For better or worse, the Toronto International Film Festival is the largest such event in the world -- no other film festival offers such a wide array of incredible new movies to see, and no other film festival offers such a wide array of opportunities to overlook incredible new movies in favor of some stupid bullshit that'll be clogging theaters across the world within weeks of the festival's closing night. It can be exceedingly difficult to negotiate TIFF's insanely packed line-up, the perennial result of the fest's kitchen-sink approach to showcasing the fall season's most hotly anticipated films.
Sure, there's no way you're going to miss Oscar front-runners like The Descendants, The Ides of March, and whatever else George Clooney is in, but you didn't fly all the way to Toronto just for the sneak previews, you pilgrimaged to the hockey capital of the world in order to enjoy an unparalleled kaleidoscopic view of contemporary world cinema. You didn't trek to the Great White North so that you could have the esteemed privilege of being among the first to see Butter (quoth TIFF's site: "Olivia Wilde and Hugh Jackman star in this deliciously unlikely comedy about a Midwestern misfit thrown into the hostile, high-stakes world of competitive butter carving"), you journeyed to the Kingdom of Gretzky in order to enjoy theatrical experiences that may never be duplicated beyond the festival circuit.
Taking a gander at this year's seemingly extraordinary TIFF line-up, I've selected 10 films (sight unseen) that sound as if they're worth seeking out during the fest -- 10 films that you should make an effort to see, if only because you may never get another chance.
MONSTERS CLUB (dir. Toshiaki Toyoda)
"A man abandons modern civilization and lives in a secluded cabin on a snowy mountain, sending mail bombs to corporate CEOs. One day, a mysterious creature appears before him…"
Monsters Club is what happens when one of Japanese cinema's most wildly untethered directors becomes obsessed with an essay called "Industrial Society and its Future," or as it's more commonly known: Ted Kaczynsky's manifesto. Toyoda's warped jailbreak opus 9 Souls is one of the finest Japanese films of the last 10 years, but few people who saw it walked away thinking "I liked this movie and all, but that scene where four escaped convicts raped a sheep together was just so tame and conventional -- I'd like to see this director make a film in which he can really cut loose." But cut loose he has, crafting a film about a man who retreats into the wilderness and becomes a monster, only to encounter a monster of a very different sort. Toyoda's work typically unfolds like a self-imposed challenge, in which the filmmaker sees just how psychotic a premise he can twist into an ultimately uplifting tale, and Monsters Club sounds like his most demanding test yet.
DREILEBEN (dir. Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, and Christoph Hochhausler)
"A trio of interlocking films, Dreileben is an invigorating experiment in narrative construction by three of Germany’s leading filmmakers."
Yeah, so Dreileben is a trilogy of films in which no one drapes themselves in latex in order to fight crime, so odds that it will ever be commercially distributed in the States are approximately nil. Complicating matters further is the fact that the three Dreileben (translation: "Three lives") films aren't self-contained -- they present the same story of a murderer and a sex offender escaping from a hospital, each film approaching the manhunt from a different perspective in order to complete the narrative. Sure, spending almost five hours with a murderer and a sex offender may not sound like fun, but come on, you don't even know what kind of sex offender.
CUT (dir. Amir Naderi)
"An unsuccessful filmmaker starts earning money as a human punching bag to work off his brother's debts to the mob."
So far as I can tell from the TIFF description, Cut is a film about a movie-lover convinced that the cinema is dead (and that only he has the power to revive it), and it's also a film about that same guy paying off his brother's yakuza debts by voluntarily submitting himself to a series of routine beatings. I'm not quite sure what one plot strand has to do with the other, nor do I really understand how someone turns a profit from being repeatedly pulverized by gangsters (and in this economy!), but we're dealing with a Japanese-language film by an Iranian director raised in New York, so methinks it might be best to keep an open mind. Early screenshots suggest that Cut is an unmoored portrait of cinephilia rendered masochistic, the most brutal account of someone suffering for their love of movies since the press screenings of Something Borrowed.
