TIFF10 Recap: Nostalgic for the Light
The 2010 Toronto International Film Festival is over.
Faithful readers of this blog will have noticed the sparse postings over the past few months. There is no excuse, but a very good reason: I’ve been working for TIFF since the end of May, first as a member of the programming team, and then taking up the role of Social Media Coordinator for the Festival and beyond.
It has been an exhausting, packed summer, climaxing in a remarkably special 11 days for me. The reasons are multif0ld. Having attended TIFF as a volunteer, a patron, and now staff, it’s fascinating to experience the allure of the world’s leading public film festival from multiple angles. As a volunteer, TIFF is a stage of world cinema before which one has a fly-on-the-wall view. As a patron, TIFF is a cinematic feast of the greatest proportions. As a staff, TIFF is a delicious labor of love. All three roles are invaluable. All three roles provide unique perspectives into the meaning of TIFF. All three roles come together to make TIFF possible.
However, ask any staff and they will tell you that the best way to see a film festival is as a non-working attendee – pack a bag with water and snacks, and just go to the movies. All the bells and whistles and after-parties are nice, but they take away from your time in front of a screen, witnessing the magic casted through tears and sweats of ridiculously talented people from all over the world.
That is not a complaint by any means though. I have seen 37 of the 300 and so films of this year’s TIFF line-up, not a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but a good enough taste given that I was working through it all. I saw them in various formats: screeners, advance-screenings, and at Festival. Some were earlier cuts, some I could only catch parts, and most were excellent. It was especially satisfying to see a few titles pass through my hands on their journey to be unveiled to the world at TIFF10 — Sound of Mumbai, The Trip, Soul of Sand — to be one of the first people to discover these gems, to realize their value, and to become part of the momentum in pushing them out in front of people who may never otherwise have seen them, and to see them being embraced and shared, is a satisfaction that kind of swells up inside you and drips out of the corner of your mouth in a broad grin. No other way to describe it.
Here, I prefer to dwell on one film in depth instead of many, but that’s impossible at the pace of film festival cinematic consumption. I can dwell on a few though, and below are some of my TIFF10 highlights, in no particular order.
Denis Villeneuve’s INCENDIES
“Incendies broke my heart, swept up the pieces, and broke it again. Beautiful. Devastating.” — I tapped out those words in a tweet as I exited the theater. No need for all 140 characters, and I still feel the exact same way. To call the film heartbreaking is accurate, but also a mere understatement. Spanning three generations, two countries, and passing decades, this is a human tragedy of epic proportions. Two parallel narratives are seamlessly interwoven. The pace burns with an elegance of reveal that reminds me of “The Secret in Their Eyes,” winner of last year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign film. The acting is uniformly superb, spearheaded by Lubna Azabal‘s stunning portrayal of Nawal, a mysterious, complicated woman who we meet in the beginning of the story, get to know steadily through the 130 minutes, and am in utter agony of the truth of her existence by the end of the film. Like I said, beautiful, devastating. Thankfully, the film was picked up by Sony Picture Classics after the first screening and has since won the TIFF10 City of Toronto Award for Best Canadian Feature Film. People will get to see this in theaters, and that is a cinematic blessing.
Bruce McDonald’s TRIGGER
This is, above all, a genuine, truthful love song to Toronto and its people, and I loved it for it. TRIGGER was selected as the film to open TIFF Bell Lightbox to the public. It was the first time a film was screened in one of the five cinemas housed in TIFF’s new home, and the first of many. The film starred the late Tracy Wright, a beloved Canadian actress with deep ties to TIFF. Sitting in the brand new, plush red seats, smelling that new furniture smell, listening to producers, director, and cast of the film giving an emotional introduction on stage, it was evident that this was a special occassion for everyone present. I settled into my seat. Then, my city flashed before my eyes: the Spadina streetcar, the upscale restaurant, the dark and dingy bar, even the inside of an apartment that is so typically Toronto. There was something so…real, about it all. Wright and Molly Parker were well-casted and compliment each other with a natural chemistry that rings true to an aged, complicated friendship. I also loved this for the two lead female characters – and the fact that their lives don’t revolve around chasing men, talking about men, or doing things that somehow lead back to being with a man. These are strong, complicated, outside of the box female characters who are not conventionally beautiful in a Hollywood way. They are real. They are interesting. They are gorgeous. And they are Canadian.
