TORONTO - I'm sure that it was possible to have had a great time at the 33rd edition of the Toronto International Film Festival. That just wasn't my experience. Sure, there were plenty of good films to see, but even the best ones were overshadowed by the soul-crushing disappointments and flat-out stinkers, many of which, ironically, were the most difficult to get into.
The few "big" studio films to premiere at TIFF (Spike Lee's WWII epic The Miracle of Saint Anna, Oprah-endorsed The Secret Life of Bees, Pride and Glory with Colin Farrell and Edward Norton, Ed Harris' oater Appaloosa, supernatural rom-com Ghost Town, Greg Kinnear's Oscar wannabe Flash of Genius, et al) sank without a trace, leaving the Great White North without the requisite bounce for which it was hoping.
Toronto's reputation for being the official launching pad for the upcoming awards season took a serious beating in 2008. Conspicuous by their absence were such heavily touted Oscar contenders as Milk, The Road, The Soloist, Revolutionary Road and Doubt. The official line was that they weren't ready in time, but conspiracy theorists like me spent the entire festival debating the veracity of that claim.
With his shot-in-Pittsburgh rom-com Zack and Miri Make a Porno, former Sundance whiz kid Kevin Smith officially became culturally irrelevant. Like John Waters, whose shock-at-all-cost modus operandi became passé once gross-out comedy went mainstream with the Farrelly Brothers, Smith's potty-mouthed, pop-culture-referencing schtick now seems positively antiquated in the Judd Apatow era. Any hopes that Sony's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist might become this year's Juno died halfway through the TIFF press screening when it became apparent that director Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas) was more interested in sophomoric toilet humor than pathos or insight.
Sollett wasn't the only TIFF filmmaker experiencing a precipitous sophomore slump. Rain Johnson followed his brilliant 2005 high school noir Brick with The Brothers Bloom, a failed Wes Anderson homage that repeatedly hits the same note of arch whimsy. Even with its spectacularly gifted cast (including Mark Ruffalo and Oscar winners Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz), Johnson's grifter farce fails on nearly every conceivable level. And Neil Burger blew whatever indie cred he earned with 2006's The Illusionist by inflicting the pedestrian Iraq homefront road movie The Lucky Ones on TIFF audiences.
It wasn't just relative newbies like Sollett, Johnson and Burger who came up short. Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme's (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) self-indulgent, multiculturalism-with-a-trowel Rachel Getting Married squanders terrific performances by Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt and long M.I.A. screen veteran Debra Winger on piddling material. The result is as wearying as spending two hours in the company of a recovering addict which, come to think of it, Hathaway's sister-of-the-bride character is.
British stalwart Mike Leigh was represented by one of his least satisfying films to date. Happy-Go-Lucky is a character study about a young woman (Sally Hawkins' Cockney elementary schoolteacher Polly), who's more fingernails-on-a-blackboard grating than charming or endearing. After two hours with the relentlessly chipper Polly, I felt like wringing her scrawny neck. Iris and Notes on a Scandal director Richard Eyre erred with the decently acted, if profoundly inconsequential The Other Man. Not even a reunion of Kinsey stars Laura Linney and Liam Neeson - playing a straying wife and her cuckolded husband - could make Man a must-see.
Some of my fondest TIFF memories were supplied by films that arrived either sans buzz (the lushly appointed period romance The Duchess, starring an excellent Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes) or suffering from bad buzz. Maybe it was diminished expectations (they flopped at Venice and Cannes respectively), but The Burning Plain (the directing bow of Amores Perros and Babel screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, starring Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger) and Synecdoche, New York (another directorial debut, this one by surrealist scenarist extraordinaire Charlie Kaufman) both seemed pretty OK to me.
I was particularly taken with Synecdoche, which features a dream cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Hope Davis, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh) in a Hellzapoppin' comic phantasmagoria that felt very much like Kaufman's personal spin on Fellini's masterpiece 8 1/2.
Most of my favorite Toronto films came from ringers - pet directors who never seem to let me down. Arnand Desplechin's A Christmas Tale, Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours and Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum all told beautifully nuanced stories of families in crisis. Michael Winterbottom's superb Genova also dealt with a family trauma (Colin Firth takes his two young daughters with him to Italy for a teaching gig after the tragic death of wife Hope Davis), and Terrence Davies' Liverpool memento mori Of Time and the City proved that auteur filmmaking is alive and well, at least on the international circuit. Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City continued the award-winning Chinese director's winning streak with an artful blend of documentary and fiction. Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, featuring an award-caliber performance by Michelle Williams, displayed the same humanist rigor as Belgium's Dardenne Brothers.
Guy Ritchie returned from the dead with RocknRolla, another boys-with-guns gangster flick, but his most larkishly entertaining and accomplished work to date. Richard Linklater's winsome life-in-the-theater fable Me and Orson Welles features an amazing simulacrum of the Citizen Kane genius by newcomer Christian McKay that has to be seen to be believed. Veteran Swedish director Jan Troell (1972 Best Picture Oscar nominee The Emigrants) reclaimed his rightful place in the cinematic pantheon with the exquisite Everlasting Moments, an intimate family saga set in the early 20th century.
The happiest distributor was undoubtedly Fox Searchlight. After wowing them at Telluride, Danny Boyle's ingeniously structured Charles Dickens-meets-Bollywood Slumdog Millionaire maintained its exalted buzz status by winning TIFF's Audience Choice Award. Twentieth Century Fox's boutique label also had Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky's (Requiem for a Dream) superbly gritty melodrama about a down-and-out pro wrestler (Mickey Rourke in a revelatory performance destined to win him at least a Best Actor nomination), which parlayed its Venice Golden Lion into a $4-million acquisition deal with the company. Not surprisingly, Fox Searchlight has already announced an awards-wooing December 19 release date. Hmm. Maybe TIFF hasn't lost its Oscar-prognosticator status after all.