Saturday, August 29, 2009

my (long long) shortlist

Having waded through the pool of press releases this summer and critical responses to other festivals and markets this year, here is my long list (alphabetically) - soon to be reduced to an actual short list. For ease of reference, each of these movies is linked to the relevant festival page and it's all in alphabetical order. These are my top 96 films. Asterisks indicate films that are in my top 25 picks. [NB note: September 10th: Italicized entries indicate a film seen/review underway.]

Adrift. Bui Thac Chuyen's film observes an aimless young couple's encounter with social mores and their own needs, in contemporary Vietnam.
Ahead of Time. Ruth Gruber, the world's youngest Ph.D. at age 20, is now 97 and has spent a lifetime helping to raise awareness to Jewish cultural experience in Europe and America. Her life is profiled in this film by Bob Richman.*
Applause. Danish actress Paprika Steen stars in Martin Pieter Zandvliet's first dramatic feature.
The Art of the Steal. Don Argott's documentary examines how the Barnes collection of Impressionist art was wrested from its home in Pennsylvania after the death of the collector.
Bare Essence of Life. Sotoko Yokohama's film is about a mentally challenged young farmer who falls in love with a girl from Tokyo.
Beyond the Circle. Golam Rabbany Biplob directs this Bangladeshi tale of a man whose music takes him from the rural north to the big city of Dhaka.
Blessed. Australian Ana Kokkinos looks at the lives of seven children and their respective mothers and the uneasy relationships among them.
The Boys are Back. Scott Hicks' story of a bereaved single father coping with parenthood is his first film back in Australian since Shine.
Bran Nue Dae. The hit aboriginal musical hits the big screen in this adaptation by Australian Rachel Perkins.
A Brand New Life. Ounie Lecomte's movie about a little girl who is abandoned by her father so he can form a new life has been a favourite of mine since Cannes.*
Bright Star. Jane Campion's latest film is a portrait of the poet John Keats and his relationship to Fanny Brawne.*
Broken Embraces. Almodovar's latest film will likely be my first festival screening. It is the story of an aging blind screenwriter forced to face unresolved past life decisions.*
Cairo Time. Canadian Ruba Nadda's latest feature stars Patricia Clarkson as a woman who befriends an Egyptian man while waiting for her husband.*
Capitalism: A Love Story. The world of financially-melting down corporate America is under the lens of Michael Moore's 20th anniversary pic.
Carmel. Amos Gitai's films, which I do not miss each year, are always complexly nuanced tales of Israeli/Jewish identity. This very personal addition allows Gitai a chance to reflect on having a child who is a soldier.*
Chloe. Atom Egoyan's feature may be better known at the moment for being the movie Liam Neeson was making when Natasha Richardson died. However, that will soon change, as Neeson and Julianne Moore are said to give career-best performances in this film based on a film by Anne Fontaine in which a woman seeks to test her husband by secretly setting him up with another woman.
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. A favourite actor of mine, Mads Mikkelson, stars with Anna Mouglalis in this look at the intersection of two famous lives, made by Dutch helmer, Jan Kounen.
Colony. Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell profile a family dealing with 'colony collapse disorder', the disintegration and decline of bee colonies, and its impact on agrarian economy.
Cooking With Stella. The best of Deepa Mehta's Water are on hand for brother Dilip Mehta's feature about a New Delhi diplomat's cook whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of new residents.
Creation. Jon Amiel's psychological emotional portrait of Charles Darwin.
La Danse - Le Ballet de l'Opera de Paris. This Mavericks presentation screening of Frederick Wiseman's documentary on the famous Parisian ballet company will include a discussion with the master afterward.
The Day God Walked Away. Philippe van Leeuw revisits the Rwanda genocide of the 90s through the harrowing story of one woman.
The Day Will Come. German filmmaker Susanne Schneider's film shows how one woman's family is disrupted forever by the appearance of a woman from her past.
La Donation. Quebec helmer Bernard Emond's tale of a Montreal doctor who takes over a country practice and finds deeper meaning in what she does.
Dorian Gray. British filmmaker Oliver Parker directs Colin Firth in this adaptation of the Oscar Wilde novel.
Down for Life. Set in South-Central L.A., this film by Alan Jacobs tells the story of a Latina girl gang leader, striving to be free of the gangs and become a writer.
Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl. Manuel de Oliveiro's luscious look at thwarted love in 19th century Portugal.
An Education. Lone Scherfig, one of my favourite Danes, returns with this tale of teenaged life in London in the 1960s.*
L'Enfer de Henri-Georges Cluozot. Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea profile the great filmmaker and his unfinished final projet, L'Enfer.
Eyes Wide Open. Haim Tabakman caused a stir in Cannes with this sensitive portrait of two Orthodox Jewish men in love.*