Michael Winterbottom’s THE TRIP
Small confession: my favorite kind of movies are those of people talking. Sitting, standing, walking, doesn’t matter. The human interaction fascinates me so. Shoulder to shoulder with TRIGGER, THE TRIP has provided this year’s cinematic answer to my prayers. It is a hilarious banterfest between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, full of wit and compassion. The two make a natural pair and play themselves on a roadtrip to the English countryside, where they wine and dine in fine restaurants, driving through winding hills, stand amidst windy fields, and talk to each other over and about everything and anything. It is easy to dismiss this as a buddy roadtrip comedy, but that would be losing the heart of its magic, which delves into the consequences of decisions two middle-age actors, men, and fathers have made in their lives. Their conversations marinate with the reverberations of these choices, seemingly inconsequential at the time, mostly unspoken of, hidden in between cracks of jokes and celebrity impressions, but they are there, and they carry meanings that are evident in the every-day lives of these two men. A reprieve of humor, THE TRIP is also a gentle and brilliantly crafted evocation of the value of family and love. Coogan and Brydon’s impressions of Woody Allen and Michael Caine must be seen, but it is their subtle exchanges as men that should not be missed.
Werner Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS
Ah…Herzog. What can one say about a Werner Herzog documentary that hasn’t already been said? Legendary. Mystical. Original. Controversial. Cinephiles can’t get enough of Herzog, and I understand why: he is bold and daring, and unafraid to be himself both on and off screen, and his self is really — whether you like it or not — very interesting. I managed to catch the world premiere of Herzog’s new 3D documentary at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, with him sitting in my row. Right before the screening, he informed the crowd that the film was finished just 15 hours ago, and that we were the first audience to ever see it in its completed format, which gives you a sense of the experience itself as a momentous treat that won’t be replicated. Observing the Chauvet caves of southern France, the film is filled with images that mesmerize with an otherworldly aura. Granted unprecedented access to the oldest cave paintings known to exist, Herzog ventures out to depict the earliest signs of humanity as we know it. These paintings are art in the clearest sense of the word – vivid shapes, abstract forms, dynamic, imaginative, they could proudly take place in an art gallery exhibition anywhere in the world today. But they are not. They are created over 32,000 years ago, by feet standing on bare soil and hands dipped in raw mud, somewhere on this earth.
The content is fascinating, and Herzog’s choice to use 3D to depict the curvatures of the walls of Chauvet caves is an intelligent one, as it beautifully reconstructs the shapes and movements of the paintings that would have came across undoubtedly less vivid otherwise. The albino crocodiles emphasizes with quirk the touch of whimsical mystery that saturates rest of the film. The only problem I had was the 3D glasses, which were one-size-fit-all and too wide to stay on my face. They kept on sliding during the film and I had to hold them up with my hand for most of the time. Also, as much as 3D emphasized the cave paintings, they took just as much away from shots of natural landscapes and people interviews. I personally found it jarring to have to process the additional “depth” projected by the 3D glasses when all I really wanted to was to focus on the interesting conversation or observation taking place in front of me. Even with consideration, I find myself wishing the film was brighter. Here, Herzog reveals a frontier of our humanity that has been long lost to the masses and for that, he deserves praise. However, the 3D technology adds both moments of wonder and distraction to the experience, and makes me wonder if the technology can ever find a necessary place in the realm of cinema.
