TIFF #1: The Leaves of Fall

September 10, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

Summer is over. The kids are back in school. The nights are getting longer, the days shorter. Baseball is moving inexorably toward the playoffs; football season has begun. Heat is escaping from the northern hemisphere like air through the slow leak in a balloon. Fall lurks around the next bend, lying in wait with its incomparable beauty, inescapable crispness, and web of temporary death. This is the annual ritual of September - one that started long before I was born and will continue long after my ashes have been scattered to the winds.

For those of us who make the annual pilgrimage to Toronto every year at this time, the film festival represents a tangible bridge from summer to autumn. Not only is the weather in flux but, while the Labor Day garbage unspools in multiplexes all over the city, festival goers are treated to glimpses of what is coming during those shorter days and longer nights when leaves fall from the trees and snow begins to blanket the north. Within the hermetically sealed environment of the festival, it's possible to forget that the outside world exists - until the movies stop playing and the comforts of home beckon.

Critics approach film festivals differently than those who do this for fun. My purpose in Toronto is primarily to preview fall releases for ReelViews readers. As such, my goal has to be to see as many high-profile films as I can comfortably fit into my schedule. I leave slots open for more obscure fare, but I am constrained by the necessity that fuels my accreditation. If I was going on my own dime (so to speak), I would stay away from many of the mainstream releases and explore. If it has a distributor, it will be playing in a theater near me before the year ends; why not take a gamble on titles that I may never hear of again? In the past, I have uncovered some gems by following this less familiar path - many are foreign films that never opened in the United States and have yet to reach DVD even in their home countries. However, while that's a good strategy for many "amateur" festival goers, it's not an advisable one for someone writing a blog or reviews. How frustrating would it be for my readers if I pontificated endlessly about the virtues of films they may never get a chance to see? (Note: if I see something spectacular, I'll write about it even if it doesn't have a current distributor. Great films deserve mention.) My advice if you go to Toronto: mostly avoid the Galas and Special Presentations - sample instead entries in Contemporary World Cinema, Vanguard, and Discovery.

What will I be seeing? The Coens and Campion, Moore and Amenabar, Egoyan and Dante, Roos and Gervais. By the end of the festival, maybe I'll know whether Megan Fox can act, whether the year-long wait for The Road has been worth it, and whether Terry Gilliam can make something coherent from the footage he shot of Heath Ledger. Ledger's ghost won't be the only one visiting Toronto this year; Atom Egoyan is here with Chloe, the movie Liam Neeson was filming at the time of his wife's death. After a suitable delay, he returned to finish his scenes and the movie will make its world debut next week. My suspicion is that it will be dedicated "to Natasha." Other questions… Has Lars von Trier lost his mind? Has David Duchovny found his mojo? Is the latest version of Dorian Gray the definitive one? And what is The Disappearance of Alice Creed? (That one has a lot of early buzz.)

What will I be missing? Due to a bizarre conflict between Soderbergh and the Coens, The Informant! gets passed over for A Serious Man, although the imminent release of the former (September 18) means I won't have to wait long to see what I'm missing. Whip It loses out to the aforementioned Chloe; Drew Barrymore will have to wait until October. There are two films I'll be trying to slot in by hook or by crook - Hirokazu Kore-eda's Air Doll and Youth in Revolt - but I can't promise coverage of either. Kore-eda fans will be heartened to know that even if I get shut out of Air Doll, I will be reviewing his previous movie, Still Walking (which played here last year) when I get home.

Thirty movies in eight days is a workload and the best one can hope when it's all over is that there were many more hits than misses and that nothing with a hive of buzz was left behind. Of course, "hot" movies in Toronto don't always translate. A few years ago, no ticket was harder to get than Death of a President, which was D.O.A. when it received a theatrical release later in the year. On the other hand, 2008's Slumdog Millionaire and The Wrestler generated plenty of Oscar talk.

The Opening Night film is Creation, a fictionalized biography of Charles Darwin starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly. I'll have a few words to say about that on Saturday, but for tomorrow - the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks - I'll devote the entire column to Antichrist. God knows, it deserves that much space , if not more.