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Toronto Film Festival 2010, Take One

By Mark Olsen

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Toronto, you've changed. (Or so says Mark Olsen.)

For years now, the organizers of the Toronto International Film Festival have been gradually shifting the festival’s axis away from its longtime center in the upscale Yorkville neighborhood and toward the artier environs of downtown (except for that Hooters down the block). With the opening of the TIFF Bell Lightbox—a spectacular mixed-use facility that houses screening rooms, gallery space, restaurants, and a high-rise condo development—partway through this year’s festival, that shift finally became a reality. Except when it wasn’t.

The fact that most of the studio-centered publicity activity continued to be held in the old-school luxury hotels uptown accentuated the creeping sense that the festival has been stretched to its limits. Beyond the inside-the-mediasphere headaches of scheduling and other logistics, the transition only served to underscore how the festival continues to be torn between premieres of Hollywood films hitting theaters within weeks, the carefully calibrated launch of award-season hopefuls, the rediscovery of films from earlier in the festival year, and the emergence of new international and independent titles. Every year it seems things can’t possibly get more overstuffed—and yet somehow they do. This is not to say that the festival is not still a premier destination for someone looking to gorge on films one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. It’s become simply impossible to cover Toronto in any kind of coherent way that would capture the essence of everything that is going on. With time at a premium it’s tough to take a chance on something that might not pay off. I didn’t see nearly as many foreign-language or documentary titles as I would have liked, and I’m sure I could program a strong festival out of all the films I was unable to see.

Meek’s Cutoff, which played the fall fest trifecta of Venice, Toronto, and New York, is the kind of film that benefits most from a festival launch. Challenging but not inscrutable, it rewards an engaged viewer but could easily be overlooked if tossed into the theatrical marketplace without the right positioning. A pioneer-era tale based on the true story of an Oregon-bound wagon train that became desperately lost, the film builds on the airy, enigmatic style that director Kelly Reichardt explored with Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy.

Reichardt’s sure-footed filmmaking—the sound design alone is remarkable—allows the story to maintain a haziness and feeling of untetheredness without actually drifting away. The characters emerge from their bonnets and beards to reveal themselves not as the simple ciphers they may at first seem (the pious Christians, the bourgeois couple) but as full-fledged individuals—thorny, scared, and searching. As the guide who leads the settlers astray, Bruce Greenwood, sporting a wild beard and dirty buckskins, and looking like an earthier version of Richard Mulligan’s General Custer in Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, is somehow both silly and scary. Feminist, humanist, revisionist, and unafraid to draw parallels to contemporary experience without getting overbearing, Meek’s Cutoff packs quite a wallop into its compact story.

By comparison, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan seems at once minor and exhilarating in its take on a corps de ballet dancer succumbing to the pressures of playing the lead in Swan Lake. The film externalizes the drama of the dancer’s self-doubt, with moments that are literally breathtaking as Aronofsky fuses dance, psychodrama, and dexterous filmmaking to create a formally dazzling piece that often raises the question “Did I just see that? Did that just happen?” If the finale verges on a rehash of themes in The Wrestler (sacrifice everything for the thing that you love), the film nevertheless has a forceful directness that cuts through its murky ambiguities. Yes, you did just see that.

It probably says something about the diverse currents that converge in Toronto that my biggest discovery of the festival, Submarine, was made by someone who to others is already a known quantity. For his feature debut, Richard Ayoade, a star of British television’s The IT Crowd as well as a director of music videos and several earlier comedy series, fashions a storybook elegance out of his coming-of-age material. Aided by fine, vivid performances from Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige as a tentative teen couple, Ayoade avoids the cloying mannerisms of so many filmmakers who draw inspiration from Wes Anderson, honing in on the melancholy specificity of emotions more than the trappings of vintage pop and production design. (For an example of Andersonianism gone wrong, see Max Winkler’s festival entry Ceremony, in many ways Submarine’s evil twin.)

With a hefty two-and-a-half-hour running time that moves at a strong clip, Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies self-consciously echoes The Big Chill in its story of a group of middle-aged friends who get together for an extended seaside holiday despite the fact that one of their circle lies dying in a hospital bed. In lightning flashes Marion Cotillard is furious, good-humored, sexy, and a little bit scary, stealing the show at every turn, most notably in a scene in which she’s left floating in the sea after a prank causes her to wipe out while waterskiing.

Star turns of a different sort are on display in Rabbit Hole, as Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play a couple coping with the death of their son. Director John Cameron Mitchell surprisingly stays out of the way, reining in his ostentatious style for a locked-down approach that showcases the actors and keeps the focus on the text of David Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of his own play. Howie (Eckhart) and Becca (Kidman) make for an unlikely couple, not least because while he is given to cathartic expression, she internalizes everything, so much so that at times it’s as if she’s imploding. The unrelenting mood of grief-stricken portentousness is suffocating after a while, and even the consciously lighter moments—Eckhart and Sandra Oh getting stoned before a group therapy session, Kidman’s accusatory tone over Eckhart’s music taste—are often ground down, leaving the film often feeling like an airless exercise.

Since the first public screening of Vincent Gallo’s Promises Written in Water was in one of the smaller venues late at night and toward the end of the festival, it was hard not to feel that its inclusion was something of an afterthought. There were conflicting reports as to whether Gallo himself would even show up. (He didn’t appear for the screening I attended.) Reminiscent of a Philippe Garrel psychodrama (the life of the filmmaker and the film’s characters seemingly fusing together), Gallo’s singular film exerts a peculiar, hard-to-define power. In an early scene, Gallo, playing a photographer who becomes an apprentice mortician, says one line over and over. It becomes apparent that he’s running line readings without cutting between takes. He repeats the technique at intervals throughout the film, alternating between self-reflexivity and naturalism. Gallo seems so far beyond irony, and so genuinely wrapped up in himself and his own persona as a misunderstood artist, that the film can only be taken on its own terms as a strange and deeply personal artifact.

A similar, cringe-inducing sincerity is also essential to Beginners. Writer-director Mike Mills’s autobiographical story concerns a father who comes out as gay in his seventies only to be diagnosed with cancer and die shortly thereafter. It’s direct and heartfelt but avoids tipping over into mawkishness or message-making. It’s also striking how so many of its positives were negatives in Mills’s 2005 debut, Thumbsucker. Where that film felt twee and too coy, Beginners simply feels open and genuine. Ewan McGregor plays Mills’s fictionalized stand-in, Christopher Plummer his father, and for good measure, Mélanie Laurent plays a French actress/love interest. Mills sensitively captures the isolating effect of grieving, the impulse to shun human contact in order to avoid questions like “How are you?” Inventive, stylish, and amusing—there’s even a dog with subtitled thoughts—Beginners finds a real dynamic range within the relative confines of its narrowly personal story. It’s a film about the need for acceptance, and in many ways that theme reflects the current incarnation of the festival. With plenty to offer, Toronto’s fest is nevertheless now so overwhelming that coherence is only to be found on personal level: it really is what you make of it.

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