To borrow Henry James's description of the Victorian novel, Toronto is one loose and baggy monster of a film festival. One big final roundup would be useless, but roundups for each program just might be manageable (as long as we break up the Special Presentations into a couple of entries as well). Here's the idea: One film of particular interest, for whatever reason, will top each of these groupings with the rest following alphabetically according to the director's surname (silly, I know, but I've been living in Germany for a very long time now and can no longer help myself).
Let's begin this one with the winner of this year's Camera d'Or in Cannes, primarily because what we've got here is a pretty severe split: "Directed by Michael Rowe, Leap Year involves a lonely Mexican woman, Laura (Mónica del Carmen), who, amid overlong, often wordless interludes of her doing nothing of interest — an oft-abused art-cinema strategy — partakes of increasingly brutal one-night stands," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "Finally she meets the man of her dreams and presumably our nightmares: a man who, with her encouragement, subjects her to sexual violence. Mr Rowe might be trying to say something about alienation in the modern world: when she's not staring at the television or eating, Laura works as a business journalist and chatters about markets and the like. But it's hard to care about a filmmaker's intentions when you're watching yet another fiction about a woman's brutalization and, as important, watching another actress exploited under the rubric of art." But Mike D'Angelo gives the film a 73, pretty high on his scale, and at the AV Club, Noel Murray gives it a B+.
Alissa Simon in Variety: "Colorfully stylized, sweet and silly, yet encompassing some serious issues, frisky low-budget laffer Jucy from Australian helmer Louise Alston (All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane) transforms the chick pic into womance.... Working again from a quirky script by her partner Stephen Vagg, Alston demonstrates bravura control of tone and pacing."
"As far as I am concerned, this is a couscous Western. There is a Fort Alamo side to the story. Before we made the scene where the soldiers enter the monastery, I played the theme from Once Upon a Time in the West. It worked." That's Xavier Beauvois, as quoted in John Lichfield's piece in the Independent on Of Gods and Men, in which he goes on to report, "One issue that the film avoids almost completely is the contentious question of who really killed the Tibhirine monks.... The murders, which caused a wave of anger in both France and Algeria at the time, have since become the subject of several conflicting conspiracy theories." Michael Sicinski for Cargo: "Beauvois presents a picture of two faiths living side by side in total mutual respect. However, this isn't a rosy, pie-in-the-sky ecumenical vision. What he demonstrates is that the community shares a mutual distrust of their government, the army, the Muslim extremists, and the French colonizers of the past. That is, their bond has been sealed not through ideology but through laboring side by side, as well as each group studying the tenets of the others' faith." Earlier: Cannes roundup.
Alissa Simon in Variety again: "Matariki is an ungainly multistrander set in the Otara suburb of South Auckland, an economically disadvantaged urban area associated with crime and violence, and home to a large Maori and Polynesian population. Stylistically all over the map, pic has so many unmerited camera and editing tricks, it's as if debuting feature director Michael Bennett fears he will never get another chance."
"By asking whether it's possible to make a feature film about poverty and remain morally consistent, Even the Rain bravely calls into question its own existence," writes Jonathan Holland in Variety. "A powerful, richly layered indictment of the plight of Latin America's dispossessed that cunningly parallels the Spanish conquest of the Americas with the 20th-century spread of capitalism, Iciar Bollaín's fifth feature is her most ambitious and best, driving its big ideas home through a tightly knit Paul Laverty script that only falters over the final reel."
"The unlikely true story of Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge, an 84-year-old Kenyan who took advantage of his country's new free-education program to attend primary school, has been turned into a depressingly mediocre inspirational drama in The First Grader," writes Tim Grierson in Screen. "Changing course radically after the bodice-ripping costume-drama The Other Boleyn Girl, director Justin Chadwick exhibits a restrained approach, but that doesn't keep narrative clichés from wounding this well-meaning piece of moral uplift." More from Peter Debruge (Variety), Stephen Farber (THR) and morlockjeff. The Los Angeles Times' Stephen Zeitchik reports that National Geographic has picked up US rights.
