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The good and bad from Venice, Telluride, Cannes and Sundance come to TIFF

The Toronto International Film Festival is the launching pad for many of the most artful and anticipated films each year. The last three Best Picture Oscar winners all screened at TIFF, and it's become an event in itself when the festival unveils its final tally of the varying levels of premiere statuses throughout their full slate (This year, there are 123 films screening at TIFF that have never seen the light of...err...the dark of theatre).

But what about the other two-thirds - those films that have their unveilings elsewhere? With so many films having already screened for some sort of media or public audience, does this extinguish that me first luster? For some, yes it does; for most others, this gives a welcome opportunity to skip the duds, and seek out the security blanket of award winners and critical darlings.

If there can be said to be a quartet of big mama film festivals, Toronto would be joined by Cannes (in May), Sundance (in January), and Venice (now). Additionally, a small, semi-private festival in Telluride has come into its own over the years, functioning as the deli meat packed between the multigrain bread that is Toronto and Venice.

Ensuring that TIFF's original title The Festival of Festivals doesn't go quietly into the night, Piers Handling & co. make sure to retain that spirit by nabbing the big talking points from these sister festivals. This way, we in Toronto can have the best of all worlds. Having kept close tabs on all of the buzz from these high-profile fests, I'll now highlight one gem and one dud that TIFF has imported from each.

CANNES

ELENA (September 8, 6:45pm; September 10, 12pm; September 18, 6:15pm)
We've already touched on many of the Croisette's best offerings in our two preview posts (i.e. Melancholia, House of Tolerance, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, etc.), so I'll take this opportunity to give props to one of the more hushed successes from last May: Elena. Touted as a 'return to form' for Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, The Banishment), Elena is a Hitchcockian thriller of an exceedingly restrained order. At once droll and mundane, but then utterly riveting in the meandering way that it plays out, this is perhaps the most hypnotic film at TIFF that isn't in the Wavelengths programme.

RESTLESS (September 8, 9pm; September 9, 4pm)
Master filmmaker Gus Van Sant, duly placed in the Masters programme, has ironically shown up with the worst film of his career. Say what you will about Psycho, at least there was a legitimately interesting concept behind it. This cloying and generic film about a youthful friendship that is born and demolished because of death is the kind of paycheck film that Van Sant is prone to making between his minimal and rigorous masterpieces. This time, though, its target audience is about 20 years younger than usual. Look for the DVD on Hot Topic and Urban Outfitters shelves by next summer.

TELLURIDE

INTO THE ABYSS (September 8, 6pm; September 10, 12pm; September 17, 7:30pm)
Another TIFF, another Werner Herzog film. After the unexpectedly rousing reception for his brilliant Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the kooky German has set his eyes on a decidedly more serious subject this time around. Apparently composed of interviews with death row inmates in a Texas prison, Abyss is unlikely to be the kind of film that gets its subjects set free. Rather, it's a safer bet that it will merely be another captivating and wrenching portrait of human psyches on the brink. Considering that its title could justifiably be assigned to any single one of Herzog's scores of features, it's a bit vertiginous to ponder exactly why this film is the one to have officially received it.

ALBERT NOBBS (September 11, 9:30pm; September 12, 12:30pm; September 17, 9pm)
Albert Nobbs is not bad, per se. In fact, it comes across as a remarkably intriguing project if one is aware that Glenn Close has been trying to get the damn thing made for the last thirty years. After some false starts, the actress finally found a director to adapt the Off-Broadway play for the silver screen. For anyone who saw the 1982 original in New York, this would be a must-see - whether you liked it or not - just for the sake of comparing Close's evolved performance. The problem is that it's the one film that was being left-to-right dismissed in Colorado last weekend (though since when does this mean all that much, anyway?). Toronto audiences will have the chance to decide that for themselves next week, but don't say I didn't warn you.

VENICE

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (September 9, 7pm; September 10, 12pm; September 16, 9pm)
In a fairly lukewarm year despite its super promising lineup, the one film from the Lido that seems to be certifiably great is this new entry from Andrea Arnold. Critics and cinephiles were very strictly divided over her first two, Cannes-competing features, Red Road and Fish Tank, making Arnold's success a bit of a surprise in a year where she is up against the likes of Aleksandr Sokurov, Steve McQueen, and David Cronenberg (to name but a handful). If the still frames showing up online are any indication, though, this minimal adaptation of the classic Emily BrontÍ novel may be a kind of gothic fairy tale that we've not quite seen before. Frankly, it looks like it might be utterly divine.

W.E. (September 12, 6:30pm; September 13, 2:30pm)
Poor Madonna (i know...I know). As if Swept Away weren't enough to make one feel utterly talentless, we now have word that W.E. is the worst thing to happen to society since, well, WE. Come on, now - it can't be that bad, can it? After all, this sounds like a romantic enough little film that "weaves the past and present into two parallel love stories" about Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII (he may have been a Nazi sympathizer, but Madonna makes sure to leave that bit out). Either way, truly awful cinema is always more interesting than mediocre cinema - just be sure to squirt a little extra shot of butter on your popcorn before checking it out.

SUNDANCE

LIKE CRAZY (September 13, 6pm; September 14, 12pm; September 17, 6:15pm)
Of the few films coming to Toronto from Park City, none of them could be said to have been poorly received. As it's the festival with the most distance on the calendar between itself and TIFF, perhaps this can be chalked up to the extra time for rationality and consensus to settle in. While titles like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Take Shelter have gotten the bulk of the attention because of their appearances in Cannes, this Grand Prize-winning film is just as accomplished. Amassing an blaring ambivalence between free-form naturalism and stylized hyperactivity, Drake Doremus' film just might be the purest evocation of love in cinema this year. A true, over-of-nowhere jewel, this.

For more hits and misses from these other four festivals, check out this press coverage:

Hiding up in Telluride, Silver on Screens (Ny Times)
Telluride stealing TIFF's thunder (Toronto Sun)
And the next Oscar for Best Picture goes to (Reuters)
Is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy the film to beat in Venice? (LA Times)
Venice Film Festival: Madonna Splits the Critics (LA Times)
Cannes film reviews and festival coverage (The Guardian)
Sundance 2011 Festival Winners (Hollywood Reporter)

To purchase tickets and for more information about ticket availability and ticket prices, visit tiff.net. Tickets can be purchased online, via (416) 599-TIFF, in person at the Festival Box Office or at the Theatre Box Office on the day of the film.


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