TIFF 2012 Dispatch: Around the World While Sitting in Toronto



Toronto never disappoints. I have just returned from my fifth year at the Toronto International Film Festival, which featured over 300 films. Since most of those films are from many countries besides the U.S., I always feel like I am in paradise. At least one of these movies will screen in Austin soon, and I hope more will make their way here by next year.

Most of the time I avoid English-language films, since many of them will eventually make their way to Austin theaters or on-demand services. However, I broke my rule the very first day by going to see On the Road, Walter Salles's adaptation of Jack Kerouac's classic novel about young men driving through late 1940s America.

I went into the theater with the wrong expectation initially. I wanted a film that grabbed me by the arm and rushed me through a multitude of scenes and events, as had Kerouac's glorious novel and movies like Scorsese's Goodfellas. After 15 minutes I settled down and let the film work its own kind of magic as a character study of the charismatic Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady, gay Carlo Marx, and mama-ridden participant/observer Sal Paradise/Kerouac. I can hardly wait to see the film again -- it will feel like revisiting old friends in an America long gone. Please don't ask me about Kristen Stewart.

Antiviral (pictured at top) must make Brandon Cronenberg's father David very proud. The bright red, worm-laced apple did not fall far from the horrormeister's tree. In this beautifully photographed, squirm-inducing film with clinically white settings, obsessed fans buy the diseased cells of dying/dead celebrities so they can experience their same physical decay in a kind of "biological communion." Caleb Landry Jones, with his red hair and pale freckled body, coolly plays a young clinician who can't avoid his own obsessions. No surprise that it will soon play at Fantastic Fest.

Pieta is South Korean master filmmaker Kim Ki-duk's brilliant new film about an amoral enforcer who works for a corrupt moneylender. Lee Kang-do coolly breaks debtors' limbs or forces them to jump from buildings so their insurance policies will repay loans with stratospheric interest rates. When his mother shows up after abandoning him 30 years before, he is slow to believe her story. Her cooking, housecleaning, and warmth (of a more than maternal temperature) soon thaw him out.

Kim, who is alternately a supremely spiritual director and a horrific explorer of the nether realms of the human psyche, opts for the latter in Pieta as the mother's real agenda becomes painfully clear. I hope to show this as part of an AFS Asian series in January.

Moving-image artist Jem Cohen once more displays his deep appreciation of art and its impact on the human mind and soul with Museum Hours. A partnerless gay man works as a guard at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Art Museum and befriends a middle-aged American woman who has come to Vienna to sit with a comatose cousin. Nearly penniless, she visits the museum frequently and takes walks with the guard. As Johann provides his ideas about classic paintings which he has seen daily for years, Anne expresses her own philosophical thoughts about life. It is a gloriously meditative film, which can be enjoyed much like Sokurov's Russian Ark.

A narrative film about a Chilean referendum doesn't instantly sound like a must-see experience, until you discover that it is directed by Pablo Larraín, who gave us the really unsettling Tony Manero about a Travolta-obsessed serial killer. Larraín's new film No is a political thriller starring the always-delightful Gael Garcia Bernal as a Chilean advertising genius who reluctantly signs up to design a campaign to remove the dictator Augusto Pinochet from office. In this 1988 plebiscite, voters can indicate "Yes" or "No" on the simple ballot. Even knowing the history of that historic vote doesn't detract from the film's tension and terror created by such a ruthless dictatorship. Happily, Cine Las Americas has plans to bring this film to Austin.

Watchtower is a very moving Turkish film focused on a lonely forest ranger and a young college student who has violently rebelled against becoming a single mother. A series of events brings the two together in Nihat's watchtower. The man's kindness and compassion slowly help Seher become whole again and accept her child. When we discover why Nihat has wanted to live isolated from the world, it is even more heart-warming to see him accept Seher and her baby into his life. Director Pelin Esmer shows her excellent cinematic talents and directorial skills with this intimate narrative. I hope to include Watchtower in next year's AFS Middle Eastern series.

Hannah Arendt is Margarethe von Trotta's provocative new film, which is sure to uncover old wounds. German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt is hired by New Yorker magazine to cover the trial of Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961. Her resulting 300-page book became a treatise on the nature of evil -- whether monstrous or simply banal. She ultimately decided that Eichmann scrupulously followed orders in overseeing the transport of millions of Jews and others to their death in concentration camps. He was a functionary with impeccable organization skills and absolutely no conscience.

When Arendt also implied that some Jewish leaders naively cooperated with Nazi officials in the 1930s by providing names of Jews, she created a controversy that never ended during her lifetime and is certainly debatable today. Be prepared to explore a lot of deep and disturbing possibilities when viewing this important, impeccably acted film.

I saw other films during TIFF, but it's best that I not bother with writing about them. Inevitably there would be some festival films that left me unmoved (or nauseated).