Thursday, August 21, 2008

Pre-Fest Picks

Instead of complaining more about what’s not at this year’s TIFF, I figured that it might be more productive to provide some informed opinions about what I’d recommend seeing and I’m most looking forward to.

Let’s start with a few films I’ve already seen and would heartily recommend:

When it’s all said and done, Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt) could very well turn out to be the best film playing at the festival. Anchored by a soulful performance from Michelle Williams, this small-scale drama packs the same heart-destroying punch as neorealist classics like Umberto D. and the same immersive approach to characterization as the best films from the Dardenne brothers. Stripped down, but thematically rich, it’s able to produce reverberations about America at large, while never betraying its ultra-specific scenario.

The first act of A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin) is nothing less than dizzying. The opening moments recount the death of a child, offer a cancer diagnosis and a frantic hunt for a bone marrow donor, chronicle how a son came to be disowned by his family due to a sister’s manipulations, and startle with a suicide attempt. By frontloading the dramatic meat of the story, though, the film becomes less about shocking revelations or plot twists than the sometimes comic, sometimes serious dynamics of a family under extreme strain. This lovably messy showcase for director Desplechin probably represents his finest work yet. The all-star French cast performs admirably throughout.

A novel women-in-prison film, set within a maternity ward for the incarcerated, Lion’s Den (Pablo Trapero) represents yet another uncommonly assured outing for its Argentinean auteur. Throughout, Trapero eschews the predictable pleasures of this tawdry genre, opting for introspection and diffusion over dramatic force. What results is a surprisingly internalized performance from Martina Gusman and a movie that simultaneously attracts and repels audience involvement.

A crowd pleaser from a most unexpected source, Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) represents a radical change of pace for its director, who usually specializes in brainy horror films. Taking on a distinctly Japanese brand of angst, the movie focuses on a family, each of whom feels constrained by forces out of their control. As the family’s lives threaten to unravel, Kurosawa’s past as a director of scary movies pays major dividends. The ending, which seems to be a reassertion of the value of the family unit, has a rare cathartic impact.

I was a bit down on Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy) when I saw it back in May, but I suspect that I may have been too hard on it. Unlike most ethnographic films (this one’s set on the Kazakh Steppes), this exotic romantic comedy exhibits real directorial prowess and a consistent formal strategy. Its story is charming, its digressions feel like a celebration of a people, and near its end it’s got a shot that qualifies as a bona fide cinematic miracle. Already the winner of the top prize at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, this could be on track for TIFF’s audience award.

Moving on to things I haven’t seen, but I’d like to:

Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater) has to top my list. Even when the consensus on a Linklater film deems it a misfire (e.g. Fast Food Nation, Bad News Bears), I find plenty to enjoy. I’ve paged through this script for this one, and from what I can tell, this will offer the same generous spirit that has defined the director’s work to date.

Minimalist, deadpan, and contemplative, Honor de cavalleria was distinctive for a variety of reasons. It qualified as one of the most original arthouse films of recent years. As such, I’m eagerly anticipating its follow-up, Birdsong (Albert Serra), which attempts to graft the same stripped-down style onto the Biblical tale of the Three Wise Men.

Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso) provides is a bit of a conundrum. I’ve watched all of Alonso’s past films, but haven’t really enjoyed any of them. Nonetheless, some perverse part of my cinephile brain tells me that this is an important director. I know a unique style when I see it. As such, I feel no small bit of obligation to check out his latest, which reportedly features the ruminations of a sailor who’s returned to his homeland.

Ever since I’ve started going to TIFF, I don’t think there’s been a year where there hasn’t been an opportunity to see a film featuring Isabelle Huppert, who’s quite possibly my favorite living actress. The Sea Wall [Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique] (Rithy Panh), an adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ novel, provides this year’s chance. A parable about the absurdity of French colonialism, it will likely give this singularly steely thespian a character that will let her exhibit her remarkable ability to project determination.

The barebones plot descriptions that I’ve seen of 35 Rhums (Claire Denis) don’t inspire much confidence. It’s apparently about a father helping his daughter recover from his wife’s suicide. Knowing that Denis directs, though, has quite the opposite effect. Her attention to minute emotional changes should serve her well in transforming this boilerplate material into something genuinely profound.

Genova (Michael Winterbottom) comes from a director renowned for his ability to seamlessly segue from one genre to another, which seems fortunate, as its mix of ghost story and sexual angst sounds like it could easily become compromised by conflicting thematic demands. Winterbottom is not one to shy away from a challenge, though, and he succeeds more often than he fails, so I’m willing to give this my attention, even if the appeal of Colin Firth will forever be lost on me.

Last year, Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django was one of the festival’s high points. This year, another Asian film inspired by spaghetti westerns, The Good, The Bad, and the Weird (Kim Ji-woon), promises more thrills. An unfinished version of this mindless but stylish action film premiered at Cannes to raves. I expect the reception in North America will be similarly enthusiastic.

I’m not sure if Austrian filmmaker Götz Spielmann has much of a reputation at all, but I certainly appreciated Antares, his last feature. Comparisons between his work and that of his countrymen Ulrich Seidl and Michael Haneke seem entirely appropriate, which is great for people like me who don’t mind being punished a bit by the movies they see. As such, I’ll be sure to check out Revanche (Götz Spielmann), which purportedly takes on a noir plot.

Vinyan (Fabrice du Welz) is likely a festival pick for anyone who saw Calvaire, its director’s demented debut feature. Apparently extremely violent and remarkably intense, this thriller features a French couple who roam the jungles of Thailand in search of their missing child. Check out this bizarre clip, courtesy of Twitch, and you’ll see what kind of wild ride this movie threatens to offer.

The lone film with any real Best Picture Oscar buzz coming into the festival, Miracle at St. Anna (Spike Lee) will be one to keep an eye on. I will likely skip it during TIFF, since it will release commercially in September, but its debut here probably marks the festival’s biggest contribution to this year’s Oscar race.

If I wasn’t planning on seeing them at the upcoming NYFF, Summer Hours [L'Heure d'été] (Olivier Assayas), Hunger (Steve McQueen) and Four Nights With Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski) would be top picks as well.

Finally, three films that seem like possible standouts from the Midnight Madness schedule:

JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri), the sidebar’s opening night attraction, applies a self-analytical narrative to the Muscles from Brussels’ heretofore limited screen persona. Whether low expectations, novelty value or genuine achievement are to credit for the good buzz on this one is tough to say, but there’s no denying that said good buzz exists.

The Burrowers (JT Petty) merges the Western and Giant Monster genres. It’s already prompted comparisons to Tremors, which might be setting it up for a fall with the midnight audience. Given Petty’s other films (see the excellent Soft for Digging, if you haven’t already), I’d suspect something more substantial and less reliant on genre thrills.

Martyrs (Pascal Laugier) attracted some minor controversy earlier this year when it was given a rare French 18 rating due to its extremely violent content. The film has since been re-rated to a lesser 16 rating abroad, but reports from Cannes suggest that this revenge film pushes the torture horror genre to new extremes. That sounds like perfect Midnight Madness fare to me.


Adam said...

Lame! I advise you to stay home and watch TV.

jacob said...

You forget Maria Larsson's Everlasting Moment (dir Jan Troell). Seems frigging awesome.

1minutefilmreview said...