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Marc Glassman’s Favourite Things from TIFF 2023

Arts Review2023-9-15By: Marc Glassman

 

My Favourite Things

Perfect Days, Anatomy of a Fall, Solo, Zone of Interest reviewed

By Marc Glassman

 

It’s been a strange Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) with few celebrities—mainly directors and European talent—parties or exciting red carpets but with a lot of fine movies. And, ultimately, isn’t that what it’s all about: the films? 

Actually, this has been one of the best TIFFs in many years if one were to judge it solely by the quality of the films being presented. Perhaps after COVID, filmmakers were putting their best feet forward because the projects on display seem to have been delivered with more care and precision than in previous years. There was a pleasing diversity to the films both in the places of origin for the productions, which ranged from Bhutan to Polynesia to the Caribbean to Nunavut and in subject matter that dealt with everything from creation of champagne to soccer in Samoa to the splendour of the mountains in Norway. 

This being the last Friday of the festival, it’s time to offer a fond look at the finest films at TIFF. Everyone will have their opinions but here are four of mine. Imagine me reciting them to you to the tune of Rogers and Hammerstein’s immortal “My favourite things” as recorded by such greats as Julie Andrews, Tony Bennett and John Coltrane.

Let’s go in ascending order. 

Anatomy of a Fall is number four on the list. Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, it is a brilliant courtroom drama set in the French Alps, played out in a heady international mixture of languages ranging from English to French to German. Sandra Huller, who is a truly compelling performer, plays a German writer, a huge success, who is accused of killing her unhappy French husband by pushing him to his death from the top of their chalet. But, of course, he could have committed suicide and even set her up to look as if she was the murderer. Adding to the suspense is that the only witness to the case is their son, who is visually impaired. Not only is the trial fascinating and plot confounding but it’s also important to note that the film has real audience appeal. This isn’t a languid confusing art film. Anatomy of a Fall is a brilliant genre piece that anyone can enjoy.

Solo, the third highest choice is my pick for Best Canadian Film at TIFF. Visually and musically extravagant, Quebecoise director Sophie Dupuis’ film is a perceptive account of Simon, a makeup artist, who has an extraordinary second life as a truly gifted drag queen. When Simon meets Olivier, a fellow queen from France, the two fall for each other, devising duets to replace their solo acts. Adding to the drama in their lives is the unexpected appearance of Simon’s opera-singing mother Claire, in town for a production of La Boheme. The contrast from opera to disco is nicely played out and, of course, the course of true love—and familial affection—never flows freely in melodramas. Solo is a terrific film and deserves to get attention in English Canada and around the world.

Zone of Interest, number two on this list, won the Grand Prix at Cannes earlier in the year. There’s a cliché in reviews that you’ve never seen a particular Holocaust film like this one before—but, in this case, the old expression is correct. The Hoss family, Hedwig and Rudolf and their kids are leading an idyllic life–eating well, raising children, entertaining guests—while next door, death is being meted out at the notorious concentration camp at Auschwitz. Shot in black and white, the lives of the Germans caught up in the harshest part of the Nazi regime are exposed with pitiless dispatch. Once again, Sandra Huller stars, this time as the cold-blooded Hedwig; she is more than matched by Christian Friedel as Rudolf. Hannah Arendt coined the expression “the banality of evil” to characterize people just like the ones that these fine actors play in this profoundly unsettling narrative. The most astonishing element in Zone of Interest is that we see nothing of the inside of Auschwitz but what we hear—gun shots and shouts and groans—and what we notice, especially the smoke coming from the chimneys, is more than enough to terrify anyone watching what is a truly extraordinary film. 

Perfect Days is this year’s number one for me, not just because of the quality of the film but I love that this is truly a comeback story. The extraordinary Wim Wenders will always have a place in the hearts of filmgoers for his brilliant 1980s films Paris Texas and Wings of Desire but in the past 30 years, most of his narrative features have only proven to be minor successes. It’s been his docs, particularly Pina and Buena Vista Social Club, which have kept him in the front ranks of the filmmaking conversation. But not now. 

Perfect Days is truly great: a mysterious humanistic drama of power and beauty. Koji Yakusho, an iconic Japanese actor, is absolutely persuasive as Hirayama, who is making his living cleaning toilets. That sounds harsh, but let me reassure you, there is nothing gross about this film. We follow Hirayama through his daily routines, from ablutions to work to meals to reading William Faulkner, with much of his time interspersed by the playing on a cassette tape in his truck of classic Boomer tunes from the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” to the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” It’s clear that Hirayama has reduced his life to essentials in true Buddhist tradition and that everyone respects him. He’s weird, yes, but Hirayama is an intellectual, who has made a choice about how he wants to spend his life. Perhaps the best thing about this film is that Wenders refuses to explain what caused Hirayama to live in such circumstances. At the end, the camera views him, face-on, in his van. His look is extraordinary: deep, peaceful and even occasionally joyful. Koji Yakusho deservedly won the best actor award at Cannes.

Next week, we’ll be back to reviewing films in commercial release after what has been a remarkable TIFF.

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