Tuesday, 28 September 2010

TIFF 2010: What I Saw and My Top Ten Faves

At left: Cameron Bailey (TIFF Co-Director) and actress, Ludavine Sagnier at the screening of LOVE CRIME in the historic Eglin Theatre.

Top Ten lists are never easy, but this year, there were so many films on the same level of enjoyment that my list could have been a list of ties. In the end, though, I went through the elimination process several times, whittled down my list, and restrained myself to one tie (40 and Africa United). The only easy choices for me to make was my overall favourite: West is West and my runner up, Nostalgia for the Light.

1. 40 (Turkey) + Africa United (UK)
2. Beginners (USA)
3. Blessed Events (Germany)
4. The Housemaid (Korea)
5. The Hunter (Iran)
6. Mamma Gógó (Iceland)
7. Nostalgia for the Light (Chile)
8. Small Town Murder Songs (Canada)
9. A Useful Life (Uruguay)
10. -West is West (UK)

40. A bag of money connects three residents of Istanbul, a screw-up bag man, an African refugee longing to reunite with his childhood sweetheart, and a nurse in a bad marriage who makes her life choices based on numerology. I enjoyed the fresh, youthful energy of the film, the city scenes, and a story that clips along briskly with enough pauses for you to consider the choices being made by the characters and the impact those choices have on their lives in “heaven, hell, and purgatory” that is modern-day city.

AFRICA UNITED. A comedy out of? Yes, and it’s fantastic viewing for all ages, with plot elements for children as well as adults. I saw the film with an adult audience and we all had a very satisfying experience. A group of young Africans travel South Africa for the World Cup. Along the way, they experience challenges and adventures that only serve to strengthen their bond. The young actors do a stellar job in bringing their characters to life: Doudou, a sports “manager”, his sister Beatrice the “doctor”, Fabrice, a young footballer, Foreman George, a child soldier and Celeste, a young sex trade worker are all charismatic without being “Hollywood-cute”. The filmmakers deliberately chose to make this an English language film to appeal to a wider audience; a decision I hope will help this film find it way to commercial theatres. Another wise choice was animating the story that is told by Doudou at various points in their journey. The story mirrors the children’s trek, the animation making it easier for younger audiences to understand the film and adds a creative element that adults will appreciate. I know I was always looking forward to hearing the next chapter of Doudou’s story. Thanks to Rwandans Eric Kabera (producer), and Debs Gardner-Paterson (director) for bringing us a film that shines a new light on Africa without shying away from its social issues. Having enjoyed every moment of the recent World Cup, I felt very “in the know” hearing references to Rooney, Drogba, Henry and others.

This graceful comedy punctuated by soulful jazz selections was my last film of TIFF 2010, and what a pleasing way to end my festival. Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor play father and son and doggie wonder, Cosmo plays Arthur in this film about how we choose to love. Plummer is a father who has come out of the closet in his seventies and is discovering a world that he had repressed during his long marriage. His wife is dead, he has never been able to be openly gay, and is now embracing that side of his life with an enthusiasm that only those with not too many summers left, can achieve. He has discovered love and thrown himself into every gay movement/group imaginable. On the other hand, Ewan McGregor’s character has been an observer of his parents’ cool marriage and is reluctant to commit to any long-term relationships. In flashbacks, we see how absent his father was from his life, and how he had to stand in for his father as his mother’s social companion and confidante.

I really appreciated the unhurried pace of the storytelling that allows us to watch the developing relationship between father and son, and the tentative stirrings of a romantic relationship for the son with a woman who is also not used to long term entanglements. Even the dog is well directed in this film, his performance adding a rueful tone to the picture rather than the usual one-dimensional “cutsie/love me” role that dogs usually play in films.

BLESSED EVENTS. This film is not for everyone. I’m not being condescending, just realistic. Not everyone can sit though a film where silence reigns and you have to fill in the blanks yourself based on careful observation. For example, the film starts with us hearing fireworks and looking through a window at a sleeping woman wrapped in a comforter. In a following scene, we see the same woman in a bar by herself ordering a drink while Danny Boy plays in the background, setting up the melancholic tone of the film. The woman has a one-night stand that night and later finds out she is pregnant. When she runs into the father, she finds that he is thrilled about the news and the two become a couple. What follows is an examination of the relationship based on the viewpoint of this insecure, anxiety-ridden woman. Is what we are seeing really what is going on in her life, or is everything just based on her skewed interpretation? The disturbing stillness of the film, the guessing game we play, the lighting and direction all come together for me and makes Blessed Events something to savour even as it leaves you a bit on edge. Just writing this makes me want to watch the film again.

