I’m back….


Just a quick hello from my blog to update you on this year’s TIFF experience. I can’t commit to daily posts but I thought I’d capture my impressions for the kind people who’ve told me they miss my blog.  You know who you are and I love you for it.

First the movies – my edited impressions, no spoilers…

Watermark – Beautiful, disturbing, bleak and a little slow in the final half hour.  Edward Burtynsky said something interesting in the Q&A after the movie.  He said that once he’s chosen his theme, he looks for the largest scale examples of the theme that he can find.  Big they are, so hold on to your seats, especially for the Xiluodu Dam in China.

12 Years a Slave – This movie is really very good, it’s not hype. I’m convinced that only a Brit could have been this sophisticated in finding a way into slavery and avoiding the violence porn of Django.  But be warned, it’s still inhumanely cruel, and sad beyond belief.  The fact that this is a true story makes it all the more haunting.  It won the People’s Choice Award…no surprise.  Also, if you haven’t seen Hunger, Steve McQueen’s first movie, do so now.

Like Father, Like Son – A thoughtful and well made film, but the cultural gap made it hard to personally connect to this story of two families who discover that their 6 year old sons were switched at birth in the hospital.  I could never have responded to this moral dilemma the way the central characters did – the fathers seem to make all the important decisions.  It had surprisingly funny moments in the middle of serious story telling and incredible child performances.

Mandela – Idris Alba in this Nelson Mandela bio-pic.  They had a lot of ground to cover in two hours and did an admirable job.  It’s hard to get over Idris Alba being all tall and gorgeous.  He stands about 12 inches above everyone else in the film.  The first two acts were better than third but the last part does give you insight into what happened to he and Winnie.  She definitely took a different course while he was in prison.  If you remember that time, her name was associated with some pretty violent acts.  Worth watching but not as good as I was hoping for.

The Unknown Known – Errol Morris does to Rumsfeld what he did to McNamara in The Fog of War, except that Rumsfeld has no conscience, is oblivious to his own blatant contradictions, and is so caught up in his clever wordplay that he overlooks gross errors in his own content.  It’s a very good movie, but you’ll feel sick.  I couldn’t help thinking, the whole time I was watching the movie, and in the days since, ‘who the hell is running things?’

The Lunchbox – tech problems with 20 minutes to go, argh! They didn’t finish the screening, it’s  really unforgivable.  I was at the second screening, but they messed up the first one too and showed the film with no subtitles (half of it is in Hindi).  The Director did 30 minutes of funny, heart warming Q&A while the audience waited, both times.  Also, it was in Bell Lightbox, with its state of the art projection.  Bad form!

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby – A marriage in trouble told from both his and her points of view. Produced as two full length features that run back to back, I thought it was a noble experiment, that they didn’t quite pull off.  The two versions aren’t different enough to warrant this very long telling of their story.  “Him” was pretty good and quite involving, “Her” started well but grew repetitious and could have been half as long.  James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain were both quite good and were very moving in the Q&A.  She started crying because of how long it has taken them to get the project to this point and how much she loved the process, he was a little drunk but surprisingly eloquent on the subject of love and relationships.  Two adults telling a grown up story.  The just needed to get out the scissors.

The Invisible Woman – I love Ralph Feines. He directed and played Charles Dickens with all his faults.  And there he was on stage, all humility and awkwardness and it was very good.  I don’t know if anyone will go to see it outside of literate Brits and a some North American public radio fans.  It’s about Charles Dickens and his not so secret, but much younger, mistress and there isn’t a sensationalized second in it.  If it shows up in the theatres go fast because it won’t last.   It’s a visually beautiful, shot on film, with a good story and great acting.  It gives us some real insights into the lives of women in that age, pretty sad in that regard.

Tracks – True story about Robyn Davidson who crossed the Outback with a few camels and her dog.  It fit with my theme this summer… I read Wild (Cheryl Strayed) and relistened to A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson).  I loved every minute of this movie – maybe I need to plan a wee trek? My film buds found it unsatisfying because it didn’t explain her motivation very overtly.  I thought it was there in the subtext.  Let me know what you think.

