Monday, August 04, 2014

Angels in Anguish: Early Favourites for TIFF14

Ane Dahl Torp in Bent Hamer's 1001 Grams
I have a client who told me that during July his wife had forbidden the word "August" in their home. August brings with it the inevitable end of the halcyon days of summer and the return to school. Though I love preparing to teach, the real upside of August for me is that it means TIFF is around the corner!

Late in the month of the last few Augusts, I have produced a kind of short list of the eighty most interesting films coming to TIFF. I am already at work on that post for TIFF14, which will be culled over many times before I publish it and only after all titles are known. Some Hollywood product and even some high profile international films that have my interest (such as Alan Rickman's A Little Chaos starring Kate Winslet as the designer of gardens at Versaille), I will leave til that blog post to preview. They will get enough attention. I have already written this week about the feast of women filmmakers announced (Ann Hui, Mia Hansen-Løve, Lone Scherfig, Susanne Bier, Liv Ullman and Isabel Coixet) and the exciting TIFF Docs programmed for this year. They had my first excitement. But here just ahead of this week's new announcements are a baker's dozen of other pulse-racing entries. 

I tend not to be a big movie trailer fan. Besides being frantically paced, I find that trailers tend to distort movies and force narratives on them that they then often give away! But non-North American trailers are often wonderful. The trailer for 1001 Grams feels like it captures its essential mood and makes me really want to see it. I first came to enjoy the work of Bent Hamer with his Kitchen Stories, in which a Swedish researcher living in a wee caravan travels to Norway to observe a Norwegian man's kitchen habits. The gentle irony that pervaded that film has lingered in his later films and is visible in the trailer for 1001 Grams. Billed as an "offbeat comedy", Ane Dahl Torp stars as a Norwegian lab technician sent to a Paris conference with the Norwegian 'kilo' where she learns to reconsider what weight means. 

Gong Li in Zhang Yimou's Coming Home
Coming Home
Once again, here is a trailer that has unexpectedly drawn me in, despite that it is only ninety seconds. (And I would have likely wanted to see Zhang Yimou's new film anyway.) Featuring the incredible Gong Li, the Meryl Streep of Asian cinema, it tells the story of a post-cultural revolutionary woman suffering from amnesia, whose search for lost memory coincides with the return of her imprisoned husband. The film debuted to strong reviews at Cannes and is already set for release with Sony Pictures Classic in the autumn so these screenings will be the North American launch. It is apparently traditional in form and storytelling, not surprising from this master, and who cares. I can't wait to see the film that Variety has called another Doctor Zhivago

Sidse Babett Knudsen in
Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy
The Duke of Burgundy
Oh my. First of all, Sidse Babett Knudsen is starring in an English language film made for theatrical release. This is enough right here to make The Duke of Burgundy a heavy hitter for me. The star of Susanne Bier's After the Wedding and the lovely comedy Den Eneste Ene, she is most widely known perhaps for having played Birgitte Nyborg, the statsminister in three seasons of Danish television's Borgen. Joined by Chiara d'Anna here, she plays an amateur lepidopterist "whose wayward desires test her lover's tolerance" (TIFF site) -- whatever that means! I confess that this is the only entry in the Vanguard programme that holds interest for me but it's a keeper. I never saw Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio but remember wishing I had. The Duke of Burgundy is billed as a dark melodrama and I'm looking forward to seeing an edgy performance from Knudsen, but then I would follow her into any world anywhere.

Ruben Östlund's Force Majeure
Force Majeure
Ruben Östlund's film was a sleeper hit at Cannes and here too the trailer would only confirm that promise. Without knowing much about it except what can be gleaned from reviews, my sense is that this story of a man who abandons his family during an apparent avalanche while on holiday in the Alps, will ask us to reconsider how the morals we hold dear hold up against brute instinct. Are we really who we think we are? A multi-Scandinavian country collaboration. Always good news.

Ethan Hawke and January Jones in
Andrew Nicoll's Good Kill
Good Kill
Recently, while in my car for three hours, I heard a CBC interview with an American soldier whose job had been to direct drones on Afghanistan targets. He had left the post because he found this form of combat severely challenging morally. I was very moved by his discussion of how it felt to fire off weapons and then go down to the local diner for lunch. So I am very glad that Andrew Nicoll has made Good Kill, about an Air Force officer who becomes increasingly disquieted by the job he does, firing from an office chair in the American west, drones intended for terrorists whose nature and identity become difficult to discern. Starring Ethan Hawke and January Jones and from the director of Gattaca.

