Toronto International Film Festival 2009 – Juliet Goodfriend’s Notes

Juliette Goodfriend, the aptly named Executive Director of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute in suburban Philly, is one of those devoted art house exhibitors who does whatever it takes to bring the best in international cinema to her audience. We’re proud to have her institution as partof the Emerging Cinemas network. At this year’s Toronto Film Festival, Juliette scoured the available films and I’m pleased to share her thoughts with you.  Those of you who live in or near Philly, owe it to yourself to check out her theater.

From Juliette Goodfriend:

A failed tweeter, I submit in good, old-fashioned prose my comments about the 30 films I viewed in part or in their entirety. As has become the custom, they are grouped in approximate descending order of appeal to what I take to be our audience at BMFI. Remember, too, that I have previously submitted notes on the couple dozen films we saw at Cannes ’09, some of which were major hits here at Toronto.

Emerging themes from Toronto: Uncertainty, infidelity, intoxication, and apocalypse—any relationship you see among them is purely intentional. What I noticed most was that there was very little blood in “My Toronto”. So here goes:

Worth showing and seeing

(I only hope we can screen them. Some we will not be able to get, of course, due to the unruly, anti-competitive, and downright annoying practices of certain distributors, or due to timing problems. But we will try.)

A Serious Man (Coen Brothers, USA)

One of the very best in fest from every angle. Is this the Coen brothers writing Woody Allen? Manhattan Murder is surely an ancestor. The pathos of uncertainty, the pretension of religion, and the humor of apocalypse. I smile just thinking of this film, filled with unknown actors and sly ideas. Damn the distributor who won’t let us make them money showing it! See it at the Ritz, unless you hear otherwise from us.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, UK)

Heath Ledger’s last role and a showpiece for Christopher Plummer, this film demonstrates the glories of computer generated effects as it explores the “Devil’s Bargain”. I fell asleep a few times only to wake in the dream world of this delightful piece. No uncertainty about this fantasy world.

The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (Judith Ehrich & Rick Goldsmith, USA)

Even though, or maybe because, I lived through this time I found this re-telling riveting. If five Presidents lied how can we trust any? The protagonist looks old, but the story feels very up to date.

Ahead of Time (Bob Richman, USA)

How is it we did not know the wonderful story of this remarkable and charming woman, now in her late 90s and still smart as a whip. Ruth Gruber was the youngest Ph.D. from the University of Cologne and landed jobs as a journalist that took her to the Soviet Arctic and just about everywhere else on earth. I hope we can invite her to show this film!

The Invention of Lying (Ricky Gervais, Mathew Robinson, USA)

Lighthearted though it is, this film annoyingly confuses absence of super-ego and free-wheeling id with the inability to lie. You will laugh as I did at the situations this absence provokes. But it is so reminiscent of Jim Carrey and The Truman Show, etc. that it doesn’t seem as fresh as its creators would like.

Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, USA)

Talk about apocalypses—we are living one and it’s called capitalism. Is Moore overstating the evils of capitalism? I doubt it the way things are going. I cried in this one, so disturbing is it. See it starting Oct. 2 at BMFI—maybe you will just enjoy it and not cry. Maybe we should be screening Sicko again! Where is FDR when we need him?

The Art Of The Steal (Don Argott, USA)

This is the Barnes story written as the Rape of Philadelphia. After seeing it one yearns for hear the “other side”. Full of people we know (the first person on the screen is my friend since kindergarten!), this film needs to be screened at BMFI and followed by a panel discussion. But for now, hey, it changed my view of the Barnes’s move and made me question the means to the end and the end as well.

Lebanon (Samuel Maoz, Israel)

Imagine Das Boot and Hurt Locker then squeeze yourself into the inside of a tank that gets lost in a battle and you have the feeling this extraordinary film evokes. All of it takes place in a tank and it could be a tank in any battle on earth. You would still come away sure that war is hell and then you die! Filmmaking at its best.

Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog, USA)

He’s done a splendid feature with a dry and degenerating Nicolas Cage as a policeman gone bad. Herzog’s genius keeps right on working. Oddly enough he denies any relationship to the earlier film of the more or less same name. If you love police dramas this twisty, quirky one will have you laughing! One of the best of fest. Look for the talking alligators and iguanas.

The Time That Remains or “The Present Absentee” (Elia Suleiman)

This is a fascinating tour de force of cinema, though its slow and quiet pace makes viewing it a bit trying. Influences of Tati abound in his use of sound and in a few funny scenes. It depicts five or six decades of life for a Palestinian family (Suleiman’s) in Israel. That nothing changes is the point. Who is present and who absent is hard to tell. Israel’s inability to effectively govern the Palestinians is subtly but definitely part of the message.

