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July 25, 2007
The Canadian Cinema

One of the aspects about TIFF I admire most is the fact that the programmers and organizers have never lost sight of the vision of Bill Marshall: this festival was created to honor cinema from around the world, but also to promote and showcase Canadian films.

Being a filmmaker in Canada is a difficult process, which is why we lose so many to the United States where they have figured out for several years now how to make films and allow artists to have their visions. With no major studios up here, our artists are stuck having to go through the government for funding, and even then the budgets are ridiculously low. That great films are made for the funds they receive is a testament to the gifts of these fine artists.

Once the film is made the next challenge, probably the greater one is getting the film seen. Beyond the festival, there are very few venues for Canadian cinema in this entire country. The legendary Carlton Cinema on College Street has always been a godsend to Canadian filmmakers, providing a small theatre for the films to be screened to those interested. Of course that is the major problem, getting Canadians to see Canadian films.

I love my country, and I’m proud to be a Canadian, however I admit whole heartedly the greatest films in the world come from the United States. Having grown up on American films, obsessed with them after watching Charlton Heston part the Red Sea in “The Ten Commandments” in a re-release in the early seventies, I consumed movies. The first Canadian film I remember making any sort of impact on me was “Goin’ Down the Road” in 1970, now regarded as a major breakthrough for Canada’s industry in that a film had been made by Canadians, for Canadians and was about Canadians. The director of the film, Don Shebib, had gone to school with Francis Ford Coppola and Carroll Ballard, but rather than remain in Los Angeles he returned to Canada to be a pioneer in our industry. He became as much, but he is also a bitter, tired man angry about how his life turned out and the success he sees Canadian directors, producers and writers having these days.


Through the seventies and much of the eighties, there was precious little to celebrate in Canadian cinema, “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” (1974) and “The Silent Partner” (1978) two happy exceptions. Only in the eighties did things begin to look up, as Canada began to make interesting, often exciting films about something, usually character based pieces, sometimes importing American or British actors to lend their box office power to the project. This gave us such films as “The Changeling,” a terrific ghost story with George C. Scott, and “Tribute,” based on the hit play with an over-the-top, though Oscar-nominated performance from Jack Lemmon.
In 1981 a co-production with France, “Atlantic City” won rave reviews around the world and in December of that year collected top prizes from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, best film and best actor for Burt Lancaster, as well as the New York Film Critics, who honored Lancaster for the finest performance of his career.

The small film then was nominated for four Academy Awards including best picture and it seemed, finally, the Canadian film industry had the break it so needed.

Not quite. When the highest grossing film in this country’s history is for several years the dumb teen film “Porky’s,” you know something is wrong.

Though audiences did not go, films got better through the eighties, drawing more and more attention from the Academy south of the border. Quebec director-writer Denys Arcand’s films “The Decline of the American Empire” (1987) and “Jesus of Montreal” (1990) were both nominated for best foreign language film before he finally won the Oscar for his superb “The Barbarian Invasions.” After success in Los Angeles, David Cronenberg came home to make “Dead Ringers” in 1988 and found himself the darling of critics.

The tiny Festival of Festivals, the annual fall film festival in Toronto, was renamed The Toronto International Film Festival in the early nineties, and along with the prominence of the festival came better Canadian films.
“Ararat” (2000), “Felicia’s Journey” (1999), “Last Night” (1998), “The Red Violin” (1998), “Kissed” (1997), “The Hanging Garden” (1997), Oscar-nominated “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997), “Crash” (1995), “Exotica” (1994), “Atanajurat” (2002), “Night Zoo” (1988) and “Long Day’s Journey into Night” (1995) are just some of the films that have been screened at the festival before being discussed by critics around the planet.


Yet still we struggle with getting Canadian viewers of Canadian films. It is quite sad because the finest film of 1997 in my opinion was Atom Egoyan’s haunting “The Sweet Hereafter,” and in 2002 it was the stunning Inuit epic “Atanajurat,” a miracle of a film shot in the frozen north. Just last year the finest film I saw at the festival was Sarah Polley’s powerful drama “Away from Her,” currently earning rave reviews in theatres and on target for some Oscar attention at the very least for actress Julie Christie, but if there is any justice, Polley as well.

