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The 31st Toronto Film Festival Starts The Oscar Race

The Oscar race really starts in Toronto Film Festival. It always does.

If you go back over the past 10 or so years, you will discover that about 2/3 of the films nominated for just about any major category have actually premiered here. Oh, sure, a few have played the Venice Film Festival, Cannes or Berlin FF prior to this, and a few weren’t ready yet, but generally, if you want to generate buzz for the movie awards, you just have to be here.

The reason for this is that the festival is convenient. An hour from New York and four and a half from Los Angeles, pretty much any producer, actor, director, or paparazzi worth his or her salt is going to be here. It’s a circus, and the Torontonians love it. This year, 2009, promises to be no different.

One thing that makes Toronto different from the rest of the pack is that it isn’t primarily about independent films, although they make up a good deal of the lineup. It’s all about Hollywood movies, and government sponsored European cinema, the big expensive stuff that might actually make money. These are lavish productions with major movie stars, and even if they’re from impoverished Third World countries, one can expect the best entertainment the local industry can offer…. unless it's from Canada, in which case they make an exception.

The volume of films shown this year is impressive enough -- 335 films from 64 countries to screen over 10 days. These are divided into the following categories:

Canadian Open Vault
City to City
Contemporary World Cinema
Dialogues, Discovery
Future Projections
Real To Reel
Midnight Madness
Short Cuts Canada
Sprockets Family Zone
Special Presentations
Vanguard
Visions
Galas
Masters
Mavericks
Wavelengths

While there are both gems and stinkers in every category, the stuff that everybody is most interested are the Galas, which is where the big hits of the Fall and following Spring are to be found.  Masters, where famous directors who aren’t in the Galas, and Midnight Madness, where the best in horror flicks are to be found.

As always, there’s controversy, and this year it is all about a new category: City to City.

The first city to be honored this way is Tel Aviv, Israel, which is celebrating its centennial this year. The reason is that some object to the fact that Tel Aviv is being treated like a normal city by the Festival instead of concentrating only on the plight of the Palestinians, and how horrible Israel is. Several Canadian filmmakers have withdrawn their films in protest.

Also controversial is Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, but then again, that’s what he does.

As it is physically impossible to see all 335 films in a reasonable amount of time, much less ten days, here are the top twelve films this correspondent most wants to see…with descriptions kindly provided by the festival:


Galas

Agora
director Alejandro Amenabar
Spain
North American Premiere
In the fourth century, while Egypt was under the Roman Empire, violent religious upheaval in the streets of Alexandria spills over into the city’s famous library. Trapped inside its walls, the brilliant astronomer Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and her disciples fight to save the wisdom of the ancient world. Among the group are the two men competing for Hypatia’s heart: the witty, privileged Orestes and Davus, Hypatia’s young slave, who is torn between his secret love for her and the freedom he knows can be his if he chooses to join the unstoppable surge of the Christians.

The Damned United
director Tom Hooper
United Kingdom
North American Premiere
Set in 1960’s and 1970’s England, this is the confrontational and darkly humorous story of Brian Clough’s doomed 44-day tenure as manager of the reigning champions of English football Leeds United. Previously managed by his bitter rival Don Revie, and on the back of their most successful period ever as a football club, Leeds was perceived by many to represent a new aggressive and cynical style of football. Taking the Leeds job without his trusted lieutenant, Peter Taylor, by his side, Clough encounters a changing-room full of players who - in his mind - were still Don’s boys. An examination of Clough’s belligerence and brilliance, The Damned United stars Michael Sheen, and is written by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon).

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus                                                                                                                 
director Terry Gilliam                                                                                                                                              
United Kingdom/Canada                                                                                                                                 
North American Premiere
This fantastical morality tale tells the story of Dr. Parnassus and his traveling show, the extraordinary ?Imaginarium." Blessed with the remarkable gift of guiding the imaginations of others, Dr. Parnassus is cursed with a dark secret. An inveterate gambler, thousands of years ago he made a bet with the devil, Mr. Nick, and won immortality. Centuries later, on meeting his one true love, Dr. Parnassus made another deal with the devil, trading his immortality for youth, on the condition that when his daughter reached her 16th birthday, she would become the property of Mr. Nick.

