TIFF 2011 - 3 days, 13 1/2 films

For the eighth consecutive year, Bob and I made the trip to our favorite vacation destination: the Toronto International Film Festival. No fancy interviews or press conferences this time, just a bunch of movies, most of them coming to the fest without U.S. distribution. And of course, every screening we could make in the rightly beloved Midnight Madness series.

Below, a quick and dirty rundown on each, including the one I didn’t finish.

The Artist: Bits of Singin’ in the Rain, A Star is Born and the true-life story of Garbo and Gilbert go into this beautiful black-and-white retro comedy shot on Hollywood backlots. It’ll silently charm the pants off arthouse audiences come Oscar season. Bonus: It’s got the second great dog performance of 2011, following Arthur in Beginners. (The Weinstein Co. is rolling this out at the end of the year.)

Oslo, August 31st: Joachim Trier’s follow-up to his stunning debut Reprise offers an original view of drug addiction and the life of a city, but may be too dark & Norwegian to make it to U.S. theaters. 

God Bless America: Bob Goldthwait’s Taxi Driver for the age of schadenfreude-riddled reality TV, with Bill Murray’s brother Joel (Mad Men) as his DeNiro and Tara Lynn Barr as Murray’s all-too-willing teen accomplice. By no means subtle, but it’s hilarious and cathartic. (Magnet just acquired the film for the U.S.)

Into the Abyss: The culture of violence & death in a Texas town looks especially fucked up thru Werner Herzog’s eyes in this doc about a triple homicide over a red Camaro. Disturb-o-rama. (Sundance Selects has this one.)

Free Men: A fresh take on WWII with its story of Muslim involvement in the French resistance, a handsome but too familiar way of telling it. But I do like leading man Tahar Rahim (A Prophet). (Acquired by Film Movement for U.S. distribution.)

Monsters Club: It’s sort of like The Monster At the End of This Book of Japanese terrorist dramas, but not as memorable. There’s some beautiful cinematography, though, and odd and creepy sound techniques at work.

You’re Next: A home invasion horror tale good enough to make you forget how bad Strangers was. Or resent it even more. (There’s a bidding war going on for this one.)

Pariah: Dee Ree’s feature debut has a touch of first-time-filmmaker-itis, but a few great performances too, especially star Adepero Oduye as a teen afraid to come out to her parents. Kim Wayans as her mom, not so much. (Coming out at the end of the year from Focus)

Hick: Sexually charged coming-of-ager is badly disjointed and totally wastes Chloe Moretz, as well as a hefty music licensing budget (there’s at least three Stones songs in there). It made me feel skeevy & stabby. Note to tween actresses: Not every role like this is going to yield the rewards of Jodie Foster’s work in Taxi Driver, or even Brooke Shields’ turn in Pretty Baby.

Extraterrestrial: A fun little movie about an alien invasion. But not really. No aliens were involved in the making of this film, just a handful of silly, self-absorbed Madrilenos. Director’s Nacho Vigalondo’s goofy intro washed away the bad taste of Hick. Asked by an audience member why he doesn’t appear in this film as in Timecrimes, he said he got a lot of heat for that in his home country. “They called me the Spanish Shyamalan.”

Livid: From the makers of Inside, an extreme French tribute to the horror of Hammer and Argento, with great visuals and stupid characters. Might work better if it all made a bit more sense.

Rampart: Director Oren Moverman and co-writer James Ellroy craft an iIll-defined story and characters around Woody Harrelson, the film’s white-hot core, a bad cop who’s completely fascinating.

Twixt: As Bob said, Francis Ford Coppola’s gothic horror tale resembles an interactive CD-ROM. There’s a similar lack of commitment to narrative clarity (Coppola’s threatening to tour with the film and alter it on the fly with an iPad), and the characters are about as deep. But it’s still cheesy fun, particularly the contribution of star Val Kilmer, who occasionally seems to share in the audience’s confusion. Ben Chaplin’s also very good as Edgar Allen Poe, though it feels like he walked in from another, more straight-faced movie.

Memories of Idaho: James Franco’s edit of unused footage from Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, shown as part of TIFF’s Future Projections program in the lobby of the Lightbox, posthumously hands to River Phoenix the movie he stole while alive. I caught only about 40 minutes of an over-100-minute program, but I liked what I saw. And the random folding chairs, trash and mop and bucket - meant to evoke the atmosphere of an AA meeting - were nice touches.