Face. Taiwanese festival favorite Tsai ming-liang returns with another one of his mystical magical fantasies, this time about a director making a movie at the Louvre, based on the Salome legend.
Fish Tank. Andrea Arnold's film about a tough, working class British teenager has also been a favorite of mine for this festival since it debuted at Cannes.*
Five Hours From Paris. Leon Prudovsky's first feature brings together an unlikely couple in this romantic comedy from Israel.
Gigante. A romantic comedy from Adrian Biniez about an overweight close-circuit tv security guard who falls for a cleaning woman in a supermarket.
Glorious 39. Bill Nighy and Julie Christie are two reasons to take in Stephen Poliakoff's drama about war-time England.
Good Hair. Jeff Stilson's doc about the African-American 'do' with Chris Rock narrating, promises to be fun.
Green Days. A new feature by the youngest of the brilliant Makhmalbaf women (Hana) appears to have come in over the transom: there is not even a full write-up yet on the website, but some good pictures.*
Hadewijch. I have very high hopes for Bruno Dumont's profile of a contemporary theology student who falls in love with an Islamic fundamentalist in Paris.*
The Happiest Girl in the World. Romania's Radu Jude's comedy focusses on a teenager who wins a car and finds herself the target of family manipulation.
Heiran. Shalizeh Arefpour's feature debut observes the repercussions of young love in modern day Tehran, when same is not endorsed by family.
Les Herbes Folles. Legendary filmmaker Alain Resnais' tale of two people who meet over a lost wallet.
I Am Love. A Milanese family empire slowly unwinds as the patriarch announces his plans for his family in this feature from Italian Luca Guadagnino.
I, Don Giovanni. Anything by Carlos Saura, the Argentinian master of dance on film, is a must. But this playful profile of Mozart's librettist is a top seed for me.*
Jean Charles. Henrique Goldman looks at the life of a Brazilian immigrant to London, as same is impacted by the terrorist events of July, 2005.
Kelin. Ermek Tursunov's film profiles a young woman torn between a true love and a husband she has come to love. Boasting absolutely no dialogue, it is yet another film from the emerging cinema of Kazakhstan.
Life During Wartime. Allison Janney is reason enough for me to make Todd Solondz' latest film about a woman whose ex-husband is released from jail at the very moment she is remarrying, a very top seed.*
London River. Rachid Bouchareb examines the intertwined lives of two parents during the London bombings of 2005. Starring Brenda Blethyn.*
Lourdes. Jessica Hausner's third feature film observes a physically and emotionally challenged young woman as she visits the famous shrine.*
Max Manus. I will probably see Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning's movie about the famous WWII resistance fighter, for its Scandinavian context.
Melody for a Street Organ. Two Russian children, orphaned by the death of their mother, search for their father in this film by Kira Muratova.
Men on the Bridge. A true-to-life fiction about three men whose lives intersect on the Bosphorous Bridge in Istanbul, by Azli Osge.
The Men Who Stare at Goats. Grant Heslov's all-star cast film is based on a true story about a troop of psychic soldiers.
Micmacs a tire-larigot. Few will be able to resist Jean-Pierre Jeunet's comedy about a man who falls in with an ex-con.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Although I was a new teen at the time, this controversy in the 70s led me into an obssession on Watergate, and the birth of my political consciousness. Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's doc looks at the man often forgotten in those anals of history.
My Queen Karo. Belgian filmmaker Dorothée van den Berghe offers a coming of age tale set in a 'free love' community in Amsterdam in the 70s.
My Dog Tulip. As a puppy parent, this animated tale of a man befriending a German shepherd by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, is a high contender.
My Tehran for Sale. Granaz Moussani's first feature looks at youth in Iran. Made under political constraints by an Iranian-Australian.
My Year Without Sex. This title might have indicated the journallings of a young would-be femme fatale, but Sarah Watt's film is something better: the profile of an Australian woman who, after suffering an aneurysm, finds friendship with an equally-in-crisis clergywoman in trying to recover.
Once Upon a Time Proletarian: 12 Tales of a Country. Xiaolu Guo's other film in this festival is a poetic meditation on the lives of 12 average Chinese workers.
Ondine. Neil Jordan goes home to Ireland in his latest feature, a magic realist story of a man and his daughter whose lives are turned around by a 'woman from the sea'.
Partir. Catherine Corsini's story of a mid-life love affair starring Kristin Scott Thomas is another high-ranker for me.*
Le Pere de Mes Enfants. French actress Mia Hansen-Love turns to directing in this family drama equivalent of Run Lola Run. A family's disintegration is shown first from the father's point of view, then the mother's.*
Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands. Peter Mettler takes an Edward Burtynsky-style look at the controversial energy project. Likely to be this year's Manufactured Landscapes.
