I’m writing from the Toronto Film Festival, where I have been immersing myself in films by and about artists, as I make the final selections for our upcoming festival, November 10-17.
It’s frankly a relief to have a theme (the arts) to narrow my focus in this deluge of 300 features and 100 shorts from 83 countries. Literature was the dominant art form of my selections this year. Among my favorites were former festival guest Matias Pinero’s Hermia and Helena, a very free adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Katherine Dieckmann’s Strange Weather, which was filled with the spirit of great Southern literature. Five of the first seven films I caught here were about poetry, and the very first one, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, remained my personal favorite of the 25+ features I took in. Neruda by Pablo Larrain was an imaginative and unusual biography of the Chilean poet, with real and invented characters. Other poetry films I liked very much included Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming, Ann Marie Fleming’s Canadian animated film based on her graphic novel, and Ruth Beckermann’s The Dreamed Ones, an experimental documentary re-enacting the romantic correspondence of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann.
Pablo Larrain, by the way, topped Neruda with another film that exploded the limited boundaries of the traditional biopic, Jackie, with Natalie Portman giving a brave and astonishing performance as Mrs. JFK. The film devotes a lot of attention to her work remodeling the White House and constructing the ‘Kennedy Camelot’ myth, so maybe I can rationalize showing this as a portrait of an artist. Rationalization’s not necessary, however, since Jackie is clearly a portrait by an artist, Pablo Larrain, who is heroically reinventing the tired biopic genre.
Just behind literature as the dominant art form of my Toronto experience came jazz, which has been inspiring some great cinema lately (for example, the magnificent The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, which screened in the MFAH Jazz on Film series). Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary is a solid “American Masters” -style portrait elevated by its amazing archival performances. More impressive to me was I Called Him Morgan, about trumpeter Lee Morgan and his wife, Helen, who murdered him. The film’s compassionate understanding of her act and his art moved me deeply. Finally, there’s Damian Chazelle’s La La Land, his follow-up to his earlier jazz films Whiplash and, from our very first festival in 2009, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Chazelle and Ryan Gosling, as a purist jazz musician, are going to turn a lot of people onto jazz when this film becomes the hit it is destined, and deserves, to be.
For the record, I also saw these features: Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, A Monster Calls, Nelly, Terence Malick’s Voyage of Time, Mali Blues, Lion, The Eagle Huntress, Zacharias Kunuk’s Maliglutit (Searchers), and two films that I adored by veteran filmmakers: Andrzej Wajda’s Afterimage and Errol Morris’ The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography.
And finally, my second favorite film this week was the magnificent Moonlight by Barry Jenkins. Susan Gerhard wrote a fantastic article about its reception in Toronto, which you can read here, that ends with a beautiful statement about why festivals matter:
Experiencing a film in a public setting like this, with cinephiles clambering up the seemingly endless escalators of the Bell Lightbox to get to seats, struggling together before the first minute of the film plays, is one of the only ways that the medium can give itself a chance to survive. The mental/physical/emotional workout of a festival viewing experience is how we build stories of transcendence about watching that will sustain a film through its lifetime and create a lasting impression that it’s must-seeable—whether at a faraway festival, or in a comfortable setting close to home, or via a personal device on a train. If film as a culture of watching moving images, reacting to them, and sometimes transforming because of them is too often said to be dying in an overheated digital climate, we can think of festivals as the way we get its heart pumping again.
I’m inspired by the Toronto Film Festival and Gerhard’s take on it, and will now do my best to bring some cinematic rapture to Houston.