TIFF 2012 Revisited: Exhaustion, Exhilaration, and a Sore Coccyx

Anna Karenina

After TIFF comes to a close, I write a feature for Buffalo Spree’s November issue discussing my experience at the fest, and also attempting to give readers a brief look at what’s to come during the rest of the cinema-going year. Here is my Spree piece from TIFF 2012. (Please note that I totally changed my mind on “Something in the Air.” Now I love it!)

It was somewhere around Yonge Street when the drugs began to take hold. I of course mean the Motrin, a necessity after a day that included two aborted interviews, six (!) cab rides, one bad burger, and queue after queue after queue. It was day two of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and that feeling — of exhaustion, exhilaration, and a sore coccyx — is something I long for all year.

By the time TIFF itself begins, Spree cohort Jared Mobarak and I have studied the press and public screening schedules like the Torah, considering plans, back-up plans, worst-case scenarios, and lots of maybes. The eleven-day September festival is a glorious whirlwind of adventure that sees Hollywood, Bollywood, and, for all I know, Dollywood, converge upon Toronto, ready to anoint this year’s Oscar frontrunners, see what elicits boos, and trumpet the season’s “it” girl or guy. The city throbs with cine-mania far beyond the venues: our hotel, the gorgeous Royal Fairmont York, was abuzz with activity all weekend, while the bars and restaurants, especially those around the venues, were happily overstuffed. Even the hot dog vendors seemed a tad flustered.

It’s easy to feel that way, due to the sheer number of films—more than 300, from sixty-plus countries. Indubitably, this means you’re sure to see some greats. Pablo Larrain’s “No,” for example, is a subtle stunner, a technically bold and wildly smart crowd-pleaser about the way advertising helped oust Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the late ’80s. The film was one of the most joyous experiences of the festival. That can’t be said for “White Ribbon” and “Caché” director Michael Haneke’s Cannes-winning “Amour,” but that’s okay, since joy is replaced by overwhelming dramatic force. It is, quite possibly, the best film ever made about the realities of aging, and that toughness makes it an emotionally devastating work. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva star as a long-married couple whose lives are turned upside down when she suffers a stroke; what follows is pain, sadness, and, ultimately, acts of real love. Far sunnier is Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” a satisfying gum drop of a film. This fresh, funny Shakespeare adaptation was shot at the director’s house over twelve days. (I reviewed Much Ado for Indiewire’s The Playlist site, and it was noteworthy for me — the first review I’ve ever written completely on my iPhone “notes.”)

Meanwhile, Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film in almost a decade, “Me and You,” is a wonderfully incisive look at adolescence, while “The Impossible,” a harrowing true story of survival about the 2004 Pacific tsunami, is moving and sincere, if a bit narrow. (The film rarely shows anyone who is not white and vacationing.) Still, stars Naomi Watts and Ewan MacGregor are fantastic, and the child actors are stunning — loud sniffling filled the ornate Princess of Wales Theatre, much of it from me. Some less-heralded but equally involving films included the Lisbon-set “Imagine,” an enchanting work about a school for the blind, and “The Gangs of Wasseypur,” a two-part Indian gangster epic that feels like the freshest take on the genre in years.

Other films were solid doubles, if not home runs. Joe Wright’s Tolstoy adaptation of “Anna Karenina” has an innovative approach—the film is “staged,” if you will, bringing a glorious sense of tongue-in-cheek theatricality to the proceedings. Yet Anna (Keira Knightley) and her lover, the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor Johnson), are the least interesting characters onscreen, and that’s a problem. Still, it’s a truly innovative creation from Joe Wright. “Crying Game” director Neil Jordan’s epic vampire tale Byzantium is the director’s most muscular work in some time, while Kristen Wiig shines in the sitcom-y “Imogene.” And Rian Johnson’s time-travel odyssey “Looper” was the most frustrating film at TIFF, since it is three-quarters brilliant, innovative sci-fi, and then, suddenly, one-quarter WTF?-“Omen”/”Twilight Zone” rip-off. That one-quarter was a crushing disappointment, since until that point, I felt I was watching a possible classic. Even with its ill-advised quasi-horror direction, “Looper” is a film to be admired—certainly a near-masterpiece. (It reminded me that as a parent, I now find “children in peril” story elements to be manipulative and upsetting, an accusation one could also throw at “The Impossible.”)

