Wednesday, August 22, 2012

TIFF 12! The Preview List, Part 1

Note: Movies are previewed alphabetically further down this post.

There were times, in what has been a summer from hell, that I truly didn't think I was going to be able to attend TIFF12. So what would be the point of blogging on it? Laid low by a concussion on the 4th of July, it has taken me the entire time since to recover, and I'm not quite there, even so. But at least now I believe I can be. It's been a challenging journey of personal and spiritual learnings - but that's for another blog!

Mads Mikkelsen in Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt
This year I am co-instructing (with Brian Walsh) a course at the University of Toronto called Film, Culture and Prophecy, a wonderful opportunity to bring together my heretofore separated loves, so writing up the films is also now a professional priority. With our new class in mind, and for all who have asked me if I'm doing this blog again this year, here is my take on the most interesting of the full slate of films being screened this year at TIFF.


from Inch'Allah by Québecoise filmmaker Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette
Shift+Control+Delete. This wonderful image from Quebecoise director Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette's Inch'Allah captures world angst, as we move more firmly into the second decade of this new millennium. Anyone who is proficient with keyboard shortcuts knows that Control+Shift+Delete is a way to purge the recent history from your browser. By inverting the words, the graffiti artists in the picture have asked us to think about purging the history of the West Bank, to 'shift' 'control' of power from those who have it, to those who don't, and thereby 'delete' the wall. It sends a pro-Palestinian message, and so does this year's festival, with a half dozen films devoted entirely to the Arab experience that is uniquely Palestinian, and others indirectly invested in the conflict. Is TIFF responding to the bashing it took when it dared to spotlight Tel Aviv cinema two years ago? Perhaps. And if it were doing so only for that reason, I would be sad. I defended then, from an artistic perspective, the right of the Festival to celebrate Israeli cinema and I would do so again. But this year, the Arab Palestinian experience is being explored by filmmakers in a variety of compelling ways.

Still, by Michael McGowan
Family. Home. History. Great literature. The Middle East. Forgotten cinema. Time travel. Cyberbullying. Searching for lost friends and relatives. Experimental visual styles. In reading over the programme notes, there is a kind of mosaic impression that is given of the imaginative preoccupations of the world's filmmakers. (Or the preoccupations of the TIFF programmers!) Movies are increasingly returning to the most primal of human needs: the health and wellbeing of family and community; belonging to particular lands and territories and how we carry our homes around on our backs wherever we go; the histories in our blood and genes from previous generations and which we are constantly working to resolve for our contemporary lives. All of these ideas are complexly woven into this year's feast of storytelling, alongside a deeply held desire to be rendering visual experience more provocatively and imaginatively -- and digitally -- than ever.

Laurence Anyways,  by Québecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan
As Canadians, we can be particularly proud of the continuing surge of refined elegance and sophisticated craftsmanship coming from Québec, currently one of the finest 'nations' of cinema in the world. And English Canadian film is emulating it more and more, becoming increasingly reflective and poetic, if those featured in this year's TIFF are an indication. Northern Europe is emerging as a cultural watershed of complex emotional exploration in character work - pursuing stories of personal journeying more than traversing geography. We are extremely preoccupied (no matter where we live) with events in the Middle East in recent years and particularly its toll on human lives both in that region, and in other parts of the world.

If I could think of one enduring emotional action for this year's collection, it would be searching. Filmmakers are searching for relationships of past or present or future meaning, ways to connect the dots back to the deepest part of ourselves which, it seems, we are frightened of being annihilated forever. Heavy stuff? yes, absolutely. But there is also humour in the mix, irreverence, and a desire to find joy (as in Frances Ha), amid life's complexities. Surprise: it's a map of human nature!

Barbara Sukowa in Margarethe von Trotta's biopic Hannah Arendt
Until yesterday, I was concerned that some of the season's heaviest festival hitters were not going to make it to TIFF. So relieved, therefore, to see Haneke's Amour and Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills (see descriptions below) at the top of the Masters list announced Tuesday. I have organized films here alphabetically, and linked them to the festival site. (If you are in the Film, Culture and Prophecy class at U of T, there is a † symbol next to those being considered for our six class screenings. However, wait for my next post which covers films from M-Z. You might want to start at the bottom of that list, where some of our leading favourites alphabetically just strangely line up. For everyone else, if you don't want to have to wade through this long list, an asterisk indicates films destined for the shorter list, even now.)

