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The Inside Scoop on the Toronto International Film Festival

Girl with a Pearl Earring's Scarlett Johansson
by Paul Zimmerman

DATELINE TORONTO: It’s not uncommon for a single actress to emerge from a film festival as the wonder of the year. Usually it’s one who is in more than one picture and it’s been called The Parker Posey Award since back in her day (the mid ‘90s) she seemed to star in every independent film.

At the 2003 28th Toronto International Film Festival the big belle of the ball battle boiled down to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who local Now Magazine has crowned "American Indie Cinema’s New Queen" and Scarlett Johansson who The Toronto Star has christened "The It Girl". Word on the street, bars and hotels gives the award to Johansson who was in town promoting both Sofia Coppola’s trancelike comedy drama Lost in Translation and the arty period drama The Girl With the Pearl Earring. Coupled with her work in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World and the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There and this 18-years-old is already showing diversity other actresses would spend an entire career trying to achieve.

So pity poor Maggie. In spite of notable work in the past in films like Secretary and Donnie Darko, this year she’s stuck in the well meaning and oddly unsatisfying John Sayles mosaic Casa de los Babys. (Maybe someone should tell Sayles the road to hell is paved with good intentions.)

Quickly then, before my brain turns to goo, here’s my top ten favorite memories of Toronto 2003 followed by some quick remarks about the films that made a difference.

1) The press core going nuts over Meg Ryan at her press conference for the sex and blood Jane Campion thriller In the Cut. Meg, behind her new puffed up lips and constant surprise eyelift (perhaps In The Cut refers to her facial make over too?), pretended like her explicit scenes in the film were no big deal and played down that they’re her desperate attempt to be an A-list star again.

2) Contrast Item #1 with the ease and luminance Johansson displayed as she eased her way through her press appearances. Looking thinner and even younger than her 18 years Johansson smiled politely and seemed a bit overwhelmed by it all.

3) Hoping into a cab one night we nearly ran into the throng emerging from a live Neil Young show. Pouring onto the streets the loyal fans (heck, Neil IS Canadian you know), scratched their heads in puzzlement over the songs he had just performed to promote his grizzled rock opera cum theatrical piece film Greendale.

4) In another cab on another day we ran straight into thousands of students practicing yoga on the grounds of Toronto University. What tha--? At the center was Woody Harrelson leading the gang in a mass yoga-thon to promote Ron Mann’s Go Further documentary about alternate fuels, lifestyles and new age mysticism.

5) The Hollywood glamour style that surrounded the premier of Carl Franklin’s serviceable thriller Out of Time. Stars Denzel Washington, Eva Mendes and Dean Cain all looked and acted like winners in a film that was going all the way instead of straight to cable.

6) The shocked look on the emerging crowd after sitting through Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny. Rightly booed at Cannes this little Bunny actually managed to make washing a car as boring as a blowjob. And vice versa.

7) Dylan McDermott and Giovanni Ribisi getting mobbed for autographs. Both are respectable actors but whom did these fans think they were getting autographs from? Who knows? Maybe there are more fans of Boiler Room out there than we realize.

8) The crowd reacting to Wonderland, the gritty Val Kilmer drama about Johnny (Wadd) Holmes and the notorious (and largely unsolved) Wonderland murders. The perplexed audience came expecting the next Boogie Nights and left wanting more meat and less blood.

9) The polite post screening gang trying to find the right way to describe Robert Altman’s ode to dance The Company. It wasn’t one of his major works but it was just what it promised to be, a celebration of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago replete with backstage back fighting, over inflated egos and jaw dropping talent. Very polite denizens in very expensive clothes groped for words to describe Altman’s unapologetic tone poem and could only come up with damning with faint praise things like "highly original", "like nothing I’ve seen before" and my favorite "very Altman-esque".

10) The pomp and circumstance of Nicolas Cage at Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men premiere (see item #5).

Toronto 2003. 10 days. 339 movies. No problem. OK, maybe I missed a few. Here are the ones that stuck when I threw them against the wall.

Code 46 and In This World
Brit Michael Winterbottom is arguably the most versatile and daring director working today. The same man who brought you Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo, The Claim, Wonderland and 24 Hour Party People returns to Toronto with not one but two completely different features. Code 46 is his foray into character driven science fiction while In This World is a grueling road picture ripped from today's headlines. This guy has already amassed a body of films worthy of a film retrospective and he's just hitting his stride. No wonder the festival book called him "peripatetic".

Lost in Translation
Writer director Sofia Coppola shows The Virgin Suicides was no fluke. As an unlikely couple stranded (physically and emotionally) Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson have never been better. And Tokyo and the complexities of relationships have never been better brought to light. Oddly with Suicides and Translation daughter Sofia proves she's a more interesting filmmaker than dear old dad who seems stuck every since he made those "art films for kids", The Outsiders and Rumble Fish in the early '80s.

Coffee and Cigarettes
Started in '86 this is really a collection of Jim Jarmusch shorts starring the hip and the restless including Tom Waits, RZA, Bill Murray, Iggy Pop and a host of others. Like any collection of shorts some are better than others and this is worth a look.

