The multiplex is a dead zone in August. In recent weeks we've managed to find a few films worth seeing in theaters (see the higher altitudes of the movie grid for a few), but in general it's a wasteland. You know it, I know it, and everyone brought up by decent parents knows it.
But it's coming to a close, and how can I tell? Because I'm getting excited about what's left to see this year, and here in North America, nothing kicks off the last trimester like the Toronto International Film Festival. Running from September 4-14, it showcases over 200 new films from established international masters and Hollywood hacks alike. There, in Canada, the twain shall meet and share a cup of tea.
The festival kicks off on Thursday, and we'll be blogging from the ground, but while we're waiting around, muttering, let's get the lay of the land. J. Robert, is there anything you're particularly looking forward to, or are there any films in the schedule that you can comment on today?
Before I run down the list of films I'm most eager to see, I can offer brief impressions of eight films that have already screened for press in the U.S. or have played at earlier festivals, three of which I enjoyed a great deal:
Waltz with Bashir is an unusual animal: an animated documentary. Filmmaker Ari Folman served in the Israeli military and was involved not only in the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 but also recalls -- or, rather, has trouble recalling -- a massacre to which he was at least a witness. Waltz with Bashir is his attempt to uncover the facts by talking to other people who were there, and he animates not only the interviews but also the wartime recollections. The film is technically brilliant and features a visual style reminiscent of graphic novels. Pen-drawn shadows fall across figures of just one or two colors, but the haze and glow and reflection and blur and undulations of the animated surfaces give the picture real depth. The film is also an elegant anti-war film, the kind that I find a little unsettling, the kind where horrible tragedy is depicted with panache. No battle scene in this film -- and there are lots of them -- is anything less than balletic. Self-consciously so. I mean, look at the title. But the film's final minutes, literally the last hundred seconds or so -- when the massacre comes suddenly into view like a reclaimed memory -- lift the veil, pierce the heart, and temper most of my reservations.
Sugar is the second film by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck who made one of my very favorite films of 2006, Half Nelson. One of the few Sundance films to get a second airing at this year's TIFF, Sugar is the story of a Dominican baseball player who comes to the US to pursue his dream of playing in the major leagues. But the realities of traveling that road are very different from the fantasy, and Boden and Fleck quietly observe their character's discovery of the economic and cultural elements that interfere with the dream. They also allow their film to drift along with him, even if it means straying from the road. It's a simple and beautiful study, maybe not as multi-layered as Half Nelson but a strong second film and one of my favorites of the year.
Wong Kar-Wai is certainly better known for lush dramas than lush martial arts movies, but Ashes of Time is Wong's film all the way. He made the movie in 1994 and confused the heck out of all of us with a dreamlike story involving an indeterminate number of characters. Now he has recut and tweaked the film for re-release, but not, I must say, to make the film any clearer. Having watched the new version, which Wong is calling Ashes of Time Redux, I find it as mystifying as ever. A middle-man in the desert introduces people in need -- or people with grudges -- to wuxia contractors who will settle scores for a fee. I think. When identities begin to shift, I quickly get lost, but never mind that. Every single shot is a keeper, and as an abstract expression of color and grain -- sand and celluloid -- it's absorbing throughout.
Here's what I wrote about Medicine for Melancholy when it played in San Francisco's fest in May: The one festival film that I saw on a DVD screener instead of in a theater is one of the more attractively shot video features I've seen recently. The muted color palette, achieved through filters in post-production, I imagine, is easy on the eyes and may even dovetail with the film's themes. In a story that recalls Before Sunrise and Joe Swanberg's so-called mumblecore films, an African-American man and woman have a one-night stand and spend the following day wandering San Francisco and chatting, specifically about the city's dwindling black population. It's a smart, socially aware film, nicely acted, but the expository dialogue makes it feel like the first feature that it is. Minimalism requires a knack for hiding ideas inside sparse scenes — think of Old Joy — but Medicine for Melancholy's conversations are a little too rich, while its around-town sequences seem impoverished.
