Continental Drift

Scenes from the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival

The Toronto International Film Festival is the biggest and most important film festival on this continent and is commonly said to rank second only to Cannes in terms of the quality and number of movies shown and the similarly extensive congregation of filmmakers, industry, and press it attracts. Success, however, may be this festival's latest hurdle to cross, as the hordes of visiting attendees and native Torontonians (who also hold this festival dear) made for ever-longer lines and confusion during this month's 33rd annual edition. Plus, the festival's use of additional venues that demand a subway or taxi ride (or a long walk) ups the costs for attendees (though it must be said that the subway lines and taxis in Toronto involve little waiting at all – a true pleasure to this resident of public-transportation-starved Austin).

Turned away from my first press screening, I fretted that it was an omen of things to come. 'Twas the opening night of the fest, and I intentionally arrived in Toronto during the afternoon so I could pick up my credentials and catch a movie or two in the evening. The film I intended to see was The Brothers Bloom, the follow-up film by Brick's innovative director, Rian Johnson, which stars Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody as a pair of con-men brothers. It was showing simultaneously on two screens for press and industry, and I queued up 20 minutes early, feeling confident of getting in. But after 45 minutes of waiting in line (programs in that theatre were running late due to technical problems, we were told), it turned out that I was too far back in line to gain admittance, an annoyance that could easily have been avoided by simply counting the number of people in line and the number of available seats. So, it was on to plan B for me: acquiring some Canadian cash and going grocery shopping for my week's supplies and then maybe catching a late-night screening. But when I put my bank card into the same ATM I had used during previous visits to the city, the machine ate my card and advised me to contact the bank. It already being evening-time, there was nothing I could do but stew about it until the next day.

Things improved after that rocky start: My bank card was retrieved sans shredding, and most of my line-waiting paid off with admittance at future screenings. Most years it takes little more than the possibility of wearing a sweater in the September evenings to keep this Texas girl happy in Toronto. Despite having several opportunities to wear second layers (often a raincoat) during this festival, there still seemed to be something missing. In recent years, by the conclusion of the festival, I felt that I had witnessed many of the films that would be on my Top 10 list at the end of the year. Two years ago, I saw Pan's Labyrinth there and was confident that I had seen my No. 1 pick – or at least the movie that all others would have to best for that position. Last year, I saw several of my top choices, among them No Country for Old Men, Persepolis, Away From Her, I'm Not There, and Eastern Promises. In 2008, I didn't come away with the same feeling, although I must admit that a previous commitment to provide jury scores for another publication (Great Britain's Screen International) prevented me from selecting my own schedule of films and consequently required me to see a number of titles that I might not have otherwise chosen. I have many regrets about movies I did not get to see. There seems little reason to have traveled all the way to Toronto to see the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading as I just did, especially when it seems such a trifle when compared with their award-winning No Country for Old Men coup.

<b><i>Me and Orson Welles</i></b>
Me and Orson Welles

One movie that stood out from the crowd of several hundred was Austinite Richard Linklater's latest, Me and Orson Welles. It's a fictional story about a high school kid who has amorphous dreams of a career in the arts and, by chance, meets Orson Welles in 1937 as he's preparing his Mercury Theatre Company's groundbreaking staging of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Needing a bit player, Welles casts the boy off the street, which becomes an entrée to an extraordinary week spent in the great man's orbit. This is a portrait of Welles, the mercurial boy wonder, in the years before his fame-sealing radio broadcast of War of the Worlds and the film Citizen Kane. In a career-stretching performance as the moonlighting high schooler, Zac Efron demonstrates that his talent extends beyond High School Musicals; the young Welles is played with perfect inflection and bearing by Christian McKay, who, if there's any justice, will receive a host of year-end best-actor accolades.

Also appealing were Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York and Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. Kaufman debuts as a director here, working from his own script after penning such oddball gems as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's a story about a theatre director whose art and reality are permeable, a story that functions with Kaufman's typically porous logic but raised to an elaborate new level. Plus, the cast is rife with such all-stars as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Michelle Williams, Dianne Wiest, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The Hurt Locker is a terrific war movie that follows the travails of an American bomb-detonation squad in modern-day Iraq. The specifics of the job are depicted in sharp detail, and the moral quandaries involved in staying alive become all too vivid. Bigelow is also a stupendous action director who guides the film's excellent cast through heart-pumping sequences that capture the situation's tension, confusion, and drama.

<b><i>The Wrestler</i></b>
The Wrestler

Two movies that proved to be audience favorites were Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, which stars Mickey Rourke as an over-the-hill lord of the ring, and Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire. Rourke received much well-deserved acclaim for his performance as Randy "the Ram" Robinson. It's a moving portrait of a man whose broken-down body is no longer up to the demands of the workaday wrestling spectacle of live bouts before bloodthirsty fans. However, the story packs in all the old familiar hooks of classic boxing movies: Marisa Tomei plays the stripper with a heart of gold and Evan Rachel Wood plays the estranged daughter with whom Randy is trying to patch things up. After directing films as challenging as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, Aronofsky can't help but be perceived as playing it tame with The Wrestler. Winner of the People's Choice Award by popular vote was Slumdog Millionaire, which uses the unlikely story of the slum-dwelling young winner of India's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to detail aspects of the lives of Mumbai's impoverished orphans. Scheduled for a fall release across the U.S., Slumdog Millionaire is sure to be this year's Little Miss Sunshine, a feel-good movie about the possibility of overcoming poverty, even if those chances are one in a million.

<b><i>Les Plages d'Agnès</i></b>
Les Plages d'Agnès

By far my favorite experience was the opportunity to see two Agnès Varda movies: her very first feature, La Pointe Courte, from 1954, and her newest, the autobiographical Les Plages d'Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès). When I was a student, this French filmmaker was the subject of substantial research on my part, so the opportunity to hear her speak as part of the festival's Dialogues: Talking With Pictures series was a pure delight. The petite filmmaker is a titan of film innovation, approaching the screen with a mixture of artistic formulas, narrative wit, political conscience, and self-aware humor. La Pointe Courte is very much a first film by someone who claims to have seen no more than 25 films up to that point in her life. But Varda's lifelong artistic concerns are all evident in this embryonic work, and the black-and-white print shown in Toronto was gorgeous. Les Plages d'Agnès is an inventively filmed autobiography that is at various times an installation piece, travelogue, history lesson, tableau vivant, and privileged glimpse into a remarkable life. If only more of the films I saw were as inspiring, entertaining, and uplifting as Les Plages, my festival experience might truly have been a day at the beach.

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Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF, Burn After Reading, Me and Orson Welles, The Wrestler, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, Synedoche, New York, La Pointe Courte, Les Plages d'Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès), The Brothers Bloom

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