28 films in six days: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (part one!)
1) Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, Norway) This bleaker-than-bleak exploration of drug addiction hypnotically deconstructs the genre, exposing previous entries like 2000's Requiem for a Dream as oddly glorified and even romanticized. As with his surprise hit Reprise (2008), the soundtrack for Trier's film (Chromatics, White Birch) seals the colder-than-cold universe that lead character Øystein (played brilliantly by Anders Borchgrevink) inhabits. Not for folks who can't handle needles dangling out of arms.
2) This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi, Iran) As immediate as a heart attack, this 75 minute documentary by prison-bound Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (who is serving a six-year sentence with a 20-year ban on directing films or even talking to the media), truly is not a film. What is it actually? How about a terrifying cry for expression from one of the most daring and political filmmakers alive. While the world waits for his hopeful release, go watch The White Balloon (1995), The Mirror (1997), The Circle (2000), Crimson Gold (2003), and Offside (2006) as soon as possible.
3) Mausam (Pankaj Kapur, India) Withdrawn from the festival's public screening schedule at the last minute due to censor complications by the Indian Film Board, this epic melodrama starts out joyous and clean-shaven and devolves into a ferris wheel of destruction. While the tone feels off-balance in the film's second half, especially with its baffling sequences mimicking Top Gun (1986), Sonam Kapoor's devastating performance, combined with some foot stompin' singing and dancing, make this a quite enjoyable ride. Indian censors put a disclaimer before the film, explaining that the Indian Air Force did not approve the film's presentations of flight sequences or fire explosions.
4) The Ides of March (George Clooney, USA) In the same vein as Michael Ritchie's The Candidate (1975) and Tim Robbins' Bob Roberts (1992), George Clooney explores the nooks and crannies of the contradictions and hypocrisies of the idealistic Democratic Party. Whereas those films were ripe with cinema verite stylings, Clooney oddly steers clear of any sort of artistic pretension and lets his actors (Ryan Gosling, a snaggletoothed Paul Giamatti) chew up the scenery.
5) Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, Germany/Canada) This dark and memorable look at death row inmates as well as the families of the victims should spark some spectacular debates, in true Herzog fashion. Though he sometimes only had 15 minutes to interview a particular prisoner, Herzog's footage is gripping; the finesse of Herzog's longtime editor Joe Bini helps make the subjects seem human — not simply, solely, monsters, but rather people who have committed monstrous acts. I can't stop thinking about this one.
6) Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland) The almighty Finnish filmmaker is back with yet another old fashioned morality tale for the Nick Cave generation. His characters may be a whole lot older than those in Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), but Kaurismäki's take on the world is just as delightfully offbeat as ever, when an eight-year-old African refugee washes ashore in a small town in Finland. As the kindly Marcel (André Wilms) and other townsfolk do their best to protect the boy from a policeman who feels like he's just stepped out of 1940s film noir, time seems to be running out for Marcel's longtime life partner. Be prepared for a handful of frogs getting caught in your throat as this mini masterpiece gently rests itself onto your list of underrated films in the coming year.
7) A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, Canada/Germany/UK/Switzerland) Don't believe those disappointed critics! This tightly-knit theatrical adaptation accessibly explores the worlds of Freud and Jung with a precise coldness that should remind Cronenberg fans of Dead Ringers (1991) and Spider (2006). And while this film isn't as gooey as his visceral entries Videodrome (1983) and A History of Violence (2005), the absence of spilled guts is exactly why this film might reach a much wider audience. (Folks who may keep their psyches much cleaner than you or I). Potential Oscar nods are in order for a jaw-dropping Keira Knightley and the ever-flawless Viggo Mortensen.
8) Keyhole (Guy Maddin, Canada) Given $100k to make anything he'd like ("I could've taken a Polaroid and pocketed the rest") Canadian enfant terrible Guy Maddin has concocted yet another whirlwind of black and white tears, repressed fears, and a lifetime of forgotten years. With more oppressed family members hidden away in closets and attics than a V.C. Andrews book, the psychotic camerawork, ominous narration, and ever-present rapid-fire editing equals offbeat cinematic bliss.
9) Jeff Who Lives at Home (Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass, USA) The Duplass Brothers have officially gone Hollywood. Jason Segal is a perfect fit for the brothers' slacker lead and Susan Sarandon plays his poignant mother perfectly. It's Ed Helms who's the odd one out in this surprisingly moral tale; he seems to overplay his middle-class character rather than disappearing into the role. Though the film is funny, it's more of a drama than a comedy; for that reason (along with its big-name cast), Jeff might be the Duplasses' first big hit. It just feels a bit half-in/half-out. Either way, you've got to root for the Duplass Brothers. Plus this film should make you appreciate how priceless last year's underrated Cyrus (2010) truly was.
10) Dark Horse (Todd Solondz, USA) For better or worse, Todd Solondz has made a name for himself. And his latest is right on par with the rest of his films. In fact Dark Horse could be a remake of his debut Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), but this time we're following a 250-pound Jewish man child, Abe (Jordan Gelber) who still lives at home, collects action figures, and hates just about everyone on the planet. The film plays like a live-action adaptation of Chicago cartoonist Chris Ware's Rusty Brown as Abe defiantly self-destructs as well as destroys everything he may or may not love. Will polarize audiences, per usual for Solondz, as audiences question if he's being mean-spirited or just self-reflexive. (I can't wait to watch it again.)
Coming soon: more of Jesse Hawthore Ficks' takes on the 2011 Toronto International Film festival, including films from Lars von Trier, Michael Winterbottom, and ... Bobcat Goldthwait? Ficks teaches film history at the Academy of Art University; he also curates the Midnites for Maniacs film series, celebrating celebrates dismissed, underrated, and overlooked films.