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by Eric Kohn
September 15, 2012 10:17 AM
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Critic's Notebook: Does Toronto Need a Shrinking Pill? Highlights From the 2012 Edition

"Silver Linings Playbook" TWC
No matter how closely you follow the buzz from the Toronto International Film Festival each year, chances are strong that you only get one piece of a very long equation. With nearly 300 features in its program, the festival is overwhelmingly dense, particularly during its first weekend. Even the most enterprising festival audiences can't possibly consume every highlight from each program, which makes it virtually impossible for a single person to deduce the overall quality of the lineup. To a certain degree, TIFF is like the proverbial tree falling in an abandoned forest: An argument could be made there's no such thing as one festival because nobody has the capacity to perceive it.

Instead, TIFF takes the form of several mini-festivals rolled into one. Each program -- from the gala premieres to the Discovery section -- contains plenty of new work worthy of scrutiny. Among the most diverse cities in the world, Toronto offers various types of cinema to appeal to the widespread mentalities of its local audiences. At the same time, it attracts a healthy marketplace and provides an ideal launchpad for Oscar season hopefuls. The high demand justifies such a sprawling lineup, but the resulting pileup of possibilities -- for the movie lover who wants to have it all -- turns each day's schedule into a frustrating pancake of overlapping films.

With so many movies scheduled against each other, a number of titles will always slip through the cracks. But since TIFF has not only too many movies but too many sections for anyone to recap them all, the onus is on individual TIFF attendees to break down the movies they see into their own subjective categories. Here are a few of mine.

Documentary Discoveries. Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell" is a remarkable achievement of non-fiction storytelling that weaves together family reminiscences and candid home movies to recount the search for the identity of her mysterious father. The movie engages with the inscrutable nature of past events by contrasting the memories of its several colorful participants, whose testimonies underscore the way experience can transform into legend. In a far more harrowing sense, Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing" conveys a similar concept by allowing middle aged Indonesian gangsters to reenact their murderous treatment of accused communists in the 1960s. Over the course of the festival, many people who saw the movie said they had never seen anything like it, which makes Oppenheimer's achievement both profound and acutely dreadful.  

Oscar Locks. Each year, Harvey Weinstein brings a slew of major Oscar season contenders to the fall festival circuit with such calculated finesse that one can get the sense of being played no matter how good the product. But this year's Weinstein Special differed from the last two years, when eventual Best Picture winners "The King's Speech" and "The Artist" came to TIFF: Instead of these slick crowdpleasers, the Weinstein slate offered up two outstanding character studies from great American auteurs. To the surprise of no one, Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" delivers a fascinatingly cryptic look at the origins of Scientology that stages its essential issues through the tensions between a fictionalized L. Ron Hubbard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and the latest target of his brainwashing antics (Joaquin Phoenix). "The Silver Linings Playbook" found director David O. Russell delivering his funniest soul-searching narrative since "Flirting With Disaster," the heartfelt tale of a mental case (Bradley Cooper) finding catharsis in an equally unsettled young woman (Jennifer Laurence). As it turns out, maybe because the Weinstein slate is decidedly more eccentric than previous years, the company may face serious competition from another contender that fits a more classical mold for awards season acclaim: Ben Affleck's "Argo," an entertaining real life espionage tale that goes through familiar motions thanks to Affleck's slick direction, suggesting he has finally made a transition from an actor who directs to a filmmaker who actors. Were it not for current events that have already claimed the term, this would be known as "Eastwooding."

Arty With Purpose. Derek Cianfrance's followup to the relationship drama "Blue Valentine" is a more structurally complex look at two generations and intertwining stories involving a bank robber (Ryan Gosling), a guilt-ridden cop (Bradley Cooper) and their respective offspring. To explain the links between them would spoil some key plot details, but the real star of "The Place Beyond the Pines" is the engrossing atmosphere that Cianfrance uses to string the various strands together. Similar credit goes to the elusive Terrence Malick, whose "To the Wonder" rebounded in the wake of its mixed reception at Venice. At TIFF, a number of audiences found that the director's typically swooning lyricism benefited from a small scale approach that wandered through the memories of a fractured relationship.

God Bless the Crazy. Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers" was exactly the batty subversion of young American hedonism that hype suggested, exploding stereotypes about grotesque teen fantasies by toying with their extremes. Less thematically twisted but similarly imbued with dark comedic inspiration, Martin McDonagh's Midnight Madness entry "Seven Psychopaths" featured a number of the filmmaker-playwright's most reliable stable of actors (Colin Ferrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken) in the hugely enjoyable and zany tale of a writer envisioning his ridiculously gory plot coming to life. A very different sort of fantasy arose in Nick Cassavetes' surprisingly effective "Yellow," which centered on a mentally unstable substitute teacher whose catharsis manifests in the bizarre musical sequences and other imaginary events that surround her at every turn.
 

