Saturday, September 13, 2008

you saw it here first!

Slumdog Millionaire was just announced as the People's Choice Award winner.

people's choice award prediction

More movie reviews coming, but in the meantime, I thought I would post a prediction in advance of TIFF's announcement later today of the People's Choice Award. From all the buzz of the week, even in the press room, it seems destined to be Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire! This rags-to-riches story (which I did not see) seems to have tapped critics and public alike. Let's see if I'm right!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

kanchivaram; easy virtue; gigantic

I took two days away from the festival to do laundry, start classes and see hana my puppy, but now I am back in swing. Once again, the day was led by a strong film - I started with Priyadarshan's Kanchivaram, about a silk weaver who promises his newborn daughter that she will wear silk on her wedding day. The working conditions among South India's weavers in the 1940s is such that no weaver can ever afford to actually weave silk for themselves. The high religious value of the culture to be married and to die in silk prompts the weavers to resent their fate. Tamil film star Prakah Raj looks a bit too flush, too full on the bones and healthy to be convincing physically for his role as the region's most prize weaver who steals silk to fulfill his promise to his daughter. However, his performance is delightful and moving, weaving past and present together (the movie is told largely through flashbacks) with stark contrasts in temperament and mood. This film is gorgeously shot; one of those wonderful festival experiences where you leave the cinema feeling as if you have tasted the food and can still feel the rain on your skin. Subtitled "a communist confession", the film also portrays the post-Gandhi rise of communism in South Asia as the weavers come together to improve their lot and Vengadam takes on their charge.

The only thing that is easy about watching Stephan Elliott's Easy Virtue, is gazing on the beauty of the cast. Jessica Biel, Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth glide through this very breezy adaptation of the Noel Coward play and give it their best, but even they cannot save this frothy piece from looking and feeling like an art nouveau tour of English aristocracy. I am a huge fan of Scott Thomas, and its worth saying that even playing a thankless role, she can be electrifying. No one, and I say this categorically, can say as much as she does with an eyebrow! As the profoundly bitchy matriarch of a well-heeled family coping with the marriage of its prodigal son to an American "with a past", she manages to smile through all of her barbs in a way that conveys an inner pain and underlying loss, even while she is wholly unlikeable. That's just the quality of the person playing the role. Colin Firth, as the jaded father, has his usual moments of depth but he is not given much to work with here. The story really belongs to Biel, as the American newlywed caught in a vipers' den, trying to survive. It is hard to bring such superficial material to the screen - Coward is meant to be done without any real looking beneath the surface. An Oscar Wilde comedy can support that, but not a Coward one. Like Faubourg 36, the other film I saw set in the same era and with high production values, the director gets in the way of the material by being too much in love with what they are doing. The result is gag after gag, one-liner after one-liner that fizzles immediately after its sting more often than nought, because the camera is in the wrong place.

The similarity in directing styles was not the only noticeable comparison for me about Easy Virtue and Faubourg 36. Both films were screened at the Elgin. Today again, the theatre was empty and the audiences less enthusiastic. It became clear to me that not only is this theatre now the purvue of the donors; they are also being fed some of the pablum of this festival: easy to digest and without much depth. Is the festival not only ripping off its passholders - but also spoon-feeding its donors only movies it thinks they will enjoy? End of mini-rant 2!

Small, but memorable star turns have been one of the hallmarks of my festival so far. I mentioned Catherine Keener in Genova, and there are two that made me smile in Matt Aselton's Gigantic: Ed Asner and Jane Alexander. I guess it dates me to say "I remember when..." about these actors but great to know that they are still as strong as ever. I have always loved Jane Alexander - since first seeing her wonderful supporting performance in All the President's Men. I was working as an usher in Famous Players Theatres in those teenaged days, and saw that movie many many many times. I always made sure I was in the house for the scene in which her bookkeeper character reveals some of the first top secrets of Watergate to an anxious Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. In Gigantic, Asner and Alexander are perfectly cast as the parents of our hero Brian, played by Paul Dano. Dano is one of those actors, like Michael Cera, who has enjoyed sudden focussed interest because of recent work in large films: in this case Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood. He is a very compelling actor through very minimalist, naturalist style. He is joined here by broader comedy actress Zooey Deschanel as the unfulfilled daughter of a wealthy entrepreneur (played with glee by John Goodman) who comes to pick up a bed her father has bought. Like, Lovely, Still, I didn't have much expectation going into this, but also like that film, was surprised. The screenplay is too arch, too highly stylized, with everyone sounding the same and swearing exactly the same way and reaching too hard in places to be offbeat and quirky. Yet somehow, largely through the engaging performances of our leads and supporting cast, and assured direction, the film is unexpectedly moving. Brian's lifelong dream to adopt a baby from China starts out as a gag and becomes a way to finding the heart of the film.

Monday, September 08, 2008

unmistaken child; lovely, still

It feels like a wonderful expression of the cultural mix of our world that an Israeli filmmaker has made a movie about Tibetan monks searching for a reincarnated master. Unmistaken Child, is a beautiful essay in the complexities of buddhist tradition, without having to get out a dictionary of world religions. Lama Konchog, a venerated lama has died and Tenzin Zopa, his disciple of 21 years, is grief-stricken. Finding a footprint in the ashes of the great master's funeral pyre, along with several pearls, the lamas and rinpoches of Zopa's monastery believe the master to be intending reincarnation. The disciple is put in charge of the search, one he doesn't feel worthy of. Thus begins this wonderful film. As Zopa travels through the communities of his home Tsum Valley, he carries the rosaries of the late master and asks each baby he encounters, "do you recognize this?" Just as we are wondering how such a divination could ever occur in a child just one year old, the magic begins. A fascinating aspect of this film is also its depiction of what happens to a child, once they have been recognized as a 'Rinpoche' (reincarnated master). Shot over four years, we watch this child grow slowly and gain a greater confidence in the knowledge of who he is. But I was most moved of all by the beautiful attention and caring patience of Tenzin Zopa himself, who lavishes the love of a disciple who sees clearly his deceased master in the eyes of the child. One such moment comes when he sits the child on his knee at the mountain retreat where he himself first met Konchog, and tells the boy all about their first encounter, when he himself was a boy. Rain on the windows of the residence of the Dalai Lama, the lush foliage of the valley, the beautiful smile of the disciple are images that won't leave me soon.

I went into Nik Fackler's Lovely, Still with very little expectation and was pleasantly surprised. Featuring Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, it tells the story of a man and woman who meet up late in life and fall very quickly in love, only to leave us, and each other, with the feeling they have done all this before. There have been a number of movies lately, and fine ones too, that have attempted to deal with Alzheimer's Disease: Sarah Polley's Away From Her comes quickly to mind. In Lovely, Still, the drama takes on the disease completely within the world of the one living it - so that all of the surprises of understanding come for us at the same time as for our hero. It is a wise choice, and allows us to feel the highs that the Landau character experiences in being in love, without sensing something amiss. When he starts to become paranoid about her absence, reality slowly shifts in for us. It is material which could have been trite or overbearing, but Fackler handles it with sensitivity and great confidence for a first feature.
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Saturday, September 06, 2008

linha de passe; genova; faubourg 36; wavelengths 2

Once again, the best film of the day was the first one. Is this a reflection of my energy level? or just the luck of the draw? Could be both - but so it was.

