Flicks - Coming attractions

Toronto Film Festival gains new cachet

This is the year the Toronto International Film Festival became the largest and most important film festival in North America. The festival, which ended Sept. 13, screened 350 films from around the world for 10 days and attracted a great mix of filmmakers, deal makers, press and fans who lined the streets for even the most obscure films. Because the Academy Awards will be held three weeks earlier next year (Feb. 29, 2004), the festival has become an important launching pad for Hollywood as it clambers to open all its contenders in time for Oscar consideration. The buzz in Toronto last week was that the festival has replaced Cannes as the most important festival in the world.

Many A-list films made their world premieres this year: The Human Stain (dir. Robert Benton) starring Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins; Matchstick Men (dir. Ridley Scott) with Nicolas Cage; Out of Time (dir. Carl Franklin) with Denzel Washington; In The Cut (dir. Jane Campion) with Meg Ryan. Alongside that was new work by cinema's masters such as the controversial Elephant (dir. Gus Van Sant), Rosenstrasse (dir. Margarethe von Trotta) and Zatoichi (dir. "Beat" Takeshi Kitano). The festival was equally important for its first-time directors and inclusion of films from Asia, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.

The most talked-about film was surely Gus Van Sant's Columbine-inspired Elephant. The film follows the day leading up to a school shooting spree, but don't expect an overdose of graphic realism or a preachy diatribe about the causes of such violence. The film instead focuses on the lives of several students from the school, many who will eventually die. Van Sant has an uncanny ability to capture the dialogue and behaviors of the high school set without turning to stereotypes, and while the ending is shocking, this film's real power lies in its realistic portrayal of teenage life and the banality of such sensationalized events.

Dogme returned to the festival with Lars Von Trier's Dogville starring Nicole Kidman, but the Dogme-inspired Green Butchers by Danish director Anders Thomas Jensen was much more interesting.

Jensen's depressing perspective is Dogme-appropriate, but he artfully combines it with stylized sets, lighting and camerawork to create a hyper-realized critique of one's desire to belong. Of course, being Dogme-influenced, this transpires while two butchers accidentally kill and then serve a repairman to their customers. The new "chickie-wickie" meat draws huge crowds to their shop and more meat must be found. This film accomplishes its goals precisely because it does not go over the top, but instead utilizes a grim but realistic portrait of two outsiders trying to be accepted by their town.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa returned to the festival with a film that also follows two outsiders, but he handles his Bright Future with a much darker, lyrical approach. Two laundry-workers, Mamoru and Yoji, develop a friendship based in their rejection of accepted values and the bustle of the Tokyo streets. When Mamoru is fired, he reacts violently and leaves Yoji to finish up a lethal experiment he started — adapting a poisonous jellyfish for release in fresh water. The conversion works, creating a beautiful but dangerous river filled with millions of glowing jellyfish in a metaphor for the plight of the antiheroes.

Ross McElwee (Sherman's March) captures another beautiful, deadly and captivating form with his study of tobacco and its effects on the South in Bright Leaves. It was just one of several interesting documentaries in the festival. Many had a familiar ring of anti-globalization and took serious looks at the effects of capitalism on the world. The most interesting being the three-hour The Corporation. Directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott teamed with writer Joel Bakan to study the rise of the modern corporation and its peculiar legal status as an individual. The filmmakers' novel approach is to study the corporation as a psychiatrist would study a person, and they find that corporations fit every diagnosis for extreme pathology.

For my money, the more humorous look at the same subject in The Yes Men by Chris Smith, Dan Ollman and Sarah Price was a better film. The Yes Men are a group of artists who spoof the World Trade Organization and who became famous when their bogus press release of the WTO's decision to disband was picked up by a Canadian politician and presented as fact in Parliament. The filmmakers (who also made American Movie) follow the Yes Men around the world as they prank large conferences into believing that McDonald's will soon serve burgers made of post-consumer waste and that the WTO will monitor workers from a golden suit fitted with a monitor in the form of a gigantic phallus. Bashing the WTO has never been so much fun.

Even more fun, though more harrowing, was 21 Grams, the first English language picture by the director of Amores Perros, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu. Reunited with the screenwriter and cinematographer from that earlier foreign hit, Inarritu finds himself with an able cast featuring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro in a hyper-kinetic, flashback-fueled film. Without giving away too much, all that can be said is that Del Toro is cast as a born-again ex-con preaching the gospel, Naomi Watts experiences the loss of her family, Sean Penn has smoked his heart to death and they soon cross each other's paths. Much better edited than his freshman effort, and with better characterization, Inarritu shows himself to be the director to watch with this new effort.

Neil Young showed up at the festival, playing a sold-out concert and promoting his new film Greendale, which he directed under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey. Shot in Super-8 and blown up as a grainy 35mm print, the film is set to Neil Young's songs, with the cast mouthing the lyrics in a mix of storytelling and music video. While the film can be tedious, I realized during his press conference that the man doesn't care, nor should he. Young has the luxury of being able to make the film he wants to make, which is rare in either Hollywood or Indie-wood, and his fans will surely flock to the film to see his vision.

Other highlights included Evil by Mikael Hafstrom in a stylized look at a young tough in a high-priced Swedish boarding school; Young Adam by David Mackenzie starring Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton having lots of sex on a barge; and Coffee & Cigarettes, the new film by Jim Jarmusch.

Several high-profile screenings sold out, so I missed the new Jane Campion film and many others. But that freed me up to catch South Korean master Bong Joon-ho's new serial-killer-thriller Memories of Murder and new American director Greg Marcks' ensemble thriller 11:14. At the end of the day, that's what makes Toronto the best festival in the world — there are enough good films, anyone can discover a new favorite director and revel in a film veteran's new effort, all while sitting in a theater next to a famous actor from Hollywood and a not-so-famous grammar teacher from Calgary.

Lucky for Atlanta audiences, local theater owner George Lefont and High Museum Film Curator Linda Dubler were spied in many a line. Their presence, combined with Atlanta's numerous festivals, film societies and the new arthouse megaplexes Madstone and Landmark, indicate that many of these films will appear on local screens sometime soon.

Brian Newman is executive director of IMAGE Film & Video Center.