Felony – Interesting ethical and moral dilemma for three Aussie cops but it missed.  It had a good script and great actors but I thought the Director shot it as a one dimensional thriller so instead of a nuanced morality play, it just felt like a predictable police procedural.  It’s too bad, it had lots of potential.

How I live now – From the director who gave us The Last King of Scotland (personal top 10).  Yikes, he’s gone young adult, uber commercial, melodramatic, and predictable.  And so has  Saoirse Ronan.  Disappointing

The Railway Man – A moving, and sad story about a quirky railway enthusiast who was a WWII POW and torture survivor.  He was captured during the fall of Singapore and sent to the railway camps in Thailand (think Bridge Over the River Kwai).  It was very good but this true story was softened for public consumption. The director admitted leaving out the worst bits and I think he should have included them, not graphically, but in the narrative.  Colin Firth was excellent as the grown up hero, Nicole Kidman’s face didn’t move, and some torture techniques are older than you thought.

Blind Detective – laugh out loud Hong Kong flying fighting movie from Johnnie To.  Over acted, over wrought, over the the top entertainment.

The Sea – Charlotte Rampling and Ciaran Hinds in an Irish, sad (is that redundant) adaptation of  the John Banville novel.  The Irish seashore never looked so gloomy.  It didn’t make a lot of sense.  The book is much better.

Unforgiven – Sang-il Lee’s remake of the Clint Eastwood classic, set on the furthest north island of Japan, in Japanese, with Samurai swordplay instead of wild west guns.   Ken Watanabe in the Clint role.  As you would expect – awesome!
Beyond the Edge – A gripping documentary, with reenactments, of Sir Edmond Hilary’s and Tenzing Norgay’s Everest climb.  It’s very suspenseful and has you on the edge of your seat, even though you know the outcome.   Good casting and wicked good location shooting put you in their shoes.  Go for the 3-D version.  As Director Leanne Pooley said, you’re not likely to see this view for yourself so she’s made it as real as she can for you.
Bright Days Ahead – An attractive Dentist of a certain age retires after a conflict with a patient.  She loses her patience or something like that (can’t imagine).  With nothing else to do, she goes to a community centre offering activities and courses for retirees people.  She meets a stunning young computer instructor and has a May-December affair.  I’m not going to say any more.  It’s French, the dentist is played by Fanny Ardant – we should all age like she has.
Gravity – This should have been my favourite.  Alphonso Cuoron (Children of Men, another top 10) directing a movie in space. The  first act was really good… very suspenseful and artfully shot.  But it is followed by an incredibly bad 30 minutes of the worst that Hollywood implausibility and melodrama, with an embarassing score.  Sandra Bullock, who I actually like, delivers a one dimensional performance.   2001 a space Oddessy meets Speed!
Pioneer. A Norwegian thriller based on a true story about laying the deepest pipeline in history in the North Sea and what happened to the divers who set depth records to do the work.  The first experimental dive goes horribly wrong but is covered up to protect the incredible financial opportunity of getting the pipeline laid.  Norway didn’t become one of the richest countries in the world on fish exports.  Tense movie in tight spaces. A little predictable but well made.  I saw it with two claustrophobes, that’s not recommended.

Those are all of the movies I saw.  Overall, it was a good but not great festival.  I didn’t have as many pleasant surprises as I usually have and it was a little more mainstream than I usually aim for (although the programme book was so weighted to English speaking films it was hard to balance it).

TIFF has changed every year, but this year it felt like it crossed a line and will never come back.  It is no longer about enthusiastic audiences who love film, follow directors, and look for the little gems (some of those people are still there, but they’re frustrated and with good reason).  It has become a celebrity festival.  All of the logistics were organized to accommodate more and larger red carpets.  Boo.  Meanwhile, the logistics for the film goers were a mess, there were technical screw-ups, and the staff were neither as friendly or knowledgeable as they used to be and should have been.  I was regularly given wrong or contradicting information and they didn’t seem to care.  Disappointing compared to the amazing sense of community I grew accustomed to each year.

I will write a letter.  I do that every year, although I’ve never had a reply or an acknowledgement, so I don’t know if anyone reads them. However, I like to let them know what I loved and didn’t love so I’ll do that again.  And now, you know too.

