2004 TIFF Update #7: "Best of the Fest"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Wednesday, September 15, 2004

With the festival not quite over, is it too early to announce my choices for the best films in this year's line-up (at least of those I have seen)? No. If something else comes to my attention that deserves to be added, I'll note it in one of my three remaining updates, but I want to get the word out on this trio of pictures as soon as possible. (Note: since writing that sentence, I have seen The Sea Inside, which deserves mention along with these three. I will discuss that film on Saturday. I would also be remiss not to mention Hotel Rwanda, which I wrote about yesterday.) These are the crown jewels of my screening schedules - the movies that made it worthwhile getting up at 6:30 every morning and not turning in until 1:30. One of these will open fairly wide (Sideways), one has a small distributor and will probably only see screens in New York, Los Angeles, and a few other major cities(Moolaadé), and one is not yet scheduled to open anywhere in North America (Downfall), although that hopefully will change.

Sideways is from Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt), whose films simultaneously satirize and observe life in America. Unlike David Lynch, who uses saws and butcher knives to dissect the American dream, Payne prefers a scalpel. Lynch often ridicules his characters (and sometimes the audience), but it's clear that Payne likes the individuals he uses to populate his films, even though they're not always the nicest of people. Sideways looks at one of the oldest and oddest of "civilized" conventions: the bachelor party. Using this as a springboard, the movie becomes about friendship, love, sex, and wine.

There are no big, A-list stars, although the quality of the acting is of the highest caliber. The leads are played by character actors Paul Giamatti (as Miles) and Thomas Hayden Church (as Jack). These two are best friends who take a one-week road trip to California's wine country to celebrate Jack's upcoming wedding. Their plans are to spend their days tasting wine and playing golf. But an itch in Jack's pants gets in the way. He wants to have a last fling, and he targets the fiesty Stephanie (Sandra Oh) - except he neglects to mention that he's not looking for a long-term commitment. While Jack is romping with her, Miles tentatively tries to set something up with Stephanie's friend, Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress with whom he has had prior contact.

This is really Miles' story. He's a sadsack loser who has written an unpublishable novel, mourns his failed marriage, and has obvious self-esteem problems. Despite the man's party-pooping attitude, a lot of us will see something of ourselves in Miles, and that's what makes it oh-so-easy to identify with him. He embodies many of the flaws of the human experience, but he is also capable of kindness and honesty, and one gets the sense that he's a survivor (although life for him is not a happy journey). Giamatti is great in the part. He has the face and the mannerisms down pat. His supporting cast - Church, Madsen, and Oh - are equally well selected.

In Sideways, Payne holds true to the form he displayed in his previous movies. The drama is leavened nicely with humor. There are plenty of so-called "big laugh" moments. None of the comedy seems forced or ill-timed, which is a key to material being fun in a picture like this. Even the "golf course battle," which gets the biggest laughs, is plausible (at least based on my limited experience on courses). There's also quite a bit of wine-related humor; this obviously comes from a man who has knowledge about the subject. After leaving Sideways, I actually believed I had learned a little about wine and wine-producing grapes. But that's a fringe benefit. The real strength of Sideways is the characters it develops, the road trip it takes us on, and the laughs with which it provides along the way.

Overall, how does this compare to Payne's previous two movies? It's not as openly satirical as Election and is a little less bleak than About Schmidt. The characters in Sideways are better developed than those in the earlier films, the poignancy is just as forceful as it was in About Schmidt, and the comedy is slightly better integrated. In my opinion, this is Payne's finest movie to-date. It is a little on the long side (slightly over two hours), but the minutes fly by. It's likely that 2004 won't offer a better movie about a mid-life crisis.

Few films at the 2004 film festival have earned the right to be called "don't miss," but Moolaadé is one of the exceptions. From acclaimed African director Ousmane Sembene, Moolaadé uses the subject matter of female circumcision as a jumping-off point to examine how the liberation of women is crucial to the advancement and development of any society in today's world. Although the film is not based on any one specific incident, it draws from anecdotal stories that have circulated throughout Africa in recent years, as even the most distant and isolated villages are forced to confront modernization and the shrinking world. This powerful motion picture is likely to leave some viewers stunned when the end credits begin to roll.

The village where all of the action takes place is a rural settlement in West Africa. The exact location is never given, although we know it is a few days' journey from "the city." Male dominence in the village is unquestioned. The men make the rules, and their wives follow them. Many of the men have multiple wives, and, according to custom, daughters are circumcised (or "purified"). Any woman who does not undergo this procedure is considered unclean and has no chance of winning a husband. Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly) is one of the village's most outspoken women. She is against female genital mutilation, and refused to allow her daughter to be subjected to it. When a group of six young girls balk at having the procedure performed, four of them flee to Collé for sanctuary. She takes them in and declares a moolaadé, a safe zone that will bring a terrible curse upon anyone who breaks it. Thus begins a standoff that escalates into a bloody showdown between tradition and modernization, men and women, and progress and stagnation.

