Every festival goer makes his own festival and finds her own themes. Half way through this year's Toronto International Film Festival -- which wrapped up on Saturday -- it was clear that I'd accidentally scheduled movies about families.
Then in the second half, film after film continued to round out this theme, whether it's because I was looking for it or because a coin flipped seven times will sometimes produce seven heads. (It was probably a little of both.) I'd have grown tired of the family reunions and blow-ups if the films hadn't been so honest and true, many of them not only exploring interesting subject matter -- deeply and personally -- but also exercising film as an art form. Denis's musical minimalism and Desplechin's cinematic vortex, each in its own way, found new ideas in a century-old toolbox. All of my favorites were fresh takes on the familiar, so every time a black sheep would darken the family's door or a shoebox of photos would appear from beneath the bed, I'd smile instead of roll my eyes at the repetition.
In that box of photos, Darren Aronofsky's wrestler finds a photo of his daughter and turns it over to find a list of phone numbers, all but the last one struck-through. The daughter in Claire Denis's 35 Shots of Rum finds an old letter that concerns her. The house in Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale has pictures of the black sheep's first wife, the mysteriously-named Madeline, now dead. Instead of a shoebox full of photos, Olivier Assayas's film, Summer Hours, has an entire house full of keepsakes, and Assayas considers his characters by measuring their affection for these objects: the stuff of museums and dollars on one end, mementos of sentimental value in the middle, and things that will remain in daily use forever, the past repurposed for youth.
Even Lisandro Alonso's formally rigorous, anti-narrative Liverpool seems to respond to the theme: in his film, the black sheep returns to the family but causes no noticeable impact at all, the apparent opposite of the other family films. Until the last minute, that is, when Alonso too reveals the importance of a keepsake and, in that object, a familial connection that was invisible to that point.
So many good-to-great films explored these family themes that the bad ones stuck out like bloated Hollywood hackery. In Guillermo Arriaga's insipid Burning Plain, people stalk each other, blow up homes, and dress in the clothes of their dead parents before having sex in the beds of their live parents. Just like families everywhere.
Another subtler theme that ran through this festival is money. Families, money, they're universal concepts, so of course they're fundamental elements of our stories. But many films at this year's festival highlighted money as a medium. We translate our actions and feelings into currency, not always by choice but because that's how our post-bartering world works. The Dardennes begin Lorna's Silence with a shot of money being counted -- and the sound of paper rubbing against paper -- and they inflect every action with financial stresses. Kelly Reichardt shows us the notebook that her character in Wendy and Lucy is using to track her dwindling funds. "You can't love without money," says the woman in Christian Petzold's Jerichow to her lover when she realizes she's trapped by her debts. So Yong Kim's characters in Treeless Mountain are using money to track time and space, literally: the little girls put a coin each day into their piggy bank, trusting that when it's filled their mom will return. In Katia's Sister, a woman insults her mother by declaring that she can take the same degrading jobs her mom can but do them for more money.
Everyone makes his own festival. Do I prefer Nathaniel Dorsky's Winter to his Sarabande -- both roughly the same length, similar in structure, silent -- primarily because Winter reminds me of my former home, San Francisco? Are my own family reunions from earlier this year superimposed over each film? Of course. We learned in school that the only true vacuum is in space, and even there you're likely to stumble across an oxygen molecule every once in a while and let it hit your lungs like a rare and nutritive treat.
Here's how I'd rank the films I saw at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. (Films in each section are listed alphabetically.)
Unmatched favorites that are still playing in my head:
35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums) by Claire Denis [remarks]
A Christmas Tale by Arnaud Desplechin
Rachel Getting Married by Jonathan Demme [remarks]
RR by James Benning
Wendy and Lucy by Kelly Reichardt [remarks]
Excellent movies all around:
Surprisingly rich, confident, often thought-provoking films:
The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d'Agnès) by AgnÃ¨s Varda
Jerichow by Christian Petzold
Me and Orson Welles by Richard Linklater [remarks]
Sarabande (short) by Nathaniel Dorsky
The Wrestler by Darren Aronofsky [remarks]
A large mid-section of decent but unremarkable or unsatisfying films:
Ashes of Time Redux by Wong Kar-Wai [remarks]
Birdsong by Albert Serra
Blind Loves by Juraj Lehotsky
The Good, the Bad, the Weird by Kim Jee-woon
Katia's Sister by Mijke de Jong
La Mémoire des Anges by Luc Bourdon
Liverpool by Lisandro Alonso
Of Time and the City by Terence Davies
Slumdog Millionaire by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan [remarks]
Soul Power by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
Synecdoche, New York by Charlie Kaufman [remarks]
Treeless Mountain by So Yong Kim
Waltz with Bashir by Ari Folman [remarks]
Films I can't totally dismiss because I liked some aspect:
Che by Steven Soderbergh [remarks]
I'm Going to Explode (Voy a Explotar) by Gerardo Naranjo
I've Loved You So Long by Philippe Claudel [remarks]
The Lucky Ones by Neil Burger [remarks]
Mark of an Angel (L'Empreinte de l'ange) by Safy Nebbou
Medicine for Melancholy by Barry Jenkins [remarks]
Plastic City by Yu Lik-wai
Three Wise Men by Mika KaurismÃ¤ki
Films I can dismiss because try to stop me:
I find it hard to walk out of a movie, even a bad one. Maybe it'll turn around. Maybe I'll need to write about it. Maybe I'm impatient or wrong or slow or exacting. Maybe I'll trip on my way out and cause a commotion. Still, I walked out of three films at this festival -- one because I was dead tired (50 minutes in), one because I didn't like the movie (20 minutes in), and one because I had a prior engagement (15 minutes from the end). I think each of these is worth revisiting in full, for very different reasons:
The Brothers Bloom by Rian Johnson -- to see if the Tati-esque visual play sustains or is overwhelmed by the cute plot. And because I liked Brick, Johnson's previous film.
Nuit de chien by Werner Schroeter -- to see something by a respected filmmaker I'm unfamiliar with. (And to see if my negative reaction was warranted.)
Mark of an Angel (L'empreinte de l'ange) by Safy Nebbou -- to see what the heck happens. I saw most of this film, so I slotted it into the list above, and I think I know where it's going, but I'm dying to find out.
Finally, I saw a film that I simply don't have the vocabulary -- visual or otherwise -- to explore just yet. I've seen a couple of films by Straub and also Pedro Costa's documentary about Straub and Huillet, but I'm not sure I have much to say at this point. The film: Le Genou dâ€™Artémide by Jean-Marie Straub.
I'll have more to say about many of these films in the future as they play more widely. (And J. Robert Parks has a couple more days from his TIFF diary to post. Watch for them.)
Until then, it's time to do some laundry, clean some house, sleep some sleep, and stop dreaming so many dreams.