Toronto Film Festival Marches On

Movie industry tries to stay ahead of the curve in a challenging marketplace

Sep 23, 2009 at 2:06 pm

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is a movie geek’s wet dream. The festival’s avalanche of films — 300-plus over 10 days — offers something for cinemaphiles of every stripe, including a typically healthy dose of new works by established filmmakers from across the globe: Pedro Almodovar, Bong Joon-ho, the Coen brothers, Jane Campion, Claire Denis, Atom Egoyan, Terry Gilliam, Michael Haneke, Werner Herzog, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Michael Moore, Alain Resnais, George A. Romero, Steven Soderbergh, Todd Solondz, Johnnie To and Lars von Trier among many, many more.

Yet while TIFF (and film festivals in general) appears to be healthier than ever, the marketplace for the films that screen there is growing more treacherous by the day. Several factors are to blame, none more important than 1) the current economic downturn and 2) the inevitable crash from the indie-movie feeding frenzy of the mid-’90s that led to an overabundance of films with relatively large budgets and the box-office expectations that come with them. (Hence the recent dissolution of studio specialty divisions like Warner Independent, Picturehouse and Paramount Vantage, as well as smaller distributors like ThinkFilm!.)

Gone are the halcyon days of outrageous money being thrown at “Sundance hits” like Spitfire Grill, which in 1996 — the apex of that out-of-whack era — sparked a bidding war that saw Castle Rock Entertainment pay a record $10 million for the rights to distribute the film. (It flopped at the box office and drew mixed reviews from critics.)

By TIFF’s close on Sept. 19, only one of the 120-plus films looking for distribution secured a high-profile deal: The Weinstein Co. reportedly paid $1 million for fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford’s A Single Man, a fine period drama that follows a day in the life of a gay English professor (an excellent Colin Firth) dealing with the unexpected death of his younger lover (Matthew Goode).

Of course, the lack of acquisitions could also be the sign of a mediocre and/or not sufficiently commercial slate of films. The latter seems more likely, but with a festival the size of Toronto, consensus of any sort is almost impossible. Of the two-dozen movies I caught myself — not to mention the dozens I discussed with friends and colleagues — very few are sure bets to garner awards season love, a stark contrast to the festival’s traditional role as a launching pad for fall Oscar bait.

One noted exception is Jason Reitman’s slick yet affecting Up in the Air, which confirms, once and for all, that the young director is more than just Diablo Cody’s Juno bitch. Reitman’s deft adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel is a darkly humorous look at the life of Ryan Bingham (a never-better George Clooney), an emotionally stunted “career transition consultant” — a guy companies across the recession-ravaged U.S. hire to fire their employees.

Bingham’s perfectly constructed life, which essentially consists of a never-ending parade of plane flights and hotel rooms, hits a snag when his company decides to bring in a hotshot Ivy League grad (Anna Kendrick) whose ideas clash with his old-school ways. Add an unexpectedly burgeoning relationship with a woman (Vera Farmiga) who also subscribes to his “no-strings” worldview (“Think of me as you, but with a vagina,” she tells him) and a wedding that requires him to reconnect with his fractured family, and Bingham is ripe for a midlife crisis. Yet just when you think Up in the Air is headed for a clichéd conclusion, Reitman and Co. throw in a final-act twist that feels as authentic as its zeitgeist-synching subject matter.

If little of the festival’s higher-profile fare was quite as satisfying as Up in the Air (which is set for a November release), several works from the aforementioned cattle call of filmmakers left strong impressions.

Life During Wartime is Todd Solondz’s most compelling slice of awkwardness since Happiness (1998), the writer/director’s polarizing masterpiece of miserablism that serves as the jumping off point for this new work. A sign of the current risk-averse climate, Life During Wartime has yet to land a distributor.

Pedro Almodovar’s entertaining Broken Embraces is laden with the Spanish filmmaker’s now well-established traits: a rich narrative rife with emotional u-turns and sex galore; a healthy splash of mood-altering color; beautiful females, including longtime muse Penelope Cruz; and ample technical chops informed by a clear nod to film history. And while Broken Embraces doesn’t necessarily break any new ground, it remains another welcomed trip into Almodovar’s lush, well-crafted cinematic universe. (Sony Pictures Classics is set to release the film in November.)

Jane Campion’s Bright Star, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man and Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story might not rival each filmmaker’s best work, but all three are satisfying in varying degrees. (I wrote about the latter two last week, but look for more on all three in October, when each is set for a local theatrical release.)

Corneliu Porumboiu’s detail-rich, slowburning Police, Adjective centers on Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a low-key cop who can’t help but identify with the small group of teenagers that he is assigned to follow daily for what seems like an eternity. Their seemingly minor crime — smoking “hashish” on the school playground — sets off a crisis of conscience in Cristi, whose superior (Vlad Ivanov) is pushing for him to charge the kids with more than just possession, which would essentially result in life-altering mandatory jail sentences.

Akin to fellow Romanian/neorealist Cristian Mungiu’s 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, Porumboiu is adept at investigating the rather ordinary details of subject matter that could easily call for a less-subtle approach. Several long, unedited sequences effectively capture the banality of undercover police work — work that not only requires the patience of Cristi but also the audience that Porumboiu so effectively draws into the world of this Romanian everyman.

Will Police, Adjective get a traditional release in a local movie house? Don’t hold your breath.

The endlessly imaginative narrative and technical hijinks of Bong Joon-ho’s Mother might be the mark of a cinematic wunderkind, but the film’s annoying mother and son centerpieces, the former ably played by Kim Hye-ja, kept me from caring one lick about the duo’s unfortunate fates. Israeli filmmaker Samuel Moaz’s viscerally rendered Lebanon was far more emotionally satisfying, riding a unique conceit — it takes place almost entirely inside a dank, claustrophobic tank — to its conclusion that war sucks no matter the time, place or cause. (Expect both to get some sort of release in the States.)

Finally, after years of suppressing himself in various (mostly terrible) Hollywood products, the old Nicolas Cage has resurfaced in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Only loosely related to Abel Ferrara’s 1992 original, Herzog’s entertaining thriller follows the exploits of Terence McDonagh (Cage), a recently promoted homicide detective who pops prescription pills (as well as a panoply of illegal substances) to combat a constantly aching back.

William Finkelstein’s noir-inspired script revolves around a murder case, but it’s Herzog’s unique, often surreal touches (it was shot on location in post-Karina New Orleans) and Cage’s gonzo depiction of the drug-addled McDonagh (not since Wild at Heart has he been as deliriously over the top) that dominate the proceedings.

Clunky title aside, I had as much fun watching this skuzzy B-movie homage as anything I’ve seen in a theater this year. If Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans can’t score some sort of distribution deal, then the business is beyond repair.