Live from Toronto Film Festival 2011: Wrapping up

September 16, 2011

When I come back from a festival like the Toronto International Film Festival and tell friends that I saw 23 films in four and a half days, they always ask: Isn’t it difficult to keep them all straight?

In fact, here’s the hardest part about going to the Toronto Film Festival: figuring out what I want to see before I get there without actually reading too much about the movies before I see them.

It gets harder every year and the difficulty seems to start even earlier. We are awash in media about movies; trailers tell the whole story and, if they don’t, critics and bloggers do. The festivals are the only places where I can walk into a movie knowing little to nothing about it.

On the other hand, it wasn’t even Labor Day and the one or two movie blogs I check regularly were already touting the mostly unseen 2011 oeuvre of George Clooney – his performance in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” and the Clooney-directed “The Ides of March” – as Oscar fodder. One guy went so far as to predict that “The Descendants” was a lock to be the year’s best picture.

I prefer to actually see the other films that are due out before the end of the year before declaring a winner. But I’ll admit that I saw a few that seem like obvious Oscar contenders – more performances than whole films – in Toronto.

Actually, Clooney’s “Ides of March,” which I still haven’t seen and which opens Oct. 7, went from zero to 60 and back to zero before he even got out of the box. I was reading about (without actually reading) dismissive reviews of “Ides of March” before the film even showed at the Venice Film Festival before Labor Day. It went from buzzed-about to fugedaboutit just like that.

Well, allow me to ignore and demur. I find myself working hard not to get worked up about this game each year – the horse-race aspect of the awards season, as opposed to the actual quality of the movies – even though it seems to start an earlier point every year. Horse race? It’s more like a dog race – speedier, more skittish, more ADD.

Having said that, let me sum up a bit about this year’s festival. From a strictly logistical point of view, this year was a marked improvement over last year. In fairness, the 2010 festival was something of a shakedown cruise, a trial run for the event’s relocation from its 30-some years in the Yorkville neighborhood to the new downtown locus of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the festival’s permanent home. While gala screenings still occur in farther-flung venues in the downtown Toronto area, I spent my time in the vortex of the Lightbox and the Scotiabank multiplex, the two centers for press screenings, which are two blocks apart.

I’ve already talked about deciding to wait until Sunday to fly to Toronto. As a result, my experience was both pleasant (in terms of the manageability of the lines and ability to get into everything I wanted to see) and a little airless. That may have more to do with the fact that the majority of critics I used to pal around with at the festival no longer have jobs – or at least not jobs that include a trip to this film festival.

How do I keep the movies straight when I’m seeing five a day? Well, I take notes. And I guess I’ve educated my memory in that way. It’s not like you can train for this sort of thing; you just build your schedule, get in lines, go from movie to movie – and have the good sense to walk away when your brain can’t absorb anymore. Oh, and keep a pack of gum or mints handy, to wake you up if you feel drowsy.

At festivals, I feel a certain freedom that I generally don’t allow myself in New York: permission to walk out of a movie that’s not doing anything for me. There were only a couple I bailed on this year, including one movie I left after 20 minutes because, while I thought it might be worthy, I wasn’t in the right mood for it – and I knew that I was in the mood for “Butter,” the cutting social comedy starring Jennifer Garner, that was just about to start.

When I worked for a newspaper, I was always under pressure to concoct “trend” stories, to spot patterns at festivals where none existed. In a festival of more than 300 movies – selected by a disparate staff of programmers – it’s impossible to claim a motive or theme for the films that were chosen. It’s easy, however, to hunt and choose films that fit that idea – even if you’ve only seen a couple dozen of the movies.

Similarly, it’s too easy to tether a film to a news event of the moment; in fact, films are years in the making. It is luck, coincidence and happenstance when a movie gets released, particularly in relation to other movies; if you don’t believe that, ask Jessica Chastain.

So while Harvey Weinstein went out of his way to tie “Butter” to Michele Bachmann’s tail, the fact is that the film was shot in 2010, when Bachmann was still just one of the Tea Party’s assorted mixed nuts. According to IMDB, the script was purchased in January 2009, before there even was a Tea Party and Bachmann was familiar only to right-wingers, or to left-wingers who pay attention to the more bizarre politicians on the right.

As noted, I saw 23 films, as well as part of the ones that I walked out of for one reason or another. And I saw a half-dozen more from the festival back in August (or earlier, at Sundance), at pre-festival screenings in New York.

I’ve already talked about my favorites here. Most of them, I believe, will be released and will receive lengthier reviews at that time. So let me end, instead, by citing some bits of dialogue from my notes, lines that caught my ear or eye:

“Sometimes I just want something new.”
“New things get old, too.”
-from Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz”

Sign on the wall at a suicide prevention clinic:
“Come on – it’s not that bad.”
-from Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress”

“I will be 100 percent committed to this – half of the time.”
-from Jennifer Westfeldt’s “Friends with Kids”

“The great thing about people with Aspberger’s is that it’s very hard to hurt their feelings.”
-from Lasse Hallstrom’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”

“Nothing just happens.”
Everything just happens.”
-from Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants”

“I hate losing more than I want to win. There’s a difference.”
-from Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball”

“You’re going to have to choose sides. People get killed in the middle of the road.”
-from David Hare’s “Page Eight”

“It’s time to start giving back. Like Oprah.”
-from Jim Field Smith’s “Butter”

“Nothing’s worse than regrets – not cancer or getting eaten by sharks.”
-from William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe”

“All art is political, or else it would just be decoration.”
-from Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous”

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