One of the best shorts in the French omnibus Paris Je T'Aime was a quiet film by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas about a new mother who must go to work across the city and leave the child in the precarious care of others. In even the few minutes of that piece, I was impressed by how well they conveyed the anxiety of the mother, even while she also accepted her powerless situation. This year, motherhood is again one of the themes Salles and Thomas are bringing us, this time in a full feature, Linha de Passe, set in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Four boys live with their mother in a poverty-stricken tenement where the sofa is one of the most fought over areas of personal space. Each young man or boy dreams of a life beyond their means, but a life that feels tantalizingly accessible. The mother, who is pregnant again, is both patient and at the end of her rope. Salles and Thomas allow the naturalism of character interaction and response to play out in normal rhythms so that scenes occasionally have an improvisational feeling and yet the whole things is tight: the boys' storylines are woven seamlessly so that we are never away from any one too long. As the stakes increase, so does the disappointment in life. One thing I really enjoyed in this film was the nine year old's obssession with driving a bus. He befriends drivers, studies their actions meticulously, and even gets a driver to train him a little. Throughout all, the mother tries to validate and affirm each child in her own way, while knowing that their lives are spinning out of control. A beautifully controlled and crafted film from this thoughtful and gifted filmmaking team.

A big yellow circle went around the words "Colin Firth" in the write-up for Genova. An actor I love, here he plays a widower, with two daughters, who decides to take a year in Italy to help the family recover from their recent loss. The film is directed by Michael Winterbottom, the venerated British director of last year's A Mighty Heart. This is one of those filmmaking careers I have followed right from the very beginning, when Winterbottom premiered his film Family at TIFF in 94. I remember sitting in the Uptown2 cinema in those days (when the Uptown was still with us) and marvelling at how carefully and honestly he observed the emotional nuances of relationships. Genova is another example of this strength. Perla Haney-Jardine plays the youngest girl, Mary, whose role in her mother's death leads her through a journey of profound guilt and agonizing loss. Since we watched the opening sequence (which is heartstoppingly long when we all "feel" what is coming), the audience knows the truth. However, these possibilities are never discussed aloud - if the father knows the details, he doesn't need or want to dwell on them. Then Mary's mother begins to appear to her in different ways and places and the girl slowly succumbs to the pull of her own healing imagination. Where it leads her is often dangerous, just as the reckless partying of her older sister in a new European city is dangerous too. There is a sense of both girls living out their grief recklessly: disconnected from themselves, they are slowly disconnecting from real life as well. Firth is lovely as the always caring father. I was particularly moved by a moment in which after Mary has disappeared, he remains calm, saying, "she's a sensible girl, she'll come back" over and over, and then very suddenly falling into sheer panic. It is so real - and gut-wrenching. There is also a beautiful supporting performance in this film: Catherine Keener plays a former love interest of Firth now living in Genova, who clearly still carries a torch for him as she tries to help his family adjust. There is a small scene where her good intentions lead Firth to be upset with her. Winterbottom knows to stay with her as she walks away, where even from behind, we see her pain. A reminder that a person does not have to be dead, for a loss to feel equally keen.

Every now and then the program write-up for a film falls very short of what we actually see. It is not just a matter of personal taste, it is actual misinformation. Such is sadly the case with Christophe Barratier's Faubourg 36, described as, "a delightful musical comedy ... which features a charming ensemble cast, exemplary production values and some spectacular musical numbers." Well, I'm here to tell you that I stayed in this film more than an hour waiting for one of those spectacular musical numbers before finally giving up. The film does boast the gorgeous 1930s sets and costumes. However, it soon gets mired in silly story elements. Eventually, the one-dimensional characters and absence of any musical numbers take their toll. There is some wonderful camera movement and sweeping orchestration - but always culminating in a plot twist, rather than a song or something genuine about character. A disappointing turn from the director of the wonderful Les Choristes. (By the way, this was one of those times where a programmer should have been a key indicator for me.)

I am going to pause here. Because while I was at the Elgin, the realities of the new Festival politics hit home to me. This was a public screening, one that ought to have drawn a full house crowd. Cameron Bailey's extended introductions ran the usual gamut of corporate donors but then riffed at length about Bell Lightbox, which he said will be "up and running soon". Anyone who has walked by King and John knows that there is nothing 'soon' about that project. Construction has barely come above the ground level. His extended explanation of the financing of the building was completely unnecessary, unless one remembers that the audience here are themselves corporate donors. The empty seats told the story of the true cost of Bell Lightbox: that in order to woo corporate donors, the festival has put this cinema's programming off-limits to passholders. The Special Presentations program is one of the strongest of the whole festival - so limiting its exposure is a truly shocking move, as the audiences in that theatre are what have built the reputation of Toronto as a great place to premiere movies. The audiences are the foundation of this festival and TIFFG must never lose sight of that. No amount of donation in the world is worth the loss of their good will. End of rant!

I ended the day with the second program of Wavelengths shorts focussing on the theme of "Lost and Found". Filmmaker David Gatten was on hand to talk (fascinatingly) about his short How to Conduct a Love Affair. A stand-alone piece participating also in a much larger series he is working on, it riffs an imaginative response to a collection of books in a private 18th century library that first found its way to Thomas Jefferson and then became the basis of the Library of Congress, thus establishing how European literature influenced North America. An example of how well-curated this programme is, Gatten's film was matched elsewhere in the group by Jonathan Latham's Encyclopedia Brittanica, which takes us rapidly through more than 1000 pages of a particular volume. In between these shorts were serene and beautiful meditations on written word, both textually and conceptually and emblematic image. I was particularly struck by the deeper hues and simple textures of Abraham Ravett's Tziporah.
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reviews: waltz with bashir; nick and norah's infinite playlist; heaven on earth; plus tard tu comprendras; wavelengths1

Waltz wtih Bashir is my first extraordinary film of the festival. Director Ari Folman explores the unreliability and explosiveness of memory - in this case, of being an Israeli soldier in the war with Lebanon in the early 1980s. Painkstaking animation, drawn largely from captured video and then adapted into drawings, helps to both detach us from too-familiar images, and also bring us into the horror in new ways. The film is similar to last year's Persepolis (Satrapi) by investing depth of emotion through the selective use of graphic detail and colour. But Waltz with Bashir is a documentary as much as it is a memoir. Its blacks, yellows, greys and steel blues convey the horror of how memory works, revealing only fragments at a time because the rest is too hard to bear. I was planning to warn of spoilers and tell you about its incredible ending, because to me the ending was what put it into the extraordinary category. However, I have decided to leave that discussion til after the festival. In the meantime, knock over all the obstacles in your way to see this haunting film.

