Feeling an Elephant

The Toronto International Film Festival's inexhaustible breadth

Born to Be Blue

The 40th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, the largest film festival on this continent, wrapped on Sept. 20, and so has my northern pilgrimage for another year. The festival is a film glutton's delight, offering a variety of films that range from early looks at some of the studios' upcoming fall releases, independent works seeking distribution and positive word-of-mouth, and well-curated samplings of international cinema. Dramas and documentaries mingle with genre and experimental sidebars, newcomers' debuts vie for attention against works from proven masters, curiosity and desire do battle with gluttony and fatigue. Even if an attendee views four to five movies a day, over the course of the 11-day festival, the viewer will have witnessed only a fraction of the 298 features included in the lineup. Any personal assessment runs the same risk as that faced in the fable about the five blind men describing an elephant. You only know as true what your personal experience dictates. My TIFF elephant was a lovely beast, gargantuan but warm to the touch, albeit with some noticeable wrinkles.

My first film upon arrival was film critic and programmer Kent Jones' Hitchcock/Truffaut, which proved to be a perfect means of getting my film juices flowing. Francois Truffaut's 1966 book of interviews with Hitchcock is one of the all-time seminal works of film analysis. Jones interviews contemporary filmmakers about the influence of this book and these filmmakers, and while breaking no new ground, the film was a perfect way to whet the palate for ... more films.

The most unusual film I saw was Anomalisa, written by Charlie Kaufman and co-directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, in which puppets (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Thewlis, and Tom Noonan) are used in stop-motion animation to tell a typically eccentric Kaufman tale of anomie. Coming into the festival without distribution, the film was picked up by Paramount, which now has the distinction of being a home for weird puppets, having released in 2004 Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Team America: World Police.

Three of my favorite films were directed by women: Laurie Anderson's delightful personal essay on life and death, Heart of a Dog; Julie Delpy's Lolo, a screwball love story; and Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan, which stars Greta Gerwig, an outrageous Julianne Moore, and the always dexterous Ethan Hawke (who, with his stunning lead performance as musician Chet Baker in the festival's uneven Born to Be Blue shows himself to be one of the most adroit actors working today). Two terrific newspaper movies also screened and will be making the rounds in coming weeks: Tom McCarthy's Spotlight details The Boston Globe's investigation into the pedophile-priest scandal, and Truth stars Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett in an Oscar-eligible turn as his producer Mary Mapes, telling the story about George W. Bush's military service that ended their careers at CBS.

In eight and a half days, I viewed a total of 33 films. My sense of the elephant is surely incomplete, but the ride was a resounding delight.

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Toronto International Film Festival, Hitchcock / Truffaut, Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman, Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog, Julie Depy, Lolo, Rebecca Miller, Maggie's Plan, Ethan Hawke, Born to Be Blue, Truth, Robert Redford, Cate Blanchett, TIFF

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