Danny Boyle’s 127 HOURS
A master of engagement, Boyle has an unique way of convincing the audience to sink into every cinematic world he has invited us into, using a wealth of images, movements, and especially carefully crafted music. In 127 HOURS, Boyle collaborated with A.R. Rahman again on the score and brings with vivid tenacity to life the person of Aron Ralston, who in reality was trapped for 127 hours in an Utah canyon after a climbing accident, and eventually escaped by cutting his right forearm off. Having loved Boyle’s work every since “Sunshine” (which I always return to after seeing a crappy sci-fi flick), I was looking forward to this, and the expectation did not disappoint. I followed the story with intense interest when it first broke on the news, amazed at the depth of human resilience evoked. Thus it was a real treat watching Aron Ralston speak in depth about his experience in the canyon, with the film, and life before and after the incident at the press conference. Sure, James Franco is easy on the eyes, but it is Ralston who really exuded that fearless, enthusiastic, dynamic spirit that made this story and film possible. He wore a short-sleeve shirt. He is articulate and thoughtful, and recalls the incident with vivid descriptions. Ralston described having visions of his future son the last night in the canyon that gave him the motivation to get out by any means possible. There were visible tears throughout the room.
I thought the film was incredibly immersive. Apparently three people fainted at the first screening. The result is not nearly as gory as I imagined though. Boyle’s vision is one that reins you in with Ralston and keeps you there for the entire 127 hours, or 94 minutes, on that boulder. The result is an almost claustrophobic, surreal journey of mental and physical exertion. Franco is incredible as Ralston, holding the audience through the entire journey, and topped the list of TIFF10 best performance on an indieWIRE critics/bloggers poll.
Gabriel Range’s I AM SLAVE
From the director of “Death of a President” comes a filmmaker who is not afraid of exploring the truth and its surrounding controversies. Human rights is a strong theme in this year’s TIFF line-up, with a special spotlight on the struggle of women all over the world. Along with other courageous portrayals like Pink Saris, The Whistleblower, As if I Am Not There to name just a few, I AM SLAVE is an unflinching look at the modern slave trade that goes on right under our noses, within our seemingly safe, aware, and conscientious modern society. The story follows a young Sudanese woman’s journey from her native country where she is a princess of her tribe, to becoming enslaved in a mansion in London. Parallel her journey is that of her father (Isaach de Bankolé), a regal, strong man of few words who never gave up on the search for his daughter. Their journeys come precariously close to intersecting on several occasion, before being cruelly denied by fate and wrongful forces. The result is a heart-wrenching, dramatic ride as we follow the soulful eyes of Malia (Wunmi Mosaku) and will and pray that she has the strength to break free of the physical and psychological enslavement she is so unfairly subjected to. Tremendous emotional payoff in the final scene. Even more tremendous is meeting and sitting in a car with the real-life Malia, Mende Nazer, whose true story the film is closely based on. Even more tremendous, and perhaps devastating, is knowing that at the moment, an estimated 5000 young women remain as slaves in London.
p.s. a special mention goes to Lubna Azabal, who is stunning in both INCENDIES and I AM SLAVE, switching seamlessly between light and dark, evoking the complex flaws that make us human. She captivates the screen and should stay there indefinitely.
These are only a few of the many great films I had the privilege to witness in the last few weeks.
Some titles have already been making splashes since Cannes: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A SCREAMING MAN delves into the depth of our human impulses and stays there – we need films like this. Lee Changdong’s POETRY is a riveting and meandering blend of prose and crime. Kelly Reichardt’s MEEK’S CUTOFF paints a haunting western that is bleak and bare as the land it travels as it is epic. Derek Cianfrance’s BLUE VALENTINE moodily follows the formation and disintegration of love between two people, without explanation or excuses. And then there is Casey Affleck’s I’M STILL HERE, which after all is said and done, prompts one to wonder why it is still here.