Love is All You Need, by Susanne Bier
Please note that as always this is a subjective list. Films that are certain to be festival favourites and future popular classics, like Looper, are not here, because I am just not able to watch the level of violence and dissociation from reality that comes with them, despite how worthy they are artistically. As I get older, this becomes more true, and even a point of ethical reference. As British film producer (Chariots of Fire) and former Columbia studio chief David Puttnam once said in my AFI film class, "creating a world that is not a world you would choose to live in, even for half an hour, is actually an annihilist act". I am not sure I would state it so dramatically (or at least without a caveat for artistic freedom), but the spirit of this holds true.

Here then are my pick of the approximately 80 most interesting-looking films. In this post I take on the films from A-L. In the next post, find M-Z.

7 Boxes (Juan Carlos Maneglia, Tana Schembori)
The Festival press releases are touting the fact that there are more individual countries represented in this year's TIFF than ever before. As such it becomes a kind of cultural Olympics, without the competition. Maneglia and Schembori are Paraguayan, a cinema that none of us have any real knowledge or appreciation of - but perhaps they will start it, with this simple-concept film about a wheelbarrow-carting boy who is one day paid to take seven boxes eight blocks. Not as easy as it sounds, apparently! Especially when the boxes become the target of suspicion and desire in the webbed network of Asunción's market.

After the Battle (Yousry Nasrallah)
Though this list is alphabetical, in some ways it is fitting that it nearly starts with this great Egyptian director's take on the Arab Spring. Set in Tahrir Square and bravely asking us to care for all sides of the dilemma, it captures the spirit of witnessing to world change, which TIFF12 unquestionably is documenting. And most importantly, it is an Egyptian perspective on it.

Keira Knightley in Joe Wright's Anna Karenina
*Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
Keira Knightley continues her collaboration with Joe Wright (Atonement) and her lately revealed gift for performance in literary adaptations, with this project which the trailer hints will be visually very innovative. Adapted from the famous novel by Leo Tolstoy.

Argo (Ben Affleck)
The absurd (but apparently true) plan to bring American hostages out from under the revolution in 1979 Iran, by posing them as a Hollywood film crew, seems contrived, but the trailer indicates it may offer humour alongside the appropriate gravitas. It also has a Canadian origin.

All that You Possess (Bernard Émond)
(See "Tout ce que Tu Possèdes" in the next post coming)

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva in Michael Haneke's Amour
*Amour (Michael Haneke)
There are two films this year that look at aging love and memory, Michael McGowan's Still (see next post coming), and Amour. Winner of the Palme D'Or this year at Cannes, it features three exquisite French actors: Trintignant, Riva and Isabelle Huppert. See this one, but also see McGowan's Still and reflect on the differences. That one too, stars two veteran Canadian actors.

Arthur Newman (Dante Ariola)
I confess that nothing at all about the plot of this film appeals to me - absolutely nothing. But I may find myself in a screening purely for the love of both Colin Firth and Emily Blunt.

The Attack (Ziad Doueiri)
One in a number of films that focus on Palestine, this one probes the double themes of family and suicide-bombing in a way that may have promising depth.

Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills
*Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu)
I can still remember the feeling of disbelief and discomfort I had watching 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu's critical hit of early in the last decade. But it was a profound observation on the demands of friendship. We can now look forward to another film of the same kind of social commentary within a subtle and refined vision. Beyond the Hill is once again about girlfriends: one who has joined a convent community and the other who is trying to take her from it.

Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)
This Spanish homage to the silent era, as it was formed by the great masters of Northern Europe like Carl Theodore Dreyer and Fritz Lang, follows on the success of last year's The Artist, fused with fairy tales ('Blancanieves' is Snow White in Spanish). Adapting the famous story to the 1920s, it follows a young girl who dreams of being a bullfighter. In the pattern of films that could be paired in preoccupations, it might provide a silent partner to Comrade Kim Goes Flying (see below).

Boy Eating the Bird's Food (Ektoras Lygizos)
Dimitri Eipides is one of only two programmers at TIFF (the other is Andréa Picard) whom I will trust and follow into any world. (He is also the only other programmer who writes as well as Picard.) This story could be called The Hunger Games Goes to Athens, as it follows a young man through the streets of that capital as he forages for food, with only a pet bird for companionship, occasionally singing Bach. These are not notes that would normally compel me, and it's a first feature, but Eipides is rarely wrong.

