Toronto Calling

Thursday, September 23 2010
Toronto Calling

Our occasional correspondent Ian Gilchrist, who was instrumental in launching the BFI’s Connoisseur label, in the early days of the world cinema boom, and also ran Electric Pictures’ video arm and worked at the old RTM distribution operation, recently came back to the UK after a 10 year plus stint in his native Canada and the US. But the lure of his homeland and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) proved too much. Here’s his report on this year’s event.

I have been to a number of European and North American film festivals over the past 25 years, but nothing gives me as much pleasure as the annual festival that is held in my home town, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Originally known as the Festival of Festivals (or FoF, an acronym that always struck me as one that should really stand for something rude), it was renamed TIFF in 1995.

TIFF celebrated its 34th anniversary in 2010 in grand style, using the occasion as the perfect opportunity to launch its long in gestation, eagerly anticipated new permanent home, The TIFF Bell Lightbox. Modeled on European cinematheques such as the BFI Southbank, the Lightbox features five state of the art cinemas, offices for TIFF’s full time staff, and space for film-related exhibitions. The land that the Lightbox was built on was generously donated by the family of directors Ivan and Jason Reitman, a massive donation (the land was valued at 22 million Canadian dollars) that properly kick-started the entire venture. The Lightbox has launched with a 100 film series dubbed Essential Cinema, and in November will be host to the wonderful Tim Burton career overview exhibition that was curated by NYC’s Museum of Modern Art and ran there earlier this year.

TIFF 2010 featured 300 films screened over 11 days (the 11th day was added this year for the first time to accommodate demand). TIFF is now considered the second most important festival in the world after Cannes, and it has grown from being a festival that was primarily concerned with public screenings to one that is now vitally important to the industry as a launching pad for studio films and as a sales market for independent productions. I spent the majority of my time at the Festival away from industry people and functions, queuing up with like minded film fans 45 minutes before the start of screenings to ensure a decent seat in the almost always packed cinemas. Perhaps because of the amount of time spent in queues, one strikes up more conversations with complete strangers than at any other time or place in Toronto (the Anglo roots of the city and its culture means that people avoid speaking to each other in public much as they do in London). The sense of excitement and enthusiasm for film in these queues is intoxicating. Recommendations are offered up, as are the opposite; questions are asked as to what people are going to see later that day, and the next, and so on; star sightings are discussed. It is a simply fantastic way to gorge on film (many people see between 25 and 40 over the run of the Festival) in the company of passionate film lovers who are not jaded, or simply viewing and assessing as a function of their jobs.
I decided to return to Toronto for this year’s TIFF as my son Keir’s film It’s Kind Of A Funny Story was receiving its world premiere on September 11th as part of their Special Presentations strand (a notch or two down from a full on Gala presentation, but with the red carpet and media scrum out in force). The film is an adaptation of a well-loved teen novel by Brooklyn native Ned Vizzini, and was adapted and directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson). It was well received and is released in North America on October 8.  It was an interesting experience watching my son walk the red carpet and sign autographs; I couldn’t have foreseen this moment when, at the same age Keir is now, I was stalking Malcolm McDowell at the after party following the FoF premiere of Time After Time in 1979.
The two standouts for me at this year’s festival were dramas that explore the theme of parental trauma and recovery in the aftermath of the loss of a child. Rabbit Hole stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as parents mourning the loss of their four old in a road accident and struggling to process their grief and save their marriage; Beautiful Boy stars Maria Bello and Michael Sheen as the parents of a college student who goes on a Columbine-style rampage and kills 21 people before taking his own life. These two films are about the four central performances, which are emotionally wrenching and wholly believable, and both feature subtle, formally constrained direction which lets the actors shine.
On a completely different note, Takeshi Miike’s samurai flick 13 Assassins was a surprisingly subdued entry from the usually inventively perverse Japanese auteur. I anticipated much revelling in hacked off limbs, spilled guts and fountains of blood a la contemporary samurai films like Azumi or Beat Takeshi’s retooling of the Zaitochi series, but it was downright chaste by Miike’s usual standards, as he pays homage to the classic samurai films of Kurosawa (and explicitly to Seven Samurai) and his peers. First time British director Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is a contemporary monster movie (surprise, surprise) set in Mexico that bears a stylistic and thematic resemblance to District 9 but tells a very different kind of story in more of a slow burn manner. Julia’s Eyes is a fun, very Hitchcockian Spanish thriller starring the lovely Belen Rueda (The Orphanage) and was produced by Guillermo Del Toro. The horror stand-out for me was Stake Land, which very entertainingly combines elements of the vampire flick and the post-apocalyptic road movie (the plot is very reminiscent of The Road); it won the People’s Choice Award for Best Film in the Midnight Madness programme.
The Debt is a riveting thriller from John Madden about a botched Mossad kidnapping of a concentration camp doctor in the 1960s and features great turns from Helen Mirren and relative newcomer Jessica Chastain; it had me on the edge of my seat early on a Sunday morning. The last film I saw was Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, which was made as a series for the BBC but had been put together in feature form for the Festival and I imagine a potential theatrical release in North America. Steve Coogan reprises the meta-fictional version of ‘Steve Coogan’ last seen in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,  as our intrepid hero embarks on a road trip with pal Rob Brydon on behalf of The Observer, for whom he is sent oop North to write about fine dining establishments. Some of the jokes and references were lost on the Toronto audience, but they laughed. A lot. As did I.
Thus endeth a very enjoyable TIFF 2010. Bring on the LFF!

• To contact Ian, who is currently investigating options in the home entertainment sector, email him at iangilchrist99@hotmail.com

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