2003 TIFF Update #1: "Things Guessed At, But Not Always Seen"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Thursday, September 4, 2003

The weather outside may hint at the approach of autumn (in the Northern hemisphere, that is), but the calendar still says late summer. And, as occurs every year during the week following Labor Day, Toronto opens its doors to film-lovers of all nationalities. As always, the temperature will vacillate between the sweat-inducing warmth of August and the pleasant chill of October. Hurricanes will rumble off the Atlantic seaboard and echoes of a two-year old tragedy will still haunt the darkest parts of some nightmares. This has been a particularly bad year for Ontario's largest city, but the SARS epidemic is long past and people can visit without the fear of catching something more lasting than a few movies.

No other time of the year is more ripe for film festivals than late summer. No less than four prestigeous movie celebrations solicit participants between mid-August and mid-September. Toronto is the biggest of these, but it is closely followed by the venerable Venice Film Festival, the equally respected Montreal Film Festival, and the exclusive Telluride Film Festival. This year, those three have conspired to steal much of Toronto's thunder. There are still a lot of movies to see here (more than 300, in fact) - many of them very good - but some of the most prestigeous titles are curiously absent. For example, Woody Allen's 2003 project (and, based on the early "buzz," possibly his best in more than a decade), Anything Else, and the Coen Brothers' latest, Intolerable Cruelty, both bypassed Toronto but could be seen in Venice. And Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, by virtue of its slot as the Opening Film for the New York Film Festival, is nowhere to be found.

Most people probably won't notice these absences, but, hey, I'm a glass-half-empty kind of person.

Now, on to what is here, and what I will likely be reporting on during the next ten frenzied days, when fast food and room service make sit-down dinners as rare as full nights of sleep My expectation is to see between 30 and 35 films, about half of which I will comment upon. Contrary to what some people assume, I do not write exhaustively about every movie I see at a film festival. There aren't enough hours in the day for that.

Big films I'll probably see begin with the Opening Night Gala, The Barbarian Invasions, which was extraordiaryly well received at Cannes. (It was one of a small collection of movies that could make such a claim.) Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation, which opens in limited release before the festival officially ends, is, for me, a "won't miss." Is Bill Murray as good as is rumored? Is this Scarlett Johansson's step to stardom? I'll know those answers on Friday, and will probably write them up for Sunday's update. Robert Benton's The Human Stain features an impressive cast headlined by Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, and Ed Harris, but will this dual-era drama live up to the reputation established by the Philip Roth novel upon which it is based? John Sayles is as close to a can't-miss director as there is, and he brings his newst movie, Casa de Los Babys, here. Carl Franklin's Out of Time, with Denzel Washington, should provide a nice dose of film noir. Veronica Guerin tells the true story of a newswoman whose investigative reporting led to her murder. This one is directed by the erratic Joel Schumacher, whose resume is as spotted as a Dalmatian.

The Singing Detective is the highly anticipated motion picture version of Dennis Potter's visionary British TV mini-series - something I remember as being hypnotic but largely incomprehensible. In the Cut, directed by Jane Campion, has already gotten plenty of notoriety for its supposedly explicit sex scenes featuring a nude Meg Ryan. Rumor has it that Ryan agreed to do this film in the hope that it will once and for all wipe away her "good girl" image (although I would venture to say that the Russell Crowe fiasco pretty much accomplished that). Wonderland is a bio-pic of the late porn star John Holmes, with Val Kilmer in the lead role. Supposedly, this is a hard-hitting drama with very little sex or nudity. Peter Webber's Girl with a Pearl Earring features Scarlett Johansson (again) and Colin Firth, and purports to tell the story behind the Vermeer portrait of the same name.

Then there's Brown Bunny. I will refrain from offering an opinion on this much-maligned motion picture until I see it for myself. Comments about this film have been the root of the very public feud between director Vincent Gallo and critic Roger Ebert, but Ebert certainly wasn't the only one to condemn it at Cannes. Supposedly, the version debuting in Toronto is a new cut, although it remains to be seen whether these edits will make the film more palatable to audiences. I will make it a point not to walk out on this one, even if I feel an overwhelming desire to do so.

Two films are on the bubble. The first, Love, Actually, is a movie I would love to see, but it seems unlikely that I'll be able to fit it into my schedule (I would have to sacrifice two other films, including The Singing Detective or Veronica Guerin). The movie is coming out in a couple of months, so I can probably contain my enthusiasm. Besides, it will be nice to have something to look forward to besides The Return of the King. The other movie is Michael Winterbottom's Orwellian Code 46. Prospects for seeing this are brighter, but it's still not a sure thing. It's a bit of a logistical pain, but, considering how much I admire Winterbottom and want to see the movie, I will make every effort to fit it in.

How about the movies playing here that I won't be able to see? Well, there are more than 300 that fit into that category, but here are some highlights. Dogville, Lars Von Trier's controversial three-hour opus, will have to wait for a local press screening. I tend to squirm at festivals during movies that exceed two hours, and have formed an opinion that, unless unavoidable, they are better left for an opportunity when I'm seeing one (not four or five) films per day. Much to my distress, I will also miss Errol Morris' new documentary, The Fog of War (about ex-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara). Unfortunately, it's in conflict with another film that's slightly higher on my list of films to see. I'll also miss Robert Altman's new picture, The Company, although, considering the limpness of the filmmaker's recent few efforts, this may not be as big a sacrifice as it sounds.

As for the hidden treasures... well, I won't know what they are until I unearth them. It's all a guessing game.

Unlike many smaller film festivals, Toronto is many-in-one. You can attend all mainstream movies or go through a week-plus' worth of screenings without ever seeing something that has a chance of finding a distributor. No matter what your tastes are, you'll find something here. It's even possible to attend with no advance tickets and still see a fair number of movies, provided (a) you're willing to try for some of the "less popular" choices, (b) you don't mind waiting in lines, and (c) you avoid Friday and Saturday nights (when everything is sold out).

In the carrot-and-stick world of film criticism, enduring the dregs of August is the penalty that must be paid to get to September. Now, over the next ten days, it's time for the reward.

© 2003 James Berardinelli

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