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Toronto International Film Festival: Thom Powers Talks Docs

Thompson on Hollywood By Meredith Brody | Thompson on Hollywood September 8, 2013 at 2:25PM

"There aren't two hundred good movies every year," a friend reminds me, en route to Toronto. When I assemble my collection of 464-page catalogue, 92-page Official Film schedule, and 40-page Press and Industry Screening Schedule, I am (officially) overwhelmed. Especially when I try to start collating with my preliminary film list, and realize that I'd skipped an entire letter of the alphabet in compiling it -- "L," which adds eleven count 'em eleven films, thereby pushing the number once again over the magic hundred.
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Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"
Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in "Blue Is the Warmest Color"

"There aren't two hundred good movies every year," a friend reminds me, en route to Toronto. When I assemble my collection of 464-page catalogue, 92-page Official Film schedule, and 40-page Press and Industry Screening Schedule, I am (officially) overwhelmed.  Especially when I try to start collating with my preliminary film list, and realize that I'd skipped an entire letter of the alphabet in compiling it -- "L," which adds eleven count 'em eleven films, thereby pushing the number once again over the magic hundred.

I am shocked and appalled when I see more than twenty of those titles clustered together on the first day of press screenings, more so when I find that almost without exception it's the sole scheduled press screening for each film.  Choosing one film knocks out five others, with no guarantee of being able to see them at public screenings.  

But before the screenings I have a breakfast with Thom Powers, the New York-based programmer for TIFF Docs and the Mavericks program.  There might not be two hundred good movies in a year, but somehow at Toronto the documentaries never disappoint.  More than once I've quoted the woman who turned to me in a Toronto lineup and beamed, "I like documentaries SO much more than I like movies!," and I knew just what she meant. I admire Powers' work, both for Toronto and in New York, where I'd attended his monthly Stranger than Fiction series. 

Last Sunday's "New York Times" piece on Powers "A Kingmaker for Documentaries: Thom Powers' Routine for Toronto Festival" has the daunting effect of both answering a lot of questions I might have asked, and making me feel kind of shy, as if I'd Googled a blind date and didn't want to let on. I'm perplexed that the "Times" calls TIFF Docs a "15-film slate…from some 500 candidates," when I counted 22 (including Frederick Wiseman's four-hour "At Berkeley" and Claude Lanzmann's nearly-four-hour "The Last of the Unjust).

I wonder if some filmmakers' feelings might be bruised if they realized that their films (unnamed in the article) were the ones on "legalizing marijuana and abortion rights…[that] suffered by comparison to stronger recent films on the subjects."  I ask Powers about the Mavericks program ("onstage conversations with leaders in the film industry and beyond"), which he's programmed since its beginnings:

"It's a place to sneak more docs into the Festival," he says, including "12.12.12," the world premiere of the show put on as a Hurricane Sandy benefit on that day, followed yon onstage conversation with Sir Paul McCartney and Harvey Weinstein (lord of all he surveys); "InRealLife," a documentary on the effects of the internet, by Beeban Kidron; "Our Man in Tehran," the true story behind "Argo;" and "For No Good Reason," about illustrator Ralph Steadman (further supported by a Steadman exhibit on the fourth floor of the Bell Lightbox).  I'm also excited by the Spike Jonze conversation, and the program celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Toronto Women & Film Festival.

Powers further complicates my life by pointing out the fifth annual Doc Conference, this year expanded from one day to two, starting Tuesday September 10th with a keynote address by Andrew Jarecki, detailing new revelations ten years after "Capturing the Friedmans." 

Difficult choices.  I escalate upstairs to the four difficult choices I was able to make on this first day.  I see Francois Ozon's "Young & Beautiful," starring yet another of the nubile young French starlets that magically appear every year, Marine Vacth, in a tale of anomie and adolescent boredom leading to prostitution that suffers by comparison to "Belle de Jour," (but then almost everything would suffer in comparison with "Belle de Jour). The prolific and perverse Ozon seems to be going through the motions with this one.

I stay in France to see "Blue is the Warmest Color," which I've been anticipating with pleasure since it won two prizes last May in Cannes: the Fipresci critic's award and for the first time the two actresses shared the Palme d'Or with director Abdellatif Kechiche.  I also was a fan of Kechiche's 2007 "The Secret of the Grain." Alas, we enter the world of reverse expectations: I don't quite get what all the fuss was about. I do find myself thinking of Lea Seydoux's name being something like a modern-day equivalent of the French movie star names like Viviane Romance -- she's so delicious, with her wide-set eyes and wide-set teeth, that I think of her as Lea Sedouxctive. Her colleague, Adele Exarchpoulos, cries a lot. 

Afterwards I see "Blood Ties," a remake of a French film, "Les liens du sang," from 2008, also with a stellar cast: Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Marion Cotillard, Zoe Saldana, Mila Kunis, James Caan, Lili Taylor.  It's not an embarrassment and it's not brilliant, either. The 70s period sets and clothes are occasionally diverting, but the action set-pieces seem hurried and a bit confused.  

One more chance to be thrilled, with "The Fifth Estate," the big opening-night picture about the history of WikiLeaks, directed by Bill Condon and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the mysterious Julian Assange.  It's noisy and messy and ultimately unsatisfying, a lot of sound and fury and distracting special effects and headache-inducing graphics. 

I wonder what other combination of press screening titles would have yielded a more salubrious day: Joseph Gordon-Levitt's "Don Jon"  followed by the new Jarmusch, "Only Lovers Left Alive," then Marcel Ophuls' "Ain't Misbehavin," perhaps?  Clio Barnard's "The Selfish Giant", then Claire Denis' "Bastard," and Guirardie's "Stranger by the Lake"?  Rithy Panh's "The Missing Picture," and Johnie To's "Blind Detective" before Rassoulof's "Manuscripts Don't Burn"? All their press screenings now over, in one dizzying day. (Well, there's one more for the Panh. I cannot tell a lie.) Getting into their public screenings now a crap shoot.  The Toronto International Film Festival is not for the faint of heart.

This article is related to: Toronto, Reviews, Reviews, Festivals


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