The Toronto International Film Festival (a k a TIFF) reminds me of Red Skelton’s toxic line, when he looked around at the unexpected mob of mourners who showed up at much-hated Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn’s funeral and said, “Give the people what they want, and they’ll come.”
This is the motto at the 38th year of this annual avalanche of movies, red carpet celebrities and traffic gridlock, started nearly four decades ago by three eager movie fans who raised $250,000 to wallow in a week of celluloid passion at 24 frames per second. This year, it has grown, like a weed nourished by Miracle-Gro, into the biggest film festival in the world—last year’s bloated movie marathon consisted of 366 films from 72 countries generating an income of $189 million. (And they still call it nonprofit?) Critics, scholars, journalists and fans who sleep in the street all night for a single ticket to a Jennifer Aniston movie bitterly denounce TIFF as an overcrowded zoo. But festival director Piers Handling defends the festival program, which is 464 pages long, costs $40 and weighs the same as a Sears Christmas catalogue, with: “Excess is our middle name. Excess guarantees diversity.” He must be right, because the projectors keep running on 34 screens from 8 a.m. to the following morning, after the popular nightly horror movies called “Midnight Madness,” so even when one movie tanks, there’s always another one starting 15 minutes later, and everyone goes away smiling.
For 10 days, nobody talks about reality TV, baseball, the price of gas, the infestation of idiot Kardashians or the running cartoon called the New York mayoral election. But everyone, including your hotel room maid, talks movies. One woman in line to see a 96-minute Errol Morris documentary about Donald Rumsfeld told me she was standing at a coffee urn trying to balance an umbrella and a coffee table book about the history of three-strip Technicolor (they sell art books in the theaters, along with Dove bars and popcorn), and the woman who held her cup while she poured was a very pregnant Kate Winslet. On the one day it rained, I dashed into a drugstore to buy an umbrella, and the woman standing next to me, asking for a parapluie, turned out to be one of the two girls in Blue Is the Warmest Color, the 179-minute lesbian sex film that won the Palme d’Or this year in Cannes. I didn’t recognize her with her clothes on.
FOR GAWKERS AND rabid stargazers, the celebrities are out in full force. It’s not like the old days in Cannes, when it was worth getting trampled to get a look at Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, or Gene Tierney and Aly Khan, but in what passes for fame today, George Clooney is here, as well as Jesse Eisenberg, Zac Efron, Jennifer Garner, Michael Fassbender, Jude Law, Scarlett Johansson, Keira Knightley, Reese Witherspoon, Liam Neeson, Dakota Fanning and others too obscure to mention or too illustrious to appear in broad daylight unless heavily veiled. (Anyone standing in line to see Benedict Cumberbatch?)
For pure stamina, the winner is Daniel Radcliffe, in a concerted effort to annihilate all images of Harry Potter. He is everywhere, working the red carpet for the paparazzi on behalf of three new films that show his ascent to manhood: a macabre horror fantasy called Horns, about a small-town nerd who wakes up after a night of heavy drinking mourning over a girlfriend, who has been raped and murdered, to find a pair of horns growing out of his forehead that inspire people to confess their darkest sins; a love story called The F Word, about a med-school dropout besotted by a lady animator; and Kill Your Darlings, yet another in a long-suffering line of failed attempts to get the boring Beat Generation poets right, this one about a 1944 campus murder that linked fellow students Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. The movie features the former boy wizard in nude gay sex scenes. Holy Hogwarts! Where is Lord Voldemort when we need him?
The program at TIFF is so overwhelming that even if you slept standing up and never stopped long enough to consume anything but Dr. Pepper, you couldn’t see everything. Making a schedule or keeping an appointment book is impossible, because the lines are so long you could bake a pie while waiting to get in, the movies come at you in sections, and they’re all showing at the same hour. If you go to the Brad Pitt press conference, you miss Fading Gigolo, the John Turturro flick starring Woody Allen as the idiosyncratic owner of a fading bookstore who tries to save his shop by becoming a pimp for aging women with still-active libidos. Stop to wolf down a slice of pizza, and you end up 15 minutes late for Sandra Bullock stranded in outer space in the 3-D sci-fi adventure Gravity. Some wags sniff that they should have left her there, but I found it chock-full of thrills and some of the best CGI special effects I have ever seen on film. It’s opening soon at home, so further word can wait.