ALOIS NEBEL (dir. Tomas Lunak)
"Lunák weaves a spell around his tale of Alois, a middle-aged dispatcher who works at a small railway station circa 1989 in the Sudeten... tortured by memories of WWII, he ends up in a sanatorium. When Alois is released, he finds that the world has changed: the communist regime has evaporated, and so has his job. But hope arrives in the miraculous form of a woman."
Looking like a monochromatic sequel to Waltz With Bashir, Tomas Lunak's Alois Nebel is... well, not that. Supposedly infused with the lightly romantic spirit of Czech classics like Closely Watched Trains, if Lunak's debut feature is half as beautiful in motion as it is when isolated one frame at a time, it promises to be a visual delight unlike almost anything at this year's festival. if its title character makes a habit of bringing an ax to a gunfight, I suspect that it'll be shorter than anything at this year's festival, as well.
TWILIGHT PORTRAIT (dir. Angelina Nikonova)
"Marina, an upper-crust social worker with a doting husband and an enviable downtown apartment, is suddenly transformed into a bizarre twilight version of herself when she is raped by three policemen."
I'm starting to notice that rape is becoming a major unifying element between several of these films, but I guess that's not too unusual when compiling a list of festival entries that are unlikely to achieve wider distribution -- it's like I always say: "Nothing's hurts a film's box office prospects like a plot incited by a violent sexual crime, except for maybe Greg Kinnear." I really do always say that, regardless of the scenario, a snarky tic that's ruined more than a few funerals / brises / interviews with Greg Kinnear. If the TIFF guide's careful description of Angelina Nikonova's narrative debut is any indication, Twilight Portrait plays like an erotically charged Chantal Akerman film, unfolding at the quotidian rhythm that new Romanian cinema has most recently made fashionable. This nocturnal depiction of a violated woman seems like the kind of bold psychosexual character study that most are afraid to finance, let alone write.
CUCHERA (dir. Joseph Israel Laban)
"One of the most shocking debuts in recent Filipino cinema, Joseph Israel Laban's Cuchera deals with the grim fate of low-rent drug mules."
If Maria Full of Grace taught us anything, it's that "grace" doesn't always mean what you think it means, and that being full of it isn't necessarily as pleasant as it sounds. But Joseph Israel Laban would like you to know that being a drug-mule isn't all that bad, and that the industry actually offers quite a number of opportunities for upward mobility. Cuchera (I think that means"Spoon," but I'm kinda afraid to learn what it might actually mean), follows a former drug-mule named Isabel who aspires to run her own trafficking business. Whatever moral scruples she may have once maintained are a thing of the distant past -- she isn't afraid to get her hands dirty, and if the screenshot above is any indication, she isn't afraid to get the rest of her body dirty, as well. Described as an "Ultra-sinister Filipino Mean Streets," Cuchera sounds like a fascinating portrait of a woman upending a male-dominated community to fulfill the potential of her own control.
ALWAYS BRANDO (dir. Ridha Behi)
"After meeting Anis Raache, a young Tunisian actor who bears a stunning resemblance to young Marlon Brando, Tunisian master Ridha Béhi decided to write a film casting the two. Marlon Brando was interested, the two met and reworked the script. He died before shooting started. Always Brando chronicles Béhi’s saga with Marlon Brando and meditates on the lure and cruelty of the art, system and its industry."
