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A Movie-able Feast

Exploring Toronto's cinematic menu

By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 23, 2011

<i>Habibi</i>
Habibi

So many agendas, so little time. That's always the conundrum at the Toronto International Film Festival. Hundreds of films from around the world, made by veterans and first-timers, some with distribution but most without or seeking to expand their territorial reach – all are on the menu and, at first glance, appear equally appetizing. That's when one's personal palate kicks in, as well as logistical realities.

TIFF is a harbinger of the films of fall, the season when we traditionally put away the piffles of summer and start mining for Oscar gold. I managed to catch one of the two George Clooney films screening in Toronto. I chose to wait until my return to Austin to see The Ides of March, which is opening soon. Coming later this fall is The Descendants, Alexander Payne's certain Oscar contender starring Clooney as a husband and dad forced to take an active role in his daughters' lives when an accident places his wife on life support in the film's opening moments. Absent are most of Clooney's familiar physical mannerisms and debonair allure. As in Sideways, Payne tempers the drama with impeccable comic touches. A couple of other films I saw are likely to surface as Foreign Language awards contenders: the compelling Iranian drama A Separation, by Asghar Farhadi, which presents a shrewd study of a divorcing couple, and Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness, which finds the director of Europa Europa deftly orchestrating another film about the plight of Jews during the war, this time with a true story about a group that takes refuge in the Polish sewer system.

When in Toronto, I'm always interested in films that bear some relationship to Texas, and several films here fit that bill. Most directly related to Austin is former resident Susan Youssef's Habibi, which received a grant from the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund. A story about forbidden love in Gaza, the film was shot by Austin cinematographer PJ Raval. The TFPF funds were used to transport Raval and other Austin participants to the Gaza Strip. Matthew McConaughey stars in the deliciously nasty Southern crime drama Killer Joe, which was directed by William Friedkin and scripted by Tracy Letts from his original play. The terrific supporting cast includes Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, and Juno Temple. McConaughey, in a role much darker than anything he's ever played, forges new ground in his career. In his latest documentary, Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog offers a plaint against the American system of capital punishment. Looking at a particular Texas case from various perspectives, Herzog unfortunately never gets a firm grip on his subject matter.

Also on my personal agenda were opportunities to catch advance looks at some films that are scheduled to play at Austin's imminent Fantastic Fest (see "Gods and Monsters ...") and next month's Austin Film Festival. In this category, I highly recommend the breathless French thriller Sleepless Night, which will screen twice at Fantastic Fest. The Duplass brothers' latest feature, Jeff Who Lives at Home, is certain to be one of the highlights of AFF. The film stars Jason Segel, Ed Helms, and Susan Sarandon, and is the filmmaking duo's most sophisticated film yet. Playing at both Fantastic Fest and AFF is We Need To Talk About Kevin, which stars the amazing Tilda Swinton as the mother of a teenage mass murderer.

Films by longtime favorites are always on my list of things to see at a festival, and there were a couple of films that disappointed (Guy Maddin's Keyhole and Francis Ford Coppola's Twixt, to name names), while a couple reaffirmed my faith. Union Square by Nancy Savoca (Dogfight) is a small chamber piece that stars Mira Sorvino and Tammy Blanchard. The film delights in the specificity of its characters despite the overall predictability of the storyline. Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse) finds a more compassionate tone for his latest drama, Dark Horse, without sacrificing any of his signature misanthropy. TIFF offered a truly satisfying platter of offerings this year and whet the appetite for more.

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