Toronto International Film Festival 2008


Toronto International Film Festival

4-13 September 2008


Films followed by * are showing at the London Film Festival, 15-30 October 2008.

‘Returning to Toronto was like finding a Jaguar parked in front of a vicarage and the padre inside with a pitcher of vodka martinis reading Lolita.’ This quotation is from an article in Maclean’s magazine in 1959, and 49 years on, the vicarage is now a film festival, the padre a media publicist (some things never change), the martinis still flowing and Lolita has become flesh and hangs out at festival parties.

The 33rd Toronto International Film Festival held last month was a hectic, well-run film bonanza which was rather low on sparkling Hollywood fare – the lacklustre Appaloosa (dir. Ed Harris) was a sub-Fordian western that added nothing new to the genre and starred a miscast Renée Zellweger as ‘the widder’ woman’ and Jeremy Irons as a more camp than crook ‘baddie’; his American accent put me in mind of the one-octave-lower school of Yankee voice exemplified by Hugh Laurie in House. There was Spike Lee’s worthy, sometimes touching, but ultimately under-edited and slightly unfocused film, The Miracle of St Anna* along with the the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading and Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married.

More promising (and rewarding) though, was to push beyond the galas and premieres and dip into the plentiful screen space given over to other cultural players. Several programming strands – and a very well appointed and excellent army of press and publicists – provided plenty of scope for off-mainstream viewing like the Discovery programme, which highlighted ‘provocative feature films by new and emerging directors’. It offered two strong films, one a notable and clever first film from South Korean director Noh Young-seok with the irresistible title Daytime Drinking, the other a flawed but nonetheless very interesting film set in the days of Pinochet’s Chile, Tony Manero*, which was a second film by Pablo Larrain.

The Vanguard programme of ‘innovative filmmakers and bold films that challenge our social and cultural assumptions’ revealed its strongest works in Thomas Woschitz’s broad portmanteau Universalove, which had a significant soundtrack provided by Austrian indie band Naked Lunch, and the Filipino/French co-production Serbis (dir. Brillante Mendoza), an excellent story of a matriarchal family who own a run-down soft-core porno cinema ironically named ‘Family’, which is swarming with various misfits and characters on the societal fringe – a real discovery, this film. The Visions (‘Filmmakers who challenge our notions of mainstream cinema’), Contemporary World Cinema, Real to Reel, and Midnight Madness programmes were likewise repositories of promising and challenging films. I especially enjoyed the poetic and atmospheric black and white meditation, El Cant dels Ocells (Birdsong)* a second film from the Spanish director Albert Serra which had echoes of Tarkovsky’s work, the Cassavetes-like film of Mika Kaurismäki, Kolme viisasta miesta (Three Wise Men), and finally what was for me probably the most rewarding film of the festival, the small and wonderfully formed Goodbye Solo* (dir. Ramin Bahrani), a film set largely in a taxi cab and in which we are immersed in the character’s lives from the very outset. The film boasts a brilliant script, which the actors make seem improvised, and two fantastic performances by the leads, Red West (formerly of Elvis Presley’s Memphis Mafia) and Souleymane Sy Savane. Savane has a terrifically charismatic screen presence and easily embodies the goodness of his character Solo, in striking contrast to the darker demons and disillusionment internalised by West’s character, William. It offers an honest and accurate portrayal of the character’s stories and avoids the slick resolution that a Hollywood treatment would have required. The Real to Reel documentary programme likewise held many pleasant surprises; one notable film, which also caught my attention at the Brit Doc Festival earlier this year, was the Richard Parry film Blood Trail, which comes with the tagline ’13 Years, 3 Wars, 1 Photographer’ and follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of war photographer Robert King. It is to these alternative strands that, I suspect, most readers of Electric Sheep would have found their cinematic radars pointed, and if there is any cultural justice in this world these festival gems will be picked up and given distribution and exhibition.

The festival was dominated by two themes this year: the much bandied about perception of a ‘New Realism’ in recent cinema (sounding very much, I recognise, like a themed issue of Granta magazine), and the triumph of screen veterans who we didn’t know we cared about in the first place, namely, Mickey Rourke and Jean-Claude Van Damme in The Wrestler and JCVD respectively. Electric Sheep bills itself as ‘a deviant view of cinema’; well, here’s one: Mickey Rourke is one of the greatest screen actors of his generation. OK, I admit to more than a bit of hyperbole there, but his performance in Aronofsky’s fine film (don’t look for the over-wrought significations that characterise the rest of the director’s work) is exquisite: it is well-paced, well-judged, well-balanced, incredibly nuanced, thoughtful, deeply committed – and I can hardly believe that I’m stating all this in print. But I am.

Of course, Rourke looks like hell – a combination of who knows what boxing blows, steroids, botox and surgery that makes him look like a walking, talking plasticination artwork by Prof Gunther von Hagens. But it’s one hell of a bravura performance that he creates and it could fit comfortably in a list of best-ever sporting performances, just narrowly eclipsed by Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. A bet: Oscar nomination forthcoming. Any takers? His performance notwithstanding though, the film does have flaws, with a storyline that entails the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, the estranged daughter who all too quickly reconnects with the father figure and the near-obligatory contemporary text of masculinity in crisis.

Jean-Claude Van Damme in the Belgian/French/Luxembourgian film JCVD is also a bit of a revelation. Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, the film is an action-comedy examination of the nature of fame – particularly Van Damme’s own – in a very surprising and highly intertextual film reminiscent of Being John Malkovich. In fact, intertextual and self-reflexive narratives as well as elliptical story lines were found in many of the films shown in the festival.

It would be remiss not to mention the many films – short, documentary and feature length – that were made in the host country and are screened annually at the festival. Canadian cinema has had a bumpy history: sometimes shining, more often good rather than great, and full of sub-Hollywood, sub-European cinematic compromises. Too often worthy and aspirant, it has produced few genuine masterpieces – among which I would cite Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine, Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire and, for historical reasons, Don Shebib’s Goin’s Down the Road. The best directors, like Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg, have often sought funding and facilities outside the country. The two ‘Great White North’ hopes this year were Passchendale (dir. Paul Gross – he of Due South television fame), a First World War epic, and Toronto Stories (dir. Sook-Yin Lee, Sudz Sutherland, David Weaver and Aaron Woodley), which is very reminiscent in structure of the multi-directed New York Stories (1989). Both films share some of the previously mentioned national qualities: worthy, aspirant and just short of truly major Canadian/international statements. Hold out for Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg.

There remains only one highlight of the Toronto Festival to note: the return to filmmaking after a self-imposed sabbatical of 17 years in which he developed his painterly skills, of the great Polish director, Jerzy Skolimowski, the maker of several significant international films including Deep End (1970), The Shout (1978) Moonlighting (1982) and the rarely seen Ferdydurke (1991). His new film, Four Nights with Anna, is an intense portrait of a romantic loner who becomes increasingly bold in his obsessive spying on a local nurse who he had seen raped years before. He eventually penetrates her personal space by entering her apartment, unseen and unheard, while she sleeps. The slowly unfolding, carefully framed and atmospheric filming tells a slightly sinister, deeply psychological story. Excerpts from an interview with the director will appear in a later ES issue.

James B Evans