Masters

Air Doll
director Hirokazu Kore-eda
Japan
North American Premiere
This compelling tale of a blow-up doll that becomes a real person and abandons her status of mere sex object comes to life with the superb performance of Korean actress Bae Doo-na.

Antichrist
director Lars von Trier
Denmark/Sweden/France/Italy
North American Premiere
This is a groundbreaking, deeply disturbing and graphic nightmare vision about gender relations from one of the most important and influential directors of the last 30 years. The film is a break from von Trier’s previous work in terms of aesthetics, resembling a Japanese horror movie re-imagined by Andrei Tarkovsky. Antichrist features unforgettable and courageous performances by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe.

The White Ribbon
director Michael Haneke
Germany/Austria/France/Italy
North American Premiere
In Protestant Northern Germany on the eve of World War I, strange incidents begin to occur in a village community and increasingly take the form of a ritual of punishment. This latest work from Michael Haneke won the Palme d’Or for best film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Midnight Madness

Jennifer’s Body
director Karyn Kusama
USA
World Premiere
The story of small-town high-school student Jennifer (Megan Fox) possessed by a hungry demon and transitions from being “high school evil”—gorgeous (and doesn’t she know it), stuck up and ultra-attitudinal—to the real deal: evil/evil. The glittering beauty becomes a pale and sickly creature jonesing for a meaty snack, and guys who never stood a chance with the heartless babe take on new lustre in the light of her insatiable appetite. Meanwhile, Jennifer’s best friend, Needy (Amanda Seyfried), long relegated to living in Jennifer’s shadow, must step-up to protect the town’s young men, including her nerdy boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons). Written and executive produced by Oscar-winner Diablo Cody (Juno).

Bitch Slap
Rick Jacobson
USA
World Premiere
In this campy action comedy from the creators of Xena and Hercules, three hot-blooded women try to uncover some booty in the desert using feminine charms, fists and machine guns.

George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead
George A. Romero
Canada
World Premiere
Master director Romero returns to his world of the undead, this time pitting two feuding clans in the middle of the fallout of a zombie epidemic.

Special Presentations

Bright Star
director Jane Campion
United Kingdom/Australia
North American Premiere
A drama based on the secret love affair between 23-year-old English poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and the girl next door, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), an outspoken student of fashion. Intensely and helplessly absorbed in each other, they rode a wave of romantic obsession that deepened as their troubles mounted. Only Keats’s illness and untimely death proved insurmountable.

Capitalism: A Love Story
director Michael Moore
USA
North American Premiere
On the 20-year anniversary of his groundbreaking masterpiece Roger & Me, Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story comes home to the issue he’s been examining throughout his career: the disastrous impact of corporate dominance on the everyday lives of Americans (and by default, the rest of the world). But this time the culprit is much bigger than General Motors, and the crime scene far wider than Flint, Michigan. From Middle America, to the halls of power in Washington, to the global financial epicenter in Manhattan, Moore will once again take film-goers into uncharted territory.

The 47th Annual New York Film Festival Features The Best In International Filmmakers

As in previous years, this year's annual New York Film Festival--running from September 25th to October 11th, 2009--features new works by many established directors and at least one with a rising reputation--Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu. But, this year, the selection committee has eschewed the major releases of mainstream marquee names such as Clint Eastwood for films by celebrated international filmmakers such as Alan Renais (with the Opening Night film) and Pedro Almodovar (with the Closing Night film) as well as fresh new independent directors such as Lee Daniels with his award-winning "Precious" as the centerpiece. Many of the directors featured will be in NYC during the festival doing Q&A after screenings and other events.

Read more: The 47th Annual New York Film...

30th Anniversary of Distributor First Run Features

The Film Society of Lincoln Center is celebrating the 30th anniversary of pioneering film distributor First Run Features and its founder, Seymour Wishman, with the series Keeping the Independent Flame: 30 Years of First Run Features starting on Wednesday, August 26 through Friday, September 4, 2009.  Filmmakers appearing include Oren Rudavsky, Menachem Daum (A Life Apart), John Scagliotti, Greta Schiller, Andrea Weiss (Before Stonewall), Radley Metzger (The Cat and the Canary), Farhad Zamani (Googoosh: Iran's Daughter),  Godfrey Cheshire (Moving Midway), and Manny Kirchheimer (We Were So Beloved).
 


