1999 Toronto International Film Festival Daily Update #1: "And They're Off..."

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 9, 1999

Every September in the Northern Hemisphere, there are certain rituals to be observed that signal the end of summer. For movie-lovers, none is more important than the arrival of the Toronto International Film Festival, held annually the week after Labor Day. Two dozen years ago, the newborn festival was struggling for acceptance and recognition. In 1999, it is the second most important festival in the world, having vaulted over such venerable challengers as Venice and New York. And, while Cannes is still a more prestigious event than Toronto, the French festival can't beat the Ontario one when it comes to accessibility. "Common" film goers who venture to the Riviera during May are lucky if they can score tickets to a handful of movies; those who plan in advance can see anything they want in Toronto.

This year's schedule features 319 films, 171 of which are North American or World premieres. That represents an increase over the 1998 numbers. Even a dedicated festival attendee, who spends all of his or her waking hours in theaters for the 9+ days of the event, will be unable to see more than 20% of the total schedule, so a certain amount of picking and choosing is necessary. And, while it's possible to spend nearly every minute of every day between September 9 and September 18 shuttered away from the sun, those who prefer to mix in a little fresh air are well rewarded. Few places are more pleasant than Toronto during September.

As was true last year, the festival is divided into 13 categories. The centerpiece are the Galas. Held in the vast Roy Thompson Pavillion, they have all the glamour of a Hollywood Premiere, with the stars and director in attendance to introduce their movie and participate in a Q&A session afterwards. Including Opening and Closing Night shows, there are 18 Galas. In a typical year, 14-16 of those will have been snapped up by a major distributor before being unspooled in Toronto. This year's program seems especially rich and diverse.

Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey has been chosen to open the festival. This is the second time in three years that an Egoyan film has been accorded this honor (The Sweet Hereafter opened the 1997 edition). Felicia's Journey is dark and disturbing, but powerful, and should get the festival off to a positive start. The Closing Night film is Martha Fiennes' Onegin, starring her brother, Ralph, and Liv Tyler in a sumptuous adaptation of Aleksandr Pushkin's famous poem, "Yevgeny Onegin." Other intriguing Galas include Lawrence Kasdan's latest, Mumford; Sam Mendes' startling and unforgettable American Beauty; Lasse Hallstrom's The Cider House Rules; Scott Hicks' Snow Falling on Cedars (based on the best-selling novel by David Guterson); Istvan Szabo's epic length Sunshine; Woody Allen's 1999 picture, Sweet and Lowdown; Peter Kassovitz's Jacob the Liar (starring Robin Williams); Wes Craven's non-horror debut, Music of the Heart (with Meryl Streep); and Wayne Wang's Anywhere But Here (featuring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman).

The Masters program features films by 13 of the world's most acclaimed filmmakers. This year's roster features The Wind Will Carry Us, the latest from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. The eclectic Peter Greenaway is represented by 8 1/2 Women. Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) presents his newest, The Legend of 1900. Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige offers his latest epic, The Emporer and the Assassin, about China during the third century B.C. Alexandr Sokurov's Moloch examines 24 hours in the life of Adolph Hitler. And Carlos Suara re-teams with brilliant cinematographer Vittorio Storaro for Goya in Bordeaux.

Like the Galas, the Special Presentations are high-profile events. Typically, more than 50% of the movies appearing under this umbrella have some kind of significant theatrical distribution during the 12 months after their Toronto showing. French filmmaker Benoit Jacquot, who was in the 1997 spotlight, is back this year with his latest, Pas de Scandale (featuring Isabelle Huppert). Michael Winterbottom takes to the streets of South London with Wonderland. Corky Giedroyc directs Helena Bonham Carter and Gina McKee in the tantalizingly titled Women Talking Dirty. Norman Jewison's much-anticipated The Hurricane is given a special "work in progress" screening. Patricia Rozema jumps on the '90s Jane Austen bandwagon with an adapatation of Mansfield Park. Agnieszka Holland pairs Anne Heche and Ed Harris in Third Miracle, a film about faith and miracles. Paul Schrader, fresh from the gritty material of Affliction, moves into a lighter arena with Forever Mine. James Toback's Black and White will be screened in its uncut, NC-17 version. Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, described as one of the finest-ever animated films, is being presented in its new, English-language edition. Kevin Smith's controversial Dogma will be a big draw, as will Frederic Fonteyne's A Pornographic Affair, the most talked about picture of the Venice Film Festival. Steven Soderbergh is back with the critically acclaimed thriller, The Limey, starring a brilliant Terrence Stamp. Documentarian Errol Morris presents an engrossing look at "execution technologist" Fred Leuchter in Mr. Death. Bill Forsyth's Gregory's Two Girls is a sequel to his 1980 charmer, Gregory's Girl. Alan Rudolph and his lead actor, Bruce Willis, tackle Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. And Caroline Link (Before Sunrise) presents the endearing Annalluise and Anton, a film described in the catalog as being "engrossing and delightful for children as well as adults."