Having hit a high water mark, it was perhaps bad timing to then try to take in Peter Sollett's candy cane of a film Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. There is so much going for the truly lovely Michael Cerra, who will be a wonderful actor to watch as he moves through his career of hopefully better choices of movies. Everything going for this film (which is not much) owes itself to his performance. His sincrity, humour, quiet intelligence and warmth are part of what allowed Juno to be the hit it was this time last year. However, Nick and Norah is no Juno. It is all about the writing folks, and the writing here is dreadful - a narrative spitfire of one-liners, most of which don't work. Kat Dennings is not convincing as the girl no one notices who loves our hero. She is also not a match as an actor for Cerra, who requires someone equal in sincerity and capacity to read more than one emotion at a time. I got tired of her eye-rolling acting and left. The only thing "infinite" about this film is its underestimation of its audience.

Those of you who tuned into CBC radio Metro Morning yesterday (I will post our conversation soon) would have heard fellow blogger Ali Ladhani (The Original Concept) and myself talk about how excited we were to be seeing Deepa Mehta's Heaven on Earth. I then did see it later the same day and after the Nick and Norah nightmare. Unfortunately, it too disaappointed me, though the loss is greater for me here. Mehta's craft as a storyteller and a weaver of emotional lines is hard to match in this country - and I have deeply admired her films to date. Heaven on Earth takes her into slightly new territory - that of magic realism. Bollywood megastar Preity Zinta plays Chand, a woman who comes to Canada from India to marry and is slowly oppressed by the family she has joined, to the point of great emotional and physical violence. As her state of mind deteriorates, the film moves into a series of episodes and sequences that are hard to call as being true or not true, an invention of her resourceful imagination struggling to be free, or the greater reality, under the surface of things, we're not sure which. This will be a matter of taste, but I myself feel manipulated by films that do this. (For instance, I disliked intensely A Beautiful Mind and I even found Schindler's List too manipulative. So bear that in mind!) For me when a film moves like this, I lose my grounding but not in a way that reflects the character's experience - which might be useful. I lose my grounding in the sense of feeling guided by the filmmaker of being on a journey that the filmmaker knows I will understand. The film is powerful in its message and its ability to convey the claustrophobia of people living truly on top of each other, of its cycles of domestic oppression and violence. And it has great performances. But to my mind it sacrificed its power by being too enmeshed in its magical elements.

A ridiculous (on my part) error of which theatre to be in (!), caused me to miss the first half hour of Amos Gitai's Plus Tard, tu comprendras, which was a heavy hitter for me. I had to negotiate my entrance (!!) at the half hour mark, but I'm glad they relented and let me in. To me, this film feels like a great departure for Gitai - certainly from his highly stylized and experimental Desengagement of last year. Featuring the still-luminous Jeanne Moreau, it tells the story of one man trying to uncover the story of his mother's Jewish heritage and her holocaust experiences, while the mother refuses to have the conversations. Gitai is remarkably subtle here, wonderfully using only one shot to convey an entire scene. What I love about Gitai is his constant experimentation with the language of cinema. This device here works breathtakingly: my favourite was a continued close-up on the man's wife as she listens to his despair and then tries to coach him to "let go" of his quest for understanding. I am going to see the first half hour of this film later today and will write more then, but I am very moved by it and as time passes, this film is rising steadily in my regard.

As readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan of the Wavelengths program. Last night's opening night films by giants Nataniel Dorsky and Jean-Marie Straub (two separate films) set the standards for this finely-curated programme of the festival. I found Dorsky's question and answer period afterward filled with subtle putdowns and defensiveness which completely belied the beauty of his gorgeous images, pacing and quiet spirituality. His films, Sarabande (pictured) and Winter, were hypnotic with pulsed light and effusions of colour. Beautifully programmed by contrast with Straub's Le Genou d'Artimide, the rigid and even classical structures and rhythms of this film stood out even more. Working with/against great music by Pavese and Mahler, it had much spoken text, subtitled here in two languages, that showed two static characters engaging in profoundly unsolvable ideas of mortality. I found the quiet, dark moments of the music, good conrast and also welcome relief from my by-then aching head! Tonight's Wavelengths programme is one of my top seeds of the festival - so stay tuned for more.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

first reviews!: l'heure d'ete; two-legged horse; short cuts canada2; from mother to daughter

Yes, you can see from that blogline that the plans changed! Getting into Toronto later than I expected, and needing to pursue an important personal meeting, I had to forgo Passchandaele - to my sadness!

However, this meant I began the day with Olivier Assayas' lyrical L'Heure d'Ete which I have said was a top pick. It took me a moment to recognize Jeremie Renier from the Dardenne Brothers L'Enfant which I saw at this festival a few years ago. In that film, he played a thief who trades in his newborn son behind his mother's back, to get much-needed cash and then spends the rest of the movie trying to get the boy back. In this movie, he is a complete contrast as a well-groomed businessman living in China, home to deal with his aging mother's estate. Charles Berling plays the oldest son, and only family member still attached to all his mother's life represents. And Juliette Binoche appears as Adrienne, the disaffected designer living in New York and Japan.

The Japan and China aspects of this screenplay are no mistake. Increasingly French film is taking on notably Asian accents as well-known filmmakers cross oceans to trade skills and work with each other. In Paris Je T'Aime, Binoche appeared in Nobu Suwa's segment. And last year, she was featured in Voyage du Ballon Rouge, the homage to the French classic The Red Balloon by none other than Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Now we have a French filmmaker, Olivier Assayas making a film with all French actors but in a decidedly Asian style, with extended takes, naturalistic overlapping dialogue and a focus on character dynamics rather than narrative. From the opening extended sequence of children playing in the height of summer bliss, crashing through trees and fields to arrive at the sweeping lawn of a summer house, to the final moments at the same house, now quite transformed, the film uses silences and the gathering light of dusk to resonate the far-reaching impact of small, seemingly not so insignificant (and yet profound) family decisions. What I particularly admired about it was that everyone got along, even while causing deep divisions and rifts. Tension in drama does not have to be about argument! It is about the desire to avoid argument, even while there is deep emotion, and even as honesty and open talk are engaged. This is French fusion in fine form.