This year the festival once again has done a wonderful job of finding the finest in Canadian cinema for audiences to feast upon. Major directors Denys Arcand and David Cronenberg will bring their new films to the festival for Gala Presentations. Arcand has directed a new picture entitled “Days of Darkness” about a writer who wrestles with the frustrations of his boring life by escaping into a fantasy world where he is everything he dreams of being. The new Cronenberg film, already striking interest around the globe, is “Eastern Promises,” once again bringing the director together with Viggo Mortenson, each of them having performed miracles on “A History of Violence” in 2005, which should have earned each some Oscar attention.

Gonzo director Guy Maddin brings to the fest his most personal film yet, “My Winnipeg,” about his hometown in the province of Manitoba. What is interesting here is that Maddin, never one to bend to any convention, will provide live narration while his film is screening.

Roger Spottiswoode, who has directed one of the greatest political films ever made, “Under Fire,” brings to us his new film “Shake Hands with the Devil,” the story of Lt. General Romeo Dallaire’s turmoil in watching the genocide in Rwanda and being powerless to help. Recent Genie Award winner Roy Dupis is well cast as Dallaird.


“Silk” is Francois Girard’s first film since his triumph “The Red Violin” in 1998, which won an Academy Award for best musical score. This time he explores what occurs when a forbidden love for a nobleman’s concubine threatens to tear the lives of the characters apart. Keira Knightley is cast in this film, no doubt looking for a stretch after the latest Pirates film failed to challenge her as an actor.

One of the greatest and best known Canadian novels gets the transition to film in “The Stone Angel,” directed by Kari Skogland. Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn has the plum role of Hagrid, which for me is reason enough to see the film. Ellen Page of “Hard Candy” co-stars.

There will also be a special screening in the Canadian Open Vault series of the classic Canadian film “Les Bons Debarras,” rarely seen since dominating the Genie Awards in 1982, and one of the greatest films to emerge from Quebec.

More announcements are available on the festival website.

July 18, 2007
The Line-Up So Far

With more films added to the various programs at the fest, excitement is beginning to percolate here in Toronto about what is shaping up to be one of the most impressive lineups we’ve seen here in some time.

As mentioned before, the major and minor studios often use Toronto as their launch towards Oscar glory, and thus far that seems to be exactly the case, as several films already announced seem to be sure-fire Academy Award contenders. Among the Oscar winners or nominees to begin their journey to the golden circle have been “Almost Famous” (2000), “American Beauty” (1999), “The Cider House Rules” (1999), “Crash” (2005), “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), “Walk the Line” (2005), and countless others.

Leading the pack thus far is “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” Shekhar Kapur's sequel to his Oscar nominated “Elizabeth,” which made Cate Blanchett one of the most sought after actresses in the industry. Nine years later she is an Oscar winner and multiple nominee, likely to be pegged by the AMPAS again for her performance as Elizabeth I in this film. The trailer looks extraordinary, and though I am all too aware one cannot judge a film based solely on that, the cast and director give the film a strong pedigree. The focus of the film will be England's war with Spain when the King of Spain makes it clear he wants England to become Catholic once again.

The Coen brothers will bring their Cannes hit “No Country for Old Men” to the city, their strongest Oscar contender since Fargo in 1996. The film deals with a bundle of discovered money, and heroin to boot, with a trail of bodies left in the wake. Tommy Lee Jones is the Sheriff trying to figure things out and Javier Bardem is said to be electrifying as a cold blooded killer.


Oscar winner George Clooney will be on the big screen in “Michael Clayton,” portraying a hot shot in-house legal fixer for a massive law firm, confident in his work, though struggling in his private life. It falls on him to save the company when they are betrayed by one of their own. Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, and director Sydney Pollack co-star.

