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Donovan's Toronto Film Fest 2003 Report

Submitted by ryandonovan at 2003-11-06 21:48:38 EST
Rating: 1.84 on 17 ratings (17 reviews) (Review this item) (V)


It seems that every year, Toronto’s film festival has the odds stacked against it. It’s considered inferior to Cannes and Sundance. September 11. Those northern accents. This year was no different: SARS.

And every year, all signs seem to say that I shouldn’t come back. One year, I accidentally called Kevin Spacey an asshole. Another year, I almost knocked Ben Kingsley down on the sidewalk. And another year, I dozed off during a screening of Big Bad Love, sitting directly in front of director Aliss Howard. This year’s mishap: My luggage got switched with that of an NFL referee at the airport. Without a very lucky string of events that got our luggage switched back, I would have been watching films in zebra stripes and a whistle, while the Buffalo – New England game would have been called by a guy in SpongeBob Underoos.

But alas, the city keeps me coming back (my 5th straight year attending), and keeps proving to the world that it is the best film festival, without a doubt. The proof is in the Botox: countless celebrities turned up at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (Sept 4 – 13, 2003), more than usual, for the 339 films being showcased (many of which were World or North American Premieres). Some of the notables that I bumped into (but didn’t knock over, doze off in front of, or call assholes) included Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts, Katie Holmes, Chris Klein, Giovanni Ribisi, Joshua Jackson, Bill Pullman, Darryl Hannah, Christina Ricci, Marcia Gay Harden, Oliver Platt, Patricia Clarkson, Shalom Harlow, Lili Taylor, Franka Potente, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and Adam Goldberg.

Hollywood North (as Toronto fancies itself these days) also drew a slate of award-show hopefuls, as it is always the springboard into Oscar’s swimming pool. Last year’s Academy Award and Golden Globe nautalists included Far From Heaven, Talk To Her, The Quiet American, Frida , Bowling For Columbine, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Secretary, 8 Mile, The Crime Of Father Amaro, and Spellbound. The 10 films I saw will either sink or swim based on Toronto’s buzz. So grab a deck chair, as I lay down my take on the films I saw, a list of films I think will be distributed, the best performances and brightest young talent, and the official festival award winners.


21 GRAMS – Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0
Starring: Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts; Directed By: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu; Written By: Guillermo Arriaga Jordan
Here’s the worst high-concept pitch ever: It’s Return To Me meets Traffic meets Memento. But that pretty accurately describes the best film I saw at the festival. It was almost as good as a Hilary Duff and Amanda Bynes sandwich (…yeah, like you weren’t thinking about it first). One of my objectives for this year’s festival was to stay away from the obvious sell-out films (by “sell-out”, I mean “pretentious mainstream pseudo-Oscar-hopeful fluff that I probably wouldn’t ordinarily see south of the border any other time of the year”). More often than not, I get burned (The Four Feathers), and they prevent me from discovering little gems that I might not see during the regular season (Kissing Jessica Stein). So I was shocked that the best film was also the biggest sell-out film. The paradox therein, of course, is why I love cinema (that, and Naomi Watts’s bare boobies). 21 Grams is a depressing and frustrating tale of three improbably yet inevitably intertwining lives, sliced and diced and spiced (Christ!) in the editing room by Alejandro Gonzalez “Barrels-O-Fun” Inarritu. I’m all about melancholy, but this film left ME speechless. Bonus: Dave Matthews’s dreary “Some Devil” during the closing credits, just in case your heart wasn’t quite in your shoes yet. So how could this movie have been better? 21 Heather Grahams. Now that would have been something.

