From Curtis Hanson to Pedro Almodovar, some of the world's most celebrated filmmakers put on astonishing displays of light and shadow at this year's Toronto film festival

By Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum
September 27, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

LISA SCHWARZBAUM

It may have been by the grace of Dios that Almodovar’s heavenly, big-hearted drama about friendship and intimacy, Talk to Her, was the first film I saw this year at the Toronto International Film Festival. The air outside seemed fragile, moody, hungry, restless; many moviegoers were rubbed raw, frustrated that devotion to the screen didn’t salve raw nerves and memories of being in Toronto a year ago while the World Trade Center towers fell. And yet here was a follow-up to All About My Mother that matches and in ways even surpasses the tenderness, humanity, and audacity of the marvelous Spanish filmmaker’s 1999 Oscar winner: Two men, one a nurse, the other a journalist, form a bond of friendship over the comatose women they care for in a hospital. As ever, Almodovar garlands his fable with gorgeous leaps of fantasy and story-within-story invention: dance (by Pina Bausch’s avant-garde troupe), bullfighting, an exquisitely bizarre silent movie, a cheesy talk-show interview. And, as ever, the sets and costumes are outre enough to covet.

Talk to Her drew tears for its beautiful fable of tolerance. But for some other notable entries, dry-eyed shock, agitation, surprise, and respect were also suitable responses. Paul Schrader’s scathing and inventively warped biopic Auto Focus, about the dangerously compartmentalized life and sordid death of 1960s TV star Bob Crane — the Hogan of Hogan’s Heroes — takes on the dark side of sex, obsession, and celebrity with exactly the cracked-mirror refraction the sensational story demands. Crane’s sexual compulsions were abetted by the creepy eagerness (and early video technological know-how) of a tagalong swinger friend, one unfamous John Carpenter, who may or may not have been involved in the star’s unsolved 1978 murder. Greg Kinnear’s jolting, nuanced performance as Crane is urged on by Willem Dafoe’s furious intensity as ”Carpy,” the two actors secure in the skew of Schrader’s shrewd vision.

Moral ambiguity of a more far-reaching tragic consequence informs the tone of The Quiet American, Phillip Noyce’s graceful take on Graham Greene’s famous 1955 novel. The rather straightforward narrative approach misses the adrenaline jolts John Boorman brought to the political intrigues of John le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama. But the light layers of hidden agendas build to an effective weight. (As he did in Gods and Monsters, Brendan Fraser uses his talent for simulating open-faced Boy Scouthood to flesh out the deceptively quiet man of the title, opposite Michael Caine’s cagey performance as a British journalist dawdling in Saigon.)

The scenes shot in Vietnam are partly the work of the superb cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who also shot Noyce’s second film in the festival, Rabbit-Proof Fence. Clearly a story close to the heart of the Australian-born filmmaker, this amazing true tale follows the journey of three aboriginal girls who, in 1931, escaped from the Australian boarding school into which state authorities sent them and walked the 1,500 miles back to the families from whom they were wrenched. Noyce lets the fervent simplicity of their longing for home shine through.

I can’t begin to know whether cosmic randomness or a more ordered confluence of interest in historical evil led to Adolf Hitler’s presence as subject in a number of festival movies this year. Blind Spot-Hitler’s Secretary, a unique and riveting documentary by Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer, is, simply and extraordinarily, an interview with 81-year-old Traudl Junge, who reminisces about when, in 1942, she was a 22-year-old secretary to the Nazi dictator. This is a film not so much about the art of filmmaking — the camera sticks close to Junge’s handsome face, barely moving — as about the power of capturing a soul on film. (Traudl died right after the docu’s world premiere in Berlin this past February.) The old woman unleashes a torrent of detailed memory about life in Hitler’s bunker, stumbles when facing her own complicity — and concludes, finally, that youth is no excuse for ignorance.