Leaves of Grass (Tim Blake Nelson, USA)

Edward Norton plays two identical twins: one a philosophy professor and the other a brilliant marijuana grower. The teaching scenes demonstrate Tim’s love of classics and his liberal arts education. The other twin’s scenes take place in what is meant to be Tulsa, Tim’s hometown, and its depiction of the Jewish life in Tulsa is right out of his childhood there. Very smart and very funny till the last “act” where it falls into teenaged slapstick and stoops to an audience that would not have loved the first two acts! A problem. Nevertheless the first two acts and Norton’s and Nelson’s performances are worth the price of admission.

Almost, But Not Quite There, Definite Maybes

Shameless (Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic)

As a husband realizes his wife’s nose is too big, we realize that their marriage has even bigger problems. This film captures domestic decline in a fairly charming manner.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (Don Roos, USA)

The story of how a blended family can go wrong. If Natalie Portman could be any more self absorbed and destructive I cannot imagine. No one to like in this film, other than the stepson.

Snowblind (Vikrum Jayanti, USA)

The Iditarod as seen through the eyes of a team accompanying a legally blind young woman. Her drive is spectacular, the movie not so, but if you never expect to get to Alaska on snow team, then see it for the wonderful photography.

Google Baby (Zippi Brand Frank, Israel)

A documentary demonstrating the global surrogacy industry, with eggs from the US, carried by impoverished, desparate Indian women, and passed on to would-be parents from almost anywhere. While it is shocking and interesting, it is not quite crisp enough. The entrepreneur running this business is more likeable than the gun-slinging egg donor whose lifestyle we hope is not in her genes. Do we need more babies who grow up to be rednecks?

Creation (Jon Amiel, UK)

If only it had been less about Darwin’s grief over his daughter’s death and more about the origin of the Origin of the Species, I’d have liked it more. The “war on god” theme may have interesting responses, but the movie descends into sappiness. Would that Toby Jones as Huxley had a bigger part.

The Men Who Stare At Goats (Grant Heslov, USA)

George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey have more fun in their roles than I did watching it, though a satire on the US in Iraq is always some fun!

Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, USA)

George Clooney, always wonderful to watch, plays the consummate road warrior, at home in the airport. A simple moral: the value of family. Not quite BMFI fare, but good to watch on a plane!

Chloe (Atom Egoyan, France/Canada)

Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore almost make this movie a success, but not quite. It is uncertainty about infidelity (there are the themes), but overwrought.

Le Refuge (Francois Ozon, France)

To be honest, it was with some discussion that I figured out the movie was about motherhood—of all types: selfish, aloof, frantic, abandoning. Very slow and lovely. Well made, but not long-lasting. A lot of focus on the pregnant belly.

Accident (Pou-Soi Cheang, Hong Kong, China)

A fast moving and very smart film of a hit gang who make every murder look like an accident. The protagonist believes he and his mates are themselves targeted to die. You have to watch it carefully.

The Search (Pema Tsedan with Pierre Rissient, China)

The scenery of Western China or Tibet is beautiful and the arch of the slowly emerging love story carried me along. A filmmaker’s long search fails to find the right local and classically trained actors to use in a movie of a famous myth about a king who gives away everything including his eyes. Is this about Tibet giving away everything to China? Could be.

Definitely Not Going to Screen at BMFI; Missable

The Road (John Hillcoat, (USA)

If this were one hour shorter, or even 30 minutes shorter, I would have thought it a success. But this apocalypse takes too long to climax. Read the book.

Dorian Gray (Oliver Parker, UK)

How disappointing: great story reduced to drunken party scenes. Such high production values and Colin Firth don’t save it. And the music… ugh.

The Last Days of Emma Blank (Alex van Warmerdam, Netherlands)

So dreary a subject nothing could get me to stay through it.

The Hole (Joe Dante, USA)

3-D is made for showing holes with no ends, but I ended this one early.

Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (Manoel di Oliveira, Portugal/Spain/France)

Though the director is now 102 years old, he manages to tell a short story of a young man who cannot escape one unfortunate predicament after another in trying to do good and marry his dream girl.

White Material (Claire Denis, France)

What happened to clarity, Claire? Enough hand held, out of focus pans to make anyone ill. And no one I spoke to had any idea of who was who! But as an atmosphere piece, OK. Now I know what it is like to be a white coffee plantation owner with an insane son and a couple husbands who feels she must continue and risks everyone’s safety from the marauders who are freeing the country from colonialism or something.

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