2002 TIFF Update #1: "Parched"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 5, 2002

The summer is over. Oh, not according to the calendar, which claims that two weeks remain, but according to every meaningful measure. Children are back in school. Buses rumble down the streets twice a day. College age kids are once again taking classes. And the quality of motion pictures at the local multiplex has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. And, while I'd be the first to admit that the string of blockbusters raining down upon us from May through August wasn't the most challenging or thought-provoking group, it was infinitely better than what's out there now. Feardotcom? Swimfan? Stealing Harvard? They don't pay me enough (in fact, "they" don't pay me anything) to sit through movies like that.

September, like its winter counterpart, February, is a time when the caring cineaste's well goes dry. The landscape is parched; the soil cracked and lifeless. It's a wasteland out there - a dumping ground into which Hollywood discards films that have no real commercial viability. The belief is that people don't see movies in September, so why bother releasing something in which a studio has confidence? Yet perhaps the reason attendance drops off dramatically isn't only because of the return of school, but because there's nothing but crap out there. It's a self-perpetuating cycle. Maybe if something high-profile was released now, eager viewers would flood theaters (teenage boys, the #1 target demographic, still have weekends off). But that isn't happening. So, for anyone who wants to quench their movie-related thirst this month, the only place to do it is at a film festival.

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF to those of us too lazy to write out the whole thing every time) is large enough that it can offer a wide variety of film-going experiences. To those (like me) who focus primarily on mainstream stuff with the occasional low-budget, off-the-beaten-path indie thrown in for good measure, the festival offers enough high-profile material to fill a schedule. For those in search of obscure movies that will never find a North American distributor and may never again be seen on these shores, there are an equal (or perhaps greater) number of entries. The festival is essentially what the film-goer decides to make out of it. Considering the number of movies shown here (around 300, many of them World or North American premieres), it is possible to gather five people together once the festival is over and discover that none of them have seen the same film.

Dual careerists like myself don't have the freedom to spend the year festival hopping all around the globe, attending events in Berlin, Cannes, Telluride, Hawaii, wherever... The reason I go to Toronto (aside from logistics) is that it's as close to a "one stop shop" as there is. Plus, it's a friendly, well-organized festival. (Contrast that with the nightmare that is Sundance - a badly-run, overcrowded, overexposed two weeks in the frigid tundra of mid-winter Utah.) The city's clean, efficient subway system connects all the venues, making Toronto seem a lot smaller than it is. Plus, if you're interested in getting away from movies for a while, there are plenty of other things to see and do.

To a certain extent, some shadow of the 2001 festival will hang over the 2002 edition. It won't be long and it won't permeate every speech and press conference, but the fact that the festival spans the week surrounding September 11 cannot be ignored or overlooked. Last year, September 11 blew apart the second half of the festival, sucking the joy and life out of a typically electric atmosphere. Despite being trapped in the city until airplanes started making cross-border flights, I saw very few films after 9/11. This year, hopefully, the anniversary will be no more than a day for quiet reflection.

As is the case at every film festival, conflicts and scheduling quirks will prevent me from seeing some of the movies I would dearly have liked to have included on my roster. Those include Michael Moore's latest documentary/sermon, the anti-NRA, anti-gun Bowling for Columbine, which I understand from others is brilliant and (as one would expect) scathing. Then there's Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence, which, as far as I can tell, features Kenneth Branagh's only performance in this year's festival. Bollywood/Hollywood, Deepa Mehta's Perspective Canada opener, is another picture I would have liked to have seen, but I don't have a slot open for it. I'm also missing Frida (a Gala presentation with Salma Hayek in the title role), Phone Booth (80 minutes of a man trapped in a New York City phone booth), Auto-Focus (Paul Schrader's biography of actor Bob Crane), Lost in La Mancha (a documentary about Terry Gilliam's ill-fated attempt to bring Don Quixote to the screen), and David Cronenberg's Spider. Then there's the case of Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love, which isn't screening until the tail-end of the festival, after I will have left. Fortunately, this film will have a wide opening in October (the 18th, to be exact), so the wait won't be long.

As for the films I'm likely to see, those include the Opening Night feature, Atom Egoyan's Ararat, a movie so important to the filmmaker that he refused to allow it to be screened in competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Several master filmmakers have new wares to display - Ken Loach brings Sweet Sixteen, Pedro Almodovor screens Talk to Her, Hayao Miyazaki shows Spirited Away (the Disney version), Tom Tykwer offers Heaven (based on a screenplay by Kieslowski), and François Ozon has 8 Women. Other notable possibilities include Galas White Oleaner, Jet Lag, The Four Feathers, and Moonlight Mile; high-profile non-Galas such as Laurel Canyon, Secretary, Evelyn, and Assassination Tango; and off-beat fare like Bubba Ho-Tep and Shaolin Soccer. Have I made the right choice in picking Shaolin Soccer over Mike Leigh's latest, All or Nothing, or in skipping Denzel Washington's directorial debut, Antwone Fisher? Only time will tell. It always does.

© 2002 James Berardinelli

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