In the awkwardly titled I've Loved You So Long, Kristen Scott-Thomas gives a fine performance as a woman just out of prison, but the entire movie is a long, slow reveal, and when it stretches and strains to avoid telling us its secret, and when the secret turns out to be such a silly head-scratcher, the film hardly feels worth the elongated, angst-anchored trip.
You might say the same about The Lucky Ones, which contrives to keep its three U.S. Army soldiers in the same car for as long as possible, except that they're a little more fun to spend time with. They're on leave from serving in Iraq, but their return to the States isn't quite what they expected. However, it's pretty much what I expected, at least in the broad strokes. In the details, I would never have suspected such hokey plot turns -- the RV full of sex workers, the tornado of discovery -- but all three actors are surprisingly enjoyable, including Tim Robbins.
Synecdoche, New York is Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, but I feel like I've been in this hall of mirrors before. Kaufman's usual obsessions are on full display, and while he's actually kind of brilliant at mining the man-creates-art-about-man-creating-art-about-man-creating-art cycle of self-absorption, the result still feels like rolling around in someone else's laundry. It's a cast to die for, but they're working with layer upon layer of psychoanalytical papier mâché.
In apparent rebellion against Westerns that deconstruct or otherwise reinvent their genre, Ed Harris paints by numbers with Appaloosa. He stars, directs, and co-wrote, so I blame him above all. Plot: a bad man (Jeremy Irons pretending to be Daniel Day Lewis) stirs up trouble. The new city marshall (Harris) and his deputy (Viggo Mortenson) aim to clean up this town. And a pretty woman (Renée Zellwegger) steps off a train and catches various eyes. On paper it sounds like it should be fun, what with all the shootouts and train shenanigans, but it's alternately dumb and lifeless. The romance, which is played for chuckles (and played and played), feels like junior high locker gossip -- or like reheated Butch and Sundance -- and the showdowns offer few surprises. It's a cardboard cutout of men in hats, women in garters and hoop skirts, and horses chewing oats while thinking of how differently they would direct this movie ... if horses could direct ... and chew oats at the same time.
So, J. Robert, have you seen any of the festival films yet, and what are you looking forward to?
I’ve only been able to see three films in advance, Rob, but I largely agree with your take. I’d probably rate Waltz with Bashir even higher (it’ll almost certainly be in my top ten for 2008), and I’m fond of Charlie Kaufman’s esoteric take on life, so I enjoyed Synecdoche, New York a bit more than you did. But those are minor alterations, and I agree with your every word on The Lucky Ones. Just don't let it go to your head.
As for your second question, there’s a lot of films to look forward to, but you wouldn’t guess that if you were only reading certain elements of the blogosphere. What’s interesting is that some writers are bemoaning the lack of American films in the schedule while others are complaining that Toronto has become too commercial. Me, I prefer to be a glass-95%-full kind of guy.
My most anticipated film of the festival is 24 City, the new pseudo-documentary from Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke. With the triumphs of The World, Still Life, and Dong, Jia has become one of my two or three favorite contemporary directors, and I’m particularly fascinated at how he’s trying to keep up with and document the vast changes taking place in his native land. And the word from Cannes was encouraging.
I’m also excited about several other movies that played at Cannes, including A Christmas Tale from director Arnaud Desplechin. I wasn’t a huge fan of his earlier Kings and Queen, but the buzz on this one is off the charts. Albert Serra’s Birdsong is an unusual adaptation of the Three Wise Men story, so that could be interesting. Tokyo Sonata continues director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s move away from J-horror and into the more sophisticated territory of family drama. Also channeling his inner Ozu is Hirokazu Kore-eda with Still Walking. I loved his earlier Nobody Knows, so I’ll be in line for that.