You can always find the usual plethora of film-festival depression about crack addicts, lovesick vampires and second-rate rock bands. From Spain and Romania, something called Cannibal follows the activities of a handsome flesh-eating butcher who falls in love with one of his victims before she is properly packaged for the freezer, thus breaking all of his own rules and going mad in the bargain. The Canadian film Gerontophilia is about a homosexual romance between an 18-year-old nursing home employee and a terminal 82-year-old patient that is unlikely to appeal to anyone outside your typical film festival audience that will sit through anything as long as the projector keeps running. But trust me on this: TIFF 2013 is less of a freak show for fruitcakes than usual. Fortified with eyedrops, designer bottled water and NoDoz, there is no way to simplify the task of surviving it unscathed. You just take a deep breath, suit up and dive in.
THIS YEAR FEATURES more quality programming than most, and, at the risk of jeopardizing my status as a card-carrying cynic, I admit I have liked most of what I’ve seen with a relish that troubles me. I did not like the opening-night gala, a talky bore called The Fifth Estate, helmed by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, Dreamgirls), a director whose work I usually like a great deal. Neither he nor West Wing writer Josh Singer, collapsing under a surfeit of technology overkill, have found a way to give the story of Julian Assange a universal appeal. Assange, the Australian cyberpunk and founder of WikiLeaks, the website dedicated to spilling top-secret government documents, is depicted as an arrogant quasi-terrorist whistle-blower who most recently played a big role in helping Edward Snowden find asylum from U.S. government prosecution in Russia. I might have found The Fifth Estate more tolerable if it made even a slight attempt to humanize Assange, but the way he is played by the suddenly overexposed, overrated and almost incoherent British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, mumbling his way through a mushy Australian accent, you need subtitles. Meanwhile, The Fifth Estate is a sickening comment on the decline of 21st-century journalism. There will be more on this sorry subject when it opens in New York on Oct. 18.
Most of the popular films generating the important buzz at TIFF this year are destined for more applause on Oscar night. Innovative or traditional, educational or entertaining, they all have one thing in common: The best of them are based on facts, telling great true stories that command attention and resonate with power. There is still much excitement on the way, including the highly anticipated premiere of August: Osage County, with an all-star cast headed by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. As the deadline for this article approaches, it has still not been screened for the press, but, from what I have seen already, I’ve found more movies to happily and unconditionally recommend than I can recall in any previous year. My favorite film so far is Philomena, by veteran director Stephen Frears, with a brilliant, carefully measured and utterly enchanting star turn by Judi Dench that has everyone I’ve talked to raving. It’s an eloquent, superbly crafted film about a survivor of one of those ghastly theocratic Catholic asylums in Ireland in the 1950s, where young, pregnant and unmarried colleens were cast away in disgrace to atone for their sins, punished and abused by cruel nuns in the guise of moral superiority sanctioned by the church. The subject was memorably explored in the 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters. This one is about an extraordinary woman named Philomena Lee who spent 50 years searching for the baby the nuns tore from her arms and sold as an orphan. The clue-by-clue process by which she investigates the circuitous route from the convent in an antediluvian Irish past to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., with the help of a BBC journalist played by Steve Coogan (who also wrote a wonderful screenplay as real and natural as breathing), forms the basis of an emotionally gripping mystery story that adds dimension to the human experience. This is filmmaking on a monumental level.
