AT THE CLOSING awards brunch of the Toronto International Film Festival last Sunday, Sept. 14, a city council member called this 28th running of the films, "The festival that saved the city." For once, a little civic gas might be forgiven. The T-shirt hawkers nailed it in black and white: "I survived SARS, the W.H.O. and the blackout." Since March, Toronto has had citywide unemployment for hotel workers, deserted restaurants, empty taxis, and bleak months during which, in the words of one local journalist-friend, "We were international pariahs."
Somehow, within that toxic atmosphere, the festival organizers proceeded, film by film, booking by booking, until they reached their norm: 339 films, 254 of them features, amounting to an exceptional lineup. Browsing, you could catch the cream of Cannes (without the French), the best of Berlin (without the Germans), and a handpicked gathering of world cinema second to nonecertainly not on this continent. (TIFF also pretty well eviscerated the subsequent New York Film Festival, since it screened 18 of its 23 entries. Soooooo sorry.)
All of this within 10 days. Will the bloated SIFF please take note? Probably not.
BUT SINCE DARRYL Macdonald is out and SIFF programmer Carl Spence is back, let me offer some unsolicited nominations for next year's fest (and general filmgoing pleasure):
The first among Toronto's two masterly stand-outs is The Return, a debut feature by Siberian-born writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev, about a father's unexpected and unexplained reappearance in the lives of his wife and two young sons. You'll hear Tarkovsky's name in descriptions of this spare, exquisitely composed story with its propulsive pace; his spirit is all through it. (Days after screening at TIFF, it won the grand prize at Venice.)
The second is Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring, by Korea's Kim Ki-duk, who also appears in one of its sequences. Taking place entirely in a monastery that sits in the middle of a pond, surrounded by forest, it simply tracks the pattern of one man's life through the seasons an utterly inadequate description, I'm afraid, of a genuinely transcendent film, full of surprise as well as wonder.
Since I sat on the international foreign press critics' jury (FIPRESCI), I'm unabashedly proud of our prize winner, November, by Anchero Mañas. Based on a real troupe of actors in '70s Madrid, it features two casts: a young, rowdy, passionate group of street performers who believe that art should be the conscience of society; and the same characters 40 years in the future, who look back at their own fateful paths. Among the rich (younger) cast, the fox-faced Óscar Jaenada stands out as Alfredo, the group's linchpin.
Outside my jury duties (which ran from 8:30 in the bloody morning until 10 at night, resulting in some horrendous taxi fares), I only had time for a few other sure bets. They include Jane Campion's searingly erotic In the Cut (expected here Oct. 24), which will be endlessly debated and in which Meg Ryan is a revelation; Takeshi "Beat" Kitano's cheeky, irreverent and wonderful reworking of Zatoichi (which in his hands becomes The Blind Swordsman meets Stomp); and for the elegant side of eroticism, Nathalie . . . , with Fanny Ardant and Emmanuelle Béart, directed by Anne Fontaine (Dry Cleaning).
EVEN AFTER THE SARS scare, the stars and directors faithfully flocked back to Toronto, grateful for how well the festival treats them (unlike pushy Cannes and chilly Sundance). Equally faithful TIFF-goers live for the nightly galas, for their frisson of "We saw that already," and for bragging rights about close-up glimpses of Cate or Sofia, Anthony Hopkins or Gong Li, Denzel or Nicole, Robert Altman or Ridley Scott, Hector Babenco or Carl Franklin, Darryl Hannah or Ed Harris, Coppola Sr. or Val Kilmer, Sean Penn or Meg Ryan, Isabella Rossellini or Omar Sharif, Mark Ruffalo or Gus Van Sant . . . the list goes on and on.
This year was like a roll call of The Bad and the Beautiful, from Pamela Anderson in Spandex stretched to capacity to Scarlett Johansson (et al.) blushing with the Natural Look. Those who molt without daily hair and makeup reactivation plundered MAC and Chanel and Estée Lauder for "artists" until there wasn't one worthy of the name left unbooked. Hilarious, unless you were a Canadian in need of a Jet Lag facial yourself.
Before I succumbed to jet lag myself, I was not leaving Toronto without first seeing Francis Ford Coppola's newly remounted One From the Heart. I have a little history with the project: In 1982, at The Los Angeles Times, I was the only critic in America with a good word for any of itand I was crazy about it. Still am, as it turns out; maybe even more so, since Coppola has slightly punched up the underlying affection of his bickering couple, Teri Garr and Frederic Forrest, giving them more to lose if they break up. Happily, it'll have a limited release this fallno word yet on Seattlebefore the DVD is available early next year. Cross your fingers for the big-screen version (a possible rep title for SIFF?); it's still breathtaking.