The most important thing to know right off the bat is that Always Brando isn't a documentary, at least not in the traditional sense. Which isn't to suggest that I have any idea what it is, but the trailer makes it clear that whatever true-life incidents may have contributed to this film, the final product is a fiction film shaped by movies and memories in equal measure. Ridha Bedi's film seems like something of a Tunisian riff on Abbas Kiarostami's Close-up, a film about the cross-cultural power of the cinematic image that's as interested in its own making as it is the story it's ostensibly there to tell. The trailer is tough to unpack, using both voiceover about Brando's supposed involvement in the production, and scenes of lurid soap opera sex (often at the same time) to sell the premise, but it's unclear what role either element ultimately play in the film itself. Sure, Marlon Brando has an enduring appeal to moviegoers the world over (and the guy playing him is indeed a dead ringer), but this seems like a festival film to the bone. But if Bedi tweaked this story to be about a Tunisian man who comes to Hollywood bearing an uncanny likeness to Cam Gigandet... well, that'd be box office gold.
GENERATION P (dir. Victor Ginzburg)
"After the fall of communism in Russia a young advertising executive seeks inspiration from hallucinogenic drugs and uses a Ouija board to summon the spirit of Che Guevara for advice."
Man, we've all been there. Having said that, I'm just gonna go ahead and assume that Universal didn't pull the plug on their Ouija movie because Generation P stole their premise. Based on his own novel of the same name, Victor Ginzburg's latest feature is being promoted as a William S. Burroughs riff for the 21st century, an angle I'm prepared to accept after staring at the screenshot above for the better part of an afternoon. It's slightly worrying that one of the other stills featured on TIFF's page for the film looks like it was ripped straight out of Lawnmower Man, but Generation P nevertheless seems like an uncompromising vision from a tattered mind, a journey through the abyss that makes Enter the Void look sedate and refined by comparison. Selling points like "Cyberpunk mysticism" and "Complex narrative structure" have me thinking that Generation P is going to be one of those mind-melting freak outs that haunts the midnight sections of film fests for the next year or so, before it assumes a permanent residence at the bottom of your Netflix queue, patiently waiting for that night you decide to drop that acid you've been saving and solve all the grand conspiracies of Western civilization.
HEADSHOT (dir. Pen-ek Ratanaruang)
"Tul, a hitman, is shot in the head during an assignment. He wakes up after a three-month coma to find that he sees everything upside down, literally. Then he meets a girl that turns his world even more upside down. Who was trying to kill him in the first place?"
Well after reading that description, my first question is "If the world is upside down, how does it turn even more upside down?" Pushing things a degree further than 180 doesn't make them more upside down, it just begins to level them out. Simple geometry, really. But Pen-ek Ratanaruang's has always operated on the edge of logic (as those familiar with the Thai filmmaker's entrancing and lightly experimental Last Life in the Universe can attest), and so I guess I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt with this one. It's unclear how much of this noirish thriller about detectives, assassins, and "unspeakably gorgeous" young strangers will be motivated by its visual gimmick, but in the dying days of the 3D craze I think it's fair to say that audiences are eager to actually see their movies, again, so Headshot might be fighting an uphill battle. On the other hand, if the film does make a splash you can probably expect Star Wars: The Complete Saga Upside Down Special Editions to hit DVD (but not Blu-ray) in time for Christmas, 2013.
BREAKAWAY (dir. Robert Lieberman)
"A young Sikh-Canadian man dreams of hockey stardom but first he has to assemble a team to beat the local bullies, while romancing the coach's daughter (Camilla Bell). Lieberman's fable is a classic cross-cultural story, with dashes of humour."
You can't spend 10 days at TIFF without seeing a hockey movie (that would be rude to your hosts), and that's true now more than ever, as it's only a few years before Kevin Smith cross-checks the genre with his unique brand of fiasco cinema, snuffing out what little desire there is for hockey movies with his magnum opus Hit Somebody. Ostensibly a cross between Bend it Like Beckham and The Mighty Ducks, Breakaway seems like yet another warm and gentle story of cultural integration that uses sports as its unifying agent, but even with Rob Lowe in the Emilio Estevez role (that's his arm in the lower left corner of the above photo) this thing is probably going to be a tough sell down here in the States. Having said that, we should all hope that it beats the odds and becomes a breakout out, because it would be great to see a sequel in which the Speedy Singhs put another beatdown on that jerky Icelandic team.