As a lot of us Toronto goers do, I often choose films because of the director. Not that a director is solely responsible for the quality of a movie, but it’s often a good indicator. So new movies by Mike Leigh, Michael Winterbottom, and Agnes Varda are on my list. And while I haven’t liked everything by Terence Davies or Samira Makhmalbaf, I’m still curious to see what they’re up to.
The Wavelengths programs, which are devoted to experimental cinema, seem particularly strong this year. The first few years I went to Toronto, I made a point of seeing at least one of the Wavelengths offerings, and they were often my favorites of the fest. This year, films by avant-garde heavyweights (an oxymoron?) Nathaniel Dorsky, James Benning, and Jennifer Reeves are on my schedule.
I wish I could point to films that more of our readers might’ve heard of, but I tend to avoid movies that are coming out in theaters soon. I figure I can wait till they show up in Chicago and spend my Toronto time seeing things I may never get another chance to see. But I am planning on catching the latest from the director of Old Joy, which I know you liked too, Rob. It’s called Wendy and Lucy, and it stars Michelle Williams on a road trip of sorts. And I’ll find a way to sneak into a screening of Burn after Reading, the latest Coen brothers comedy, starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and a host of others.
So what are you most excited about, Rob? If I had to guess, the director’s initials might be CD. Do I win a prize?
You get no prizes, Mr. Parks, but only because my love of Claire Denis is too well known for me to be awarding trinkets. But I'm certainly looking forward to her new film, as always. It's called 35 Rhums, and it was made with her usual collaborators, but otherwise I don't know anything about it, which is what I prefer. With any luck, I'll take my seat in the theater having heard nothing more than this.
Every year it's fun to take the temperature of the festival to find out what it says about our world, about the exciting or sorry state of cinema, and about the direct or indirect impact of economics on the arts. But I always get a little irked when the narratives take over before the event has even opened. It's too early to jam the mercury into awkward places.
So, like you, I'm optimistic and withholding judgement. As those of us who've been to festivals like this well know, even a furious, exhausting wall-to-wall schedule, during which you average four or five films a day, still only lets you see about 40 of 250. For the rest of the opinions, you have to rely on other people. Or you could just choose not to offer all-encompasing opinions on a vast array that you've only sampled, but that's probably too much to ask of people who write about film (myself included).
Besides the Claire Denis film, I'm looking forward to Summer Hours by Olivier Assayas, a filmmaker who I always find interesting even when his films don't settle neatly into a jelly mold. Sometimes they settle but don't set up, even though all of the ingredients seem to be there. Curious! His latest looks like a departure from his recent string of confounding and compelling movies about cat women in leotards creeping around glass structures. I'm game.
I'm hoping to catch some of the same experimental programs that you are. These are some of the last artists still working with the material of film -- developing, cutting, chemically treating celluloid itself, usually by hand -- so it's a real treat to see their work projected as it was intended. I particularly like Nathaniel Dorsky's work, I'm often intrigued by Jean-Marie Straub and Jennifer Reeves, and I'd love to see something by James Benning or Pat O'Neill (even if the latter is just a short). I'm not sure how many of the six programs I'll try to catch, but at least one or two.
While there's no sure thing in this world, I agree that in the upper echelons, the best predictor for a solid film is the name of the director. Denis, Assayas, Dardenne, Varda, Linklater. No titles need to be offered. Put that name on the door and I'll come a'knockin.
Other names draw me even though I'm less certain of what I'll get. As you mentioned, Old Joy was a favorite of mine, so I'm looking forward to Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy. People really like Arnaud Desplechin's film, A Christmas Tale, and like you I enjoyed Kings and Queen without being swept off my feet. Jia Zhang-ke made one of the most intriguing films I've seen in Toronto, Still Life, and while I'm not quite as enamored of his work as some, I'm also fairly light on experience. I've seen The World, but haven't seen his recent documentaries; I'll gladly take a look at 24 City. A few years ago Samira Makhmalbaf seemed to be continuing and expanding on her father's cinematic legacy -- I'd call her the Iranian Sofia Coppola if she had the slightest inclination toward hipness -- and I'm curious to see where she is now. Los Muertos is intriguing enough that I'm looking forward to Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool.