"Adapted from the novel by Paolo Giordino, The Solitude of Prime Numbers is the third feature film from the Italian director Saverio Costanzo (Private, In Memory of Me) and is, to my eyes anyway, a really bold and engaging work that demands conversation and a wider audience," blogs Tom Hall. "Costanzo has made what is essentially a horror story about personal isolation between two young people.... At the heart of the film are two sequences which are among the most thrilling things I've seen at the movies this year." For Lee Marshall, though, writing in Screen, this is an "overwrought misfit romance with few saving graces" and Costanzo "plays the auteur here in a flashy, self-absorbed two-hour guitar solo, with little regard for audience sympathy or character credibility." More from Natasha Senjanovic (THR) and Boyd van Hoeij (Variety).
"A spare, psychological study of a traumatized security guard holding onto his sanity by a soon-to-be-broken thread, the quietly intriguing Half of Oscar is composed of empty spaces and silences behind which lie a terrible tension," writes Jonathan Holland in Variety. "Repping an artistic U-turn by helmer Manuel Martín Cuenca from 2005's busy criss-crosser Hard Times, pic is emotionally chilly." Still, "it's undeniably accomplished, visually striking and superbly played by Rodrigo Sáenz de Heredia as its tightly-wound protag."
"Aftershock, an earthquake film released in China this year that quickly became the country's all-time box-office leader for a domestic movie, played as something of an afterthought this weekend in Toronto," writes Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times. "Directed by Feng Xiaogang, who was unable to attend the festival due to shooting commitments in China, the film is bookended by depictions of the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan and the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.... Aftershock fuses the spectacle of a disaster movie with the tearjerker elements of a more typical Chinese melodrama; a review in the Hollywood Reporter [Maggie Lee] said the film 'clearly harbors ambitions of encapsulating China's strenuous road to prosperity through one family's saga over 32 years.'" More from Dan Fainaru (Screen).
"'Nature never fails,' says the title character of Mamma Gógó, but of course that's precisely what nature does in this semi-autobiographical tale from Icelandic auteur Fridrik Thor Fridriksson," writes John Anderson in Variety. "Based on his experience with his own mother's failing mental health, the film features a standout perf from the venerable Kristbjörg Kjeld, in a role that serves as a stirring coda to 50 years in Icelandic film."
Debs Gardner-Paterson's Africa United "overcomes initial concerns about simplistic plotting and naive attitudes to emerge as a winning testimony to the power of positive thinking," writes Allan Hunter in Screen. "The story of an incredible journey through a continent enthralled by the impending World Cup has energy and enthusiasm to spare."
Howard Feinstein for Screen on Small Town Murder Songs: "Ed Gass-Donnelly makes appropriate, unpretentiously artful, stylistic choices in this tale of redemption centred on a middle-aged provincial cop with a violent past whose will to reset his life is tested once he begins investigating the brutal murder of a young woman." More from Shelagh M Rowan-Legg (Little White Lies).
"Writer-director John Gray tills well-trod ground to harvest White Irish Drinkers, a modestly engaging domestic drama that earns few points for originality but rewards aud attention with persuasive performances, outbursts of robust humor and a vivid yet understated evocation of time and place." Joe Leydon in Variety: "Set in 1975, pic often resembles something actually made during that period while focusing on a sensitive young man stirred by vague desires for a life beyond his tribal Irish-American working-class neighborhood in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn."
"Tom Hall delivers a hot, droll delight with Sensation, the story of an Irish farmer, a New Zealand call girl and their mutual enlightenment," writes John Anderson in Variety. "What's particularly engaging is how Hall's story toys with cliche, setting his viewer up to expect one thing and then delivering another."
"Swedish filmmaker Hannes Holm turns a jaundiced eye on 1970s idealism and nostalgia in Behind Blue Skies but its discordant elements leave it not as funny and penetrating as it was no doubt intended to be," writes Ray Bennett in the Hollywood Reporter. Variety's John Anderson: "Giving Michael Cera some competition as the screen's personification of teenage-hero-as-hapless-naif, Sweden's Bill Skarsgard makes the most of a real star turn."
"What if I were to tell you that the new Hong Sang-soo movie was about a filmmaker who drinks too much and has problems with women? And what if I were to tell you that it's done via a series of structurally unconventional pieces?" Scott Tobias on Oki's Movie at the AV Club: "Just as Hong's plots and structural feints are as reliable as a Brett Favre fake retirement, so too is the wit and playfulness with which he goes about his business. Two standout scenes — a tense Q&A where an audience member comes with a very personal question and a funny philosophical discussion in a snowed-in classroom — redeem a movie that mostly finds Hong spinning his wheels unproductively." More from Jay Weissberg (Variety).