“Rendition” brings together some impressive acting talents with Oscar winners Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, and Alan Arkin, along with nominee Jake Gyllenhaal in a drama about a wife’s nightmare when her husband disappears on a flight from South Africa to Washington. In the role of the desperate woman, Witherspoon tries to track her husband down while as a CIA operative, portrayed by Gyllenhaal, is forced to re-consider what he is doing with his life when he is asked to take part in an unorthodox detainment.

Terry George returns to the festival after the success of “Hotel Rwanda” in 2004 with his new film “Reservation Road,” which features a strong cast including Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo. The film explores the lives of two fathers and families whose lives smash into each other after the death of a child. The film also stars Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino, each in need of a good performance.

Two-time Oscar winning actress Jodie Foster returns to Toronto as a woman who has it all in “The Brave One,” this time directed by Oscar winner Neil Jordan. A brutal attack takes all of that away leaving her badly hurt and her fiancée dead. Unable to shake the tragedy she begins a dark pursuit of justice, prowling the streets on the hunt for the men who did this to her. Terence Howard is the cop watching her closely, with supporting roles to Mary Steenburgen and Nicky Katt.


Helen Hunt joins the many directors who have launched their first film in Toronto with her directorial debut, “Then She Found Me,” in which Hunt portrays a 40 year old woman who hears that biological clock ticking and decides to have a child. This decision is torn apart when her husband announced their marriage was a mistake, leaving her bewildered and rather devastated. When an eccentric talk show host portrayed by Bette Midler declares herself Hunt’s birth mother and she begins a strong relationship with a new man, portrayed by Colin Firth, her life spins wildly out of control.

And the Opening Night Gala film, historically a Canadian project, will be “Fugitive Pieces,” directed by Jeremy Podeswa, who helmed many an episode of “Six Feet Under” and the Genie Award winning “The Five Senses.” With any luck it is a stronger film than last year’s opening night film “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen,” which led to the most walk outs I have ever witnessed at the festival. Me, I found myself lulled to sleep by the stillness of that particular effort.

Also announced so far are a number of films that bowed in Cannes, but this was just a preliminary glance. I’ll be back next week with further updates and commentary.

For more info check the festival site at

July 12, 2007
Festival Fever Sets In

It starts in mid-August, when the festival pre-screenings begin, that hunger for cinema, as much as possible taking hold like heroin must grab a drug addict. My kids are getting ready to go back to school, and dear old Dad is getting ready for the Toronto International Film Festival, quite frankly the finest such event I have attended. For ten days I do nothing else but see films from around the globe and interview actors and directors who have come here with their films hoping for success. They have every right to hope, as Toronto has been the launching pad of many an Oscar winner, or a critic’s darling over its long history now spanning three decades.

We already know that “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” is coming to town, as is the Coen brothers’ latest “No Country for Old Men.” Recently added were Cannes standout “The Diving Bell and Butterfly” and Alan Ball’s as yet sans distribution “Nothing Is Private.” “Michael Clayton,” “The Brave One” and “Reservation Road” round out a list of awards-hopeful product set to unveil at the fest, and that’s just the tipping point. Announcements will soon start coming once a week, a couple of huge ones first, then through the summer some enticing ones, ending with a blow out press conference where the whole list of films is announced to a movie-hungry press.

What started as The Festival of Festivals, a small upstart festival that not even two of the three daily newspapers would support is now among the top two film festivals in the world, and certainly the single most important of the fall festivals. The studios use Toronto as their launch towards the Academy Awards while the smaller companies come in hopes of their film being discovered. Still, others bring their pictures in hopes of a sale. Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” remains one of the great festival legends as the iconic actor brought his film here to show to an audience for the first time in 1997 and sold it to October Films, eventually winning several critics awards including the Los Angeles Film Critics best actor prize and notching an Oscar nomination (which he should have won).


