A few days before I left for this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I watched Prom, the Walt Disney live-action romantic comedy, which stars Friday Night Lights’ Aimee Teagarden as a high-school prom-committee chairwoman weathering obstacles while trying to organize the best dance ever. I watched Prom because I was assigned to review it, but I have a fondness for high-school movies, so I didn’t think it’d be that much of a chore. Then as soon as I heard Teagarden’s opening narration, describing prom as an essential event that unites the entire high-school caste system (as defined by the likes of The Breakfast Club and Mean Girls, naturally), my heart sank. Because I write a weekly home-video column for another publication, I watch a lot of movies I otherwise wouldn’t, and the ones most likely to send me into a rage or a stupor are those that are hermetically Hollywood, where the characters live in non-specific cities and suburbs, and have contrived crises rooted almost exclusively in their commitment to ideals that exist largely in movies, not in life. It’s not that I demand unrelenting realism in cinema; I just like to see behavior that seems honestly motivated, and worlds that make sense.
That’s one of the reasons I look forward to going to Toronto each September. True, there are movies as bad as or even worse than Prom at the festival, but even the failures at TIFF tend to be failures of excessive ambition, from filmmakers trying to express something about their—and our—lives and times. At the least, the films at the festival tend to be more plugged into the mood and trends of the culture at large.
For example, this year featured multiple movies about people recovering from intense trauma. In Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Elizabeth Olsen plays a young woman who escapes a cult and tries to reintegrate into an upper-class family that seems equally unreal, while in Rebecca Daly’s The Other Side Of Sleep, Antonia Campbell-Hughes wakes up in the woods next to a corpse and spends the next few days worrying that she might be the killer. And in Sion Sono’s shrieky teen romance Himizu, two kids keep pulling close and then pushing away as they stumble through the wreckage of their family lives and the recent earthquake in Japan. The festival lineup also spotlighted more down-to-earth crises, such as the immediate aftermath of a breakup in Karim Ainouz’s The Silver Cliff, the decade-long recovery from romantic loss in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love, and the death of a parent in Jens Lien’s punk-rock dramedy Sons Of Norway. It isn’t that strange for a movie plot to be set in motion by something sad, tragic, or horrifying—that’s what dramas do, for the most part—but these movies linger more than usual on the “What the hell do I do now?” aspect of a catalytic event.
So what’s prompted this upsurge in movies about how people handle a swift kick in the gut? Perhaps it’s a reaction to a decade of terrorism, panicked counter-terrorism, natural disasters, and economic collapse. Unsurprisingly, the bum economy played a direct role in the plot of several films at Toronto this year, such as Johnny To’s Life Without Principle, in which a gangster, a cop, and a banker in Hong Kong are all affected by the fiscal woes in Greece, and Cédric Kahn’s A Better Life, in which Guillaume Canet plays a chef whose attempt to open a restaurant leaves him drowning in debt.
But A Better Life also intersects with another theme running through this year’s TIFF movies: how people adjust their expectations in the wake of unexpected change. In Kahn’s film, Canet clings to his dream even beyond the point where it’s gone irreparably sour, until something more pressing comes up and he has to redefine what “success” means. Similarly, in Oren Moverman’s Rampart (from a script by Moverman and James Ellroy), Woody Harrelson plays a tough-guy cop in ’90s Los Angeles, at a time when a series of scandals were changing the nature of the job, while in Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, Jean Dujardin plays a silent-era movie star who tries to stay the course in the age of the talkies. Both films begin with their heroes confident that the world will shift back around to their point of view, and end with them having to do a serious rethink. The same could be said of the two big rock-docs at the fest—Pearl Jam Twenty and the U2 documentary From The Sky Down—which are ostensibly about bands that felt the need to reinvent and re-imagine themselves after becoming monstrously popular. I hesitate to speculate on what’s behind this exploration of disappointment and recalibration, except to say that it’s something I see daily lately in my friends’ Twitter and Facebook posts, whenever they gripe about the current political landscape. Are we now living in the post-“Hope” era?
Each year, Toronto also offers an opportunity to check in with some of the world’s top filmmakers: people who are stars on the festival circuit, but rarely break out beyond arthouse circles. In his write-up of Guy Maddin’s Keyhole, my TIFF roommate and pal Scott Tobias wrote a little about his frustration with directors like Maddin, Béla Tarr, Aki Kaurismäki, and Bruno Dumont, who stay stuck in stylistic ruts, film after film. To that list, I could add Pedro Almodóvar, because while I mostly liked the Spanish director’s attempt at gothic horror with The Skin I Live In, I also felt that he didn’t do enough to break out of his usual colorful melodramatic style and embrace a new genre.
I was impressed, though, by how many established directors did try something different with their films this year, even if they weren’t always wholly successful. Following up their hit animated feature Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud go the live-action route with Chicken With Plums, and produce a hybrid of family biography and ancient fable that’s as stylistically daring as anything either of them have made before. Hirokazu Kore-eda maintains his interest in low-key humanism with his latest film, I Wish, but his story of children taking a train trip to make wishes come true comes across as more kid-friendly (and frankly less sophisticated) than his usual fare. Two veteran Hollywood mavericks, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin, venture into genre-ville with Twixt and Killer Joe, respectively, with Coppola working a tribute to his dead son and a meditation on the creative process into a B-horror exercise, while Friedkin turns Tracy Letts’ gamy hicksploitation play into an explicitly violent indie shocker. And then there’s the singular, soon-to-be-a-cult-favorite Kill List, in which writer-director Ben Wheatley takes the “kitchen-sink UK crime drama” approach he deployed on his debut film Down Terrace and adds more action, plus a creepy, cross-genre twist.
