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Every year at the Toronto International Film Festival seems to get better and better. Is that due to the increase in films from six to eleven to fifteen? It very well might be. And I’ll just say now, watching fifteen films in less than four days may not be the healthiest thing in the world. Between the vendor sausage/chicken dogs/nitrates on a bun being easily accessible and a standard meal when going from one film to the next with barely enough time to catch your breath and the sheer fact of sitting down in the dark for ten out of nineteen hours awake, (that was our Friday of five movies), my cohort Chris and I definitely “worked” on this brief reprieve from the office. That said, however, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The excitement, buzz, and joy of being surrounded completely by cinema for four days cannot be beat.

It all started with a quick jaunt down the QEW from Buffalo to Toronto at 9:00am. After about an hour and a half, we checked into the hotel, (the room was actually ready that early), and walked down to Nathan Philips Square to retrieve our lottery pick tickets. Chaos was at risk with the two lines out the door … shouldn’t the people picking up be sent in and the ones buying kept outside waiting? One would think it quicker to just swing by and trade a voucher for a packet, but the obvious is never a reality. We had to utilize both lines anyways as four films were purchased separately and two from the lottery needed to be traded in. With only two blocks of time available to trade for, our choices were limited, but with one we wanted to see, Valhalla Rising, and one that was the only thing left, Like You Know it All, we filled the spots and as a result never needed to worry about tickets again. This is key since the previous two years we bought tickets upon arrival, something that would have resulted in seeing very obscure films this time as opening weekend sells out fast.

Acquired the day before was a chance to see Jennifer’s Body at a press screening and that’s where we headed first. Did we want to experience the hustle and bustle and beauty of Megan Fox on the red carpet at Midnight Madness? For sure we did, but being sold out and locked out from our studio rep, it was daytime viewing with about five other critics or nothing at all. Of course we took the free film and thankfully, both of us being very trepidatious that the camp-fest would fall flat on its face, the Diablo Cody penned teen horror entertained. Is it a great piece of cinema? No. Does it do the job it sets out to do? Yes. And Adam Brody is pretty darn funny in it too.

Next on the slate was a pair so mismatched it is almost strange to think they played back to back at the Ryerson. The Nick Hornby penned An Education screened first—a 60’s period piece about a young girl growing up very fast, living between her very Catholic high school and aspirations to attend Oxford and the older man she falls in love with. This film was fantastic, a strong story fueled by wonderful direction from Lone Scherfig and acting from a talented cast. Scherfig explained how it was a “very contained film … everything belongs in that time bubble—time bub-a-lub” (you need to watch it to understand), and Hornby relayed how after this experience he may never adapt another of his novels again. The process, he says, is “taking out [writing the screenplay] about 3/4 of what you just put in [writing the novel]”. The memoir this film is based on was just ten pages yet included a solid structure and characters. It was as though he was creating a whole new project rather than butchering his baby.

Following this was the controversial and much-talked-about Antichrist from director Lars von Trier. Talk about a juxtaposition between the colorful tale of hope and reaching adulthood to this psychological journey of coping with the death of a young son, an event that occurred while the parents were engaged in sexual intercourse. How does one live that kind of guilt down? Well, if Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe have anything to say about it … you don’t. A masterpiece for sure—I just don’t think I’ll ever want to watch it again. Coming from a very dark and depressing time for von Trier, Dafoe spoke about how they didn’t rehearse, they just went in and did it, always on edge and always unsure. He says the preparation came from “concentrating on something where the whole floor falls away”. It is “Nature created by Satan” and the horrors of the mind when retribution must be made to atone for one’s sins. It’s definitely tough to watch, but brilliant at the same time.

Friday began with two films that we had absolutely no idea about. Number one was a Korean work called Like You Know It All about an indie director and his travels to judge a film festival and speak at a college. Wow was it pretty painful to watch. The beginning started out okay, somewhat tongue-in-cheek and humorous, but then the story started repeating itself, dealing with rape as a joke, and never got around its amateurish acting. After three years, finally we experienced a film we both didn’t like. Yeah, Margot at the Wedding was a disappointment back in 2007, but at least it was well made. Too bad the director wasn’t there to defend the work … he was guest teaching at a school, (something the festival moderator thought would be a humorous fact mirroring the film itself).