"You wouldn't be wrong," writes Stephen Saito at IFC.com, "to think All About Love feels a bit like how American films dealt with gay subject matter in the 1980s — with caution and reserve, indulging in soft focus and the occasional swell of a sappy love song in the background. But it should be remembered, of all the good ones at least, that they were building towards bigger breakthroughs with deceptively simple stories that served to lift gay characters to the level of straight ones in like-minded films. This isn't to say that one should grade Ann Hui's romantic comedy on a curve, since it's a well-told story that stands on its own. But it's important to note Hui's struggle to film it without censorship in her home country of China, where it will be banned from ever playing in public since the suggestion of two women falling in love is too bold, let alone the idea they want to raise a family without a man in the mix." More from Dan Fainaru (Screen), Daniel Kasman (The Daily Notebook) and Alissa Simon (Variety).
"What keeps My Joy compelling throughout is [Sergei] Loznitsa's direction, which evokes an eerie, otherworldly progression into darkness while making particularly suspenseful use of foreground and background action," writes Scott Tobias at the AV Club. "It's hard to know what to make of the film itself—those schooled in Russian history (or, well, Russians) may find it more resonant — but I can see why Mike D'Angelo, in his Cannes coverage back in May, cited Loznitsa as his choice for Best Director." A bit more from Michael Sicinski (Cargo). Cannes.
"A sentimental family drama about a man bringing up baby becomes a searching, quietly subversive inquiry into family gender roles in Anything You Want, the compelling third feature from Spanish helmer Achero Mañas," writes Jonathan Holland in Variety. "Showing the attempts of a bereaved father to become — literally — a mother to his daughter, the pic overcomes its flaws via its bravery in tackling a thorny topic and its skill in avoiding the pitfalls. Pic combines food for thought with emotion, and reps a return to form for Mañas following 2003's disappointing November."
"With his searing debut Ex Drummer, Belgian director Koen Mortier burst onto the scene with a sort of punk rock bravado, a raw and abrasive style laid atop remarkable technical skills and a surprising amount of soul for those willing to muck about in the filth of his characters' lives to find it," writes Todd Brown at Twitch. "With 22nd of May — his sophomore feature — he returns to serve notice that the soul of Ex Drummer was no accident. If Ex Drummer was Irvine Welsh cranked up to eleven then 22nd of May is a sort of dark cousin to Wings of Desire era Wim Wenders, a film in which the line between the physical and the spiritual are blurred to the point that they become meaningless and the spirits of the dead roam freely with the living."
"A memory play gold-dusted with adolescent longing and a strong sense of fable, [Avi Nesher's] The Matchmaker seems singular among Israeli features in the way it juxtaposes guilt with hope, national birth pains with youthful hubris, and utilizes an underside of Israeli life not usually exposed to public view." Variety's John Anderson: "Nevertheless, this look back at late-60s Haifa makes for strong, accessible, character-driven drama."
"The banality of evil takes a hammering in Kristian Petri's Bad Faith, a stylish but illogical tale of ordinary people with an appetite for murder," writes Ray Bennett in the Hollywood Reporter. "Thrillers don't necessarily need to be plausible but the coincidences in Magnus Dahlström's are so extreme that they remove the essential ingredient, which is to say thrills." More from Kurt Halfyard (Twitch).
Rafi Pitts's The Hunter "is way too heavy-handed at times about depicting its protagonist's sense of loss, and it bubbles a little slowly for a potboiler," writes Noel Murray at the AV Club. "But the film is stunningly composed, with images that convey Pitts' sense of being ground down by modernity and beset by institutional hypocrisy."