Caught in the Web (Chen Kaige)
The subtle and thoughtful Chen Kaige takes on cyber-bullying in this drama about a woman who is made unwantedly famous when a mistake on a bad day is turned into an internet sensation. From the man who brought us Farewell My Concubine and Killing Me Softly.

Clandestine Childhood (Benjamin Avila)
I am always drawn to stories told from the point of a view of a child but I've often thought only Iranian filmmakers know how to do it and stay genuinely true to the child-view. Not so in this Argentinian film about a child forced into an assumed identity, if the trailer is any indication.

Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer)
I am a huge fan of Tykwer, whose Heaven is one of my most-admired films. I appreciate his capacity for diversity of film style and expression, even within his own corpus of films. Cloud Atlas, based on the novel by David Mitchell, seems likely to present yet another style, even if the omnibus storyline nature of the film makes me nervous (because omnibus storylines rarely work - very very few people can write them well).

*Cloud Capped Star (Ritwik Ghatak)
Besides the addition of feature films to Wavelengths, the festival is restoring its once-called Open Vault series, offering forgotten art-classics in the new Cinemathèque programme, also bringing that great year-round TIFF resource into the film festival. This offering comes from the Indian cinema of the 1960s, one of its most provocative and compelling eras. When will this opportunity ever come again?

Company You Keep (Robert Redford)
Frankly, I haven't liked the directed films of Redford since A River Runs Through It and the massive star-studded cast in this one has me worried it will spread thin. But the story of revealed identities, and the hero as a radical activist, feels like a bit of a new spin on a familiar fable. For me this is not a high priority, but one to check out if scheduling allows.

Han Jong-sim in Comrade Kim Goes Flying
*Comrade Kim Goes Flying (Anja Daelemans, Nicholas Bonner, Gwang Hun)
The nuttiness of a female coal-miner wanting to be a circus acrobat and finding love along the way, is just one of the oddly compelling things about this project. But as unlikely and incredible as the story, is the story behind the story: the fact that it could happen in North Korea, with collaborative funding from Western associates who have shown caring for the region in their previous work. Lots of reasons to show support for this film - but it may also be a public festival favourite.

*The Deep (Baltasar Kormákur)
Thanks, Sofia, for drawing my attention back to this entry, so that I could include it in this list. In that strange festival reality of films becoming strangely paired, thematically, in their preoccupations, this film about a stranded fishing boat in frigid waters that yields one unlikely survivor might be a Nordic partner to A Hijacking (see first post) about a Danish vessel overtaken by pirates. They are completely different and yet they both look at the special endurance of seamen. Kormákur's 101 Reykjavik put him on the map as the country's most compelling cineaste, and with its sweeping vistas of turbulent seas and raging coastlands, The Deep looks poised to follow.

The End of Time (Peter Mettler)
The deeply considered and beautifully poetic work of this Canadian master (and how great it is to see him included in "Masters") is underserved in reputation. I think it is arguable that Mettler had an impact on more famous Canadian filmmakers, as directors, producers and writers now well-known all served as editors and technicians on his early films. I have always been affected by Mettler's sophisticated intellectual and philosophical themes, even if I have sometimes been baffled by them also. But his movies are always gorgeous to watch. This film is an experimental meditaton on human conceptions of time.

English Vinglish (Gauri Shindi)
There is a lot of early buzz around this film about an Indian woman who sets out to learn English and solve her life problems at the same time. A first feature from Shindi, it features one of the greatest stars of Hindi cinema, Sridevi, and apparently a cameo from Amitabh Bachchan.

Shirley Henderson in Michael Winterbottom's Everyday
*Everyday (Michael Winterbottom)
My first introduction to Michael Winterbottom was at the '94 TIFF, when an edited down compilation of his four-part Irish tv series Family was first presented to an international audience. I still remember it vividly: how deftly its complex relationships were presented, without compromising the integrity of characters even difficult to like. He has never lost that capacity - and his movies have always been marked with a kind of signature bravery in their willingness to witness to some of the darkest aspects of human nature without creating villains. Family is again the subject of Everyday, but this time it is also a part-documentary on the British prison system, following a real-life family over five years, while their father remains behind bars and using a mix of professional actors and their real-life counterparts. A top-seed.