Definitely not the start we hoped for, sitting down for film two, Visage (Face), had us a bit on edge hoping to not have two clunkers in a row. Unfortunately, we did. Director Ming-liang Tsai was too ill to attend and it’s a shame because I would have loved to hear what he had to say. The film is definitely an art piece, reminiscent to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series, (even including one of its stars Fanny Ardant), and definitely more visual than anything else. While its two and a half hour runtime was long and arduous, (a woman duct taping a window to shield the light for ten minutes plus is an example), the images were pretty remarkable. I’d love to see a photo exhibit of stills hanging in a gallery, as it could be great. So many frames show real beauty in their construction … just don’t say that to Chris who abhorred the entire work, even shaking his head when I said at least it was pretty, in complete disagreement. You do have to respect an ending scene in a meat locker, metal hooks and chains hanging, and a man in a tub covered with tomato paste, all while three women undress and move their bodies around.

If the completion of our morning two films, (with three still on tap for the day), gave us hope at all, it was that every other film for the festival would be something we had been looking forward to check out. And it all started with Jordan Scott’s Cracks at the Winter Garden Theatre. This quaint venue is actually above the Elgin, something we had never been aware of. Practically the same size as its sibling below, the theatre is decorated with foliage and atmosphere, adding a bit of intrigue—a perfect companion to the traditional English boarding school setting of the film. Scott explained that she was drawn to the material because of experiencing that world herself as a youngster, (without the “Lord of the Flies” aspects I’m sure). Based upon a novel—please festival attendees, have some knowledge of the stuff you see and don’t ask a director why she choose the name when it’s the exact same name as the source material—the story progresses slowly, but holds together with some high class acting from a pretty unknown cast. Besides Eva Green, only three of the other girls had any real acting experience, the rest actually locals or newcomers, three of which actually went to boarding school together. What was the best part of the screening however? Without question, catching a glimpse of the director’s famous father Ridley; that was a treat.

A short break for dinner, oh the Eaton Centre foodcourt, and we were back to Yonge Street, this time to watch Jane Campion’s new Bright Star at the Elgin. Admittedly, I’ve only ever seen The Piano by her, coincidentally a former TIFF release and produced by the same woman as this tale of John Keats and his love Fanny Brawne. Along with a couple lead performances that deliver big from Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw, it’s a favorite of mine, Paul Schneider, who steals the show. The best part of many films, (Lars and the Real Girl, Away We Go, Elizabethtown), he overshadows whomever is in frame with him here as friend and poet Charles Armitage Brown, always with a quick quip or sarcastic jab. I truly think this might achieve the success of that 1993 work for Campion, something I’m sure she’d enjoy after the lukewarm reception of her last big release In the Cut.

Well, I’ll throw myself under the bus now and say that fatigue and sleepiness was setting in fast. The only thing to alleviate that was a good ol’ Midnight Madness screening; thankfully we had tickets to the vampire horror Daybreakers at just that setting. Introduced by twin directors the Spierig Brothers, they relayed how good Toronto treated their debut low-budget feature Undead at the festival years before. The one even got the audience to laugh with his comment, “I’m drunk. It’s the best way to watch this movie.” Enthusiastic about sitting down with us, we being the world premiere audience in its first public screening, they next welcomed Willem Dafoe, (with camera, documenting the evening before flying out of the city), and Sam Neill, (who pretty much refused to speak and instead stood in the back smiling). The movie ended up being a lot of fun, calling to mind the action gem Equilibrium in tone, and the fans ate it up. Every single kill, whether decapitated heads flying or an exploding vampire, was followed by rapturous applause. Dafoe’s one-liners had the same effect, helped by the fact he was in attendance, and the only negative was the glaring absence of lead Ethan Hawke. The guy must be busy these days.