La Pivellina. Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel's film looks at an Italian Roman trailer park family and how their lives are turned upside down by the sudden appearance of an abandoned two year old.
Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire. That long-winded title has been as much of a deterrent for me as the overhyped festival appearance of Oprah Winfrey, but there is a lot to hope for in viewing the trailer for this second feature from Lee Daniels.
Same Same But Different. German Helmer Detlev Buck's film is a youthful love story set in Cambodia.
Samson and Delilah. Warwick Thornton's first feature chronicles the friendship of two Australian aboriginal teens who are both outsiders.
The Search. Pema Tseden's journey through small villages of Tibet searching for singers to play characters in a Tibetan opera, is a film within a film.
She, a Chinese. Guo Xiaolu has two films in this year's festival and both are on this list. The write-up for this film describes the story of a woman told "using short, lyrical captions or silent, beautifully composed snapshots of landscapes."*
Short Cuts Canada 2. This collection of short films by young Canadian filmmakers (and veterans like Guy Maddin) looks to be the most promising of the five programmes.
A Single Man. Tom Ford brings together Colin Firth and Julianne Moore (both here with other films as well) in a story of a gay college professor coping with the death of his partner.
Solitary Man. I normally am not a fan of Michael Douglas but Brian Koppleman and David Levien's film also co-stars Susan Sarandon and is said to have a tight script.
Soul Kitchen. Fatih Akin's Edge of Heaven was a major discovery of recent TIFFs. His latest is the saga of a young German chef sorting out his bad life luck.
Sparrows. This projection, accompanied by live piano music, features Mary Pickford in one of her most popular roles as a Louisiana girl raising neglecting children on a baby farm. Directed by William Beaudine, it was originally released in 1926.
Spring Fever. This taboo-breaking feature took years to make in China where director Lou Ye has been under a five year ban since his film Summer Palace. It is the story of two men in love and the jealous wife who observes.
St. Louis Blues. Hard to resist Dyana Gaye's Senegalese road trip musical that uses French songs of the 1960s.
The Sunshine Boy. Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's documentary follows an Icelandic woman seeking ways to communicate with her severely autistic son.
The Time That Remains. This semi-biographic film by Elia Suleiman, divided into four historical episodes, portrays the daily life of Palestinians in 1948 who were considered a minority, even in their homeland.
The Topp Twins. Leanne Pooley's doc looks at this popular lesbian, country and western singing New Zealand twin performing duo.
The Trotsky. With its all-star Canadian cast and mixture of styles, Jacob Tierney's film about a young man who believes he is Trotsky could be the best Canadian feature this year.
The Unloved. Actress Samantha Morton turns to directing in this film based on her own childhood experiences growing up in the social services system in England.
Vincere. Marco Bellochio directs this profile of Benito Mussolini's formational years and passionate relationships before becoming Il Duce.
Vision. Margarethe von Trotte's much anticipated depiction of the medieval spiritualist Hildegard of Bingen.*
Wavelengths 1: Titans. George Méliès’ playful and eccentric spirit hovers throughout Wavelengths’s opening programme.
Wavelengths 2: Pro Agri An appreciation for nature and its untold mysteries.
Wavelengths 3: Let Each One Go Where He May. A celebration of Chicago-based filmmaker Ben Russell.
Wavelengths 4: In Comparison. Observation is the main modus operandi of these films.
Wavelengths 5: Une Catastrophe. From agitprop to poetry, personal expressions of historical and collective memory confront spectres from the past throughout this programme.
Wavelengths 6: Flash Point Camera. Art and experience partake in these films about the passage of time.
What's Your Raashee? Ashutosh Gowariker's romantic comedy about a man who has to find a bride in 12 days is likely to be the best of the Indian/Bollywood fare this year.
Whip It. If I end up seeing Drew Barrymore's first feature about roller derbying women, it will likely be for Ellen Page and Marcia Gay Harden and a bit of respite from more serious fare.
White Material. Isabelle Huppert starts in Claire Denis' African tale of a French woman plantation owner threatened by civil war.
The White Ribbon. European auteur Michael Haneke explores events in a small village on the eve of World War I. Winner of the Palme d'Or.*
The White Sheik. Neil Jordan introduces Fellini's first feature, a romantic comedy about a honeymooning couple in Rome.
The Window. Buddhadeb Dasgupta's morality tale looks at how one man's gesture to repair a school window leads to complex political and personal trouble.
Women Without Men. Shirin Neshat looks at the lives of five Muslim women in Tehran in the 1950s.*
The Young Victoria. Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee directs an all-star British cast in this depiction of the early years of the famous monarch.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

