TIFF gives ’em something to talk about

(TIFF wrap piece for FFWD)

Now in its 34th year, the Toronto International Film Festival always provides ample fodder for conversation. This year’s fest was no exception, drawing international attention for everything from its controversial choice to spotlight Tel Aviv as the first focus of its City to City series, to an appearance by the closest thing to a new messiah that pop culture has yet produced; Oprah Winfrey herself.

Despite the haze of flashbulbs around the red carpet galas and the constant celeb-gawking at the numerous semi-exclusive after-parties, though, nothing draws more attention than the films themselves. Public premierès draw lineups hours in advance, and industry screenings bring in film buyers and festival programmers from around the world to view the latest films from Michael Moore, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Michael Haneke, not to mention the undiscovered gems waiting to be spotted by the right set of discerning eyes. For film lovers, there’s no better place to be.

Taking in all of the noteworthy films is an impossibility. Even at an average of five films a day, I missed Lars von Trier’s irresistibly controversial Antichrist and People’s Choice Award-winner Precious. Of the 37 films I did manage to see, though, the following are the most noteworthy.

Best picture: A Serious Man (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

The Coens revisit the same thematic territory they explored in the excellent No Country for Old Men, namely the search for meaning in a seemingly chaotic universe, this time mining it for laughs rather than horror. It’s no less thought-provoking for its sense of humour, though, finding equal insight in philosophical paradoxes, Talmudic wisdom and Jefferson Airplane lyrics. The cast of relative unknowns initially seems like a reaction to the star-studded silliness of last year’s Burn After Reading, but their anonymity only makes the film more immersive.

Biggest disappointment: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (dir. Terry Gilliam)

Parnassus should be Terry Gilliam’s masterwork, a spiritual successor to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen sans that film’s notoriously trouble-plagued production. Even the death of star Heath Ledger midway through production couldn’t derail it, with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell stepping in for the scenes Ledger couldn’t complete.

The actor-swapping is actually one of the film’s more successful elements, which only highlights its main flaw. Gilliam functions best within creative restraints; his previous, non-CGI-filled films have a ramshackle charm to their pasted-together special effects. Parnassus is so filled with whimsical worlds that its best elements — a deliciously off-kilter Tom Waits as the devil being chief among its charms — are overshadowed. After the underrated Tideland, Parnassus can’t help but feel like a step in the wrong direction.

Most pleasant surprise: The Disappearance of Alice Creed (dir. J. Blakeson)

On its surface, Alice Creed appears to be a standard genre flick — a pair of kidnappers grab a pretty young rich girl, strap her down in a custom-built room and wait to collect their money. It doesn’t take long before the scheming, plotting and backstabbing begins, but unlike most heist flicks every twist and double-cross actually fleshes out the characters involved, transforming them into something greater than stock crime-flick archetypes. The cast and setting are both minimal, but writer-director J. Blakeson’s impressive debut maintains the tension throughout, keeping the viewers’ attention no matter how convoluted the proceedings get.

Most Overrated: Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman)

Up in the Air is by no means a bad movie. Featuring a typically charismatic lead turn from George Clooney as well as a star-making performance from Orphan’s Vera Farmiga, it’s as well-executed a middle-brow dramedy as you’re likely to come across this year. Still, the Oscar buzz that’s built since its TIFF debut is confounding. Jason Reitman’s direction is still every bit as affected as it was in 2007’s Juno, but the story at the film’s core isn’t as infectious as that teen pregnancy tale. Its conservative moral is at odds with the film’s tone, and jokes about text messaging can’t hide the film’s general lack of insight. For a far more satisfying bit of Oscar bait, see Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child, which would top Up in the Air on the strength of Naomi Watts’s wondrously heartless performance alone.

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