April 12 – Film Friday – TIFF program 2010

Today I’m giving away the programme from TIFF 2010.  I picked the wrong year to write a post in a hurry.  This was the kind of year you hope for when you crack open the guide (which still feels like Christmas morning to me, these many years later).

I will only write descriptions about the movies you’re not likely to know because there were so many incredibly good films that year.  Also, please note, in addition to the ones I list here there were also lots of good movies that I didn’t see in the festival that year.  It really was one of the best in recent memory.

Off the top

The King’s Speech – The Q&A brought the house down.  I remember Tom Hooper’s reaction to the audience, they had kid excitement, they were all so thrilled that we loved it so much.

Little White Lies – A wonderful French movie.  Kind of The Big Chill made modern and made in French.  From Guillaume Canet, Marion Cotillard’s husband.  She is also in the movie.  Very funny, moving, and tres French.  It will make you long for a summer holiday in the South of France and your closest friends to share a summer house with.

The Town – I liked this movie although Ben Affleck didn’t do a Q&A – boo

West is West– remember East is East?  This one isn’t quite as good, but who can resist revisiting that wonderful family.

Black Swan – I think Darren Aronofsky must have a warped imagination, but aren’t we glad he does and that he makes movies.

Rabbit Hole – proof that Nicole Kidman can act when she lays off the freezing.  Please stop messing with your face and make good movies.  Also, I will never get enough of Aaron Eckhart, I wish he made more movies like this.

Another Year – my favourite Mike Leigh movie.  Real people having real relationships with real joy and disappointment.

Blue Valentine – I couldn’t get a ticket to this during the festival but saw it afterwards.  I just couldn’t leave it off the list.

Beginners – in which Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer teach the world how to tell a story

Incendies – One of the best Canadian movies I’ve ever seen.  I loved this movie, had no idea where it was going and was taken in by the story, the performances, and thoughtful pacing.  Beautifully done.

Client 9 – Great doc about the taking down of Eliot Spitzer.  Damn you Mr Spitzer for not being able to keep it in your pants.  We needed you to keep those greedy Wall St hoodlums under control and look what happened when you gave them the ammo to take you down.

Inside Job – an appropriate partner film to Client 9.  Every grown up should see this movie and vote.  Full stop.

Meek’s Cutoff – Kelly Reichardt’s poetic pioneer painting.  A westward ho 1845 “road movie,” only there were no roads and the women wore bonnets.  This is an intimate movie, made with great actors, and deeply suspenseful even within its dry and quiet pace.  Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton (who is so good), Paul Dano, and more.

How I Ended This Summer – a great Russian movie (I don’t say that very often) about a young university student interning for a summer at a meteorological station in Siberia with an old school technician.  It starts with a standard generational clash, precision instruments vs. digital technology, musical differences and no common ground.  It starts to change when one of them gets some alarming news from home.  This movie had us on the edge of our seats and the arctic scenery is as stunning a backdrop as you can imagine.  A really memorable telling of a gripping tale.

The Piano in a Factory – A Chinese movie that told of a divorced Dad, his travelling musical band, his struggles with his girlfriend and moving attempt to keep custody of his daughter and other rambling idiosyncratic rabbit holes.  It was kind of a crazy movie that was a little bit all over the place, but it was so surprising and visually interesting that all of us who saw it loved it.  The program said 119 minutes.  I think it lies, I’m pretty sure it was about 30 minutes longer.

My pick – (King’s Speech was my actual favourite but everyone already knows about it so I’m picking this one…)

Never Let Me Go – A great film from a great book and so beautifully acted.  I loved everything about this.  If you haven’t read the book do, and if you haven’t seen the movie, see it.  Carey Mulligan is subtle and commanding.  She and this glimpse into a future based on medical possibilities and ethical failure will take you by surprise.

March 17 – Film Sunday – 1990 TIFF Program

March 17 - Film Sunday

Today I’m giving away the 1990 program from The Festival of Festivals (TIFF).  Another good year, although, I have to admit that my memory is not as strong as later years.  Funny, what I do remember is less the movie itself, more how I reacted to it.  That old adage, people don’t remember what you said, they remember how you made them feel, is true here.