It's becoming increasingly impossible to talk about the Makhmalbaf family of filmmakers without reaching for the superlative thesaurus. Last year, its most junior member Hana Makhmalbaf gave us the astonishingly assured Buddha Collapsed out of Shame. This year, older sister Samira is in the spotlight with Two-Legged Horse. The cinema of Iran enjoys the unique reality of being completely uninfluenced by North American movies. How is this possible? Because of cultural sanctions, which also prohibit the portrayal of any adult situations of either sexuality or political expression. As a result, this nation's movies are often about children, who provide a safe way of critiquing society. In Two-Legged Horse, Samira Makhmalbaf has said in an interview on the family website that she is exploring ideas of relations among political powers and also among people. In her movie, a boy with no legs is carried through his life by a mentally and physically challenged older boy. Both are more or less orphaned, though the boy with no legs is rich, and his father has enough money to leave him for months in the care of others. The older boy is hired to be his "horse", to carry him everywhere. Samira's greatest gift his her subtle capacity to build a sense of tolerance within us: just as we have gotten used to one form of degradation, another starts.
As the two boys are left to fend largely on their own, the older boy's role as the 'horse' starts to become a surreal game in which they both engage the horror of its oppression with seemingly equal interest and need. The excesses of it are such that by the film's end the boy has almost literally been transformed into a horse. The nuances of their growing co-dependency, both necessary and chosen, are contrasted by the almost gothic emotion of the older boy, whose inability to speak well reduces him to animal noises most of the time. Samira Makhmalbaf is an amazing director of men and boys (in all her films) and here it pays off in spades.
As the community of village boys set on confronting our heros gathers around them in a hopeless cockfight-style battle, they rub their hands "like swords" in relish of what is coming. It is almost like orchestrated music, its rhythm and vocal language (without words) incredibly rich. Another classic from the woman who brought us The Apple, Blackboards and At Five in the Afternoon.

After this feast, I took a break and returned too late to gain admittance to 33 Scenes from Life, much to my dismay. So instead, I wandered into a Short Cuts Canada Programme (2) that was in progress. What a great result! These thoughtful pieces were all engaging human relationships and memory in unusual ways. Philip Barker's Night Vision, featuring Severn Thompson (whom I have been seeing this summer in Stratford Festival productions) works in a palette of gorgeous greys and blues to convey a confusion of dreamed-of 'storytelling'. The always strong Helen Lee went on location to Seoul, Korea to shoot Hers At Last, a portrayal of parallel stories of two women locked by loneliness: one to an art world she cannot belong to, and another to a marriage in which she never sees her husband. This woman's long distance calls home to her native Mongolia and private prayer ritual are all she have to connect her to her truer sense of self. Rosa Rosa, by Félix Dufour-Laperrière, used thinly transparent layers of hand-drawn animation to engage a generic story of a family coping with war. And Constant Mentzas Gilles looks at the agonizing decision of an aging woman in caring for her mentally challenged son. Strong work in an art form that is truly all its own.

Standing in line for my next film, I met Helen Zuckerman, who runs the Jewish Film Festival which occurs every year in May. She urged me to be sure to see Ari Folman'sWaltz with Bashir, which was indeed my late in the day scheduled heavy-hitter. Since I had time first, I decided to check out Andrea Zembelli's From Mother to Daughter. A documentary commenting on another documentary, it takes a look at the women profiled in Giuseppe DeSantis' Bitter Rice, made during the 1940s, which profiles the women who worked in the rice paddies of Italy - yes, you read that right, Italy. Rice vermacelli...anyone? Zembelli's film picks up the same women in 2007, as the chorus they have formed and sung in through the years, made up of songs sung in the rice paddies, immerses itself in a contemporary folk youth concert in Rome, mixing it up with young hip talents. I had to leave it early, but all signs pointed to a delightful film and a good note to end the day on. I will be sure to catch Waltz with Bashir later in the week!
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here we go!

The night before the film festival, and at 2:00 a.m. I'm still not ready! Swilling my tenth coffee of the day, I slim down my final choices for tomorrow's first day of the film festival. I have always believed that the first day sets the tone for the whole week. In 2002, my first two films were two of the best films I've seen in the last ten years, Tom Tykwer's Heaven, and Robert Guediguian's Marie-jo et ses deux amours. Still, tomorrow includes some of my top seeds for the whole festival, so that bodes well. Up first will be Paul Gross' Passchendaele, which also serves as the opening night film (though I will see it earlier in the day). I will also see L'Heure d'Ete and Samira Makhmalbaf's Two-Legged Horse. Rounding out Thursday will be Szumowska's 33 Scenes from Life and Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir. (These last four can be found below in brief summaries and links.)

Yesterday, after writing two entrance language exams for my new degree, I crossed the street from St. Michael's college to the Sutton Place to pick up my industry package. Strange to go from translating Genesis to reading Playback in the space of mere minutes. While shuffling forward in a line that snaked out the door even in the first hour of pick-ups, I studied the foreign sales posters all over the walls. One for the films of Israel particularly caught my eye, as that country has an incredibly strong presence at this year's festival. Ahead of me, people cheerfully greeted each other and seemed excited. It is always this way on the Tuesday prior to the festival. By tomorrow and Friday, the stragglers from Venice have begun to trickle in and everything turns a bit more blase!

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

metro morning

Wednesday before opening day is always a bit crazy for me --- as I prepare my life for complete absence from it for ten days! I live out of town so it takes some arranging, especially for hana, my puppy (and blog namesake) to be cared for. This is just a quick post to let Toronto readers know that I will be on CBC radio's Metro Morning on Friday morning, with fellow TIFF blogger The Original Concept. We are not exactly sure when, but some time between 6 and 8 a.m. Those of you who are up - tune in!
More later today on other festival plans!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

the final week countdown

T minus 8 and counting... ! While the lottery watch is on at the public festival and there is quiet and not-so-quiet criticism about screening limitations, I'd like to celebrate one of the truly great bureaucratic decisions of this festival in recent years - and that is providing us with the entire festival programme book online. This hefty manual which is as expensive as a gala screening ticket, but online for free, is an invaluable resource - since the full program write-ups are an essential part of planning. We all have our favourite programmers and that's where I always begin. I take the hit list gleaned from a summer of press releases and then check out my programmers and see how things line up.

Let's here it for the programmers. I notice their pictures are all online too this year, so we can put faces to those names we always circle at the bottom of the page, for better or worse. This works both ways, by the way. There are programmer names I circle and stay away from like the plague! Through years of experience, I have learned! Two in particular come to mind but I'm not into dissing them here. Some of the great bygone programmers I credit with having introduced me to some of my all time favourite films. Among these are the late David Overbey, who through this festival, introduced me to the work of Hou-Hsiao Hsien twenty years ago. I remember hearing a CBC radio interview with him and his rhapsodic descriptions of the great Asian filmmaker's works sent me directly to that screening. The movie? Dust in the Wind. I also remember the great Kay Armatage, whose feminist voice and penchant for high-style were an important presence in this festival. Frankly, she has yet to be replaced. Bring her back! Of those who are indeed here, I am a fan of Dimitri Eipides probably first and foremost, Andrea Picard, Jane Schoettle (who also runs Sprockets), and I am increasingly beholden to Giovanna Fulvi. Check them out on the Programmers page and find your own heros.

Press/industry market screenings begin next Thursday, early in the day, as usual. Here are the screenings competing for my attention on each day. Public folks take note, my scheduling is from the logged-in Industry site. These P/I screening times do not appear on the regular public festival pages. Asterisk means an unmoveable programmed element!

I have listed here only the first two days - as the post would get way too long! Watch out for reviews of some of these films on each day.

