I’ve only got two eyes to work with, and among TIFF’s 335 films from 64 countries, there are far more that I’m dying to see than I can possibly fit it. And I’ll be concentrating on the significant over the obscure. Here’s my tip sheet of favorites, a list that will continue to expand as the festival unfolds, thrown down in whatever order strikes my fancy. Click on each title for a capsule review:
Los Viajes del viento (The Wind Journeys)
Up in the Air
Capitalism: A Love Story
Les Herbes Folles (Wild Grass)
A Serious Man
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire
The Young Victoria
Crab Trap (Vuelco del Cangrejo)
Wind Journeys is a coming-of-age odyssey about Fermín (Yull Núñez), a stubborn boy who follows an equally stubborn accordion player, Ignacio (Marciano Martínez), on an odyssey through the rugged mountains, savannas and deserts of northern Colombia. Depressed after the sudden death of his wife, Ignacio is on mission to return his accordion to his mentor, and Fermín is determined to become his apprentice, no matter how hard the taciturn musician tries to shake him off. Superbly directed by Ciro Guerra, this realist fable unfolds as an exhilarating mix of music, landscape and drama. Even simply as a travelogue, the film is a natural drama of exquisite beauty, taking us to remote and desolate areas of Columbia, where you get the sense the camera has never ventured before. As the lens reveals wild lands and cultures, villagers play themselves. But the story itself—told with spare dialogue, poetic visuals and vivid sound design—is deeply affecting and boldly unsentimental. Martínez is a musician, not an actor, yet as he sustains a spaghetti western pose of sullen power, he has a riveting presence. As does the boy. And the music! The movie is set in 1968, when accordion troubadours still roamed from village to village. Ignacio engages in fierce accordion duels that involve singing and declamatory freestyle singing. There’s a notion that the musician is possessed by his instrument, which has horns attached, and you can believe it, as if he’s playing, or being played by, the lungs of the devil, or a higher power. As the awkwardly translated title reminds us, the accordion is a wind instrument. Throughout the film, the wind howls, and as the camera captures rhythms of light and shadow racing across the land, it’s as if the filmmaker is drawing music from the earth itself. This is a brilliant, beautiful work of pure cinema. Literally breathtaking.
Chloe: Stop the presses. Atom Egoyan has made a movie that is exciting, utterly accessible, and has the capacity to be a commercial hit. Chloe, which stars Julianne Moore as a gynecologist who suspects her husband (Liam Neeson) is having an affair, hires a young prostitute name Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) to test his fidelity. This twisty erotic intrigue is a remake of a French movie called Natalie, which I’d seen, so I thought I knew what was coming. But screenwriter Erin Cressida (Secretary) pushes the story farther, much farther, into some wildly kinky terrain. This is the first movie It’s impossible to really talk about this movie without spoiling the plot. So I won’t. I’ll just say it shows off Toronto as we’ve never seen it onscreen; it looks unbelievably sexy. This is Egoyan’s first feature that he didn’t script himself. But screenwriter Erin Cressida seems to have read his mind. She’s created an utterly Atomic cocktail of erotic taboo and family subterfuge . There are moments that sent chills down my spine. The movie’s revelation is Amanda Seyfried, who co-stars with Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body. Seybried not only has huge eyes and pillowy lips, but turns out to be a sensational actress.
Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands: Canadian director Peter Mettler, who served as cinematographer on Manufactured Landscapes, picks up where Edward Burtynsky left off, exploring the aesthetics of havoc with this bird’s-eye view of industrial devastation. Running just 43 minutes, Petropolis is not a feature, but it’s an epic sweep. It’s a spectacle of astonishing and terrifying beauty, a toxic landscape of myriad earth tones, a canvas that’s been gouged and scraped and scumbled as if by a giant palette knife, and painted with irridescent swirls of jade and topaz. Pollution has never looked so pretty. Petropolis is a motion picture oil painting, literally.