That isn’t to say that it’s always a mistake for filmmakers to work in similar veins to their previous films. With Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols doubles down on the portentousness and rural ennui of his debut feature, Shotgun Stories, and comes up with something stranger but stronger. While Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister can’t duplicate the comic zing of her Humpday, the new film brings comparable humor and improvisatory realism to the story of a bizarre love triangle that plays out over one weekend in an island cabin. And though I wish both Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Steve McQueen’s Shame were richer in content, I can’t quibble with either’s style, which fleshes out thin stories via a command of texture and mood.
Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin hit a few of the common TIFF ’11 bull’s-eyes: it’s about what happens in the wake of a horrific event, with Tilda Swinton playing the shellshocked mother of a sociopath who’s committed a terrible crime; and it’s yet another case of a filmmaker leaning heavily on her signature style. But Ramsay hasn’t made enough films yet to be in a rut, and while We Need To Talk About Kevin (adapted from Lionel Shriver’s novel) isn’t as masterful as Ratcatcher or Morvern Callar, the at-times-too-pulpy plot is enhanced significantly by the way Ramsay pays attention to the small details of what characters see and the environment they find themselves in when they see it. The storytelling is remarkably internalized—a rarity for cinema. Plus, it’s just good to have Ramsay back; it’d been nine years since Morvern Callar.
It’s been 13 years since Whit Stillman made a movie, and oddly, his new comedy Damsels In Distress neither panders to his old fans nor tries to reintroduce his dry-witted approach to the newcomers. Instead, Stillman puts his Jane Austen novels back on the shelf and pulls down his Little Lulu comics. Like Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days Of Disco, Damsels In Distress is concerned with elaborate codes of social etiquette, and the way young people break their own rules, then justify their behavior. But Stillman isn’t going low-key this time out. Damsels is colorful, almost cartoony—Stillman’s riff on ’80s-style campus comedies, complete with dance routines, outrageously oafish frat guys, and Greta Gerwig as a proudly prissy co-ed determined to elevate her classmates’ lives. The movie is fast-paced and silly, pitched at a tone that some will find way too high, but I found it exhilarating.
Is Damsels In Distress any different from Prom, really? That’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot over the past week. It’s every bit as fake, sure, but to me it’s far more original in its fakeness. (It isn’t like any other movie I’ve ever seen.) That said, throughout my time in Toronto, I wound up pondering the ultimate value of the little glimpses into reality I treasure in movies—as in Goodbye First Love, which captures perfectly how it feels to be so deeply enamored that you kind of hate your partner a little for making you ache—as opposed to overt artificiality, which can be annoying when done badly, yet priceless when imbued with the high spirits that Stillman brings to Damsels.
In some ways, the festival encourages those kinds of questions about what movies are for, not just via the way the week is programmed—with a healthy mix of austere dramas, lavish prestige pictures, and offbeat genre pieces—but in the marketing materials and sponsor reels that attendees endure at every screening. This year, before every film, we sat through a cutesy series of shorts about “Uncle Marv”—a Hollywood big-shot who helps his nieces and nephews get breaks in the business—as well as a commercial for an upcoming Grace Kelly exhibit at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which will include her clothes, her personal correspondence, and even her Oscar. (At one screening, A.V. Club contributor Sam Adams leaned over to me and speculated that they might also have Kelly’s head in a jar.) It’s all in good fun, of course. Who doesn’t love a little Hollywood glamour? But there’s a disconnect between the “Woo-hoo, the movies!” tone of those reels and, say, the harrowing study of sex addiction and deep emotional scars that is Shame.
That’s why for me, the film I’ve been grappling with the most since I left Toronto is The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s adaptation of a Kaui Hart Hemmings novel, and his first film since 2004’s Sideways. On one level, The Descendants has everything I’m looking for in a movie. The story is unusual—all about a cautious real-estate lawyer dealing with a massive land deal while his estranged wife is dying in the hospital—and Payne uses the Hawaiian setting wonderfully, taking us into the lived-in homes and offices that we rarely see in movies or on TV. But from the miscasting of George Clooney as an dumpy everyman type (albeit a very rich everyman) to the frequent spoon-feeding in the dialogue and voiceover narration, The Descendants keeps retreating back to Prom-land, when it could’ve easily been as true as Goodbye First Love.
Maybe that’s where we are now, in 2011: skittish about the real, and more comfortable ducking into a softer, movie-ish mode when it comes to dealing with great loss or terrifying transition. For that reason, 10 years from now, The Descendants may well look like the perfect encapsulation of this moment in history. After all, filmmakers’ choices to opt for the phony can be revealing, too—both about where they are in the arc of their careers, and what they feel viewers can handle right now. Perhaps that’s a judgment on our times that I find too terrifying to confront.