No such easy conclusions — or artistic solutions — are reached in Max, a daring (if tonally jarring), provocative (if distractingly unstable) drama posited on a big What If: What if young Adolf Hitler (played as a resentful, dweeby misfit by Shine’s Noah Taylor) had managed to find the mass fame he sought as a painter? Did he become a monstrously creative politician because he was such a second-rate Salieri of an artist? And what if his greatest champion, during his starvation days after World War I, was a cosmopolitan Jewish art dealer, played by John Cusack? Cusack’s raffish, modern-day acting technique, coupled with writer-director Menno Meyjes’ off-key script and unfocused storytelling weakens a daring premise. On the other hand, the notion is intellectually stimulating enough to sustain interest — and start lobby conversations.

One of my favorite films at this year’s festival was small, oddball, and Icelandic: The Sea, Baltasar Kormakur’s mischievous follow-up to 101 Reykjavik, displays some of the angry energy of the family-shambles Dogma 95 drama The Celebration in its portrait of warring adults in a modern fishing family. I also loved the palpable sensuality and near wordlessness of Friday Night, a study in the texture of sex with a stranger by Claire Denis, who previously needed no words to convey the heft of men at work in Beau Travail. I certainly didn’t love Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, which tries all too heavy-handedly to squeeze tears of empathy for the hard lives of illegal immigrants working at nighttime shadow jobs in heartless London. And I can certainly guess that Antwone Fisher, the audience-lifting, dramatized true story of a young man who breaks free of his family legacy of abuse (he was raised by a sadistic foster mother, escaped to join the Navy, and communicated with his fists before he learned to feel with his heart) may spark awards talk come that time of year, possibly for Denzel Washington in his directorial debut and little-known Derek Luke in the title role.

Finally, though, I can’t guess what theatrical future lies ahead for 11’09”01, the uneven, art-trick anthology of 11 short films commissioned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The works are as varied as the international filmmakers who made them, from the willful ”Who are the real terrorists?” didactic arrogance of Ken Loach to the surreal post-Hiroshima mournfulness of Shohei Imamura. And one, the gut-punchingly powerful evocation of the World Trade Center destruction as human horror (rather than as consequence of the American condition) by Amores Perros creator Alejandro Inarritu, is a kind of mini-masterpiece of sight and sound. The omnibus creation may have overwhelmed, depressed, and sometimes hectored. As the best always does at Toronto, though, reverberations from Inarritu’s art hung in the air even after the lights came on.

OWEN GLEIBERMAN

Once every two or three years, if you’re lucky, a film comes along that does more than just move or transport you. It lures you into something deep and audacious and essential; it allows you to reimagine the very act of what it is to watch, or make, a movie. At the Toronto film festival, I had just such an experience, and I’m still slightly dizzy from it. Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven is nothing short of a masterpiece, a movie so miraculously executed, so forceful yet tender in its feeling, that it seems, in a single visionary stroke, to have taken the spirit of American independent cinema and brought it full circle back to the soul of vintage Hollywood.

The entire movie — every shot, every line, every tear and laugh and sigh — is a virtuosic re-creation of the floridly repressed yet darkly grandiose style of Douglas Sirk, the ’50s studio-system director who made baroque melodramas like All That Heaven Allows. Except that this is Sirk unhinged, with themes of sexuality, race, and alienation bursting to the surface as if they couldn’t be contained any longer. Haynes uses the visual and dramatic tropes of old Hollywood to create a modern pop tragedy of submerged desire in which the ripest soap opera dialogue takes on the quality of pure poetry, literally suggesting the things that can never be said aloud. Together, Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, and Dennis Haysbert turn the theatricality of ’50s-style acting into a tormented romantic dance that just about burns with sincerity. It’s that quality of utterly non-ironic passion that is sure to make Far From Heaven, the greatest 1950s movie never made, into one of the film events of the year.

A director like Todd Haynes reminds you that there’s a new generation of filmmakers who may be just as inspired as the masters of old. I was reminded of that, as well, when I saw Lilya 4-ever, the haunting new movie by Lukas Moodysson, the Swedish writer-director who made last year’s wonderful twilight-of-the-counterculture drama Together. Lilya 4-ever is a true gear shift: It’s set in a ratty, crumbling Russian housing project, and it follows the slow, terrifying descent of a 16-year-old girl, kindly, button-cute Lilya (Oksana Akinshina), who falls into the living hell of prostitution. Perhaps no fiction film has ever gotten this close to the grim terrors of the sex trade, yet Moodysson’s connection with his heroine remains an oasis of purity; if he could bottle his camera style, it would be called ”Empathy.” This is only his third film, but already he has begun to evoke the spirit of Jean Renoir.