THE HOUSEMAID.What can I say about this film, but “yum!” I wish I had had some popcorn while watching this film because it just called for it. Unfortunately, I was watching this in the P & I Library (couldn’t make any of the screenings), so I had to make do with my grande Passion tea, and let me eyes do the eating. And what a delicious meal of a melodrama this is, with a naïve young nanny, a rich and powerful man, his pregnant wife, her evil mother, and the conflicted housekeeper, Mrs. Cho. According to Mrs. Cho, the job as a housemaid is R.U.N.S (revolting, ugly, nauseating and shameless). With skilled production design and cinematography, and confident handling by a director who knows how to tell a complete story, The Housemaid is as satisfying as a sip of expertly chilled champagne from the perfect flute.

Sorry, Biutiful but I chose The Hunter over seeing you. Why? Because I knew that the Javier Bardem film would be released in theatres, I love Iranian films, and I had no idea when The Hunter would see the light of day in Canadian theatres. As I revealed to director, Raffi Pitts, when I interviewed him, I wasn’t familiar with his work, but will be checking my indie video stores to find them. The Hunter is about a man who seeks revenge for the loss of his wife and daughter. Not knowing if he should blame society or the police, he hides in the hills of Tehran shooting at will. This study of pain that runs too deep to be expressed by screaming stars the director, himself, who stepped in after his actor showed up unfit for filming on the first day. I adored Pitts location choices, the boxed in scenes of the city’s highways, the deep green of the forest, and the gray mists of the hills, all serve to create a tense atmosphere that reflects the “time bomb” feeling that is pressurizing modern day Iran. As I said before, I like silence in movies, and this film delivers that, leaving me with Pitt’s choice of framing and expressive eyes to tell the story.

There are some subjects that I have dealt with or continue to deal with in my own life, and have no interest in seeing them on screen: Alzheimer’s is one of those subjects. Oscar-nominated director, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, must have heard my thoughts when he was thinking of doing this movie about his mother’s illness. The disease is no laughing matter but Fridriksson was tired of the bleakness of he had seen and wanted to show some of the humorous situations that occurred with his mother (and others he knew). Icelandic treasure, Kristbjörg Kjeld plays Mamma Gógó, an impish woman whose comic antics become more and more dangerous to her as the film progresses. No less comic or less serious is the financial difficulties faced by The Director (played by Hilmir Snær Guðnason) who is praying for an Oscar nomination in order to get funds for his next project. The two storylines weave together in a dark comedy that is full of light in its tone, in its cinematography, and in the magic that is brought to the screen by Kjeld’s outstanding performance.

NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT. My second favourite film. I wish I could have seen this on a larger screen, but even watching it in the P & I Library, I found this film captivating, thought provoking, and awe-inspiring. Under the masterful direction of Patricio Guzmán, science, politics and the past meld in this documentary about astronomers, archaeologists, and women looking for remnants of their “disappeared” loved ones in Chile’s Atacama Desert. All three groups are pre-occupied with the past. With light from the moon reaching Earth in over a second (the sun reaching us in about 8 minutes) and planets in the universe being light years away from Earth, everything the astronomers discover is from the past; the archaeologists discover ancient travel routes and relics from pre-Columbian shepherds; and, as the years pass and they age (and die), the women are stuck in the time of Chilean Coup searching for the “disappeared”, whose bodies were buried by Pinochet’s men, carelessly exhumed from their mass graves, and strewn across the desert or the sea. The desert’s clear sky and altitude provide a unique and beautiful place to look beyond ourselves even as we contemplate the calcium match between the stars we look at and the unearthed bones found in the desert.

(See my review)

A USEFUL LIFE. I applauded at the end of this film. It just seemed so appropriate once the credits came up. Being a fan of Classic cinema, and TIFF Cinematheque, I had to see this film about Cinemateca Uruguaya. While Toronto’s is flourishing (especially with the new Bell Lightbox), Cinemateca Uruguaya’s membership is dwindling and its equipment is outdated. For twenty-five years, Jorge, the Cinemateca’s director, has spent his life enmeshed in the world of film. When the funders decide to give money only to cultural activities that bring in a profit, Jorge has to decide what to do with his life. Black and White are the colours of romance and nostalgia, key themes in this film where Jorge pursues a new love like a romantic film star, and film education is trumped by financial considerations. The ages old battle between art and commerce could easily have been depicted in a depressing manner, but director Federico Veiroj choses to travel from dark to light, opening his camera’s iris wider and wider until a spirit of hopefullness illuminates the finishing frames of this this sixty-seven minute film. On a personal note, this film reminded me of a past TIFF programmer, Ramiro Puerta. May he rest in peace. FIN.

WEST IS WEST. My Top Ten Favourite! I had a fantastic time watching this family comedy. West is West can stand on its own, so no need to worry that you haven’t seen East is East.

