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Courtesy of The Toronto International Film Festival
The Toronto International Film Festival is often a venue for anointing the preordained, the first stop on the studios' long march toward Oscar season. Even before its world première (following its "pre-première" at Telluride the weekend before), Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, with George Clooney as a frequent-flying axeman, had been touted as an awards contender. Sure enough, critics and industry observers lined up to laud Clooney's performance, a knowing riff on his confirmed-bachelor persona, and Reitman's direction, a major advance on Juno's studied naivete.
But the most buzzed-about movie was one that came in with no expectations and little advance word: Don Argott's Barnes Foundation exposé The Art of the Steal. The history of the Barnes' priceless trove of Impressionist and early modern art, as well as the controversy surrounding its planned move to the Parkway, is familiar to Philadelphians, but to festivalgoers starting from scratch, Art's soup-to-nuts presentation was both a revelation and call to arms. The movie spends too much time adjudicating the question of Barnes' literal and metaphorical will, as if preserving a dead man's grudge against the Philadelphia establishment were more important than the disposition of one of the world's great art/historical resources. But Argott's distillation of the skullduggery involved in wresting control away from the Foundation's board makes for compelling intrigue — if a necessarily one-sided one, since current Barnes officials declined to participate — and points to issues like the increasing corporatization of arts institutions. The movie, acquired by Sundance Selects for 2010 release, also screens at the New York Film Festival. The NYFF's closing night film, Philadelphian Lee Daniels' Precious, scored big, becoming the first film to win audience awards at both TIFF and Sundance.
Making a surprisingly low-key debut was Neil Jordan's Ondine, which stars Colin Farrell as an Irish fisherman who pulls a woman from the sea in his nets. Jordan has tried his hand at fairy tales, but never one that so successfully applies their sense of wonder to the real world, whose mossy texture is expertly captured by cinematographer Christopher Doyle.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Micmacs returns the director to the clockwork shenanigans of Amélie with delirious results, even if star Dany Boon is more caffeinated clown than winsome waif. And for pure enjoyment, there was no beating the midnight unspooling of [REC] 2, a sequel to the Spanish single-camera horror movie that obliterated the pallid American copy, Quarantine. After a day watching static master shots, it was a thrill to hear the Ryerson Theatre audience baying for blood, although not even their cries could drown out the stench of Jennifer's Body, or prevent the Spierig brothers' future-vamp thriller Daybreakers from running out of (good) ideas halfway through.
For true terror, one had to look away from the midnight screenings and toward Dogtooth, Giorgos Lanthimos' shut-in fable of three grown children whose parents have cooked up an elaborate fantasy to prevent them from venturing beyond the boundaries of their compound. Lanthimos works through the logic of their confinement with methodical inspiration: the invented vocabulary that attaches words referencing the outside world ("telephone" for salt shaker); the preposterous stories of wild beasts prowling the roads, internalized before the children learned how to question. The movie's nondescript visual style and its slope-shouldered performances only increase the sense of reality and unease.
Next to Dogtooth's slow burn is Harmony Korine's faux-brut Trash Humpers. Shot on art-damaged videotape, and apparently edited on daisy-chained VCRs, Trash Humpers plays like Leatherface's home movies, following a group of rubber-masked figures as they sow destruction and get it on with what one refers to as "that sweet trash pussy." Critics predictably attack Korine as a poseur, but the movie is too insistently odd to be mere contrivance. When an audience member asked Korine to explain the movie's raison d'être, he shot back: "What's the point of your hat?"
A gut-busting trailer raised hopes for Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, but his Nic Cage-starring non-sequel turned out to be a rote policier with eccentricities grafted on like mismatched limbs. Along with Herzog's My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, with a one-note Michael Shannon as a deranged matricide who believes God resides on an oatmeal can, the lax double-bill confirmed the waning of Herzog's dramatic talents, even as his string of enthralling documentaries continues unbroken.
Also sadly off his game, George Romero turned the flaccid, indifferent Survival of the Dead. Romero's once-unerring instinct for decade-defining zombie movies has been replaced by a zombie-of-the-week approach, amping up the CGI bloodbaths. Romero's dwindling inspiration wasn't exactly news, but Survival's sheer awfulness still came as a shock, a reminder that not all surprises are pleasant ones.