Simon Pegg in Peter Chelsom's
Hector and the Search for Happiness
Hector and the Search for Happiness
Full disclosure: a very old, very dear friend, Tinker Lindsay, is the co-writer of this feature, continuing a long-time collaboration with director Peter Chelsom that seems set to bring a bona fide hit. When I posted the trailer for this film on my facebook page, there was an immediate resonance among the under-30 set and if that bears out, there's a lesson there for film producers and distributors: the search for happiness breaks all age barriers and philosophical boundaries. Simon Pegg plays a disaffected London psychiatrist who covers many continents exploring what makes people happy in the hopes of being able to reorient his own life. The always-wonderful Rosamund Pike plays the woman waiting for him at home. I am so excited about this film which without a doubt will have a wonderful screenplay! With Christopher Plummer.

Sori Moon and Ryo Kase in South Korean director
Hong Sang-soo's Hill of Freedom
Hill of Freedom
There seems to be a plethora of promising South Korean programming this year and that's even before the titles for the City to City programme (which this year features Seoul) have been made known. There's something about this one which tugs at me. From the South Korean director Hong Sang-soo who brought us the incredibly beautiful Nobody's Daughter Haewon, Hill of Freedom tells the story (in English and Korean) of a Japanese teacher who comes to Seoul to find and reunite with a woman he once proposed to and still loves. Themes of emotional longing and separation are close to this master's heart.

Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch
in Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game
The Imitation Game
Sometime last winter, I fell into a Netflix-induced Bletchley Circle obsession. From there I began getting out of the library all of the books that chronicle the great codebreakers of Bletchley Park, the famous World War II British enclave of cypher wizards. The name of Alan Türing was pervasive as the man most largely responsible for having broken the German Enigma code, which is attributed with changing the course of the war in favour of the Allies. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the Cambridge genius who is never described in historical accounts in the same way twice. From Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum (Buddy) and also featuring Keira Knightley.

Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan
Leviathan
I have certainly heard of the films of Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose 2003 The Return brought him comparisons with Tarkovsky, but to date I've never seen his movies. Leviathan will likely be where it begins. Like Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, this story is loosely inspired by the biblical book of Job. It follows a man who is bent on preventing a land official from eliminating his home. Zvyagintsev 
won the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes for this "painterly, primordial tale" and a Variety review describes it as his most accessible work yet. 

Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner
Mr. Turner
There is already a lot of strong buzz for this latest from Mike Leigh about the famous 18th-19th century painter J.M.W. Turner and Timothy Spall won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his performance as the landscape master. I am very intrigued because it occurs to me (and it likely has to other critics) that Mike Leigh is both a companionable figure and also the antithesis of Turner: both men overturn the traditions of their form, but whereas Turner favoured a lush romanticism, Leigh turns an acute eye to realism. I can't wait to see how they go together. In addition to its many reasons for being high on any screening list, Mr. Turner has what will likely be one of the most memorable written lines at this year's TIFF: "I like to paint angels in anguish."

Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery
National Gallery
A perfect screening companion to Mr. Turner! In my profile of the TIFF Docs line-up earlier this week, I didn't include Frederick Wiseman's portrait of life backstage at the famous London gallery, mostly because it didn't fall into the theme of films which seek to find hope amid catastrophic world events or trends. But make no mistake, I am very interested to see this newest film from the great master. Museums are enjoying a kind of renaissance of film interest in recent years. I loved Jem Cohen's Museum Hours whose story moves quietly against the backdrop of the Vienna Kunsthistorisches museum, and was even more moved by Aleksander Sokurov's Russian Ark, which toured three centuries of the history of the Hermitage Museum in one shot. Movies observing paintings and other motionless forms of art may seem counter-intuitive to some, but I love to be immersed into these worlds. 

Willem Defoe in Abel Ferrera's Pasolini
Pasolini
Though this film is irresistible, it is hard not to be just a little nervous about Willem Defoe playing Pier Paolo Pasolini directed by Abel Ferrera. That is a very very very intense combination of artistic personalities. I am a fan of all three but I will be bringing a deep hope for some subtlety and restraint to this screening. The story follows the last 24 hours of the great filmmaker's life in a style being described as part reality and part imagination. Actually, my greatest hope is that the film sparks a resurgence of interest in Pasolini - for his films, as much as how he died. 

Julianne Moore in Richard Glatzer and
Wash Westmoreland's Still Alice
Still Alice
Besides Maps to the Stars (which I will preview later in the month), Julianne Moore is also appearing in Still Alice, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's chronicle of a linguistics professor who starts losing her capacity to remember words, and thus embarks on the journey that is Alzheimer's. It is hard to imagine a film that deals with this subject in a more moving way than Sarah Polley's Away from Her but I'm hopeful here, especially because the story focuses on the academic engagement with language. Though not a linguist, language study is close to my heart.

In a previous blog post I already talked about Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild and Philippe Falardeau's The Good Lie, both also high seeds. 

A final note: lists are so incredibly subjective. Many films that are likely to please and be fine films in their own right just don't interest me. Therefore let me come on record right now with the movies I know I won't see. Count among these The Judge, The Equalizer, Whiplash, The Drop, Tusk and all of Midnight Madness. There are many reasons why you should go see these movies, but someone else will tell you about that!