a slimmer trimmer TIFF

Now that all of the programming has been announced, I have some gleanings on the overall movement of the festival. A shifting of the tide that I have suspected for some time, has started to be visible. If I could ballpark it I would say that the festival is investing in a major piece of real estate that will embody it as a cultural institution, precisely at the moment that it is starting to slide a notch or two in its significance as a public festival, though its importance as a sales market is still high.

One of the latest press releases lists titles available for acquisition, ie those movies that are yet to be picked up for distribution. It is an astonishingly long list. The list can be viewed two ways: either that producers have held off until Toronto to showcase their movies in hopes of making a better deal, or that more of the likely sellable product has in fact already been picked up at earlier festivals.

The late positioning of this festival in the year, has always struck me as something working against it. (Though I am not advocating changing that.) Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and Venice (and many others of note) have all gone before Toronto in the calendar year. This offers the festival a chance to watch the trends and to pick up only the best, but increasingly the most interesting films have had significant exposure before getting to us. Many critics do not attend the most popular TIFF screenings, even in their industry projections, because they have already seen the films elsewhere and formed their judgments of them. The very thing that promotes Toronto as a venue for selling movies, ie the great audience responses, is also that which is increasingly distanced from the decision makers themselves. Do the industry reps and critics attend those public screenings to see the responses? I'm sure many do. I also know many don't.

This is not a spectacular year for TIFF in terms of names, or even glamour-drenched openings. Despite a studded star list of guests, there is a really notable lack of exciting premieres this year. The most intriguing European films have already been seen elsewhere. Should we therefore start to despair the future of this fest?

No. The festival's greatest tradition, which is to showcase international titles that would never otherwise see the light of North American day (despite prizes elsewhere), continues in great strength. The quality of these lesser known films, from Shirin Neshat's Women Without Men (pictured at top), to Jessica Hausner's Lourdes to Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch promises to be very high. Although New York follows us and will pick up many of these films, Toronto is where they will be seen by the most people and find the greatest chance of distribution.

The discerning TIFF-goer, must look to that TIFF solid core of international medium to low budget features to find the raison d'etre of the festival alive and well. Contemporary World Cinema, Special Presentations, Vanguard, Discovery, all hold the real gems. Along with important venues like the Wavelengths programme, they speak to the average and avid art film buff, who will do anything to be in Toronto that first real week of September. Get out the highlighters!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

julia & .... well, julia

When I was a young girl in the 70s, visiting my grandparents in Philadelphia, some part of every day was spent watching Julia Child on television. My grandmother sat on the blue sofa at the back of the front room and knitted while she watched, pausing sometimes in the middle of stitches, to pay closer attention. My grandmother herself had spent some time at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. Later, her passion for Julia shared the stage with an equal fondness for Jacques Pepin, whose 'appy coooking' became as much a favorite expression for Grandma, as 'bon appetit' had been.

If she had lived past 2001, my grandmother would have been 98 on August 7th, which was, coincidentally, the release date of Julie & Julia, Nora Ephron's uneven but entertaining adaptation of Julia Child's memoir and Julie Powell's blog of the year she spent making all of the recipes in Child's opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Today, August 15th, is Julia Child's birthday - she was just a year younger than my grandmother. Like Julia Child and Julie Powell, these two women had nothing in common except their passion for cooking. Julia Child introduced french cuisine to average Americans like my grandmother, and she also radically altered the palette and technique of American restaurant kitchens (something the movie does not get into). The next big wave would be the move to more natural and local eating, but even the goddesses of that movement, like Alice Waters, were in debt to the doyenne of beurre blanc.