Contemporary World Cinema, a category in which the output of about 50 countries are screened, represents the festival's greatest bastion of diversity. While the films showing here are generally more obscure than the Galas and Special Presentations, there are some intriguing possibilities. French filmmaker Claire Denis goes to Africa (where she was raised) for Le Beau Travail. Deterrence, by US film critic-turned-filmmaker Rod Lurie, stars Kevin Pollack as the President in 2008 on the eve of a world crisis. Bad boy director Harvey Korine (Gummo) is back with his second feature, julien donkey-boy. Charles Burnett directs Lynn Redgrave and James Earl Jones in The Annihilation of Fish. Sundance audience favorite, Mark Illsley's Happy Texas, makes its Canadian debut. Rosetta is Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's follow-up to La Promesse. 1999 Madeleine is the first of 10 proposed films from director Laurent Bouhnik, who intends to make one movie in this series during each of the next 10 years. Anne Fontaine's Augustin, King of Kung-Fu is a sequel to her 1995 comedy, Augustin. Mike Figgis is back with Miss Julie, starring Saffron Burrows in the title role of a film based on August Strindberg's play about a doomed affair. The War Zone, a powerful film about incest, is Tim Roth's debut behind the camera. Roland Suso Richter's After the Truth asks the question "What if Josef Mengele is still alive?" Mifune, from director Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, is the third movie to be made under Dogme 95 standards. Romance, from Catherine Breillat, is said to be one of the festival's most controversial films (due primarily to its frank and explicit depiction of sexuality). Erick Zonka, whose Dreamlife of Angels was a 1998 success on the film festival circuit, returns with Small Time Thief (about - what else? - a small time thief). And The Big Brass Ring, from George Hickenlooper, looks behind the scenes of politics with a script based on an unproduced screenplay by Orson Welles.

Perspective Canada, which draws as much interest as the Galas due to its local flavor, this year presents 19 Canadian features (14 making their world debuts) and 37 shorts. The Perspective Canada Opening Night feature is Jeremy Podeswa's The Five Senses, starring Mary-Louise Parker, Pascal Bussieres, and Molly Parker. The film follows five characters, each of whom is lacking in one of the five senses, as their lives separate and intersect. Another intriguing movie is Jerry Ciccoritti's The Life Before This (with Catherine O'Hara and Sarah Polley), a chronicle of the 12 hours preceding a random shooting incident. Among the shorts, perhaps the one to gain the most notice will be Sarah Polley's directorial debut, a 10-minute effort called "Don't Think Twice."

Discovery, which presents odd, offbeat, or experimental features, offers a typically offbeat group of features. There are 31 entries from across the globe. A couple interesting titles: Jamie Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader (starring Natasha Lyonne and featuring RuPaul out of drag) and Nick Karsapetses' The Joys of Smoking. The only program with more outrageous material than Discovery is Midnight Madness. This year, a few of those entries are Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby (a sequel of sorts to director Matthew Bright's 1996 film, Freeway), Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes, and the monster movie Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (accompanied by the short, "George Lucas in Love").

Another significant program at the festival is Planet Africa, a series designed to "reinforce the global nature of African and diaspora experience" with "some of the most entertaining and challenging work available from the African continent, The Caribbean, Europe, and the U.S." The highest-profile feature here, among five debuts and four world premieres, is Dwayne Johnson-Cochran's Love and Action in Chicago, starring Courtney B. Vance and Regina King. Real to Reel presents documentaries. This category offers 19 features, including Eyal Sivan's chilling The Specialist (about Adolf Eichmann), American Movie (the story of trying to get a movie made), Michael Apted's Me & Issac Newton, and Jason Priestley's debut, Barenaked in America (about the musical group Barenaked Ladies). Other festival categories include New Spanish Cinema, a Tribute to David Overby (the late Toronto Film Festival programmer), and a spotlight on director Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

Dialogues: Talking with Pictures, which exhibits a classic film selected and introduced by a festival guest, has a tantalizing lineup (as usual). This year's roster is as follows: Alan Clarke's Elephant, introduced by Tim Roth; Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, introduced by Lawrence Kasdan; Rainer Werner/Michael Fengler's Why Does Herr R. Run Amok, introduced by Harvey Korine; Ingmar Bergman's Persona, introduced by Patricia Rozema; Patrick Lung Kong's Hiroshima 28, introduced by Sylvia Chang; Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffman, introduced by George Romero; John Cassavetes' Shadows, introduced by Carlos Diegues; and Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth, introduced by Gregg Araki.

With so many choices, making selections becomes a difficult (but rewarding) task with guarantees of numerous worthwhile misses and several unearthed gems. And, for those who can't make the festival or miss something desirable while there, take heart - a good portion of the high-profile films will receive theatrical distribution. In fact, several of the Galas are due to be released before the month is out (with one, American Beauty, opening before the festival ends).

Roll 'em...

© 1999 James Berardinelli

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