In recent years films such as “American Beauty” (1999), “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), “Crash” (2004) and “Walk the Line” (2005) have premiered in Toronto, earning great success, while other such as “All the King’s Men” (2006) have crashed and burned. The festival organizers and programmers do an incredible job of combing the globe for the films they will bring to the festival, and though there have been blunders – last year’s Gala Opener “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen” being one – there are also major finds such as Sarah Polley’s breathtaking “Away from Her,” which was not only the best film I saw at last year’s festival, but the finest film I screened all year.

Sadly not all the films at the festival are winners. How could they be? I remember sitting in Roy Thomson Hall at the Gala screening of “All the King’s Men” last year, watching intently while that incredible cast was brought out at the beginning before the film for a round of applause. It is customary for the cast to remain and take a bow at the end of the film, but not for this one. They got out, obviously knowing what we now know, that their film was not up to snuff. And after admiring “The Apostle” so, I was anxious to see Robert Duvall’s “Assassination Tango” in 2002, only to be bitterly disappointed by the rambling, messy narrative and Duvall’s indulgent performance.

However, these let downs are worth putting up with if it means finding something like “The Red Violin” in 1998, “Little Children” and “When the Levees Broke” in 2006, “Far From Heaven” and “Auto Focus” in 2002 or “The Barbarian Invasions” in 2003. The chatter of film critics from around the world before the film begins is thrilling to hear because you may hear of a film they like that had not been on your list (but soon is), or you have something to offer them you may have seen at a pre-festival screening. It is truly an exciting environment.


One may think that covering a film festival as a critic is an easy job. It is anything but. True, I get to see a lot of product over the ten day event, but they are crammed into days of screening four, sometimes five films a day, depending on which actors and directors I am interviewing. Believe it or not, this is demanding, difficult work. Physically demanding.

I move into the Delta Chelsea Hotel for the duration of the festival because it makes sense to stay away from the ninety minute drive home and back each and every day. My family comes to visit on the weekend, though I do not see much of them. After setting up my laptop and organizing the room the way I like it, I will head over to the Press Office for my press pass and check my mailbox. This is a stop I make every day. Then I come back to the hotel and thumb through the now well-worn Program Book, a thick monstrosity that lands on the bed with a thud, and compare notes with the screening schedule, my Bibles for the next ten days. Before drifting into a fitful sleep, I will call my girls to say goodnight, and choose my clothes for the next day.

The alarm sounds at 6 and it begins. I shower, shave and dress and make my way downstairs to the Hotel dining room where a huge buffet awaits. Eating buffet cuts down on waiting time. I thumb through the movie pages of the three daily papers in Toronto as well as the New York Times and make some notes about the films I will see today. At 7:45 I jump into a cab and head to the Manulife Center on Bay and Bloor, the home of the Varsity Cinemas, where most of the press screenings are held. Showing my pass I walk in and sit for the first of the festival. From here I will go to another, and another and another, grabbing coffee and bagels in between, fuelling my body on caffeine and water (a lot of water). By seven that night I will have seen four, perhaps five films, made a visit to the Press Office for press kits and mail, and schedule some interviews for the weekend and beginning of next week. Exhausted I will head back to my Hotel and collapse on the bed for a brief nap before writing my reviews, which take an hour or so. I am blessed with the sort of mind that does not have to make rough notes; whatever spills out of my head hits the page.

If I am attending a Gala I will leave at 8:30 for that, if not, I may go back to the screening rooms for another film, or rest for tomorrow. A call will be placed to my girls regardless, and then, sleep.

The next day, at 6, it begins again…the fever has taken hold.

July 09, 2007
Introducing (and welcoming) John Foote

We're glad to have John Foote covering the 2007 Toronto Film Festival this year. We've got a snazzy new look to this section of the site and we're looking forward to yet another voice in the mixture here at In Contention.

John will be logging reports on a nightly basis, rather than the film-by-film coverage you may have been used to out of Gerard Kennedy last year. So the pace will be a touch slower, but hopefully we'll get a lot of measured insight out of the approach. John's pre-coverage will begin in August as announcements start coming down the pike.

Please welcome John, and enjoy the coverage as we plunge headlong into the 2007 film awards season.

(For more reviews and commentary from John, check out his website: Foote on Film.)