The Road: While we’re on the subject of finding stern beauty in environmental apocalypse, director John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitizer-Prize-winning novel is harrowing, haunting and remarkably faithful to its source. An intense Viggo Mortensen wins father-of-the-year in the role of the fiercely protective dad trying to lead his young son out of danger as they roam a cold, charred landscape ravaged by cannibals. Despite a sentimental coda that over-sweetens the ending, this mesmerizing thriller taps the primal core of human hope and despair.
Up in the Air: Native son Jason Reitman launched his career at TIFF with Thank You for Smoking (2005) and the massively successful Juno (2007). Like a ballplayer milking a winning streak, he refused gala treatment and premiered his latest film at the same modest Ryerson University theatre where his two previous features were unveiled. Reitman wrote the starring role for George Clooney—an obsessive frequent flier who fires people for a living, loves his job, and is chronically unattached, tethered only to an occasional romance with a like-minded fellow traveller (Vera Farmiga). But his world comes crashing down when a young spitfire (Anna Hendrick) proposes cutting his company’s travel costs and firing people online. Clooney has never been better; an Oscar nomination seems guaranteed. Finally a director has cracked his suave shell and found a well of vulnerability. This movie began as a satire when Reitman started to write it six years ago. As the director matured and the economy nose-dived, it gained compassion and morphed into something infinitely sadder and more profound. Suspended in mid-air between comedy and tragedy this is an original and strangely moving film. And it could not be more timely.
Capitalism: A Love Story: Love him or hate him, Moore is America’s most successful documentary filmmaker and the de facto leader of the populist left, and this is arguably the best thing he’s ever. done. It’s certainly the most sophisticated. For all it’s poetic licence, Sicko served as the definitive attack on private health insurance in the U.S. Now he takes on the whole shooting match with Capitalism: A Love Story. It’s the most sophisticated film of his career. Sure, it’s propaganda, but his own voice is less strident, and more wistful than ever. And despite the title, this is no ideological rant. While tiptoeing around the “socialist” bogeyman, he wages a thoroughly convincing polemic that pits capitalism against democracy. He dramatizes the atrocities of the financial collapse, the bailout and the epidemic of home foreclosures to drive home his point. It’s amazing what an agit-prop filmmaker can do with some serious resources. Moore digs up extraordinary revelations about “dead peasant” insurance taken out by major corporations that hope to profit from the early deaths of their employees—without their knowledge. It’s a scandal that deserves its own documentary. As usual, this film contains a lot of what the media likes to call “sob stories.” But Moore doesn’t patronize his subjects the way he used to. And for once he keeps his own rage (which can get ugly) under wraps. His signature guerrilla stunts are funny, effective and restrained. Taking dead aim at his main target, he exposes the obscene romance between Washington and and Wall Street with a fine balance of rapier wit and measured pathos. His most inspired touch: to finesse his argument by drafting F.D.R. onto his side. And here’s the thing: in the debate over Moore’s politics, his artistry as a filmmaker often gets overlooked. With Capitalism: A Love Story, it soars to new heights. His excavation and montage of archival gems is brilliant, as is his use of music and narration to underscore comic and tragic ironies. Moore is a consummate showman. But perhaps the ultimate pathos that emerges at the end of the film is his own isolation as the sad clown of anti-capitalism—a lonely voice with a powerful megaphone who’s still waiting for a movement to catch up to him.Love him or hate him, Michael Moore is America’s most successful documentary filmmaker and the de-facto leader of the populist left. And his filmmaking becomes more sophisticated with each outing. For all it’s poetic licence, Sicko served as the definitive attack on private health insurance in the U.S. Now he takes on the whole shooting match with Capitalism: A Love Story. It’s the most sophisticated film of his career. Sure, it’s propaganda, but his own voice is less strident, and more wistful than ever. And despite the title, this is no ideological rant. While tiptoeing around the “socialist” bogeyman, he wages a thoroughly convincing polemic that pits capitalism against democracy. And he dramatizes the atrocities of the financial collapse, the bailout and the epidemic of home foreclosures to drive home his point. It’s amazing what an agit-prop filmmaker can do with some serious resources. Moore digs up extraordinary revelations about “dead peasant” insurance taken out by major corporations hoping to profit from the early deaths of their employees—without their knowledge. It’s a scandal that deserves its own documentary. As usual, this film contains a lot of what the media likes to call “sob stories.” But Moore doesn’t patronize his subjects the way he used to. And for once he keeps his own rage (which can get ugly) under wraps. His signature guerrilla stunts are funny, effective and restrained. And he exposes the obscene romance between Washington and and Wall Street with a fine balance of rapier wit and measured pathos. His most inspired touch—to finesse his argument by draft F.D.R. onto his side. And here’s the thing: in the debate over Moore’s politics, his artistry as a filmmaker often gets overlooked. With Capitalism: A Love Story, it soars to new heights. His excavation and montage of archival gems is brilliant, as is his use of music and narration to underscore comic and tragic ironies. Moore is a consummate showman. But perhaps the ultimate pathos in this film is his own isolation as the sad clown of anti-capitalism—a lonely voice with a powerful megaphone who’s still waiting for a movement to catch up to him.