I LOVE YOUR WORK – Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0
Starring: Giovanni Ribisi, Franka Potente, Joshua Jackson; Directed By: Adam Goldberg; Written By: Adrian Butchart, Adam Goldberg
This wasn’t quite the best film I saw at the Fest, but it was easily the best concept: A superstar actor (Giovanni Ribisi) and his equally famous actress wife (Franka Potente) suffer a lull in their marriage – mostly from overexposure to the blinding white lights of celebrity – so the actor begins stalking an everyday couple, in order to get a glimpse inside a “normal” life. It’s an incredibly intriguing idea, from writer-director Adam Goldberg, someone who knows a little about celebrity himself. A self-admitted introvert (and suitor of high-wattage and hot-dog-fingered Christina Ricci), he does a great job of taking a “normal” audience into the life of the famous, and then navigates the paradox of why the famous find the “normal” so appealing. While the story gets a bit extreme, it becomes clear that fame and voyeurism are symptoms of the same disease. With this film, Goldberg validated my quest for an outstanding non-sell-out film at the festival, and re-affirmed the underrated importance of writer-director unity.

GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING – Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson; Directed By: Peter Webber; Written By: Olivia Hetreed
I cannot believe there wasn’t any nudity in this movie. Honestly. Not a nip. After seeing Scarlett Johansson in Lost In Translation, I thought this was finally where I would get to see her naked. Here’s the set-up: A famous European painter from a previous century has lost his inspiration and passion for his wife, and finds his muse in a beautiful servant girl half his age. Nearly every porno I own starts out that way. “No, the lighting isn’t natural enough for me to paint you. Perhaps if you remove your corset…” But NOTHING. Not even tasteful skin shots. The eroticism reaches a peak when she takes off her bonnet and lets down her hair. Are you kidding me? Obviously the filmmaker has no concept of art. But once the blueballs subsided, I perceived the film from a cerebral point of view. And you know what? No, I am too ashamed to say it… Okay, I’ll come out with it: It was pretty great. Pube-less and all, it was a simple, touching story. It could have been overblown (so to speak), filled with noise and hyperbole and senseless drama and, yes, gratuitous sex. But by refraining from these things, by telling the story in its own terms, it was more compelling (and even tantalizing) than most Hollywood romantic dramas. The passions and anxieties were heightened the by the year’s best score, surely an Oscar competitor for music.

LOST IN TRANSLATION – Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0
Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi; Directed By: Sofia Coppola; Written By: Sofia Coppola
Of all the films launched in Toronto, this one is getting the hottest buzz. Critics are forsaking their golden calves and instead are worshipping this sleepwalky story of a young, neglected newlywed (Scarlett Johansson), and her encounters with an older, married, famous actor (Bill Murray), while they are both cooped up in a Tokyo hotel. Is it friendship? Companionship? Loneliness? Lust? Love? Creepy? That’s the story. Reviewers have heaped on praise o’plenty, likening the entrancing courtship to a ballet. I, for one, happen to think ballet sucks. However, I can respect the sweetness and subtlety of the relationship. I think I would appreciate ballet more if each one opened with a number featuring an uninterrupted 90-second close-up of Johansson’s apple ass, clad in nothing but see-through pink panties. But I’m sure other people will tell you that Murray and writer/director Sofia Coppola – not Johansson’s derriere – were the true champion performers. People are talking Oscar nomination for Murray, the sad, rumpled hobo clown – which is great, but he was more deserving for Rushmore. The real question is: Will Coppola finally end the drought of female director nominees? It is lamentably doubtful, due to the new MPAA edict forbidding the distribution of screening DVDs to Academy voters. If voters can’t see it, should you? Yes. While I am slightly less enthusiastic than the hordes of whorish bandwagoning critics, it is certainly worth the price of admission.

PIECES OF APRIL – Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0
Starring: Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt; Directed By: Peter Hedges; Written By: Peter Hedges
This was a very interesting, if slightly off-the-mark, story of a disintegrating family planning to reunite for a Thanksgiving dinner. Katie Holmes is a misunderstood delinquent runaway (she’s got the punky tattoos and piercings to prove it!) with a heart of gold. After years of turbulence with her family, she is ready to be the bigger person and invite the clan over for a ghetto turkey dinner. Her family, led by terminally-ill matriarch Patricia Clarkson (in one of her many spectacular performances in the festival), willingly but cautiously accepts the invitation. The film follows the parallel stories, agonizingly preparing for the anxiety and awkwardness of this long-overdue (and possibly final) reunion. And of course, nothing goes right. But that’s where the film finds its strength, not in the rose petals, but in the thorns. It’s very much a character study – and I wanted to slap every character in the film (especially Katie Holmes’s booty). That doesn’t mean I disliked the film, I just disliked the characters. And that really worked for the film. While the film was clearly a vehicle for Holmes to assassinate the legacy of Joey Potter, the performance to take notice of was that of Alison Pill, who finally got the precocious-little-sister act right.

