a Healthy Disdain


THE 2010 TIFFSTRAVAGANZA: MY TIFF TOP 5

Although I didn’t find time for any mid-festival updates, now that I’m done doin’ TIFF I’ve had a chance to articulate some semi-intelligent thoughts on my faves of the fest.

I’m Still Here, the big buzz Joaquin Phoenix “documentary” had been in the running, but Casey Affleck’s recent revelations have dampened my enthusiasm considerably.  To put it briefly:  In contrast to the public pratfalls of Borat or Bruno, much of I’m Still Here features Phoenix in private, interacting with people who we now know were in on the joke.  In hindsight, Phoenix’s spiral into delusion and debauchery is admittedly very credible, but absent a compelling narrative, watching people react to someone they know is pretending simply isn’t very affecting.

With that note out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff.  My legitimate favourites of TIFF 2010 were:

5. THE GAME OF DEATH (France, Christophe Nick, Thomas Bornot)

Stanley Milgram’s 1961 obedience study is perhaps the most famous psychology experiment of all time.  A professor at Yale, Milgram sought to determine the psychological underpinnings of the obedience demonstrated by Nazi collaborators during the Second World War.  His findings demonstrated that ordinary individuals will generally obey the instructions of an authority figure, even where their actions might result in the injury or death of an innocent human being.

French documentary The Game of Death transposes Milgram’s experimental design onto the framework of a reality TV show, with gravely disturbing results.  In the updated scenario, at the behest of a television hostess and before a live studio audience, fully 80% of participants demonstrate a willingness to endanger an innocent life.  Most distressing, through a series of post-experiment interviews, the film illustrates that the individuals involved are otherwise normal, compassionate people.

It’s difficult to label a film “important” without sounding pompous, but the Game of Death is a film to which that label certainly applies.  It’s a grimly fascinating spectacle of genuinely universal relevance, given that it deals with a facet of human socialization that is both deeply ingrained and deceptively powerful.  Just as Milgram’s findings should be general knowledge, this is a film that everybody should see.

4. THE TRIP (UK, Michael Winterbottom)

Despite being one of the most talented comic actors of his generation, mainstream popularity continues to elude Steve Coogan, particularly outside the UK.  It’s difficult to imagine that his muted stardom isn’t a source of frustration for Coogan himself, but in The Trip, he demonstrates an admirable willingness to poke fun at his limited celebrity, with hilarious results.  Director Michael Winterbottom re-teams Coogan with friend and fellow comedian Rob Brydon for what GQ UK has aptly dubbed “a very British bromance”.

Adopting fictionalized personas similar to their roles in Winterbottom’s Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005), The Trip sees the pair embark on a week-long tour of England’s gloriously picturesque Lake District, ostensibly to review several gourmet restaurants for a London newspaper.  If the premise sounds less than enthralling, rest assured, the end result is a masterclass of wit and improvisation from a duo that share an unrivalled comedic chemistry.

Perhaps the only caveat is that the film benefits enormously from familiarity with Coogan’s earlier work – his legendary BBC series I’m Alan Partridge above all.  It’s against the larger context of Coogan’s underappreciated output that The Trip’s biting self-mockery truly shines.

3. BLACK SWAN (USA, Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was a TIFF sensation in 2008, and duly went on to become one of that year’s most acclaimed films.  When it was announced that this year’s festival would host the North-American premiere of his follow-up, Black Swan instantly became the prize ticket of TIFF 2010.  Thankfully, Aronofsky’s latest largely delivers.

Mickey Rourke’s transcendent turn is a tough act to follow, but Natalie Portman copes wonderfully – even if the same cannot be said for her character, Nina.  A dancer with a prestigious New York ballet company, Nina’s perfectionism mutates into pathological obsession as she strives to embody a strenuous dual role.   Barbara Hershey emerges as the standout supporting performer, playing Nina’s aggressively overbearing mother, while Vincent Cassel and Mila Kunis are superbly cast as the company’s manipulative director, and Nina’s seductive rival, respectively.