One notable miss was Olivier Assayas’s autobiographical “Something in the Air.” This look at students in Paris continuing the struggles of post-May ’68 life is handsomely made but pretty vacant. Another, Brian De Palma’s “Passion,” takes the prize for Saddest Exercise in Self-Parody. I’m a longtime De Palma fan, but this one makes even “Black Dahlia” look restrained by comparison. Of course, time often changes my opinions. Seeing Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz” at TIFF 2011, I was horribly disappointed. Watching it again months later, outside the pomp and circumstance of the festival setting, I adored it. There’s hope for you yet, “Something” — but probably not you, “Passion.”

As always, there were many films I did not get to see, including several biggies. I wanted to catch the TIFF People’s Choice Award-winning “Silver Linings Playbook,” but missing David O. Russell’s Oscar favorite, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, meant I had time to read Matthew Quick’s fast, funny book — certainly a silver lining. I skipped Ben Affleck’s crowd-pleasing thriller “Argo” and the audience-dividing Wachowski Bros.-Tom Tykwer epic that is “Cloud Atlas,” since both were scheduled to open in October. Others that drew major buzz were “Rust and Bone,” which could bring Marion Cotillard another Oscar, and Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha,” starring Greta Gerwig in a black-and-white love story.

I was left most fascinated by five fiercely idiosyncratic films: the aforementioned “No” and “Amour,” Rodney Ascher’s “Room 237,” Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.” A documentary on various fan theories about Kubrick’s “The Shining,” “Room 237” left me almost tearful with excitement. It captures something, I think, about the sheer power of cinema, and the ways it can capture (if not steal) our imaginations, in ways both intentional and unexpected. You’ll never look at the Overlook Hotel in quite the same way.

It was fitting that the final two films I saw, Malick’s “To the Wonder” and P. T. Anderson’s “The Master,” were the most jagged, fascinating pair of the festival. “Wonder” is the more aesthetically mystifying of the two, taking the life-as-a-series-of-memories style of his controversial, Oscar-nominated “Tree of Life” to what might be its breaking point. This is introspection to the point of absurdity — “Do you know what you want?” asks Rachel McAdams, and many will shout, “No!” — but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Despite being Malick’s least successful work, it is still imaginative, thrillingly opaque filmmaking, all the more for featuring almost no dialogue. (Seriously — prepare for narration, some bad poetry, and many, many shots of lovers in cornfields.) Even with its flaws, I found it mostly intoxicating, especially the lead performance of Olga Kurylenko.

By the time you read this, you’ll have had a chance to see “The Master,” the film that, more than any other I’ve seen in 2012, makes me want to sit, think, read, and process. (Remember that word — “process.” Once you see “The Master,” you’ll understand its relevance.) Anderson’s film is, then, “Room 237”’s spiritual cousin, a rigorous, hypnotic, unsettling film that in some ways is unlike any other ever made. Sure, there are shades of others, including Anderson’s own “There Will Be Blood.” But there’s a new cinematic language on display here, I think, one more accessible than “To the Wonder”’s but no less ambitious. Yes, the film is about Scientology, and religion, but less than one might think. Anderson and his cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams all deserve Oscars) have created something about failure, fear, self-delusion, family, and man’s longing for inclusion. Trust me when I say that whether you like “The Master” or not, you’ve never seen anything quite like it before. I can’t imagine we’ll see a better film this year.

Both “Wonder” and “Master” offer little in the way of explanation. They both are about pain and poison in literal and figurative senses, they both seem to be puzzles with several missing pieces, and they both shrug their shoulders when accused of practicing mindf—ery. These are the kind of films that make TIFF so virile, so complex, so ultimately enjoyable. Where else within two hours of Buffalo can the act of sitting in a darkened theater, eating popcorn (when allowed — I’m talking about you, Ryerson Theatre), and waiting for the L’Oreal commercial to finish and the movie to begin feel almost spiritual?

Like those obsessed viewers in “Room 237,” the puzzle pieces of “To the Wonder” and “The Master” haven’t all fit together for me yet. There’s an inherent thrill in searching for a missing piece, and if that doesn’t symbolize the point of watching, rewatching, and, yes, processing, I’m not sure what does.

Photo courtesy of TIFF

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