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The Best of the 2010 Toronto Film Festival

Toronto Journal

This introduction started out as 500 words of me whining about what a pain the ever-expanding Toronto International Film Festival has become to cover for those of us who approach it armed with a press pass. Do you care? There’s no reason why you should, given that little of it was comparable to the experiences of the tens of thousands of people who bought tickets to see new movies for 10 days.

Suffice to say that covering TIFF is, as always, like the experiences of the blind men describing the elephant. The sum quality of the movies I saw was on the low side this year, but I only saw about eight per cent of what was offered, so maybe I just got on the wrong side of the elephant. I reviewed two TIFF premieres, The Town and I’m Still Here, last week. Some thoughts on the rest:

THE KING’S SPEECH—Winner of the People’s Choice award and a likely candidate for lots of Oscars, this hugely enjoyable historical drama almost sounds like a parody of the genre. In the 1930s, Britain’s Price Albert (Colin Firth) lived in terror of public appearances because he had a terrible stammer. Forced to take the crown after the death of his father (Michael Gambon) and abdication of his brother (Guy Pearce), he turns to the help of an unlicensed speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) to get him through public speaking, especially the speech he has to give to tell his country they are going to war against Germany. With a delightful script poking fun at the gulf between royals and commoners and a touching performance by Firth, it is by any measure one of the year’s best films. Look for it at Thanksgiving.

127 Hours
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Henry's Crime
Rabbit Hole

127 HOURS—Danny Boyle’s first film since his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire came to Toronto with a daunting pedigree: During a screening at the recent Telluride festival, ambulances had to take away audience members who couldn’t handle the movie’s intensity. During the opening reel I questioned whether this fact-based story of a mountain biker (James Franco) who became trapped in a mountain crevice, his arm pinned by a rock, was going to subject my increasingly queasy constitution to the same result. (There’s always at least one major gross-out scene at TIFF; last year it was Charlotte Gainsbourg doing something horrible to herself with a scissors in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.) Fortunately the film’s intensity was bearable, and Boyle looks to have another hit on his hands. Maybe this will even be the movie that makes Franco a box office star. It should be in theaters in early November.

HENRY’S CRIME—I couldn’t be happier than to report that the Keanu Reeves movie that was partially shot (and entirely set) in downtown Buffalo is a real audience pleaser. This smartly scripted comedy (written by Sacha Gervasi, who directed the rockumentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil) stars Reeves as a loser who spends a few years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. When he gets out, he discovers a way to pull off the bank robbery he was jailed for, a plot that involves joining a theater company’s production of The Cherry Orchard. That Reeves actually makes a credible Lopakhin in scenes from Chekov’s play is one amusing aspect of a romantic comedy that has some loose ends but makes up for them with a sense of fun. Co-starring James Caan, Vera Farmiga, Peter Stormare, and Bill Duke. I was surprised that it didn’t get a distribution deal at Toronto; hopefully we can see it in theaters sometime next year.

PROMISES WRITTEN IN WATER—While we’re on the local connection, I also saw this new film directed by Vincent Gallo. All I can say about it is that he apparently felt that his last film, The Brown Bunny, was too plot-heavy. Unfortunately I missed his performance as a Taliban soldier in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing, for which he was named Best Actor at the prestigious Venice Film Festival a few weeks ago.

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS—I’m tired of the novelty of 3D movies, but who could resist seeing what Werner Herzog would do with it? That he used it for a documentary about 32,000-year-old cave paintings initially sounds like a joke. But the paintings, by far the oldest known to man, make use of the uneven surface of the fragile caves in the south of France, and Herzog’s photography of them is inspired. And of course nothing improves a nature documentary like Herzog’s musings, especially a postscript about albino crocodiles.

CONVICTION—This inspirational drama is exactly the kind of film that Hilary Swank has a reputation for: no great shakes as cinema art, but a strong story well told. She plays Betty Ann Waters, the Massachusetts woman who spent 18 years working to get her brother (Sam Rockwell) out of prison after a murder charge based on false evidence. It’s maybe not the kind of movie you expect to find at a film festival, but it does what it set out to do very well indeed. Opens locally on October 28.

RABBIT HOLE—I went to see this knowing nothing about it other than that it was directed by John Cameron Mitchell, whose previous films were Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus. Auteurism was exactly the wrong approach in this case, an adaptation of a play about a bereaved couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) dealing with the death of their son that would not be out of place on the Lifetime Channel (though it’s not as exploitative as that sounds).

IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY—Actually it wasn’t. It was touted by publicity materials as a breakthrough role for Zach Galifianakis, but he only has a supporting part in this drab drama about a depressed teen who checks himself into a psychiatric ward filled with people much worse off than he is. It opens in Buffalo on October 8.

ANOTHER YEAR—One of the best films from Mike Leigh in years (not that he’s ever made a bad one). As always with Leigh, it’s all about the actors in this four-part story starring Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as a late-middle-aged couple whose happy life contrasts with friends and family whose lives have not turned out as well. Expect it in theaters during awards season in early 2011.

NEVER LET ME GO—Another actors’ showcase, this adaptation of the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) follows a trio of British youngsters (Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield) living in an alternative world where, for reasons I won’t divulge, they won’t live past their mid-20s. It’s an emotionally gripping story, but I had trouble getting past the cruelty of the premise to be able to fully take it for what it wanted to be, an examination (under unusual circumstances) of human connections. It opens in Buffalo on October 8.

TABLOID—Errol Morris’s new documentary is a step away from the political nature of his recent movies back toward the kind of oddball character study with which he made his name in movies like Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida. Joyce McKinney, the Southern belle who became a tabloid sensation in 1970s England when she kidnapped the Mormon missionary she was infatuated with, certainly has a remarkable story, and in typical Morris fashion you come away from the movie unable to decide who is telling the truth and who is lying.

STONE—This drama starring Robert DeNiro as a parole examiner and Edward Norton as a prisoner trying to get under his skin was dismissed by a lot of reviewers, possibly because they were fooled into thinking it was going to be a replay of Primal Fear. But I won’t deny that director John Curran sadly fails to make use of his star pairing, keeping them framed separately rather than letting us see them interacting. In area theaters October 15.

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