Suck: I can’t imagine there being a more crowd-pleasing Canadian film at TIFF than this hilarious rock’n’roll vampire movie from writer-director-star Rob Stefaniuk (Phil the Alien). With shades of Rocky Horror and This is Spinal Tap, it’s a wonderfully loose, light farce with a hot band, a superb original soundtrack and a cast with serious rock pedigree—including Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper and Alex Lifeson of Rush. And as the blood-sucking bass player, Jessica Paré, finally shows what’s she’s capable of after her debut in Denis Arcand’s ill-fated Stardom. Stefaniuk reinvents vampire comedy with a droll Canuck touch—check out the shot above of Paré siphoning a snack through a straw. And there are some immortal lines, from Iggy’s sage counsel—”Always wear a condom and never trust a goddamn vampire”—to this dressing room — to this backstage buffet offer: “Would you like to try some groupie?” After all these years of exporting comedy stars to Hollywood, finally we have an English Canadian comedy that stands a good chance of catching fire, at least with a cult audience.
An Education: This utterly delightful coming-of-age story should make a star of Carey Mulligan. She plays a sharp 16-year-old schoolgirl from a London suburb who’s hoping to land a spot at Oxford when she’s derailed by a dubious but debonair older man (Peter Sarsgaard). He tempts her with a much racier education. Written by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) and directed by Lone Scherfig, the story is set in 1961, in post-war, pre-Beatles England. As its impressionable ingenue is seduced by art, jazz, nightclubs and everything French, the film captures a world on the cusp of a cultural revolution.
Fish Tank: A darker companion piece to An Education, here’s another film by a female director about a teenage girl flamboyantly coming of age in a dour English suburb. But this is tougher, bleaker fare. Its young heroine, a dance-mad delinquent played with abrasive brilliance by Katie Jarvis, is at war with her party-girl mother, and too easily charmed by her flirtatious boyfriend. Bad things happen, but striking visuals and a reggae-spiked soundtrack keep our spirits high. Andrea Arnold directs like a female Ken Loach with Jonathan Demme’s sense of rhythm.
Les Herbes Folles (Wild Grass): You don’t expect to see an exhilarating film from an 87-year-old director. But Alain Renais (Hiroshima mon amour), turned a lot of heads in Cannes, including mine, with this wonderfully off-kilter comedy of errors. It’s about an elderly married man who finds a woman’s wallet in a parking lot, takes pains to track down its owner, and then feels compelled to court her. An old man has succeeded in reinventing French romantic comedy—no mean feat—and never for a second does it feel like an old man’s film.
