The Best of Toronto 2008

     September 19, 2008

Written by Peter Debruge

When it comes to film festivals, Toronto offers the ideal mix, programming highbrow European and Asian cinema (the type for which there’s no guarantee the movies will ever reach U.S. screens) alongside top-shelf studio fare, which means something for everyone, whether you like soul-searching subtitled movies or bombastic Oscar chasers — or, in my case, both. To take full advantage of that wonderful diversity, I cram screenings of the bigger movies (the ones with distribution deals already in place) in the weeks leading up to the fest, then spend my time at Toronto chasing the truly obscure features. Judging from the list below, you’ll see I have limited Oscar hopes for this year’s lineup, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of great movies. Of the three dozen Toronto entries I saw this year, here are my 10 favorites (the one I left off was Sugar, since it appeared on my Sundance top 10.

1. The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky’s devastating look at the final days of a small-time wrestler shapes up as one of those only-in-America portraits anchored by a career-defining performance — like De Niro in Raging Bull or Brando in On the Waterfront. No one but Mickey Rourke could have embodied this tragic soul, a battered but proud fighter who refuses to quit the ring, even after a heart attack lays him low. “The only place I get hurt is out here,” he says before stepping back into the fray. “The world don’t give a shit.” Not to get all arty on ya, but this instant classic just goes to prove the influence of the Dardenne brothers (L’Enfant) on independent cinema’s neo-neorealist movement. Aronofsky embraces not just their style — the camera literally shadows Rourke’s character, Randy, training our gaze on the back of his peroxide-bleached mane as he stumbles through his daily routine — but also the substance of their approach. Despite that small dose of fame his wrestling career provides, he’s clinging for dear life to his lower-middle-class rung on the social ladder. The movie passes no judgments as it follows Randy home to his trailer or around the corner to the strip bar where he buys time with would-be love interest Marisa Tomei one lap dance at a time. A colleague who wasn’t as impressed with the film dismissed it as another 8 Mile, but he missed the point; this isn’t an underdog-makes-good story, but a genuine human tragedy.

2. Summer Hours

No Western filmmaker is better attuned to the business of everyday life than Olivier Assayas, and in Summer Hours, the French director abandons his bonus obsessions with gunplay and sexual perversion to study three siblings coping with the death of their mother. It’s a perfectly ordinary story, raised to the level of poetry, as eldest son Charles Berling fights to preserve the family art collection, while sister Juliette Binoche and younger brother Jeremie Renier argue to liquidate the estate. Like Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, the film was commissioned by Paris’ Musee d’Orsay — and what an artistic treat it makes.

3. Kisses

Once meets Millions in this romp through modern-day Dublin, which plays like a Brothers Grimm fairytale for the 21st-century set. Beginning in black-and-white, the scrappy adventure centers around two next-door neighbor kids, Dylan and Kylie, whose world gains color the instant they run away from their broken homes. Together they’re resourceful enough to take on whatever the big city throws at them. As conceived by Lance Daly, Kisses is one of those endearing little gems so small, even this recommendation might set unrealistic expectations. But if it surfaces at a fest near you, don’t hesitate to jump aboard with Dylan and Kylie.

4. Hunger

There’s nothing like grabbing a jumbo popcorn and settling into your seat to watch an IRA radical starve himself to death onscreen. Regardless of how you feel about Hunger’s terrorist heroes, British video artist Steve McQueen’s first feature recreates a historical act of defiance so deeply charged with emotion, it’s impossible to be ambivalent about the result — that would be Bobby Sands’ six-week hunger strike for political prisoners’ rights. True to his background, McQueen eschews conventional dramatic tricks for an unforgettable, intensely subjective approach, much as art-world contemporary Julian Schnabel did with last year’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

5. I’ve Loved You So Long

Something’s not quite right with Kristin Scott Thomas’ Juliette when her younger sister picks her up from the airport. They’ve been separated from one another for years, but the movie is slow to reveal why, and by the time the explanation arrives, we sympathize with Juliette enough to look past the reason for her exile. Directed by Philippe Claudel and featuring a remarkable French-language turn by Thomas, this intimate family drama lasers in on the fragile process of rebuilding a life blown off-course (if only the film had the courage not to let her off so easily in its final scenes).

6. Revanche

As much as I love the Coen brothers, they blew it this time around with numbskull Toronto offering Burn After Reading. Nothing underscores my disappointment like this exceptional psychological study from Austrian director Gotz Spielmann, a reminder how it pays to take your subject seriously. Centering on the aftermath of a bank robbery gone bad, Revanche shares the Coens’ recurring theme — crime doesn’t pay, it doesn’t make sense, and it destroys everything in its path — but this audacious dramatic exercise gets to the heart of the human condition as both cop and culprit cope with the guilt of that fateful encounter.

7. RocknRolla

Guy Ritchie is back to his old tricks, delivering another Snatch-tastic glimpse into the London underworld (and all but erasing the stench of Revolver in the process). This time around, the director has more than just style on his mind, integrating such concerns as political corruption and real-estate fraud into a dense network of overlapping characters and plotlines. The result is an infinitely more mature crime yarn than we’ve gotten from Ritchie in the past, one that froths over with juicy roles for its more-than-capable ensemble. The revelation among them is Mark Strong as the right-hand man to the city’s criminal kingpin.

8. Waltz With Bashir

A further reminder that animated films needn’t be pitched at kids to be effective, this philosophical exploration of war’s mental toll simply couldn’t have been told in any other format. Mixing documentary interviews with the director’s old Israeli Army buddies and cartoon recreations of their military service, director Ari Folman attempts to make sense of his memories (or startling lack thereof) from the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Was he somehow complicit in the massacre of Palestinian refugees? Has he suppressed his involvement out of guilt? The dreamlike medium of animation seems uniquely suited to Folman’s captivating nightmare.

9. Me and Orson Welles

Richard Linklater’s latest imagines what it must have been like for the young high school student tapped to appear in Orson Welles’ revolutionary Broadway production of Julius Caesar — not an especially commercial premise, which is probably why the director agreed to cast Zac Efron as the lucky young thespian (a concession that in turn allowed him to pick the perfect actor to play young Welles, newcomer Christian McKay). Efron brings little more than his doll-faced good looks to the role, though the story itself offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes peek into the mind of a dramatic visionary — vanity, hubris and all.

10. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Juno set the bar awfully high for hipper-than-thou romantic comedies, and while screenwriter Lorene Scarafia is no Diablo Cody, her adaptation of the popular YA novel is less interested in waxing clever than capturing the appropriate voice for each of its characters. If their shared taste in music is any indication, Nick (played by Michael Cera) and Norah (The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s Kat Dennings) are perfect soulmates, but fate, the Big Apple and jealous exes seem determined to keep them apart. Cutesy details, like Nick’s yellow Yugo, sometimes get in the way, but you can’t help rooting for the pair to end up together.

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