So, what do you follow five films in one day with? How about four more the next? With a nice late Saturday morning start of 10:30 and the potential to be a laugh riot comedy, The Informant! looked to be the perfect start, and boy did it live up. Introduced by Steven Soderbergh himself as having “no sex, no videotapes, but enough lies to last another twenty years,” the exact length of time since his debut, the movie was as funny as the trailers and posters made it seem. Matt Damon is pitch-perfect as the bumbling smart man idiot, taking down his company for price fixing because it goes against his beliefs of living an honest life. This fact becomes the biggest joke of all once we realize all the secrets hidden beneath the main plot. It does start to become a little repetitious towards the end and the craziness somewhat obvious, but you’ll still be laughing hard right to the end. I’d love to hear what the real informant thinks—the guy whose book this film is based on—because you have to believe the true story isn’t as zany as this. Credit Scott Z. Burns and Soderbergh for turning a straightforward tale into something that’s all but. Love the Damon voiceovers too; his train of thought monologues could satisfy my attention alone.

Left in a good mood, we started walking to the Roy Thompson Theatre for our one big gala screening of the year, the North American Premiere of Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora. The man responsible for a couple powerhouses in The Others and Mar adentro, I couldn’t wait to see what he did with this Egyptian epic starring Rachel Weisz and Max Minghella. Using little computer graphics, Amenábar explains that he wanted this to have a “going back in time” sense of realism. Sets were built and extras hired to create some moments of chaotic beauty as the Christians and Pagans of Alexandria lock horns. His goal was to show how intolerance has ravaged our future, how the safety of this library could have given us documents and an education so vast that we could be on Mars right now. It’s an historical epic to the core and as a result a tad predictable, but it definitely gets his goal across of being a piece of work that’s “against anyone who uses violence to prove ideas.” The fact that we have Jews and Christians battling against each other can’t help but add a little political discourse on how it hasn’t always been the Muslims practicing zealotry.

Capping off the evening, after a wonderful find in The 3 Brewers as a good place to eat, (we returned Sunday for lunch), were too films with a lot of intrigue. First came the new Michael Haneke work The White Ribbon, about a town’s many inhabitants in pre-WWI Austria amidst local tragedy. After a couple accidents—one fatal—and the kidnapping and beating of a child, no one knows what is going on. Could it be the children, could it be the adulterers, the pedophiles, or the hot-tempered adults in every corner? The brilliance of this film comes in its complete disregard for giving answers. A quick two and a half hours, so many questions and hypotheses and accusations occur, yet nothing is resolved or even validated. Every option could be true, whether stated in the film or thought of upon reflection afterwards. You will be thinking of this one for days to come, either to work out what happened or to figure out why you loved it so much.

So, mentally exhausted, what do we do next? We go to a Gaspar Noé film. Yes he of Irreversible fame and the fan-made t-shirt that says “Gaspar Noé is an evil man” came to Toronto for the world premiere of his new bordering on three hours masterpiece Enter the Void. Screened as a workprint at Cannes, this was the first public showing in its completed form and what a trip it was. The soft spoken director introduced it with the words, “It’s weird … it’s supposed to be.” What an understatement there. Saying he thought of “watching Lady in the Lake on mushrooms” and wanting to portray “a near-death experience” Noé takes us on a journey through death and one’s life flashing before your eyes as well as the present occurring under your floating soul. Using Tokyo’s neon lights and maze-like cityscape, the camera is made to look as though a fly on the wall is filming everything. Massive close-ups, extended feelings of a continuous shot, seamless transitions between normal and fisheye lenses, and fields of blinking color that would induce seizures in even the most non-epileptic abound, enveloping you in its beauty, its brutality, and its uncompromising sexuality. Talk about asking for nightmares, double billing Haneke and Noé is not recommended for the faint of heart.