So, here are my pics…

Cyrano de Bergerac – Not the Steve Martin version, the beautiful french film with Gerard Depardieu (before he lost the plot).  The director introduced the movie and told us that the subtitles had been written by Anthony Burgess. It would have been an incredibly difficult thing to do because the original dialogue was all in verse.  I remember being frustrated that my French wasn’t good enough to understand the original, but I loved the movie anyway, and thought he did an amazing job.  GD won best actor at Cannes for it.

Trust – The second installment in my devotion to Hal Hartley – I don’t have the program for 1989, my discovery year with The Unbelievable Truth, so I will fawn here.  He is a real festival circuit, indie kind of film maker.  His movies are low budget, intimate and specific.  He develops layered characters who communicate in deadpan, staccato and odd dialogue that can only come from one of his movies.  His earlier films had more conventional narratives, and Trust is in that camp.  He casts great combinations of people too.  Trust featured Adrienne Shelly, Martin Donovan, and Edie Falco – that’s a typical representation of a Hartley ensemble.  Every TIFF year, I look for something from him.  I know a lot of people who feel the same.

Metropolitan – Another great indie director, Whit Stillman.  This was his first feature.  More deadpan, funny, story telling from a really unique voice.  He later directed The Last Days of Disco and Barcelona, also favourites for me.  This is a movie about the people you thought you wanted to be until you were old enough to know better.

Eight Taels of Gold – I picked this one mainly because I love Sylvia Chang, a fantastic Taiwanese actress, director and writer.  She was in a number of movies in the festival that year, but I chose to see this one.  I remember being struck by her, and by another story of China trying to reconcile its traditions with its future.

And my favourites (a tie)

The Grifters – This might be a top 10 movie for me.  I loved everything about it, the story was gutting, Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening, and John Cusack gave the best performances of their lives, and Stephen Frears made it flawlessly.  This is about as good as it gets.

An Angle At My Table – Directed by Jane Campion, this is the story of Janet Frame, an Australian writer and the most unusual, quirky, confounding and human character.  This was the first time I saw Kerry Fox, who played the lead.  She went on to star in Shallow Grave among other things, Danny Boyle’s first and awesome movie.  She does a lot of Australian TV now so we don’t see much of her anymore, too bad.  Jane Campion went on to direct The Piano and later, Bright Star.  Two more favourites.

To have two movies of this caliber in the festival was what struck me looking back.  I was really wowed by both of them.

March 8 – Film Friday – TIFF Programme 2006

Film Friday March 8

Today I’m giving away the 2006 TIFF Programme.  Another excellent year for the festival and a couple of great discoveries for me.  I have a slightly longer list than previous years because it was so good.

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing – directed by Barbara Kopple who already had a big name in documentaries.  She was at the screening and did one of the best, most enthusiastic Q&A’s I’ve ever attended.  She told us that when they  started this project they thought they were going to make a movie about the Dixie Chicks’ worldwide tour, to show an insider’s view of the machinery that makes a huge star juggernaut act happen. Then, on the first or second night of the tour, Natalie Maines said to a UK audience they were ashamed that George W. Bush came from Texas.  Their world exploded and the movie follows them over the next 12 months through all of the protests, and the making of their follow up album.  I loved the music, but even if you can’t get into it, it’s a great movie and an amazing story about the right wing machinery that makes a different kind of juggernaut act happen.

After the Wedding – This was the film and the year that Mads Mikkelsen entered my life.  It’s a great movie in any case but, if you have only ever seen Mads as the poker player who sheds blood tears in Casino Royale, you have no idea what this man can do.  Denmark has an amazing film community, they are at least half of the guys who gave us Dogma, but more importantly they gave us Mads.  See anything he is in, especially in Danish.  He will grip you from the first frame to the last.  FYI – especially true of this year’s The Hunt

Fay Grim – Another instalment in my fangirl appreciation of writer and director Hal Hartley.  I think Jeff Goldblum was miscast, he’s acts too big, but Parker Posey carries the movie.  She’s the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

The Postmodern Life of My Aunt – This was a winding story about a woman of a certain age trying to live in and embrace the new China but she gets duped and swindled and ends up back in her old impoverished and small life.  At the time I thought it was too long and her naive decisions frustrated me, but it was a haunting story and a really moving performance.  It stayed with me and became a parable for the transformation that is happening in that country.  It also stars Chow Yun-fat in a great turn as a sneaky Lothario.