Thursday, September 4 (Industry schedule)
Snow, Begic
Dimitri Eipides says there are "unforgettable moments" - that's enough for me in a film about Bosnian women coping with loss.
*L'Heure d'Ete, Assayas
Though released earlier this year in France, Assayas rarely disappoints.
Laila's Birthday, Masharawi
I loved Masharawi's Ticket to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, I won't see this til the following week because of L'Heure D'Ete but I won't miss it.
*Two-Legged Horse, Makhmalbaf
This family of gifted Iranian filmmakers manages to give us one a year. A must-see. (pictured at top)
33 Scenes from Life, Szumowska
The Kieslowski influence is calling me to this one. (pictured above)

Friday, September 5 (Industry schedule)
Waltz with Bashir, Folman
Ever since Richard Linklater and Waking Life, I thrill to animation springing from captured video.
Faubourg 36, Barratier
A musical set in Paris - what more do you want?
Empty Nest, Burman
A movie about a playwright is too close to home to resist.
Comte de Noel, Desplechin
An award-winner at Cannes, and already much ballyhooed.
Heaven on Earth, Mehta
From the woman who brought us Water, one of the best films of recent years.
Appaloosa, Harris
Harris' previous movie about Jackson Pollack was confident and assured.
24 City, Zhang-ke
It features the wonderful Joan Chen.
4 Nights with Anna, Skolimowski
From the new wave of Polish cinema, a quiet movie about obssession.
Woman in Berlin, Farberbock
Though I was disappointed in his Aimee and Jaguar, the era and subject interest me for a project I'm working on.
Country Teacher, Slama
Being gay in a small Czech village can't be fun but I'm going with Dimitri on this one.
Hunger, McQueen
Irish hero Bobby Sands, and one of the most interesting British visual artists of our time, as subject and director respectively.
*Wavelengths 1, Dorsky/Straub
Much written on this already, below.

Stay tuned for more one-line tips and daily screening picks!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

super tuesday part II - vive juliette!

The day has borne out well. Though the final release of film titles is slimmer than expected, the programmes can now be examined in their robust final fit for how they are going to hang together. There is also good news about Juliette! - as L'Heure d'Ete has indeed been programmed into Contemporary World Cinema. Focussing on the lives of three siblings who meet up at their mother's birthday party, it stars Charles Berling and Jeremie Renier and a very blonde Juliette!

In this same program, Samira Makmahlbaf (see below) premieres Two-Legged Horse with the kind of ingeniously simple premise that is a hallmark of Makmahlbaf family films. In the Dialogues program, Terence Davies (also mentioned below) is presenting the rarely seen trilogy of his works Children, Madonna and Child, Death and Transfiguration about a young Catholic boy facing his sexuality. Dialogues is dedicated this year to the late David Overbey's programming vision. Masters has added a new film by Paul Schrader that looks extremely interesting, looking at mental illness among holocaust survivors in Israel. Also on an Israeli theme, in Reel to Real, I am drawn to Leon Geller and Marcus Vetter's The Heart of Jenin (pictured here), about the donation of organs to Israeli children from a deceased Palestinian child.

Speaking of the Coen Brothers (see below), this dynamic duo will give us Burn After Reading, a thriller about a CIA analyst whose memoirs go astray. In the Gala programming, I am partial to seeing Anne Fontaine's new feature, La Fille de Monaco, only because I once interviewed her and really enjoyed the conversation. The heat is on! and now's the time to use the press releases to winnow down your 50 most likely favourites, so that you are ready to most time efficiently read the full write-ups when they become available online next Tuesday the 26th. Happy planning!

super tuesday!

Well, it's here! Today is the Super Tuesday of the TIFF pre-festival programming announcements - the day when all the final lists of films go online. (Detailed descriptions and schedule follow on August 26). If you're like me, this is the last day to cling to hope for some so-far holdouts. As the unabashed Juliette Binoche fan (see many posts at right), I am a bit on tenterhooks to see if L'Heure d'Ete (Summer Hours) makes it into the final list. The film is scheduled for the New York Film Festival (along with many announced TIFF flicks). I am hopeful, and trying to put to rest the nagging sensation that it would have been announced by now. Filmmaker Olivier Assayas has already been named to participate in the Industry's Talent Lab, but without mention of bringing a film with him. Could be that New York scooped us on this one.

And speaking of the Industry events, yesterday TIFF Industry announced the participants in the Talent Lab for emerging filmmakers. This is a series of master classes with established directors. Besides Assayas, look for appearances by Terence Davies and Samira Makhmalbaf. Both of these are exciting to me. Davies' exquisitely (I am tempted to write 'tortured') autobiographical films are often based on painful episodes from his own life, wrapped up in beautiful moments of redemption. I think of the scene in Distant Voices, Still Lives when the family oppressed by a tyrannical father gathers to sing songs at a pub. Makmahlbaf I wrote a great deal about last year, when her sister Hana emerged on the scene with Buddha Collapsed out of Shame, one of the best films of TIFF 07. This breathtaking young Iranian woman debuted at 17 with The Apple, which made it all the way to Cannes. Both helmers are bringing new films to the festival: Of Time and the City and Two-Legged Horse, respectively. Two speakers well worth catching.

Stay tuned for later tonight or tomorrow for the upshot of the day's results. In the meantime, I want to take a moment to feature some of my highlights announced so far.

In the 1980s (yes, you read that right), I was an enormous fan of a great Canadian filmmaker named Lea Pool. Her movie Anne Trister had a profound impact on me and I awaited each new feature with excitement, never disappointed. Among my favourites was her 10 minute short, "Risponditemi" in the 90s compilation Montreal Sextet, which chronicled a woman's life in flashbacks during the ride from an accident scene to the hospital. However, apart from the occasional mainstream flick (like Lost and Delirious), Pool has more or less disappeared. It's therefore thrilling for me to see that she has a brand new film in this year's TIFF: Maman est chez le coiffeur. I have no idea whether it will focus on the narrative elements more common to her recent pics, or mark a return to the fluid lyrical style of her earlier films, but I cannot wait.

Some Cannes Festival favorites and award winners are headed our way, including Comte de Noel (Desplechin), Entre les Murs (Laurence Cantet), and the newest Dardennes brothers film, Silence de Lorna (pictured). The Dardennes are kind of the Coen brothers of France, though their grittiness is more in the nature of the human capacity for suffering, than narrative environment. What is it about filmmaking sibs? The industry is populated with some giants, including these mentioned, the Wachowskis and oh yeah, that famous founding family of bros, named Marx. Much has been written about the Cannes films, so I won't do more on them here til I see them.

Steven Soderbergh's much anticipated Che or Guerilla will debut at the festival in two long parts. A massively ambitious work, it features Benicio del Toro and a lot of the geography of South America. This man who is often credited with having re-launched the independent film movement with Sex, Lies and Videotape is always interesting.

