Crix mull Toronto fest’s highs, lows

Discoveries and disappointments at festival

Variety’s senior film critics weigh in on the discoveries and disappointments of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival, which unspooled a lineup strong on racy relationship drama, weak on politics and at times overly reliant on its stars.

Peter Debruge: Less than a week into North America’s biggest film fest, things suddenly got cold in Toronto. The sweaters came out, the buyers went home and the last few nights of gala screenings put a distinct chill on everyone’s enthusiasm. Frankly, the final stretch has been something of a letdown for a festival that started out so strong, packing the likes of “Moneyball,” “The Descendants” and “Shame” into its opening weekend.

How did this happen? Tell any Toronto native you’re in town for the festival, and the question always comes back the same: “So, have you seen any stars?” That pretty much explains the fest’s most questionable choices, which include flashy late-week premieres of such disappointments as “Trespass” (which stars Nicole Kidman and Nicolas Cage), “Violet and Daisy” (with Saoirse Ronan and James Gandolfini) and “Winnie,” in which Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard reveal the unsung love story between the Mandelas.

Justin Chang: With its fabulous outfits and hilarious old-age prosthetics, “Winnie” was one love story I wish had been left unsung (that goes double for Jennifer Hudson’s closing number). Between that and Luc Besson’s “The Lady,” I’d like to propose a festival moratorium on banal, well-meaning political biopics; instead, it’d have been nice to have some movies with even a soupcon of actual politics.

The lack of political urgency was particularly glaring in light of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a date that cuts especially deep for this September festival. Toronto duly commemorated the event by presenting a sober, rather self-serving tribute clip before screenings on Sept. 11. But movies speak louder than PR gestures, and if this year’s lineup is any indication, stories of terrorism and retaliation aren’t weighing too heavily on today’s filmmakers, who generally seem interested in making love, not war. Terence Davies’ “The Deep Blue Sea” and Mia Hansen-Love’s “Goodbye First Love” beautifully explore the ravages of thwarted romance, and in their unique, often fearlessly explicit ways, Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz,” David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” and Steve McQueen’s “Shame” all test the boundaries of forbidden desire.

PD: “Shame” tests the boundaries, all right, though I didn’t connect with it the way many critics at Venice, Telluride and Toronto did. It’s fascinating that Michael Fassbender is doing the fall-fest trifecta with both “Shame” and “Method”: In the latter, he plays Carl Jung, whereas “Shame” takes a decidedly non-psychoanalytic approach to sex addiction. Instead of explaining, McQueen examines the character through oblique angles, long takes and unspoken moments. It’s agonizing by design, though I would have liked a bit more insight or story to enable a connection with the character.

I found the approach I wanted in another film, Oren Moverman’s “Rampart,” which signifies a huge step forward for the director of “The Messenger.” With several compelling storylines and a well-established sense of its characters’ backstories, “Rampart” takes us into the gnarly mind of a corrupt LAPD officer, played by Woody Harrelson, who goes through the movie half-cocked with earthworm-thick veins throbbing in both temples. I loved the complexity churning behind his tinted shades — a nice contrast with the zen-like inscrutability of the fest’s other great L.A.-set thriller, “Drive.”

JC: I’ll refrain from gushing more than I already have about “Shame,” though I will say that your problems with McQueen’s film — its avoidance of easy identification and embrace of ambiguity — are pretty much the opposite of the problems I had with your fest fave, “The Descendants.” Not that I don’t admire Alexander Payne’s bittersweet dramedy; it’s the smoothest picture of his career and probably as funny a film about the loss of a spouse/parent as anyone has ever made. But I like my movies about death to go down with a bit more sting, especially from a director who’s done his best work (for me, “Election”) in the key of ruthless satire.

As for “Rampart,” while I didn’t respond as forcefully as you did, I’m in full agreement about Woody Harrelson’s terrific performance, and between this and “The Messenger,” Moverman is clearly a big talent. Similarly gratifying were the confirmations of early promise from filmmakers like Julia Loktev with her accomplished and perceptive “The Loneliest Planet”; Lynn Shelton with her terrifically acted “Your Sister’s Sister” (picked up by IFC in this steady but not spectacular sales year); and Polley with “Take This Waltz.”

PD: No film affected me more at Toronto than “Take This Waltz.” Stylistically, the film is almost off-putting in its sunny cuteness, and yet, as a portrait of a woman suffering from grass-is-greener syndrome, it’s wrenching by the end. “Waltz,” which was made in Toronto, helped overturn a long-standing prejudice I’ve held against Canadian films at this festival. Previously, the bar seemed to be lower for local fare (Cronenberg and Guy Maddin making reliable exceptions), and yet this year, four of the best movies I saw were homegrown.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Cafe de Flore” makes a stylish companion piece to “Waltz” in that it deals with a woman coming to terms with the fact her ex-husband’s true soulmate is someone else. Ingrid Veninger’s brave little indie “I Am a Good Person/I Am a Bad Person” (tucked away in the fest’s Vanguard section) shows keen insight into the contradiction between being artistically provocative and a responsible parent at the same time. And Philippe Falardeau’s inspirational “Monsieur Lazhar” — about an Algerian refugee who helps a grade-school class cope with their teacher’s suicide — strikes me as a no-brainer to serve as Canada’s foreign-language Oscar submission.

JC: It was also a very good fest for British directors — not just McQueen but also Andrea Arnold, whose “Wuthering Heights” reps a bold departure from the classical tradition of literary adaptation, and Davies, who with “The Deep Blue Sea” delivered an exquisitely cinematic, almost Proustian example of said tradition. Incidentally, both films were co-funded by the now-shuttered U.K. Film Council, a major participant on “The King’s Speech” (which made an important stop in Toronto last year en route to Oscar glory). At the very least, the UKFC is certainly going out on a high note.

Peter, you mentioned the fest’s at times excessive fuss over galas and stars. One of my most satisfying Toronto experiences was the complete antithesis of those things: Argentinian helmer Pablo Giorgelli’s pitch-perfect, star-free road movie “Las acacias.” Winner of this year’s Camera d’Or at Cannes, it’s a small movie with a huge heart, and it ends on a note of quiet hope and renewal that, with any luck, should rub off on this festival as well.