The Last King of Scotland – directed by Kevin Macdonald.  Yowsa, that scene in the airport towards the end of the movie is still vivid in my memory after 6 years.  What a cast, Forest Whitaker was Idi Amin and won the Oscar, but it also included James McAvoy, Kerry Washington and Gillian Anderson.  BTW – Kevin Macdonald also directed one of my favourite docs, Touching the Void – it  will keep you on the edge of your seat too.

Pan’s Labyrinth – Guillermo del Toro had already made a few really good movies but this was my introduction to him.   He’s done a lot of weird stuff since (Hellboy II and The Incredible Hulk TV show??) so I don’t know, maybe this was his peak for me.  I thought the mysterious and dangerous world he created underground and the pressing, claustrophic sense of personal threat above ground were incredible.  The movie made me squirm and I loved it.  I also gave big trees a wide berth for a while afterwards.

Jindabyne – This story killed me.  It’s about a bunch of guys in Australia who go on a fishing trip.  As they head up river on their first day, they discover a corpse but make a decision to leave it agreeing to deal with it on the way back.  The corpse, however, is a young, naked, aboriginal woman.  The way the movie handles the fallout and aftermath got a little melodramatic in parts but the rest of it was fantastic. Gabriel Byrne is amazing and the story itself is confounding and will stay with you.

Red Road – To be honest, I saw this movie in London a few weeks after the festival but it was so great, I want to include it.  It was written and directed by Andrea Arnold who went on to make another amazing movie Fishtank, a few years later (she also directed Wuthering Heights but I didn’t see it).  This woman tells really tough stories and has written some of the most complicated and interesting female characters of the last several years.  I don’t want to tell you anything about the story of Red Road because I don’t want to give anything away, but see it if you get a chance, it’s gritty, emotional and surprising.  So is Fishtank.  See either.

And my favourite…

The Lives of Others – Also one of the best Q&A’s I’ve ever attended.  It was a first feature written and directed by Florian Heckel von Donnersmarck (!), and told a gripping, edge of your seat, crackling story. We follow a Stasi agent who, for personal reasons, targets a young attractive couple in the arts, bugs their home, infiltrates their lives and starts listening in to everything.  It’s a thriller, an intimate and complex character study, an examination of loyalty, and a frightening look inside the operations of East German intelligence gathering in the early ’80s.  The lead actor, Ulrich Muhe, was a famous actor in Germany with some influence and was very instrumental in getting the film financed. It turns out that he had been the subject of some harrowing Stasi investigations himself years earlier so he wanted the story told.  It ended up winning the best Foreign Language Oscar. If it had been made in English it would have been a top grosser that year.  See it.  It’s a great movie.

March 1 – Film Friday TIFF Programme 1992

Today I’m giving away the 1992 Program Guide for the Toronto International Film Festival of Festivals (that’s what it was called then).

It was an incredible year.  So many great discoveries for me.  I can’t actually include all the movies that stand out in my mind and I still remember vividly.  The ones that I think would stand up 20 years later or who’s participants have gone on to do interesting things

Bob Roberts The satirical political semi-musical engaging story that was Tim Robbins directing debut.  He also wrote the script.  He’s not prolific but I think he was a good director.  He’s been directing TV for the last ten years.  This was a funny movie, and he got all his big actor friends to play walk-on roles which was a fun part of watching the movie.

Glengarry Glen Ross What a wicked good cast.  My clearest memory is of Alec Baldwin eviscerating Jack Lemon.  I know everyone else was terrific, but that’s what has stuck with me.

The Crying Game This was a huge discovery for me and everyone else.  In those days, you didn’t have to choose your movies in advance, you’d just listen to the chatter and pick up the buzz movies in the lineups.  You’d keep changing your schedule to accommodate the movies you were hearing about.  By the end of the week my calendar looked like a pen had exploded on it.  That year, all anyone talked about was The Crying Game.  Amazingly, no one gave away the ending.  I loved that old festival-going community, they would never allow spoilers.

