Emerging from Toronto, No Oscar Frontrunner in Sight
The Loneliest Planet
No major star was born at this years Toronto International Film Festival, which ended earlier this week, andin a big departure from recent fest history, marked by premieres of Crash, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Kings Speechno eventual surprise Oscar winner emerged ahead of the rest of the pack. Instead, TIFFNorth Americas only festival successfully diverse (and massive) enough to accommodate the new offerings from artists and hacks as disparate as James Benning, Morgan Spurlock, Sion Sono, and Roland Emmerich within a single nightpresented a wide-ranging slate whose highlights were new films from known quantities.
Some young auteurs with previously established festival circuit bona fides took cautious steps forward while others boldly stumbled. In the satisfyingly nuanced Goodbye First Love, Mia Hansen-Loves follow-up to Father of My Children, the filmmaker gives her coming-of-age-meets-extended-adolescence tale unusual psychological depth and (even more unusual) a female point of view. Spanish genre circuit jester Nacho Vigalondo, whose last film was the shoestring time-travel flick Timecrimes, bravely challenged his fanboy audience with Extraterrestrial, an alien invasion movie with no visible aliens, its sci-fi setup just an excuse for a cheerfully convoluted chamber farce with an intentionally anti-climatic climax. (Pity that this very funny film has cluelessly retrograde gender politics.) More mixed bags came in the form of Steve McQueens aesthetically impressive but psychologically empty and narratively rote sex-addict drama Shame and Sarah Polleys wildly inconsistent, sometimes cringe-worthy but occasionally heartbreaking adultery dramedy Take This Waltz.
All of these early career efforts were left in the dust by two second features: Julia Loktevs The Loneliest Planet and Oren Movermans Rampart. Planet, written and directed by Loktev (Day Night Day Night), stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg as a couple on a pre-marriage backpacking trip in the initially serene, eventually treacherous unknown of Georgias Caucasus Mountains. Bracingly gorgeous (the color-drenched, widescreen cinematography came from the camera of Inti Briones, who has worked with Raul Ruiz), Planet sketches wildly detailed relationship dynamics through its characters faces, bodies, and responses to their environment and turns wordless shots into spoiler-alert-worthy events. On the polar opposite end of the character study scale is the sun-bleached noir Rampart. Moverman and co-writer James Ellroy have built a wildly entertaining amorality play for an all-in awards bait performance by Woody Harrelson (star of Movermans previous directorial outing, The Messenger) as a beyond-dirty cop whose twisted sense of justice (as well his compulsive violence, racism, promiscuity, and boozing) finally catches up with him.
Perhaps the most highly anticipated title of the festival, Whit Stillmans Damsels in Distressthe first feature from the 90s bard of the urban-haute bourgeoisie since 1998s The Last Days of Discodidnt disappoint. A profoundly weird film affectionately skewering the mental and emotional problems and social mores of four self-styled queen bees at a fictional East Coast college and the nail-dumb frat boys and operator or playboy types who represent, according to the opening credits, their distress, Damsels injects Stillmans patented, densely verbal but affectless conversational comedy into an ambitious cinematic experiment. Oddly out of timelead damsel Violet, played by the winningly game Greta Gerwig, dresses like an 80s prep but celebrates a cheesy 90s techno jam as a golden oldieDamsels, like Stillmans debut, Metropolitan, is a halcyon zoetrope, churning highlights of youth movie history (from Mickey Rooney lets put on a show musicals to Grease, to more-or-less contemporary ensemble raunch like American Pie) through Stillmans inimitable, unshakable concern: the moral conflicts and conundrums of group social life.
Just as impressively nutso and true to form, Twixt, the latest self-financed, fully self-indulgent indie directed by Francis Ford Coppola, has been billed (mostly by Coppola himself, who promoted the partially 3-D gothic mystery over the summer at Comic-Con) as a step into a brave, new, techno-aided (or is it addled?) future. In fact, Twixt is really an embrace of Coppolas past, with its story of a broke, boozy schlock-horror novelist (a ponytailed, hilariously self-referential Val Kilmer) trying to dream up a vampire blockbuster apparently inspired not only by the drunken dream to which the filmmaker has confessed but also Coppolas formative work for Roger Corman, the death of his teenage son, Gio, in a boating accident, and the financial pressures that led Coppola to make one for them flicks like Bram Stokers Dracula.
Both an open-heart dissection of transforming personal pain into art and a bitingly funny nod to the profit-generating endeavors that allow for the luxury of pure self-expression, Twixt was inexplicably written off by many critics at TIFF as a mess. For sure, but its mess is by design (Coppola says he plans to remix the film live at screenings), and at least it has a distinct pulse. The same qualified praise goes for Todd Solondzs latest comic essay on the ironies of self-loathing. Dark Horse swallows its own tail, but Solondzs voice is still uniquely his own, and his new film, set largely in the psyche of the titular underachiever played by Jordan Gelber, is chaotic and alive.
Yorgos Lanthimoss Dogtooth, about three adult children unwittingly trapped by their parents in a totalitarian alternate universe in their suburban family home, had a bratty spark to it, which went a long way. This type of in-your-face energy is notably missingbut not necessarily missedfrom his latest effort. ALPS, concerning a quartet of substitutes who impersonate the recently deceased as a service to help their loved ones grieve, is as patently absurd at the story level as Dogtooths parable of closed social systems. But the world Lanthimos presents here is stylistically staid (natural light, minimal music), which lends his characters stunt-like behavior a disquieting realism. Much less reliant than Dogtooth on the midnight movie kicks of gore, shock sex, and comic relief, ALPS is the more difficult, more devastating depiction of the loneliness of a proscribed life and role-playing as a self-destructive solution.
Dogtooth was last years most shocking Oscar nominee, an outlier that defied conventional wisdom to sneak into the Foreign Language race. Does the fact that TIFF 2011 ended without anointing an Oscar champ to beat mean that the wisdom is changing? Probably not, but it is sort of nice to not know in September exactly whats going to happen in February.
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