TIFF 2009 Festival Preview

The fact that I won’t be at this year’s TIFF has not stopped me from pretending that I’m going.

Last week, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) posted its complete line-up of films. As usual, it’s a veritable smorgasbord for cineastes and filmlovers, containing a diverse array of movies that span as many genres as they do countries.

The fact that I won’t be at this year’s TIFF has not stopped me from pretending that I’m going, from looking over the line-up and picking the films that I would be seeing if I were going. There are many titles that have piqued my curiosity, but in the interests of space and time, I’ve compiled a list of my top ten picks from this year’s festival, in alphabetical order.

Regardless of whether you’re going or not, what films would you be seeing in one of Toronto’s many lovely theatres? Leave your picks in the comments below.

Air Doll (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

Air Doll follows the adventures of an inflatable sex doll who has suddenly gained consciousness. Which, let’s face it, is a story concept that is bound to raise a few eyebrows. But Air Doll is directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, one of the great humanistic filmmakers working today, a master at spinning warmly human melodramas that can appeal to both the arthouse (Nobody Knows) and the mainstream (Hana). (The fact that he’s directing a movie about a sex doll will probably raise a few eyebrows as well.)

Midnight Eye’s Tom Mes recently reviewed the film, and called Air Doll Kore-eda’s “most commercial film and one of his most accomplished.”

Cleanflix (Andrew James/​Joshua Ligairi, USA)

A few years ago, a bit of a controversy erupted when companies began offering versions of popular blockbuster movies sans sex, nudity, violence, and language. While popular amongst some groups, such as Mormons, the businesses predictably raised the ire of filmmakers, who resented having their movies reedited and resold. Cleanflix follows the rise and fall of this cottage industry amidst government crackdowns and sex scandals.

As someone who is keenly interested in that tenuous balance between celebrating artistic freedom and making moral and conscionable choices about the media (i.e., films) that his family experiences and enjoys, Cleanflixs subject matter hits home.

What I find reassuring about the film, and what might prove to be critical to its success, is that the filmmakers — Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi — aren’t removed from the subject matter. They grew up within the Mormon community where the industry first got its hold, thus giving them access to key people in the controversy. Which I hope will make for a more nuanced discussion of the matter.

Creation (Jon Amiel, United Kingdom)

In this day and age, science and religion seem to be completely at odds with one another. On the one hand are scientists such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Meyers who campaign vociferously against religion. On the other hand are folks who have come to view science — and scientists — with increasing skepticism and even contempt. And much of this mutual antipathy swirls around Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, along with its scientific, philosophical, and social interpretations and implications.

So I can’t help but wonder how a film that depicts Darwin — a man some believe to be one of the greatest minds of all time, and that others believe to be the source of many of society’s ills — as a man struggling with his own faith and doubts about both God and science will go over with both groups.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, Canada/​United Kingdom)

I’m sure there are many who are interested in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus because it represents Heath Ledger’s final work before his untimely death, and understandably so. Ledger was a talented actor who seemed to have the world before him. But not to take anything from Ledger, there are many others, including myself, who are primarily interested in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus because it’s the latest film from cinema’s court jester, Terry Gilliam.

For me, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus seems to hearken back to the madcap Gilliam of yore (think Time Bandits or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) — a very good thing in my book. The film is the story of Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who made a deal with the devil (Tom Waits) in exchange for immortality. But now the devil has come to collect, and he wants Parnassus’ daughter. Enter Ledger’s character, who has come to help Parnassus save his child.

The recently released trailer is full of the absurdly magical imagery that can only come from Gilliam’s mind. And the same goes for the casting: to “compensate” for Ledger’s death, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all “fill in” for him throughout the film.

Kamui (Yoichi Sai, Japan)

It’s about ninjas. Okay, it’s also directed by Yoichi Sai, who directed the highly acclaimed Blood and Bones. But Kamui is about ninjas presumably doing lots of really awesome ninja things. Which is all the reason I need.