The jubilant, buoyant and even bouncing congeniality of Julia Child is brought wonderfully to life by Meryl Streep who has a chance in this film to showcase her often underserved comedic talent in a role which allows humour to grow out of character, instead of character circumstance. An actor at this advanced stage of her own development must look carefully to find the roles that will actually stretch her. Though the character of Julia Child is not plunging or even very dramatic, the role gives Streep the opportunity to control her often-noted capacity for mannered acting into something in which manner is entirely called for, since the mannered gestures of Julia Child are infamous. Streep captures that manner and because it is so effortless, is then able to play with the resonances of deeper feeling - heroically so, since emotion is oddly missing from this film. Situations are set up to convey emotion theoretically but not much of it actually happens. Therefore Streep's careful lines and nuancing make all the difference to this film. When she chooses to allow the occasional penetrating insight into her portrayal of Child, it is within the frame of comedic experience. A scene in which she learns by letter of her sister's pregnancy for instance, provides a spontaneous context for her own losses (she was childless) within an intention of happiness at the news. It is a brilliant example of Streep's gifts for knife-edge dynamics. And though it's played for its comedy, the audience gets the chance to register the note about her character.

As Child's long-devoted husband Paul, Stanley Tucci is perfect, as only he can be. His own comedic timing is different from Streep's - a little more playful and nuanced - but he manages to convey in soft strokes his identities as Mr. Julia, on the one hand, and as a government officer whose career is dwindling, on the other. Even more perfect is Jane Lynch, in a short turn as Child's sister Dorothy. A hugely underappreciated character actor, Lynch made it seem as if these were indeed two women cut of the same pate brisee... her entrance and the subsequent restaurant scene with Streep and Tucci is one of the best sequences in the film. Frances Sternhagen as cookbook legend Irma Rombauer and Linda Emond as Simone Beck, Child's cookbook collaborator, give lovely supportive performances.

In her currently running blog on the making of her book and story into the movie, Julie Powell confesses that she has seen the movie six times and still cringes at the parts about herself. I haven't read her original Julia blog, but I'm with her. The film tries to convey a fairy tale American success story in the parlaying of her cooking blog into a hit book. There is much mention of Julia Child having "saved her" from drowning and lifting her sense of self-esteem. Even as much of the current blog as I read tonight when I got home did not convince me that much has changed. She seems incredibly self-deprecating and almost an eerily objective witness to her own public transformation, rather than someone appreciating it from a place of solid emotional growth.

Perhaps this is part of why the emotional journey of Julie Powell in the film is never convincing. A substantial part of the blame can be laid on Ephron's mediocre and disappointing screenplay. She is so much better than this script. Having seen a preview before the film of the next Streep movie, It's Complicated, I found myself daydreaming about what this movie might have been like if Nancy Meyers had made it. Meyers has a genuine gift for comedy as a filmmaker and her own writing never clunks in its transfer to the screen. Something's Gotta Give works entirely because its heavy romanticism is very self-conscious and even pokes fun at itself. This is the central flaw of Ephron's movie: it takes itself way too seriously (while never engaging more than surface emotion.) There is a lot of 'faux depth' in the Powell storyline. Even in the Child sequences, when there is confusion and setback around the publication of the cookbook, the script is laced with oneliners like "your book will change the world". When Stanley Tucci says it, he is able to give it a lovely playful quality that allows us to accept that wretched line. The modern story is not nearly able to pull the same thing off.

An attempt is made to link the two stories through the common elements of challenge, like rejection and peer pressure. These are never really convincing - they seem arbitrary and obvious. For this reason the film feels much longer than it should be. Without a real dramatic tension, it just seems to drift.

Amy Adams tries hard to make her role deeper than it is, but not even a fine actor like her can pull it off. While Meryl Streep, on the other hand, refines her plunging instincts to be sure and not make Julia seem deeper than she actually was. The irony of this is important and entirely measures the screenplay. Neither actress should have had to work so hard.

There is a moment when Julie's husband gives her a string of good fake pearls for her birthday. Julie rips off the necklace she is wearing to put on the new one. We then cut to Julia wearing actual pearls. It is a transition that says it all about mastering the art of anything. If the movie had simply stayed with the French story, we might have been dining on boeuf bourgignonne, without ever needing to reach for the Tums.
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