"With a title like I Am Slave, one can reasonably expect neither subtlety or uplift from this true-life drama about the plight of one young Sudanese girl who is taken from her village in and sold into serving a family of Arabs in contemporary England," writes Stephen Saito at IFC.com. "And for about two-thirds of I Am Slave that presumption would seem accurate, as Last King of Scotland screenwriter Jeremy Brock has no objection to leaving the caps lock on at times when depicting the particularly brutal treatment that befalls the village princess-turned-urban slave Malia (Wunmi Mosaku). Nor does director Gabriel Range, who last caused a stir in Toronto in 2006 with the premiere of the faux assassination of President Bush drama Death of a President, have any qualms about pushing buttons. But patience is a virtue, for both the audience and Malia, as much of the heavyhandedness serves a purpose when Malia comes to realize her enslavement is far more psychological than physical."
"Natural enemies mature into unlikely allies in Tracker, a handsomely mounted adventure set in the New Zealand of the early 20th century," writes Allan Hunter in Screen. "The natural beauty of the islands is one of the film's strongest assets along with the seasoned professionalism of stars Ray Winstone and Temuera Morrison whose solid performances help to compensate for Nicolas Van Pallandt's intermittently clunky script and pedestrian direction from industry veteran Ian Sharp."
"TIFF actually selected a pretty decent German film," writes Michael Sicinski for Cargo. "That would be Blessed Events (Glückliche Fügung) by Isabelle Stever. The director, who studied at the dffb and was a participant in the Deutschland 09 omnibus, appears to have semi-direct ties to the group of advanced filmmakers currently revitalizing German cinema, and whom TIFF is studiously ignoring.... If I were forced to make an immediate comparison, it would be to the work of Maren Ade, but with a sensibility at once more diffuse and mundane."
"Like a classical-era Walsh or Wellman, [Pablo Trapero's] Carancho has the solidity of construction and reliance on conventional character types and story arcs to effectively normalize a highly specific and localized setting," writes Daniel Kasman here in The Daily Notebook. "The result, like an early 30s Hollywood entry, is a workman film, one made by a director prodigious enough to pick such a unglamorous setting and proceed to cast it in a reliably realistic and unappealing light — 'cause that's the way it really is." Cannes.
"Think of Chico & Rita as a test," writes Variety's Peter Debruge, "one that gauges whether your love of Cuban jazz can exceed your threshold for lousy animation — a real 'good tunes/bad toons' quandary. Working from a screenplay that would have made a perfectly charming live-action movie, Spanish co-directors Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando interpret a wild, 60-year romance via an unflattering style, like a children's coloring book with its rudimentary line drawings and stiff, expressionless characters." But the Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Farber claims "this visually hypnotic, musically electric" film "delighted audiences at Telluride." More from morlockjeff and Kristopher Tapley (In Contention).
"One of my favorite movies here is Tom Tykwer's Three," announced the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris last week. "It returns Tykwer to his native Germany and to actual human beings. It's about three adult Berliners — a woman (Sophie Rois) and two men (Sebastian Schipper, Devid Striesow) — and their shifting amorous relationship. Tykwer is still best-known here for Run Lola Run. But he's been somewhat adrift ever since, making big projects — Perfume, The International — that never really caught on. Away from a large productions, Tykwer now seems like a dog off its leash. Three is bursting with intelligence, filmmaking, sex, complaints about daily life and comical philosophy. It's a pleasure to be in the presence of a filmmaker who appears to have found himself again." Mike D'Angelo would disagree. He "developed an instant, visceral dislike for the female lead... Then I quickly found myself hating the male lead almost as much. Then a third major character was introduced and before long I was really eager never to see him ever again, ever. And this is all before the ludicrous plot kicks in." More from Leslie Felperin (Variety), Lee Marshall (Screen), Stephen Saito (IFC), Boyd van Hoeij (The Daily Notebook) and Deborah Young (THR).
Alexey Uchitel's The Edge "promises a rough-and-tumble depiction of life at a Stalinist labor camp in Siberia after World War II, where alleged traitors were shipped for hard time in the cold, arid, snowy wasteland," writes Scott Tobias at the AV Club. "But The Edge turns out to be a bizarre and unappealing hybrid, crossing a love triangle (between a war hero, a blonde Russian mother, and a German runaway) with a 'steampunk' movie focused obsessively, at times pornographically, on the mighty train engines of old."
Ingrid Veninger's Modra, "shot on location in Slovakia, is a charming love letter both to the country and to the romance of travel, while simultaneously crafting a realistic, poignant portrait of two teens on the brink of adulthood," writes Emily Landau in the Walrus.