Everyone is familiar with film production and exhibition. This series explores the mysterious middle component, film distribution. For 30 years, First Run Features has been at the forefront of companies that take the risk of distributing previously unreleased films. It takes remarkable courage to distribute cutting-edge and sometimes  controversial works that they believe should and must be seen.  This salute to First Run Features offers a retrospective to  many of the films in their catalogue that have premiered in Film Society programs.  
 


Keeping the Independent Flame opens on Wednesday, August 26 with Yoav Shamir's Defamation (also showing on Thu Aug 27). The winner for Best Documentary at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, it explores the rise of contemporary anti-Semitism through the eyes of Shamir, an Israeli who grew up surrounded by Jews. Shamir's investigation leads him from Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League, to his grandmother, Israeli peace activist Uri Avinery, and controversial American professor Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, each of whom offers his and her own takes on what this trend suggests.  An important work on a timely subject, Defamation is subjective documentary at its best.
 


The extraordinary resurgence of New Wave co-founder Claude Chabrol began with his witty 2000 psychological thriller, Merci pour le chocolat (Aug 28 at 2:30pm & 7pm).  The amazing Isabelle Huppert (two-time winner for Best Actress at Cannes, winner at Berlin, three time winner at Venice including a special lifetime achievement award), headlines Chabrol's cast as Mika, a Swiss chocolate company exec, who is married to suave concert pianist Andre (Jacques Dutronc). Chabrol weaves a delicate web of intrigue and suspicion until there is simply no way out for any of his protagonists.  Lou Lumenick of the New York Post called it "As irresistible as a piece of dark chocolate...Huppert gives such a mesmerizingly deadpan performance."
 


Ross McElwee's 1986 docu-masterpiece, Sherman's March (Thu Aug 27 & Sat Aug 29), winner of the 1987 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, is the Citizen Kane of the first-person documentary movement.  A precursor to Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, the film follows McElwee, a North Carolina native who returns home to explore the lingering effects of Sherman's march on the contemporary South.  He'd also like to get a girlfriend.  His wonderful, self-critical sense of humor inspires an equally wonderful portrait of America coming to terms with the lack of certainty and engagement in the future.  
 


Another highlight of the series is The Embalmer by Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah, 2008 New York Film Festival).  A 2003 New Directors/New Films selection, this taut atmospheric thriller unravels the strange and complicated newly found friendship between Valerio (Valerio Manzillo) and taxidermist/embalmer Peppino (Ernesto Mahieux). Critic Roger Ebert described it as "masterful at concealing its true nature and surprising us with the turns of the story."  



49 Up, Michael Apted's 2005 installment of the famed and groundbreaking series which captures its participants every seven years, is a victorious summation and capstone, as the original group copes with middle age and the meaning of their lives, while challenging their chronicler/tormenter about the price they pay for being put under such public scrutiny.  Roger Ebert describes the Up series as "one of the great imaginative leaps in film."
 


Also included in the series is Suzan Pitt's World, a gorgeous collection of three outstanding animated shorts from 1979 to 2006 (Sun Aug 30 & Sep 2) by Pitt.  With Asparagus (USA, 1979; 20m), she burst onto the international scene with playful, erotic imagery for the midnight movie crowd.  Joy Street (USA, 1995; 24m) is a paean to the delights of spending time in an altered state.  Finally, El doctor (USA/Mexico, 2006; 23m) is, according to Pitt, a film about "the institution of miracles in Mexico," as seen in the interaction between a perennially tipsy Mexican doctor and one of his young patients.

Take a Trip To MoMa's Premiere Brazil Film Festival This July

Brazil occupies a special place in the popular imagination. Whether it's because of the exotic music, the colorful and kinetic fashions, or the enduring mystique of its sexually charged inhabitants, there's a fascination with South America's largest country that has surpassed its political or economic power globally.

Now that Brazil is achieving an economic parity with such countries as India and China as well as having its long-standing cultural presence, it becomes more and more valuable to get a sense of the country through its cinema. Over the last few years that has become easier and easier as several of its directors such as Walter Salles or Fernando Meirelles have become internationally recognized figures with award-winning films.

So even if you can't make it to Brazil, or afford a deep DVD collection, there are several events being held this summer that can critically enhance your knowledge of Brazil, its culture, and cinema -- with one in particular, The Museum of Modern Art's Premiere Brazil series, already underway.

Read more: Take a Trip To MoMa's Premiere...

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