Some titles came out of the blue and overtook me with joy: Richard Ayoade’s SUBMARINE embraces its sardonic teenage hero and heroine with peculiarly captivating cinematography and offbeat dialogue. James Gunn’s SUPER challenge with blood and style our traditional notion of superheros. Shawn Ku’s BEAUTIFUL BOY is softly engrossing in its steady observation of the raw, compelling emotions of two people who have to face the un-faceable, explain the un-explained. Juanita Wilson’s AS IF I AM NOT THERE haunts with its clear-eyed and unwavering depiction of one woman’s horrific experiences at the beginning of the Bosnian war that underscores the shadows of so many.
Furthermore, this is also a strong year of Asian cinema discovery for me and I’ve fallen in love with many: Blessed with stunning art direction and emotionally-saturated cinematography, Chung Mong-Hong’s THE FOURTH PORTRAIT is a slow roast of muffled punches & deep cuts that left me utterly torn. Sion Sono’s COLD FISH, on the other hand, descends into the gruesome madness of a serial killer and deftly invigorates with his graphic, psychological domination of others. Tetsuya Nakashima’s CONFESSIONS is pure pleasure in style, mixing shadows with light, dabbling in slow-motions, dancing in-between compassion and revenge, all within the cruel confines of a Japanese high school (nothing crueler, really). Tsui Hark’s DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME serves up martial arts glamour in a Sherlock Holmes plate – it tastes kind of funny, but the look is so lush and fun that I was more than happy to start my day with it. On a quieter note, Hong Sangsoo’s OKI’S MOVIE curiously blends narratives and organically evolves them into perspectives that are simultaneously shifting and persistent, leaving us still in the end on the periphery of the movie of Oki’s life. And then there’s Feng Xiaogang’s AFTERSHOCK, already the most successful Chinese movie of all time, it explores the horror of the 1976 TangShen earthquake through its reverberations through three generations of one resilient family. I lost it about 10 minutes into the film and didn’t hold back since. There’s something about a national tragedy of mothers crying in my mother tongue that breaks through any cinematic or social reservations I may harbor.
And then there were so many more that I wanted to see but simply ran out of time/energy to: Biutiful, Black Swan, The King’s Speech, Another Year, Stone, Little White Lies, The Conspirator, Love Crime, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, The Illusionist, Buried, Nostalgia for the Light, Tabloid, The First Grader, Trust, L’Amour Fou, Waiting For Superman, The Whistleblower, Three, Rabbit Hole, That Girl in Yellow Boots, Beginners, Dirty Girl, Henry’s Crime, Stakeland, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Monsters, I Saw the Devil, Late Autumn, Heartbeats, Uncle Boomnee… thank god the last two are showing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox later this week, which I plan to catch.
Speaking of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the new permanent home of TIFF, it is a stunningly beautiful building that boasts five state-of-the-art cinemas, two restaurants, a cafe, gallery spaces, offices, exhibition rooms…etc. A fellow TIFF staff puts it simply: “May I just say that TIFF Bell Lightbox is the answer to the prayers of cinephiles.” And to that I answer: Yes, yes you may.
From standing on the top floor the night before opening looking through its floor-length glass to the shimmering city below, to being one of the first audiences to watch the first film (a Canadian one too) that graces its screen, to seeing Herzog’s otherworldly albino crocodiles through 3D glasses, to hearing Springsteen/Norton discuss the intersection between music and cinema, to watching Apichatpong Weerasethakul talk about the evolution of his career with matching film clips, to having a life-affirming conversation with a kindred spirit filmmaker bathed in the glow of the Canteen, the Lightbox has already become an essential part of my cinematic landscape. It already feels like home.
And there are so much still unmentioned…shadowing Cameron Bailey for a day, being a panelist on Roger Ebert’s Twitter Showdown, rocking the TIFF block party with my best friends, losing a full dress size in 10 days, shaking Keanu Reeve’s hand without realizing and then being told never to wash it again (just kidding, the second part)… No complaints here.
TIFF10 is over. TIFF11 is just beginning. No matters where life takes me from now on, this will always be a very special 11 days of memories. They have shaped me in indescribable ways, and I could not be more grateful for the influx of light.