Chaos & Claustrophobia: Toronto ‘09 titles from “Lebanon” to “Collapse"

by Anthony Kaufman
September 17, 2009 6:28 AM
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indieWIRE just published my only critic's take on this year's Toronto film festival, a survey of just a small handful of movies that moved me. (For the most part, I was busy reporting on the biz side of things for the WSJ.com.) Because of my limited time at the festival, and the fact that I totally burn out after 4-5 full days, there was a lot that I regretfully missed (Todd Solondz's "Life During Wartime") and others I will hopefully catch at the New York Film Festival (new films by Bruno Dumont and Claire Denis). For now, you can read my thoughts on some of the fest's best, artfully created cinematic downers.

There was another Toronto film that I saw (pre-festival, actually), Don Argott's engrossing doc "The Art of the Steal," that I also wanted to write about, but with all the global breakdown reflected in the fest's other docs, I felt I didn't have the space to discuss this more subdued atrocity: of how Philadelphia's powerbrokers systematically stole one of the world's most valuable private art collections.

Some Toronto attendees thought the movie was about an actual art heist -- which I guess it is and just as compelling as one -- but Argott explores a robbery that's decades in the making. The film carefully lays out the life and intentions of Albert Barnes, a self-made anti-elitist philanthrophist, who amassed a billionaire-dollar collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces and detested museums. His only wish was that his work be exclusively shown for educational purposes, where it was for many years in a mansion outside of Philly, until his close associates died and others came in and ultimately, gut-wrenchingly, betrayed his mission and his legacy.

What unfolds in the film is a totally involving story about the exploitation of art and the thorny entanglement of culture, capitalism and politics. There are some fascinating racial complexities to the drama, as well, which only makes the film all the more engaging. From a filmmaking perspective, the movie was fairly straightforward, but affectively, I left the movie outraged. I hope that it can be used as an activist tool to protest the building of Philadelphia's downtown Barnes museum, scheduled to be completed in 2010. While those I talked to in Toronto familiar with the case say the museum is a done deal, maybe the film could hit theaters early enough to help stop it

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