Despite this being my 17th festival, I have never really written wrap-up posts, but I’m doing so this year for the first time. Mostly because I’m afraid that I won’t be able to deliver full reviews for everything I’ve seen, despite my best intentions. As my reviews have grown in length (back in 2000, I think I wrote about 100-150 words on each film), they’ve also become harder to write. Getting behind can sap a lot of energy, so instead of just giving up, I’m going to write a little bit about each film, with my intention to write more later still intact.
2011 was a strange year for me personally at TIFF. For the very first time, I applied for press accreditation. Since I was between day jobs, I figured I’d have a lot of time for films, industry sessions, interviews, parties, the whole gamut. But when my request was turned down, I was glad that I’d still purchased a 10-ticket pass. Between that, a couple of films I saw in Montréal, pre-TIFF press screenings, a purchased Midnight Madness ticket and one more given to me by a friend, I actually saw 19 TIFF films this year (21 if we count each Dreileben film separately. Here they are in roughly the order I enjoyed them, most to least.
The Artist (France, Director: Michel Hazanavicius)
A joy from start to finish, The Artist is an homage to silent film and to the comedies of the 20s and 30s. It’s not quite a silent film, and the use of sound in many clever ways, along with great art direction and two very attractive leads (three, if you count Uggy the Jack Russell terrier) make it an extremely enjoyable trip into the early years of studio filmmaking.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (USA, Director: Sean Durkin)
A feature debut by both director Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen, this is a mature and psychologically rich film about a woman trying to flee a mysterious cult. Finding refuge with her estranged sister and her husband doesn’t prove to be very helpful. Smart editing and a remarkable performance by Olsen, along with careful use of genre techniques make this one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
The Story of Film: An Odyssey (UK, Director: Mark Cousins)
I saw this mammoth 15-hour documentary on the history of cinematic innovation in five 3-hour segments, and by the end of the week, the smallish but enthusiastic audience had bonded like after a week of summer camp. Mark Cousins’ impish presence added to the magic, complementing his meditative voiceover in the daily Q&A sessions. Global in reach, but also endearingly idiosyncratic, The Story of Film: An Odyssey should be required viewing for cinephiles everywhere.
This is Not a Film (Iran, Directors: Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)
Banned from filmmaking or leaving the country, and facing a prison sentence, Jafar Panahi made this “exercise” just to record a day in his life, waiting on legal appeals, meeting with a filmmaker friend, discussing the script of the film he’s now banned from making. But Panahi is a filmmaker in the way that the rest of us are air-breathers. He simply cannot stop using the language of film to express himself. This allegedly tossed-off exercise is moving, funny, beautiful and ultimately tragic if it is indeed the last film we’ll see from Panahi for a while.
Volcano (Eldfjall) (Iceland, Director: Rúnar Rúnarsson)
The feature debut from one of the most acclaimed short film directors in the world. Despite a script without a lot of dialogue, Icelandic theatre actor Theodór Júlíusson delivers a nuanced performance as Hannes, a retired school janitor and all-around curmudgeon who seems to come to emotional life after a family tragedy. In the same way that a volcano can be beautiful to watch but also destructive, we don’t know what damage Hannes’ eruptions might cause.
Goodbye First Love (Un amour de jeunesse) (France, Director: Mia Hansen-Løve)
As a huge fan of the director’s last film (Le pere de mes enfants), I was eager to see her exploration of the confusion and pain of first love. Lola Creton’s inscrutable beauty is riveting as she navigates a teenage love affair and its aftermath over a period of almost a decade. Just 16 when the film was shot, it’s a bit difficult to buy her as a woman in her mid-20s, but the film is emotionally resonant and always a pleasure to watch, even when it’s also painful.
Oslo, August 31st (Norway, Director: Joachim Trier)
Based on the same novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle that inspired Louis Malle’s film The Fire Within, Trier’s second feature film is a sensitive and very sad exploration of one day in the life of Anders, a reformed junkie about to complete his residential drug treatment. On a day pass in order to attend a job interview, Anders tries to connect with his old friends and family members with little success. His despair at having to start his life over at the age of 34 drives him into a very dark corner. Trier’s lovely humanism makes watching Anders’ determination to self-destruct heartbreaking.
Alps (Alpeis) (Greece, Director: Yorgos Lanthimos)
Though not quite as surprising as his previous film Dogtooth, Lanthimos applies his unique ideas about social control to a larger sandbox. A group of “substitutes” offer to impersonate the dead friends and relatives of the recently bereaved. The mannered acting and opaque motivations of the actors make this a many-layered puzzle that will reward multiple viewings.
Dreileben (Germany, Directors: Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, Christoph Hochhäusler)
Three films from three different directors, built around the same story. A convicted killer and sex offender escapes from a hospital in the idyllic German countryside. Beats Being Dead is a teen romance between one of the hospital orderlies, a child of privilege doing his national service, and a hotel maid from a poor immigrant family. Don’t Follow Me Around explores the strangely competitive relationship between a police psychologist called in to work on the case, and an old college friend who has moved to the area. One Minute of Darkness is the only film to deal head-on with the escaped man, and although most like a police procedural, leads to a surprising conclusion. Sort of like a German version of the Red Riding trilogy, Dreileben uses a large canvas to illustrate many different themes about not only crime and punishment, but about class issues and the psychology of relationships as well.