CASA DE LOS BABYS – Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0
Starring: Marcia Gay Harden, Daryl Hannah, Maggie Gyllenhaal; Directed By: John Sayles; Written By: John Sayles
I guess I should have known what I was getting into. A cast of middle-age women. A story about adoption and the yearning to love a child. A talkie exploration of the relationships that women forge together. A depiction of independent women revealing their strengths in the face of adversity. “Oh, yeah, my kind of movie!” It’s the sort of movie I trick myself into seeing at the Fest, in hopes of finding a gem. “I know it SOUNDS lame, but I’m sure it’s not REALLY a chick flick. It’s probably got intrigue and action and crime and possibly explosions. And perhaps lesbians.” Curses! Foiled again! While it turned out to be a fairly interesting story (a group of women fight through the adoption process at black-marketish agency in a poor, unnamed South American country), with an admired writer/director (John Sayles, he of Lone Star, Eight Men Out, and Springsteen videos), I got numbed by the talking, talking, talking. Defending the accusation that the film “didn’t really go anywhere”, Sayles suggested that he could have added another two hours to the end of the film. I think Mr. Sayles needs to visit a strip club to remind himself that “less is more”. It was a fine film with strong performances, but I can’t really recommend it unless you are part of a niche interest group (ie, a big John Sayles fan, an impregnable female, or the proprietor of an illegal baby adoption service).

RICK – Rating: 2.5 out of 5.0
Starring: Bill Pullman, Aaron Stanford, Agnes Bruckner; Directed By: Curtiss Clayton, Written By: Daniel Handler
The description of this film caught my attention because it promised to skewer Corporate America, and as a piss-boy for said America, I am always up for job-related humor. Unfortunately, Rick didn’t really deliver. It was more of a fable than a dark comedy (and a predictable one at that). And the workplace elements only occasionally hit home: the CEO is in his early 20s (no); everyone surfs porn and deviant chat rooms most of the day (yes); the white-male top execs are racists (sometimes); the CEO throws an “off-the-hook” rave to reward his employees (yeah, right); people use the phrase “off-the-hook” (unfortunately); the coworker’s teenage daughter is open-season for sexual exploitation (I plead the Fifth). Rick is director Curtiss Clayton’s feature debut, after years of toiling as Gus Van Sant’s editor, collaborator, and confidant (read: fluffer). While the film wasn’t stellar, it made me laugh, kept me interested, and certainly shows promise. Aaron Stanford shows good range as the young, perverted CEO, shifting gears from his innocent-but-knowing role in last year’s Tadpole. And Agnes Brucker proves that she belongs in the cinema, but she really would have benefited (okay, I would have benefited) from a nude scene. But the magnifying glass was put to the hit-and-miss Bill Pullman. And while the performance was solid, I was hoping for more. As a disciple of Mr. Pullman’s best work, my question to him is: Will we ever see Zero Effect Part 2?

MILWAUKEE, MINNESOTA – Rating: 2.5 out of 5.0
Starring: Troy Garity, Randy Quaid, Alison Folland; Directed By: Allan Mindel; Written By: R.D. Murphy
The title is “Milwaukee, Minnesota”. You don’t have to be from the Midwest to notice the geographical error. Milwaukee, for better or for worse, is actually in Wisconsin. The gaffe was intentional, claims the director, to stir up existential questions about being and purpose, and how these things relate to his dark comedy about a somewhat-autistic young man who’s being grifted by damn near everyone. Yes, that’s the kind of movie it was. A big potential for “Yikes!”. To the director’s credit, he nearly pulled it off. It was a nice, often clever caper. But it quickly faded out of my brain after it was over. And it walked a very thin line between being sweet and being insulting. It crossed the line for one audience member: the mother of an autistic boy disagreed with how the main character was mistreated, and scolded the director for depicting the character in helpless, degrading situations. I was siding with the director, until he suggested that the woman’s son was a “drooling retard”.