As Moolaadé illustrates, progress never comes without casualites. By standing up to tradition and flouting the commands of her husband, Collé courts a stiff penalty. The more hardened her resolve, however, the more the other women begin to realize that it may be possible to change things. The men react by digging in and taking away the womens' radios (thinking that depriving them of news of the "outside" world will cause them to be more submissive), but once the genie is out of the bottle, it cannot be replaced.

Moolaadé is a fascinating cultural study. Although it at first appears to be about the ugliness associated with female genital mutilation (which is at best painful and disfiguring, and at worst can be fatal), it's really about a host of wider issues. Sembene generates a surprising amount of suspense during the course of the story, because we're never sure how things are going to turn out. The villain in the film is cultural stagnation; the men who oppose Collé act more out of a desire to protect the status quo than out of malice. When Collé is mercilessly flogged, she is a victim of her stand for progress as much as of the man weilding the whip.

Fatoumata Coulibaly's peformance is striking. She plays her character with a mixture of determination and compassion. Coulibaly makes it apparent that, although Collé does not set out to be a crusader, she accepts the role once it is thrust upon her. Sembene draws strong performances from the rest of his cast, including the children, who, despite their young ages, never appear to be acting. Combined with solid production values, this results in a film that looks as good as any big budget production, but has a sense of verisimilitude that Hollywood could never match. Moolaadé is certainly one of the best films of the festival, and the one whose images and impact are the most difficult to forget.

Downfall is the third filmed account of Hitler's final ten days, following in the distant wake of 1973's Hitler: The Last Ten Days and 1981's The Bunker. A superior production to both of the earlier movies, Downfall is a windfall for anyone who, like me, is fascinated by stories from World War II. The first German production to feature Hitler as a central figure, Oliver Hirschbiegel's film has been criticized in some circles as presenting a portrait of the Fuhrer that is "too sympathetic." In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. As portrayed in a powerhouse performance by Bruno Ganz, Hitler comes across as a petty, demented figure who spews bile as he rants and raves. The lone exception is an establishing scene in 1942 (when Hitler chooses a secretary), where he appears almost grandfatherly. Other than that, he is shown to be a conscienceless, hateful madman who believes his people deserve to die because they are no longer fit to live.

Based on the memoirs of Hitler's secretary, Tradl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), and Joachim Fest's Inside Hitler's Bunker, Downfall goes for rigorous historical accuracy. The recreations of a bombed-out Berlin are especially impressive. Like in Stalingrad and the recent The Pianist, Downfall takes us into a realistic replica of a city that has been devastated by countless days of bombings. Small dramas are played out in the streets as the larger one unfolds beneath. Hitler, completely out of control, rants about betrayals by his henchmen (Himmler has gone to the Allies to sue for peace), and tries to place troops that no longer exist. By the end of his life, it's clear that Hitler is no longer in command of anything, least of all the country he raised to glory then smashed to ruins.

The most sobering scene in the movie, however, does not feature the Fuhrer. Instead, it centers of the wife of Joseph Goebbels. In a scene lifted out of the history books, she doses her children with a sleeping draught, then, when they are unconscious, she crushes cyanide pills between their teeth. She does this coldly, almost robotically. It's a chilling scene, and, despite its bloodlessness, is difficult to watch. This kind of blind devotion offers evidence of why Hitler was so dangerous at the height of his power. What kind of charisma would it take to convince a mother to murder her children rather than let them live in a world where the Nazi party was dead?

By the time the Russians arrive, the film is essentially over. We see the fates of most of the major players, including Hitler, Goebbels (and his wife), Maria Braun, Junge, and a number of top generals and aides. The life-stories of others (those who survived beyond the fall of the bunker) are related through captions. Downfall never loses its focus by seeking to broaden its scope. This allows us to absorb this one aspect of a humongous tragedy, rather than being bombarded by too much information in a movie whose reach exceeds its grasp.

Sixty years after his death, with nearly all of his confidants and confederates in the grave, Hitler still fascinates students of history. The most malevolent and important man of the 20th century, the likes of the Furher have not been seen since he blew his brains out in the guts of his bunker. Next to Hitler, Osama Bin Laden and Sadaam Hussein are in nursery school. Movies about the late dictator often disappoint because directors are wary of the subject matter; Hirschbiegel pushes forward, telling his story without varish. The result is a movie whose forcefulness kept me thinking about the subject and its treatment long after the lights had returned to the theater. Downfall and Bruno Ganz are deserving of Oscars. They won't get them, so the best that can be hoped for is that the film is picked up by a North American distributor. That would allow anyone with an interest to have an opportunity to see one of the most finely-crafted World War II films ever made.

© 2004 James Berardinelli

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