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Mixed Masters, Lost Girls; Front-Loaded Toronto Fest Offers Fewer Masterpieces, More Discoveries

Mixed Masters, Lost Girls; Front-Loaded Toronto Fest Offers Fewer Masterpieces, More Discoveries

Mixed Masters, Lost Girls; Front-Loaded Toronto Fest Offers Fewer Masterpieces, More Discoveries

by Anthony Kaufman

A scene from Lucretia Martel’s “The Holy Girl,” among the films that screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Yes, there was lots of sex on screen (but there always is). Yes, the festival emerged as a moderately busy market for distributors to acquire new films (but it always is). And yes, a few of the world’s leading filmmakers made inspired works of cinema, from Jia Zhangke‘s “The World” to Kim Ki-Duk‘s “3-Iron” (but don’t they always). How was this year’s Toronto International Film Festival different from past editions? While it’s nearly impossible to make any definitive proclamations based on the mere 27 1/2 films I saw out of the available 328, allow me a few observations unique to the 29th Toronto film bonanza.

A master filmmaker doesn’t always make a masterful film. No matter how many tours de force Michelangelo Antonioni has made, his final chapter in the Steven Soderbergh produced three-part “Eros” was roundly dismissed as laughably bad. Critics also warned each other to stay away from Lukas Moodysson‘s “A Hole In My Heart.” Despite having some fans, François Ozon‘s “5×2,” which chronicles a marriage’s decline in 5 segments, in reverse order, from brutal divorce to innocent rendezvous, is a minor work from the prolific French maverick. And Claire Denis‘ latest “L’ Intrus” was an impenetrable film that disappointed some of her most loyal followers. If someone out there can explain the final shot where Béatrice Dalle, clad in a fur-lined coat and smiling like a horse, is pulled on a snow sled by a pack of rushing huskies, please go ahead.

But not all auteurs disappointed. Wong Kar-wai‘s “Eros” segment was as graceful and gorgeous as Antonioni’s was apparently awful. (I actually left before the Antonioni started, followed by many others.) Italian director (“Lamerica”) Gianni Amelio‘s “The House Keys” accomplished the near impossible: an unsentimental and mostly absorbing tale of a man’s relationship with the handicapped 16-year-old son he never knew. And filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar (“Bad Education”), Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) and Zhang Yimou (“House of Flying Daggers”) were the talk of the city, supplying critics and audiences alike with enticing stories of drag queens, drunks and Zhang Ziyi to discuss while waiting in the long lines that twisted around University and Cumberland Avenues.

It must also be said that the festival handled the crowds admirably; movies started on time or, at most, 15 minutes late, and press and industry screenings were added quickly to accommodate sold out shows. The chief grumble among industry-ites was the front-loaded schedule, leaving many attendees wandering aimlessly through the screening rooms last Thursday and Friday in search of a worthy movie.

And yet, my final days yielded a handful of discoveries. I caught up with Lodge Kerrigan‘s “Keane,” already covered extensively in indieWIRE, the “Clean Shaven” director’s return to paranoid form. But more emotional — and devastating — than any of his previous work, “Keane’s” story of a schizophrenic man reeling from the abduction of his young daughter is a tense and gut-wrenching exercise in post-9-11 grief. Stalking its protagonist with the tightly observed, hand-held camerawork reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers (“Rosetta,” “The Son”), “Keane” ranks among the strongest American films of the year and with several distribution offers, could make it into theaters by the end of 2004.

A scene from Wim Wenders’ “Land of Plenty.” Image provided by the filmmakers.

Wim WendersInDigEnt production “Land of Plenty” offers another look at post-catastrophe America. While as subtle as Dick Cheney and too long by about 15 minutes (please lose the end text message), the proselytizing “Land of Plenty” offers a sweet and sympathetic character in Michelle Williams‘ Christian missionary and takes a few pointed jabs at Bush administration war policy and the widespread poverty in the United States, particularly Wenders’ adopted home of Los Angeles — “the hunger capital of the U.S.,” as defined by one character.

If one could make a more endearing film about poverty, “Bombon – El Perro,” by Argentine newcomer Carlos Sorin (“Historias Minimas”) is the movie to see. Sorin follows a portly 52-year-old, out-of-work, gas station attendant, who finds himself the owner of a first-class hunting dog. After a brief stint in the world of competitive dog shows, he learns an important lesson about the dangers of the new economy, post Argentina’s collapse. At a less political festival, “Bombon” would surely win the Audience Award. (This year, the prize went to human rights thriller “Hotel Rwanda.”)

Another young filmmaker coming into her own was Australian shorts director Cate Shortland. A premiere in Cannes‘ Un Certain Regard sidebar, Shortland’s “Somersault” has yet to sign a deal with a U.S. distrib, but this lush debut about a promiscuous 16-year-old runaway (played by up-and-coming starlet Abbie Cornish) has all the makings of a modest, art-house darling. Employing a colorful and detailed cinematography, Shortland beautifully captures the icy, ski-resort town of Jindabyne, Australia, as well as the sexual confusion of her characters. Fresh and unexpected, at times, this touching coming of age drama transcends its subject matter.

Argentine filmmaker Lucretia Martel also observes her teenage protagonist through a sensitive and artfully composed lens. With “The Holy Girl,” which Fine Line recently agreed to release theatrically, Martel creates a foreboding and fragmentary story about a young Catholic School girl with a mischievous grin, her divorced mother, and the object of their affections, a perverse doctor attending a medical conference in the same hotel where they live. With a sharp, startling conclusion and the same poolside, bourgeois decadence that infected her auspicious debut “La Cienaga,” “The Holy Girl” establishes Martel as one of the foremost emerging art filmmakers in the world.

Young ladies were lost all over Toronto’s screens, whether in my favorite film of the festival, Pawel Pawlikowski‘s “My Summer of Love,” which follows a young woman’s rude awakening to the treacheries of passion, Todd Solondz“Palindromes,” a mystifying fairytale about a teenager who just wants to get pregnant, Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik‘s “On the Outs,” a chronicle of three girls trying to survive the Jersey City streets (featuring a heartbreaking performance from co-creator Paola Mendoza as a crack addicted mother trying to keep her baby), Benoît Jacquot‘s “Tout de Suite,” a black and white, verite portrait of a bourgeois French girl who shacks up with a pair of runaway jewel thieves, or Maren Ade‘s low budget German gem, “The Forest Through the Trees,” an incisive comedy about a lonely high school teacher who can’t seem to fit in.

If there is message to take from this collection of troubled teens and wayward young women, it might be that there’s dire concern for the next generation in today’s disastrous times. But isn’t there always?

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