TORONTO — There was much to like about the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (see my daily updates from last week at the CT Movies blog), but rather than simply list my favorite films here, or try to argue for which ones are in some subjective way the "best," I've decided to simply highlight some films that might appeal to different tastes. And so …
If you like mainstream narrative films, check out Agora.
I've already written that Agora isn't so much an anti-religion film as an anti-intolerance film, so rather than elaborate on that, I'd rather say a few more words on my contention that the film is a "smashingly good story." I've heard some grumbles that it is too broad and hence unfocused. One man's lack of focus is another man's scope and breadth, I guess. One of the conventions of epics is that they unfold over a large setting, and it is the very density of the film's population of characters that allows it to be more nuanced in its representation of people than are those more narrowly focused films that inevitably show one side of a conflict as unilaterally good and the other as completely in the wrong.
There are three distinct movements in the film. The interludes—containing shots of the earth from space and subtitles filling in the contextual, historical facts—could conceivably make some feel like they are watching three episodes of a miniseries rather than a traditional Aristotelian narrative. The non-traditional structure makes sense within the context of the film, which is about taking a larger (historical or cosmological) view of immediate conflicts and (as director Alejandro Amenábar said in one Q&A session) meditating on the implications (personal, political, metaphysical) that history has often unfolded cyclically rather than in unchecked, linear progress.
Yet despite the vastness of the setting, the film remains more interested in particular human beings and their particular choices than in sweeping generalizations. I absolutely cannot stress enough the importance of Amenábar's decision to build sets and limit the use of CGI. It shows in the performances, (one actor at the Q&A spoke on how much easier it was to act within a set than in front of a green screen) and it keeps the focus of the film on human relationships rather than spectacle. There is spectacle, but it is used to punctuate dramatic highlights and is thus more integrated into the film than are chase scenes or set pieces in the average blockbuster.
The film does an excellent job balancing and integrating external and internal conflicts. The external conflicts move the plot along, but, as in most really good epics, the internal conflicts give the film real dramatic weight. Drama is rooted in meaningful, often difficult personal choices, and almost all of the characters in Agora have to make choices—sometimes between good and evil, sometimes between good and best, often between bad and worse. How they make those choices makes for a fascinating inquiry into how faith informs our decisions.
• Honorable Mention: Mao's Last Dancer.
If you like indies, character-driven films, or comedies, check out An Education.
Lone Scherfig's adaptation of Lynn Barber's memoir (with a screenplay by Nick Hornby) is refreshing. As much a period piece as a bildungsroman—Hornby said he was fascinated by the idea of the moment where the first reverberations of the tumultuous 60s were being felt but had not yet exploded into the public consciousness—the film deftly presents an image of a world in transition, and interweaves that presentation with the story of a family in the midst of it.
The thing I liked the most about An Education is that it takes the questions it raises seriously. And they are big questions. Because the film is willing to broach large subjects within the context of a comedy, we have a lot invested in the resolution. Nowhere is this more evident than in a scene between Jenny (beautifully played by Carey Mulligan) and her headmistress (played by the impeccable Emma Thompson) where Jenny questions the necessity of getting an education or bettering herself if marriage and motherhood will still be the only end to which that training and education can be put.
This discussion and others like it aren't so much an attempt to make a sociopolitical argument as to show how a sociopolitical environment comes to bear on one person, prompts an existential crisis in her, and forces her to make some painful and important decisions about the sort of life she wants to live and the sort of person she wants to be.
Oh, and it's really, really funny. One independent theater owner in Toronto told me An Education was almost a sure bet to be a commercial success at his theater. So don't take my word for it. The guy whose income depends on knowing what audiences will like says it's a can't miss.
• Honorable Mention: Defendor
If you don't mind a little bawdy content in a good movie, check out Air Doll.
Hirokazu Kore-eda's Air Doll has as its protagonist an inflatable sex doll named Nozomi. It is not exclusively an exploration of human sexuality; it is more a meditation on what makes us human. Sexuality is a major theme, but so is love and how it differs from sexual desire. Beauty is also a major theme.
