This year was my first trip to the Toronto International Film Festival, the industry fest that’s also the unofficial opening of Hollywood’s awards season. I found the festival’s catalogue daunting to parse, mainly because the program balances world premieres (and star-studded films) with a solid selection of hits culled from earlier festivals. From Sundance films like Martha Marcy May Marlene to recent Venice launches like Wuthering Heights, TIFF catches films on the last stop before theatrical release as well as those in early ascent. A lot of films, a lot of buzz.
A hefty overlap with the imminent New York Film Festival was a blessing in disguise, because I could save wishlist films (like Oscar shoo-in The Artist or Gerardo Naranjo’s thriller Miss Bala) for my home turf. That left me time for bike rides and streetcars, coffee and burger pit stops — the necessary beats between screenings (and waiting in lines). The new TIFF Bell Lightbox Theater is a comfortable and central hub from which to fan out to other venues (film and otherwise). Even so, I finished a short week of screenings without an overly clear sense of the festival’s ethos. Since my film list was self-chosen, it’s hard to read much into any themes that emerge. But I did note a subtle similarity from my TIFF list: many of the films deal with family (siblings, marriage, children). You could say the women’s experience loomed large in my TIFF 2011 films. Even better, many of those films were directed by women. Viva la revolucion, eh?!
Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton)
In the follow-up to her Sundance hit Humpday, writer/director Lynn Shelton once again mines the deep fault lines of family and fidelity. Two sisters, one man, a remote cabin in the woods, love, loss, and a bottle of tequila — a simple setup that yields surprisingly heartfelt, sharp comedy and cements Shelton’s place as one of indie film’s most insightful directors. Working from a loose “script-ment,” Shelton builds off the improv talents of Mark Duplass, gamely matched by co-stars Emily Blunt and Rosemarie Dewitt. Duplass is empathetic as a drifter still grieving the death of his brother, who haplessly gets caught between the two women. It’s a formidable trio, but Blunt and Dewitt really shine, perfectly recreating the sometimes loving, sometimes bitter rhythm of sisterhood. It’s a smart, lovely film that feels so much larger than the sum of its parts. It was also my favorite film at TIFF. IFC Films snapped it up for a summer 2012 release.
Think Of Me (Bryan Wizemann)
Inspired by his upbringing in Las Vegas, writer/director Bryan Wizemann’s Think Of Me is a lovingly crafted but dark homage to motherhood. Lauren Ambrose brings grit and a level gaze to her role as Angela, a single mom struggling to care for her daughter Sunny, played with a fierce grace by young actress Audrey Scott. The film builds on mood and atmosphere, exposing the mundane sides of this manic city, trafficking not in glamour and drama but in a dank, suffocating kind of reality. As the days unspool Angela tries (and often fails) to keep a grip on their fragile life, but when a childless couple offers to adopt Sunny, she is forced to make a harrowing decision. Credit goes to both Ambrose and Scott, who give embodied, forceful performances without tugging on our heartstrings, but also to Wizemann, whose familiarity with this terrain gives this moving film such realistic heft.
Friends With Kids (Jennifer Westfeldt)
Known for Kissing Jessica Stein (perhaps also for being Jon Hamm’s better half), actress Jennifer Westfeldt returns a decade after that lesbian comedy with Friends With Kids, her directorial debut (she also penned the script and stars in the film). It’s basically Bridesmaids for the stroller set, following the fate of three wealthy New York couples as they move to Brooklyn and spawn. The film is funniest in the first act, when it pits Westfeldt and her commitment-phobic buddy (played by Adam Scott) against their friends, who have morphed from sophisticated city folk to harried parents who nod out at the dinner table. The plot kicks in when Westfeldt and Scott decide to have a baby and become platonic co-parents, forestalling her biological clock while remaining free to find their respective soul mates. Unsurprisingly, rather formulaic complications ensue. Sure, the story is whitewashed and soft in the middle, but the stellar cast makes the most of the opportunity. The film is worth seeing for Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig alone, who are menacingly funny as a struggling couple. Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd also bring schlubby charm to their more supportive union. It ain’t Haneke, but this Chardonnay comedy has ample charms.
Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold)
From the obsessive security guard of Red Road to the foul-mouthed waif of Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold’s films are emotionally and visually charged explorations of their female leads’ psyches. Her new film is somewhat of a departure in content and form, but it retains the strength of vision I respect in her work. Although its provenance is obvious, Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is an exhilaratingly sensual retelling of Emily Bronte’s classic novel. Her shamanic visuals find cruelty and beauty in the wildness of the moors as much as in the frantic love between Catherine and Heathcliff. The film is heavy with nature, a rich, erotic, and rotting world that seems to consume its young lovers. The performances are stark and blunt, with a surprising heat drawn from the economy of words. Most entrancing for me was the orchestra of sounds that fill this world. The lashing rain, creaking hinges, panting horses, and windy moors are expertly used to narrative effect. This film won’t be for everyone, but it will find fans among those who enjoyed the rapturous rhythm of Malick’s Tree Of Life.
Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
Don’t be deterred by the blah posters and vague title; director Bennett Miller’s follow up to Capote is Hollywood filmmaking done right. Brad Pitt is strong, and extremely Redford-esque, as Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s maverick manager (and former pro ball player with a bitter past) who bucks the system. Jonah Hill does a subtle, smart turn as his protégé, a Yale economics ace who parses spreadsheets of stats to reveal the hidden biases of scouts and the true value of baseball players. Miller turns what could have been a heroic, fist-pumping sports movie into a slow-burn story about perseverance, the loneliness of innovation, and the thin, painful courage that sustains a last chance. Filmmakers and others on the entertainment industry fringes might find extra resonance in Beane’s struggle; the rest can enjoy the star wattage of a classic liberal Hollywood Oscar flick. Moneyball opens in theaters on September 23.
Doubles With Slight Pepper (Ian Harnarine) & Throat Song (Miranda de Pencier)
Tellingly, these two standout short films from TIFF’s exclusively Canadian lineup deal with the aspects of Canada’s more diverse and complicated heritage. Harnarine is an NYU grad and Spike Lee disciple. Did I mention he’s also a physicist? He holds the most prestigious day job of any aspiring director I’ve heard of, but judging by his funny, sad short Doubles With Slight Pepper (which took the prize for Best Canadian Short Film in Toronto), he’ll have to retire the lab coat pretty soon. The film, about an estranged father’s return from Toronto to his wife and son in Trinidad, is melancholy and witty, bolstered by Harnarine’s keen ear for dialogue and assured visuals. Her job as a producer brought Miranda de Pencier to Canada’s Arctic, where she was inspired by an Inuit woman to try her hand at directing. Her short Throat Song tells the story of a young Inuit woman struggling to reclaim her life and her heritage. She cowers from her cruel husband at home and suffers in her job prepping victims and witnesses for court appearances. The film is swift and powerful, anchored by the compelling performance of Ippiksaut Friesen, and is an auspicious debut for the first-time director.