Festival of Lights 

Toronto Film Festival offers a glimpse of the year to come

Toronto Film Festival offers a glimpse of the year to come

For 10 days every September, the city of Toronto turns into a madhouse of visiting filmmakers, glamorous starlets, hungry show-biz wanna-bes and bleary-eyed movie geeks. The Toronto International Film Festival is more than North America’s largest film festival. It’s an eye-filling smorgasbord of the coming year’s releases, from major-studio award-bait like the Philip Roth adaptation The Human Stain to exciting discoveries like the exhilarating martial-arts knockout Ong-Bak Muay: Thai Warrior, recipient of a rare standing ovation.

Why are you reading about it in a Nashville newspaper? Because Toronto shapes what you’ll be seeing for at least the next 12 months. Whale Rider, still playing local plexes, screened at Toronto in 2002. The event’s influence trickles down to our own growing film festival. Nashville Film Festival programmer Brian Gordon spent his week in Toronto making contacts and scouting movies—several of which you’ll likely see next April. So consider this rambling, sleep-deprived dispatch a glimpse of the future.

That future arrives this weekend with the first of the major Toronto discoveries. In some ways, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, which opens Friday at Green Hills, resembles a week’s stay at a film festival: a parade of flickering images, passing celebs and shiny surfaces, marked by a general air of disconnection. Coppola’s film is a delicately observed comic reverie about a faded American action star (Bill Murray) and a photographer’s neglected wife (Scarlett Johansson), drawn to each other in a sensually disorienting Tokyo. The culture-collision comedy can be woefully sophomoric, but Coppola’s touch with actors is unfailing. Murray gives what is likely the performance of the year, and maybe his career. The bone-tired longing he puts into a karaoke version of Roxy Music’s “More Than This” could make you laugh if it weren’t so nakedly sad.

The best films at Toronto this year merged cultural specificity, deep feeling and wild imagination. Sylvain Chomet’s animated French fantasia Belleville Rendez-Vous is a short, surreal piece about a champion cyclist and his protector grandmother; it follows the moody and occasionally grotesque trail blazed by the likes of Jacques Tati, Winsor McKay and Gerald Scarfe. Jafar Panahi’s chilling, darkly comic Crimson Gold goes backward to show what led a resentful Iranian pizza man to steal for his fiancée the kind of expensive jewelry he sees on his customers. Abbas Kiarostami wrote the cutting script, perhaps in ironic response to critics who say he only shows his homeland in poverty.

Though Toronto lacked last year’s bounty of excellent Asian films, some standouts emerged. Defying his rep as a shock artist, Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-Duk offered the lovely Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...and Spring, a bracingly pure Buddhist parable about a boy’s journey to wisdom through his periodic visitations to a temple floating in a mountain lake. Raptly attuned to every detail of the changing seasons, Kim’s film delivers an unambiguous, often painful lesson about the ways humanity is tragically bound by personal relationships. Every bit as life-affirming, in its crazy way, is the exuberant excess of Takeshi Kitano’s audience favorite Zatoichi, a slice-and-dice samurai Western that morphs thrillingly at the end into a tap-dance musical.

When this many movies reverberate off one another, common threads appear. The tension between real and fake worlds was particularly strong this year at Toronto. Errol Morris’ documentary The Fog of War works as an interview, biography and psychoanalysis of Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, as well as a study of how brilliance can be systematically co-opted. But it also boldly contemplates “counterfactuals”—the term for a revisionist history based on what might’ve been. This became one of the fest’s recurring themes. Nowhere did it appear more potently than in writer-director Billy Ray’s crackling docudrama Shattered Glass. Ray turns a somewhat arcane scandal—the fall of New Republic story-faker Stephen Glass (played to pathologically puppyish perfection by Hayden Christiansen)—into a riveting psychological thriller and a lament for the print media’s shift from hard news and substantive analysis to glitzy yarn-spinning.

Counterfactuals also figure in Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin!, about a dedicated East Berliner who goes into a coma before reunification and awakens afterward—at which point her family shelters her by painstakingly re-creating the former East Germany. It’s a modest, funny and well-plotted film, made poignant by its vision of how Soviet Bloc nations might’ve maintained their ideals. Richard Curtis’ sprawling romantic comedy Love, Actually serves up another counterfactual fantasyland: a robust England where the prime minister (Hugh Grant) stands up to the boorish U.S. president, everybody loves everybody, and dopey Britpop has rich meaning. Employing every British actor from Emma Thompson to Rowan Atkinson, Curtis crams about a dozen upmarket love stories into one boisterous, irresistible (if too cute) package.

