FESTIVAL: Toronto 2002 Sets Stage for Banner Year in Film
by Peter Brunette
(indieWIRE/ 09.16.02) -- A bumper crop of excellent films was in evidence at Cannes this year, and thus, in the cinematic equivalent of the famous Reaganite trickle-down theory of economic development, the 2002 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival was memorable as well. The competition at the French event, which usually gathers together a mere 20-plus films, tends to focus your attention a bit better, and thus some marvelous films get lost amid the 300+ that are screened here in Canada every year. It's quite possible that you and a friend can end up seeing 20 different films, and it can be frustrating when this same friend raves about a totally obscure film that's already gone. Still, too much of a good thing remains much better than not enough.
Probably the biggest buzz of the festival was generated by "Far from Heaven," Todd Haynes' postmodern homage to the Douglas Sirk '50s melodramas. With its purposely anachronistic script (characters say things like "Jeepers!") and fabulously luscious set and costume design, the film takes your breath away. Some devil's advocates, however, wondered what it all ultimately added up to beyond a condemnation of '50s racism and homophobia. The most intriguing aspect of the Sirk movies is that it's all subtext and, because certain things couldn't be said, you had to read between the lines. But if subtext becomes text doesn't it also become less interesting?
A couple of crowd-pleasers, Irish director Jim Sheridan's "In America" and Denzel Washington's directorial debut "Antwone Fisher," took me by surprise and reminded me once again that if I cry in a movie it doesn't necessarily mean it's worthless. Washington's film about an abandoned and sexually abused young black Navy man struggling with his anger, based on a true story, has some script problems but is going to bowl over African-American audiences. It remains to be seen whether whites will flock to this heartwarming movie with an all-black cast, but they should.
Other English-language films included the excellent Philip Noyce film "Rabbit-Proof Fence," another true-life story about three aboriginal girls who, in the 1930s, set off on a 1,200-mile journey through the Australian back country to escape from a camp set up by a well-meaning but racist government administrator played by Kenneth Branagh. Shane Meadows' ("24/7") "Once Upon a Time in Midlands," which stars Robert Carlyle, is eminently watchable but only that. The relentlessly downbeat, but immensely powerful "The Magdalene Sisters," by actor/director Peter Mullan, set off an uproar in the Vatican for its depiction of the sadistic cruelty of some Irish nuns when it was awarded the top prize in Venice last week. Miramax bought the film here at Toronto, and we'll be hearing lots more about it in the months to come.
Artsy thrillers like Robert Duvall's "Assassination Tango," Brian DePalma's "Femme Fatale," and Neil Jordan's "The Good Thief" were an uneven lot. The Duvall film was half great, especially in its creation (through Duvall's writing and his acting) of a startlingly original hit-man character, but it self-destructed courtesy of a self-indulgent and mostly irrelevant sub-plot about tango-dancing that features Duvall's new girlfriend Luciana Pedraza. The DePalma was by turns exciting, hilarious, and stupid. But the constant quoting of Hitchcock in the imagery, music, and camera movement only served to remind the viewer that, despite its stylishness, this is most definitely not a Hitchcock film. The best of the bunch was Jordan's Monaco-set caper movie "The Good Thief," a wonderful remake of a French classic called "Bob Le Flambeur" that provided a superb vehicle for the increasingly grizzled Nick Nolte. Snappy, ironic dialogue and athletic visuals worthy of the early Wong Kar-wai made this film a delight from beginning to end.
The documentary genre was well-represented by Steve James' "Stevie," which I reviewed earlier in the week, and the endlessly fascinating "Winged Migration," a film about birds' migratory patterns made by French actor/producer Jacques Perrin, who was also responsible for the very interesting "Microcosmos" a few years back. When I asked Perrin at a party how much of the film, which looks unbelievably sharp and clean, was done with digital effects, he looked like he was going to punch me. Take your favorite birdwatcher to see this great movie when Sony Pictures Classics brings it out next spring. Producer Perrin's other film at the festival, "11'09"01," was, by contrast, thoroughly banal. Lots of controversy has arisen about the supposed "anti-American" aspects of certain segments of this 11-part film (especially the segments by Brit Ken Loach and Egyptian Yousef Chahine) but the real problem is that the whole idea is misbegotten. Cinema has never been very good as a vehicle for essayistic political statements and attitude, and this film is heavily invested in both. My favorite segment was by Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf, about a teacher trying to explain September 11 to some impoverished young Afghani refugees, which seemed richly ambiguous and thus, gee, artistic. Or did I like it mostly because it came first?
In the foreign film category, there were winners and losers. "The Cuckoo" is a one-joke Russian anti-war satire that makes you realize how special Danis Tanovic's Academy Award winner "No Man's Land," which occupied this territory first, really was. "City of God" is a hyper-active Brazilian film about the violent horrors of poor kids' lives in a Rio favela; though its slick fascination with guns gives some ethical pause, it's an immensely powerful piece of filmmaking that has set off a national furor in Brazil. Veteran director Patrice Leconte's "L'homme du train" unites fabled French actor Jean Rochefort and pop icon Johnny Hallyday in an autumnal tale about life choices that sports an effervescent script and brilliantly imagined characters. "Respiro" is a disappointing Italian film, set in an impoverished fishing village, whose neo-realist aesthetic is compromised by the presence of Valeria Golino, a big star, in the lead role. It's kind of like John Cassavetes' "Woman Under the Influence" meets Vittorio De Sica's "Shoeshine," but not as good as either. Though it drags a bit at times, Korean director Im Kwon-taek's ("Chunhyang") "Chihwaseon" is an excellent, color-saturated film about a legendary Korean painter who lived at the end of the nineteenth century. The film richly deserves distribution.
A couple of Sundance movies disappointed. The first half of "Blue Car," which focuses on a high school teacher (David Strathairn) who becomes emotionally involved with a troubled student of his (played by the stunning new discovery Agnes Bruckner), promised a great deal with its honest portrayal of the teacher's desire (a plausible even if wrongful one), but then copped out by overturning all the initial premises of the script. "Love Liza," about a young man (played magnificently, as usual, by Philip Seymour Hoffman) trying to overcome his grief at his wife's inexplicable suicide was initially promising as well but was eventually killed by a meandering script (which, inexplicably, won the Waldo Salt screenwriting award at Sundance). Another American indie, Larry Clark's heavily-hyped "Ken Park," is mostly a bad porno movie masquerading as a trenchant critique of contemporary American suburbia.
All in all, though, judging by the many outstanding films on display here, this is going to be a terrific year for going to the movies.