So is The Railway Man, with another wrenching performance by Colin Firth as World War II survivor Eric Lomax, a British engineer captured by the Japanese in the fall of Singapore, forced to build a railroad through the jungles of Thailand and tortured beyond human endurance. Years later, a wounded middle-age war veteran, he still seeks freedom from the nightmares that haunt him in order to repair his broken life and find happiness with a new, loyal and loving wife (played with muted sensitivity and strength by Nicole Kidman). He returns to find the prison camp, where he nearly died, turned into a war museum and the man who destroyed his mind and body now working as a tour guide. The tables turn, but, now that the murder weapons are in the hands of the victim, the rules change, and the game doesn’t play the same way. The journey toward forgiveness is the first step toward salvation. The book Mr. Lomax wrote about his ordeal and his eventual relationship with the Japanese officer who also paid for the tragedy of war with a life of shame and guilt are emotional cornerstones in a movie of profound inspiration. Great acting from the heart and sensitive writing make this Australian film one of the best films of the year.
Dallas Buyers Club is the true story of a homophobic, coke-sniffing, chain-smoking, womanizing Texas rodeo cowboy named Ron Woodruff who became an accidental activist when he was diagnosed with HIV in the early days of the AIDS crisis and given 30 days to live. As his T cells diminished and his social conscience increased, he became an expert in medical research and embarked on a new cause—to defy the establishment, travel the world in search of alternatives to the toxic drugs administered by the FDA and the pharmaceutical companies for greed and profit and save lives by forming a club in a seedy Dallas motel for AIDS patients to organize themselves against the onslaught. His dedication extended his life by seven years, and he became a hero in the AIDS movement. Matthew McConaughey, an actor I’ve never cared for, lost 40 pounds to play Woodruff and gives the best performance of his career, but it’s Jared Leto as the drag queen who becomes his business partner who steals the picture.
Warts and all, The Last of Robin Hood records for posterity the sordid final chapters of the colorful, headline-grabbing, self-destructive life of legendary screen swashbuckler Errol Flynn, who died in 1959 at age 50 in the arms of a 15-year-old nymphet named Beverly Aadland, an aspiring actress without a shred of talent whose name will live in infamy. A mesmerizing, king-size performance by Kevin Kline turns over every stone to reveal a personality that was too big for the screen—debauched, charming, mischievous, reckless and always dancing dangerously on the lip of a volcano. In a role with “Oscar” written all over it, Mr. Kline even looks uncannily like the 8 x 10 studio glossies of the charismatic superstar you can order from any photo shop on Santa Monica Boulevard. While our backs were turned, child star Dakota Fanning grew into a tasty dish, painting a burning portrait of life in the fast lane, while Susan Sarandon etches an unforgettable profile of over-the-hill Hollywood ambition as a misguided stage mother with bottle-blond hair and a wooden leg, willing to risk anything for 15 minutes of fame, including turning her own daughter into jailbait to do it. As a grim reminder of the downside of stardom, The Last of Robin Hood uncovers facts in Tinseltown history that even Hedda and Louella never knew.
MORE FILMS ON the hot-button controversy surrounding the public’s Right To Know are on the way. The Armstrong Lie is a sobering documentary about disgraced cyclist hero Lance Armstrong, who was done in by the Information Highway, and Trap Street is a devastating Chinese exposé about the disappearance of people and places in the criminal rush to modernize the once-feudal Chinese Empire. Mission Congo is an extraordinary piece of investigative reportage that exposes the well-documented hypocrisy of right-wing evangelist Pat Robertson, whose Christian Broadcasting Network, during an escalating refuge crisis in Africa, bombarded the TV airwaves, bragging about raising millions in donations for relief efforts that were used as a cover-up for diamond mining while diverting planes away from refugee camps to transport mining equipment to the Congo. Among the eyewitness interviewees are the miners and actual pilots themselves. The film raises potent questions about the morality of a pastor who goes into business with a dictator, as well as the billions of dollars funneled into religious organizations each year that go untaxed and unaccounted for.
There’s more, but at the halfway mark, that ain’t bad for a convention that aims to predict the future and get things done at the same time. Remembering Red Skelton’s quote in my opening paragraph, I can only say that TIFF 2013 gave them what they wanted, and everybody came. Now it’s time for a nap, then back to the movies.