A PROBLEM WITH FEAR – Rating: 1.5 out of 5.0
Starring: Paulo Costanzo, Emily Hapshire, Willie Garson; Directed By: Gary Burns; Written By: Gary Burns, Donna Brunsdale
It turns out the biggest fear in Canada is… being Canadian. But that’s the least of the worries when a Canuck city’s deadliest fears start coming true. Afraid of crossing the street? Hit by a taxi! Afraid of elevators? Arm caught in the doors and ripped off! So imagine what it’s like when a hyper-phobic guy gets in the middle of this “fear-storm”. And hilarity somehow is supposed to ensue. It is written and directed by Gary Burns (the Canadian Pedro Almodovar, who is himself the Spanish Roberto Benigni), a man whose biggest fear is making a stiffly-acted, poorly-executed, never-seen, pointless film. Bad news, buddy – you’re caught in the “fear-storm” too! The only professional-quality work brought to the film was courtesy of Paulo Costanzo, whose biggest fear should be making another Canadian movie.

IL CUORE ALTROVE (A HEART ELSEWHERE) – Rating: 1.5 out of 5.0
Starring: Neri Marcore, Vanessa Incontrada, Giancarlo Giannini; Directed By: Pupi Avati; Written By: Pupi Avati
I almost didn’t see this film because it was foreign (hey, SARS is no joking matter). But the prospect of hairy female nudity won out over my fear of death. Even after so little sexuality in the previous films, surely this European romance would feature some naked females – Why else would it be admitted into the festival? None. None at all. Cheated again. And there were plenty of opportunities. It was as if the director went out of his way to NOT show nudity. Like he was trying to tell a sweet, innocent, pure-hearted story. How insulting! Especially from a guy whose name is “Pupi”. If this is the way the Italian community repays us, I think we should have stayed out of World War II. As for the story – I have no idea. But I’m sure it would have been a lot better in German.

Looking for the hits from Toronto that should make it to your town? Or the little movies that could? Or even the obvious studio sell-out films? Here’s what I think will get widely distributed…

11:14 – Hilary Swank, Colin Hanks
21 Grams – Sean Penn, Naomi Watts
Casa De Los Babys – Daryl Hannah, Marcia Gay Harden
Code 46 – Tim Robbins, Samantha Morton
Coffee & Cigarettes – Bill Murray, Roberto Benigni
The Company – Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell
The Cooler – William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin
Dallas 362 – Scott Caan, Shawn Hatosy
Dogville – Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall
Dummy – Adrien Brody, Milla Jovovich
Elephant – Alex Frost, Eric Deulen
Girl With A Pearl Earring – Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth
The Human Stain – Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman
I Love Your Work – Giovanni Ribisi, Franka Potente
In The Cut – Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo
Lost In Translation – Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson
Love Actually – Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson
Matchstick Men – Nicolas Cage, Alison Lohman
Out Of Time – Denzel Washington, Eva Mendes
Pieces Of April – Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson
Prey For Rock & Roll – Gina Gershon, Drea de Matteo
Rick – Bill Pullman, Aaron Stanford
The School Of Rock – Jack Black, Joan Cusack
Shattered Glass – Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard
The Singing Detective – Robert Downey Jr., Mel Gibson
The Station Agent – Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson
Underworld – Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman
Veronica Guerin – Cate Blanchett, Gerard McSorley
Wonderland – Val Kilmer, Kate Bosworth
Young Adam – Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton

Which performances were the talk of the town? Drop these names next time you’re dining at Dolce, and the power-lunchers will be asking YOU to handicap the Oscar odds…

Cate Blanchett – Veronica Guerin
Patricia Clarkson – Dogville, Pieces Of April, The Station Agent
Sofia Coppola (Writer/Director) – Lost In Translation
Benicio Del Toro – 21 Grams
Marcia Gay Harden – Casa De Los Babys
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Director) – 21 Grams
Scarlett Johansson – Girl With A Pearl Earring, Lost In Translation
Guillermo Arriaga Jordan (Writer) – 21 Grams
Nicole Kidman – Dogville, The Human Stain
Sarah Polley – My Life Without Me
Guy Maddin (Director) – The Saddest Music In The World
Errol Morris (Director) – The Fog Of War
Bill Murray – Lost In Translation
Sean Penn – 21 Grams
Meg Ryan – In The Cut
Naomi Watts – 21 Grams

You can say you saw them first at Toronto. And if you didn’t go, you can say Donovan saw them first at Toronto, and then told you about them. And if you tell your friends about them, they can say Donovan saw them first at Toronto, and then told their friend about them, who in turn told them about them…

Bobby Cannavale – The Station Agent
Marisa Coughlan – I Love Your Work
Peter Dinklage – The Station Agent
Troy Garity – Milwaukee, Minnesota
Adam Goldberg (Writer/Director) – I Love Your Work
Li Gong – Zhou Yu’s Train
Gerard McSorley – Veronica Guerin
Wentworth Miller – The Human Stain
Cillian Murphy – Girl With A Pearl Earring
Alison Pill – Pieces of April
Aishwarya Rai – Chokher Bali, A Passion Play
Hugo Rodriguez (Director) – Nicotina
Aaron Stanford – Rick

Who wins these awards, anyway? None of the films I saw got any of the trinkets. Should you even pay attention to these? Decide for yourself; last year’s award winners included eventual indie superstars Whale Rider, Bowling For Columbine, Bend It Like Beckham, and The Magdalene Sisters.

People’s Choice Award:
Winner: Zatoichi – Takeshi Kitano
Runner Up: Go Further – Ron Mann
Runner Up: The Corporation – Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott

Discovery Award:
Winner: Rhinoceros Eyes – Aaron Woodley

World Premiere Award:
Winner: November – Archero Manas

Best Canadian Feature Film:
Winner: Les Invasions Barbares – Denys Arcand

Review This Item




Submitted by Istaros at 2003-11-20 18:57:40 EST (#)
Rating: 2

I just recently saw Whale Rider, it's easily one of my favorite films of all time.

Submitted by Random Joe at 2003-11-20 18:49:57 EST (#)
Rating: 2

Now I know why there were 20 copies of Whale Rider at the rental place.

Submitted by Istaros at 2003-11-17 16:16:24 EST (#)
Rating: 2

"Back when I was a more regular contributor to Ubersite, in its infancy, readership was very low, but so was turnover. Then came the British Invasion of '01 and the Baby Boom of '02."


And yes, Rushmore was an excellent film. Question, though; don't you ever get tired of Toronto(or other film-festival) films? Sure, it's easy to get fed up with "mainstream" releases -but apparently you don't go to many of those. I find I can't take too much of either type -both the blatant shallowness of most "maisntream" releases and the self-important over-analyzation of "festival" releases get to me.

Submitted by OriginalNick at 2003-11-13 22:36:11 EST (#)
Rating: 2

"It was almost as good as a Hilary Duff and Amanda Bynes sandwich (...yeah, like you weren't thinking about it first). "

Holy shit. You just made me cream my pants. +1 for each of them.

Submitted by K.M at 2003-11-13 22:26:22 EST (#)
Rating: 2

Submitted by bargled at 2003-11-08 02:25:28 EST (#)
Rating: 2

This post was great, and just what I needed.

School of Rock--starring Jack Black--is already in theatres, if you didn't know.

Submitted by bob at 2003-11-08 01:40:20 EST (#)
Rating: 2

People are talking Oscar nomination for Murray, the sad, rumpled hobo clown - which is great, but he was more deserving for Rushmore
God i loved Rushmore. that was such a great movie.