†*Few Hours of Spring (Stéphane Brizé)
The alphabet lines up for us, by accident, another pair of films that might be seen in response to each other - in this case on the theme of 'prison'. I don't know much about this film, but I'm intrigued by its storyline of a man whose new freedom from prison and chance for new life is met by a request for euthanasia from his mother. Also supports a wonderful cast of fine French actors, including Helene Vincent. Piers Handling, who knows French cinema better than anyone, tells us this is "one of the year's true revelations", so we should pay attention.

Rama Burstein's Fill the Void
*Fill the Void (Rama Burshtein)
An ancient Israelite custom (witnessed biblically) is evoked in this story of an Orthodox Jewish woman who is being asked to marry her dead sister's husband, in order to keep family close together. This is one of the few offerings from Israel this year (which is odd, given the rise in recent years of Israeli cinema) that focuses on day to day life. It is rare that we have a chance to see a woman's take on Orthodox customs. For all these reasons, a film to mark.

*Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
I think of Noah Baumbach (Squid and the Whale) as a very very good writer, but not necessarily a great director . However, Greta Gerwig and the upbeat, redemptive storyline, are drawing me in. And Cameron Bailey is promising us that this time Baumbach is showing "a new openness and generosity to the characters". Okay. Worth a look.

Fly With the Crane (Li Ruijun)
My instinct is that this second feature from Li, about a man who accepts the idea of his own death, but is struggling with accepting cremation, could be a critical sleeper of the festival, if a bit unappealing to average folks.

*Gebo and the Shadow (Manoel de Oliveira)
Oh Manoel, Manoel. Now the oldest working filmmaker in the world (he's 104 years old and that's not a joke), it has been remarkable to watch how increasingly esoteric his films have become in his late late life (meaning in his 90s and 00s of life). He is a giant of cinema, and the only living filmmaker whose career began in the silent era. His early films, like Aniki-Bobo, made in the midst of World War II, are wonderful, but you almost hope he lives to be 150 because his movies of the last years have become only more and more interesting.  With an amazing cast, including Jeanne Moreau and Claudia Cardinale, the Portuguese master has now made what is described in the notes as a quiet chamber film about family. Will it be his last film? Likely not!

The Girl from the South (José Luis Garcia)
This documentary about an Argentinian filmmaker's search for a Korean activist he knew 20 years ago, seems an unlikely marriage of cultures, but that is also part of its appeal.

*Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta)
von Trotta's latest is a personal top-five seed. A biopic from one of the most important women directors that ever lived, about a fantastically interesting subject (the great philosopher) portrayed by one of Europe's greatest actresses, Barbara Sukowa, supported by the always-wonderful Janet McTeer playing legendary American writer, Mary McCarthy. Can't wait, can't wait, can't wait. (See pic above)

Pilou Asbæk in Tobias Lindholm's A Hijacking
*A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm)
In the fourth episode of Season Two of the hit Danish tv series Borgen (which I am fatally addicted to), the Prime Minister is asked to comment on the hijacking of a Danish cargo ship by Somali pirates. Given that the series is co-created by Lindholm, and stars two of the actors also featured in A Hijacking (the compelling Pilou Asbæk and Søren Malling), the chances are great that the plot of this film stemmed from that episode. Add that Danish cinema is the jewel in the crown of European film, and A Hijacking becomes another top-seed.

Home Again (Sudz Sutherland)
What interests me about this one is the idea of having a homeland that no longer feels like home when forced to return there (in this case, Jamaica). I'm also intrigued by the appearance of CCH Pounder who always raises the quality of ensemble acting in any project she's involved with.

*The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)
Another top-five seed since I first saw the trailer on the Cannes site. Love Vinterberg. Mad about Mads Mikkelsen. (And he won the acting award for this performance this year at Cannes). With a screenplay by Vinterberg and (see A Hijacking, above) Tobias Lindholm, what's not to love? Sort of the Danish version of The Children's Hour, about a child whose accusation ruins a man's life, it might fall prey to a predictable emotional line, but in the hands of these Danes, I know it will be strong.

Hyde Park on Hudson (Roger Michell)
I'm not sure about this one, but some of my greatest guilty-pleasure movie watching is thanks to Roger Michell (Notting Hill). With Bill Murray playing FDR and Laura Linney, his about-to-be mistress, this would seem like much fun. I just wish the trailer whet my appetite more than it does. Since it is also being released soon, this one will likely slide down the roster if there's any competition in the screening slot. Still, worth the long list.

Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts in The Impossible
The Impossible
(Juan Antonio Bayona)
I'm not normally a disaster-movie kinda gal, but this tale about a couple who become separated from their children during the 2004 tsunami in South Asia has going for it Bayona at the helm, not to mention Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. If you speak Spanish, a somewhat pretentious trailer is readily available on youtube.

*Inch'Allah (Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette)
This offering is produced by the same people who brought us Incendies and Monsieur Lazhar, the two best films from Québec in the last two years. About a Québecois doctor living in the West Bank, it could almost be the flip side of the story in Ruba Nadda's Cairo Time, following the husband, instead of the wife. Though not her first feature, Barbeau-Lavalette could make an important debut at this festival with this film.

*Inescapable (Ruba Nadda)
And speaking of Ruba Nadda's Cairo Time, this film is her follow-up feature, once again showcasing Alexander Siddiq. Nadda's finely controlled craftsmanship and sense of emotional line in the first film, will hopefully serve her well in this story, about a man who returns to Syria to try to find a missing daughter.

In the Fog (Sergei Loznitsa)
What was the last Belarusisan film you saw? This WWII story about a partisan who is accused of treachery has had tremendous buzz out of Cannes. Watch the trailer on the linked page for a feeling of its style and pace, however, which I personally find completely compelling but is not likely to appeal to North Americans as much. It ain't Tarantino's Inglorious Bastards.

Just the Wind (Bence Filegauf)
Why has it taken so long to have a film about the much-persecuted Romani (sometimes called Gypsys) in Europe? Why isn't their plight of greater world attention and interest? Maybe it will be, after Filegauf's film, about a family trying to escape a killing spree in 2008 (based on real events) - is shown at TIFF.

Krivina (Igor Drljaca)
People searching for loved ones lost somehow through war or disaster, is very much a dominant theme of this year's TIFF. (See Inescapable, The Impossible and The Girl from the South in this list alone.) This film is about a Toronto Bosnian man who returns home to search for a friend. Again, watch the trailer for style and pace. A first feature from a filmmaker who has been winning awards the world over for his shorts.

*A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman)
Hard as it is for me to imagine Christopher Walken as a cellist, I am drawn to this film. Perhaps because I grew up knowing Canada's Orford String Quartet and understand something of the rich complexity of the life of chamber musicians. Add Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener and I'm there.

*Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan)
French-Canadian cinema is at an all-time zenith of beauty and careful craftsmanship. Nathalie Baye stars in the next feature of this rising Québecois director in a story about a man who comes to realize he is transgendered. If it has any of the subtle power of J'ai tué ma mère, we are in for something special. (See picture at top.)

Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
Like Manoel de Oliveira discussed above, Kiarostami is another master whose later life work has been among his most provocative and unconventional. Last year's Certified Copy played with perceptions of reality, within the world of human intimacy. But this film, is just a complete departure. Although making movies in Iran is not possible these days without fleeing to neighbouring countries (a subject I wrote about extensively in last year's festival, particuarly focusing on Jafar Panahi), no one could have really imagined that Kiarostami would end up in Japan. Sure, there is a story within it about a call girl and an elderly professor, but the film will really be about truth and deception and how inextricable they can become.

Lore, by Cate Shortland
*Lore (Cate Shortland)
Another WWII drama, this one is told from the point of view of the home front in Germany, where a family of children are abandoned when their SS father and mother are taken by the Allies. With overtones of Rabbit-Proof Fence (another Aussie film), they then make a 900 kilometre walk to safe haven with family, and encounter along the way the horrible results of having been patriotic to the wrong side. I am working on a writing project that touches on these environments and eras so that's the reason for the top-seed, but Shortland has always been one to watch.

*Love is All You Need (Susanne Bier)
From the creator of last year's Oscar winning In a Better World and the astonishing After the Wedding and one of my all-time favourite filmmakers. I admit to being a bit nervous: Bier is returning to comedy for the first time since Den Eneste Ene (The Only One) and the film stars Pierce Brosnan, not someone I would easily match with her style. But I'm relieved to see that she is still relying on Danish wunderkind writer Anders Thomas Jensen and editor Pernille Bech Christiensen, so all should be well.

Okay, watch for part 2 (M-Z) in the coming days!

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