Among the Real to Reel entries, I'm looking forward to Unmistaken Child, an Israeli film by Nati Baratz about the search for the reincarnated master Lama Konchog (pictured at top). Also enticing are new entries from Mike Leigh, and Charlie Kaufman, whose Synecdoche, New York brings together some of my favourite actors in the world.

Hands up if you're already tired of hearing about Bell Lightbox? Ai yi yi! The same paragraph is at the end of every press release. I'm all for this new venture, but it's hard to get excited about a hole in the ground. The Lightbox could easily be another condo tower going into the same area. Why not wait til there's more of substance to actually tell us? But whose kvetching...

Hang in there. More later, as the results come in..... !

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Public vs. Industry festival - hard to call!

There are times when I have to admit I am grateful I made the move to the Industry festival about six years ago. I remember wishing I had done it much sooner. The Industry festival is the only way for true film lovers to now attend TIFF without major ticketing headaches and long lines. Don't get me wrong - there are still ticketing headaches and long lines for us too! but it's the "major" that drops out of the sentence. Now that I am linked to the TIFF site I have been checking out my blogging buddies from years gone by (people I've never met and don't know but whose blogs I check every year). Of these, I have to say Tifftalk and Crunchy Squirrel are among my favourites, because you can tell how deeply they love film, love the festival and how seriously they look at the experience as a whole. Tifftalk is great for people who are new to the festival and need to get their bearings. Crunchy has very nice short, pithy film reviews. (Don't you love the word pithy?)

Crunchy has helped me to realise two of the most startling TIFF changes this year for average film fans - the restriction of the Elgin from pass ticketing, and the priority access of donors to ticketing. They are politely upset about it, I would be real mad if I were them and if I relied on the public festival. The Festival is starting to mirror more and more the capitalist societies their films criticize, in which those with the most (but not necessarily the most knowledge and passion for film) squeeze out those with the least.

When I taught film (for 9 years at the International Academy of Design), I was always amazed by how many of my students did not attend the festival out of sheer finances. It is crazy - as this is not only the talent pool of tomorrow but the most passionate audience of today. Something must be done to help facilitate access to the festival for those who are its true backbone and mainstay and for those less advantaged all around.

In the meantime (and I hate to do this to you regular festival folks), here's the inside scoop on how the Industry festival works. If you've already been an Industry attendee once, they send you a link in May (yes, that was May) to renew your pass from last year. You click on the link, which takes you to an already filled out form. You make sure everything's still the same, enter your VISA and presto, you're done. From this, the next step is arriving at the Sutton Place on September 2 or 3 (this year) and picking up your fully prepared package. In the pass I have, this also includes accessing some public screening tickets (2 per day). A special, separate box office for these tickets is on the second floor of the Sutton. We line up in a single file line that, when it's audacious, may get up to a 'horrifying' ten or twelve people, but it is in the nice surroundings of that hotel, often with a Starbucks mini-station nearby. We have our own computer room and access to press information (technically for the press among us but it's open to anyone with an Industry pass).

Of course, there are down sides to the Industry festival, despite these clear perks. Everyone is generally extremely tired (Toronto is the third of three festivals the press attends in a row - and let's face it, as cities go, Toronto is nice but it ain't Venice). The conversations in the line-ups are more apt to be about the failings of a film, instead of the passionate dialogues of endorsement you get outside the public venues. We're in the same 8 cinemas for two weeks and start to get Varsity vertigo, and we miss all the Q and A's with directors and actors. That's why I feel lucky with my setup. I attend primarily Industry screenings, but also get the public buzz. Public audiences are the greatest difference from Industry - they are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Industry audiences are stressed. Still, there's nothing that quite beats that moment in an Industry screening that's going well, when a great line or funny moment has just happened on screen, and instantly 100 penlights click on, notebooks flip open and hands are going. In the end, we're all in it together!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

let the games begin!

You don't have to be an athlete to compete in that Olympic-sized sport - the countdown to TIFF! Now that the summer rains have drowned Southern Ontario out of any remaining hope of pure hot summer, it's time to start thinking of the fall and the banquet of moviegoing bliss that awaits. With much of the major programming already announced (and with much more to come in the next two weeks), TIFF 08 is already looking good. Here are some highlights.

Wavelengths, Sprockets Family Zone and Midnight Madness are always the first programmes to be announced in July. Wavelengths is the experimental programme of the film festival and always one of my favourites.

The quality of the film festival is all about its programmers - and someone who deserves great kudos for her work is Andrea Picard, the programmer for Wavelengths. She has an incredibly creative programming style, combining films of various genres and media in a way that speaks to their common underlying themes. She is also one of the best programme book writers. (Though the whole programme book will be available online by later this month, the write-ups are already available for Wavelengths and Midnight Madness.) This year Andrea has once again beautifully combined works from masters and newcomers alike. Of these, my high-starred pick is the Wavelengths 2 programme, already scheduled for Saturday September 6 at 6:30 at the AGO. Love in all its textures is the theme here, with films from David Gatten (How to Conduct a Love Affair), Hannes Schupbach (whose L'Atelier meditates on the rooftops of Paris - pictured at bottom), Charlotte Pryce (whose Parable of the Tulip Painter and the Fly - pictured at top - is described by Picard as having the "intoxicating colour and the velvety texture of a Dutch still life"), Astrid Ofner (who works with the love letters of Franz Kafka in Tell Me on Tuesday), Abraham Ravett (who meditates on embroidered tablecloths and napkins to convey themes of grief and loss in TZIPORAH - middle picture) and John Latham (represented by a posthumous restored print of enfant terrible). Exciting? You bet!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

a brilliant, patient Englishman

In collecting beautiful souls, the company of heaven got richer today: one of the loveliest voices in contemporary cinema has passed out of this world. Anthony Minghella, writer, director and cultural advocate has died in London. He was 54.

He was that rare thing: a successful visionary who managed to hold true to his own identity while developing and enhancing personal style. His gifts as a writer, his intelligent and generous sensibility toward actors, and his carefully considered innovative filmmaking style were never expressed at the cost of who he was. Abundant and humorous, his infectious smile massaged the egos of actors and crews alike while his toughest discipline was reserved for himself. A highly evolved writer, he whittled text to its bravest and most efficient form. I have often been in awe of it.

He was an enormously articulate man. To this day when I have taught screenplay adaptation, I have quoted Anthony Minghella's one-liner, "adaptation is all about compression and reinvention". His own talents for these tools were well evident in the screenplay for The English Patient, in which a formidably complex book was boiled down to its most poetic essence, scene by scene. In published form, his scripts read like a plate of cinematic amuses-geules. Each scene uses brushstroke lines to exquisitely delineate character and action. His scene action writing was a beauty to behold. He was an accomplished playwright and screenwriter with his own stories, but he was arguably the finest writer working at adaptations. He knew how to plunge into the heart of a book and pull out a radiating jewel.