You could just about light a match off the buzz in the theater prior to the world-premiere screening of 8 Mile, the dramatic feature-film debut of Eminem, which was shown as a ”work in progress.” The excitement continued throughout the movie. As an actor, Eminem projects the downbeat sex appeal and scurrilous, dead-eyed yearning of a rap-world James Dean. Cast as ”Rabbit” Smith, a Detroit assembly-line slave who competes in local hip-hop showdowns — lightning dramas of improvised insult — that he hopes will liberate him from his surroundings, Eminem, drawing loosely on his own background, makes his bottled-nitro impassivity palpable; when he pours that raging fuel into the tank of his rhymes, it’s cathartic for the audience. 8 Mile has a few obvious script problems, but as shaped by director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), it’s a movie of catchy rebel-underdog power — Saturday Night Rapper, or Purple Rain as made by a real filmmaker.

Beyond 8 Mile, this year at Toronto turned into a de facto tribute to Detroit Rock City. The jubilant documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown is an ear-opening celebration of the Funk Brothers, the 15 or so studio musicians who laid down the music for every single Motown track. Virtually no one knew their names, yet these gracious wizards of the guitar, bass, piano, and drums emerge in the film as the secret creative force behind Motown, generating songs of such joy, hope, and sublime sweetness that, by the end, you’re convinced the Motown catalog may be the single American achievement in postwar pop comparable to the collected albums of the Beatles. On a very different note, MC5 * A True Testimonial makes a fascinating and lovingly researched case that the MC5, emerging from a ’60s Motor City not so far in spirit from Eminem’s, were the true godfathers of punk anarchy.

Is there an actor who can match the wily charm of Robert Duvall? Assassination Tango, the first film he has directed and starred in since The Apostle, is an underworld drama as obsessed with the slinky glories of the tango as it is with high crime, and it’s held together by Duvall’s supremely crafty performance as an aging New York hitman in Buenos Aires. Campbell Scott does a different kind of hypnotic acting in Dylan Kidd’s Roger Dodger. As a burned-out ladies’ man showing the ropes to his nephew during one long New York night, Scott talks a blue streak of poison patter, and you can’t stop listening.

The Cinema of Extreme just keeps getting more extreme. In the amazing Irreversible, French director Gaspar Noe fills the screen with images of violation and murder unparalleled in their this-is-really-happening shock and danger. Noe may be the ultimate exploitation filmmaker, except that he works with such rapt cinematic force that he’s like the Steven Spielberg of depravity. Larry Clark (Kids), on the other hand, is no longer even trying to dress up his voyeurism. The tawdry, tacked-together Ken Park wants to be an ensemble piece about disaffected California teens and their parents, but the vignettes are little more than an excuse for showcasing young flesh.

You could, I suppose, call The Magdalene Sisters an exploitation film, too. It’s set inside an unbearably harsh and puritanical Irish convent in 1964, yet if the movie, in essence, has the form of a women’s-prison picture, it’s beautifully acted, and it has been directed by Peter Mullan as a deadly intense study of how Catholicism could mutate into sexual fascism.

In need of a break from all this twisted hell, I found blissful relief in a couple of festival crowd-pleasers. Spellbound, which follows eight kids as they compete in the National Spelling Bee, is a documentary that will have your inner geek up and cheering. And Bend It Like Beckham is a terrific, savvy, fully felt British comedy about a young Indian athlete (Parminder K. Nagra) growing up in London who defies her tradition-bound family by joining a local women’s soccer team. The film’s antic cross-cultural frisson can’t help but recall Monsoon Wedding, except that the director, Gurinder Chadha, keeps even more balls in the air than Mira Nair did, working with an effusively funny buoyancy that goes right to your pleasure centers.

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