Friday, September 24, 2010

My top ten films of TIFF 2010 [updated]

It's taken me some time to digest all of the 48 screenings I saw from the recent edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (41 features, 7 compilations from Wavelengths or Short Cuts Canada). This was a mere fraction of the 339 films shown, 258 of them features. Seeing so many films at once in quick succession doesn't really do justice to each of them. Fortunately, I was able to catch a fair number of them at press screenings before the festival actually began. So the overload wasn't as much as it might otherwise have been.

This year, I didn't see too much of the heavyweight Hollywood fare since they're sure to come out soon anyhow. I took the time to catch more foreign films (especially from Asia), documentaries, and indie films (including Canadian films, which are de facto indie films). So no doubt I missed a lot of great movies such as Black Swan and 127 Hours, films which I'm pretty sure I'll like a lot. But I saw so much other interesting stuff that I didn't regret my choices.

Here is a list of the top 10 films I saw, starting with my favourite and the remaining nine in alphabetical order:

This film won the prize for Best Canadian Feature and is now Canada's Academy Award nominee in the Best Foreign Language Film category. This puts the lie to the uninformed opinion that Canadian film is inferior. This is a masterpiece by an immensely talented auteur. It starts slowly but builds with such a clear and relentless logic to a brilliant climax. A nearly perfect film, my only quibble was the casting of some Quebecois actors as twin children of an Arabic mother. An unforgettable film that fully deserves the many accolades it is sure to gather in the coming months.

"Armadillo" is the name of the Danish platoon stationed in Afghanistan. This gripping documentary follows them through months of their deployment and encapsulates their mundane everyday moments as well as some harrowing battles. I have not seen Restrepo, to which this has been compared, but the comparisons have been favourable and both films are highly respected. I tip my hat to any filmmaker with the balls to run through fields alongside soldiers as they're being shot at. I certainly would never do that. I came away thinking that this was every bit as compelling as The Hurt Locker, but perhaps even more so because it is true to life. This Danish film is a must-see, as opposed to another Danish film - Jørgen Leth's Det erotiske menneske (Erotic Man) which was probably the worst film I saw at the festival.

The Housemaid (Hanyo)
This was a gorgeous Korean film that was a very loose remake of the 1960 film of the same name by Kim Ki-young. Im Sang-soo's new version is subtle yet highly erotic, and includes some steamy scenes with film's sexy leads. It tells of a triangle that develops after a young woman Euny is hired by an upper-class family. But the titular housemaid could also refer to Euny's mentor Byung-sik (Yeo-Jong Yun). It is a very smart film that only occasionally spills into melodrama, but that's typical of this sort of noirish thriller. And like the Audience Award winner The King's Speech, the film features some fine music by Beethoven.

I Am Slave
Directed by Gabriel Range, this is mostly based on the true story of Mende Naze and her book Slave. A young girl Malia (Wunmi Mosaku) is abducted from her village in Sudan and forced into a life of modern slavery, first in Khartoum and then London. Mosaku is an excellent new discovery, and Range shows demonstrates his range by using a completely different style and approach than Death of a President which played at TIFF in 2006. Excellent filmmaking, with a powerful  emotional impact.

Inside Job
There have been a number of films examining the economic collapse of 2008, including Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story. But Charles Ferguson (No End In Sight) is himself independently wealthy and so has access to people that others would not. He not only lays bare how the collapse took place, but gets a number of key players including some of the culprits to speak on camera about what happened and what their role was. He shows how basically all the bigshots on Wall Street are really just criminals, and that they're still doing the same things even now. Fascinating viewing, even if you can't entirely keep up with the onslaught of facts (as I couldn't). Narrated by Matt Damon.

The King's Speech
This film won the festival's Cadillac People's Choice Award, which should bode well for its award prospects. Amazingly, this movie manages to take a seemingly undramatic premise -- a British royal having to deal with a stuttering problem -- and make it thoroughly compelling. It is also very, very funny in spots. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are both brilliant in their roles, as is Helena Bonham Carter as the prince's wife. They are each sure to get serious awards consideration down the line. Excellent script and direction, and very inspirational. The film makes excellent use of both Shakespeare and Beethoven.

Let Me In
Many of us who loved the Swedish film Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In) dreaded the news that it would be remade in English. But to my astonishment, they didn't screw it up. Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz are excellent in their roles as school-age children, one of whom happens to be a vampire. The visual style is influenced by the Swedish version, in the colours and the shallow depth-of-field photography. I might still prefer that version, but this is a rare remake that is worthy. North American teens should really watch this instead of those terrible Twilight films.

Ingrid Veninger is an immensely talented whirlwind who does it all -- director, writer, producer, actor. This is her second feature as director but her first solo effort. Like Only, which played at TIFF in 2008,  MODRA pays homage to Richard Linklater's films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset but with teenagers. Veninger acknowledges that and considers Only and MODRA to be companion films. This one takes two young teens and transports them to a remote Slovakian village, Modra, which means "blue." The films young leads are naturals, and Veninger has a keen observational eye. Such a simple film, yet so effective and affecting.

A Screaming Man (Un Homme Qui Crie)
Like Incendies, A Screaming Man (Un Homme Qui Crie) is both quiet, yet epic and has something of Greek tragedy at its core. It tells of a former swimming champion Adam getting demoted at the hotel in Chad where he works, and he ends up making a decision that he comes to regret. Very fine, assured filmmaking by writer/director Mahamat Saleh Haroun. Winner of the Prix du Jury (Jury Prize) at the Cannes Film Festival, this was one of several very fine Africa-related films I saw at this year's festival.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Boonmee Raluek Chat)
This strange, wondrous film by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul was a surprise winner of the Palme d’Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It might not be for everyone. It is very leisurely in its pace, but more than makes up for it with beautiful and bizarre visuals. The story is a surreal ghost story that is not exactly easy to summarize, as Weerasethakul himself admits. But it it definitely worth seeing, and it has begun playing at the festival's own Bell Lightbox.

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