Fox and Adam Scott, and Take Shelter (and Boardwalk Empire) star Michael Shannon. All three were fascinating and forthcoming, the gobsmackingly gorgeous Fox making thinly veiled references to Transformers tyrant Michael Bay (“I wanted to work with people who I felt would provide a really happy, healthy, fun work environment”), father-of-two Scott asking me about my son, and Shannon noting that having little money to make the stunning, apocalyptic Shelter was actually a positive. (“We’d finish a scene, and then we’d go up in the attic and play a game, or go out in the backyard, or make sandwiches. It literally got to the point where it was like we were living in the house, and every once in a while [director] Jeff Nichols was putting us in a scene.”)
The interviews were a blast—the odds of my sitting two feet from the oh-so-aptly-named Megan Fox again in my life are rather slim—but for better or worse, I’m at TIFF for the movies. And at the top of the list was the new film from one of my favorites, David Cronenberg. I was likely the only thirteen-year-old in North America (or at least in Erie County) who had an autographed picture of the Fly and Naked Lunch director on his bedroom wall as a budding cinema freak, and that made seeing a new Cronen the Barbarian film months before release a delight.
Still from "Dangerous Method", courtesy of TIFF
The Canadian hero has had his share of TIFF success, but surprisingly, the response from fellow critics toward his psychoanalysis epic A Dangerous Method was wildly mixed. It’s a shame, since the film, while never achieving the intimacy of Dead Ringers or the winking perversity of Crash, is a compelling, fascinating work with strong performances from Michael Fassbender as Carl “Forever” Jung (more on him shortly), Keira Knightley (who initially comes across as far too overwrought, but by film’s end is note-perfect), and, especially, Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud. Cronenberg’s film is an exploration of the early days of European psychoanalysis, tackling a disparate list of themes, from the roots of sado-masochism to turn-of-the-century anti-Semitism, along with several other –isms. While it will leave many cold, I cannot imagine dismissing it completely. It’s far too smart for that.
Still from "Shame", courtesy of TIFF
Fassbender may have been TIFF11’s true star. He was fine as Jung, but it was his work in Steve McQueen’s Shame that singed my brain. The pre-TIFF buzz based on screenings in Venice and Telluride was lots of sex, lots of nudity, lots of full-frontal Fassbender. All true. But more than that, Shame is a new classic, a riveting look at sex addiction and its impact on a New Yorker and his flighty sister. The effect on me was akin to the triple whammy of The White Ribbon, Antichrist, and Enter the Void at TIFF09. In other words, I felt staggered by the level of insight and punch-drunk by both Fassbender’s stupendous, brave performance, as well as the confident direction of McQueen (no relation to the Bullitt icon). A noted U.K. visual artist—his first film, the disturbing and powerful Hunger, starred Fassbender as Irish hunger-strike leader Bobby Sands—McQueen is now among the most thrilling filmmakers in the world. His Shame—not the most commercial title—probes everything from internet pornography to the complications of monogamy. Interestingly, it is Shame’s reliance on piercing dialogue that might rankle as many viewers as the sex. In any event, this might be one of the great NYC movies, and should be hard to top as the year’s best.
Still from "Melancholia", courtesy of TIFF.
Another 2011 highlight was Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, an almost indescribable film about a wedding, depression, and the end of the world. Kirsten Dunst is superb, and the ending is truly cinema-rattling. This is one to be studied and pondered, for its rigid structure and many mysteries, as long as you can get past Von Trier’s Nazi comments at Cannes. And the aforementioned Take Shelter was a heartbreaking odyssey of one man’s slow mental breakdown. Shannon and Jessica Chastain, who, following this and The Tree of Life, is 2011’s It Girl, create an utterly believable couple, one struggling to hold on financially, medically (their daughter is deaf, and awaiting surgery), and mentally. Jeff Nichols’s film is another of the year’s best—its ending is bravely ambiguous—and Shannon should join Fassbender in this year’s Best Actor Oscar talk.
Still from "Oslo, August 31", Courtesy of TIFF.
There were other greats. The day-in-the-life-of-a-recovering-addict drama Oslo, August 31 proved that Joachim Trier’s dazzling debut, Reprise, was just the first indicator of fine things to come. And Friends With Kids is no masterpiece but an utter delight, with the charming Adam Scott (from TV faves Parks and Recreation and Party Down) and Jennifer Westfeldt (also the writer and director) particular standouts.
I’m still on the fence with Pedro Almodovar’s freaky horror flick The Skin I Live In. It is mostly off-putting until a third-act twist that renders the entire film infinitely more interesting, and infinitely more Pedro. And it wouldn’t be TIFF without some large-scale disappointments. Michael Winterbottom (director of The Trip and 24 Hour Party People) handsomely transposes the story of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles to modern-day India in Trishna, but it simply doesn’t work. And while it was a joy hearing Francis Ford Coppola discuss his horror film Twixt at a post world-premiere Q-and-A, he has made what is probably the worst film of his career. (Jack was scarier.) Yet there is a certain glee in seeing the old maestro enjoying himself with this hackneyed mix of Hammer horror, unnecessary 3D, and Val Kilmer. It’s too bad the film itself, the result of an actual Coppola dream (nightmare?), is such a disaster. I was also disappointed with Sarah Polley’s Away From Her follow-up Take This Waltz, an inauthentic story of romantic longing. Some raved; for me, not a moment rang true.
But how can one quibble after seeing so strong a lineup? TIFF remains a beacon of light in a sea of post-summer-computer-generated mediocrity. Imagine a packed house of disparate ages, genders, and ethnicities, all watching in rapt silence as a self-destructive Manhattanite has angry, almost painful sex with two hookers. It’s a scene that goes on for several minutes, with a nearly unbearable level of intensity. In fact, one audience member reportedly fainted, literally overwhelmed. If that doesn’t sound fun, the festival is not for you. (Even the escalators at the Scotiabank Theatre are daunting, and the gorgeous TIFF Bell Lightbox is a constant mob scene.) But to be overwhelmed by a film, and a festival, is my idea of bliss. That’s TIFF, then: overwhelming in the best sense.
Spree associate editor Christopher Schobert also contributed TIFF coverage to Indiewire’s The Playlist website, blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist.