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Toronto International Film Festival 2007

It isn’t until you’ve been granted full press access at the Toronto Film Festival that you realize this really is a people’s festival. I

Toronto International Film Festival 2007
Photo: Miramax Films

It isn’t until you’ve been granted full press access at the Toronto Film Festival that you realize this really is a people’s festival. I joined the press and industry cattle herd for the first time this year, but bouncing from screening to screening was just as fun and energizing as before; if only some of the journos, and the like, realized this. At the press screenings (well, some of them) you’re often subjected to anxious, unctuous stiffies who see the festival as more of a nuisance than a pleasure, nabbing aisle seats so they can bolt at the 20-minute point no matter what movie it is, and a sea of BlackBerry lights if you sit near the back of a theater. But even the grumpiest of the lot would have to admit this was a particularly strong edition of the festival—and, weirdly, it was much of the major pictures, already acquired, that showed some of the boldest risk-taking.

There’s no real getting around it: The Coens’ No Country for Old Men is probably the film of the year. That rare movie that captures the essence of its source novel and evinces the distinct style of its filmmakers, this is not only a splendid return to form for the siblings personally, but a cheer-worthy reminder that two distinctive points of view can be presented in the same narrative. Telling a chilling, poetic, ultimately profound tale of dubious honor, good vs. evil, and the battles of aging in an insane society, the Coens backpedal some of their snark, yet the film is as funny as any of their early work, and their perfect cast (Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt) wrings every single moment for its maximum worth. This is one worth savoring, and impossible to stop thinking about, even when you’re watching other things in the same day.

Lust, Caution gives you plenty of time to think of other things, namely why a movie with such a noir-styled, simple story has to be a punishing two hours and 37 minutes. Stagnant, insipid, and a career-worst for the usually sharp Ang Lee, even if you took the pretentious air out of the thing, you still have Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book with none of that film’s teasing delights. Paul Schrader’s The Walker is an ill-advised attempt at Algonquin Round Table wit—a ridiculous, Cinemax-level thriller about a supposedly charming gay rogue (a disastrously miscast Woody Harrelson, so deliciously wry in the Coens’ movie) embroiled in a dull murder mystery.

But only these two stalwarts seemed to falter, while others expanded on their impressive oeuvres, namely Gus Van Sant, whose Paranoid Park may please those who’ve tired of his back-of-the-head shot, Béla Tarr-inspired tone poems. Van Sant gets playful with this one (cheeky music cues, a freely fractured but easy-to-follow story), depicting a would-be skateboarder dude caught up in an unsolved local murder. It doesn’t quite get under your skin, but it proves this is a director who simply will never sell out ever again. And if Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding seems a tad familiar, it’s in that old-school Woody Allen style of making terrific movie after terrific movie with such ease that nobody seemed to care that the stories had many likenesses. Baumbach is clearly our generation’s Woodster, as sharp a scripter as one could hope for, with an unparalleled knack for how families communicate with each other, and as interpreted by Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and remarkable newcomer Zane Pais (as Kidman’s sensitive adolescent son), it proves that conversation can be all the proper action you need.

Alan Ball has always been a bogus interpreter of family dynamics (excepting Six Feet Under, which he thankfully did not work on in full), and his directorial debut, Nothing Is Private, is the kind of thoroughly smug, wrongheaded drivel that people inevitably fall for each year. Tracking a 13-year-old Arab-American girl’s sexual journeys, including ongoing sessions with her neighbor, an Army Reserves dad, the movie is risible from its opening scenes and full of that bullshit American Beauty-style self-satisfaction that’s never convincing in the slightest. Ball has no handle on teenage desire, and his characters change personalities like people change underwear, and when pedophilia is a movie’s least objectionable thing, you’re in trouble.

Teen desire was much more palatable in the Dardennes-style Chop Shop, Ramin Bahrani’s terrific follow-up to his Man Push Cart, which centers around a young teen boy wheeling and dealing on his own in Queens, New York’s auto-shop district near Shea Stadium. Well-modulated and blissfully free of exposition when unnecessary, it’s a healthy reminder that the New York indie isn’t dead. Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor is another New York-set tale, with fantastic character actor Richard Jenkins in his very first starring role as a lonely professor who befriends an illegal immigrant pair. Sweet to a fault and lacking the bitter edge of the denizens of his previous gem The Station Agent, it nonetheless pleases, simply because nobody adores their creations more than McCarthy, and Jenkins, at the ripe age of 60, finally has the role of his career.

Indies in other countries elicited mixed results, from Alexander Voulgaris’s Greek geek-in-sorta-love trifle Pink, in which the director tiresomely casts himself as a sad-sack who pines for love in a movie that plays like Once without the melancholic songs or marvelous leads. Bernard Emond’s Summit Circle, a well-meaning but silly French-Canadian drama about a middle-class woman’s slow economic and mental breakdown, is a Paul Haggis movie sans hyperbole, but it’s still as unnecessary. Ken Loach carves out a more compelling workers’ tale in It’s a Free World…, a small-scale drama about a sassy entrepreneur (the fiery, sensational Kierston Wareing) juggling single motherhood and a questionable business as a work placement liaison for struggling immigrants in the U.K. It contains some of Loach’s dramatic lapses, but it’s surprisingly pungent, especially when its dynamite leading lady tears up the screen.