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9 Comments

  • FlyTheFriendlySky | September 16, 2012 9:18 AMReply

    Uhm Jules, dear. Did you actually go to the festival, or did you, as a producer or part of Silver Lining Playbook seek to advertise your film here? That's the point I'm guessing everyone of these commentors is trying to make. Name-dropping Jennifer Lawrence, and the film you obviously had something to do with is just another facet of the poppycock that happens at TIFF. Pretentious, all-too-self-important films that saturate the landscape, shut out other more deserving names, just because of an overhyped film, title or actor does not a great festival make. I work in the airline industry and have NOTHING to do with making films, but I love going to the movies as much as the next guy. I agree with everyone here. TIFF has become a sad display of what happens to art of any kind when politics get involved. If a layman like me can see it, it's just a matter of time people will start removing head from butt, and see it from themselves.

  • Jules | September 16, 2012 8:35 AMReply

    So....I'm guessing you guys (I am referring to the commentors) are frustrated filmmakers whose films didn't make the cut?. Anyway, great article. It's shaping up to be an exciting Oscar race. I'm really looking forward to The Silver Linings Playbook, Jennifer Lawrence is receiving rave reviews, it's set in Philly (where I'm from originally) and it's both funny and touching....all signs point to SLP being a great film.

  • FilmBluff | September 16, 2012 3:08 AMReply

    This Festival has been F'n every one who ever gave a shit about it since the days of American Beauty & Crouching Tiger where it jus got too full of itself. Making people wait in line all day for Galas just to get shut out from seeing the new film of an overhyped has been star or putting aside thousands of seats for what's supposed to be a public screening of The Master is not a way to endear yourself to an audience. This film should be two separate festivals because most of
    us regular folk don't like sitting beside some self-agrandizing douche with a blog or a podcast in Poughkeepsie that wants to talk shop & send e-mails through half the movie.

  • Reel 2 Real | September 16, 2012 9:29 AM

    Here, here. I noticed the same thing at the Master. The two separate festivals should simply be TIFF Festival and and TIFF conference. AFM does not try to mix business with pleasure, neither should TIFF. I came in from Germany for the week to see family and only got to go for two days. I was impressed at how excited most people were but people were very upset at the very long lines and a group of people left on Saturday to go to some other smaller indie festival down the street. I can see this starting to happen more.

  • Paul LeGrande | September 15, 2012 6:21 PMReply

    My cousin lives in Willowdale and she says for the last 3 years everyone complains that it has lost the indie spirit and edge. Too bad. Corporations intrinsically ruin everything.

  • Jill G. | September 15, 2012 6:02 PMReply

    TIFFs FILM SELECTION HANDBOOK.
    A. Make sure it has a star in it or no one will come. B. have lots of documentaries including pioneering topics and new social interests like "My Son's Foot Fungus" C. Directors and producers must be former actors who discovered they can buy a RED camera for $30k and make their own bad movies. D. Kiss the asses of the local press so every review has two thumbs up. E. since we are no longer a true grass roots festival, reject any submission whereby the film is actually good.

  • HoneyIShrunkTIFF | September 15, 2012 5:49 PMReply

    I'll never go again. If you add the word "Festival" to anything people will flock to it. It was a pompous display of politics muscling its way into film. It's a machine. The lines were blocks long, and it's a reason for shallow people to see a film with their favorite celebrity in it, before it hits the theaters. Big woop. You can now say you saw "Cloud Atlas" before anyone else. If anything, it's great for the local economy, that's it. And as long as it continues to be, corportate backers and sponsors will continue to pour money into it. Eventually it will cease to perform it's intended function and collapse on itself. This is a conference where deals are made. That's the crux of it all. TIFC. Toronto International Film Market is what it should be titled.

  • Pony | September 15, 2012 4:04 PMReply

    Celebrity Slut Fest.

  • JaredSolowski | September 15, 2012 3:12 PMReply

    This is no longer a real independent film festival. It is a meat market with films that you can see just about anywhere. No real groundbreakers to speak of this year or last. It has grown far beyond the point where it truly serves the independent filmmaker. The hotel lobbies are swarming with sales agents sucking more money from the industry and siphoning more potential profit from micro budget filmmakers who have the real goods to deliver. I prefer the smaller more substantive festivals like The Rhode Island Film Festival, Williamsburgh, etc where you're likely to find that hidden gem . TIFF and their programmers are now trained to follow a formula and that's why this festival will explode before it shrinks. What goes up must come down.