TORONTO 2000: Toronto's Audience Fest Disappoints, Slim on Discoveries
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/9.18.00) -- I'll be honest here. I had a bad festival. Maybe I just saw the wrong movies. That happens. Or maybe there's just a limited supply of good movies each year, most of which we already caught in Cannes, Venice or Telluride: e.g. Christopher Nolan's "Memento," Venice's two big winners "The Circle" and "Before Night Falls," Ang Lee's Cannes hit and Toronto People's Choice Award winner, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," or smaller films like Jia Zhang-Ke's "Platform," Terrence Davies' "House of Mirth," or Stephen Daldry's "Billy Elliott." Discoveries, however, the kinds of gems that thrill us film writers, were few and far between at Toronto's 25th celebration, as heard in the all-too-familiar distributor's lament: "it's slim pickings this year."
At Cannes, industry-ites complained of non-commercial premieres of artistic merit; in Toronto, we heard of non-artistic premieres of barely commercial merit. Just look at the biggest deals that went down during the festival: Lions Gate's acquisition of Kathryn Bigelow's "The Weight of Water," a film that mostly annoyed attendees, and Bryan Johnson's "Vulgar," which has the distinction of showcasing the gang rape of a transvestite clown.
"It's becoming a market," Festival Director Piers Handling told indieWIRE at a private dinner last Friday night, admitting what most of us already know. According to Handling, filmmakers are coming with greater entourages, producers and cast, with more and more people looking to do business upon their visit to the industry Mecca. And with the demands of filling up a market, I guess that means more films, some of which may not be up to par. Piers Handling admitted that some of his favorites were Iranian films like "The Circle" and Cannes Camera d'Or winner "Djomeh" (which New Yorker Films is rumored to acquire), but he also acknowledged that at least one of the special presentation films left much to be desired.
While some Gala Premieres may have satisfied attendees with successful, albeit light fare like Rob Sitch's warm-hearted Australian comedy "The Dish" (poised to make a U.S. distribution deal soon), Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous," and Christopher Guest's "Best in Show," they were even more disappointed with films like the dogmatic "Contender" (Dreamworks), the silly star-studded "Dr. T. And the Women" (Artisan), and Jonathon Glazer's genre exercise "Sexy Beast" (Fox Searchlight), starring Ben Kingsley as a vicious, bald-headed Cockney criminal. Most films in the Special Presentations section were anything but special: the mostly dismissed Al Pacino project "Chinese Coffee," the insulting Hi-Def DV film "ivansxtc (To Live and Die in Hollywood"), the mess of Michael Radford's "Dancing at the Blue Iguana," whose only sellable aspect is the naked dancing of Jennifer Tilly and Darryl Hannah, the ambitious, but failed Miramax release "The Yards," and the lamely directed, straight-to-video-scale dramas like Michael Corrente's "A Shot at Glory," starring Robert Duvall and Sally Field's "Beautiful," with Minnie Driver.
Many of these films satisfy Toronto's star-hungry, movie-feverish audiences, but for those of us looking for new true cinema, these were not the films to see. "Toronto has always been for the public," said Gary Burns, director of pending Lot 47 acquisition and Best Canadian Feature winner, "waydowntown." "It's totally for the public, more than the distributors. People want to see stars," he added.
So while Toronto's public were seeing stars, I was trying to find a good movie. First stop, American films. Trying my best with the new American cinema on display, I can only recommend Michael Walker's debut "Chasing Sleep," which reportedly is heading to Lions Gate, along with the others. Other U.S. indie premieres were poorly directed, not ambitious enough or just plain too ambitious for debuts.
Heading over to European cinema yielded a few more promising premieres. Francois Ozon, chameleon director that he is, apparently bowled over quite a few attendees with "Sous le Sable" (Under the Sand), starring Charlotte Rampling as a woman dealing with the loss of her husband. Patrice Leconte's capital punishment melodrama "The Widow of St. Pierre" starring director Emir Kusturica engaged some journalists, as did the North American premieres of debuting directors Baltasar Kormkur ("101 Reykjavik"), Pierre-Paul Renders ("Thomas in Love") and Sophie Fillieres (with her second film, "Aïe").
Asian cinema created a few fits and starts (see indieWIRE's story Asian Attack: /onthescene/fes_00Toronto_000915_Fri.html). Also, an "achingly beautiful" gangster movie called "Bangkok Dangerous" by the Pang brothers won the FIPRESCI critics prize.
Canada, usually forgotten in the States, took the hometown advantage with some promising new works. In addition to Burn's "waydowntown," Lynne Stopkewich proves herself once again a major talent with "Suspicious River," Denis Villeneuve's Perspective Canada opener, "Maelstrom" also generated buzz, and a small film about falling out of love, "Parsley Days," directed by Andrea Dorfman, may be that local discovery worth searching for.
But it was perhaps a couple of the Preludes -- short films commissioned by the festival to appear before the features and directed by Canadian locals -- that held the sparkles of a newly found gem. Though repeated viewings dogged the 4-to-5 film per day appetite of film critics, on first or even second viewing, shorts like David Cronenberg's "Camera," Don McKellar's "A Word from the Management" and Guy Maddin's "The Heart of the World" hit the mark like good cinema should. Maddin's Eisenstein meets "Metropolis" early cinema ode is a marvel, depicting a beautiful blonde woman who must choose between the love of two brothers while the world has a massive heart attack. In the process of saving the world, she -- get this -- creates the motion picture. It's that kind of resurrection that would do everyone in the film business some good, from those making films to those programming them.