With the 35th annual Toronto International Film Festival in full swing two weeks ago, I trekked north for three feverish days and nights of film, film, and nothing but film. This marks the second year I have attended the festival and as much as I love the experience of watching films, especially in the heightened atmosphere of a celebrated festival that serves as the launch pad for the fall season (the awards and the prestige fill the air like fallen leaves or heavy accumulating snow), I find that I am reminded more of an exam period filled with intense all-nighters and the sense that after all the cramming I’m still not ready.

I saw 15 festival screenings (and Resident Evil: Afterlife in order to file a continuing capsule review for our loyal readers) and attempted to strike a balance between studio fare (Never Let Me GoLet Me In) and independent projects (NedsBeautiful Boy) with nods to foreign fare (Mumbai DiariesBiutiful) and documentaries (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) that will likely earn screen time in our region during the next few months. Too often, I second and third guessed myself while waiting in lines – should I have picked the Ryan Reynolds thriller Buried or Miral, the new film from Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) over Beautiful Boy?  That is something I’m not prone to doing, but how can you not when faced with far too many options and too little time to appreciate both the fine flowers and the thorns underneath the blooms?

This year’s Fall Film Preview isn’t a comprehensive look at the slate of upcoming releases. Instead, I’m offering a film diary of my choices from this year’s festival. These encapsulated notes are not reviews, which will come as the films reach screens in our area. Take these secret entries as glimpses or fragments of impressions that will hopefully coalesce into movie memories of 2010 down the road.

127 HOURS 

(Director: Danny Boyle)

As is the case with any event with simultaneous segments and thousands of participants spread out over several locations, things can go horribly awry. A series of devilish details unhinged the press screening for Boyle’s harrowing tale of climber Aron Ralston (James Franco) who, back in 2003, found himself, through his own recklessness, with his hand trapped under a boulder in a Utah canyon for five days (the titular hours) until he seized upon the only option available for survival – self-amputation. After spending a mere two hours in line, I was among the first group of critics admitted to one of two smaller screenings of the film, and as a bonus, we were greeted by a terribly gracious Boyle who explained the situation and apologized for the inconvenience. He even attempted to deflate the anticipated jokes from an audience of journalists likely to bemoan the hours spent waiting to see the film.


(Director: Shawn Ku)

Feature films and television movies have latched onto the truly horrific stories of emotionally deranged killers who slaughter innocents en masse and then take their own lives. We see them, days or hours before their attacks, and sometimes, we meet survivors struggling to mend and move on, but rare are the investigations that focus on the families of the perpetrators left behind. Beautiful Boy wanders among the ruins of a couple (Maria Bello and Michael Sheen) unable to reconnect the pieces of their individual lives and marriage as they come to grips with what their son has done, and how they might be responsible, in some way for his actions.


(Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)

Speaking of rough and raw marks, Inarritu (Babel21 Grams), working for the first time from his own screenplay (and one that forgoes the triptych structure of his previous efforts with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga), explores yet another Third World ghetto and the lost souls seeking redemption in these hells on Earth.  In Javier Bardem, his obvious muse for this project, Inarritu has the perfect guide. A beautiful face with huge sad eyes and a world full of weariness etched in every crack and crevice. That’s the visage of a golden god.


(Director: Darren Aronofsky)

The Wrestler attacked the festival circuit two years ago, putting a stranglehold on audiences and confirming the rising contender status of Aronofsky. With Black Swan, he has apparently elevated his game even further, digging into the twisted heart and psyche of a dancer (Natalie Portman) fighting for a career defining dual role in an ambitious production of Swan Lake.  Having garnered rave reviews coming out of the Venice Film Festival, the opening weekend priority press screening in Toronto was an early hot ticket; one which found yours truly outside the queue with my nose pressed against the proverbial blackened glass.


(Director: George H)

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) is an outsized figure and an entertainer at heart. He quotes films, does impersonations, runs through motivational rants alone, and loves playing the role of The Jew, but one has to wonder what’s underneath his act. Is there a man or a child inside with a soul that he might be trying to save? Spacey nails these kinds of roles, so much so that sometimes I wonder the same thing about him.


(Director: Alex Gibney)

Gibney (Taxi to the Dark SideCasino Jack and the United States of Money) can be a powerful and creative investigator into the truth behind the events. But with Client 9, he proves he can also just sit back and let the story and/or the subject speak for themselves. The most telling aspect of this examination into the so-called Sheriff of Wall Street is that Spitzer, for all the spin and wordplay he uses to mask his possible lack of guilt or remorse for his actions, at least stands up on the record and admits that he brought himself down through his actions.


(Director: Tony Goldwyn)

Based on a true story. That tag has launched a thousand tales that wouldn’t recognize the truth in the source material in its own reflection because most of these mirrors are little more than funhouse frames that twist and warp the facts into purely conventional narrative shapes. And Hilary Swank confirms my ongoing suspicions about her. She is an alien, a highly evolved creature that has learned to mimic almost perfectly a particular type of human character – the tragically downtrodden androgynous female.


(Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)

Boden and Fleck wander into the Cuckoo’s Nest with a sensitive teen tormented by life in this hyper-depressed modern age. Such isolated protagonists (see Half NelsonSugar) seem to inspire Boden and Fleck, but a sneakily dramatic turn from the usually raging comic volcano that is Zack Galifianakis threatens to unbalance things. The funny thing about that is it is a welcome change of pace from Galifianakis, to see that he might have some of Robin Williams’ gravitas to offset that overpowering id.


(Director: Matt Reeves)

I should acknowledge that I was in no way a fan of Reeves’ Cloverfield, neither its monster attacks Manhattan premise nor its found footage aesthetic, which inexpertly aped The Blair Witch Project and signaled a continuation of this trend – albeit to far greater success in Paranormal Activity. So, it was with great trepidation that I entered into Let Me In, which is a Hollywood remake of the stark Swedish vampire chiller Let the Right One In (from Tomas Alfredson, whose brother Daniel Alfredson directed The Girl Who Played with Fire, sequel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo -a personal highlight of 2010). The original was certainly the right one, a vampire story that remixed coming of age elements with dark themes of alienation, broken homes, gender identity, and the like that refused to speak down to its target audience, which should have sparked the interest of a host of open-minded film fans. The obvious question here though is will mainstream ticket buyers get into the Reeves edition. Surprisingly, the door’s open and rather inviting.


(Director: Nigel Cole)

Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) goes Norma Rae. That’s likely how Made in Dagenham will be marketed to fall audiences. This unfamiliar story (in the U.S.) about a group of British women working for Ford in the U.K. who strike in an effort to secure equal pay during the 1960s has all of the hallmarks of labor movement films, but Hawkins isn’t Sally Field. When she’s taking it to the powers that be, Hawkins remains small and vulnerable and real – all necessary traits since Cole (Calendar Girls) has a lighter touch.


(Director: Milcho Manchevski)

Another international detour, this time into Macedonia (by way of France and Bulgaria), and Mothers bravely strives to weave several stories and storytelling formats into a cohesive whole. The focus on mothers is never on the nose, which means that audiences have to prepare themselves for a journey into the unknown that marries drama and documentary into a moving piece of narrative non-fiction.


(Director: Kiran Rao)

In the overall scheme of things, I’m speaking of festivals here, it is sometimes necessary to take a side trip to discover a hidden gem, and Mumbai Diaries was one such find. This story of four people separated by class, education, experience and language drawn together by the powerful stew of this fascinating world deserves to be seen as documented and not through a Hollywood remake (although I would not be surprised if some studio executive tried to turn it into the next Eat Pray Love).


(Director: Peter Mullan)

Known first as an actor, Mullan has smoothly transitioned into the director’s chair (The Magdalene Sisters) with thoughtful dramatic poise. This selection was a third choice, a bit of an afterthought, once I realized I wasn’t going to be able to see Black Swan and then had also missed start of The King’s Speech (raves have rung out for Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush). But, I have to stress that Neds drew me in thanks to Mullan’s strong reputation despite the fact that I had heard precious little about the film going in. Once again, he proves to have as powerful a vision behind the camera as he projects in front of it (and he has a small pivotal role here as well).  Will it play here though?


(Director: Mark Romanek)

Author Alex Garland (The BeachThe Coma) knows how to create tension and an almost existential sense of dread from nothing more than the thoughts inside one’s head. This collaboration with director Romanek (One Hour Photo), based on an acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) should be a dramatic dream, especially since it features Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield. Yet, somehow, this tale fails to grab hold. Artful and beautiful, but airless.


(Director: John Curran)

Robert De Niro and Edward Norton have one previous team-up under their belt (The Score), and crime unites them once again in Curran’s meditative exploration of two men seemingly on opposite sides of the right and wrong divide. This was my first film of the festival, having gotten up early (3 a.m.) to drive eight hours in time to dash into a 12:30 afternoon show. I got Norton in cornrows with a wiggy rasp and a hip hop-inspired dialect and DeNiro locked into a pre-retirement decline with only radio evangelism to see him through. Not exactly American History X, but it leaves a rough mark on its spot.


(Director: Woody Allen)

It seems now that if you wander the streets of any major city outside the United States, you run the risk of bumping into the displaced New York City neuroses of Allen or his ever-changing cast of doppelgangers. I have to say I believe his head games travel well and there’s an almost renewed sense of life in him as a filmmaker. He’s reaching out to a thoroughly eclectic group of collaborators (Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas, and Freida Pinto to name a few here) and while it doesn’t quite match his stellar Match Point, his new Tall Dark Stranger is certainly alluring. (tt stern-enzi)