Sajid (Aqib Khan) skips school to get away from being bullied about his Pakistani heritage. When his father George Om Puri admonishes him for being called to the principal’s office, Sajid hurls racial slurs at his father, blaming him for his troubles. Hurt by his son’s words, George decides that it’s time for Sajid to spend some time in Pakistan to learn about his heritage. Once there, the foul-mouthed, defiant Sajid refuses to wear anything but his school uniform, but manages to eventually become involved in life in rural Pakistan thanks to the intervention of his elder brother, a young boy his own age, and an “uncle” figure who allows him to learn on his own terms.

While Sajid adapts or bends rules to suit his mechanations, his father George must finally face the wife and adult daughters he left behind when he moved to England and married a British woman. For the past thirty years, his Pakistani house has been an address to which he sent money; but he must now face daughters who grew up without a father while he was raising his half-British sons and a wife who has aged beyond her years from dealing with abandonment and of raising the girls on her own.
Strong direction by Andy De Emmony keeps the film moving along at a steady pace, with the necessary dramatic elements, never overpowering the light, audacious comedy that the brilliant young actor, Aqub Khan, brings to the entire film. Cinematographer, Peter Robertson does an equally good job of lighting scenes with just enough contrast in tones to add to the dramtic or comic elements of the film.

Guilt, humour, and love are all finely tuned emotions in screenwriter Ayub Khan-Din’s clever script. Khan-Din has written as good a script as he did for East is East, and by avoiding any overt references to that film, he allows viewers to thoroughly enjoy West is West. Seeing East is East is simply icing on a cake that has all the right ingredients.

For the most part I saw one good film after another. I saw 57 films this year and I was surprised when reviewing my list that I only saw only a handful of films that were “okay/weak”. No wonder TIFF 2010 had such a high number of film sales this year; there seemed to be an abundance of films to suit various markets.

1. !WomenArt Revolution (USA)review
2. 13 Assassins (Japan) in photo
3. 40 (Turkey)
4. Africa United (UK)
5. Amazon Falls (Canada)review
6. Beginners (USA)
7. Behind Blue Skies (Sweden) review
8. Blessed Events (Germany)
9. Breakup Club (Hong Kong)
10. The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman (Hong Kong)
11. Carancho (Argentina)
12. Crying Out (Canada) review
13. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (China)
14. Easy Money (Sweden)in photo
15. Girlfriend (USA) review
16. Guest (Spain)
17. Home for Christmas (Norway/Germany/Sweden)
18. The Housemaid (Korea)
19. How to Start Your Own Country (Canada) review
20. The Human Resources Manager (Israel)
21. The Hunter (Iran)

22. I Am Slave (UK)in photo
23. I Wish I Knew (China)
24. Jaloux (Canada) review
25. John Carpenter’s The Ward (USA)
26. Julia’s Eyes (Spain)
27. Karla and Jonas (Denmark)
28. Lapland Odyssey (Finland)
29. Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Hong Kong/China)
30. The Light Thief (Kyrgyzstan)
31. Little Sister (China)
32. Love Crime (France)
33. MODRA (Canada)
34. Machete Maidens Unleashed! (Australia)in photo
35. Made in Dagenham (UK)
36. Mama Gogo (Iceland)
37. Mandoo (Iraq)
38. Monsters (UK)
39. Mother of Rock: Lillian Roxon (Australia)
40. Norberto’s Deadline (Uruguay/Argentina) review
41. Nostalgia for the Light (Chile)
42. October (Peru/Venezuela/Spain)
43. Pink Saris (UK) review

44. Pinoy Sunday (Taiwan) review
45. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Finland/Norway) in photo
46. Red Nights (Hong Kong/China/France)
47. A Screaming Man (France/Belgium/Chad)
48. Small Town Murder Songs (Canada) review
49. Soul of Sand (India) review
50. Special Treatment (France) review
51. The Strange Case of Angelica (Portugal)

52. SUPER (USA) in photo
53. A Useful Life (Uruguay)
54. Wasted on the Young (Australia) review
55. West is West (UK)
56. You Are Here (Canada)
57. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (UK/USA/Spain)

JULIA'S EYES (Starts out as a very good thriller than descended into the ridiculous. Would rent from the cheap section for a good laugh.)

John Carpenter’s The Ward (John Carpenter, I love you, but this time you picked a bad cast of actresses who brought down a good story and your filmmaking. You couldn't even scare me, the person who used to tape the X-Files so she could watch in the daytime?)

Jaloux (See my review)

Norberto’s Deadline (See my review)

Mandoo (Honestly, I forgot that I even saw this film.)

Breakup Club (Some great ideas, and fresh filmmaking but the film went on waaay too long.)

I had a really good time at TIFF 2010 meeting new people in line, in the Press and Industry Offices and staircases of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Arranging my interviews was easily facilitated by independent publicists and with the able assistance of the TIFF Press Office, especially staffers Kelley, Aisling, and Micole. Volunteers at the hotel and especially those in the P & I Screening Library were very helpful and pleasant.

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