A Tale of the Toronto Film Festival

With more than 250 films to see, there is no one, definitive festival experience. Here's mine.

It was the best of TIFFs, it was the worst of TIFFs. While the trade pubs breathlessly trumpeted the flurry of deals that took place at the Toronto International Film Festival, an epidemic of grumbling had spread through press and industry screenings. Key complaints concerned the quality of the lineup (some bemoaned the glut of star-studded garbage, such as Robert Redford's artless The Conspirator and Mitch Glazer's ludicrous Passion Play; others said that nothing seemed to stand out as the next Slumdog) and the festival's apparent difficulty in managing its ever-growing profile.

TIFF moved most events to a new neighborhood and new venues this year (including the custom-built cutting-edge multiplex, the Bell Lightbox), and the transition wasn't the smoothest: Screenings routinely started late; Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog's beguiling entrée into 3-D, was marred by a projection error that stopped the film cold for nearly 10 minutes three-quarters of the way through; and Jean-Luc Godard's Film Socialisme was shown without subtitles—and without any sort of announcement from the theater staff as to whether or not this was intentional, some wondering if it was Godard's idea of a joke on the film's first North American audience. (It wasn't.)

So was the festival a bust? Which festival? Even under the best conditions, TIFF is too large for any single filmgoer to tackle comprehensively. With more than 250 films, you have to cut your losses and curate your own schedule, likely resulting in an experience that's both unique and a bit schizophrenic. A film's victory with one demo pretty much guarantees failure with another. Some festival goers chase down likely Academy favorites (by mid-festival, Tom Hooper's George VI biopic, The King's Speech, the eventual winner of the People's Choice vote, had been bestowed the dubious title of Best Picture lock); others dismiss such a film because of its inevitable visibility, preferring instead to seek out those titles that remain either without distribution or without any sort of commercial imperative. At a fete thrown by Fox Searchlight, one of my fellow partygoers dismissed the whole fest for its lack of curatorial integrity and, between sips of gratis champagne, branded it as "an excuse to sell real estate in downtown Toronto."

Maybe that's accurate. Or maybe TIFF is an imperfect system that serves a number of purposes, one I tried to approach this year with both an open mind and open eyes. I saw two Alarmingly Graphic One-Man Survival Stories—Jerzy Skolimowski's highly cinematic but illiterate Essential Killing, in which Vincent Gallo plays a Taliban fighter on the run from dunderheaded Americans, and Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, a determinist tract styled like an energy-drink commercial in which a glib, superficial douchebag (James Franco) realizes he's a glib, superficial douchebag and redeems himself through self-amputation. The Megan Fox–starring Passion Play and Darren Aronofsky's balletsploitation Black Swan were united in the subgenre of Instant Camp Classics About Dysfunctional Chicks With Wings. The latter film shares screechy, borderline misogynist sexual hysteria with Anh Hung Tran's highly anticipated adaptation of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood, in which Rinko Kikuchi ages down a decade and screams a lot.

One TIFF film with no analogue was Meek's Cutoff, the fourth feature from leading Amerindie light Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy). Based on a true story, Meek's follows three married couples in the mid 19th century who split off from an Oregon Trail convoy to take an ostensible shortcut, led by freelance guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, unrecognizable under period-perfect beard and racist bluster). The migrants are hopelessly lost, and the husbands (Paul Dano, Neal Huff, and Will Patton) debate whether Meek has purposely led them off-course—is he ignorant, or just plain evil?—and whether or not to let him live. As the journey wears on and water supplies become dangerously low, Reichardt presents much from the perspective of the wives (Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan, and Michelle Williams). Williams's Emily, the only member of the party unafraid to challenge Meek, emerges as the guide's pragmatic foil after he captures a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) who may be a threat—or may save their lives.

Meek's Cutoff is a real movie-movie, with star performances and literal life-or-death stakes, but it's also without a doubt a Kelly Reichardt movie—an austere, visually stunning mood piece, deliberately paced and extraordinarily textured. (Chris Blauvelt's tactile photography renders the dust and heat of the plains so vividly that you can feel the dryness of skin and mouths.) Narratively enigmatic, if thematically rather on-the-nose (the ending is particularly heavy-handed), Meek's was still, to my mind, the best American feature at the festival.

One film I fell for that is bound to activate some viewers' allergies (and, in fact, by the end of the festival, its very plot description was being mocked on Twitter by people who hadn't seen it), Beginners sounds unbearably twee: an autobiographical dramedy directed by Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) about a graphic designer (Ewan McGregor) whose relationships with his father (Christopher Plummer)—just out of the closet at age 75, with terminal cancer—and a dirty-haired French actress (Mélanie Laurent) inform his T-shirt designs and ironic graffiti. The whole thing has a bit of a retro fetish; there are a lot of photo montages, and an anthropomorphized dog. I went in skeptical, and was fully won over. Beginners is a Sensitive Silverlake Man-Child Weepie, for sure, but its stylistic quirk is counterbalanced by Mills's highly observant feel for how real people behave. Michael Winterbottom's The Trip was also an expectation crusher, a mostly improvised, totally hilarious road movie starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan as versions of themselves. It's largely a lark, given weight by Coogan's moving (and convincing!) portrayal of . . . Steve Coogan in mid-life crisis.

Speaking of expectations: Back in Los Angeles, chatting with a couple of indie filmmakers, I wondered if the significance of the reportedly healthier Toronto sales climate had been overblown. On the contrary, I was told—the market activity at TIFF, in fact, had created a temporary, lucrative window of energy. Suddenly, financiers were eager to make deals, fast. Is this a sign of real turnaround, or is this chaos theory? A butterfly flaps its wings in Hong Kong and it rains in Bermuda; a few companies drop a few million dollars on a handful of films in Toronto and a writer/director in Los Angeles gets financing to make a movie? Like so much having to do with TIFF, it depends on how you choose to see it.

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