Back in the real world, cinematic journalism proved strong in this year’s documentary slate, which featured some of the festival’s most accomplished storytelling. Good luck finding fictional thrillers this year more gripping than Jose Padilha’s Bus 174 and Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised—docs that make their activist agendas as urgent as gunfire. The former, an account of a disastrous Rio de Janeiro bus hijacking, unfolds in unnervingly intimate TV footage. The latter starts as a profile of populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, then explodes as the country’s corporate-backed media and military launch an overt coup with the apparent approval of the oil-hungry Bush II administration—and with the filmmakers in the thick of the snipers and bombs.

Other key docs were flawed but extremely engaging. George Hickenlooper’s The Mayor of Sunset Strip covers show-biz hanger-on Rodney Bingenheimer, whose extraordinary run ahead of the curve on glam rock and punk can’t compensate for his disastrously lonely personal life. Hickenlooper may overstate his “slipperiness of fame” theme at times, but the music-steeped movie still rocks. Vikram Jayanti’s Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine doubles as a nuanced portrait of chess champion Garry Kasparov and a riveting “sportsdoc” covering Kasparov’s 1997 loss to IBM supercomputer Deep Blue, although it’s less successful examining the ramifications of artificial intelligence. Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself uses a compendium of film clips from Chinatown to Die Hard to illustrate how L.A. has been misused and misunderstood by filmmakers. Andersen hits too many dead ends, but what sticks are his cogent points about the relationship of architecture, character and civic self-consciousness.

If the docs were sometimes uneven, an alarming number of features were almost bipolar. Too many movies at Toronto alternated astonishing beauty with wrongheaded twists and turns—starting with Gus Van Sant’s Columbine-inspired Elephant, which ruins a dreamy, lyrical take on American high-school life with snarky clichés and an obnoxiously violent climax. Almost as frustrating is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, which starts as a shattered mosaic of grief and faith among three Memphis families and ends as flat, overwrought revenge drama, despite superb performances by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Melissa Leo and especially Benicio del Toro. The heat of obsessive desire was missing from one of the fest’s most controversial entries, Jane Campion’s half-baked erotic thriller In the Cut, but star Meg Ryan’s frequent nudity and game stabs at kink may suffice for the curious. More compelling is the movie’s cautionary creepiness and its study of a single woman’s (justified) marriage-equals-death paranoia.

Unevenness is practically built into Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee & Cigarettes, which compiles a series of the indie icon’s elliptical performance exercises. About a third of these skits thud resoundingly, but they’re worth enduring to get to the segment starring Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan as needy Brit actors adrift in Hollywood. Similarly, it’s worth sitting through the weak second half of Canadian auteur Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World for its side-splitting first hour. The movie’s a breakneck musical-tragedy farce about an embittered brewery heiress (Isabella Rossellini) who stages a contest to find the world’s weepiest dirge—a task that’s handled with the quiet dignity of an arena-football halftime show. As usual, Maddin’s manic visual style is equal parts Murnau and Mad magazine, and his black-and-white images are luminous—even when they show beer-filled dunking booths.

Amid the blown opportunities, the minimal ambition and near-total success of Robert Altman’s The Company proved refreshing. Altman trims away most of producer-star Neve Campbell’s story about the behind-the-scenes drama at a Chicago ballet. Instead, he uses the well-staged dance sequences (many featuring the lithe Campbell) in support of his pet themes—the clash of art and money, the line between insiders and outsiders, and the reliance of creativity on happy accident.

These also apply, to an extent, to the filmmaker who made the single strongest showing at this year’s festival. Lars von Trier may be equal parts sadist and showman, but his ferocious feature Dogville—a rabid reworking of Our Town about a venal Depression-era jerkwater town that brutally squanders its one brush with grace—has the heft, intensity and (mostly) realized ambition of a major work, even if its brazen theatricality left many people cold.

If Von Trier served up the festival’s darkest work, though, he also delivered its most playful. In his joyous, frequently hilarious documentary The Five Obstructions, he enlists his idol, Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth, to remake his 1967 short “The Perfect Human” five times. The catch: Von Trier will try to thwart each effort with arbitrary obstacles. The result is a fond tribute, not just to the unflappable Leth but to the creative freedom that blooms from restrictions—and to the mysteries of flickering light that make people want to spend a week in the dark, alone among thousands.

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