Mother (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)

The thing I love about Bong Joon-ho is that he treats genres like playthings. He first burst on the scene in 2003 with Memories of Murder, a dark comedy/murder mystery based on true events surrounding South Korea’s first known serial killer. Then, in 2006, he directed The Host, an outstanding monster/horror movie (and a huge hit at that year’s Midnight Madness screenings at TIFF).

And now, he’s back with Mother, a noir-ish drama that follows a woman trying to clear her mentally handicapped son, who has been charged with murder. Korean cinema is renowned for its emphasis on melodrama, which is sometimes a good thing (Il Mare), and sometimes not so much (A Man Who Went to Mars). But if there’s anyone I trust to take a storyline that just screams melodrama, and twist and turn it into something unexpected, it’s Bong Joon-ho.

The Road (John Hillcoat, USA)

I’m interested in The Road for several reasons. For starters, I love the book, bleak and relentless though it may be. I’m a sucker for a good post-apocalyptic tale, but more importantly, its themes of sacrifice, human resilience in the face of doomsday, and the power of the love between a father and son have only grown more resonant for me now that I have a son of my own.

While some are no doubt hesitant to see the book onscreen, I’m not that worried. The book feels very cinematic to me; whenever I read it, I always imagine how Cormac McCarthy’s descriptions of blasted wastelands might translate onto the silver screen. What’s more, The Road is directed by John Hillcoat, whose previous film — 2005’s The Proposition — was also a bleak, yet beautiful and powerful tale in its own right. And everything I’ve seen so far — even the curiously edited trailer that came out a few months ago — indicates to me that Hillcoat has successfully captured the spirit and vision of McCarthy’s novel.

(As strange as this sounds, though, I’m almost glad that I won’t catch The Road at TIFF. I have a feeling that this film will leave me something of a wreck, and I’m not sure I want to experience that in a festival setting.)

Sawasdee Bangkok (Various, Thailand)

In recent years, Thai film has been something of a revelation to me, be it bone-crushing martial arts films like Ong Bak and Born to Fight, deftly atmospheric dramas like Last Life in the Universe, or cinematic oddities such as Tears of the Black Tiger and Bangkok Loco. Suffice to say, I want to see more that the country has to offer, which makes Sawasdee Bangkok an ideal choice.

An omnibus film dedicated to various facets of Thai society, Sawasdee Bangkok is a collection of shorts by four of the country’s most renown filmmakers, including Wisit Sasanatieng (Tears of the Black Tiger) and Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Last Life in the Universe). The choice of filmmakers alone piques my curiosity, but I’m also intrigued by the potential of the film’s various stories, especially when told in the uniqueness that has come to typify Thai film for me.

Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark/​United Kingdom)

Most people will probably recognize Mads Mikkelsen from his role as Le Chiffre, the villain in Casino Royale. But Mikkelsen has been around awhile and has starred in a number of acclaimed films including Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, The Green Butchers, and After the Wedding.

With Valhalla Rising, he reunites with director Nicolas Winding Refn, with whom he worked on the Pusher crime trilogy. In Valhalla Rising, Mikkelsen plays One Eye, a mute Viking warrior who gets caught up in a trip to the Holy Land that becomes progressively stranger and more threatening.

Messrs. Mikkelsen and Refn, you had me at “mute Viking warrior.”

Vengeance (Johnnie To, Hong Kong/​France)

At one time, I had written off Johnnie To. His films seemed like little more than exercises in style — cool to look at and admirable on a technical level, but nothing more. In fact, several of his films — e.g., Throwdown, PTU — actually left me angry at how empty I felt after watching them. That all changed a few years ago when I caught both of his Election films and Exiled at TIFF. All three films simply blew me away; To’s trademark style was still there in spades, but the storylines and characters were just as incredible.

Suffice to say, I’m interested once again in To. With Vengeance, he’s sticking to the hitman territory that has served him so well in the past (The Mission, Exiled), but this time it’s with a bit of a twist. French singer Johnny Hallyday stars as a former hitman with amnesia who comes to Hong Kong to avenge the hit placed on his daughter and her family. Suffice to say, there will be bullets aplenty flying as well as oodles of existential melodrama — a potent and promising combination in the hands of someone like To.

This entry was originally published on Filmwell on .