How we managed to wake up, pack, get our car, and park by the Ryerson after the night of intellectual stimulation we had is beyond me … but we did it. The only thing that could get us in the right frame of mind to be able to see a Viking action/drama followed by a post-apocalyptic world of cannibals and gray skyline was a front to back smart and witty comedy. And who better to deliver that elixir than Jason Reitman and Up in the Air? Our friend from 2007, director of our first ever TIFF screening Juno, did not grace us with an appearance, but did share a film with everything you could want. Probably the best all-around work we saw the entire weekend, George Clooney and company have a massive hit on their hands. So funny at times that the next line becomes inaudible, yet still maintaining some dark serious tones to offset the humor, Reitman completes his auspicious trio of comedies, bolstering what has all the potential of being an even greater career than has already been built.

Still reeling from the massive enjoyment at the Elgin just an hour previous, we found our place in line for Valhalla Rising starring a one-eyed, mute Viking played by Mads Mikkelsen. Taking the slot before my most anticipated film, The Road, this thing intrigued in a good way, yet was completely indecipherable to me. All I know is that I liked it, whether or not I could explain the plot one bit. Director Nicolas Winding Refn said that he prepared by blaring heavy metal music while scouting Scotland and Mikkelsen left us with the line, “Sit back, relax, and enjoy that imaginary joint” … I should have known then that what followed would be a trip; a bloody, merciless, and spiritual one at that.

Finally, after being refused the option of staying in the theatre since we were seeing the next film rather than going to the end of the long line formed while inside for a second time, we found our way back for John Hillcoat’s The Road. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, this is a story about a man and his son alone in a world ravaged by humanity’s hubris. Doing what they can to survive, against all odds with a lack of food, medicine, and sun, but an abundance of violent cannibals, these two have only their memories and love for each other to keep them going. The North American premiere lived up to all expectations as I’ve been eagerly awaiting it for about a year. Those darn Weinsteins not only pushed it back, (and back again just the other day to November of this year), but cut a trailer so misleading they either don’t know what they have or don’t trust it. Well they should because if treated right, it could be a huge success. Hillcoat’s grimy and unfiltered vision from The Proposition comes out again here with Viggo Mortensen, along with newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee, bringing it to realistic fruition. But the film wasn’t the only winner as the attendees livened the room as well. Viggo and Robert Duvall, who is great in a small part, were there in support with youngster Smit-McPhee carrying a Montreal Canadiens flag, garnering boos from a Maple Leaf contingent. The crowd-pleaser for Chris and I though—Mr. Gaspar Noé himself in a John Holmes tee. You couldn’t ask for a better wardrobe choice than that.

So, after fifteen films, little sleep, and a lot of walking, the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival came to a close for these two Buffalonians. We had it all this year—the decision to go opening weekend the best move we could have made—with clear masterpieces, gorgeous works that not only stay with you but also punch you in the gut, a star-studded menagerie of actors and filmmakers to talk about their work, a couple clunkers proving that festivals do show bad films, and just hours of fun. We may have missed A Serious Man, [Rec] 2, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, but we made up for it with some deeply moving and resonating work. A complete success with no regrets, I can’t wait until 2010 because each year has been better than the last. The thought that next year’s experience could beat this one only puts a huge smile on my face.

For those keeping score at home:
Jennifer’s Body 6/10
An Education 9/10
Antichrist 9/10
Jal aljido mothamyeonseo [Like You Know It All] 2/10
Visage [Face] 4/10
Cracks 7/10
Bright Star 9/10
Daybreakers 6/10
The Informant! 8/10
Agora 8/10
Das weiße Band [The White Ribbon] 10/10
Enter the Void 8/10
Up in the Air 9/10
Valhalla Rising 7/10
The Road 9/10

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photography:
[1] Nick Hornby, Carrey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Dominic Cooper, Alfred Molina
[2] Willem Dafoe
[3] Jordan Scott, Eva Green, Juno Temple, María Valverde
[4] Jane Campion, producer, Ben Whishaw
[5] Midnight Madness coordinator, Spierig Brothers, Sam Neill, Willem Dafoe
[6] Steven Soderbergh
[7] Homayoun Ershadi, Oscar Isaac, Alejandro Amenábar
[8] Gaspar Noé, Midnight Madness coordinator
[9] Nicolas Winding Refn, Mads Mikkelsen
[10] Kodi Smit-McPhee, Viggo Mortensen, Robert Duvall

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