From Australia, Night is a sometimes ravishing, sometimes tedious visual feast of Aussies and their interpretation of what gives nighttime its unique grip. Speaking of grip, Ed Gass-Donnelly makes a potent debut with the stage-to-screen adaptation of This Beautiful City, a dour, assured look at Torontonians bound by tragic circumstances. Yeah, we’ve seen this kind of thing before (and some scenes stretch credibility), but the movie is so brisk and involving, it proves we can always use one more. Best of all, without a doubt, was Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light, as pure an example of uncompromising cinema as one is likely to see these days. A major shift in tone from his more rabble-rousing Battle in Heaven, this leisurely spun tale of a farmer juggling two women and his large family, features breathtaking and singular long takes that actually mean something to its universe, and if Reygadas’s bold vistas do not mesmerize for every one of its 138 minutes, that’s still a better statistic than you’ll get for just about anything around, and sure to enrapture, unless movies with bogeymen collecting limbs is your thing.

If it is, you were in luck at Toronto this year, as movies reached a fever pitch of absolute repulsion. Dario Argento at long last completed his Three Mothers Trilogy with The Mother of Tears, which will not make his fans forget his more celebrated works for a minute, but is so loopy and random it never bores, even when its story of reborn witchcraft goes completely off the rails. Two more films, both from France, ratcheted up the gore to just about anyone’s tolerance point. Xavier Gens’s Frontiere(s) takes the torture porn genre and makes it stomach-churningly visceral, as a Nazi family entraps punk guys and gals out in the country (yes, it would appear the original versions of The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have wielded their influence all over the globe), and Inside turns Rosemary’s Baby-style child anxiety into rivers of blood, with Béatrice Dalle as a stark-raving lunatic obsessed with bagging one very resilient woman’s unborn. Both splatterfests are sure ways to get squeamish movie dates to never talk to you again, but the latter has the edge (though the former’s story just happened in Virginia, according to news reports) for being the one that doesn’t make you want to withdraw from the human race when it’s over.

If graphic violence was one overriding trend of the fest, music was very much the other. From the Who documentary Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who, a conventional yet entertaining study of the Brit rock foursome to Here Is What Is…, an impressionistic jaunt through music with Daniel Lanois that isn’t much of a movie per se, but if you’re exhausted by ass-kissing docs that tell you how great everyone is every three minutes, its mosaic-like design might be for you. Everyone now knows fully about the folly that is the Beatles-inspired Across the Universe, and the antidote is Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, his distinctive take on the enduring id that is Bob Dylan with no less than six actors portraying the squirrelly music icon. I’m not sure that this will hold up to the repeated riches of Haynes’s other work (in this case, he puts everything into his CinemaScope frame), but I can’t wait to find out. This is a risk that eventually pays off, and if its parts occasionally recede, there’s a true jolt to conventionalism here, and one would expect no less from Haynes at this point.

Director Joe Wright is still finding his mojo as a filmmaker, and Atonement, his troubling yet undeniably fascinating adaptation of Ian McEwan’s celebrated book has rankled feathers in the literary community for its reimagining of the novel’s jarring, haunting conclusion. Sure, the five-minute Dunkirk Evacuation sequence halfway through invites awe, but his real strength is in tweaking period convention. Like Jane Campion, he often shows you tableaus that feel fresh even in musty territory. Conversely, Terry George is a filmmaker who has never even had a mojo to find. Reservation Road, an inane slog about hit-and-run guilt and revenge is the idiot’s guide to In the Bedroom, which has more compacted emotional value in one silent scene that in all of George’s painfully conventional lump, which not even Mark Ruffalo’s honest performance can save.

Werner Herzog is all mojo, all the time, and one wishes all documentary filmmakers had his inimitable personality. Encounters at the End of the World, an eye-opening look into Antarctica and its scientists and nature-made wonders, doesn’t reach Grizzly Man’s peaks, but even when the movie skirts depressing territory (it is quite clear in its view that humans will absolutely go the way of the dinosaur), it’s always absorbing. And when Herzog grills a reticent scientist on whether penguins are gay and whether they experience insanity, you’re happily in Herzog Land. Very Young Girls, a sobering if somewhat self-serving doc about teen prostitutes in New York City and their recovery process, would have been more effective if it didn’t seem like a PSA film for GEMS, the youth center that harbors the movie’s subjects. But at least it raises some awareness, unlike My Enemy’s Enemy, a spectacularly useless movie about Klaus Barbie and his war atrocities that feels instantly banal. Kevin Macdonald stunk up multiplexes last year with his ooga-booga, foolish feature debut The Last King of Scotland, and honestly, his documentaries aren’t much better. This one particularly hides in an affectless veil, as if Macdonald were just biding time before his next Oscar vehicle.

It seems only fitting to end with a film that features contributions by no less than three dozen world class filmmakers. To Each His Own Cinema was designed in honor of Cannes’s 60th anniversary, and like all omnibus films, the shorts run the gamut from the obnoxious (Youssef Chahine, Jane Campion) to the obvious (Aki Kaurismäki, Gus Van Sant) to the delightful (Claude Lelouch, Chen Kaige) to the outright excellent (Atom Egoyan’s surly anti-technology bit is marvelously brittle, and Roman Polanski’s perv-cinema shaggy-dog joke is priceless). I guess it really is to each his own cinema (or hers) in Toronto, one of its many pleasures as a film devotee. But next year, for celluloid’s sake, let’s please put away all those goddamn gadgets.

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