Submitted by Phinch at 2003-11-07 18:46:39 EST (#)
Rating: 2

wow. uberlegend has returned with yet again another fantastic post.

Submitted by ryandonovan at 2003-11-07 18:30:48 EST (#)
Rating: 0

It seems the details my death were greatly exaggerated. Alive and well, I’m afraid. And, unlike some folks, “Busy At Work”.

Some reasons for my lack of Uber-ing:
- Not easy to surf the web at work (especially when there are somewhat inappropriate bold-faced article titles like “FUCK YOU DONOVAN”)
- Always feel like I need to put a lot of effort into an article, rather than freeform posting
- Job actually requires me to, um, work
- Moved into a new place and it has been a handful
- Smackin’ bitchez
- The Cubs’ playoff run (and subsequent weeks of grieving)
- Taking classes
- On the lam after multiple death threats regarding the Grinch article
- Other sundry projects
- Don’t want Bart, aka “The Architect” (but more like the Will Ferrell MTV parody version), to become too proud of his little site

Back when I was a more regular contributor to Ubersite, in its infancy, readership was very low, but so was turnover. Then came the British Invasion of ‘01 and the Baby Boom of ‘02. Now Ubersite has a life of its own (and a convention in Atlantic City, if the rumors are true). I think it outgrew me.

JMG114 – I have not studied film formally, but consider myself a fair film buff. I would not quite call myself an amateur filmmaker, but I have in fact made 3 short (20 minute) digital video films. According to my girlfriend, they are “middling at best”.

As for the Oscars, I have shamefully not seen much outside of Toronto this year. I have not even seen Finding Nemo, which many feel should be considered. I didn’t see Mystic River either, but people are raving. Seabiscuit was very solid, but might fade from memory before voting begins. It seems that we’ll once again have to wait for the films that come out in the next 2 months for the real contenders: LOTR: Return Of The King, Master And Commander, The Last Samurai (but fuck Tom Cruise), Mona Lisa Smile, 21 Grams, and Cold Mountain. The Alamo would certainly have contended, but got pushed back to Spring 2004. I am pulling for Bill Murray to get a nomination for Lost In Translation.

It’s great to be back. Please tip your Cilfone.

Submitted by iddqd at 2003-11-07 03:14:10 EST (#)
Rating: 2

holy shit! i thought this guys wasnt real, a mystery inside a puzzle, wrapped in an enigma; not some real guy. never some real guy.

what will i do?, to where will i turn? will there be anarchy in the streets? is the end nigh?

oh. right. its just a post on ubersite, i should calm down a little.

cool post. as, it seems, is per usual.

Submitted by atz at 2003-11-07 01:20:53 EST (#)
Rating: 2

"It was almost as good as a Hilary Duff and Amanda Bynes sandwich"


Submitted by Ingsoc at 2003-11-06 23:28:30 EST (#)
Rating: 2

Welcome back Ryan!

Submitted by JMG114 at 2003-11-06 23:04:03 EST (#)
Rating: 2

Ryan, I've always wanted to know a bit more about you. Did you ever study film? Do you make films? I'd love to talk to a fellow film guy. Who do you like for the Oscars this year? Keep me posted. No pun intended.

Submitted by antluvdog at 2003-11-06 22:49:21 EST (#)
Rating: 2

"Without a very lucky string of events that got our luggage switched back, I would have been watching films in zebra stripes and a whistle, while the Buffalo – New England game would have been called by a guy in SpongeBob Underoos."

Great line.

This will undoubtedly be on Bored at Work.

Glad to see you back.

Submitted by Random Joe at 2003-11-06 22:40:13 EST (#)
Rating: 2

Submitted by sublime at 2003-11-06 22:02:40 EST (#)
Rating: 0

les invasions barbares...

i think thats the sequel to "le declin de l'empire americain" which was acclaimed here.

Submitted by Random Joe at 2003-11-06 22:00:08 EST (#)
Rating: 0

Holy shit, I thought this dude died. wow.

Marge: Homer, you're his father. You've got to reason with him.

Homer: Oh, that never works. He's a goner!

Bart the Daredevil