The central structural device of the film—an innocent outsider who is interjected into a culture as a means of examining afresh the things those who live in it take for granted—is actually quite conventional. Narratives as far ranging as Frankenstein and Starman use the same storytelling device. The device is so common because it is flexible and effective. It can be used for comedic purposes, such as when characters try to explain cultural practices. It can also be used for more dramatic or probing effect when a work uses the outsider's experience to cut through cultural conditioning and make us consider what we actually feel when confronted with a practice or idea, rather than simply recite what opinion of it we have developed in the abstract.
This more probing effect can be seen in the way the film uses Nozomi's experiences to foster meditations about cultural attitudes toward women. "I am an air doll," Nozomi says several times after discovering the box she came in along with a description of her purpose, "a substitute for desire." The film is fantasy, not science-fiction, but like most good sci-fi, it uses its premise to comment about human nature. Like AI, I Robot, or films about cloning, Air Doll is a film very much of the moment, because it is concerned about culture's increasing tendency to ascribe value not to all humans, but only to some. (Thus I suspect that some may even be able to extract a pro-life message from the film.)
In one scenem, Nozomi comes face to face with her creator. "Is everything you have seen sad?" he asks her. "Was nothing beautiful?" Nozomi's answer and the fact that she doesn't expound on it forces you to think back over what you've seen and reevaluate it—and Kore-eda's purpose in presenting it.
There is, too, a scene in which Nozomi tells the object of her love that she will do anything for him to give him pleasure—which, we are constantly reminded, is what she was made for. What he asks her to do—and her response to his request—results in one of the most haunting, complex, difficult, and ambiguous comments about human sexuality that I've seen in film.
Air Doll is not a perfect film. I thought the last ten minutes were a misfire, and its meditative rather than narrative structure makes it hard to bring to a resolution much less a conclusion. Its subject matter will mean that it is not for everyone. For my money, however, Kore-eda is one of those rare filmmakers who sees humanity in all its brokenness … and yet loves it anyway.
(Air Doll isn't the first film in which an inflatable sex toy teaches us much about the human condition. Lars and the Real Girl, chosen by CT Movies as the second most redeeming film of 2007, is a wonderfully poignant film about unconditional love, in the context of church and community. And quite non-explicit.)
• Honorable Mention: Life During Wartime.
If you like foreign language films or world cinema, check out Lourdes.
Jessica Hausner's film about a wheelchair-bound woman (Sylvie Testud) making a pilgrimage to Lourdes, her fellow pilgrims, and the people who attend to and accompany them, was my personal favorite film of the festival.
I did not expect that it would be so. Based on the description and the first ten minutes or so, I thought it might be a satirical, mocking, or critical film. One of the real pleasures of the film, though, is how it gradually but steadily keeps building on its situation by adding new wrinkles so that no one character—good or bad—comes to represent faith in its entirety.
As is often the case with world cinema, Lourdes rewards careful attention. Unlike many commercial Hollywood films where important details are underscored to make sure the audience gets the point, this film has enough faith in the audience's ability to understand what is happening that it can be somewhat nuanced in its presentation—and all the richer for it. A good example is a scene where a pilgrim in a wheelchair is able to bypass part of a waiting line and is given a resentful look from someone in the line. This transitional scene—thirty seconds at most—doesn't just advance the plot, it also reinforces a key theme: Our pettiness and selfishness, the natural man in us, can rear its head anywhere, any time. Those who have much are perfectly capable of resenting those who have little for being a tax on their resources; those who have little are perfectly capable of resenting those who have even less; those who have the least are capable of resenting each other. And all of us are capable of resenting God.
One truly marvelous thing about Lourdes is that it is capable of being honest without being cynical, pessimistic, and bitter. If my description makes it sound like a Bergmanesque exercise in self-loathing, it's probably because it is hard to come up with commonly known, analogous films that are both honest about the human condition and yet can be so filled with hope as well as melancholy. Babette's Feast, maybe. Or an Ishiguro novel. Because of its subject matter and its probing of the boundaries between supernatural and psychological, Lourdes might draw some comparisons to Dreyer's films, though tonally and stylistically it reminded me a bit more of the work of Kieslowski.
The first thing I did when I got home from the festival was try to add Jessica Hausner's previous films to my rental queue. But neither Lovely Rita nor Hotel was available, so if you get a chance to see this film at a festival or in the local art theater, do it. You may not get a second chance.
• Honorable Mention: Vision.
Kenneth R. Morefield, an English prof at Campbell University, has been writing about the Toronto International Film Festival for CT Movies.
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