Like the Six Million Dollar Man, or a virus that gains in power every time you try to kill it, the fall-to-Christmas movie season — the quality movie season, the one that’s showcased with generous and sublime focus at the Toronto International Film Festival — is doing something that no one, perhaps, could have expected. It’s getting stronger. The movies that people are salivating to see here, the ones that could be great, but even if they turn out not to be great certainly promise to be an experience, have been slowly and steadily multiplying. And so is the anticipation surrounding them. Lock up your blockbusters, put away your summer global franchise overkill, because there’s a new kid in town. His name is Old School Movie Passion, and he’s thriving.
Toronto is channeling that passion, but the festival, let’s be clear, isn’t causing it. It can only — ever — be as good as the movies that are being made. And it can only — ever — be as powerful as the complicated art/technology/ media systems by which those movies are disseminated into the world.
Here’s what’s really changing. The trend of funneling quality movies into the last three or four months of the year began several decades ago. But it didn’t become worrisome, didn’t seem like it might be a problem, until recently, when an officially fetishized and demarcated awards-bait season began to start looking like a precious and rarefied indie/Oscar ghetto: the months when Movies For Smart People came out, and the Hollywood popcorn machine went all too temporarily into hibernation. It was a picture that didn’t look all that pretty. A hundred years ago, Hollywood was founded on the tension between art and commerce, but that never meant that those two things were destined to exist on separate shores.
So what’s now bringing them together? A couple of trends that Toronto, without causing those trends, is at the epicenter of. The voice of the media, in recent years, has been declaring, with increasing fervor, that television — not movies — is the transcendently creative medium of our time. And while an accurate reading of that belief should take in the notion that, say, The Real Housewives of New Jersey is a far more riveting — and complex — piece of drama than, say, Man of Steel (hell, some of the family face-offs on Real Housewives of New Jersey, for sheer jaw-dropping dramatic electricity, rival the verbal duels in GoodFellas), it’s also true that the awesome credibility and high profile of official quality television (Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, etc.) has done something extraordinarily ironic for smart, soulful, end-of-the-year movies. It has fed people’s hunger for them. It has helped to de-marginalize the “small film” ghetto — not just for audiences, but from the point-of-view of movie studio executives, who are now competing for the attention of viewers who are addicted to high-end television.
The other factor that is now feeding the hunger for quality is VOD. For years, readers from around the country have been asking me when they’ll finally get to see this movie or that movie; they want to know when that small/art/indie film that got chattered about by critics is going to make it to a theater near them. But suddenly, with the revolution that is video-on-demand, it’s a brave new world of democratic distribution. At this point — and get a load of this irony — it is, in fact, the more high-profile independent features, like Blue Jasmine or Fruitvale Station (which are too commercially prized by their distributors to receive an early VOD release), that may actually take significantly longer to reach the hinterlands. The smaller films — The Canyons, mumblecore movies, acclaimed documentaries like The Act of Killing — are often the ones that are available instantly, or before they’re even released theatrically. And since a number of those VOD releases are, in themselves, reasonably high profile, they have fed the collective feeling that smaller movies, prestige movies, and awards-season movies aren’t some distant, “elite” East and West Coast phenomenon. More and more, they’re for everyone — immediately.
And so the eagerness for art is only growing. I think we saw the fruits of that last year, when Argo (a Toronto Film Festival highlight) opened much earlier in the season — the second weekend of October — than it might have just a few years back and went on to become a major pop-cultural event. Or when a great but demanding movie like Lincoln connected with audiences even more widely and powerfully than anyone might have predicted. This year, the films I can’t wait to see at Toronto are legion, from Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave to Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, from Jason Reitman’s Labor Day to Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, from Matthew Weiner’s You Are Here to Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot. And the list just goes on. I’ll be reporting on those films, and others, in the days ahead. And I’ll be doing it with a sense, as much or more than ever, that they matter in the outside world. Because those movies, though they’re playing at a film festival, are in no way “small.” They are every bit as large as the appetite to see them.
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It is more or less impossible to watch Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, a big, sprawling, splashy canvas of a movie about a blocked celebrity writer wandering through the parties and rituals of late-night Rome, without thinking of La Dolce Vita (1960), Federico Fellini’s epic and mournful end-of-civilization bacchanal. Fellini, who famously opened his film with the image of a helicopter hoisting a statue of Jesus through the barren outskirts of Rome, was looking at a modern world in which faith had leaked away. So is Sorrentino, but since The Great Beauty was made 50 years later, what has gone away isn’t just faith but the pretense of faith. The “decadence” is now omnivorous yet lightweight — a spiritual apocalypse delivered with an amused half-shrug.
Most of the shrugging comes from Jep (Toni Servillo), who wrote an acclaimed novel 40 years ago and has been dining out on it ever since. (For no reason that he can really articulate, he has never written another.) At his incredible apartment, with a giant balcony that overlooks the Colosseum (making The Great Beauty, among other things, one of the most casually eye-popping pieces of cinematic real-estate porn I have ever seen), he hosts parties that go on all night, in which the city’s social and gossip-column elite chatter and flirt and fall into gyrating disco-dancing trains. Yet Jep himself, who has just turned 65, remains amiably jaded and detached. As played by the commandingly urbane Toni Servillo (pictured above), he’s like Bret Easton Ellis imbued with the world-weary wisdom of Gore Vidal. He speaks in elegant pensées, and I think he might have said of this movie, with its panoramic ambition and its knowing nod to Fellini, that it’s good despite its lack of greatness. To meander the way Fellini did half a century later is both touching…and meandering. Yet there’s real feeling in The Great Beauty — a wistful adoration of Rome, coupled with an almost terrifying loneliness. Jep, who never married or had children, can’t give up his life of pleasure, yet what has it brought him? And where is he going? What does it mean to live in a society that is post-faith? To ponder those questions, in tandem with the film’s heartbreaking soundtrack, is to take a journey with a man who may seem distant from you, but to see yourself in him anyway.