Drive (USA, Director: Nicolas Winding Refn)
Featuring Ryan Gosling as the unnamed Driver, Drive is a brilliantly-directed genre exercise from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, working in Hollywood for the first time. As an homage to the car and crime films of the 80s, it’s remarkably slick and violent. Though Refn attempts to make it into a resonant fairytale, for me it was more style over substance. Despite a hypnotic and unforgettable soundtrack of almost-cheesy synth music, the rest of the film faded away quickly after I saw it. But it’s definitely still very much worth seeing.
Le Havre (Finland, Director: Aki Kaurismäki)
Reliably Kaurismäkian, Le Havre doesn’t find the Finnish director breaking any new ground, but it remained a pleasure to watch. Aging bohemian Marcel Marx is a shoeshiner who takes pity on a refugee boy who has escaped the authorities in the Norman port town of Le Havre. Like in many other of his films, Kaurismaki peoples his gloriously-lit palette with a quirky cast of supporting players, evoking a time when people really cared about their neighbours. If that neighbour turns out to be an illegal immigrant, these people take it in stride. More a hopeful fable than a realistic drama, Kaurismäki’s big-hearted humanism is still worthy of praise.
Damsels in Distress (USA, Director: Whit Stillman)
After a 13-year hiatus, Whit Stillman (Metropolitan) returns with this uncharacteristically broad comedy about a group of college girls, led by the excellent Greta Gerwig, whose attempts to help their classmates usually go pathetically awry. I found the film genuinely funny, despite many critics’ disappointment. Allowing Stillman to make a simple comedy seemed beyond their indulgence, with most hoping for the incisive social criticism of his earlier films. Considering that this project was the one he could get financed, I prefer to think that he’s got more “intelligent” projects up his sleeve.
Miss Bala (Mexico, Director: Gerardo Naranjo)
A Mexican beauty pageant contestant becomes swept up in the war between drug traffickers and the police. Shot almost documentary-style, Miss Bala never leaves Laura’s (the gorgeous and vulnerable Stephanie Sigman) perspective and while this increases the tension as the film progresses, it doesn’t allow us any context for what she’s experiencing. Fantastic cinematography.
Shame (UK, Director: Steve McQueen)
For me, this was a huge disappointment. After the visceral impact of McQueen’s previous film Hunger, I expected a lot from this story of a sex-addicted man (Michael Fassbender) living alone in New York. When his sister arrives, there is some real tension between them, which for me seemed incestuous. But there’s not much revealed, and with no hint of any normality in his life, the film failed to connect emotionally with me. Even the grandly operatic final act left me cold.
Take This Waltz (Canada, Director: Sarah Polley)
Sarah Polley’s sophomore directorial effort has a lot going for it. A great cast, some lovely art direction and cinematography and an interesting premise (not to mention a title taken from a Leonard Cohen song). But the film, about a married woman’s struggle to choose between her distracted but loving husband and a sexy stranger, failed to work for me. Too much reliance on romantic comedy clichés as well as a script that could have used a few more drafts spoil a potentially great film that desperately needed a sense of gravity and some more grown-up dialogue. And despite my fears that he would sink the film, Seth Rogen actually delivers its best performance.
Kill List (UK, Director: Ben Wheatley)
I belatedly decided to see the very last Midnight Madness screening, despite not having seen Wheatley’s previous film Down Terrace. Blending kitchen sink drama with thriller and horror elements mostly works in this disturbing little movie. Jay is a hitman who hasn’t worked in 8 months after something went wrong on his last job. His wife is pressuring him to get back to work, and when his partner and pal Gal proposes an easy local job, he accepts. But things start to get weird as they work their way down the list of targets. I appreciated the smart script but the accents were a little hard to make out, and the twists the plot took left a significant portion of the audience scratching their heads. Wheatley is a promising filmmaker who might still be wearing his influences a bit too visibly on his sleeve at this stage.
Amy George (Canada, Directors: Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas)
A debut feature from two directors not long out of their teens, Amy George explores the dark and mysterious world of adolescent male sexuality. When 13-year-old Jesse gets an assignment in photography class to take a picture that represents some aspect of himself, he soon finds himself up a tree next to his neighbour’s house, training his telephoto lens on his slightly-older friend Amy. If it’s at times overly impressionistic and technically rough, the film pays dividends with its tiny epiphanies in Jesse’s coming of age.
J’aime regarder les filles (France, Director: Frederic Louf)
In its themes and subject matter, Frederic Louf’s film aims at being a French version of something like Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan but it ends up a lot closer to John Hughes’ territory. Primo is a young man whose parents own a flower shop, but when he sneaks into a rich kid’s party one evening and spies the beautiful Gabrielle, he begins impersonating someone he’s not. It’s 1981 and France has just elected its first Socialist President, François Mitterrand. Among his group of new friends, this is a disaster, but for Primo and his friend Malik, it’s an era of new hope. It’s a nice idea, but in the end, the film plays out quite simply. Primo learns his lesson and a few laughs are had, but the characters are mostly stereotypes. It’s a fun comedy, but less substantial than it tries to be.
SuperClásico (Denmark, Director: Ole Christian Madsen)
Another comedy that ends up being a lot less than expected. Christian is the owner of a wine shop in Denmark whose wife has left him to live with a soccer star in Buenos Aires. He takes his son along to try to win her back. Despite the references to two of my favourite subjects (wine and soccer), SuperClásico manages to disappoint with its wafer-thin characters and simplistic plot. In a city of nearly 13 million, how does it turn out that Christian ends up in a hotel room next to his runaway son, for instance? These elements of farce (along with an annoying voiceover from an anonymous narrator) seem very lowbrow and just downright lazy from a Danish comedy.