Saturday, September 24, 2011

TIFF 2011 - My Viewpoint

The Toronto International Film Festival has ended for another year. There seemed to be more celebrity buzz than film buzz at this year's festival. No single film garnered the lion's share of attention and only a handful of film's left town with strong Oscar aspirations. Where Do We Go Now?, a Lebanese film directed by Nadine Labaki, won the People's Choice Award. The festival's top award winner has gone on to be nominated for Best Picture the last three years, with Slumdog Millionaire and The King's Speech winning in 2008 and 2010. I have trouble with this award, considering only audience members can vote, and it is entirely dependent on the size of the venue screening each film.

This year I was lucky enough, with my busy schedule, to go to four TIFF events - one interview and three films.

As part of its Mavericks package, the Toronto International Film Festival presented a one-on-one interview with British actress and Oscar winner Tilda Swinton. The interview was moderated by lead programmer Noah Cowan and looked at Swinton's career from her first role in Derek Jarman's 1986 film Caravaggio to We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011), which was screened at the festival. Emphasis was placed on certain periods of her career and Swinton, who openly declared she does not see herself as an actor but a creative collaborator, was very warm and receptive of the audience that came to see her at the Bell Lightbox theatre. Tilda Swinton may have become a household name after winning an Academy Award for Michael Clayton (2007), but the interview, which lasted a scant seventy-five minutes, made everyone feel like holding their own Tilda Swinton Film Festival. My only complaint would be that Noah Cowan, while well-researched, is a rather bumbling interviewer.

The first film I saw at this year's festival was Alexander Payne's The Descendants starring George Clooney. It is Payne's first film since 2004's Sideways, which was released while I was living in France and it was a perfect film to watch when consuming mass amounts of wine. Clooney plays Matt King, a father of two girls who learns that his wife, who is in a coma, had been having an affair. Matt has to learn to be a father to his rebellious teenage daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and his ten year old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller). A secondary storyline involves Matt's duty as executor of his family's estate to find the right buyer for his family's ancestral Hawaiian land.

I found the film to be beautiful and exceptionally moving. It is one of George Clooney's best film roles. Alexander Payne has made great films with honest characters and The Descendants is no exception. I was blown away by Shailene Woodley's performance and I did not want the film to end. I could have sat for another few hours to watch these characters grow and learn.

Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 for Lars von Trier's Melancholia but the film was shrouded in controversy after von Trier made sympathetic comments about Nazis during a press conference. I saw the film at the Ryerson Theatre and it is a little too large of an auditorium for my liking, with a seating capacity of 1250.

The film begins like another experimental film released this year, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, but the main narrative soon begins. Melancholia is separated into two chapters, beginning with Justine (Dunst) and Michael's (Alexander Skarsgard) wedding reception. Justine struggles to hide her emotions and often disappears for extended periods of time. Her parents, who are divorced, are openly hostile and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is overly concerned with the night's agenda. As the night progresses Justine becomes increasingly more depressed and notices that the star Antares has disappeared from sight. In part two Justine, who has become severely depressed, comes to stay with Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). We learn that Antares' disappearance was due to Melancholia, a rogue planet which eclipsed the star. John, a scientist, informs the sisters that Melancholia is due to pass by the Earth but Claire becomes convinced that the end of the world is looming.

Melancholia is a good film but at times it relies too heavily on symbolism. I appreciate the symbolism of the planet Melancholia approaching and eclipsing the Earth and how it symbolizes the depression that has taken over Justine's life. But there are a few too many scenes that are confusing, including one where a horse is unable to cross over a bridge (and according to a friend, who attended the gala screening with a Q&A involving Dunst, Skarsgard and Sutherland, the actors were unable to give a reason for that scene). Kirsten Dunst does give one of her best performances, but Melancholia suffers from shaky-cam syndrome and an over reliance on symbolism.

Albert Nobbs is a reminder of Glenn Close's extreme talent. Glenn Close is currently starring on television's Damages (winning Emmy awards in 2009 and 2010) and was nominated for five Academy Awards between 1982 and 1988. She is a phenomenal actress and this film is a surefire contender during awards season. The film is based on a short story by Irish novelist George Moore and was adapted for the stage in 1982, which also starred Close. The film is directed by Rodrigo Garcia, of the underrated Mother and Child (2009), with a screenplay co-written by Close.

Set in late nineteenth century Ireland, Albert Nobbs (Close) works as a butler in a upper-class Dublin hotel. Albert is a dedicated and respected servant and her identity has remains a secret until she is forced to share her bedchambers with Hubert Page (Janet McTeer). Albert's secret is discovered and then learns that Hubert has also been living a false life. Hubert's ability to live as a man and still take a wife makes Albert think he could also find a woman. She begins courting Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a young maid at the hotel, who herself has started a relationship with the hotel's handyman Joe (Aaron Johnson). Albert's dream is to open a tobacco shop and to have a beautiful, young wife work at the front counter.

Albert Nobbs, as a film, is slightly disappointing and its love story never quite takes flight. There was something about Aaron Johnson's performance that just comes across as stale. There are so many storylines and characters in the film, but my interest was in Albert Nobbs and I am not sure the film does the character, or Glenn Close's performance, justice.

I hope that next year's festival can bring a few more surprises and standout performances!

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