A Serious Man: Coen brothers’ movies tend to fall into two camps, the silly and the severe. After the severe brilliance of No Country for Old Men, the silliness of Burn After Reading was a disappointment. A Serious Man doesn’t have the epic sweep or gravitas of No Country, but this is classic Coen brothers—an astringent suburban-gothic comedy that is seriously bleak and deliciously black. There’s no Brad Pitt this time around, just a cast of excellent character actors. The Coens go back to their Jewish Minnesota roots and present the tale of a loser math prof who tries to do all the right things, but is beset by bribery, blackmail, bratty kids and marital infidelity. The story is set in 1967, but this is a sunless Summer of Love, and with the Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love cranking up the irony, the hippie dream is already dead in the water.
The Informant: You don’t need to see this movie at TIFF; it’s opening commercially on Sept. 18. But Steven Soderbergh’s offbeat spin on the whistle-blower genre—deserves a place on the list. In this true story of corporate corruption, a bulked-up Matt Damon plays Mark Whitacre, an agri-biz honcho who became the highest-ranking whistle-blower in U.S. history during the late ’90s. Whitacre exposes an international price-fixing conspiracy involving a corn product called lysene. But while wearing a wire for the FBI, and entertaining Mission Impossible delusions of grandeur, our hero spins an elaborate web of lies, and embezzles millions from the company he’s ratting on. It’s hard to get too worked up about price fixing—unlike The Insider or Soderbergh’s own Erin Brockovich, this is an investigative tale of a scandal with no clear human toll. No one’s getting killed. But it’s a fascinating story, which Soderbergh wisely milks for absurdist comedy, and Damon’s boyish, gee-whiz enthusiasm is well-deployed in the title role.
A Prophet: I caught this in Cannes, where it was a critical favorite. Though I found it a bit of an endurance test at the time (any good prison movie is an exercise in vicarious incarceration), it left a memorable impression. A Prophet tells the story of an illiterate 19-year-old Arab (Tahar Rahim) who has landed a six-year jail term without knowing what he’s done wrong. He falls prey to the prison’s ruling Corsican mafia, who initiate him by forcing him to kill an inmate and then make him their slave. As he comes of age, he learns to survive by his wits. Brace yourself. From the boy’s grisly initiation—a fountain of blood arcs from the neck of a man he kills with a razor blade hidden in his mouth—this is tough stuff. But it’s compelling drama, and Rahim’s performance is superb.
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire: Yes, that subtitle is part of the movie’s official title, as precious as that may seem. Before the year is out, you’re going to get sick of hearing about Precious. Oprah is behind it, and it’s gathering momentum that will undoubtedly take it to the Oscars. But the hardest cynic can’t help but be moved by the performances in this caustic slice of urban ghetto life. As Precious, a teenager pregnant for the second time by her father, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is extraordinary. In the role of her intolerant mother, Mo’nique steals the movie in a blistering scene that makes her so much more than a villain. Even Mariah Carey is no slouch, dressing down her glamour to play a social worker.
Bright Star: A lot of critics in Cannes were dismissive of this immaculate offering from Jane Campion, her first feature in six years. They found it too conventional. It is, after all, just a simple romance beautifully rendered. But these days, pure romance without comic contrivance is rare indeed. Campion tells the story of poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) falling in love with Fannie Brawne (Abbie Cornish), who is literally the girl next door. Because he’s a poet, he has no income and is not husband-material. Worse still, he is about to die young. Their courtship is the ultimate slow-burn love affair.
The Young Victoria: Another period film about young romance. And talk about surprises. This is the festival’s closing-night gala. At any film festival, closing night is usually the booby prize; no one wants it because it’s too late to generate buzz. The other surprise: a Québecois has made a dignified period piece exalting British royalty. Jean-Marc Vallée, who made a splash with C.R.A.Z.Y., directs a sublimely self-possessed Emily Blunt as the young Victoria, who out-maneuvers a court of vipers to achieve her regal independence, and enjoy a hot romance with Belgium’s Prince Albert (Rupert Friend).
