Each fall, the movie world's focus shifts to Toronto, Ontario. While still recovering from the long, bleary hours of viewing movies back to back to back, A.V. Club writers Noel Murray and Scott Tobias took some time to weigh in with their favorites.
• Lake Of Fire. A two-and-a-half-hour documentary on abortion from the director of American History X may sound as appealing as a chainsaw vasectomy, but Tony Kaye's sprawling documentary looks like the last word on the subject. Sixteen years in the making and still considered a work in progress, Lake Of Fire looks at the issue from every considerable angle, from the philosophical differences over when life begins to the steady erosion of abortion rights due to fierce and sometimes violent pro-life opposition. Only near the end, through the case of an ordinary single woman seeking to terminate her pregnancy, does Kaye demonstrate the full gravity of what this tenuous right affords.
• Syndromes And A Century. Few directors are marrying narrative with the avant-garde as seductively as Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose latest film expands on the dual, echoing structures of Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady. A sweet memoir of his parents' lives before he was born, the film splits evenly in half—the first segment follows a female doctor in a rural hospital, and the second tracks a male doctor in modern urban hospital. It's hard to grasp the sum of Weerasethakul's symbolism and abstraction, but easy to surrender to the soothing and at times magical tone that sweeps his beguiling movies along.
• Black Book. Paul Verhoeven's triumphant return to Dutch filmmaking after a two-decade sojourn in Hollywood was by far the festival's brassiest entertainment, an old-fashioned World War II spy thriller with a kinky, subversive edge. Joining iconic blondes like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and Renée Soutendijk in The Fourth Man, Carice van Houten dyes her hair and sacrifices every part of herself for the Resistance after the Nazis occupy Holland. Neither as austere nor as frivolous as other WWII movies, Black Book offers the best of both worlds, a rip-roaring entertainment with a grim message about the war's prevailing legacy of conflict. The final shot is a doozy.
Feeling the hate:
All The Boys Love Mandy Lane. The Midnight Madness section frequently hacks up a few worst-of candidates—finding enough pulp trash to rile up that rowdy audience isn't easy—but most are just silly, not actively risible. What does it say about the state of commercial cinema that All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, a retrograde '80s-style slasher film in the Friday The 13th horny-kids-in-the-woods tradition, was the biggest winner in a festival with few acquisitions? Without a hint of irony, Mandy Lane returns to an age in which stupid teenagers behave like louts, repeatedly put themselves in harm's way, and get punished for horniness.
Scheduling conflicts forced a few regrettable omissions: Worried that Takashi Miike's conceptually bizarre, quasi-experimental Big Bang Love, Juvenile A wouldn't find a distributor, I skipped Ken Loach's surprise Palme D'Or-winner The Wind That Shakes The Barley, a sympathetic look at Irish rebellion in the '20s that might have added to an already politically loaded festival. Similar conflicts—and perhaps a lack of nerve—kept me away from Colossal Youth, a painterly Portuguese film that premièred to critical derision at Cannes, but it won a fervent following at Toronto. And the good buzz didn't travel fast enough on Nue Propriété (Private Property), a John Cassavetes-like naturalistic drama starring Isabelle Huppert as a mother who wages a war of attrition with her unruly twin sons over her ex-husband's house.
Trends and themes:
"Hollywood lays an egg"
As the premier festival in North America, Toronto has become a launching pad for studio Oscar favorites, but the prestige pictures unveiled this year—All The King's Men, The Fountain, Bobby, Breaking And Entering, A Good Year, and Infamous—were dead on arrival, and even a considerable effort like Little Children hobbled away on mixed notices. Brokeback Mountain and Crash both got a boost from Toronto, but save for respected TIFF entries like Babel and Volver, the field for Best Picture looks wide open.
"America, fuck yeah!"
The Bush years have drawn a steadily more virulent response from the international filmmaking community—lapped up like kitten's milk by festival audiences—but 2006 felt like the tipping point. You know you're in trouble when D.O.A.P. (short for Death Of A President), a faux-documentary that fantasizes about Bush's assassination, turns out to be the least strident political film on display. Elsewhere, it was learned that Americans are closet racists and anti-Semites (Borat), that they detain and torture terror suspects without cause (The Prisoner, Or: How I Planned To Kill Tony Blair), that they harass anti-war musicians (Dixie Chicks: Shut Up And Sing, The U.S. Vs. John Lennon), that they're giant lizard creatures of some kind (The Host), and that they allow Ethan Hawke to make a movie based on a crappy Ethan Hawke novel (The Hottest State).
TIFF '06—Good or bad?
No TIFF could ever be considered "bad," since the festival by nature offers such variety and sheer quantity that it can't entirely bottom out. Yet this year felt like a slight disappointment, because there were plenty of exciting, adventurous films, but none that felt like "one for the ages"—no Yi Yi or In The Mood For Love, no Memento, no Gerry, no The Fog Of War, no Brokeback Mountain or Dogville, etc.