I respect what Steven Soderbergh has been doing between his blockbusters (Ocean's Eleven, et al); I can't muster a huge amount of enthusiasm for something like Bubble, and even less for Traffic, but I prefer them to his splashy movies. (My favorite is still The Limey, which predates his massive success.) This year his epic biopic about Che Guevara was the talk of Cannes, so I'll try to work it into my schedule.
Mike Leigh has a new movie, and I'm sure it's well acted. Kevin Smith has a new movie, and I'm sure it's raunchy and sweet. (The title, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, is designed to put butts in the seats.)
It's always fun to find the accidental synergies in the schedule. You mentioned Albert Serra's Birdsong, about the three wise men. Mika Kaurismaki is using the same Biblical story, in a film mysteriously titled Three Wise Men. And, by the way, this is a good opportunity to see something by the brother of Aki (whose films I'm much more familiar with). Might these movies bleed into Three Blind Mice or Three Monkeys? Time will tell.
That scratches the surface. I have dots and tick marks next to a few dozen more films -- in particular a number of unknowns-to-me, like Gomorrah, Treeless Mountain, Tulpan, Voy a Explotar -- but I'll save my comments until I've seen them.
I presume you're saving time to attend a few star-studded parties, am I right?
As you know, Rob, I am a party animal. I live to stay up until 4 a.m. and then find a way to make a 9 a.m. screening. Well, maybe not, though I do know people who pull that off.
I am always amazed at how many different festivals within the festival there are. For example, judging from the Toronto dailies, TIFF is all about which celebrity was seen at what party. Even when I get home to Chicago, one of the first things co-workers will ask is whether I met anyone famous. “Robert Davis,” I say, but strangely no one seems impressed. If only they knew.
One of the great things about any film festival is the chance to discover something--a new actor, a new director, even a new country. The explosion of great films from Romania over the last few years has been incredibly exciting, so I’ve made sure to put Hooked on my schedule, which is the debut of a new Romanian director.
Other debuts I’m curious about are: Acne, a coming-of-age story from Uruguay; Salamandra, an Argentinean movie about a mother and child; Zift, set in communist Bulgaria; and Rain, which might be the first movie from the Bahamas I’ve ever heard of. Then there’s Hunger, which is a first film but comes with enormous advance praise from Cannes critics. I'm not sure what's up with all the one-word titles, but maybe that's something we'll hash out between screenings.
Probably the debut film I’m most excited about, though, is Blind Loves. Directed by Slovakian Juraj Lehotsky, it’s a documentary about four blind people in their search for love, and again the early word is fantastic. The rest of the documentary slate isn’t quite as exciting as in past years. I enjoyed Weijun Chen’s Please Vote for Me at last year’s fest, so I plan on giving his latest, The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World, a try. And if I can fit it into my schedule, Under Rich Earth, which captures the conflict between Ecuadorian residents and a copper mining company, could be good.
There are a few other established directors I want to check out. Although I was disappointed with the last film from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, I still want to see what he’s got up his sleeve in Three Monkeys. Ditto on Lisandro Alonso and his latest film, Liverpool. I’m not as big a Claire Denis fan as you are, Rob, but I’m still anxious to catch her new one. Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski returns after a self-imposed exile with Four Nights with Anna, which sounds interesting.
I was joking, of course, about hitting the late-night parties, but the social aspect is one of my favorite parts of TIFF. I liken it to summer camp for film critics, as we get together once a year to watch movies, eat great food (I love Toronto restaurants), and talk about what we’ve seen. And the more years we go, the more people we get to know, so that even standing in line becomes a social occasion. Friends may wonder how we do anything but see 40 movies in ten days, but there’s a surprising amount of time to catch up and talk cinema. And those conversations find their way into our writing for weeks and months to come. I can’t wait. See you in Toronto, Rob.