Daybreakers: Hey, it’s a vampire movie and it’s in the wacky Midnight Madness program, but I thought this film was a hoot, and very stylishly directed by Michael and Peter Spierig. The story’s ingenious conceit imagines a world that has been taken over, more or less, by vampires. Humans are an endangered species, there’s a global blood shortage, and the vampire industrial complex is rounding up the mortal survivors and enslaving them in factory blood farms. Ethan Hawke stars as a good vampire who allies with Willem Dafoe, a bad-ass rebel leader in the human underground. The vampire-killing weapon of choice? A crossbow!
Jennifer’s Body: OMG, yet another vampire movie. With Daybreakers and Suck, this baby makes three. And it’s bound to be the biggest hit. Written by Diablo Cody (Juno) and starring Megan Fox—who acts like Angelina Jolie in her Billy Bob Thornton phase—Jennifer’s Body throws a feminist kink into the old blonde/brunette, saint/slut high-school horror movie formula. Evil arrives in the form of an indie rock band called Low Shoulder, which comes to the town of Kettle Falls and commits a cult murder to achieve stardom. Fox is, well, a fox, and teenage boys all over North America will be trying to sneak in under the film’s R rating to drool over her, although the sex is strictly soft-core (no nudity, boys.) The film’s revelation is Amanda Seyfried, who plays the good-girl heroine opposite Fox’s bloodsucker. But in a modern twist on the formula, this sweet blond is far from virginal. Seyfried also stars in Atom Egoyan’s Chloe. Expect her to emerge as TIFF’s It Girl.
The Trotsky: No vampires in this high-school romp, unless you count the uncanny likeness of a goateed Colm Feore, playing a villainous principal, to Bolshevik icon Vladimir Lenin. But along with Suck, The Trotsky is another rare example of a smart, funny and wildly original English Canadian comedy. And it’s got one of the craziest premises ever to get financed. The fiercely patriotic Canadian actor Jay Baruchel—the Judd Apatow protegé who made such a memorable splash in Tropic Thunder—stars as a precocious Montreal Jew who believes he’s the reincarnation of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, and is determined to have his own life replicate Leon’s in every way, including his choice of wife, exile, and assassination. Although plausibility wavers, and things gethokey, this high-concept comedy zips along with an amiable wit. Baruchel’s performance is a treat. And he’s flanked by a strong supporting cast, including Anne-Marie Cadieu, Saul Rubinek, Emily Hampshire—plus a weirdly iconic Genevieve Bujold. Director Jacob Tierney displays almost as much nerve in pulling off this eccentric comedy as his deluded protagonist shows in maintaining his belief that he’s destined to be murdered with an ice-pick. Fortunately, the story doesn’t go that far, but hey, there’s always The Trotsky II. Permanent revolution!
Good Hair: Directed by Jeff Stilson and hosted by Chris Rock, this documentary explore the African American obsession with having “good hair,” i.e. hair that is soft and straight, like the kind white folks wear. It’s both funny and alarming. Rock explores the massive industry of corrosive chemical perms designed to make hair “relaxed” — which he claims are really just design to make white people more relaxed about black people. He travels to India to track down the origins of the weaves women pay thousands of dollars to sew onto their head. And he frames the whole thing with the saga of a surreal Atlanta pageant where hairdressers compete on a runway to cut and style black hair as a burlesque performance art.
Crab Trap (Vuelco de Cangrejo) Sometimes from the very opening frames a film can transport you into another place and time—a place where time stops. Crab Trap is one of those films, a submersive experience. The assured first feature from young Columbian director Oscar Ruis Navia is a exquisite meditation. Set in a remote black village on Columbia’s wild Pacific coast, it’s a languid tale of a mysterious young man, a fugitive of some sort who wants only to leave, to find a boat and escape. As he becomes a guest of the village, his life and ours are slowed down by a culture—of nature and man—that seems on the verge of extinction. There’s trouble in paradise. It’s a fishing village where the fish have vanished. A white landowner is trying to build a nightclub and bothering the locals with his loudspeakers. The fugitive and the landowner are played by professionals, the others by local non-actors, setting up a natural tension between the outsiders and residents. Behind the spare narrative and lush visuals is an erotic undercurrent that traps us in a forlorn world of haunting beauty.