Though TIFF '06 lacked any full-blown masterpieces, it was exciting to see so many filmmakers pushing their art, even if we won't see dividends until a few films down the line. Neither Takashi Miike's oddly Brechtian boys-in-prison movie Big Bang Love, Juvenile A nor Hirokazu Koreeda's early-18th-century slice of life HANA really work, but they succeed in taking the directors out of their comfort zones. Others are diligently refining their craft, like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who seems to be inventing a seductive cinematic language all his own, or Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose mesmerizing Climates is so texturally vivid that it feels three-dimensional. Maybe next year, guys.
• Offside. Jafar Panahi's latest Iranian slice of life follows a group of young soccer-loving women who get arrested for impersonating men and trying to sneak into the Tehran arena for a key pre-World Cup match. Panahi's criticism of his country's treatment of women is as clear as ever, but so is his faith in Iranian women's ability to make their own way, through persuasion and righteousness. And as always, Panahi spins long, engaging setpieces where people ping off each other, in everyday conversations fraught with unexpected tension.
• Pan's Labyrinth. Guillermo del Toro's odd hybrid of a Spanish Civil War history play and an arcane childhood fantasy comes together magnificently in a final scene that explains how legends—both real and imagined—resonate through generations. As the movie's war story gets increasingly bleak and its fantasy story increasingly wild and gory, del Toro observes how heroes can get everything wrong, yet still be judged right by history.
• Shortbus. John Cameron Mitchell's New York indie relationship drama opens with a montage of explicit sex acts, intercut with an image of the Statue Of Liberty, all set to a old recording of "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?" The rest of the movie is fairly conventional, though it's graced with uncommonly rounded characterizations and warmly intimate cinematography. But that opening provides the best context for all the sex and soap opera, positioning Shortbus as a libertine's patriotic response to an increasingly conservative culture. It's a reminder that dominatrices and ass-eaters are Americans too.
• 12:08 East Of Bucharest. Continuing the Romanian New Wave begun last year with The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu, Corneliu Porumboiu's deadpan comedy looks back at the ouster of Nicolae Ceausescu through the eyes of three disagreeable men on a low-rent local TV talk show. The movie starts as a mordant slice of life, develops into a hilarious farce, and ends on a poignant note. It's slight, but in the best possible way.
Feeling the hate:
The Prisoner, Or: How I Planned To Kill Tony Blair. "Hate" may be too strong a word for this trifling documentary, but between the movie's inflammatory title, pointless animated reenactments, goofy sound effects, and attempt to use the anecdotal story of one wrongly imprisoned Iraqi as a sweeping indictment of American foreign policy, The Prisoner exemplifies pretty much everything that's wrong with contemporary agit-prop docs. It was also emblematic of a generally weak field of documentaries at Toronto this year. Sensationalism trumped sympathy.
Jim Brown and Gary Burns' documentary Radiant City reportedly packs in a short history of the suburbs, a sharp explanation of why living there is bad for society, and a nutty twist ending. Shane Meadows followed up his punchy Midlands revenge thriller Dead Man's Shoes with the well-regarded This Is England, a quasi-memoir about growing up punk—and trying not to become a racist—in the '80s UK. And Eytan Fox's The Bubble apparently works as a less-explicit, Tel Aviv-set companion piece to Shortbus, since both movies are about gay folk and straight folk of multiple ethnicities, all trying to overcome their differences via orgasm.
Trends and themes:
"To create, you must destroy."
In Stranger Than Fiction, an author has to decide whether to kill one of her fictional characters and produce a timeless masterpiece, or let him go on living a happy life. But that wasn't the only TIFF movie about the destructive nature of art. Films as diverse as the documentary Manufactured Landscapes, the static Korean romance Woman On The Beach, the witty Brit-com Venus, and the fanciful fable The Fall all dealt with the idea that truly great art leaves behind toxic waste.
"History is written by the winners, but who decides when the game is over?"
In addition to Pan's Labyrinth, history-minded features and documentaries like 12:08 East Of Bucharest, American Hardcore, Black Book, Deliver Us From Evil, Seraphim Falls, and The Last King Of Scotland all dealt with the way the judgment of history is perpetually revised, depending on who's in power and what their agenda might be.
TIFF '06—Good or bad?
Mostly good, but not great. The festival was full of happy little discoveries like the domestic thriller Summer '04 and the surreal Icelandic comedy The Bothersome Man, and some reliable auteurs like Kim Ki-duk, Hong Sang-soo, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul delivered wonderfully confounding visions of fractured relationships with, respectively, Time, Woman On The Beach, and Syndromes And A Century. But this year's headlining slate didn't have the heft of last year's, which included Brokeback Mountain, Cache, The Squid And The Whale, A History Of Violence, and even problematic must-see fare like Walk The Line, Capote, and Lady Vengeance. It says something that the most universally acclaimed film at TIFF '06 was Borat, a tremendously funny comedy that feigns at saying something significant, but never really lands a punch. And it says something that at Borat's first big public screening, the projector broke. When it comes to zeitgeist-rattling cinema, this year's fest was a non-starter.