Love Actually
The latest big name, big budget romantic comedy import from the UK. With the huge number of characters and overlapping plots someone tried to dub it Smooch-ville. Get it? Nashville, but with romance? Smooch-ville. (I didn't either).

Lars von Trier can be great and he can be damned annoying. I found his Dancer in the Dark to be both a technical wonder and an audience torture. Nicole Kidman leads the charge in his latest infuriating blast against complacency in general and America in particular. Stagy to say the least and ultimately an endurance test there's not denying his tenacity.

The Fog of War
Errol Morris continues his Sympathy for the Devils series with an unblinking look at ex-Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Hypnotic, redundant and brilliant it's one of the best docs of the year. And revelatory. Did we really firebomb THAT many Japanese cities?

Saddest Music in the World
You got to love a movie where the lead actress has a glass leg filled with beer. Especially when that character is played by Isabella Rossellini. Guy Maddin continues to be the most visually arresting Canadian filmmaker working today. Sorry Cronenberg, but you need to loosen up and get back in your freak groove.

21 Grams
For just over two hours Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts give audiences a crash course in modern film acting. The second feature from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros) is intense and gripping if not wholly enjoyable to watch. Which is rather surprising. At the film's Q&A, Inarritu displayed a wonderful, dry sense of humor. Revisiting many of the themes he covered behind the camera with The Crossing Guard, Sean Penn is put through the ringer in a series of interlocking stories told in fractured structure.

The Station Agent
Actor/playwright Tom McCarthy turns to filmmaking with this gentle, well paced, comedy drama about emotionally disconnected people large and small. Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale make for a perfect trio. The most perfectly modulated piece of low-key filmmaking since You Can Count On Me.

The Cooler
William H. Macy finally gets the starring role he deserves in this Sad Sack fable set in Las Vegas. Maria Bello plays the love interest and Alec Baldwin the heavy in a film that is equal parts funny and sad, tough and tender.

Hollywood has Angelyne, and Toronto? Flyerman. This goofy documentary follows local 'I'll do anything for fame' nutball Mark Vistorino. Like the man himself, fascinating, funny and more than a bit sad.

America has Woody Allen to cringe over slobbering on young starlets and France? They have Gerard Depardieu, now 30 years past his romantic prime slobbering all over Emmanuelle Beart. Director Anne Fontaine meant for this to be a creepy tale of lust, deception and betrayal but did she realize it would be THIS creepy?

Bon Voyage
See above description (substituting Isabelle Adjani getting slobbered over by Gerard Depardieu).

Casa de los Babys
John Sayles' latest all-star first world meets third World guilt fest. Or is it? Sadly not all the great acting and sensitive direction adds up to much.

Takeshi Kitano (aka Japan's John Garfield) and his latest story of redemption by bloodbath. As usual he writes, acts, stars and even composes the music. Basically he makes other filmmakers look lazy. And just so you know it's not another Bad Cop or Sonatine, he's dyed his hair white/blonde. What a trooper.

Gus Van Sant's creepy and distanced version of what happens when a high school goes Columbine. The takes are long. The dialog banal. The violence riveting. What to see when you want your stomach to bunch into a fist.

The Human Stain
Hey, that Sir Anthony Hopkins is some kind of actor, right? But can you buy him playing a Jewish American college professor? Hey that Nicole Kidman is some kind of actor, right? But can you buy her playing a slutty janitor? Neither could we, and that was four reels before the big surprise of who Hopkins REALLY was playing.

Girl With a Pearl Earring
Peter Webber's debut drama about the Dutch Master painter Vermeer and the maiden who inspired his most famous work. Impeccably shot and superbly acted, this tight little drama never hits a false note or gets "historically" boring. Colin Firth remains the best all around UK actor (if unheralded) and Scarlett Johansson continues to amaze with her confident stillness.

The Company
Usually a movie about dancing would have about 30 minutes of story to lead you gently into the dance sequences. Leave it to Robert Altman to do it ass backwards, in The Company he starts with dance, continues with dance and gradually lets the story catch up. A dream project of Neve Campbell (who would have thunk it?) this is a loving tribute to the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago but Malcolm McDowell, as the snotty dance director, gets all the right moves.

Veronica Guerin
Joel Schumacher continues to atone for past sins (Batman and Robin etc) with this gripping and predictable bio-drama about the crusading Irish reporter who paid for her investigative pieces with blood. Cate Blanchett is very good but isnÕt she always?

School of Rock
Usually after about five minutes of Jack Black on screen I want to either 1) Rip out all my hair or 2) Rip out all of his. This time, under the careful hands of director Richard Linklater and writer Mike White, Jack finds his place in modern cinema. My scalp is still tingling, but as the slacker who inspires a class of young misfits, Black's pretty damned good.

See you next year!

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originally posted: 12/31/03 11:36:37
last updated: 01/31/04 14:18:08
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