The best of times? A personal top 10

The best of times? A personal top 10 featured image

As I write this, 9/11/08 has passed uneventfully—and thankfully—into history. Seven years ago, while recording TIFF reviews at Classical 96 with producer Joel Schonewille, I remember how distracted and upset we were, having just viewed footage of the second of the twin towers in flames.

That night, the premiere screening of Atanarajuat was cancelled, as were all films that afternoon and evening. Nonetheless, I attended the Isuma Igloolik party that night since the Nunavut film collective that produced Atanarajuat felt the need to gather together anyway–and there was a lot of bannock and char to be eaten. As New York and all of North America reeled at the most devastating foreign attack on US soil in nearly two centuries, I listened to throat singers and drummers playing ancient songs from the top of the Manulife Centre while the lights of Toronto twinkled below.

Nothing remotely as devastating or moving occurred during the 33rd edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, which wraps this evening after screening over 300 films, hosting innumerable parties and offering the Toronto public everything from brilliant world cinema to sophisticated installation art and the brilliant song styling of African singer Youssou N’dour.

Years ago, when I began to broadcast reviews on CJRT-FM of what was then still called the Festival of Festivals, I used to start my concluding “assessment” review by quoting Charles Dickens: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Tom Fulton, who headed up the arts program there, and latterly was a terrific morning show host on AM 740 with Mary Feely, used to rib me about how pretentious I was; Tom often reminded me that shortest distance between two points is the best way to travel in a radio review.

Well, darn it, Tom, looks as if I’m digressing again! Obviously this year’s TIFF wasn’t “the best of times or the worst of times.” That will always be 2001. (Though for those of us who still miss Tom, his death in December 2002 will always be ‘the worst of times.’)
OK. What was great at TIFF 2008? Here’s my Top 10, in no particular order.

It was terrific to see a real Canadian epic get front-page treatment and be TIFF’s Opening Night Gala. Passchendaele is not a great film—it’s far too melodramatic for that accolade—but it did chronicle an important event in our history. You can laugh and cry and be moved by Paul Gross’ inspired Canadian movie. Actor/writer/director Gross has created something rare in Canadian cinema, a film that has the capacity to move you.

Anne Hathaway acts! Not as iconic as “Garbo laughs” to a pre-war generation who adored the dour Swedish actress, but you get the point. Rachel Getting Married is that rarity, an edgy Gala, and Hathaway is stunning as Kym, the barely functional bridesmaid and sister of accomplished, repressed, about-to-be-married Rachel.

The Brothers Bloom will make you laugh—and maybe shed a tear or two. Rian Johnson (Brick) has written and directed a witty, romantic, intricately plotted con-man comedy starring a dream cast of dysfunctional sophisticates: Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi and the stunning (Ok, I’m a guy) Rachel Weisz.

Are any families functional? Apparently not. Un conte de Noel offers us a classically constructed melodrama from French auteur Arnaud Desplechin. When the family matriarch (Catherine Deneuve) falls ill with a potentially fatal blood marrow disease, it turns out that only Henri, her outcast older son, can save her. Invited back home for Christmas, Henri’s presence is a tough present for them to accept.

Waltz with Bashir is an animated documentary about the tragic effects wrought by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the ‘80s. Like last year’s Persepolis, this film uses animation to recreate a real and quite political tale. But also like Persepolis, the film has the wit to make the story uniquely intimate and personal. We end up caring about these damaged Israeli individuals, now approaching middle age, as well as the terrible tale they finally are able to reveal.

Deepa Mehta’s Heaven on Earth is a deeply affecting drama about spousal abuse among newly arrived immigrant Canadians. Using magical realism, she has crafted a dangerous tale of love, betrayal and the power of the imagination.

Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (L’heure d’été) chronicles the decline of an upper class French family thanks to the on-going global economy. When the family matriarch dies, her three children find that they have to sell their old country estate, filled with art and memories. Though all are successful, only one of the middle-aged children live in France—or expect to ever do so again. Made with integrity and an eye for ironic humour, this is a philosophical and moving tale.

Sea Point Days is a poetic documentary centred on a gorgeous beach community in Cape Town, South Africa. Once an all-white area, the locale is now filled with blacks, Jews, Muslims as well as an aging Afrikaans population. Francois Verster’s beautifully shot film looks at the changing face of South Africa through the lives of people dwelling in a modern, vastly different, “rainbow” Sea Point.

A bravura effort, Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of Jamal, a poor boy from the slums, who will do anything to be with his childhood love, Latika. An appearance on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire gives Jamal his unexpected chance to win riches and the girl of his dreams. Will he succeed? Check out Danny Boyle’s intense, hyperbolic film to find out the answer.

Les Plages d’ Agnes (The Beaches of Agnes), my personal favourite of this festival is a moving, poetic autobiography offered to us by octogenarian Agnes Varda. Feminist, photographer, mother and wife, Varda is above all a great filmmaker. Her summation of a life well lived is a film for the ages.

That’s it; that’s 10 out of 312 films. Everyone makes their own film festival at TIFF. It’s too rich an experience—at least potentially!—for a single person’s selection of a top 10 to be the only valid one. That’s the beauty of cinema and of Toronto’s extraordinary festival.

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