Strictly Ballroom We all found out what a whacky exaggerated sense of style, affection, and environment Baz Luhrmann brings to his story telling.  He just kept getting better (well, until Australia, what??).

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf An incredibly difficult story about young drifters who fall in love and live on the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris.  It was the first time I saw Juliette Binoche in a movie and I’ve tried to see most of what she’s done since.  Paris is beautiful in this movie, especially that old bridge, and I think of that story whenever I’m lucky enough to be there.

Reservoir Dogs  I didn’t see this in the festival but I’d be leaving a gaping hole if I didn’t mention it for 1992.  Every guy I know with even has a passing interest in film has this movie on their top ten list.  Sorry, it’s not on mine but I’ve loved other things that Tarantino has done.

Simple Men I may be Toronto’s biggest Hal Hartley fan.  Every year, the first thing I do when I get the program is look up the director index to see if Hal is there (I call him Hal, we’ve never met). His first movie, The Unbelievable Truth, bowled me over.  I loved his second movie Trust.  Simple Men was his third and I loved it too.  Sadly, he hasn’t had a film in the festival for a long time.  He is a bit twisted and about as dry and deadpan as it’s possible to be, I love his dialogue.  Also, he casts incredibly good looking guys in his movies.

And my favourite

Orlando This was like 4 movies in an hour and a half with the chameleon Tilda Swinton playing a soul who is reincarnated through the ages, changing gender, gaining and losing love, moving through war, royal houses, and across continents.  The program said it was based on Virginia Wolf’s novel of the same name but I haven’t read it.  When I look back now, it was a precursor to Cloud Atlas.  Though, less makeup and a quieter approach made this epic story feel much more intimate.  Sally Potter directed it and Billy Zane was beautiful (making him likeable again after the frightening creepfest Dead Calm) but for me, the big aha was Swinton.


February 22 – Film Friday – TIFF program – 2000

Feb 21 Film Friday

Today I’m giving away the 2000 TIFF program guide and introducing a new feature – Film Fridays.  I have about 20 program guides dating back to 1990 (I must have pitched the ones from the 80’s). They’re quite large and I don’t want to hang on to them any longer so every Friday for the next many weeks I’m going to highlight one of the programs and my favourite movies/discoveries from that year’s Festival.

The 2000 festival was pretty rich.  It was their 25th anniversary, according to the cover, and they had a tribute to Stephen Frears who made many of my all-time favourite movies including The Grifters and Dangerous Liaisons.  But the new movies screened were amazing and had a lot of great aha moments for festival goers.  My best impressions and strongest memories were of…

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon a flying fighting movie of no compare from the impressively versatile Ang Lee

Sexy Beast, where we saw Ben Kingsley un-Gandhi himself and we fell in love with Ray Winstone

The Dish another quirky funny movie from Australian Rob Sitch who also directed the quirky funny The Castle

You Can Count on Me revealing Kenneth Lonergan and, even better, Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney, all of whom I didn’t know up to that point.  I think they all had a following for great stage work but I’m a movie person and didn’t know them.

Memento Christopher Nolan’s writing feat, which I think I didn’t see in the festival but watched later after all the buzz.  Remember how much we all loved Guy Pearce?  People watched that movie backwards and forwards.

Billy Elliott the first feature of Stephen Daldry who went on to make The Hours and created the stage version of Billy Elliott with Elton John – just a little bit of talent there.

Requiem for a Dream an in-your-face horrifying slippery slope drug story.  Darren Aronofsky did more in two hours than 8 years of Just Say No.  Again, I don’t think I saw this in the festival but later on the advice of my filmy friend David.

And my favourite…

Before Night Falls  It was directed by Julian Schnabel, whose first feature was the incredible Basquiat, and it starred Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp (in drag) and Sean Penn.  Javier owned every inch of that movie and haunted you aftwards.  He played Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban poet and writer, who was jailed by the government and had a crazy persecuted life until he was able to leave Cuba and move to New York.  It was programmed by Kay Armatage, one of my favourite programmers while she was at the festival, and she described his performance as “a stunning combination of flash, nuance and intelligence.”  He was smokin’

I’m giving the programs to the Toronto Film School who seemed really excited to get them.


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