Evoking the paranoia of early Polanski, and elements of body horror as pioneered by Cronenberg, Aronofsky demonstrates an impressive stylistic versatility.  Despite adhering to some well-worn genre tropes, the juxtaposition of those tropes against ballet’s high artistry sees the film achieve a darkly operatic splendour.  While it lacks The Wrestler’s haunting resonance, Black Swan is an excellent, memorably enthralling thriller, and another notable success for Aronofsky and Portman, in particular.

(Trailer)

2. BIUTIFUL (Spain/Mexico, Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Biutiful, the latest film from Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), is a quintessential festival offering.  Variously described, after its debut at Cannes, as “purposefully doleful”, “unrelentingly grim”, and “pervasively bleak”, it’s the sort of film readily summed up by Nas’ famous refrain:  “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”  For Uxbal (the astonishing Javier Bardem), a petty hustler with two young children, a bipolar ex-wife, and terminal cancer, things are essentially that simple.

There’s no denying that Biutiful is a sombre, and indeed harrowing affair, but to those who view film as more than mere escapist entertainment, it is also easy to recommend.  While Uxbal’s personal travails are compelling, and even deeply moving – the performance landed Bardem the Cannes Best Actor Prize – Iñárritu avoids exploiting the character’s imminent demise as a source of cheap sentimentality.  Rather, from the perspective of the audience, Uxbal’s illness actually lends the character an aura of invulnerability.  Because his death is certain, we grow more attuned to the fates of those that he will leave behind.  In Uxbal’s case, that includes not only his family, but also a cross-section of Barcelona’s migrant underclass.

The manner in which Biutiful surveys the exploitation of the disenfranchised recalls Haneke’s Code Unknown, and elevates the film beyond personal melodrama, to a work of trenchant social insight.  Amid the glitz and glamour of red carpet premiers, it’s perhaps easy to dismiss as a downer, but in such a setting it’s also surely a meaningful counterpoint.

(Trailer)

1. OUR DAY WILL COME (France, Romain Gavras)

Introduced by programmer Collin Geddes as “one of the ‘what the fuck?’ films of the festival”, Our Day Will Come seems an unlikely candidate to top many best-of-fest lists.  Indeed, some will simply interpret the debut feature from Romain Gavras – of M.I.A.’s infamous, banned-from-YouTube, “Born Free” – as a derisive “fuck you”.  It’s an understandable take-away, given the director’s stated aim, “confusion”, and the nihilistic misadventures depicted on screen. Clearly, however, it’s not an interpretation I share.

Though it lacks the video’s genocidal overtones, Our Day Will Come echoes “Born Free” in employing redheads as an allegorical representation of marginalization and other-ness.   Olivier Barthélémy plays Remy, an implosively awkward adolescent, whose red hair becomes a source of twisted kinship with Patrick (Vincent Cassell), a bitterly disaffected therapist.  Cassell’s performance – my favorite of the festival – imbues Patrick with a listless, cynical, and manipulative charm.  Initially, Patrick’s overtures of mentorship are a source of selfish amusement, but when the long-repressed Remy blossoms dementedly, he proves impossible to control.  Fixated on the delusion that the pair will find acceptance in Ireland, an apparent ginger wonderland, Remy drags Patrick on an increasingly anarchic, oddly beautiful, crusade toward France’s northern coast.

There are significant elements of Our Day Will Come that defy ready explication, but the film crackles throughout with an undercurrent of iconoclastic intelligence.  Where “Born Free” was an overtly political gut-punch, Gavras here deliberately declines to provide a tidy message.  Despite its bracing depictions of violence, the film clearly strives to be thought-provoking, as opposed to merely provocational.  Whether or not you agree that Gavras succeeds in this endeavour, there can be no doubt that he has the makings of a genuine cinematic force.

(Trailer)

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