Almost 200 films debuted at fall-season festivals

TORONTO — Over the past two weeks, close to 200 films debuted at three of the major fall-season film festivals — Venice, Telluride and Toronto — providing a sampling of which pictures promise to remain standing by year’s end. I attended the latter two festivals and in the process got a look at some Venice highlights as well, and it was striking what a roller-coaster ride several films took in terms of the evolving critical opinion.

As soon as it won the Golden Lion in Venice last Saturday — a unanimous jury choice, I was reliably told — Samuel Maoz’s “Lebanon,” about a four-man Israeli tank crew during the 1982 war in which the action is almost entirely restricted to the inside of the tank, became a hot ticket in Toronto. Ill-advisedly slotted into a small theater, the first screening was jammed, several major critics couldn’t get in, and expectations ran high. As boldly conceived and well made as the film is, you could actually feel a wind-let-out-of-the-sails, is-that-all-there-is sentiment sweep the room at the end of the screening, and the prevailing views since reflect a certain degree of disappointment.

Still, “Lebanon” was unaccountably turned down by both the main selection and the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes this year, in part, apparently, because it focuses on the same conflict evoked in last year’s “Waltz With Bashir.” Venice loves scooping up Cannes rejects and showing the world what a mistake the French fest made by bestowing its top prize upon them (“Brokeback Mountain” and “Vera Drake” are just two recent examples). No one can claim with certainty that either the Venice or the Toronto response to “Lebanon” was the correct one, although I was in line with the Toronto view that something was missing. The film’s next stop on the circuit is the New York Film Festival in a couple of weeks, so stay tuned.

A similar fate befell Todd Solondz’s latest mordant vivisection of American values, “Life During Wartime,” a follow-up to his previous “Happiness” but with an entirely different cast. I believe it’s his best film to date, his most mature and controlled (longtime Solondz watchers have been stunned to learn recently that he’s now married with a baby and is allegedly a “changed man”), and this sentiment is consistent with the very strong reactions at Telluride and then at Venice, where it won the screenplay prize.

The Toronto responses, however, were another matter entirely; Solondz has always been a polarizing figure, and something would be amiss if one of his films failed to provoke some vehement dissent. But quite a few people you would expect to support his work, and have in the past, were keenly disappointed. One more to keep on eye on in New York.

Tireless traveler Werner Herzog probably logged more miles than any other filmmaker over the past two weeks, as he has accompanied his two new features to all three festivals. The small, San Diego-shot “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” which I haven’t seen, doesn’t seem to have generated undue enthusiasm. But “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” having been perceived as a variously wacky, absurd, uneven and fun-enough lark at the first two fests, was suddenly appraised by some in Toronto as a portrait of obsessive and unhinged behavior to rank with Herzog’s decades-old classics “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.” There’s no doubt the theme is present, but the artistry and personal investment of the director in the recent film hardly seem comparable.

A favorite festival sport is finally seeing films known to have been turned down by other fests. Every festival is guilty of blunders every year, but because of its prominence, Cannes gets scrutinized more than others for the films it selects and rejects. Cannes had a particularly strong year in 2009 but, from what’s now been seen of what it passed up, it could have been significantly stronger. Not only was “Lebanon” deemed insufficient, but Cannes much more pointedly refused a film that almost all who’ve seen it, including audiences at Toronto, believe is one of the most powerful in a long time, Lu Chuan’s “City of Life and Death,” an epic look at the Rape of Nanking in 1937. There were whispers that Cannes’ rejection had political overtones or that it was finished too late (although it was shown at the Cannes market), but in the end, no excuse seems valid.

One more surprise was a French film left out by Cannes in May, surprisingly so, given the fest’s historical support for the director — Bruno Dumont’s “Hadewijch,” a religious-themed drama that most critics in Toronto believed showed Dumont’s strengths and few of his weaknesses.

A film that went over very well in Telluride, Michael Hoffman’s “The Last Station,” about the final year in the life of Leo Tolstoy, was mysteriously absent from Toronto, especially given the presence of Canadian-born Christopher Plummer in top form alongside Helen Mirren. This is the sort of film that needs to be picked up right away by a distributor committed to getting it out before the end of the year to capitalize on the big star turns.

Two films known to have been turned down by the New York Film Festival (which also rejected two of the year’s best, “An Education” and “A Prophet”) nonetheless emerged as big winners in Toronto. The Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” is a cutting critique of the Jewish community in which they grew up in Minnesota; it’s a work to be compared in its tenor, at least, to aspects of Philip Roth. The film is not to be confused with Tom Ford’s “A Single Man,” an intensely evocative adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s memoir about getting through the anguish of a lost love in the early ’60s, for which Colin Firth took acting honors in Venice.

And just a word or two about two French films from Cannes that are now on the North American fest circuit but that I haven’t had occasion to comment upon. Gaspar Noe’s extravagantly trippy “Enter the Void” has been cursed ever since its final weekend Cannes screening, where it was critically drop-kicked into the sea. Bursting with neon, impossibly complicated camera moves, all manner of sex and violence and ingenious special effects seen through a drug-addled haze in nocturnal Tokyo, the film is easy to reject out of hand as an obsessive, undisciplined extravagance. Although it still runs 162 minutes, it has been considerably recut since Cannes.

My eyeballs felt exhausted and pummeled before it was over, and I instinctively recoil against druggy movies. But the film moves into largely uncharted terrain for features, visualizing the borderline between life and death, between the raw desire and metaphysical wonder of human creation, between misery and ecstasy, in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible. Noe is excessive and calculated in his boundary-pushing, to be sure, but also visionary and tender once you wade through all the blood and bodily fluids. It’s not a film to be seen at 8:30 a.m. or squeezed in between other pictures at a festival; emerging from it at 1 a.m. and walking the city streets afterward was perfect.

On the other side of the ledger in terms of refinement and taste is Alain Resnais’ “Wild Grass,” the most sublime film I’ve seen in Cannes in years, a hallucinatory, entrancing work in which each scene is surprising, with the camera ever-moving but always in precisely the right place at the right time, and the most mentally alert, physically nimble film ever made by an 87-year-old. And I’ve never been a huge Resnais fan.

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