In 2001 I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Minghella about his "Beckett on Film" short Play. In a day long stint of some dozen media interviews, he gave me half an hour. I remember the liveliness of his expressions, the dance of his smiling eyes as he showed interest in the fact that I was a teacher as well as a writer. Instead of the usual question/answer format, I had the feeling of a real conversation with someone incredibly interesting who just really wanted to sit and talk about Beckett. (Unfortunately, that interview for is no longer available online or I would link to it. I will try to find the html page on my old computer and paste it in.)

On a separate occasion, I met him again, and had the chance to talk to him about the deep impact on me of a particular scene in The English Patient. I referred to the moment in a Tuscany chapel, in which Hana, the character played by Juliette Binoche, is swung up on a rope with a torch in order that she might view close up the frescoes of Piero Della Francesco. I told Minghella that day that I had put a still from this scene on my writing desk because it reminded me of everything I write for: spirituality; beauty; and the sense of transcendence that comes when art works. He thanked me for telling him that and wished me well with my writing. His warmth, even briefly encountered, was incredibly uplifting.

There is an eerie synchronicity for me in this loss: I last felt a cinematic death this keenly twelve years ago, when I heard of the sudden death by heart attack of the Polish master filmmaker, Krysztof Kieslowski. He, too, died in the middle of a career in full bloom and he too was 54. At the time of his death, he left three unfinished screenplays, loose adaptations with writing partner Kryzstof Piesiewicz of Dante's Divine Comedy. The first of these to get produced posthumously was Heaven. It was produced because of the tenacity and commitment brought to it by Executive Producer... Anthony Minghella.

Minghella and Kieslowski are miles apart in cinematic style but they shared the great capacity to imagine story through the heart, to play out the everyday complexity of life through nuance of character. They also shared a leading lady: Juliette Binoche, who is featured in Kieslowski's Three Colours: Blue went on to Minghella's The English Patient and Breaking and Entering. Minghella worked with the same actors often, creating a kind of cinematic ensemble. Among them are Binoche, Jude Law, Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson.

There is a scene in Minghella's Truly, Madly, Deeply in which Alan Rickman (as the husband of a woman so grief-stricken by his death that he one day returns), makes his wife recite a poem by Pablo Neruda. Minghella spoke openly about his 'uxorious love' for his own wife, choreographer Carolyn Choa. In imagining her grief tonight, the line from that Neruda poem comes quickly back: "if you have died, it will rain on my soul all night and all day".

It will be raining on the soul of the film industry tonight, tomorrow and onward for a long time to come.
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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

looking back, and leaning forward

A new year, and a snowy one at that! I started my 2008 in the early morning, walking through thick new blankets of snow with my dogs before the rest of my community had cracked its blinds. The incredible stillness, but for our own pad-padding and the gentle rippling of the river as snow slid into it, filled me with a joyful sense of the wonders of creation. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And all of it was there in the dawn grey-blue light.

Time to set down a few notes here by way of a culture round up. Everyone's ten best lists are out. I want to make a list of my favourites, whether they are the best or not. I have to say, though, I was amazed by how much my own ten-best list lined up with Marcy Dermansky's - linked at right. She and Jurgen Fauth of remain my favourite critics, and also Manohla Dargis of the NYT. Fauth is the only other movie-critic human being on the planet who felt the way I did about Elizabeth: The Golden Age and his review sums it all up for me as well. But Dermansky and I must have been separated at birth when it comes to film taste. Some of her picks were on my last-year's list, as they were in fact released at the festival the year before.

So here are my top culture picks for the year 2007, and they include movies, books, theatre, anything I engaged this year. Notice that my ten-best festival list has disappeared from the right? That's because things have shuffled around so much in my thinking that I have to completely let it go. I have also included here cultural pieces that did not necessarily first appear this year, but which I found, saw or finally engaged this year. I have not included more personal spiritual readings, studies or visits to monastic life.

1. Film: How can I not begin with a Juliette moment? From Voyage du Ballon Rouge: in the cramped living space of the Binoche character's home, she engages her son in an everyday kind of exchange about what he is up to. Though she herself is emotionally exhausted as a harried Parisian puppetmaster trying to get on with life, she looks on him with limitless interest, love and patience and then quietly asks him how he is. "Ca vas?", she says very vulnerably, afraid of the answer. And then uses her hands to ask him to measure how 'ca vas' he is. His widely spaced hands tell her he is actually very much all right, and her relief is great. However, after he is gone, her face falls, as she worries this truth and returns to her own sadness. A piano is being tuned in the background throughout. This kind of rich emotional dynamic is only possible in Hou-Hsiao Hsien's legendary one-take, ten minute long single wide shots, which are here used for emotional value instead of storytelling context. The luminosity of Binoche pulls it off. The scene is excerpted on Youtube and only partially made it to the final film. I have linked it at right in the Binoche links. In Toronto, Juliette said (regarding Hou's long takes) that it was "his way of giving so much space to the audience to dream or think of their own life." And so it did.

2. Music: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. The incredible crooning of the soul artist Sharon Jones has been around, well as long as I have, but I only discovered her this year. A friend played for me her "Answer Me, Jesus" and it became my theme song of the year. I then went on to download every single track she's ever made. There is something about this amazing voice that for me combines the rawness of Tina Turner, with the pyrotechnics of Aretha while remaining uniquely soul. "100 Days, 100 Nights" has also been like blood transfusion for me, in getting through tough parts of the year and also bringing me closer to someone I love. Her talk-singing is both moving and hysterical - her ad-libbed oneliners in the middle of songs, in their throaty huskiness, remind me of Blossom Dearie. In this regard, tunes like "That's What My Baby Likes" and "Tight Like That" still make me laugh out loud in my car. "All Over Again" has been a recent favourite. I'm gonna keep on prayin' to ya, indeed!

3. Film: In "Anna", the short in Chacun son Cinema by Alejandro Inarritu, a blind woman and her boyfriend clutch hands, as we hear from the screen Anna Magnani's voice from La Cieca di Sorrento. The boyfriend whispers the details of image lovingly into the ears of the blind woman who is overwhelmed in emotion. The character on screen says, "he loved you tenderly, terribly, tragically". The on-screen movie dialogue and the dialogue of the two characters in the audience are both a contrast and also an extension of each other and one continuous emotion is evoked. If you want to watch the whole short (and please do!), it is on Youtube: "Anna". Although the image I have here is from actress Luisa Williams' website (picturing herself with Inarritu), the picture's informality and grainy snapshotty quality felt like a good thing to include, even if it is not from the film itself.

4. Theatre: To Kill A Mockingbird at the Stratford Festival, in Stratford, Ontario near where I live, was one of the finest productions of a contemporary classic I've ever seen. (Here is a clip from the production from the Stratford Festival website, featuring always-strong Peter Donaldson as Atticus). The assured direction of Susan Schulman managed to bring to life an American gothic realism without sacrificing any sense of contemporary meaning. The performances of the children were standouts, and particularly Abigail Culliford-Winter, playing Scout. She radiated a polish and an innocence rarely seen anymore from child performances, especially in the theatre, where young actors are often directed out of any natural spontanaiety. Equally fine was Spencer Walker as Dill. As these two formed a close and even intimate bond by the play's end, it was moving to realise that here, in imaginative dramatic form, was the young Harper Lee and the young Truman Capote. The production made the imagination entirely real.

