No major star was born at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, which ended Sept. 18, and — in a big departure from recent fest history, marked by premieres of Crash, Slumdog Millionaire and The King's Speech — no eventual "surprise" Oscar winner emerged ahead of the rest of the pack. Instead, TIFF — North America's only festival successfully diverse (and massive) enough to accommodate within a single night the new offerings from artists and hacks as disparate as James Benning, Morgan Spurlock, Sion Sono and Roland Emmerich — presented a wide-ranging slate whose highlights were new films from known quantities.
Some young auteurs with previously established festival-circuit bona fides took cautious steps forward while others boldly stumbled. In the satisfyingly nuanced Goodbye First Love, Mia Hansen-Love's follow-up to Father of My Children, the filmmaker gives her coming-of-age-meets-extended-adolescence tale unusual psychological depth and (even more unusual) a female point of view. Spanish genre circuit jester Nacho Vigalondo, whose last film was the shoestring time-travel flick Timecrimes, bravely challenged his fanboy audience with Extraterrestrial, an alien-invasion movie with no visible aliens, its sci-fi setup just an excuse for a cheerfully convoluted chamber farce with an intentionally anticlimactic climax. (Pity that this very funny film has cluelessly retrograde gender politics.) More mixed bags came in the form of Steve McQueen's aesthetically impressive but psychologically empty and narratively rote sex-addict drama Shame and Sarah Polley's wildly inconsistent, sometimes cringe-worthy but occasionally heartbreaking adultery dramedy Take This Waltz.
All of these early-career efforts were left in the dust by two second features: Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet and Oren Moverman's Rampart. Planet, written and directed by Loktev (Day Night Day Night), stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg as a couple on a premarriage backpacking trip in the initially serene, eventually treacherous unknown of Georgia's Caucasus Mountains. Bracingly gorgeous (the color-drenched, wide-screen cinematography came from the camera of Inti Briones, who has worked with Raul Ruiz), Planet sketches wildly detailed relationship dynamics through its characters' faces, bodies and responses to their environment and turns wordless shots into spoiler alert–worthy events. On the polar-opposite end of the character-study scale is sun-bleached noir Rampart. Moverman and co-writer James Ellroy have built a wildly entertaining amorality play for an all-in awards-bait performance by Woody Harrelson (star of Moverman's previous directorial outing, The Messenger) as a beyond-dirty cop whose twisted sense of justice (as well as his compulsive violence, racism, promiscuity and boozing) finally catches up with him.
Perhaps the most highly anticipated title of the festival, Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress — the first feature from the '90s bard of the "urban-haute bourgeoisie" since 1998's The Last Days of Disco — didn't disappoint. A profoundly weird film affectionately skewering the mental and emotional problems and social mores of four self-styled queen bees at a fictional East Coast college and the nail-dumb frat boys and "operator or playboy types" who represent, according to the opening credits, "their distress," Damsels injects Stillman's patented, densely verbal but affectless conversational comedy into an ambitious cinematic experiment. Oddly out of time — lead damsel Violet, played by the winningly game Greta Gerwig, dresses like an '80s prep but celebrates a cheesy '90s techno-jam as "a golden oldie" — Damsels, like Stillman's debut, Metropolitan, is a halcyon zoetrope, churning highlights of youth-movie history (from Mickey Rooney "Let's put on a show" musicals to Grease to more or less contemporary ensemble raunch like American Pie) through Stillman's inimitable, unshakable concern: the moral conflicts and conundrums of group social life.
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Just as impressively nutso and true to form, Twixt, the latest self-financed, fully self-indulgent indie directed by Francis Ford Coppola, has been billed (mostly by Coppola himself, who promoted the partially 3-D gothic mystery over the summer at ComicCon) as a step into a brave, new, techno-aided (or is it addled?) future. In fact, Twixt is really an embrace of Coppola's past, with its story of a broke, boozy schlock-horror novelist (a ponytailed, hilariously self-referential Val Kilmer) trying to dream up a vampire blockbuster apparently inspired not only by the drunken dream to which the filmmaker has confessed but also Coppola's formative work for Roger Corman; the death of his teenage son, Gio, in a boating accident; and the financial pressures that led Coppola to make "one for them" flicks like Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Both an open-heart dissection of transforming personal pain into art and a bitingly funny nod to the profit-generating endeavors that allow for the luxury of "pure" self-expression, Twixt was inexplicably written off by many critics at TIFF as "a mess." For sure, but its mess is by design (Coppola says he plans to "remix" the film live at screenings), and at least it has a distinct pulse. The same qualified praise goes for Todd Solondz's latest comic essay on the ironies of self-loathing. Dark Horse swallows its own tail, but Solondz's voice is still uniquely his own, and his new film, set largely in the psyche of the titular underachiever played by Jordan Gelber, is chaotic and alive.
Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, about three adult children unwittingly trapped by their parents in a totalitarian alternate universe in their suburban family home, had a bratty spark to it, which went a long way. This type of in-your-face energy is notably missing — but not necessarily missed — from his latest effort. ALPS, concerning a quartet of "substitutes" who impersonate the recently deceased as a service to help their loved ones grieve, is as patently absurd at the story level as Dogtooth's parable of closed social systems is. But the world Lanthimos presents here is stylistically staid (natural light, minimal music), which lends his characters' stuntlike behavior a disquieting realism. Much less reliant than Dogtooth on the midnight-movie kicks of gore, shock sex and comic relief, ALPS is the more difficult, more devastating depiction of the loneliness of a proscribed life and role-playing as a self-destructive solution.
Dogtooth was last year's most shocking Oscar nominee, an outlier that defied conventional wisdom to sneak into the Foreign Language Film race. Does the fact that TIFF 2011 ended without anointing an Oscar champ to beat mean the conventional wisdom is changing? Probably not, but it is sort of nice to not know in September exactly what's going to happen in February.