5. Film: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days refers to the stage of pregnancy of Gabriela, a character in Cristian Mungiu's riveting film which won this year's Palme D'Or at Cannes. The lead character, however, is Gabriela's best friend and room mate, Otilia, who assists her friend in getting an abortion, at great personal sacrifice. Elsewhere on this blog, I wrote the following about this film when I first saw it: Wide shots held in sustained takes for long, realistic sequences, marks a combination of both western and eastern styles: western wide shots which focus us usually on story, but the eastern style pacing and sustained edits tell us we are engaging the emotional line of the film more than its story, but both are quietly harrowing, in that way we have come to associate with Eastern European cinema. Otilia's relentless devotion to her friend takes her into choices that few of us would be willing to make, especially when it is largely owing to Gabriela's fundamental weakness and inability to tell the truth. As a result, more than simply a portrait of Communist Romania in the 1980s, it is a profile of a friendship, one tested by every possible kind of challenge and which leaves its two heroines at the end ultimately in one piece, if silently and irrevocably changed forever. Since writing these words, I have come to appreciate this quietly harrowing film even more than on first viewing. It is an extraordinary debut piece and the best kind of portrait of a place and an era, from the point of view of an average soul trying to help another.

6. Book: French performance artist Sophie Calle's Exquisite Pain. Although it was published in 2003 and I have owned it since then, I finally read this strange and deeply affecting book this year. Based on a performance art work about her own suffering after having been abandoned by a lover, it is an incredibly funny, poignant, creatively innovative way of engaging an age-old subject. The book follows Calle on a trans-Siberian train trip, which ends when her lover fails to meet her in Delhi as planned. His pre-emptive phone call and the events of the demise, are repeated 50 times in as many following pages, though no two accounts are exactly the same, reflecting the changing perspective she is gaining on it (sometimes worse, sometimes better). Parallel to each page is a face page written by someone else, invited by Calle to describe their own worst moment of pain. Each day of Calle's narrative features the same photograph of the red Indian telephone where the relationship-ending conversation occurred. Most hauntingly real for me, was Calle's resourceful way of healing herself. Sophie Calle was the featured French artist at the Venice Biennale in 07, where she also showed Pas Pu Saisir La Mort in the Italian pavilion, a piece which chronicles the dying moments of her mother. A well-written and moving account of this work by Randy Kennedy of the NYT is already linked on my blog at right, but here it is again. If there is one thing in 2007 I wish I could have seen, that exhibition would be it.

7. Concert: Nadja Salerno -Sonnenberg and the Assad Brothers, Perimeter Institute, Waterloo, Ontario. My fanatical admiration for this great concert violinist is not anything new (read my other posts on her recordings): I have been watching her perform since the late 80s and have often travelled to her concerts. I had the rare opportunity to see Nadja perform this music live with the Assad Brothers at Joe's Pub in New York in 2000. (On the same trip I also saw a Met production of Rosenkavalier featuring Renee Fleming and Susan Graham - one of the truly great pairings of all time.) Joe's Pub was the first time I ever heard Nadja in an intimate environment, away from the often accoustically horrible concert hall cage. Last February, I saw the trio perform again at Waterloo's Perimeter Institute, an amazing cultural oasis devoted to mathematics and science that includes a classroom-like performance space. The Assads and Nadja performed against the background of blackboards covered in a sprawling formula. As I once wrote in an Amazon review about the Joe's Pub experience, the trio filled the room with an astonishing lyricism, raising gypsy spirits to life and making them dance like figures in Chagall. The melodic theme of the folk melody 'Dark Eyes' confirms Nadja's affinity with the Russian soul (I think also of her version of the second movement of the Tchaik concerto, available on her label). With the Assads, and particularly the arranging/composing genius of Sergio Assad, she has found perfect collaborators for her violin vocalises. Their album, now six or seven years old, is amazing. Here is a link to the Amazon listing for the album, where you will also find my long ago review, as 'jennabean', reflecting many of these comments.

8. Book: Drawn Into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John by Jean Vanier. It is almost unfair for me to try to include in this list something from the wide range of profoundly influential books I read during 2007 either about, or reflecting on, Christian theology and Judaic experience. But here is my token nod to it: during last summer I read the Gospel of John out loud many times, while also reading this amazing book. Vanier, the founder of the L'Arche communities, is a poet in his writing, but also an insightful and highly regarded theologian. His reflections on the gospel chapters are always recast through the light of every day experience and his own experiences at L'Arche. They have a simplicity that reads like Haiku, or often reminded me of the exquisite expressions found on 17th century Japanese scroll paintings. Vanier's beautiful spirit brings its wise mind to the glorious writings of this gospel, in a way that the average lay reader can both grasp and enjoy.

9. Film: Fugitive Pieces by Jeremy Podeswa was one of my most unexpected surprises of 2007. Not that a strong film from this director and the gorgeous prose of Anne Michaels' book should be a revelation to anyone. But I didn't expect to be as moved by it as I was. The story of a young boy victimized by horrific Holocaust violence, who is rescued and raised by a Greek archeologist (the incredily sexy Rade Serbedzija), it opened the Toronto Film Festival but has yet to be released in North America. I hope nothing holds it up for long. Delicately nuanced performances by Serbedzija and Stephen Dillane (playing the boy grown up) help to fill out a beautiful non-linear adaptation that is not afraid to enjoy the poetry of its writer. In this regard, it reminded me of Anthony Minghella's adaptation of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (another Canadian writer who like Anne Michaels is fundamentally a poet). It is wonderful to see a gifted and experienced filmmaker evolve into a mature artist in the best sense. I felt strangely proud of this film as a Canadian work. How wonderful, among the ironic and iconically eclectic narratives of our industry to find a work unabashedly nostalgic for the healing power of love.

10: Film: Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame is an astonishingly assured debut feature from Hana Makhmalbaf. Here again is what I wrote about it when I first saw it: the film is the story of a young girl (not even 9, the age of maturity in Islam) who just wants to go to school. The film follows the great Iranian custom of offering social commentary by positioning it safely in the world of children. Baktya's attempts, first to buy a notebook by selling eggs, and then to find the school itself, reflect the continuing legacy of post-Taliban Afghanistan. A gang of boys who are role-playing war and Taliban autocracy capture her and her friend, and come near to killing her in a game. In the end, her own ingenuity turns her small errand into a quest of enormous proportions, all played out against the empty-caved ruined facade of mountain edifices stripped of their Buddhas. At one point, a boy picks up a rock to stone our heroine and tells us it is the remnant of the eye of one of the destroyed Buddhas. The film's harrowing last shots spin (literally) the story to its conclusion and provide its emotional highest point. An incredibly impressive feature in the tradition of strong first films by the women of Makhmalbaf Film House.